I felt like I was being pulled in a million different directions, but it was totally worth it. This was a day months in the making. A day I’d been eagerly awaiting. Junior’s was finally reopening.
As far as I was concerned, this was simply icing on the cake of what had been a surprisingly fantastic few months. You’d have thought with the pizzeria burning down, I wouldn’t have had all that much to be happy or excited about, but that couldn’t have been further from reality. Truth was, things in my life were going better than I could have ever hoped for.
I was in love with the most incredible man, and every day he treated me like I was something to be cherished. He proved to me day in and day out that we were the real thing, that we were forever. After everything that went down with Keith and his now-ex-girlfriend, he’d backed off the whole custody thing. As it turned out, the fight over Hazel had been more her idea than his in the first place. With her out of the picture, he’d reverted to his normal self, only this time, he was trying a little harder to be a good father to Hazel.
With how amazing things had been lately, even the gray, stormy cloud days didn’t seem so bad, because I knew the sun was just around the corner. I had so much good in my life, some days I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.
That said, it hadn’t exactly been easy. Rebuilding after the fire had been a long, stressful process. I’d half expected my parents to try to bulldoze right over me when it came to making decisions regarding the rebuild, but they’d been surprisingly hands-off, deferring to me when it came to the major decisions.
As far as décor went, I stayed true to the original restaurant, not wanting to change the family’s history more than I had to.
The hardest part of the whole ordeal was when the crew came in for demolition. That had been one of the saddest days of my life. And Ford had been there for me the whole time, holding me while I cried so much I thought my eyes would swell shut. He was precisely the rock I needed as I said goodbye to years of memories, and he hadn’t wavered once. He’s been strong and solid every time I needed to break down, and he didn’t hesitate to dry my tears and put me back together any time I fell apart.
The kitchen, so clean and new the tiles practically sparkled, was hopping as the tables in the dining area filled. My waitstaff was running like crazy, orders filling the ticket carousel. My kitchen staff was cranking out pies and pasta, and I was currently sweating over another massive batch of my family’s famous sauce.
“You know, if you’d just get over it already and give out the recipe for the damn sauce, you wouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen when there’s a party happening in the other room.”
I shifted my attention from the large pot and smiled at my big brother as I continued to stir. Stir constantly, never let it settle, that was one of the most important rules of my family’s sauce and one of the secrets that made it so damn good. “You’re just salty because Mom and I won’t give you the recipe so you can use it to impress Asher.”
His expression fell flat so fast I barked out a laugh. “Not funny. You know that’s hitting below the belt. She was really looking forward to that dinner. She was so disappointed.” He poked his finger toward my face. “And that’s all your fault.”
I blew a raspberry, still stirring diligently. “No,” I dragged out sarcastically, long enough to add another three syllables to the word. “It was your own fault for getting her hopes up and promising to make her a special dinner with the family’s secret sauce when you knew you couldn’t keep it.”
I wasn’t sure there was anything funnier than watching a grown man pout for not getting his way. “Whatever,” he grumbled sullenly. “Just do me a favor and get out here, yeah? People are asking where you are. It’s your big day.”
I couldn’t lie, it felt good to hear that. Damn good. After years of arguments and fights, the air had finally been cleared between my parents and me. A lot of truths had been spoken on both sides, revealing years of hostility had been caused by nothing more than pride and misunderstandings. Junior’s was finally mine, to manage and run and make decisions as I saw fit, without anyone in the background second-guessing my every decision.
However, in my mind, this would always be a family institution. I didn’t want that to change, ever. I wanted this place to pass down to my daughter, then her kids, and their kids, for as long as this place stayed standing.
“It’s not just my day, big bro. It’s all of ours.”
A look flitted across his face, one I’d seen more times than I could count growing up. It was a look that screamed he had a secret.
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you up to?” I asked suspiciously.
He slapped on a mask of fake innocence. “Me? Up to something? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The look I shot him screamed bullshit. “Oh, please. You’re such a crappy liar.”
“Am not,” he exclaimed with offense.
“Are too. It’s why you’ve always sucked at poker.”
His chin jerked back. “I don’t suck at poker! You’re just a cheater.”
I blew out a raspberry. “I don’t cheat. I don’t need to cheat to beat you.”
The door swung open, and Asher stepped into the kitchen from the dining area. “What the hell’s going on back here?” She looked at my brother. “What’s taking you so long?”
“She’s being difficult,” he sulked, shooting a glare my way. “As usual.”
I flipped him the bird with my free hand, still stirring, as Asher rolled her eyes at our childish behavior. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that.
“I forgot. Never send a man in to do a woman’s job. Pen, could you take over here for just a bit?” she requested of my manager as she stomped in my direction. Like most of my staff, Penelope had stood by me and my family while we worked to rebuild our legacy, and they’d jumped at the chance to come back as soon as we got up and running. Penelope had stepped back in as manager, most of the waitstaff was currently working the front of the house, and Ben had resumed his post in the kitchen. It was almost as if nothing had changed.
It felt good to have them all back, my second family, and with them, things were running like a well-oiled machine, in spite of the chaos of a packed re-opening.
Penelope came skipping up on the other side of me, reaching for the handle I was using to stir and shooting me a wink that indicated she was in on whatever was happening.
“No, Asher, I can’t—” I started to protest as she took me by the arm and began dragging me from the stove.
“I know the drill,” Penelope assured me. “Stir for another ten, then kill the heat and place the lid on, letting it sit.”
Relief pressed down slightly on my shoulders that she’d picked up on the madness that made our sauce so good. I’d already finished with all the ingredients, so there wasn’t really any reason to watch it like a hawk, so I finally relented and let Asher and my brother strongarm me out of the kitchen.
“Jeez, you guys. What is wrong with you?” I asked, glaring at them over my shoulder as they basically shoved me through the swinging door into the dining area. “I have a million things to do today—” The words died on my lips as soon as I turned to face forward.
That’s when I realized the restaurant had gone deathly quiet, all the earlier chaos gone, as though someone had hit the mute button on the remote. My mother and father were standing off to the left, Dad’s hands on Mom’s shoulders, holding her as she held a hand up to her mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks. It felt like the entire town was crammed into Junior’s, forming a semi-circle that faced me, and right there in the center, stood my man and my little girl. Hazel’s tiny hand was clasped in Ford’s much longer one, and the way she was bouncing from side to side, foot to foot, meant she was either excited about something, or she really needed to pee.
“Hi, Mommy!” She waved her free hand frantically.
So it’s excitement, then.
“Hi, Hazelnut. You want to tell me what’s going on?”
She curled her lips between her teeth, like that was the only way she could keep quiet. Her eyes going big as she shook her head.
When I turned my attention to Ford, my heart swelled so big it didn’t feel like there was room enough in my chest for anything else. The love I felt for this man was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I kept waiting for the honeymoon faze of our relationship to wear off, but in all the months we’d been together, a thrill still shot through my veins and increased my heartrate every time I saw him after being apart, no matter how short that break had been. With him, I felt alive, I felt happy, like each day was a brand new, shiny chance at something magnificent. It was as if he’d completed the puzzle that was my little family with Hazel. He made us whole.
The corners of my mouth pulled up into a smile that probably looked ridiculously goofy, but I didn’t care one damn bit. “Hi,” I said softly as he released Hazel’s hand and moved closer to me, stopping less than a foot away.
Those gorgeous ocean eyes sparkled, small crinkles forming in the corners as he smiled at me in that way that made my insides turn to goo. “Hey, baby.”
I inhaled deeply, pulling his lush scent into my lungs as my gaze darted around, skating past his firm, rounded shoulders to all the expectant eyes currently watching our every move with bated breath. “Uh, honey,” I leaned in closer and dropped my voice, “what’s going on?”
He shrugged, the picture of calm, even under everyone’s intense scrutiny. “They came for the show.”
My brows pinched together, the skin between them crinkling. “What show?”
In answer, he took a single step back and dropped down onto one knee. My breath stalled as the room at large sucked in a collective gasp, all except Hazel, who let out a little squeal of delight.
The moment he pulled the gorgeous ring out of his pocket, I slapped my hands over my mouth, much like my mom, and let out a muffled,” Oh my God,” as tears tracked down my face.
“Hardin,” he started, his voice so strong and sure. He was the picture of confidence, in every way but one, the tiny flutter of the pulse in his neck. He was nervous, and, for some reason, knowing that this big, strong man was nervous at a moment like this only made me love him more. “Before I met you, I convinced myself I was destined to only live half a life. Then I started falling for you, and I convinced myself I didn’t deserve something so wonderful a second time around. I told myself I’d been lucky enough to have it once already, there was no way I was a good enough man to get that lucky twice. But I was wrong.
“I don’t know how many great loves one person is allowed in their life, but I’m not fool enough to let this one go.” He extended the ring toward me. “You brought me back to life, baby, and I want to spend the rest of it paying you back, making you just as happy as you make me. I already asked Hazel, and she gave me her blessing. All that’s left is for you to say yes. Will you marry me?”
“Say yes, Mommy! He promised to gimme another tour of the fire station!”
Ford’s body shook with silent laughter as he turned to look over his shoulder, “That’s right, sweetheart.” Then he returned his attention to me, arching a single brow. “What do you say? You going to give me a shot at making you happy every day for the rest of our lives?”
I let out a watery laugh, tears running unchecked as I lowered myself to the ground in front of him. “You know I am,” I said before launching myself at him, wrapping my arms around his neck and burrowing in the crook to discreetly wipe my face clean on his shirt. “Of course,” I whispered, emotion clogging my throat and making it difficult to speak. “Of course I’ll marry you. I love you, Ford.”
His arms came around me, his embrace giving me the same feel of safety it always had. “I love you too, Hardin. So much, you couldn’t possibly imagine.” I sniffled and burrowed deeper. “But, baby,” he continued, the humor evident in his voice, “how about you pull back so I can actually put this ring on your finger, yeah?”
A burst of excited giggles moved through me, making me sound a whole hell of a lot like my daughter. “Yeah, of course.” My back shot straight, and I quickly brushed my tears away and shoved my left hand toward him so fast I nearly whacked him in the face. “Yes. Yes!” I shouted frantically, my whole body shaking as he slid the ring into place.
Then, as the massive crowd around us erupted into applause, he rose to his feet, his strong arms lifting me with him as he sealed our lips together.
We were jolted out of our kiss by my daughter plowing into our sides, a good thing, given we were only seconds away from getting carried away.
“Yay!” my daughter cried, her arms locked around us as she jumped in place, giving us a jostle. “I get to wear a pretty dress and be a flower girl!”
My head fell back on a laugh, my whole body shaking with heartfelt laughter and joy.
That last puzzle piece clicked into place. I was officially whole, and I couldn’t wait to start the rest of my life.