Author Katie Mettner

Chapter One ~ Magnificent Love ~ Katie Mettner




Abraham Von Sallage was a natural born nurturer. He could handle three sobbing women at once with aplomb, but give him a frying pan and he falls apart.

Enter Eve Darling. As owner of Darling’s Cooking School, she could teach even the most inept to cook…until she met Abraham. He was young, charming, witty, and for the first time in too many years when she gazed into his eyes, hope stirred in her heart.

They’ve both spent years denying their own needs and wants for those of their families, but this winter, everything will change. When the snow melts and spring returns to Magnificent, Wisconsin, Eve and Abraham will discover the most magnificent love of all.


Prologue

The night was unusually warm for February in Wisconsin. The snow was still thick on the ground, but as the temperature climbed above freezing the tentacle-like icicles dripped water onto the walkways. By morning, those drops would freeze back into mountains of ice that caused sprained ankles and broken arms. I made a mental note to watch where I was walking tomorrow; I couldn’t afford either of those things.

I kept my eyes on the ground as I made my way down the road leading to the grave. The ground crew had scraped the snow clean off the gravel road and in the dark of the night, it seemed as though each step would send you into a black abyss. Sometimes, when nights like tonight happen and my life seems too hard to handle, I dream about letting myself fall into that black abyss where there are no responsibilities and no pain. Then something always pulls me back from the edge and sets me back on the kind of road where I can see what’s under my feet. I haven’t come up with a name for that something yet, but each time it happens, I’m grateful. I suspect I have a guardian angel who shakes her head a lot, but still watches over me.

I heard a noise and looked behind me, my heart pounding as I reached into my pocket for my car key. It wasn’t the best weapon, but it was all I had. I was ready to pounce, when a rabbit hopped its way across my path. I laughed with relief, relaxing my hand on the car key. “You’re not going to be maimed or murdered in the cemetery, Darling,” I scolded myself.

I turned back to the road, hands in my pockets, and plowed on into the dark night. The Finally Home Cemetery was small and that made it easier to remember where the graves were, even in the dark. Larson’s Landing Cemetery, the other cemetery in my hometown, was so big you had to use row numbers just to find your way through it. Tonight I didn’t mind small; it was easier to find him in the darkness.

I looked up to the sky and noticed clouds starting to gather over the vibrant white moon. I heard on the radio on the way over here there was a storm brewing, which meant I’d better get a move on and find my brother.

Every time I visit the cemetery, it’s late at night. Most people don’t go visiting at ten o’clock at night, and I get that, but most people don’t have someone like Davis for a brother. Truth be told I was already tucked up in bed, enjoying a Mozart sonata and a cup of hot chocolate, when the phone rang half an hour ago. I had no choice but to leave my warm bed and see if my brother had gone visiting, again. As I circled around the path, I saw a lone figure hunched over the grave of his father. I guess Rock was right, Davis went to see his dad tonight. I could hear my brother murmuring as I approached.

“Davis, what are you doing out here?” I called out, so I didn’t scare him.

“Darling?”

“It’s me, Davis. Rock called to tell me you weren’t in your room.”

“I’m talking to Mom. We’re trying to decide where to go eat tonight.”

I bit back the sigh that nearly escaped my lips at his words, instead hooking my arm through his. Here’s where things get complicated. We were standing at his dad’s grave, not our mother’s, but in his mind, this is where she should be, because he doesn’t remember her with anyone other than his father.

“Why don’t you and I go get something to eat? We can let mom rest that way. I’m sure she’s tired.”

He finally looked at me and I saw the face of the man who was once my fun, childlike big brother. As the years passed and I grew, he became less like my big brother and more like a small child who needed constant supervision. Davis can’t comprehend much more than a five-year-old can, so trying to explain to him our mom was never coming back was next to impossible. I gave up trying years ago.

“We should let Mom rest,” I encouraged, tugging him toward the pathway.

“That’s a good idea, Darling. Maybe her and me can have breakfast together instead.”

I rolled my eyes in the dark, trying to force my voice not to sound as exasperated as I felt. “You know she’s working in the morning, Davis, and you’ll have breakfast at your house. If you’re hungry right now, I’ll get you a snack. What would you like to eat?” I asked as I guided him towards my car.

“Chicken. I think we should have some of that Colonel Sander’s chicken,” he said enthusiastically as we reached my car.

I helped him into my old Subaru hatchback and closed the door, fighting the urge to lay my head on the roof and bang it a couple of times. We don’t have any of that ‘Colonel Sander’s chicken’ in Magnificent, Wisconsin, but he doesn’t know that.

I went around to the driver’s side and climbed in, turning the still warm car over. Davis was counting his fingers, never getting past five. It was something he’s done all his life to calm himself down. He never gets past five, but I still hold out hope that someday he will figure out he has ten fingers to count.

I put the car into drive and steered it toward the Golden Arches. If I took him back to the facility without getting a snack, the nurses would have to put up with his temper tantrum before he would go to bed. He’s been throwing a lot of tantrums lately, so getting him a Happy Meal and bringing him back, well, happy, seemed like a small favor I could give them. I knew by the time we got to McDonalds he would have forgotten all about mom and Colonel Sanders, but he would still be hungry. He clapped his hands together like a seal when I pulled up to the drive through.

“Chicken nuggets! Chicken nuggets!” he sang happily, as I ordered his meal. “Chocolate milk. Don’t forget the chocolate milk,” was his next chorus. I paid and took the food, pulling into a parking place so he could eat. His excitement over the small stuffed Webkinz dog left me no choice but to laugh. He pet it and hugged it to his chest as he ate his chicken nuggets. “What should I name it, Darling?” he asked around the food in his mouth.

“Remember to swallow before you talk, Davis,” I said for the millionth time in my life, but I felt it was important to remind him even if he forgot by the next meal. “What does he have all over his fur?” I asked, hoping he would know the word.

He turned the dog over and around while eating another chicken nugget. “Dots?” he asked, his face telling me he knew that wasn’t the right word.

“Right, dots or spots, so maybe we should call him Spot?”

He pulled the dog back to his chest and rubbed his cheek on its head. “I love you, Spot,” he said so sweetly it brought tears to my eyes.

I helped him open his package of apple slices and then put the car in drive, knowing he would be finished with them by the time we got to Two Acres Assisted Living. As it were, when I pulled into the parking lot, his eyelids were heavy and his food forgotten on the seat next to him. I had no problem predicting how the rest of the night would go. He’ll ask me to help him with his favorite pajamas, read him a Clifford the Big Red Dog book, and tuck him in to bed. Even though I’m exhausted and ready for bed myself, I’ll do it, because I’m all he has.

The town of Magnificent doesn’t understand why at twenty-six, I’m single with few friends, but then they don’t see the sacrifices I’ve made, and continue to make, for Davis. Those sacrifices are worth it because Davis is the only family I have, and he deserves all my attention. But sometimes, I wish others in town would see the late night trips I make to the home to calm him down when he’s sick, the hours I spend trying to track down liquid medication for a grown man who can’t swallow pills, the countless hours I spend keeping my business in the black so I can pay for his care, or the guilt I feel every time I leave him to be cared for by someone else. The people who flippantly judge me aren’t the ones who look in the mirror every single morning and question whether they’re doing the right thing.

I glanced at my brother out of the corner of my eye. His face had relaxed into a peaceful expression as he stroked Spot’s head. Whatever, or whomever, had possessed him to go out into the night had disappeared and left him tired. I fought back the tears that constantly pricked at my lids whenever I was with him. Tonight they were there because I knew I had to take the next step and find him a new home, someplace where he couldn’t wander away because he wants to see Mom, me, or simply because he wants to play outside like any five-year-old would.

I shut the car off and climbed out, taking a few deep breaths on my way around the hood to his door. I yanked up on the handle harder than necessary, but frustration from exhaustion was rearing its ugly head. When the light came on inside the car, he stared up at me, startled.

“I don’t like it here,” he whispered. “I want to go home with you.”

“Davis, you know how much everyone loves you here. There’s Mrs. Littlestead, Mr. Sawyer, and Grandma Sue. What would they do if you weren’t here for them to watch Clifford with?” I asked, coaxing him out of the car.

He stood and clapped his hands, his fear forgotten. “Will you read me a story and tuck me in, Darling?”

I locked the door and took hold of the belt loops on his jeans, something I had done since I was a little girl. I steered him towards the front door as a sigh escaped my lips.

“Yes, I’ll read you a story, Davis,” I promised while a tear slid down my cheek.

My name is Eve Eleanor Darling and this is my magnificent love.


Chapter One 

My life isn’t even close to what I’d planned during my senior year of high school, but then I wonder if anyone has ever done exactly what they thought they would do after high school graduation. I used to lie with my head hanging off the bed, my ankles crossed, feet resting against the wall while I dreamed about college. Listening to Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, I plotted out every step of my life from the time I walked off the stage at high school graduation until I stepped back on it for college graduation. I saw myself holding a degree in culinary sciences in my hand while sought after by every five-star restaurant in New York.

Now, eight years since I stepped off the stage of my high school graduation, I was still lying on my bed with my head hanging off the bed and my feet resting on the wall. My music tastes have changed, and tonight, instead of heavy metal blaring loudly, The Marriage of Figaro was playing softly through the surround sound speakers in my pathetically small one-bedroom apartment, not on the Upper East Side.

Oh, did I mention I don’t live in New York? I don’t. I’m still hanging out in my hometown of Magnificent, Wisconsin. I never even made it to the first step of my after high school plan. All those dreams derailed when I stepped off the stage on graduation night and my life, as I knew it, changed forever. After my graduation party, my mom sat me down and told me the secret she’d been keeping for a month, and it wasn’t a good one.

After crying all night and watching the sun come up the next morning, I pulled myself up by my apron strings. I’ve always been one to take stale bread and make it into the best bread pudding imaginable, so I made new plans. I took night classes in culinary arts, while taking care of my mom and Davis during the day. When I had enough culinary credits to back up my already extensive cooking skills, I added in some business classes when my mom went into hospice. Mom died a short time later and I coped by renting a storefront in the Magnificent Mall. Once I found Davis a new home, I set about opening a kitchen supply store, and working toward opening a cooking school. Now, with almost seven years of experience under my belt, my school for the cooking impaired has become a reality. Tomorrow night is the first class, and I’m way too excited about stuffed Cornish game hens in garlic herb butter.

My cell rang and I reached over to grab it off my pillow, surprised when it showed it was a call forwarded from the store. I checked my watch, it was after nine-thirty already, someone was either desperate, or had the wrong number. I was ready to let it go to voicemail, but a little voice told me to answer it.

“Darling’s Dutch Oven and Cooking School, this is Darling,” I answered. There was nothing on the line but air and I rolled my eyes a little. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

I heard a throat clearing and then a voice, “Yes, sorry, I’m here. I was expecting to get voicemail.”

“Sorry, Sweet Cheeks, this is one time you got a real person.”

He chuckled. “That’s good, I probably would have chickened out and not left a message. I’m calling about the cooking school tomorrow night; is it too late to register?”

I sat up and flipped around in one motion, resting my feet on the floor. “There are two spots open; are you interested?”

“Uh, yes, I think anyway, well maybe.”

“That was a very firm yes, then?” I asked, a mental image of the man on the other end of the line starting to form.

He laughed aloud and I heard him tapping his finger on something hollow sounding. “I’m interested, but I’m a terrible, terrible cook.”

“You’ve come to the right place then. The Dutch Oven Cooking School is for the cooking impaired. Are you cooking impaired?”

“I burn water,” he answered honestly.

It was my turn to laugh. “That’s terrible. That’s very, very terrible.”

“I told you I wasn’t so sure about this.”

I held my hand up, even though he couldn’t see me. It was like holding my hand up would make everything fall into place.

“No worries, Sweet Cheeks, Darling’s is the place for you. If you can’t make a simple, delicious meal by the time you leave my kitchen, your tuition is free.”

“I can’t ask for more than that, I guess. Unless you cater?”

The desperation was clear in his voice, which made me wonder what his ultimate reasons for coming to class were. “Why are you interested in cooking school?”

“I have family coming into town this weekend. I promised to cook them dinner. I was going to get takeout and try to pass it off as my own, but my aunt would know before she walked in the door.”

I smiled, smoothing my hand over my bedspread, a new impression forming about the man on the other end.

“It sounds to me like you bit off more than you can chew.”

“You aren’t kidding. I literally burn water.”

“I have good news then. You literally can’t burn water. You can boil it until it all evaporates and you burn the pan, but you can’t burn water.”

“That’s a relief then; it’s the one thing I can’t burn.”

I laughed again and leaned against the wall, the coolness of the night seeping through my shirt. “Are you available tomorrow night? Class starts at seven.”

“I can be there. Where is Darling’s Dutch Oven? Is that a restaurant?”

“You don’t go to the mall much, do you?” I asked snickering.

“No, I avoid it at all costs.”

Hmmmm, something else to ponder about the guy, apparently he’s not materialistic, which isn’t a bad thing.

“I have a retail store in Magnificent Mall. I sell every kitchen gadget imaginable and tomorrow’s class will be the first for the cooking school. Darling’s Dutch Oven has proudly served Magnificent for six years.” I groaned inwardly and rolled my eyes at myself. Why did you say that? You sound like an idiot.

“Great, it sounds easy enough to find. I’ll even break my ‘avoid the mall at all costs’ vow to give you a chance to save my backside from embarrassment.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” I said before pausing. “I guess I should get your name.”

“Probably better than calling me Sweet Cheeks in class?”

“Well, I would hate for the other pupils to think I was playing favorites.”

“We don’t want that. My name is Abraham Von Sallage, but you can call me Von.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful, and the name is familiar,” I said slowly, trying to pull the reason from my brain.

“My family owns Von Sallage Funeral Home, proudly serving Magnificent for forty-three years.”

I groaned and laughed at the same time. “Cute. So glad you thought that was as dumb a thing to say as I did.”

He laughed, but what I heard was the sound of children playing in the park. It was the exact memory it stirred inside me.

“I never said it was dumb. I thought it was funny. I don’t care how many years you’ve been proudly serving Magnificent. I really need to learn how to cook something, anything.”

“We’ve got this, don’t worry. Come to the store at seven and we’ll get started. You’ll get plenty of help with each step of the meal with hands on practice. You’ll be a pro in no time.”

He let out a relieved sigh. “I don’t know about pro, but I’m so glad I called. Thanks, Darling.”

“And I’m so glad I answered. You’re welcome. See you tomorrow night, Abraham.”

I hit the end button and lowered the phone to my lap. Maybe things were looking up.


Abraham 

I ended the call and laid my cell phone down on the metal embalming table, letting out a relieved sigh. My mind went back to the conversation I had with my uncle earlier today when he called to tell me they were coming to visit. The middle of March seemed like an odd time to visit since they had been home for Christmas, and it only took a little fishing to find out why. He was signing the business over to me, officially.

Von Sallage Funeral Home has been in our family for three generations now. I’ve been running it since my Uncle Simon retired three years ago and moved out to sunny Arizona. He wanted to play golf and put some distance between himself and death. He said he would be lying on the table too soon if he didn’t quit working. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that he would feel that way as he was finishing cardiac rehab after suffering a massive heart attack. I was barely twenty-four when he entrusted me with the business he and his father had lovingly built for so many years. Now I’ll be the owner and operator at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

I’ve always known I would eventually purchase the business from him, and I’ve been saving toward a down payment. I had a ten-year plan with seven years left to go, which meant I didn’t have anywhere close to what I needed to pay him. When I asked for more time, he said time wasn’t something any of us have. Time is fleeting and if we wait until everything is perfect, or until we have the right amount of money, we will never get to the next step in our lives. He made it clear he was giving me the business, and he expected me to pass it down to the next Von Sallage. It was his way of saying to me, ‘Hurry up and find someone, get married, and have kids, already.’

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried, but frankly, no one wants to date the undertaker, and I mean no one. I’ve been having the same first date since my first high school dance twelve years ago. It went something like this:



Girl: What are you going to do after high school?

Me: I’m going into mortuary science.

Girl: What is that? *Nose turning up slowly*

Me: I’ll be a funeral director.

Girl: EWWWWWW



I tried every way under the sun to make ‘undertaker’ sound better, using names such as ‘funeral director’, ‘mortician’, and even ‘after life organizer’, but they all meant the same thing to women. The good news is, it only took one time for me to learn never to utter the word ‘embalmer’ to a girl. The shrieking that ensued would forever play on repeat in my mind every time I met a woman. So, in approximately seventy-two hours, I will be the proud owner of the only funeral home in Magnificent. I consider that a major accomplishment considering the revenue death brings in every month. Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to put a positive ‘spin’ on it for the ladies.

I glanced down at the newspaper again, a smile lifting the left side of my lips. The ad for Darling’s Cooking School, from a marketing standpoint, was brilliant. The laughing couples tasting food off each other’s spoons made me feel like I was one of them, my spaghetti sauce was the bomb, and everyone wanted to taste my spoon. I snickered. Just wait until she finds out how bad I am at cooking.

I closed the newspaper and stacked it up for recycling. It was after ten, which meant it was time to go upstairs to my apartment and end the day with a hot Lean Cuisine and a bottle of Diet Coke. That was bachelor living at its finest. Why I ate Lean Cuisine, and not Hungry Man TV dinners, I didn’t delve into too deeply.

I shed my apron in the used receptacle and then grabbed my briefcase, shutting off the lights in the room, and locking the door behind me. I heard music and groaned, pulling my cell phone from my pocket. “This is Von,” I answered.

“Hello, Von, this is your friendly neighborhood medical examiner. I have a guest for you.”

“Hi, Richard,” I sighed. “Can it wait until morning?”

“Sorry, full house here and I have no spare fridge. This particular guest died of natural causes, so he’s coming to you direct from Love and Laughter Nursing Home. I’m here waiting for you.”

I unlocked the door, set my briefcase down, grabbed my coat and keys, and went down the back stairs. “I’m climbing into the car now. I’ll be there in ten minutes, depending on traffic.”

I heard Richard laugh on the other end of the line. “It’s after ten at night. I think you can make it in less than five minutes.” I clicked the phone off and threw it on the seat as I plopped down onto the leather seat. I could make it in seven minutes and thirty-six seconds, if I hit all the green lights, and no one was in my way when I pulled the hearse up the long drive to the nursing home. I know this because I’ve timed it, multiple times, on multiple different nights, because I have no life, just like the guest who is about to take up residence in slumber room number one.


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