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Serving Up a Sweetheart
A Year of Weddings Novella
By Cheryl Wyatt
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Cheryl Wyatt
All rights reserved.
The sky blew crystal kisses to the earth, the snow patterning Meadow Larson's window in white filigree flakes. That would've been fine if it weren't for Niagara Falls pouring down double-paned glass and drenching her in-home catering kitchen.
Worse, on the one day her business partner, Del, called in sick.
The leak around the window intensified, streaming wet rivulets over live outlets and onto the plethora of towels she had already placed on the counter and floor.
Mind awhirl with what to do next, Meadow rushed to shut off breakers, then snatched her phone off one of her only dry counters and dialed her sister Flora while sloshing back toward the awful mess.
"Meadow, you're panting. What's wrong?"
"I have four caters over the next week, and my place is flooding under massive snow melt." Realizing every towel she owned was now soaked, Meadow turned to grab blankets from her hall closet.
She heard an ominous creaking sound behind her. Turning back, she looked up ... and lost her breath.
As if in slow motion, her ceiling bowed and then crashed to the floor in a thundering pile of icy lumber and tile. Her countertops and best catering supplies disappeared under a destructive mishmash of winter's white frosting and debris.
Scrambling backward, Meadow dropped the phone. Stared in fascinated horror at the cave-in that covered her kitchen in a heap of unprecedented February snow. Her dream-since-childhood business squashed by a southern Illinois blizzard. A "once-in-a-lifetime event," this morning's weatherman had called it, right after he'd informed viewers the groundhog had seen his shadow.
How could her demanding schedule survive six more weeks of winter?
Moreover, how could she fulfill contracts with clients when her workspace and best catering supplies were pulverized?
"What was that racket? Meadow, everything okay?"
Meadow became aware of the voice on the floor. She picked up her phone—the face of which now resembled how she felt inside: cracked in all directions. "No. Could you please come over? My kitchen ceiling collapsed."
"You kidding me?"
"Wish I were." Meadow fought tears. She hadn't cried in ten years and wasn't about to now. Fearing more collapse, Meadow fled for cover outside. Ironic.
She'd always loved wintertime, with its beautiful diamond glisten and the enchanting allure of hoarfrost.
Meadow threw on a coat from the front hall closet, and the storm door slammed in her wake as she left to pace the front yard.
Midway between her red Tudor cottage door and the street, she passed a knight-white snowman standing sentry over her sidewalk. She didn't know who had built him since no children lived near her, but she paused, glared at it, and decided the majestic ice imp was mocking her.
With a less-than-ladylike growl, she hauled her leg back and kicked.
Her entire foot and ankle disappeared into the snowman's torso. "I hate you, and I hate that stupid groundhog!"
* * *
Groundhog? Colin McGrath set his box back on the passenger seat and rounded his truck to get a better look at the animated face issuing the words he'd just heard. He watched the woman across the street with interest. She had evidently just assaulted the snowman in her yard.
Stuck in an awkward stance resembling a frozen flamingo in a badly posed karate move, she whipped her arms around like a hostile windmill. Balance righted, she yanked her leg out of the snowman and raised her foot. Colin grew amused to find it shoeless.
The astonished glare she sent the snowman could've gone viral on YouTube. As she sputtered something about it being a wretched, shoe-thieving traitor, Colin burst out laughing.
Until he saw her tears.
The brunette swiped madly at them before dropping to her knees. Concern coursed through him as she started scooping out wads of snow.
Her distress drew him quickly across the street.
Recalling the strength of her kick, he approached cautiously. "Bad day, I take it?"
Frosty's would-be assassin shrieked, stood, and whirled. Hair swept from widening honey eyes, she looked familiar. But he'd been gone ten years. Colin fought to place her.
"Didn't mean to startle you"—he eyed her barren ring finger—"miss."
Her face plumed the color of cranberries on a cold winter day ... like today. She slid back to the frozen ground and dug, probably for her MIA shoe. To no avail. Colin reached into the eviscerated snowman and yanked the footwear right out.
She stood again and snatched the loafer out of his hands. "May I help you?"
He bit his lip to block a grin. "No, ma'am, but I thought I better offer assistance."
A scowl furrowed her lovely brow. "I don't need your help."
"I was referring to Frosty. He looked in need of swift intervention." Colin could hold it in no longer. His pressure-cooked laugh released. He nodded to the snowman, then cast the pretty woman a glance he hoped would humor her. "Domestic dispute?"
Her lips thinned in a manner that made him ponder ducking. She gripped the shoe tighter and looked sorely tempted to hurl the thing at him.
He palmed the air. "Hey, kidding. In all seriousness, I noticed you seem upset. Anything I can do?"
"Unless you can fix a roof and my catering kitchen in seventy-two hours, no."
He grinned, liking her spunk. "Actually, I may be able to help. Construction's my trade. My name is—"
"I know who you are, but you obviously don't remember me." Her chin rose.
Dread hit him like a two-by-four. "Uh ..."
Her arms locked across her chest. "You and your friends ruined my life. At least my high school experience." Arms dropped, she shook her head and started to turn.
It all flooded back for Colin, who she was and everything she'd endured. He swallowed fiery lumps remembering: his part in inviting her to the lake, then his friends driving off without her. Terror and betrayal clouding her eyes as she stumbled after them.
He reached for her arm. "Oh wow, Meadow. Sorry. I didn't recognize you."
"You didn't back then, either." She shrugged. "I am just as I was, overlooked and easily forgettable." A frustrated glower flooded her expressive face.
His chest tightened with a marbling of remorse and remembrance, acknowledgment and empathy. Things he should've felt back then ... but didn't. Not really.
"I'm truly sorry."
He meant it. From the depths of his heart, did he ever.
She rolled her eyes. "I bet. Anyway, it doesn't matter now."
Actually, it did. If the splinter still festered a decade later, it mattered a whole lot. He couldn't let this go. Could not walk away from the distress in her eyes.
Gorgeous eyes. Hair the color of polished mahogany, too, deep shine included.
He had to make the past up to her somehow. "Let me help you, Meadow. Please."
Her fortitude ran sturdy as she shook her head. "You? Help me? Not on your life, Colin McGrath. You hurt me once. I'm not giving you a chance to do it twice."CHAPTER 2
Her words hit like hacksaws, driving Colin's ego to its knees. Oh well. Better place for it anyway. Pride was never a bad thing to lose. Not knowing what to say next and rendered wordless for just about the first time in his life, Colin clamped his mouth shut.
Retort would only convince her she was right about him.
Irish temper blessedly absent, Colin tipped his ball cap to her. "Good day to you then, ma'am." He resisted the urge to bid the snowman good-bye before turning to cross the street. Meadow's hilarious tirade had somehow humanized the thing.
He'd forgotten how fickle southern Illinois weather could be. Last week it was seventy degrees. This week Havenbrook's sky dumped historic amounts of icy snow. He crunched over it walking back to his new house. The movers were finishing the last load.
Colin drew in a breath of fresh air, hometown nostalgia and peace he hadn't felt in a decade. He loved Havenbrook. Meadow's welcome had been the only one not warm.
What did he expect after the way he'd treated her in high school? His gut knotted like old pine as images assaulted him. His then-girlfriend, mayor's daughter Blythe Matthews, calling Meadow a loser. Strong Meadow leaving school in tears. Blythe calling after her that she'd never be popular, never be one of the cool kids, never fit in.
Colin had stood back against the lockers feeling horrible for Meadow yet not doing one thing to stop the bullying.
Colin swallowed. Hard. No wonder Meadow wanted nothing to do with him now.
Except, that was the old him. He determined to show her the new him.
Wanting to make sure she made it in without slipping on snow-packed ice, Colin glanced back to find Meadow looking stumped as she stared at him. Surprise swept through him at that.
Swiftly readapting her caustic body language, she tromped across her yard. But her baffled-curious look had convinced him he'd made a slight positive impression.
A car pulled up next to the curb where he stood. A harried woman plowed out of it and into him. When she pulled back, recognition flickered in her eyes, and she paused.
"Colin McGrath. Heard you were moving back."
He recognized her as one of Meadow's many siblings. "Flora. Nice to see you."
"You check on her? She all right after the cave-in?"
Her words hammered dread into him. "Cave-in?"
"She didn't tell you?" They began walking back across the street to Meadow's.
"No. Well, not in so many words." He grinned. "She mostly just told me off."
Flora glanced sideways at him. He peered across the yard, assessing where Meadow's damage was. He shrugged. "I deserved it."
Flora looked like she wanted to say something kind but stopped herself. Good. He didn't deserve the grace of accolades where Meadow Larson was concerned.
"I'm surprised you're not giving me grief over my past of taunting your family." Blunt, but he needed to have an in to apologize.
"I know your mom from Havenbrook Garden Club. My fiancé, Pete, is the attorney handling your father's will, medical directives, and business matters. I help in the office since my counseling job is part-time. You're the new CEO of your dad's company—McGrath Construction, right?"
"Oh, so you're Pete's fiancée. Good man. Yes. Dad's failing cognitive function affected his ability to make sound business decisions. Mom asked me to take over so the company doesn't lose forty years' worth of good reputation, equity, and customers. Thankfully, my Chicago home and contracting firm sold quickly." That money left him a nice nest egg and enabled the clean break to move south. He'd needed a new start anyway, after his broken engagement.
Flora nodded. "Your mom told me it means the world to her that you came home to take care of things, despite your parents not taking the best care of you growing up. She seems very sorry and says she and your dad are desperate to have the relationship with you they'd neglected before."
"I've forgiven them. To their credit, I didn't keep in close contact once deployed overseas in the military after school. Speaking of, I hope you know I'm sorry for every terrible thing I did."
"I do. I also know your mom recently made you the medical POA for your dad. Sorry to hear about his tumor. You have enough grief to contend with right now." She smiled compassionately. "Plus, people change for the better. Pete's business dealings with you so far make me believe you have, even though Meadow may not."
That didn't sound promising.
Colin helped Flora across Meadow's icy yard, then scanned the roof. "Your sister's not gonna be happy to see me again, but I need to make sure she's not putting herself in danger going back in there."
"Yeah, well, she can be stubborn like that."
As predicted, Meadow's face swelled like an angry puffer fish at the sight of him at her door.
"Now, now ... cool your jets, sis. He's an expert concerned about your safety. Besides, you know all other local contractors are either bad or, with other roof cave-ins I've heard about today, probably booked solid."
Meadow's countenance visibly crushed under being subjugated by circumstance into taking Colin's help.
Thumbs hooked in his pockets, he waited for the go-ahead. She finally nodded but did so like someone eating sawdust.
Once inside, it didn't take Colin long to survey the damage.
Meadow's petrified look from the hallway twisted his insides as he descended the ladder he'd brought in from her shed. He tried not to grimace as he considered how to put this to her gently.
"What's the verdict?" Flora's voice quavered.
He steered his gaze toward Meadow. "You live and work here?"
"Yes. My home and business are one in the same. How extensive is the damage?" Meadow's hands wrung like nervous dishrags.
"For sure, it's not safe for you to stay here while repairs are made. The entire roof is unstable with all that snow and ice, and I can't promise there won't be more damage before morning. It's starting to get dark. I can cover the hole with a tarp and reassess come daylight, but suffice it to say that kitchen's not going to be usable for a while."
Color drained from the sisters' faces. They held one another up.
"How long's a while?" Meadow's pallor elicited his empathy.
Colin aimed for delicacy of tone. "I estimate a month."
Flora wobbled. "No! My wedding's in three weeks! This is catastrophic."
Meadow rubbed Flora's arms. "Sis, I'll figure something out. Don't worry." She faced Colin. "Thanks. I'll take care of the tarp. You may go now."
He wasn't going anywhere. "Past aside, you're obviously in a fix, and I'm a fixer. My strength is renovation of structures damaged by disaster. My schedule's open. Consider letting me help you for all the trouble I caused you in high school."
Flora waved her phone. "I need to step outside and call Pete while you chat."
Meadow winced. "What's this going to cost me?"
Her question stung for the simple fact he sensed she meant cost in emotional trauma, not cash. He wanted to say it would cost nothing but knew Meadow wouldn't buy it. "We'll hammer details out later." He wasn't worried about money.
Her eyes narrowed, alerting him that she didn't trust him as far as she could toss him. An idea struck.
"I saw Meals on Wheels stickers on your catering SUV. I know of some shut-in vets in this area. Maybe after the repair, you could spare them a few meals a month for my services."
"I'd love to help veterans, but you'd be underpaid."
He needed something else. "How about this? I noticed your design degree and chef school certificate in the kitchen. Your place is gorgeously decorated. I recall you were master decorator of the school's renovation."
He and his woodshop class buddies had taken care of the outside—Meadow the inside. She'd done fantastically. Her work had earned scholarships to a premier design school he didn't think she could have afforded otherwise.
Regret slammed him over his mistreatment of her and kids like her, harassed when they should have been helped. She and her siblings had been among underprivileged outcasts made fun of by so-called privileged kids like him.
He was obviously being handed a second chance here. To Colin, part of godly sorrow meant righting the effects of wrong conduct.
"We can barter and each pay for our own materials. I fix your catering kitchen, you feed my vet buddies a few meals and help me decorate my new place, and we'll call it even. The house—and my pole barn office-slash-shop—are complete construction-wise, but the insides are drab, blank palettes of possibility."
"That doesn't solve my business dilemma. I have contracted caters." The weight of the cave-in ramifications must have set in, because she pressed her fingers to her temples. Volcanic panic was an understatement for the expression going live on her face.
"You could work out of my pole barn kitchen until we fix yours. I have a huge space, with a comfortable new couch you could sleep on, if you like."
Visions of wedding tulle, rainbow silk flowers, satin napkins, bows and lace, fine china and crystal assaulted him. He'd seen evidence of it everywhere at her place.
He hated frilly things, food, and breakable stuff in his workspace. He shivered.
Still, he needed to man up here.
Meadow's hands fell stiffly to her sides, revealing her simultaneously hopeless and suspicious. "Why are you doing this?"
"Honest truth? I'm not sure."
Her lips pursed. "Guilt, maybe?"
Excerpted from Serving Up a Sweetheart by Cheryl Wyatt. Copyright © 2015 Cheryl Wyatt. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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