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Being in charge had its perks. Today, Bia Anderson fully intended to cash in. After all, there was chocolate involved.
She lifted her chin a little higher as she walked up the petunia-lined path to the old bungalow located at the end of Main Street in downtown Celebration-the new home of Maya's Chocolates.
Nicole Harrison, a staff writer for the Dallas Journal of Business and Development, where Bia was the editor in chief, hadn't hidden her disappointment that morning. Bia had assigned her to the catch-a-greased-pig contest at the grand opening of the Piggly Wiggly over in Kenansville rather than the interview for the Maya's Chocolates business profile.
It wasn't the first time she and Nicole had butted heads, and it probably wouldn't be the last. But that came with the territory. In the two months since Bia had taken the reins as editor of the paper, making tough calls that sometimes disappointed the staff hadn't gotten easier, but she just had to suck it up and do what she thought was best.
So what if they all thought she was hard as nails, lacking empathy and compassion?
What would they think when they found out she was going to be a mother? The wall immediately went up, and she told herself she didn't care what they'd say or do or how they'd smirk when they learned she was pregnant by People's reigning "Sexiest Man Alive," Hugh Newman. The thought knocked the air out of her. And not in a good way; it was more like a sucker punch to the gut. Reflexively, her hand went to her belly.
She'd done the pregnancy test last night, finally pulling her head out of the sand after being two months late. She still hadn't quite wrapped her mind around the reality of it-although the unexpected pregnancy did explain why she'd been craving chocolate to the point of insanity.
At first, she'd blamed the cravings on the stress of the Hugh Newman debacle: a five-day lapse of judgment that had ended abruptly when the paparazzi started inquiring into the identity of the woman with the auburn hair in the blue sundress, with whom Newman had been seen canoodling in Celebration, Texas.
Canoodling? Did anyone even use that word anymore?
He'd been in town doing location research- soaking up local color for his next movie. Also, he had accepted an invitation to emcee the annual Doctor's Charity Ball, which benefited the new pediatric surgical wing at Celebration Memorial Hospital. Bia had gotten an up-close-and-personal tutorial of why Hugh had been named Mr. Sexy when she'd had lunch with him to interview him for the paper (and you can bet Nicole Harrison hadn't been happy that Bia had claimed that assignment). Five minutes into the interview, Hugh Newman had charmed the pants off her. Okay, so maybe it had been more like an hour. God, she wasn't that easy.
Bia stepped onto the porch and tried the door. It was locked. So she knocked and waited for Maya to let her in.
Truth be told, Bia wasn't easy at all.
At twenty-eight years old, she'd only had two lovers. Her first had been Duane, as part of a six-year relationship that had ended in a broken engagement; the other was Hugh, an impetuous mistake she'd known wouldn't last. And, of course, it hadn't.
She just hadn't expected to walk away with such a personal memento of their time together.
Dammit, she'd simply wanted one taste of sexy. One taste-and she had been prepared to walk away. But one night became five and then the media had gotten wind of the affair and suddenly the entire world was dying to know the identity of the woman with the auburn hair in the blue sundress. Overnight, Bia had gone from relative obscurity to the top of XYZ Celebrity News's most-stalked list.
She did a hasty scan of the area looking for skulking mediatypes. It was a beautiful day. Shoppers were wandering in and out of places like On a Roll Bakery, Three Sisters dress shop, Dolce Vita Gourmet Grocery and Barbara's Beauty Salon. But the area was all clear of lurking XYZ minions. Oh, they were gone now, thank God. The paparazzi had lost interest when Hugh's camp had explained that the redhead in the blue sundress was simply his tour guide.
Nothing to see here, folks. Just a tour guide.
Liar, liar, sexy pants on fire.
At least they hadn't called her an escort.
What had really burned was when Hugh's people had offered to pay her to keep her mouth shut. She didn't want his money. But she did want her privacy back. That's the only reason she'd agreed to play along with the tour guide charade. Still, she told them to pass along the message that Hugh could keep his money and the insult it implied.
Within hours of explaining Bia away, Hugh and his longtime on-again, off-again starlet girlfriend, Kristin Capistrano, announced that they were, indeed, on again. How lovely for them. Then the tabloids developed instant amnesia about the "tour guide" and were all ablaze with the news that they had a "liftoff" and that "Hugh-stin" certainly did not have a problem. The pair proclaimed they were deeply in love and- surprise surprise-that Kristin would be costarring with Hugh in the movie that was filming in Celebration, Texas. The one for which he'd been soaking up the local color when he'd met Bia.
Bia's mouth went dry as she thought of the scandal it would cause if anyone found out the sexiest man alive was her baby daddy.
She clenched her fists, digging her nails into her palms. As far as she was concerned, Hugh Newman was dead to her. But the blue line on the pregnancy test had resurrected him.
Now she wasn't sure what to do Except that, ready or not, she was going to have a baby-and she was going to keep it.
There was no question about that. Bia was adopted, and she'd often wondered why her birth mother had chosen to give her up rather than trying to make it work. Her mother and father-the ones who had adopted her-had been good people. At least her father had been. She hadn't really known her adoptive mother. She'd passed away when Bia was five, leaving her adoptive father to raise her.
The strong, silent type, he'd never been much of a talker. He'd bristled the handful of times she'd asked about her birth mother. So she hadn't pressed it.
Her dad had passed away last year, and now more than ever she wished she knew more about her roots. Maybe it was time to start digging. She'd need to know for her child's sake. Health history and all that.
Bia rapped on the door again, shifting her weight from one foot to another. Across the street, a friend of her father's called to her and waved. She waved back.
Thank God her father wasn't alive to see what a mess she'd made of things. She sighed.
It had just happened. When she'd sat down to interview Hugh, she'd been the picture of professionalism. At first she'd been immune to his notorious charms.
Then he'd started putting the moves on her. Heavy-duty flirting. With her.
Hugh Newman had been flirting with her.
That was all it had taken for her resolve to melt like pure cane sugar in hot-brewed tea.
They'd used protection. Every single time.
That's the part she couldn't quite comprehend. How this could have happened when she'd been so careful?
Thinking about it made her feel nauseated.
She gave herself a mental shake.
She'd made her choices. Now she'd have to live with the consequences. Still, if she could just have one do-over in life, she'd turn back the clock two months and stay the heck away from Mr. Sexy. She'd let Nicole be Hugh Newman's tour guide.
She knocked on the door yet again, this time a little harder. Where the heck was Maya?
Above Bia's head hung a weathered, hand-painted wooden sign that boasted, Maya's Chocolates- Happily Ever After Starts Here. It swayed and squeaked on the lazy breeze of the warm May afternoon. The words, written in gray-blue calligraphy on a whitewashed background, were underlined by a fancy, scrolling arrow that pointed toward the door.
Happily Ever After. Right here, huh?
She tried the door again, this time giving it a firmer tug and then a push, but it was locked tight as a tick. She shaded her eyes and peered in the glass front door. No one was in the showroom. All the fixtures seemed to be in place, but they looked empty.
Hmm, that was curious.
The store's grand opening was scheduled for next week. Bia thought that a good bit of the merchandise would be in place by now.
Had Maya forgotten their appointment? If they didn't let her in to start the interview soon, Bia couldn't promise that anyone was going to have a happily ever after. Bia glanced at her cell phone to check the time. Okay, so she was a couple of minutes early, but it was warm outside. She was feeling a little dizzy and beads of perspiration were forming underneath her silk blouse and starting to run down the crevice of her back.
Certain foods and smells-like coffee and the noxious traffic fumes wafting up from Main Street-made her feel ill. That, along with the chocolate cravings and, of course, the missed periods, were what had finally sent her to Dallas to purchase the in-home test. She couldn't purchase it in the local drugstore. Word would get around faster than if it had been aired on
She blinked away the thought and refocused on the mental list of interview questions she would ask Maya if she ever answered the door.
Bia was just about to dial Maya's phone number when, through the panes of glass on the front door, she saw the woman hurrying toward her in a flurry of long red spiral curls and flouncing green scarf and skirt. She was wiping her hands on a dish towel, which she flung over her shoulder as she opened the door with a breathless greeting.
"Bonjour! You're here!" Maya's lyrical accented voice rang out and mingled with the sounds of chirping birds and traffic. "I hope you have not been waiting long. I was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a surprise just for you. Come in! Come in, cher! Please, come in."
A surprise? For me?
"I hope it's chocolate," Bia said.
"But of course it is." Maya smiled as she held open the door for Bia and motioned her inside. A cool gust of air that smelled like rich dark chocolate greeted her and took the edge off her queasiness. Bia breathed in deeply.
"Well, then, in that case, you're forgiven." Bia grinned. "I have been dreaming of your chocolate since the Doctor's Ball. It was the first time I'd tasted it. In fact, for the past several weeks, I've been craving chocolate like crazy, but the over-the-counter stuff just isn't doing it for me. I think you've spoiled me for all other sweets. I just learned that Baldoon's Pub offers your Irish cream truffles on their dessert menu."
"Indeed they do," Maya said over her shoulder as Bia followed her into the house. "I like to hear that I've spoiled you for other chocolate. You might say that's the theme of my business plan."
The front room was set up as a shop with a refrigerated glass case in the center of the space. Like the shelving fixtures, the case was empty, Bia noted with chagrin. But it was surrounded by lovely silver-veined marble counters that housed a cash register and supplies to wrap purchases. Even if there was a decided dearth of chocolate, the place looked fresh and clean and light with its white paint, whitewashed wooden floors and yards of silver tulle draped elegantly across the ceiling. The look created an ethereal cloudlike effect.
Again, Bia breathed in the delicious aroma of chocolate, and her stomach growled. Since the cases and shelves were empty, she had to wonder if she was imagining the scent. Or had Maya piped it in for effect?
"Where's the chocolate?" Bia finally asked. "Don't you make all your goods on the premises? If so, how are you going to fill the cases and shelves before the grand opening?"
Maya glanced around the room. "I suppose it does look rather empty in here, doesn't it?" She sighed and went behind the wrap stand. "Alas, the increased demand for chocolate has forced me to be less hands-on with the manufacturing process. I still make some special made-toorder candy-like this batch I made especially for you this morning."
She presented a three-tiered glass-and-silver dessert plate brimming with confections in various shapes and colors. Bia's mouth watered at the sight.
"I thought I smelled chocolate in the air. But then I worried that I'd simply imagined it."
Maya laughed. "It is a lovely fragrance, isn't it? Some say the mere smell of chocolate causes a woman's body to release hormones that simulate the feeling of falling in love."
"Ha! All of the feelings and none of the heartache," Bia said. "Sounds like the perfect relationship. I just wish chocolate didn't love me back so much. It tends to stay with me. You know, right here." She patted her left hip.
"I don't know what you're talking about, you are reed-thin. You have nothing to worry about."
"Gosh, makes chocolates, gives compliments I think you and I could be good friends."
Maya's eyes shone. "I certainly hope so."
"You will have chocolate for the grand opening, won't you?" Bia asked.
Maya nodded. "Of course. I was fortunate enough to find a stateside manufacturer who was able to duplicate my family recipe in bulk, the one my grandmother used to start the business three generations ago. The candy for the shelves and case will be delivered the day before we open. That way it will be as fresh as can be. We'll have to work extra hard to get everything in place, but it will be worth it."
Maya gestured toward the plate. "But please, don't let me detain you. Help yourself."
Reverently, Bia approached the manna. She paused to give the illusion of self-control, so that it didn't look as if she was about to bury her face in all that deli-ciousness. But then she found herself genuinely appreciating the sheer artistry of Maya's offering.
Yes, this definitely could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Maya placed a silver cocktail napkin on the counter next to Bia. She also produced a small crystal pitcher of water, a matching glass and a plate containing bread, crackers and apple slices.
"What is this?" Bia asked.
"These are the palate cleansers for the chocolate tasting," Maya said. "To fully discern the differences between the chocolates, you must cleanse your palate between each tasting."
Oh. Bia suddenly felt a little out of her element. "You treat chocolate like some people treat wine?"
"Pourquoipas?" Maya asked.
"You're right. Why not?"
"May I recommend that you start with the chocolates on the first tier? It has a lower percentage of cocoa and a milder taste. The chocolate on the upper tier will overpower those on the bottom. I suggest you let the chocolate melt on your tongue rather than chewing it, and in between different bites, enjoy a bit of apple or bread washed down by the water. That way you will taste all the nuances of each piece."
Maya gestured to the plate and gave Bia a few more tips on how to proceed: to observe the chocolate, to smell it and to break it, feeling the way the pieces of solid chocolate snapped, before finally tasting it. Those were all indicators of good quality.