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The gown was stunning.
It was a strapless emerald-green mermaid classic that would hug and accentuate every curve and valley. The cluster of crystals at the nipped-in waist added just the right amount of bling. The jewel winked at Rachel Wood as the fluorescent lights in the kitchen of the Harwood House Ballroom reflected its brilliance. It seemed to say, Do you really think you’ll be able to squeeze your cookie-padded patootie into me?
The woman who donned this sexy little number would be instantly gorgeous. Transformed, like Cinderella. Most women would’ve jumped at the chance to wear a dress like that to the ball.
Rachel returned it to the garment bag, zipped it up and handed it back to Avery Burton, her good friend and the owner of the tempting frock.
“Here, you keep it.” Avery tried to return it to Rachel, but Rachel stepped back and clasped her hands behind her.
“What size is it?”
“It’s a size four.”
It will never fit.
“You’re going to look so elegant in it. It matches your eyes perfectly.”
With her red hair, the jewel tone was a good color for her, but Rachel wasn’t enticed. She was far more comfortable in her roomy chef’s coat and baggy cotton pants emblazoned with rainbow-hued flying pigs.
The pants’ best feature? They rocked an elastic waistband that moved with her rather than making her feel like chopped liver stuffed into sausage casing like that green gown surely would.
With that thought, Rachel took another step back, as if Avery’s dress might infect her with whatever madness made her friend so eager to subject herself to a torturous night of mixing and mingling at tonight’s charity ball. Felicity’s Ball, to be exact, the annual Christmas ball sponsored by the Women of Whiskey River Service Organization. It was a long-standing, well-loved tradition in the community.
In the early 1900s, the Harwood family hosted an annual Christmas ball. In 1918, it was canceled when Drew Harwood’s fiancée, Felicity Blanchard, died the night before the ball. The following year, Drew met Audra Donaldson, and she helped the family to revive the ball in 1919 in honor of Felicity. Drew and Audra later married. The family hosted the event as a Christmas ball for many years.
Sometime after World War II, the Women of Whiskey River Service Organization took over the event, making it a charity ball to raise money for worthy causes. This year, the gala would benefit the Whiskey River Children’s Home. It was a good cause, which is why Rachel had so eagerly volunteered to help behind the scenes—in the kitchen. It was where she needed to be tonight, ensuring that the food was perfectly prepared and served to the guests who had shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend tonight’s event.
She was already working with a handicap since she’d only gotten the job ten days ago after the first caterer they’d hired had canceled. When all the other caterers in the area were booked, Rachel had stepped up to offer her services. At first, she’d been thrilled to have the chance to show off her culinary chops, but as the big day had drawn closer, a sinking sense of dread weighed her down and made her question her own sanity for taking on a project of this magnitude on such short notice.
It was what it was.
Not only did she need to make it work, but she also needed to make people take notice of her food.
To prepare, she’d placed an ad in the Whiskey River Review and had hired a temporary team of cater waiters to work the party. She’d asked a handful of the staffers to come early to assist with routine food prep. Today, they buzzed around the kitchen washing and chopping and preparing mise en place for later that afternoon when the real work would begin. The rest of the cater waiters would report later.
Oh, God, what if I’m understaffed?
She grabbed ahold of her long braid and worried the end between her fingers. It was her version of a stress ball or worry beads. To ensure everything went smoothly, she would just have to stay in the kitchen tonight. She didn’t have a choice. This was too important.
She had enjoyed serving on the committee that had organized the ball. It gave her a chance to give something back to the community that had been so supportive of her cookie business Cookies and S’more(s). It had been fun working with Avery and their friend Savannah Taylor, pulling everything together for the big event. But she was in her element working behind the scenes and catering the party. Putting on a fancy dress and spending the night in heels did not sound like fun. It made her feet hurt even thinking about it.
Not to mention, personally, she had a lot riding on tonight. It was the first time she’d professionally catered an event of this magnitude. Tonight’s outcome could make or break her plans. She’d dreamed of opening a restaurant ever since she’d worked at Baron’s Steakhouse as a teenager. Tonight, if all went the way she’d planned, the who’s who of Whiskey River would taste her food and fall in love. She’d show them she was more than just a pastry chef—more than just a cookie monger—and have them hooked and begging her to open a restaurant.
Maybe she’d call her place The Green Dress. A nod to sacrifices and superb decision-making to work when everyone else was playing. When Food & Wine magazine named her an up-and-coming chef to watch and asked about the unique name she’d given her restaurant, she’d have a good story to tell about how she saved the day for WOWR Service Organization and stepped in at the last minute. “I was supposed to wear this gorgeous green dress to the ball that night, but I couldn’t because I had spent the evening in the kitchen. Who knew that was the start of my career—”
“Rachel?” Avery said.
Rachel blinked. Okay, so she was getting ahead of herself.
First, tonight had to go off without a single hiccup. That meant she couldn’t squeeze herself into a pretty green gown and dance the night away. No, she needed to be in the kitchen with her sleeves rolled up and her game face on, making sure that the soufflé that was her future didn’t collapse and burn before it even got out of the oven.
“Here,” Avery demanded and thrust the dress toward her. “Take this.”
When Rachel didn’t take it, Avery tilted her head to the side, regarding her as if she were a naughty child. “Come on. You promised you’d be present at least for the committee introductions. And you certainly can’t go out there looking like—” Avery grimaced and looked her up and down. “Like this.”
Of course, she couldn’t go out there like this. That was precisely why Rachel hadn’t picked up the gown earlier this week as they’d discussed when Avery had offered to lend it to her. She figured no gown, no introduction.
“I appreciate your offer to let me wear the dress,” Rachel said. “But I think I’ll just stay back here. I’d be happy to wave from the kitchen—”
The clatter of a metal sheet pan falling to the floor made both women jump.
“Everything okay?” Rachel asked, as a kid who looked as if he could still be in high school squatted to pick up the pan.
“It’s cool,” said the kid. “No food was harmed in the execution of that performance. Look away, people. Go back to work. There’s nothing to see here. Look away.”
Rachel couldn’t look away because she knew exactly what he was going to do next. He started to shove the sheet pan that had just been on the floor onto the kitchen’s floured marble-topped island. It was dangerously close to a fresh batch of unbaked canapés that were ready to be placed on a tray exactly like the one in his hands and then placed in the refrigerator in wait for tonight’s gala.
“No!” Rachel lunged and intercepted the tray before it touched down. She hated to yell, but—“That tray has been on the floor. It’s dirty. You can’t put it next to raw food. Go wash it, please.”
Rachel tried to hand the tray back to the boy, but a perky brunette took it instead. “Sorry about that, Ms. Wood. I’ve got this, Jared. Please go out into the ballroom and set up the chafing dishes.”
Jared did as he was told. As soon as the kid was out of earshot, Rachel said, “Thanks, Polly.”
“It’s no problem.” The young woman flashed an apologetic smile. “I’ll keep an eye on him and keep him on track. Just to double-check, what time did you want us to set out the dessert selections tonight?”
Rachel took a deep breath. Everything was riding on tonight. There was absolutely no organization. That was her fault. There was no way she was going to leave her future in the hands of a crew of temps she’d hired via a help wanted ad in the newspaper. They weren’t invested in her success. What could she expect for minimum wage? They didn’t know her or her expectations—except for Polly; she seemed to be on the ball. Even so, tonight, Rachel needed to be back here with them.
“That’s a great question, Polly. Before it gets too much later, we should have a meeting so we can go over everything for tonight. Would that help?”
“That sounds great.”
If—no, correction—when this job proved successful, she would cultivate a crew of cater waiters she could train to her standards. She’d given tonight’s workers a crash course in catering and a thorough rundown of expectations. The situation wasn’t optimum, but it was the best she could do right now. If she was going to expand beyond Cookies and S’more(s), her specialty cookie shop, and move into savory food, she had to start somewhere. Catering Felicity’s Ball was more than starting somewhere. With this opportunity, she had arrived.
The powers that be who ran the national cookie company, Mama Bear Cookies, had contacted her with an offer to buy out Cookies and S’more(s). It was a lowball offer—even the attorney she’d hired to guide her through the process, Johnny Gamble, had warned her. They were undervaluing her assets and the goodwill she had generated. But Johnny had managed to buy her some time. She had until January 2 to make her decision.
She had considered selling Cookies and S’more(s) and investing the money in starting a catering business, but she worried it would be too risky. Even though Cookies and S’more(s) would never be a vast money-maker, it was steady and predictable. Most importantly, she had control over her business, which made it easy to put her daughter first. That and having enough money to support Katie were her first priorities.
She composed her nervous energy into a smile. “Thank you, Polly. I’ll wash the tray. Why don’t you go help Jared with the chafing dishes?” She gave Polly a knowing look that conveyed her help would be more of a supervisory nature. Rachel could tell by the look on the young woman’s face that she understood implicitly. “We will have one more meeting to go over the timing of everything. After you help Jared, would you round up everyone in the kitchen? Let’s meet in, say, ten minutes?” Shoulders back, Polly stood a little taller as she set off to carry out her orders.
“How long is this meeting going to take?” Avery pushed the dress into Rachel’s hands. This time she had no option but to take it. “When is your hair appointment? What shoes are you going to wear? With all you have to do, will you be ready in time?”
“You saw what just happened here,” Rachel said. “I don’t see how I will be able to leave the kitchen to greet people. If the food isn’t right it will reflect poorly on the entire committee. Don’t you think good food is more important than my being part of the meet and greet?”
Avery frowned. “You’re just looking for an excuse to get out of this.” She was right, mostly. Women like Avery and their friend Savannah loved events like this. They were in their element getting dressed up in beautiful gowns like the sexy burgundy number Avery was planning on wearing or the green gown Rachel found herself reluctantly accepting from her friend. It was a lot of dress, much heavier than it appeared on the hanger. She hung it on a coatrack near the back door.
“How can you not want to put on this beautiful dress and be Cinderella for a night?” Avery’s eyes sparkled.
“If Cinderella had a chance to tell her own side of the story, she would probably admit that big parties—that balls like this one—gave her hives.”
Avery flinched. Rachel hadn’t meant for her voice to go up an octave. It just happened.
Avery reached out and put a hand on Rachel’s arm. “Hey, Rach, it’s going to be okay. I promise. You’re not in this alone. Savannah and I will be right there with you tonight.”
“I know you will,” Rachel said. “I’ll do my best to get everything done in here and put in an appearance out there.”
How could she make her friend understand big schmooze-fests like tonight’s party just weren’t her thing? It wasn’t social anxiety. Not exactly. She simply felt more at home in the kitchen. In fact, she’d take spending the evening in this gorgeous replica of an old Victorian kitchen over dancing the night away.
She loved everything about this kitchen from its stamped tin ceiling all the way down to its black and white checkerboard tiled floor—and all the marble-topped sideboards and antique buffets in between. It was the kitchen of her dreams. She coveted it. She wanted to spend as much time in it as possible. If she could afford it, she would have one just like it in her own shop downtown on the square. It wasn’t in her budget, but tonight she could dream. Actually, if tonight went well and she got more catering jobs as a result of proving herself, she would be one step closer to turning that dream—and dream kitchen with those commercial-grade appliances—into a reality.
“I hope so, because there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Rachel crossed her arms over the front of her white coat. “Who?” she asked cautiously.
“Someone.” Avery smiled. “A friend of Logan’s.”
Logan Calloway was Avery’s boss. He was a hometown boy who’d done very well for himself and was now a Hollywood A-lister. Avery managed his foundation and looked after the house he kept in Whiskey River. Avery had used her charms and persuaded Logan to be the honorary co-chair for this year’s ball. Once word got out that Logan Calloway was part of the fundraiser, the tickets sold out in record time and Avery was getting all kinds of accolades for getting Logan to the ball and raising a lot of money for the Children’s Home.
“Tell me you’re not trying to fix me up on a blind date,” Rachel insisted.
“Who said anything about a blind date?” Avery answered. “I just want you to meet Logan’s friend.”
Rachel frowned. “Okay,” she said, but meant the exact opposite.
It was not okay. She didn’t want to meet anyone, especially not tonight. But two could play that game. Avery was always trying to set her up. Rachel always refused. She had her hands full with Cookies and S’more(s) and trying to branch out into the catering world. But above all, her daughter Katie came first. It wasn’t easy being a single mom. Especially when she was trying to raise Katie as normally as possible.
Her husband, Katie’s father, had passed away before Katie was born. Actually, he’d died before Rachel even knew she was pregnant. He had an aneurysm. He was there one day and the next minute he wasn’t. The loss, coupled with the surprise pregnancy, was what had brought Rachel back to Whiskey River. If not for Katie, she probably wouldn’t have come back.
Despite being born and raised in Whiskey River, the place had never felt like home. A shy, chubby kid who would rather bake cookies than ride her bike, Rachel had always felt like a fish out of water here. Her mother had drilled it in her head that she deserved a better life than the Barrels neighborhood where she’d grown up.
Actually, her mother had been the one who had encouraged Rachel to stay inside. An only child, Rachel had been a latchkey kid after her father left. Her mother worked long hours to make ends meet and hadn’t been happy letting Rachel play outside. Baking and enjoying her own company had become a comfortable way of life. Once her mother secured the means to move them to the right side of town, she hadn’t really fit in there, either.
Funny how even the best laid plans sometimes led you back to square one. This time, square one included Katie and that meant there was no room for error. Especially not a repeat of the mistakes she’d made in the past. That meant no men, no blind dates. Really, that meant there was no need for Avery to even introduce her to anyone. Her plate was full; her life was full.
Avery’s phone pinged, indicating the arrival of a new text. She glanced at the phone.
“Are you kidding me?” She directed the words to the phone.
“What’s wrong?” Rachel asked.
“The mayor is demanding to ride in the limo with Logan tonight. He wants to arrive with him.” Avery tapped her finger on the phone screen. “You know…on second thought, this might be just the answer to my prayers.”
“Why?” Rachel asked.
“Do you need to spend some time with the mayor?”
“No. This will mean I’m not in the limo alone with Logan tonight.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to ride with Logan?”
Avery shrugged as she replied to the message. She had a good poker face. Even though Rachel sensed something was off, she couldn’t tell what it was.
“Is Logan hard to get along with?” Rachel leaned in and lowered her voice so the staff wouldn’t overhear. “Is he a diva? Or whatever the male version of a diva is?”
Avery’s eyes flashed. There was a look in them that suggested there was something she wanted to talk about, something juicy that had nothing to do with emerald-green gowns and Felicity’s Ball committee shenanigans, but in an instant the moment passed.
“All I can say is…” she bit her bottom lip as if she was weighing her words “…he is…something else. He’s a flirt. And I told him in no uncertain terms that there would be no flirting when we’re together. Then he claimed he wasn’t flirting, that I misread the situation. Ugh! He gets me so flustered.”
Rachel arched a brow. “Really? And you want me to meet his friend?”
“Who is nothing like Logan,” Avery interjected.
“There’s usually something to the old sayings about birds of a feather and the company you keep, yada yada.”
Rachel wanted that to be true. She wanted Logan’s friend to be all flash and no substance, someone who was completely wrong for her. She had no room in her life for a man and even if she did, she had no interest in a Hollywood type.
“Yada yada?” Avery laughed.
“Yes. Yada yada,” Rachel said.
“Meet him and decide for yourself,” Avery said. “I have to run and arrange tonight’s logistics with the mayor, and I need to get my hair and nails done.” Avery glanced at her watch. “Good Lord, it’s already so late.”
She started to go, but stopped in the doorway and turned back to Rachel. “Do you need me to schedule a hair appointment for you?”
“For me? No, but thanks. You have enough on your plate. Go on and get out of here so you can get everything done.”
Rachel watched Avery hustle out of the kitchen. After she was gone, Rachel’s gaze shifted to the dress hanging snug in its garment bag and she swallowed a pang of guilt. She didn’t need a hair appointment because she wasn’t going to the ball.
End of Excerpt