Introducing Menu for Romance
MENU FOR ROMANCE
© 2009 by Kaye Dacus
“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 tops of their lungs along with 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 kid 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 azure 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?”
“Yep.” 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.
“And if you see him, tell George 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 window 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 walls and ceiling of glass 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. Tuesday, she would meet all of the vendors here to have their stuff carted away so the building maintenance staff could get in here with the carpet steamers and buffer for the dance floor.
“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 ten-top 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—being surrounded by more than eight hundred people with covered faces and hidden eyes, who could very likely have been watching, grading, judging Meredith’s performance and her ability to handle an event of this magnitude on her own.
* * *
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 tall and stiff 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.” She even smelled vaguely of strawberries and chocolate . . . or maybe that was just Major’s imagination.
“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 kids 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 everyone gets clocked out, and lock up and turn out the lights.”
Meredith nodded and departed. Major rounded up the last few stragglers and watched them run their cards through the slot on the computer. Returning their happy New Year’s wishes, he ducked into his office at the rear of the kitchen, grabbed his orange 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 offered him the position—saving Major years of working as a sous chef, never more than the second in command.
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 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…
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