"No good ever comes from meddling, and you know it. Don't say I didn't warn you." My best friend, Catherine, shook a finger at me and scowled. "Besides, how can you afford to do this? The last I heard, hiring a caterer for a private dinner costs a pretty penny."
"In the first place," I countered, "this is my sister we're talking about. I'm not meddling, I'm only trying to help. In the second place, Zachary Wakeman is going to cater --"
"Zachary?" Catherine blinked. "You mean your rotund little friend who lives over in the next building? He can cook?"
"I know what the word means. He's not fat," I protested, quickly coming to Zachary's defense. "But, yes, he loves to cook."
"Which is probably why he's fat."
No point in arguing, I decided, although I didn't consider Zachary fat. Meaty, maybe. He was big, but solid, and he wore his weight well.
"Here, take a look at the menu he's planned." I grabbed the notebook where I'd jotted down Zachary's suggestions. "Spinach salad with fresh strawberries, chilled vichyssoise, Cornish game hens served with parslied potatoes, and chocolate mousse for dessert. And champagne, of course." My mouth watered at the thought of so much delicious food. I had to remind myself it wasn't for me. "He wants to start a catering business, and I'm going to be his first job. He's giving me a special rate."
"He's giving you a special rate because he likes you." Catherine laughed. "I saw the way he looked at you that day when we were all out at the pool."
"Zachary's near-sighted. He looks that way at everybody."
Catherine remained silent for a moment, obviously deep in thought. "Do you really think you should do this?" she asked at last. "I know you mean well, Annie, but maybe your sister has good reason for breaking off her engagement."
"Julie and Tom belong together. Their break-up is all a misunderstanding, and once I get them back together over a romantic dinner, they'll realize they still love each other. Just picture it. Soft music playing in the background, candlelight, champagne, and delicious French cuisine. It will be perfect, and some day, they'll thank me for caring enough to do this."
On the appointed night, Julie arrived precisely at seven. I'd set the table earlier, put on the music, and now I poured us each a glass of champagne.
She sipped from her glass and smiled, then nodded toward the table with its two place-settings. "I'm glad to see this really is dinner for two. I was worried you might get some crazy idea about inviting Tom."
The doorbell chimed.
"You didn't." Julie set down her glass, folded her arms, and glared at me.
I shrugged and gave her my most endearing smile. "I did," I confessed, hurrying to answer the door. "Now, sit down!" I told my sister, who was already getting to her feet.
As soon as I opened the door and Tom stepped into my apartment, a thunderous silence descended. His eyes darkened.
"What's she doing here?" he bellowed, jerking his head in Julie's direction. "What's this all about, Annie? You said you needed me to come check your air conditioner."
"I lied." Another shrug. Another endearing smile. When he turned and headed for the door, I grabbed his arm. "Come on, Tom, just give it a chance, all right? The two of you need to talk, and I've gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this."
With a flourish, I gestured for them to be seated. "Your table is ready." I smiled as I struck a match and lit the candles in their gleaming silver candlesticks. Just then I heard the rattling at the back door of the apartment. I glanced toward the kitchen. "Dinner has arrived," I explained, motioning for Tom to sit down. Grudgingly he took a seat beside Julie. Each turned away from the other. Obviously they needed a little more time.
"I'll be right back." I kept smiling but sighed as I headed to let Zachary in at the kitchen door. I blinked in surprise at the sight of him.
He came dressed in white shirt and pants and even wore a lop-sided chef's toque on his head. Dark curly hair poked out at the sides.
"You certainly look the part," I assured him, taking the plates he handed me. "What's this?" I asked when I looked at the salad. "This isn't spinach and strawberries."
"Yeah, I know. I had a little problem, so I had to improvise."
"This is cottage cheese."
Some improvisation, I thought. "Fine, we'll be ready for the soup in about twenty minutes." I pushed Zachary out the door, plastered yet another endearing smile upon my face, and returned to my guests. They were still staring at the walls in sullen silence.
"First course," I told them with a cheery voice, setting the plates before them.
"Cottage cheese?" Julie snorted in disgust. "You know I hate cottage cheese."
"It wasn't what I planned. There was a mix-up with the catering service. You don't have to eat it," I pointed out.
"Well, I'm not hungry either." Tom pushed his plate aside. "I seem to have lost my appetite when I walked through the door."
Julie finally looked at him. "You love cottage cheese."
I held my breath, certain that now the ice had been broken and their love for one another would soon begin to flow freely.
"Small curd," said Tom. "I only eat small curd. This is large." He pointed toward the offending dish.
"I swear, nothing pleases you!" Julie threw down her napkin and got to her feet. I rushed across the room, heading her off before she could reach the door.
"Just sit down. All right, so maybe the first course leaves a little to be desired. Just wait for the soup, please. Meanwhile, I'll see if I can rustle up a salad that's more to everyone's liking."
In my kitchen, I searched through the crisper, coming up with a reasonably fresh head of lettuce, a few tomatoes, and a radish. It would have to do. As I was cutting and chopping, the back door rattled. Knife in hand, I answered.
"Whoa, don't kill me!" Zachary jumped back. "I know I messed up with the salad, but I didn't think it was that bad, really."
"Never mind. You've got the soup?"
"Not soup. Vichyssoise," he reminded me, a playful glint in his eyes.
"Which is?" I honestly had no idea what it was, except that it sounded elegant when Zachary had suggested it.
"It's my specialty." He grinned, and carefully removed the lid from the large container he held in his arms. "Pureed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, chicken stock."
It smelled heavenly. Surely this would make up for the salad disaster.
"Put it on the counter, and I'll get the serving bowls."
Zachary's grin grew broader. He took a step, then somehow stumbled. How it happened, I had no idea. His poor eyesight, I reckoned, but that reckoning came later. At that moment, I shrieked as vichyssoise flew through the air, a good portion of it landing on me. Zachary still clutched the container in his large hands.
"Everything all right?" Tom's voice boomed out from the dining room.
"Fine! Sit down. I'll be right there."
Zachary, meanwhile, had grabbed a towel and was dabbing awkwardly at the front of my shirt.
"Just go, Zachary, all right? Give us another twenty minutes, then bring the main course." I snatched the towel out of his hand. Even the annoyance I felt couldn't stop the laughter bubbling up in my throat. Poor Zachary looked so pathetic, so mortified over what he'd done. I knew he was trying his best. "Don't worry, everything will be fine." I patted his plump cheek and pointed toward the door. "Go. Twenty minutes. OK?"
He nodded, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed behind him.
As quickly as possible, I ladled the vichyssoise into soup bowls, and carried them to my guests. They both sat with arms folded, staring daggers at one another.
Julie's mouth dropped open when she saw me. "Annie, what happened?"
"Just a little problem getting off the lid," I lied. "Don't worry, there's plenty left." I placed the bowls before them.
"This is cold," Julie complained, spitting out the spoonful she'd tasted.
Tom's spoon clattered to the table. "You just spit in your soup. Do you know how disgusting that is? I'm glad we're not getting married. I'd hate to think my children would grow up without learning any manners."
"How dare you! After all the grunts and growls and offensive noises I've heard coming from you, you've got no room to talk. And if you're glad we're not getting married, well, I'm elated! How do you like that?"
"Actually," I interrupted, pointing to the soup, "it's vichyssoise, and it's supposed to be cold." I got up and hurried back to the kitchen for the salads I'd hastily made. Better late than never, I reasoned, and maybe munching fresh veggies would calm them both down a bit. I brought the salads to the table, dashed back for a bag of croutons and a bottle of Italian dressing. It didn't quite complement the vichyssoise, but it would have to do.
The insults had not abated in my absence.
"You're obnoxious, Tom, and I don't know why I ever accepted your proposal in the first place." Julie stabbed at a chunk of radish.
"I think it might have had something to do with the fact you were drunk out of your mind at the time," he countered.
"Only because you kept buying shots and insisting I drink them." She grabbed her wineglass. "Cheers, everyone! Down the hatch. Are we having fun yet?"
"I don't know why I ever proposed. You whine and complain about everything. No matter what anybody does, it never pleases you."
My already frayed nerves were fast approaching the breaking point. I glanced at the clock, willing the minutes away. Maybe when the main course arrived, Tom and Julie would shut up long enough to eat.
But twenty minutes soon passed. My sister and her former fiance continued to hurl insults at one another. They actually seemed to be enjoying this opportunity to vent and let out all their anger and frustration.
Ten more minutes passed and the insults grew more heated. I thought of slipping out and scurrying over to see what was keeping Zachary, but about the same time I got up from the chair, a plate of lettuce went flying through the air. I ducked.
"Take that, you beast!" Julie screamed, grabbing next for the silverware. "I never want to see you again, and as for you," she continued, wheeling around to face me, "if you ever come up with any hare-brained schemes like this again, I swear, I won't be responsible for my actions."
More food came soaring across the table, and even though the pickings were slim, in their fury Tom and Julie somehow managed to make it into a full-scale food fight.
Desperately, I crouched beneath the table and peered up at the clock. Another fifteen minutes had gone by. Still, no Zachary.
I stayed hidden beneath the table, then held my breath when the shouting finally stopped. The front door slammed once. It slammed again. I let out my breath and sank into a heap, glad it was over at last.
Even when I heard Zachary rattling the door in the kitchen, I didn't move. Instead, I burst into tears, lamenting my colossal failure. How had the night gone so wrong?
Zachary had let himself in. I listened to the sound of his heavy footsteps as he slowly made his way into the dining room. "Annie? Where are you?"
"Down here,"I called in a feeble voice, sticking a hand out to wave at him.
The edge of the tablecloth lifted up, and a cute, chubby face peeked in at me. "What happened, Annie? Are you all right?"
His concern touched me, and I nodded. "It was awful. Everything is ruined," I wailed.
"I guess you don't need the Cornish hens now, huh?" He grimaced. "It's a good thing. I overcooked them a bit."
I scrambled from under the table. Zachary held out his hand and helped me to my feet.
"Actually, I'm starving. Are the hens edible?" We walked together into the kitchen. There, on my counter, lay two charred lumps. "Oh, guess not," I commented, not even bothering to ask about the promised parslied potatoes. As for dessert, I didn't hold out much hope for anything resembling a chocolate mousse. From the refrigerator, I took out the champagne. "Glasses are in the cupboard behind you. Care to join me for a drink?"
"This is all my fault, Annie. I'm really sorry. I don't know how I managed to foul things up so bad. I don't expect you to pay me, you know." He took the champagne bottle from me and carefully filled two glasses. He handed one to me. "I guess I really spoiled your night for you."
"It doesn't matter about the food, Zachary."
"Well, it matters to me. I'd like a chance to make it up to you."
"That's sweet of you, but it's not necessary. Frankly, I doubt there's any way I could ever get Julie and Tom back together again, and I'm not sure I'd even want to try."
"Julie and Tom?" Zachary put down his champagne and gave me a puzzled look. "Who are they?"
"Julie's my sister. Tom's her boyfriend. Or, at least, he was before they broke up."
"Tonight?" His puzzled frown deepened.
"No, they broke off their engagement a couple weeks ago," I explained, leaning back in the chair. It felt good to relax. "I thought I could help them patch things up and get back together. That's why I planned this romantic little dinner party for them."
Something in those two syllables sent off a strange alarm in my head.
"Uh-oh ... what?"
"I guess I fouled things up more than I intended." Zachary's plump cheeks burned beet red.
"What are you talking about?" My eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, more than you intended? It sounds like you planned to ruin my dinner. Why would you do that?"
Zachary pulled off his chef's toque and gave me a sheepish grin. "When you told me you wanted a romantic dinner for two, I thought you meant for you and a boyfriend. I deliberately sabotaged the meal, in case you didn't notice."
"You did what?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Why, Zachary?"
"I didn't like to think about you enjoying a romantic dinner with somebody else, Annie. I figured if I ruined dinner your boyfriend would get mad and walk out."
"That's the most outrageous thing I've ever heard. And I don't have a boyfriend," I added for some reason. "Don't you know, Zachary, no good ever comes from meddling ..." I shook an accusing finger, then suddenly stopped, laughing at my own words. I'd learned a good lesson, I realized, and I promised myself I'd never meddle again in anybody's life.
Zachary's myopic blue eyes glistened and he boldly took my hand in his. "I had to do it. I've never had courage enough to tell you this, but I like you, Annie. I like you a lot."
"Really?" My heart pounded in my chest. "I like you a lot, too. But I never knew how to tell you. How funny to think that all this time, we've liked each other, and we neither one knew."
"So maybe our meddling didn't turn out quite so bad after all," he said, squeezing my hand.
"In a round-about way, I guess things turned out better than either of us expected, although my dining room's a mess."
"So are you." Zachary reached out and plucked a piece of lettuce from my hair. "You look good in green," he teased. "Come on, I'll help you clean up. And afterward, how about you come over to my place? Let me show you that I do know how to cook a decent meal."
"A table for two?" I asked.
"With delicious chocolate mousse for dessert. That's the one thing I didn't ruin. I was hoping maybe the two of us would be sharing it tonight."
"I can't believe you actually sabotaged my dinner," I told him as we headed for the dining room.
He grinned. "I can't believe it actually worked, but I'm glad it did."
I picked up a towel, threw it at Zachary, and somehow I knew we'd be sharing lots of chocolate mousse in weeks to come.