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The fine hairs on the back of Rosalind Fletcher's neck stood up at the lyrical tinkling of the shop's door bells. Without looking up, she knew who'd entered. She'd anticipated Ashley Benedict's arrival all week. He was the reason for their coming in an hour early to prepare for this morning's cake tasting, and for the sudden shaking of her hands.
Her assistant, Lacretia, stretched up on her tiptoes to look through the glass partition that allowed them to see the showroom. Rosalind shrugged off a twinge of jealousy at the other woman's wolf whistle.
"Lord have mercy, Ashley Benedict is fine! I'm not one for blonds, but that man is an exception." When she moved around the stainless steel prepping table, Rosalind stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"I'll see to Benedict, Lacretia. I still need you to brew the coffee for the Loving Room."
"Dang it, Roz, you're always cock blocking." Rosalind ignored the white washcloth thrown in disgust on the tabletop, instead busying herself with the strings of her apron. "If I didn't know any better, I would think you wanted Ashley Benedict for yourself." Rosalind's fingers stilled on the cotton ties. "But considering you're too wrapped up in this business to pay any man any attention, I'm not worried about you trying to steal my man."
"Your man?" Rosalind's lips quirked at the corners.
Lacretia smoothed her plump hands over her generous hips and down her thighs. "Yeah, girl. Didn't I tell you that me and Mr. Ashley Benedict have a thing going on?"
Rosalind chuckled at her antics. "No, you didn't tell me. And I'm pretty sure you didn't tell Orlando, either, because you and your man are still alive and not lying sixfeet under."
"Hoo-wee! Ain't that the truth. My man has always been mighty possessive when it comes to his Lacretia. You know why, don't you?" When Rosalind didn't interrupt her, she continued, "I have diamonds between my thighs."
"And here I thought it was the wedding cake I gave you." Chuckling, Rosalind balled up her apron and threw it at the other woman. Even though she tipped the scales at a little over two hundred pounds, Lacretia was pretty nimble, easily catching the garment in midair.
"Could be that too. Everyone knows Forever, I Do's wedding cakes are mighty lucky." Rosalind stiffened, but the other woman didn't seem to notice, because she kept yapping. "I haven't seen a divorce in all the years I've been working here."
"And you won't, if I have anything to do with it. My great-grandmomma Trudy would roll over in her grave if she found out I'd botched up the Fletcher streak--"
Ding ... ding ... ding ... ding.
Rosalind pressed her lips together at the impatient pounding on the service bell. Lacretia stepped around her and held up her hands. "Don't blow your top just yet, Roz. At least let him be here for fifteen minutes before you do."
"I can only promise ten." With that said, Rosalind left Lacretia and made her way through the kitchen and into the showroom.
"Ah, the fair Rosalind. For a minute, I thought you'd forgotten our appointment." The sound of the honey-dipped Southern drawl caused Rosalind to stop short.
Even though she'd had plenty of time to prepare for Ashley Benedict, nothing could prepare her body for being in the same room with him. Like a match to a Roman candle, her body always reacted to him. Her temperature rose several degrees, breathing became nearly impossible in the first sixty seconds, and an irrational anger spoiled her usually temperate demeanor.
Built to last, Ashley Benedict stood several inches over six feet. Good thing, since his muscular frame would've been too bulky on a shorter man. Instead, it suited him, gave him the look of a free agent at the top of his game rather than one of the most sought-after wedding planners in the Low Country.
Dressed in a pair of black dress slacks and a white button-down shirt, Ashley's summer tan gleamed golden against the white crispness of his shirt. He must have spent the weekend on Slow as Molasses, his forty-foot sailboat and a notorious pussy magnet.
Rosalind frowned. The image of a svelte redhead sprawled on the deck of his boat and him bucking away between her legs put a sour taste in her mouth. Needing an outlet for her suddenly foul mood, she retorted with a little more bite than she'd intended. "In all of the years you've known me, Benedict, have I ever forgotten any of our appointments?"
Ashley's green eyes grew thoughtful, then crinkled at the corners as he gave her a magnanimous grin. Rosalind smoothed a hand over her stomach to calm a sudden onslaught of butterflies. Yet it didn't stop the rush of blood to her pussy when he rested his elbows on the edge of the glass bakery display.
"I don't think there's ever been a time when you weren't the consummate professional--what a waste."
Rosalind's pussy lips twitched as his eyes slid over her like the last piece of red velvet cake at a family reunion. Remembering he had more notches on his sailboat's mast than bird droppings, she quickly pulled it together. But she found she couldn't resist asking him the reason for his last statement. "What do you mean by that, Benedict?"
Ashley shrugged one of those linebacker shoulders of his, and his lips parted, but the kitchen door burst open, interrupting the moment.
"Roz! Girl, I have to run up to the school. The principal suspended Pookie for skipping algebra again. The coffee's brewing, and everything's set up in the Loving Room for the Morgan and Sullivan wedding pa--"
Lacretia paused midsentence to look over Rosalind's shoulder at their customer. Her dark face split into a wide grin. "Hey, there, Mr. Ashley. You're looking mighty fine today. But I'm not too surprised. You always look good."
Rosalind reminded herself that her assistant was a happily married woman of fifteen years. If she'd been single, she'd be wearing the kitchen door right about now.
"Thanks, Lacretia. You're lovely as always. Orlando's a lucky man."
She chuckled at the compliment. "Humph. You just say the word, Mr. Ashley, and he won't be lucky no more."
To bring the pair back to the present before she revisited this morning's breakfast of scrambled eggs and hopping John, Rosalind interrupted their flirting. "Will you be back this afternoon?"
"I hate to leave you in the lurch, but I doubt it, Roz. I need to be there when Orlando gets home. I don't want to waste our Christmas savings on bail."
"Don't worry yourself about things here, then. We only have one tasting today, and we don't need to start on the Murchison anniversary cake until tomorrow."
Lacretia's face lit up in an appreciative smile. "Thanks, Roz. I'll be here bright and early tomorrow morning. If I'm not, there's only one place you'll find me ... down in the emergency room at Regional." Rosalind shook her head when the other woman broke into raucous laughter. "Well, I'm out."
Lacretia turned around to leave, but she stopped. Her gaze swung between them, a knowing glint sparkling in their black depths. "You two act civil to one another, you hear?"
As soon as the door closed behind her, it hit Rosalind like a ton of bricks. She and Ashley Benedict were totally alone--well, at least until his clients showed up. Unable to meet his gaze lest she spontaneously combust like a soufflé revealed too soon, she turned her head to look at the clock next to the register.
Despite her evasiveness, it didn't relieve the tension settling in the crook of her neck, or the goose bumps running down her bare arms as she felt his eyes on her. Resisting the urge to hightail it out of there and into the kitchen, she concentrated her efforts on telling the time.
"It's a quarter till eleven, Rosalind."
Rosalind's eyes met his. And to her utter mortification, he winked at her. She bristled. For some reason, the humor reflected in their light green depths rankled her. Channeling her embarrassment into indignation, she drew herself up. "I'll have you know I'm very capable of telling the time, Benedict, and I would appreciate it if you used my last name."
"Of course you can, since I'm sure you're capable of doing quite a lot of things, Ros"--when she narrowed her eyes, his full lips twisted into a devilish smile--"Miss Fletcher, but you seemed to be having a little trouble. Plus, I can't resist helping a damsel in distress, especially when it seems like I'm the cause of it."
The thought of him possibly knowing his effect on her made her cheeks inflame. Thank goodness her skin was as brown as the bark on a Southern magnolia, thus saving her from further embarrassment.
Rosalind racked her brain for an avenue of escape. "If you would excuse me, I'm going to put on the final touches for the cake tasting."
Proud of her quick thinking, Rosalind couldn't help the shit-eating grin that curled her lips as she left him standing at the display counter.