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The only daughter of a mother who enjoys marrying men, often, Tabitha doesn’t believe in love at first sight, falling head over heels in love, or marriages planned on a whim. But when Preston Banks, the son of her best client, happens into her life she’s finds out that not only will too much chocolate make your head spin, but so will the right man saying the right things at the right time.
Three hundred more truffles needed to be rolled and Tabitha’s hands had long gone numb. On any other day she’d take the time to stretch her fingers or even run them under warm water to relieve the cramping. But it was February and that meant no stopping until the fifteenth. It was also spontaneous wedding season where people jumped at the thought of marriage, and that always made for a lot more work.
She blew a loose strand of hair from her eyes and kept making perfectly round balls from the batter before setting them on the lined tray to her side. She couldn’t remember a year when she’d had as many wedding chocolates to make. Her biggest client Claire Banks, an esteemed wedding planner, must have booked every day in February with a wedding or party. And she had chosen Tabitha’s Chocolates to tempt the guests at every table.
It was work that Tabitha lived for, but added to her already heavy workload before Valentine’s Day, she was feeling a bit pinched for time and her mood was sinking fast.
“Okay, it’s done.” Brie darted into the prep area of Tabitha’s small Cherry Creek store, waving a work order. “We just picked up the Johnson-Carr wedding.”
Tabitha squished the dough ball in her hand. “How are we going to get this all done? We might need to start saying no,” she grumbled as she rolled yet another truffle through the cocoa and then set it on the tray to dry.
“Hey listen, Ms. Valentine and Wedding-Scrooge. I’ve been planning a tropical vacation with grass huts and fruity drinks with umbrellas. We need all the weddings we can get so I can make the big bucks and get out of this icebox for awhile.” Brie hung the order on a clipboard on the order wall.
Tabitha scowled as she scooped out a dozen more truffles and set them on the tray to roll through the coating. “Scrooge, huh?”
“You work too hard. You forget what it’s like to have men fall at your feet at least one day a year.”
“Yet you and my mother seem to think it should happen all the time. I mean how many times can the woman get engaged and married on Valentine’s Day? Doesn’t it take away the special meaning?”
“Maybe she does it just to piss you off.” Brie grinned and Tabitha wondered if her and her mother didn’t just plan to make her crazy on purpose.
Tabitha shook her head as Brie went back to answering the phone at the front counter. Sometimes your best friends shouldn’t be the people you hire.
She blew out a breath and thought of the upcoming holiday. She couldn’t help but be cynical in February. People turned starry-eyed and lovesick all because of a greeting card holiday. She, for one, knew better than to believe in such fanciful dreams.
Her own mother had fallen head over heels in love on Valentine’s Day. Who thinks that meeting the man of your dreams is possible when selling flowers on the street corner? And how asinine is it to run off with a man whose tongue dripped satin words? Marriage after four days of shacking up in a hotel room did not make for a lifetime of happy memories, Tabitha thought as she dusted her hands off on her apron. She hopped down from the stool, on which she’d been perched for hours, and sought out a cup of coffee.
As she washed the cocoa from her hands she gave thought to the phrase “love at first sight.” The idea was ridiculous, but people fell for it all the time. And there she was, making money off of their sentimental dreams.
She opened the cupboard and pulled down her favorite green, oversized mug. She poured strong black coffee inside and rested against the counter. She wasn’t sure why she was worried who fell in love. It paid her bills, and it appeared that love would soon send Brie on a tropical vacation.
By late afternoon, Tabitha had rolled thousands of truffles. She had rolled some in cocoa and others in milk chocolate. Another batch was set aside for a variety of white and dark chocolate. Prepping strawberries for tomorrow’s dipping would keep her busy for the rest of the night.
Brie poked her head into the workroom. “I locked up and am going to head out. I have a date.” She wiggled her eyebrows and Tabitha shook her head. When did the girl not have a date? “Would you mind cleaning out the display?”
“Of course.” Tabitha laid a long stem strawberry out on a tray to dry.
“I closed out the register.” Brie pulled her coat from the rack and slipped it on.
“Who are you going out with?”
“Video store guy. And he is so fine. I think I’ve fallen in love.”
Tabitha shook her head. Did this new love know Brie had fallen in love already three other times since New Year’s Eve?
With Brie gone, Tabitha turned on the radio to fill the silence. She’d laid out the strawberries and set them on the rack, then pushed it into the cooler.
The storefront was dark and the sign had been turned to closed. Tabitha began the process of removing the few unsold chocolates from the display and boxing them to sell on the shelves the next day. It was rare that she discarded any chocolate. Her business had been voted one of the best stores both in Cherry Creek and in Denver, and her chocolate was ordered online all over the world. She laughed to herself when she thought about how sweet business had been for her.
Tabitha bent over and pulled a tray from the case. When she stood she saw the face of a man, his gloved hands cupped around his eyes, looking into the store. She nearly dropped the tray of petit fours to the ground. When he’d seen her, he’d stepped back and waved.
Her heart beat at an uncomfortable pace. This was one of those times she wished she’d taken her mother’s advice and planted a gun under the counter. The idea was as stupid as the grin on the man’s lips that told her he wasn’t dangerous. Or at least she hoped so.
She set down the tray and walked to the door, her hands shaking from the startle he’d given her. The man stepped back, still grinning widely as Tabitha pointed to the CLOSED sign.
“Please.” She could hear him plead through the door.
It wasn’t like her to open the door to a stranger, but this one had a familiar look to him, though she was sure she’d never seen him before. She looked around the streets and people still walked between the stores. If she had to scream, someone would likely hear her.
She unlocked the door and opened it slightly, keeping her foot blocked behind it. “We’re closed.”
“I know. I’m so sorry. I just flew in from a convention in New York, my flight was late, the bus to the parking lot was—”
“Sir,” she cut him off, holding her hand up. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Listen, I’ll pay double if you’ll help me out. It’s my mother’s birthday and I’ve already missed the party. If I don’t walk through the door with a box of Tabitha Chocolates and bat my big brown eyes at her she’ll have my head.”
She considered him for a moment. “Batting your eyes won’t work on its own?” The trick seemed to be working on her.
“I don’t think so. Not this time.”
His short brown hair had tunnels where his fingers must have raked through dozens of times. Dark circles shadowed under his eyes, which when fully alert she assumed would burn into a woman with their dark brown warmth. The collar of his shirt was open and his tie hung loosely around his neck. The long wool coat, which should have kept him nice and warm in the bitter cold of Denver’s winter, gaped open across his chest.
Against her better judgment, Tabitha moved her foot from behind the door and let him into the store.
She walked around the counter quickly to put space between them. “I’m afraid I don’t have much of a selection. A week before Valentine’s Day we’re usually sold out of the favorites.”
The man stopped and looked at the bare shelves in the display as he pulled his hands from his gloves. “You probably know my mother. She comes in often enough. Maybe you could help me throw together something.”
“Who is your mother?”
“Your mother is Claire Banks?” The image of his mother crossed her mind. Looking at the handsome man across from her, she found it hard to believe that Claire’s son was such a head turner.
“You do know her.”
“Of course I know her.” Half of her order board had the woman’s name on it, thankfully. “I mean no disrespect, but really, do you think a box of chocolates is what she needs for her birthday?” She hated how it sounded the moment it came out. But when the corners of his mouth turned up into a smile, which sent an alarming sizzle through her, she realized she hadn’t offended him.
He leaned his arms on the top of the case. “My father tried to buy her flowers once. She said she didn’t get any joy out of looking at pretty things. She’d rather eat pretty things. I prefer to appease her and think of her health later.”
A giggle grew in her chest and she kept it forced down. This man was keeping her at work even later than she’d anticipated. She just wanted his money and wanted him out. “She enjoys the petit fours quite a bit. I could probably spare some of the truffles I dipped a few hours ago, but I won’t have the strawberries until the morning.”
“Dear Lord, how much time does she spend in here?”
“Client confidentiality.” She smiled and it almost hurt, which made her realize she’d been doing her fair share of scowling lately. Februarys were usually for profit and hard work, not for smiling at handsome men.
“You have the most beautiful eyes.”
The comment had her swallowing back the smile. Her spine stiffened. “I beg your pardon.”
“Really. They’re the color of milk chocolate with swirls of caramel. It’s no wonder you’re so good a being a chocolatier. It must run through your blood.”
“This isn’t going to get you a price discount or strawberries in that box.”
That smile crossed his lips again. “Oh, I didn’t mean any disrespect.” Humor filled his voice. “I appreciate fine art the way my mother appreciates fine chocolates. Your eyes, like your chocolates, are beautiful. I’m sorry that you mind that I told you that.”
“I don’t mind.” She turned and pulled a white pastry box from the shelf behind her. Inside she adjusted the paper doily. “I’m just not comfortable with strangers looking at me the way you do.”
“Well then, I suppose we should fix that.” He reached his hand over the counter. “Preston Banks. Son of Claire Banks, the distinguished wedding planner.”
Hesitantly, she shook his hand. “Tabitha Knight, the wedding planner’s choice for her chocolates. Privately and professionally.”
His eyes widened. “You’re Tabitha? As in Tabitha Chocolates? As in owner of the store?”
She pulled her hand from his, uncomfortable with his reaction. “You seem surprised.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have pictured you as the entrepreneur type.”
“I mean …” He raked his fingers through his hair, deepening the channels where his fingers had traveled before. “What I meant to say was that I expected the name to only be a name. How many young and attractive women have their handmade products in some of the most exclusive shops and on the trays at the most elegant weddings?”
She swallowed back the urge to gasp at the attractive comment. She was out of her element. These were the kind of comments Brie usually received. “You seem to know my work well.”
“Claire Banks is my mother, remember?”
Tabitha gave into her smile again. “She has been a substantial help in my business. I do tend to be on her list of people to call when she’s planning a wedding.”
“Then with Valentine’s Day around the corner you must be extremely busy.”
“You have no idea.” And, she thought, if he’d only finish his purchase she could get back to work on those orders his mother had placed for clients.
“That’s why I cut my trip short and I’m headed to her place. Not only is it her birthday, but this year it seems she’s bitten off more than she can chew. She’s booked one too many weddings this year and now the entire family is in charge of seeing they all go off without a hitch.”
“Awfully nice that you could help her out.”
Tabitha began filling the box with items she knew Claire Banks would enjoy.
Preston looked around. “How did you get into this?”
“Chocolate?” He let out an agreeable hum and she shrugged. “It was something I always loved. I fell in love with my Holly Hobby Oven and making those little cakes.”
“Were you one of those girls who wouldn’t share? My sisters never would share Easy-Bake cakes with me.”
Tabitha added a few more candies to the box. “I made one of my mother’s first wedding cakes in my oven. Soon it turned to cookies and decorating the tops. Then I learned the fine art of a double boiler and a chocolatiere was born.” She counted out the items in the box silently. “And with my mother’s affection for getting married every few years, it seemed a good hobby to acquire.”
“And how many times has she been married?” The humor in his eyes raked on her nerves when he asked.
“On Valentine’s Day it will be her fifth.”
“Fifth?” His voice rose in pitch.
Tabitha hated reactions like that, but that’s what she got for opening her big mouth. She shook her head in disgust as she added a few more truffles to the box. He was irritating her, and he was going to pay for it as the box was getting heavier.
He shook his head. “All I can say is wow. Is she using my mother to plan her wedding?”
“If I were only that lucky. No, as if I weren’t busy enough, she’s somehow designated me as her bridal planner.” Tabitha added the last petit fours from the tray she’d taken from the display and closed the box.
“Where do you find time if this is your busy season?”
“A question I’ve asked myself.” She laid the box atop the display. “This is sixty dollars worth of Tabitha Chocolates. Do you want me to dig up more or do you think she’ll be fine with this?”
“I think she’ll be delighted.” He handed her a fifty and a twenty, not once blinking at the price. Perhaps she should have added quite a bit more.
“I’ll be back. I’ve closed the drawer so I have to get you change.” She turned to walk to her office.
“No,” he said, and she stopped. “Consider it my thank you for opening the door.”
“I appreciate it, but that’s not necessary.”
At that, she turned and pulled a ribbon from a spool that hung on the wall. Carefully she lifted the box and tied the ribbon around it.
Preston watched her intently and lifted his eyes to hers when she finished with the bow. “Are you busy tomorrow night?”
“I’m sorry. What?” Her tone carried her impatience and she just wanted to get back to work so she could finally get home.
“I’d love to take you to dinner.”
She adjusted the bow atop the box and added a gold foiled sticker with the name of the bakery. “Mr. Banks, thank you, but …”