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Following the instructions earns a wife her treat.

Or an art house thriller. I haven't decided yet."

"That sounds wonderfully unromantic. Who's your anti-date?" Max asked, knowing the answer, and already looking forward to it.

"Well, I was hoping you would be, unless you have other plans."

"I would be honored to not be your date on Valentine's Day."

"I can always count on you."

Valentine's Day

"These are the stencils I want used with red paint. These are for yellow. I marked up the walls indicating where I want them. I will touch them up with accent colors tomorrow." Jasmine had cut the stencils herself - an assortment of easily recognizable culinary images.

Max paged through them, making note: chili pepper, cherry, ice cream cone, banana, lemon, tomato, and strawberry. He had expected to be handed a roller brush and a tray of beige paint, but he really should have known better - Jasmine would never go through the work it took to paint a kitchen herself if she weren't expressing herself in some way. "I haven't painted anything like this since elementary school," he said. "Mrs. Weinbaum looked at my painting of my pet hamster Elmo, and had me hauled in front of the principal because she thought I had painted a picture of dog shit."

"That's why I gave you stencils."

"You talked to Mrs. Weinbaum?"

She gave a half laugh. "I knew you were allergic to studio arts."

"What about brushwork? The complex interplay of light, texture, and pigment? The wry postmodern commentary on the obsolescence of artistic form in an uncaring world?"

Jasmine's smile was sly and appraising, unsure if she was being mocked. "Wing it. If you mess up too bad, I will repaint it. Or maybe just leave it. Mistakes are where a lot of stories come from. Years from now, people will come into the room, and they will ask, 'why is there a well-endowed purple elephant on the wall of your kitchen?' and I will say 'Max tried to paint a picture of an eggplant, and his stencil kept slipping.' Your artistic ineptitude may entertain my dinner guests for years."

That's what he was afraid of. Max selected the chili pepper and the red paint for his first attempt. As he began to work, he stole a look at Jasmine. She had climbed on a step ladder, and was painting an intricate grapevine pattern above the cupboards. She had found a way to look beautiful even wearing painting clothes. She had her auburn locks restrained in a ponytail, which was threaded through the back of a White Sox cap. (He had expressed dismay at her choice of a Sox cap. Her defense was that she only used it for painting, as she didn't want to splatter the Cubs cap he had bought her this summer.) With Jasmine's angular face, large eyes, and high cheekbones, whenever she wore a baseball cap, he had to suppress the urge to daub the tip of her nose with an ice cream cone and go twirling through a park somewhere.

Max screwed his face up in a frown and finished painting his chili pepper, switching to a tomato.

He hated it when his old college emotions would rear up. He had realized years ago that they would be much better as friends than lovers, and even though Jasmine's romantic indifference had made the decision for him, time had proven their judgments were correct. It was a good thing they weren't dating.

(Max watched her paint the grapes, thinking the color she chose somehow made them look sour.)

Jasmine had become his best friend - even more so the last few months. He had given up on Melanie so easily because he had been suspecting what Jasmine had voiced about her, and he enjoyed his game nights and conversations with Jasmine more than he had enjoyed dinner and trips to the symphony with Melanie.

Except the sex - all the online Scrabble knock-offs and pinochle-variants in the world didn't make up for the lack of that.

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