Perhaps love wasn't a fairy tale.
Watching the bride and groom share their first dance, Celeste Thompson was taken aback by the longing that filled her heart. She'd never been one to entertain romantic notions. Yet she suddenly found herself wondering what it would be like to be in love. To share your life with someone. To give that person your whole heart.
Celeste froze, the long pearl-handled knife midway through another slice of wedding cake. She could never trust her heart to anyone. She laid the piece of raspberry-filled white cake on a plate. Precisely why she was the caterer, not the bride.
As the romantic ballad came to an end, her eyes again roamed the crowded, dimly lit reception hall in Ouray's Community Center. From all appearances, Cash and Taryn were the epitome of forever and always. Yet how could anyone promise forever? People change. At least that was what her mother said. Countless times. Usually followed by a less-than-flattering remark about Celeste's wayward father.
Celeste glanced down to see small fingers gripping the edge of the lace-covered table. A pair of large sapphire eyes framed by white-blond curls peered up at her.
A smile started in Celeste's heart, spreading to her face. "Well, hello there, sweet girl." The child was adorable, her frilly lavender dress making her look like a princess. "You must be the flower girl."
The little girl nodded, her mischievous grin hinting that she might not be as innocent as she appeared.
"Emma… " A man with dark brown hair and Emma's same blue eyes sauntered toward them. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his tuxedo slacks and his loosened bow tie dangled from beneath the unbuttoned collar of his starched white shirt. Very GQ. Tall, dark… Of course, at five foot two, everyone seemed tall to Celeste. One of many reasons high heels were her best friend.
He stopped beside the child. "You've had enough cake, young lady." His baritone voice was firm. Unyielding.
Emma frowned. Her bottom lip pooched out as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Cassidy had two pieces."
"Your sister ate her dinner." The man stared down at her, seemingly unfazed by the pathetic look.
"No fair." The little girl stomped her foot.
He held his hand out to the child. "Let's go see if we can find some more of that brisket. Then we'll discuss cake."
Emma's lip quivered, her eyes welling with tears. Her face reddened and contorted in ways Celeste had never witnessed firsthand. Nonetheless, she recognized the markings of a tantrum. And, from the looks of things, this was setting up to be a good one.
Perhaps she could find a way to change the subject. She opened her mouth, but the man she presumed was Emma's father held up a hand to cut her off.
"I've got this."
Fine by her. After all, Emma was his daughter.
He dropped to one knee. "Emma, please. Not here."
His plea was met with a loud wail.
Celeste bit back a laugh. Seemed the poor man had been through this before.
Pulling his daughter close, he begged her to stop crying. His tuxedo jacket was doing a fair job of muffling Emma's sobs, still…he glanced up at Celeste, defeat and perhaps embarrassment marring his otherwise handsome features.
Surely there was something she could do.
Then again, Emma's father had made it clear he didn't need her help.
The child let out another cry. This time loud enough to be heard over the music.
People started staring.
Celeste couldn't help herself. While she might not be an expert with kids, she'd quelled many an executive tantrum in the boardroom. Perhaps those tactics would come in handy now.
She wiped her hands on a napkin and rounded the table. Knelt beside the pair. "Emma?" She touched the baby-fine curls.
Emma hiccupped then slowly turned her head until her red-rimmed eyes met Celeste's.
"Have you ever had a birthday party?"
The child nodded against her daddy's chest.
"And all your friends and family were there?" She looked at Emma's father, afraid he'd tell her to back off. Instead, he seemed to wait for his daughter's reaction.
Emma nodded again, this time lifting her head.
Celeste continued. "Now, suppose one of your friends got mad and started crying at your party. How would that make you feel?"
The child's eyes darted back and forth across the wooden floor. She wasn't answering, but she wasn't crying anymore, either.
"Would that make you sad?" Celeste offered.
Emma nodded, gnawing on her thumb.
"Well, this is Cash and Taryn's party. You wouldn't want to make them sad, would you?"
Emma shook her head, her eyes growing even bigger. "Tawyn's my aunt."
"I see." She dared a glance at Emma's father. He seemed to have relaxed, though he didn't necessarily look happy. "Well then…" Her gaze shifted back to Emma. "You want to be a big girl for your aunt Taryn, right?"
Emma's smile returned. She nodded once more.
Celeste pushed to her feet.
So did the child's father.
She took hold of Emma's hands and spread her arms wide. "Look at your pretty dress." She let go of one hand and twirled the child with the other. "That's a dancing dress if I ever saw one."
Emma giggled, and Celeste didn't know if she'd ever heard a sweeter sound.
"Now—" stopping, she smiled down at Emma "—do you think you can do what your daddy tells you?"
"Good girl. And then, maybe, if it's okay with your mommy and daddy—"
"I don't have a mommy."
Celeste blinked, her cheeks growing warm at the child's candor. "Oh. Well then…" She swallowed, her gaze flitting briefly to Emma's father. "If it's all right with your dad, I can send a piece of cake home with you for later. How does that sound?"
"Yay!" The little girl just about bounced out of her white patent leather shoes. She tugged her father's hand. "Come on, Daddy. Let's get some more bisket."
"Brisket, sweetheart." As his overzealous daughter pulled him toward the buffet table, he shot Celeste an irritated look. "Thanks for the help. But I can take care of my daughter."
Celeste bristled. She hadn't expected his praise, but she hadn't expected him to be so rude, either. That'll teach her to get involved.
Shrugging off the exchange, she watched the pair walk away. Emma obviously knew she had her father wrapped around her little finger. But did she have any clue how blessed she was to have a father who cared?
I don't have a mommy.
Celeste ached for the child. And wasn't there some mention of a sister?
She shook her head. A single dad with two daughters. No wonder the guy looked defeated. He didn't stand a chance.
She turned as Erin, one of her part-time servers, approached.
"We're down to crumbs on the brisket."
"No problem. I've got another tray in the kitchen." Celeste pointed to the cake. "You mind taking over?"
"Not at all." Erin picked up the long knife as Celeste started toward the swinging door. "Sausage is running low, too."
Celeste waved a hand in acknowledgment and continued into the community center's small yet efficient commercial kitchen. The groom's request for Texas barbecue seemed to be a hit with the guests. Good thing Granny had taught her the art of smoked meat. Building the catering side of Granny's Kitchen was important to her bottom line. As were those old hotel rooms over the restaurant.
Donning her oven mitts, Celeste grabbed another foil-covered pan of meat from the oven. The smoky aroma wafted around her as she carried it into the main room. It had taken her all summer to decide how best to address the upstairs units, but she'd finally decided to convert the cluster of six tiny rooms into three large suites. All while remaining true to the building's character and Victorian architecture.
She set the pan into the chafer, thinking of all the beautiful millwork throughout the upstairs space. The wide baseboards and detailed moldings…quality like that was hard to find these days. She could only pray God would lead her to the right contractor. One who didn't cringe when she mentioned the word salvaging.
After replenishing the sausage, she topped off the grated cheese and bacon bits at the mashed potato bar, pleased that everything had turned out so well. Word of mouth was a powerful thing, especially in a small town like Ouray.
A popular tune boomed from the DJ's speakers and people flooded the dance floor. Celeste paused to watch. Young and old, everyone appeared to be having fun. Including two little blond-haired girls in lavender dresses. Emma held her daddy's hand, as did the other girl Celeste presumed was her sister.
Although she found Emma's father to be a bit on the arrogant side, the adoring look on his face as he twisted and twirled his two precious daughters around the dance floor melted Celeste's heart. His girls were obviously the center of his universe. And though they were without their mother, Celeste got the feeling that Emma's dad was the kind of guy who would do whatever it took to be both mother and father. He would never desert them, like Celeste's father had.
A sad smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Those two were lucky girls indeed.
Gage Purcell escorted his daughters, Emma and Cas-sidy, off the dance floor. In the year and half since his wife, Tracy, had left, Emma's tantrums had grown more and more frequent. Maybe it was a coping mechanism. Maybe she blamed him for her mother's absence. Whatever the case, he needed to find a way to make them stop.
The fact that a total stranger could settle his daughter better than he could had bugged him all night. Not that he wasn't appreciative of the caterer's intervention. The last thing he'd want to do is ruin his sister's special day. Still.
He raked a hand through his hair, eager to call it a night. Dinner and dancing had gone on far longer than he anticipated, though the latter had afforded him some special moments with his daughters. But now that the bride and groom had made their exit.
"Time for us to think about going, too, girls. It's way past my bedtime." Gage wove his daughters between the round cloth-covered tables to retrieve their sweaters.
"But you go to bed after us, Daddy." Seven-year-old Cassidy peered up at him with serious eyes.
"That is true. So it must be way, way, way past your bedtimes."
"I'm not—" yawning, Emma leaned against a folding chair "—tired."
He chuckled, knowing his youngest would likely crash before he even put his truck into Drive. Kneeling beside her, he held up her pink sweater. "But your old dad might fall asleep at any—" His eyes closed, he lowered his head and pretended to snore.
Emma giggled. "Wake up." Her tiny hand nudged his shoulder. "Wake up!"
"What?" He jerked his head. "I must have dozed off."
Emma shoved her arms into the sleeves of her sweater.
Turning his attention to Cassidy, he held up the purple sweater.
His oldest complied immediately, a dreamy smile lighting her face. "I loved this day."
Standing, he donned his tuxedo jacket and stared down at his two beautiful girls. Their usually straight blond hair had been curled and pulled back on each side and their fingernails were painted the same pale purple as their dresses. "I guess you did. You look like little princesses. And you got to hang with the big girls."
"That was the best part," said Cassidy.
A twinge of guilt prodded Gage. With their mother out of the picture, the girls didn't get to do many girlie things, so he was glad Taryn had included them in all the primping and pageantry that leads up to a wedding.
"Don't forget the cake, Daddy."
He should have known Emma wouldn't forget. He could only hope the caterer didn't.
Taking his daughters by the hand, he started across the hardwood floor.
"Hey there, Gage." His old friend Ted Beatty, a shift supervisor at one of the mines outside town, walked alongside them.
Gage had been trying to get a job with a local mine since moving back to Ouray last year. So far, though, not one nibble.
"Whatcha know, Ted?"
"Not much." He stopped.
So did Gage. He eyed the man who was a little older than his thirty-one years. A deep love of mining and its history had bonded the two from a young age.
"Any hiring going on?"
Ted shook his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. "Don't give up, though, buddy." He gripped Gage's shoulder. "Things could change at any time."
Easy for him to say. Ted had remained in Ouray, getting his foot in the door early when the first gold mine had reopened. Gage, on the other hand, had gone off to Colorado's School of Mines for a degree in mining engineering. If only he'd hung around. Maybe he'd be following his dream instead of biding his time working construction.
"Daddy…what about the cake?" Emma squeezed his hand, bringing a smile to Gage's face.
His girls were the reason he gave up his dream job in Denver and moved back to Ouray. He needed the support of his family. And he'd do it a thousand times over, whatever it took to provide a stable, loving environment for them. He only wished he could say the same for their mother.
He shifted his focus back to his friend. "We're on a mission, but let me know if you hear anything."
"Sure thing, Gage."
Emma skipped alongside him as they continued on to the kitchen. He hoped she wasn't getting a second wind. If that happened, they could be up all night.
He carefully pushed open the swinging door.
"Nana!" Both girls bolted toward a long stainless steel work table as his mother, Bonnie Purcell, stooped to meet them with open arms.
Behind her, the caterer moved aside and busied herself at the sink. But not before her deep brown eyes narrowed on him.
"Oh, my precious girls." Mom embraced her granddaughters. "You were so good today." She released them, smoothing a hand over her shimmering dress as she rose. "Gage, have you met Celeste?" His mother's gaze drifted between him and the caterer, that matchmaking twinkle in her eye.
Man, Taryn hadn't been married but a few hours and his mother had already set her sights on him.
Well, she could try all she wanted, but Gage wasn't going down that road again. He was a failure at marriage and had no intention of setting himself or his daughters up for another heartbreak.
"Not officially." The caterer grabbed a towel from the counter. Chin jutted into the air, she held out a freshly dried hand. "Celeste Thompson. Nice to meet you."
Recalling the irritation that had accompanied his parting words earlier in the evening, he reluctantly accepted the gesture. "Likewise."
Long, slender fingers gripped his with surprising strength.
"Celeste was telling me that she's looking for a contractor to do some renovations in the space above her restaurant." Mom fingered Cassidy's soft curls, her attention returning to the caterer. "Gage has quite an eye for detail."
"Well, it just so happens that I'm a detail kind of girl. I'm very particular about how things are done." Her smile teetered between forced and syrupy. "But, if you think you can handle it, you're welcome to come by and look things over."
"Oh, don't be silly." Mom took hold of his daughters' hands. "Gage can handle just about anything." She beamed at Celeste first, then Gage. "Come on, girls. Let's go say good-night to Papa."
The trio stole through the door, leaving him alone with the caterer. Talk about awkward.
She stepped toward the counter and retrieved a disposable container. "Here's the cake I promised Emma. I included enough for you and her sister, too."
He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but accepted the package anyway. "Cassidy."
"My other daughter is Cassidy. I'm sure she will appreciate the cake every bit as much as Emma and me. Thank you. And…" He forced himself to meet her gaze. "Thank you for helping me out earlier."
"You're welcome." Her golden-blond hair was slicked back into a long ponytail. Save for one wayward strand, which she promptly tucked behind her ear. Her expression softened. "Look, I realize that was kind of an uncomfortable situation with your mother." She peered up at him with eyes the deep, rich color of espresso. "If you'd like to drop by and check out the project, great. However, I understand if you don't have time."
She was actually giving him an out?
He hadn't expected that.
Unfortunately, his finances dictated he not turn down a job. "How about Monday at two?"