Valentine’s Heart: A Prequel Novella

Chapter 1

Nobody ever said it would be easy.

But I do my level best to ignore the whimpering of my battered feet while carrying yet another platter of hors d’oeuvres. Maneuvering around drunks, carrying trays, and serving food isn’t part of my job description, for Pete’s sake. I’m a chef. That is to say, I’m not currently positioned quite where I’d imagined myself, but I’m trained and certified up the wazoo. Someday soon, I’ll be running a kitchen at an upscale restaurant and lauded as the Goddess of Food.

Tonight, though, I’m helping cater a Valentine’s Day party for the largest accounting firm in the city. Who would have guessed the numbers crowd were such a romantic bunch? With no current love in my life, I find the day itself beyond depressing. Working this party is more or less the icing on the cake…complete with a cherry on top.

In theory, I’m only supposed to be concerned with the food. At least, that was the plan until two of the waitresses at the resort called in sick. Never mind I’ve spent the day prepping ingredients and hauling them here for on-site assembly, but now I’m slinging trays over my shoulder and wearing borrowed stilettos two sizes too small. If one more guest asks why smoked salmon isn’t being served, I’m going to scream the place down.

Circulating the room, I smile widely and offer baby beets with kumquats and herbed feta to everyone who crosses my path, all the while frantically doing mental gymnastics in my head. The ten piece-per-person guesstimate by the company’s social coordinator was wildly inaccurate; consequently, I’ll have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to ensure there are enough nibbles to last through the event. First rule of catering: never, ever, run out of food. Maybe the second rule should be: assume accounting staff numbers will be conservative.

Once the tray is empty, I dash back to the kitchen, frantically searching for Leanne, my friend, and assistant.

“What took you so long?” she screeches, appearing through the side door while struggling under the weight of a stack of food containers.

Relieving her of several rectangular ones from the top, I turn to the only remaining clear counter space and carefully place them down. “Sorry, but I could hardly throw the food at the guests and run back in here. Did you put the phyllo triangles in the oven?”

“Of course.” She checks her watch. “Four minutes until they’re done. We’re all out of mushrooms and down to the final two containers of zucchini pinwheels. What do you want to do with this creamed goat cheese?”

“Pipe it into the prosciutto cups and chop dates and arugula for the topping. Where’s the bacon?”

“Still in the van, I didn’t think you’d need it.” Shrugging, she washes the arugula.

“I’ll do a quick-and-dirty tray of asparagus and green beans wrapped in bacon and brown sugar.”

“Brilliant. When should we bring out the desserts?”

“Maybe in another half hour or so. First, let them fill up on the rest of the hors d’oeuvres. The way these guys are hog feeding, I wouldn’t put it past them to decimate the sweets table in thirty seconds flat.” Sigh. I swipe a hand across my eyes. “It’s one thing whipping up additional savory trays, but I don’t have enough time to supplement the desserts. I told that ditzy social coordinator a buffet meal would be the best idea for this type of event, but would she listen? Jeez, it’s not as if the mighty Brown, Mossop, and Goldman can’t shell out and give their people a proper meal.”

“Shush.” Leanne hisses. “You never know who might walk in.”

I blow out a breath and slump against the counter. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. My bad. This event is pushing me over the edge. Can you handle things in here for five more minutes? I’ll go back out with another tray. Where are the rest of the waitresses and what happened to Sean? He’s supposed to be on kitchen clean-up. God, are we the only two working tonight?”

She points to the stack of trays waiting on the counter by the door. “You go. I’ll round up the lost lambs and bring them in for the slaughter. Don’t worry, Suze, we’ve got this.”

With my shoulders sufficiently squared, I hoist a tray and return to the party. I have to admit, it’s a classy affair. The theme, naturally enough, is The Heart of Valentine, and the room is covered in tones of red. Burgundy tablecloths, blood-red roses, and ice sculptures depicting couples in various stages of embrace and bathed in soft, red light, all give the ballroom a womb-like atmosphere. Guests were encouraged to dress accordingly, and most women here complied with brilliant red gowns and matching bold lips while many of the gentlemen sport bowties in the same palette.

Really, it would be the perfect place to commit murder. I desperately hope it won’t come to that.

“Would you care for a parmesan cheese rosemary cup?” I ask a throng of women huddled outside the kitchen.

“Please enjoy some crostini with caramelized onion jam,” I say to a couple leaning against the side of the bar.

Out of the corner of my eye, the missing waitresses materialize from the direction of the kitchen, and I breathe a sigh of relief. A few more minutes and I can high-tail it back to Leanne and deal with the remainder of the food shortage crisis. Eyeing a group of men, enough to possibly finish out my tray of food, I skirt the edge of the dance floor and arrow toward them.

I’m steps away from my quarry when someone slams into me from behind. Maybe if I’d been wearing flats and not about to set a record for Olympic speed-walking, I might have saved myself. Instead, the added forward momentum pitches me into my targeted group, and the tray is gone from my hands, sailing over the shoulder of the man I hit and crashing to the ground in an explosion of crockery and scraps of food.

Applause breaks out, along with a sprinkling of laughter. I grit my teeth. Why do people always feel the need to do that when some poor wait staff shmuck drops a plate? It’s not remotely funny for anyone involved. I push back from where I’m sprawled across one of the men and attempt to stand while thanking the universe I’m not wearing an especially short skirt and thereby giving everyone in the vicinity an unwanted eyeful.

Hands grasp my elbows and lift me until I’m upright, and the man who cushioned my fall twists onto his side and quickly gains his feet.

“Are you okay?” My rescuer turns me to face him, his expression laced with concern.

“I’m fine.”

He’s young and has the most gorgeous brown eyes I’ve ever seen. For a millisecond, I lose my train of thought and simply gaze into them. “Um…thank you for helping me up. Is the other man all right?”

“I’d say Ralph is feeling no pain at this particular point in time.” He laughs, and I glance over my shoulder where the one in question is doing some sort of dance routine following an extravagant bow to the hooting and hollering crowd.

Tap-dancing Ralph steps over where I’m standing with melty-eyed Good Samaritan. “Hey, pretty girl, looks as if you fell for me right before I fell for you. Do you wanna dance?”

Smiling at his ridiculous pick-up line, I shake my head. “It’s a sweet offer, but I’m on the clock. I’m very sorry about running into you. You’re not hurt, are you?”

“Nah. I’m good. And what I said? It isn’t a lie. You are really pretty.”

“Thanks.” While shaking my head, I turn to survey the disaster on the floor. “I guess I’d better find a broom and clean this up.”

Good Samaritan leans toward me. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep the drunken masses from stepping through it until you get back.”

Leanna bolts out of the kitchen, meeting me halfway across the ballroom. She has a trash bag and paper towels in one hand and a dustpan and broom in the other. “I’ve got this. Why don’t you take a moment and catch your breath?”

“I don’t mind, really,” I say, gesturing for her to hand over the items. “Are you still good with the food?”

“Yeah, sure but…Oh, I get it.” A smirk forms on her lips and she nods toward the spill area. “You found yourself a tall, dark, and totally handsome helper. I was beginning to wonder if you had a single working hormone in your body, but I guess I can put my fears to rest because Suzanne Adler is hot and horny and on the hunt. Go get him.”

“It’s not like that,” I protest, backing away as her smile turns wicked.

“Okay, but whatever it’s like, work it good, girl.”

“Thanks,” I say to Good Samaritan. “I’ve got everything under control if you want to get back to enjoying your evening.”

“Please let me help. It was me who knocked you off your feet. I’m really sorry. I wasn’t paying attention and spun right into you.”

“Well, it happens, except in my experience, it’s usually lawyers and venture capitalists. I never expected accountants to be a bunch of party animals.”

“I know. What can I say? I’m so ashamed.”

I hand over the dustpan and sweep the debris into a pile, laughing as I work. Good Samaritan stoops down, and I push the first of the mess onto the pan.

“Derek, what are you doing?” I glance up to the source of the voice and find a young, incredibly pretty, red-haired woman scowling in annoyance. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Father is chatting up an important client and wants you to meet him.”

“Okay, sure. We’ll be done here in two seconds.”

“I’d hop right on it if I were you. That gross guy, Terrance, is already circling like a vulture and angling for an introduction. I’m certain this woman can handle cleaning up. It is her job.” Red Head doesn’t so much as glance my way when she speaks. Clearly, I’m someone so far beneath her notice, she can’t even see me.

Derek flashes a quick smile and shrugs apologetically. “Um…sorry…Duty calls. I’d better go. Sorry again for the trouble.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this.”

Glancing up, I watch Derek walk away with the woman. She leans in to whisper in his ear before shooting a look at me over her shoulder and twining her arm through his in a clear act of possession. I return to my work with a sigh. It just figures the first guy I’ve been remotely interested in, since forever, has a girlfriend. Maybe it’s some sort of warning sign from the universe. Oh well, easy come, easy go.