The Chef and the Party Planner Each Seek the Kind of Love that Requires No Reservations
After eight years of unrequited love, Meredith Guidry decides it’s time to move on, to try to find someone who’ll love her in return. So she makes a prayerful New Year’s resolution to meet someone new and end her single status by year’s end. And when the handsome contractor she hires to finish remodeling her house asks her out, it looks like her prayer may have been answered. But dating Ward doesn’t seem to do anything to lessen Meredith’s feelings toward a certain chef she works with every day.
Executive Chef Major O’Hara has foresworn relationships, knowing he could never saddle the woman he loves with a family situation like his. When he’s offered the opportunity of a lifetime—to open his own restaurant—should he leave his comfortable job—and Meredith—for this once in a lifetime chance? And when it looks like he’s about to lose Meredith Guidry to another man, can he concoct a menu for romance to win her back?
Will God serve up a solution before it’s too late?
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Menu for Romance
Love Heats Up for the Chef and the Party Planner
By Kaye Dacus
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Kaye Dacus
All rights reserved.
"Happy New Year!"
Her thirty-fourth New Year and still no kiss at the stroke of midnight ... or any other day or time. Meredith Guidry stood in the doorway leading into Vue de Ciel—the cavernous, sky-view event venue at the top of the tallest building in downtown Bonneterre, Louisiana—and swallowed back her longing as she watched hundreds of couples kiss.
A short burst of static over the earpiece startled her out of her regrets.
"Mere, we're going to set up the coffee stations and dessert tables." The executive chef 's rich, mellow voice filled her ear.
She clicked the button on the side of the wireless headset. "Thanks, Major." Turning her gaze back to the main room, she tapped the button again. "Let's slowly start bringing the houselights back up. I want us at full illumination around twelve thirty." She strolled into the ballroom, the floor now covered with shiny metallic confetti, the hundreds of guests milling about wishing each other a happy New Year. Out on the dance floor, a large group of men stood swaying, arms about shoulders, singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the top of their lungs, accompanied by the jazz band.
"Let's make sure tables are bussed." Pressing her finger to the earpiece to speak over the network made her feel like those secret service agents in the movies who were always talking into their shirt cuffs. "I'm seeing several tables with empty plates and glasses."
She kept to the perimeter of the room, doing her best to blend in with the starlit sky beyond the glass walls, barely repressing the feeling of being the loner, the schoolgirl no one else paid any attention to ... the woman no man ever gave a second glance.
"You look like a kid staring through a candy store window, wishing you could go inside."
Meredith's heart thumped at the sudden voice behind her. She turned. Major O'Hara grinned his lopsided grin, his chef 's coat nearly fluorescent with its pristine whiteness.
"How're you holding up?" He squeezed her shoulder in a brotherly way, his indigo eyes gentle.
She sighed. "You know me—I operate on pure adrenaline at these things no matter how little sleep I've gotten the night before. So long as I stay busy and don't slow down, the fatigue can't catch up with me."
"And stopping to grab a bite to eat would have meant slowing down?"
Coldness embraced her shoulder when Major lifted his hand away. "I set aside a few take-home boxes for you—and Anne. I told her I'd be sure to save a little of everything."
Anne. Meredith's cousin and best friend. Her inspiration and mentor. Owner of a stellarly successful wedding- and event-planning business, Happy Endings, Inc. And friends with Major O'Hara on a level Meredith could never attain.
"If you see George, tell him I've been experimenting with that plum pudding recipe he gave me. I'll need his expert opinion before I can officially add it to my repertoire."
"I'll tell him—but you see him more often than I do."
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm glad we convinced Anne to fall in love with him. Finally, having another man's opinion when we're all working an event together." He winked.
Meredith quickly turned her eyes toward the milling crowd so he wouldn't see how he affected her. It would only embarrass him—and mortify her.
He tweaked her chin. "Come on. Back to work for the bosses."
Over the next hour, Meredith poured herself into her work to try to keep exhaustion at bay. The last few guests meandered out just after one thirty. Meredith turned on all of the lights, their glare on the glass walls and ceiling nearly blinding her. She tasked her staff to stack chairs, pull linen from tables, and clear the room.
She directed the sorting of the rented decorations and materials into different dump sites around the room. Early Tuesday morning she would meet all of the vendors here to have their stuff carted away so the building maintenance staff could get in for a final cleaning before resetting the room for lunch service.
"Miss Guidry, are these your shoes?" Halfway across the room, one of the black-and-white-clad workers held aloft a pair of strappy, spike-heeled sandals. Meredith's medium-height, pointy-toed brown pumps rubbed her feet in a couple of places after six hours—but nothing like the pain those sandals would have caused.
"Lost and found," she called over the music throbbing through the room's built-in PA system. Not what she would choose to listen to, but it kept the staff—mostly college students—happy and working at a brisk clip. That made three pairs and two stray shoes, five purses, sixteen cellular phones, and one very gaudy ruby ring—and those were only the items Meredith had seen herself. Her assistant would be fielding phone calls for days.
Vacuum cleaners roared to life—a wonderful sound, as it meant they were getting close to quitting time. A couple of guys loaded the last of the large round tables onto a cart and wheeled it down the hall to the freight elevator, followed by several more pushing tall stacks of dark blue upholstered chairs on hand trucks.
Vue de Ciel expanded in all directions around her. She hugged her arms around her middle. She'd survived another New Year's Eve Masked Ball—and the eight hundred guests seemed to have enjoyed themselves immensely. Hopefully her parents would deem it a success.
* * *
The soprano of flatware, alto of china, tenor of voices, and bass rumble of the dish sterilizers created a jubilant symphony that thrilled Major O'Hara's heart.
Simply from the questions the food-and-wine columnist from the Reserve had asked, the review in the morning newspaper wouldn't be good. It would be glowing.
"Chef, stations are clean, ready for inspection." Steven LeBlanc, sous chef, wiped his hands on the towel draped over his shoulder. Though Steven's white Nichols State University T-shirt was sweat-soaked—much like Major's own University of Louisiana–Bonneterre tribute—the kid's blond hair still stood stiff and tall in mini spikes all over his head.
Major hadn't yet been able to find anything that would keep his own hair from going curly and flopping down onto his forehead in the heat and humidity of a working kitchen. Yet asking Steven for hair-styling tips—Major grunted. He'd rather slice his hand open and stick it in a vat of lemon juice.
He followed Steven through the kitchen, inspecting each surface and utensil, releasing some of the staff to clock out, pointing out spots missed to others.
"Civilian in the kitchen," rang out from one of the line cooks.
Meredith, stately and graceful, light hair set off to perfection by her brown velvet dress—like strawberries served with chocolate ganache—swept into the kitchen, drawing the attention of every man present. If she knew she had that effect on his crew, she would laugh her head off and call them all nuts.
"I'm ready to release my staff, unless you need any help in here." Meredith came over and leaned against the stainless-steel counter beside him. She even smelled vaguely of strawberries and chocolate—or maybe that was just his imagination.
He cleared his throat. "I think we've got it covered."
"Dish-washing station cleared, Chef!"
"See?" He grinned at her.
She graced him with a full smile then covered her mouth as a yawn overwhelmed her. "I'll let my guys go, then." She pressed her hands to the base of her neck and rolled her head side to side. "I've got to run down to my office to get my stuff."
"Why don't I meet you at your office, since I have to come downstairs anyway?"
"Don't be ridiculous. I'll be fine—"
"Mere. Stop. I will come to your office to walk you to your car. You're lucky I'm not insisting on driving you home myself."
Her nutmeg eyes flickered as if she were about to argue; then her smile returned. "Thank you, Major. I'd appreciate that."
Good girl. "That wasn't too hard, was it?" He limited himself to once again laying his hand on her shoulder instead of pulling her into a hug. "Go on. I'll make sure all the rest get clocked out and then shut everything down for the night."
Meredith nodded and departed. Major rounded up the last few stragglers and watched them run their cards through the computerized time clock. Returning their "Happy New Year" wishes, he ducked into his office at the rear of the kitchen, grabbed his dry-cleaning bag along with his duffel, turned off his computer and light, and locked the door.
The brass nameplate winked in the bright kitchen light. MAJOR O'HARA, EXECUTIVE CHEF. He grimaced. What pride he'd taken eight years ago when Mr. Guidry had offered him the position—saving Major years of working his way up the chain of command in restaurants.
He heaved the two bags over his shoulder. Meredith's parents had been better to him than he deserved, had given him the flexibility in his schedule to take care of family matters no other employer would have given. They had also given him their blessing—their encouragement—to strike out on his own, to open the restaurant he'd dreamed of since working for Meredith's aunt in her catering company throughout high school and college. The restaurant he'd already have if it weren't for his mother.
Major shut down the houselights, guilt nipping at his heels. Ma couldn't help the way she was. The mirrored elevator doors whispered shut, and he turned to stare out the glass wall overlooking downtown Bonneterre from twenty-three floors above.
His descent slowed then stopped. The doors slid open with a chime announcing his arrival on the fifth floor. Before he could turn completely around, Meredith stepped into the elevator.
"How long were you standing in the hall waiting for one of these doors to open?"
Meredith busied herself with pushing the button for the basement parking garage. "Not long."
"Not long," he imitated the super-high pitch of her voice. "You've never been a good liar, Mere."
"Fine." She blew a loose wisp of hair out of her eyes. "I was out there a couple of minutes. I didn't want you to have to wait for me. Happy?"
"Not in the least. But I appreciate your honesty." Due to the tenseness around her mouth, he changed the subject. "Your mom invited me to drop by their New Year's open house. You going?"
Meredith shook her head. "No." The simple answer held a magnitude of surprise.
"She said she had something she wanted to talk to me about."
The porcelain skin between Meredith's brows pinched. "Hmm. No—I don't usually go over for the open house, just for our family dinner later. Instead, I'm fixing to go home, sleep for a few hours, and then head over to the new house. I'm planning to get the paint stripped from all the woodwork in the living room and dining room tomorrow."
"In one day?" Major grunted. Meredith's new house was anything but: a one-hundred-year-old craftsman bungalow everyone had tried to talk her out of buying. "Wouldn't you rather relax on your holiday?"
"But working on the house is relaxing to me. Plus, it gives me a good excuse to go off by myself all day and be assured no one's going to disturb me."
The elevator doors opened to the dim, chilly underground parking garage. Major took hold of Meredith's arm and stopped her from exiting first. He stepped out, looked around, saw nothing out of the ordinary, then turned and nodded to her. "Looks safe."
"Of course it's safe. You lived in New York too long." She walked out past him.
"Meredith, Bonneterre isn't the little town we grew up in anymore. Even before Hurricane Katrina, it was booming." He stopped her again, planted his hands on her shoulders, and turned her to face him. "Please don't ever take your safety for granted. Not even here in the garage with security guards on duty. If anything happened to you ..."
Meredith blushed bright red and dropped her gaze.
"Look, I don't mean to alarm you. But in this day and age, anything could happen." He kept hold of her a moment longer, then let go and readjusted the straps of the bags on his shoulder.
Meredith released a shaky breath. "So, what are you going to do on your day off?"
"Watch football." He winked at her over his shoulder as he approached her Volvo SUV. The tinted windows blocked him from seeing inside. Perhaps he had lived in New York too long. But Bonneterre had changed even in the eight years he'd been back. Crime rates had risen along with the population. And he would have done this for any other lady of his acquaintance, wouldn't he?
He heard the lock click and opened the driver's-side door for her—taking a quick peek inside just to make sure that the boogey man wasn't hiding in the backseat.
"Oh, honestly!" Meredith playfully pushed him out of the way and, shaking her head, opened the back door and heaved her large, overstuffed briefcase onto the seat.
Major moved out of the way for her to get in. "Drive safely, okay?"
"I always do."
"Call me when you get home. Nuh-uh. No arguments. If you don't want to call, just text message me—all right?—once you're in your apartment with the door locked."
"Hey, who died and made you my keeper?" Meredith laughed.
He didn't let his serious expression crack. "Just call me safety obsessed."
"Okay, Major Safety Obsessed." She leaned into his one-armed hug then settled into the driver's seat. "Thank you for your concern. I will text you as soon as I arrive safely home, am safely in my house, with my door safely locked."
He closed the car door and waved before walking over to Kirby, his beaten-up old Jeep, a few spaces down. As he figured, Meredith waited to back out until he was in with the engine started. He followed her out of downtown and waved again as they parted ways on North Street.
A few fireworks flickered in the distance against the low-hanging clouds. He turned the radio on and tuned it to the southern gospel station. Always keyed-up after events, he sang the high-tenor part along with the Imperials. Though it had taken him a while to build the upper range of his voice—having always sung baritone and bass before—when he, George Laurence, Forbes Guidry, and Clay Huntoon started their own quartet, Major had been the only one who could even begin to reach some of the high notes. Sometimes it was still a strain, but he practiced by singing along with the radio as loudly as he could to keep his voice conditioned.
When he pulled into the condo complex parking lot, his cell phone chimed the new text message alert. He shook his head. Of course she texted instead of calling. He pulled the phone out of the holster clipped to his belt and flipped it open to read the message:
SAFELY HOME. :-) HAPPY NEW YEAR MERE
While Kirby's engine choked itself off, Major typed out a return message:
HOME TOO SWEET DREAMS MO'H
The phone flashed a confirmation that the message was sent, and he holstered it. Grabbing his black duffel from the back, he left the orange dry-cleaning bag to drop off at the cleaners Tuesday.
To blow off some steam and try to relax enough to fall asleep, he turned on the computer and played a few rounds of Spider Solitaire. About an hour later, his whole body aching, eyes watering from yawning every other minute, he grabbed a shower before turning in. At thirty-eight years old, he shouldn't feel this out of shape—of course, if he still made time to go to the gym every day and didn't enjoy eating his own cooking as much as he did, he probably wouldn't be this out of shape. He weighed as much now as he had playing middle linebacker in college—except twenty years ago, it had all been muscle.
But who trusted a skinny chef anyway?
* * *
Thunder grumbled, and rain pattered against the window. Major kicked at the comforter that had become entangled in his legs during the night and rolled over to check the time.
Eight thirty. What a perfect day to don ratty old sweats, sit in the recliner watching football on the plasma TV, and eat junk food.
If he had a plasma TV. Or any junk food in the condo.
Alas, though, he'd promised Mrs. Guidry he would drop by. Best check the schedule of games, see which he cared least about, and make the visit then. He pulled on the ratty old sweats and an equally ratty ULB T-shirt, though. As he passed down the short hallway, he tapped the temperature control on the thermostat up a couple of degrees to knock a little of the chill out of the air.
Excerpted from Menu for Romance by Kaye Dacus. Copyright © 2009 Kaye Dacus. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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