Tabitha stood watching the wedding guests hoping for the hundredth time that nothing would go wrong. She’d planned this dinner down to the last grain of salt, but in the catering business things could go wrong fast; a perfect reception could be ruined in a matter of minutes and the caterer’s reputation in the process. While that would be terrible, this wedding was even more important to her career, it was a make it or break it dinner that would determine her future.
When she’d heard about the opportunity to cater a wedding in Coldwater Canyon Park, she’d never imagined that one dinner might have the potential to change her life. Of course, if tonight didn’t go well, she’d be back where she was, which she had to admit wasn’t such a bad place. She’d been trying to remind herself of that fact since she’d fully understood what was possible in the park and it hadn’t been helping one little bit.
That she’d even known about the opportunity had been a stroke of luck, one of those friends of a friend kind of deals, and she’d ended up with a link to the Coldwater Canyon Park website and a page with an open call for caterers. It had seemed strange to her at first, that was not how things were done in the catering world, but she’d continued to read and found herself intrigued by what they were proposing.
She filled out her application that night and sent it off. It was a long shot that a small-time caterer like her could land a job of this size, but she had worked in some of the best kitchens in LA as the catering chef. Small or large, she’d handled more wedding banquets that she wanted to remember, some better than others, but no one had ever complained about her food or her service.
The next morning there was a response to her application in her inbox and she held her breath as she opened it, then squealed in delight when she read that the happy couple was interested in learning more about her. They’d sent a questionnaire along with the email and she happily sat down to answer their questions, pleased with the result when she was done, she sent it, crossing her fingers as she did.
Only hours later another email popped up as she was prepping for a private dinner that night, it wasn’t the contract to cater the wedding as she’d hoped, but it was an invitation to visit the canyon in a few weeks. She tried not to be disappointed; after all she was basically an unknown and this would be not only one of the largest, but most difficult weddings she’d ever catered.
Besides being held miles from any town, the wedding couple wanted the food to be sourced locally, which appealed to her, but made her job that much harder. She’d long been an advocate of using local foods and wines in her planning, but this was going a step beyond simply hitting the farmer’s market to find local produce. This would be a full dinner for almost two hundred people using only products produced in the canyon, which seemed a stretch to Tabitha. Even in June, there couldn’t be enough food available that high in the mountains.
But there was no way she could turn down the opportunity to score a job like this one, especially after she did a little research and discovered that the canyon was more than just a small community of billionaires as she heard. In fact, Coldwater Canyon Park was an innovative eco-tourism park with the singular goal of showing the world how it was possible to survive and thrive leaving a very small carbon footprint.
Marissa and Scott Terrell had begun the park years ago with only a dream and their money behind them. And it hadn’t been long before Cooper Montgomery had agreed to join them, adding his large fortune and another huge tract of land to the park. Now the park comprised over 350 thousand acres of prime land in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and was self-sufficient, even turning a profit, if what she read on the internet was correct.
It was difficult to concentrate on her other jobs as the two weeks seemed to drag by, the more she read about the park, the more she wanted to become a part of what they were trying to do there, but as a caterer she didn’t exactly have the skills they were looking for in the residents. Still she had a great chance of landing the catering job and hopefully any that came after, it would be a lucrative contract to have and a great opportunity to make some contacts with the best of society.
When the day came for her to drive up to the park, it was grey and cold as only California in the winter can be. The mountains were shrouded in clouds and snow was predicted for later that day, but she was determined to go so she rented a four-wheel drive truck and headed toward the storm. Growing up in the mountains of Colorado had given her the confidence to take on the daunting trip through the ice and snow, and once she got going, she found that she hadn’t lost any of her winter driving skills.
Living in LA had its advantages, but she missed the changing of the seasons in her mountain home. The move to California had been a difficult one, but she’d known that to make her dreams come true she needed to be in a major city like New York or LA. When she’d been forced to choose, LA had made the most sense. As she navigated the snow-packed roads, she thought about her parents and felt a twinge of homesickness, and as much as she missed them it was hard to get home as much as she’d like.
Her parents had always supported her dreams, wanting her to be happy no matter where she found that happiness, even if it meant that she had to live in another state far from them and home. But if she could land this job, all that sacrifice would be worth it; this job could to lead to many more of the same caliber and she’d never have to fight and scramble for another contract again. These happy thoughts carried her up the mountain to Honey Hills, which even in the winter was clearly a beautiful place.
Marissa and Scott greeted her on the porch of their renovated farm house, rushing her inside out of the cold when she visibly shivered. “It’s chilly up here in the winter, nothing like the warmth of LA that you’re used to.” Scott said, leading her back to a comfortable living room in the back of the house.
She chose a seat close to the fire, soaking up its warmth. “I grew up in Colorado so the cold is nothing new to me, but I guess I’ve gotten a little soft since I’ve been living in LA.”
“It was a bit of a shock to both of us that first winter. The house was only half finished and we had to live in only a few of the rooms.” Marissa said, remembering how cold she’d been her first winter in the canyon.
Tabitha thought that they’d get right down to business, but evidently things in the park worked a little bit differently than in the city. Life seemed to move at a slower pace, which at first threw her a little off balance, but soon she’d relaxed as Scott and Marissa entertained her with stories about the park and its residents. From their humble beginnings with only a handful of residents, the park had grown to over two hundred residents, the newest addition, a flock of special sheep all the way from Australia.
By dinner time, she’d met several residents of the park including Cooper Montgomery and his brothers who were all members of the board of directors. One by one, they along with their wives they had shown up at Honey Hills and before long there was a huge group of people filling the house. The wedding couple was the last to arrive and when she saw them it was a bit of a shock to find that she recognized them.
Of course, they made a striking couple, Jack with his classic good looks was only complimented by Chloe and her dark beauty. It was a bit of a shock to realize that all the men in the park had married black women and she wondered what the odds of that happening were. Pushing her curiosity aside, she tried to remember where she’d seen the couple before but came up blank. She saw so many people every day that it was hard to remember who she’d met where.
But Jack quickly cleared things up for her, “I hope you don’t mind but we crashed a few of your functions over the last few weeks. It seemed like the best way to find out about you and try your food.”
Tabitha had to laugh at the sheepish look on Jack’s face, “Well, I hope you liked the food.”
“The food was wonderful. You have a way of making simple food stand out; that’s exactly what we’re looking for.” Chloe said, giving Tabitha a warm smile. “But we can talk business another time, I’d just like to get to know you better tonight.”
By the time she left the canyon on Sunday night, she’d landed the contract for the wedding, but more importantly had learned that they wanted to open a restaurant in the canyon. If she could pull off the wedding dinner, the restaurant would be hers, but the wedding dinner wasn’t going to be an easy job. Using only products from the canyon meant that she’d have to be very inventive with her menu, but she’d have an ample choice of proteins, the farms in the canyon were already raising enough meat to feed an army.
She’d even met with some of the farmers who had readily agreed to supply her with greens and other early spring vegetables to round out the meal. If everything went as planned over the next few months when she arrived to cook the wedding dinner, there would be more food than she would need. Now her biggest problem would be waiting all those months to cater the wedding, but she knew that June wasn’t really that far away. It would be here before she knew it and with it the biggest opportunity of her life.
Owen stood watching his brother and Chloe from across the room, a scowl on his face. He was happy for his brother, but he also knew that any chance of Jack returning to Australia permanently was gone, he’d be making his home in America now. He’d always known that there was a strong possibility of this happening, but now he knew that it was a reality, and he couldn’t blame Jack. But it still didn’t alter the fact that things had changed, for the better of course, but it was still a change, and he hated change.
Thinking about change made him think about Sarah and all the hopes and dreams they’d shared, which according to her latest email were also gone. It had come as quite a shock when she’d told him that she was getting married, even more shocking was that she was marrying his best friend. He wanted to be angry at them both, but anger was hard to come by when he knew that he was the one who had pushed Sarah into Mike’s arms.
He and Sarah had been together since they were just kids, and he’d know that all she ever wanted was a home of her own and a family to take care of. She would have made the perfect wife for a rancher, and he’d thought that he loved her, but every time a chance to make a permanent commitment to her had come around, he’d back off for one reason or another.
First, he’d put off their marriage until his own home was built, something his parents had been encouraging him to do since he turned twenty-one. The land had been in his name since his eighteenth birthday, but he’d been in no hurry to move out of his parent’s house, again resisting change when it had been time to move on. He’d told Sarah that he wanted to move her into the house on their wedding night and she’d thought it was romantic, but just as the house was finished, a process that took two years, his parents had been killed in an automobile accident and he’d been unable to leave his childhood home.
Sarah had been patient with him, giving him the time he needed to grieve and come to terms with the changes their death had brought to his life. By the time he’d emerged from his grief, he’d turned twenty-five and wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to move into the new house, which only reminded him of all that he’d lost. When the move to America had been suggested, Sarah had wanted to come with him, but he’d refused, using the excuse that he needed to concentrate on getting the sheep established before returning home to her.
Sarah had seemed to be supportive, but he knew deep down that the decision might mean the end of their relationship. And he’d been right, just that morning she’d let him know about Mike and the coming wedding, creating another change in his life that he wasn’t sure he could cope with. All of this had come rushing at him as he watched his brother marry the woman of his dreams on a warm June night high in the California mountains. It had also occurred to him that he might not want to go back now. He wasn’t sure he could watch Sarah and Mike living the life they’d planned together.
Tabitha had been watching the guests carefully all night; this was her big chance to fulfill her dreams and she didn’t want anything to go wrong. When she saw Owen, brother to the groom, scowling in the corner of the room, she panicked for a second, then crossed the room to stand beside him.
“Looks like you’re unhappy about something.” She said, holding her breath. “Is there something you’d like me to fix?”
Owen looked down at the woman standing beside him, he didn’t recognize her, but then again there were so many people he didn’t know here it wasn’t a surprise. “Only if you can make things go back to the way there were.” He finally said, wanting to be left alone.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Tabitha said, looking up at the handsome man standing next to her, wondering what he was talking about.
Owen seemed to realize that he’d spoken out loud, “Sorry just ignore me.” He said, giving her a tight smile that was clearly fake.
Tabitha looked at him again, thinking that he was even more handsome than his brother and impossible to ignore. “Is there something I can do?”
“Unless you have the ability to change the past, I don’t think so.” He finally said after a long pause.
Tabitha suddenly understood that Owen’s unhappiness had nothing to do with the food and she had things to do, so she said, “I’m afraid that’s not a talent I have, but if there’s anything else you need let me know.” Then she headed back to the kitchen to check on her staff.
Owen watched the woman go, surprised when a rush of desire shot through him at the sight of her walking across the room toward the kitchen. He was shocked at himself, he’d only been single for a couple of hours and already he was attracted to another woman. In fact, he was tempted to follow her into the kitchen and talk to her more. But he shoved those feeling down deep like he did most of his feelings and pasted a smile on his face not wanting to ruin his brother’s special day with his negative feelings.
Tabitha stood in the kitchen letting her heart beat return to normal, when Owen had turned his green eyes on her, she’s reacted to him like she’d never reacted to another man. It wasn’t just that he was handsome, or that he had the most adorable accent, it was something deeper, something she couldn’t explain, and something she needed to avoid. There was no time for romantic entanglements in her life right now, especially not one with a handsome stranger who could make her heart pitter patter with only one word.
Shrugging off the encounter, she started helping her staff clean up the kitchen. A lot of carters found it too demeaning to help with the cleanup, but she’d found it useful to listen to them chitter chatter as they cleaned. Tonight, she was so relieved that things had gone exactly as planned that she simply zoned out as she cleared plates and loaded them in the dishwasher.
As was her usual custom when all the clean-up was finished, she sent her staff home and made a final sweep of the community room before leaving. She’d learned on her very first job that stacks of dirty dishes had a way of accumulating in the strangest places, it had cost her that time and she’d never made that mistake again. The overhead lights in the main room had been turned down so it was quite dark in the room so she pulled her pen light out of her pocket and began exploring the back corners, sweeping them with the light before moving on.
Her mind really wasn’t on what she was doing so when her light flashed on a figure sitting in a chair back in one corner. She screamed, dropped the light and moved back a few steps. The figure immediately jumped up from the chair and began coming toward her scaring her even more, but then he spoke and she knew immediately who it was.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Owen said, his sexy accent sending shivers down her spine.
“Umm, that’s okay. I’m sorry I disturbed you. I was just looking for dirty dishes.” Tabitha stammered.
Owen was just as surprised by Tabitha’s presence as she was by his; he’d thought that everyone had gone home leaving him alone to brood over the turn his life had taken over the last year. But here she was again and he felt the odd pull he’d felt earlier when he’d been talking to her. It was both uncomfortable and strangely exciting, a feeling he’d never experienced before. He wanted to resist it and this woman, but he couldn’t seem to walk away.
“I’m Owen Montgomery.” He said, sticking out his hand.
Tabitha hesitated for a second, still thrown off balance by the instant attraction she felt for him. “I’m Tabitha Swenson. It’s nice to meet you.” She finally said, shaking his hand.
“So, this whole deal was your doing?” He asked, shocked to find himself making idle conversation with Tabitha.
“Yeah, this was my big chance to impress you all.” She managed to say.
“Impress us?” He asked, not sure what she was talking about.
Tabitha looked at him, not sure if he was teasing her, then realized that he didn’t know what she was talking about. “I have the chance to run the restaurant in Cedar Ridge and this was kind of a test.” She explained gesturing to the room.
Owen thought about that for a second, then understood. “Sorry, I’m not really that involved in anything in the park except the sheep.”
“You and your brothers brought your sheep over from Australia. I read about it on the website.” She said, telling him something he already knew but at a loss for anything else to say.
“It wasn’t my idea, but you have to support family right.” Owen’s words were right, but the tone of voice he’d used didn’t match.
“Can I assume that you weren’t in favor of the move?” She asked, shocked that she’d asked such a personal question, but unable to stop herself.
“That’s a bit of an understatement.” Owen said, wryly.
“I’m sorry to hear that, it seems like such a wonderful place, but I guess it’s a lot different than home.” Tabitha just couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“I wasn’t planning to stay, but I’m not sure that I want to go home anymore.” Owen said, shocked that he’d just told a perfect stranger something he hadn’t told anyone else, not even his brothers, so he quickly added, “Sorry I didn’t mean to put that on you.”
“That’s okay; sometimes it’s easier to talk to a perfect stranger than those you’re closest to.” Tabitha said, then added, “But I probably should get going. It’s a long drive back to LA.”
“Let me walk you to your car.” Owen offered, even as bad as he was feeling about Sarah, he didn’t want this woman to walk away from him.