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An impeccably dressed man stood across the glass coun-tertop that separated Tiffany Gentry from her customers. Before she could offer him help, the gentleman interrupted.
"I've got to say you're so gorgeous your beauty is hurting my eyes."
That's the best he's got? Tiffany plastered a smile of thanks on her face when she wanted to smirk. The corny come-on lines were getting tiresome, but he was her customer, and a sale was a sale.
"Then perhaps I should step away while you pick out a necklace? I wouldn't want to eclipse it with my beauty."
He laughed loudly before looking at her again. "I love women with spunk. I doubt I'll find anything as delightful as you, but I'll try."
The front door chimed, interrupting their conversation, for which Tiffany was grateful.
"Welcome to the Petite Boutique, I'll be with you in a moment," she said without looking up.
Her attention was still on the undecided flirt. Now he was leaning so far over the display case that his breath steamed up the glass.
The man sighed aloud. "Yes indeed, with so many choices, I can't decide."
Tiffany glanced toward the front of the store. She spotted a tall man looking at a display. Excusing herself, she walked over to him.
"Good morning, are you looking for something specific?"
"Yes," he said, turning around to face her. "The owner."
Tiffany stared at him. He was much taller up close, well built and had just done a marvelous job of rendering her speechless. She stood there staring so long that he finally said, "Do you know where I can find her?"
"Oh," she croaked, extending her hand. "I'm me that would be me Tiffany Gentry. How can I help you?"
"I'm here to help you," he replied, closing his fingers around hers in a firm shake.
There were a number of possibilities that sprang to mind on how he could help. The first was to help her up after she collapsed in a pool of hormones on her polished wooden floor.
"I'm sorry. I guess I should introduce myself. Colonel Ivan Mangum," he said with a slight smile.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Colonel," she replied warmly. Her skin tingled at the contact. She loved men with solid handshakes-no spaghetti hands. To Tiffany, firm grips exuded confidence and strength. "You know, when I called a few days ago, I had no idea you'd be able to give me an evaluation this fast."
"Ms. Jeannie stressed that you needed something in place right away."
"Sooner rather than later would be best. I've got to say, Ms. Jeannie thinks highly of you. She wouldn't take no for an answer and practically hovered over me while I dialed your number."
A rumble of laughter escaped his lips. "I understand, and yes, Ms. Jeannie can be persuasive."
Relief swept over her face. "She can indeed."
When Norma Jean Anderson, Tiffany's friend Milan's mother-in-law, had mentioned she knew someone who could help, Tiffany agreed that her safety and that of the store should be her priority.
Norma Jean had told her about a man who used to be in the army, owned his own business and had installed the security system at the senior center where she taught fitness classes. Now here he was, walking around inspecting her boutique with a practiced eye. Tiffany couldn't help but feel protective of her shop while it was raked over by his penetrating stare.
"This is an eclectic store."
"Isn't it?" Tiffany said. "There's something for everyone. Most items are one of a kind. We carry jewelry that I make myself, and I've got some artisan friends whose work I showcase, too. They make T-shirts, soaps, lotions and even pottery."
Ivan looked around again appreciatively. "How many rooms do you have?"
"I've got the main area here, a storage room and bathroom. There's an exit from the storage room. That's where I receive larger deliveries."
He nodded and typed some notes on his laptop. "When I first spoke to Ms. Jeannie, she told me that you'd had a break-in a few weeks ago?"
"It wasn't exactly a break-in. More like an overzealous customer who wouldn't leave. I didn't hear him come in."
"A forced entry?"
"No. I was closed for the night. The door was unlocked, which was my fault. The chime didn't go off. When I came out, there he was."
"Did you call the police and fill out a report? Did they dust for fingerprints?"
She shook her head. "He didn't take anything, and I got him to leave so I didn't call, but it was still "
Ivan looked down when she stopped talking. "Unsettling?"
Tiffany glanced up at him. His matter-of-fact expression from seconds earlier was replaced with one of concern. There was something about his relaxed manner that made her feel better.
"Yes. I've taken a self-defense class. I'm an only child. I'm used to dealing with problems myself, but in that moment, I wondered if I could remember what I'd been taught. Could I protect myself?"
Before Ivan could reply, the man across the room cleared his throat loudly.
Tiffany gazed over her shoulder. "I should get back to my customer."
Ivan gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm going to take some measurements and continue looking around if that's okay?"
Shortly afterward, the man strode out of the store in a huff. Tiffany was pretty good at reading customers. Her intuition told her he wanted to play, not buy.
Without customers, Tiffany focused on Ivan. When Norma Jean said he used to be a colonel in the army, she'd pictured a stodgy old white-haired man with a thickening midsection. Tiffany was wrong. She wondered if Ivan had been to exotic places all over the world, spoke several languages and was an expert in lethal weapons. Granted, she may be dramatizing his abilities based on some of her favorite television shows, but he looked capable.
What a magnificent body. At five feet two and a half inches, it was a given that most people were taller than her, but she guessed he was at least six-two or six-three. His job certainly kept him in shape. His dark suit and French Blue shirt fit like they were tailored. With his physique, he could easily have stepped off the cover of a Men's Health magazine.
Ivan had flawless light brown skin, except for a small scar on the right side of his jaw. His eyes were a vivid amber-brown, which was a sharp contrast to his thick dark eyebrows and lashes. Dark hair cut close made her wonder what it would feel like to run the palm of her hand down the smooth nape of his neck. The urge to do it made her fingers tingle.
You've just met him, and you're drooling over the man. But he was charismatic, and droolworthy.
She turned to see Ivan leaning on the wall opposite the counter with an amused look on his rugged face. "Have you finished?" she asked him.
"I have." Ivan sauntered toward her. "The only thing older than that security system is the building itself."
Tiffany laughed. "You're right. I inherited it when I bought the place. The alarm is temperamental, and works when it wants to-like my last sales associate. Truthfully, I haven't given it another thought until now."
"Were you thinking the standard motion sensors with delayedentry keypad, or something more advanced like heat signature, night-vision cameras and-"
"Whoa," she cut him off. "Nothing too advanced. With my budget, I can't afford Mission: Impossibletype security. I need a modest security system where I can enter a code, turn it on or off-and a panic button, of course."
"Of course. You'll also want a monitoring agency to alert the police?"
"Sounds good to me."
He made a few more notes before asking, "Will other companies be bidding?"
"I'd say that depends on you, Colonel Mangum."
"Call me Ivan. I appreciate the opportunity, and I'm sure I can help. I'll call you when I have the proposal ready." He extended his hand. "A pleasure, Miss Gentry."
"Tiffany," she corrected. Her hand slid into his. "Likewise."
After he left, Tiffany went to the storage room to get a box of clothing. She placed it on the counter, pulled up a stool and began to add price tags. While she worked, she made a mental note to thank Norma Jean for recommending Ivan. He'd been a pleasant diversion today.
The phone's ring startled her from thoughts of Ivan Mangum.
"Thank you for calling the Petite Boutique. How may I help you?"
"How did it go?" Milán Anderson, Tiffany's best friend, asked. "Was the guy competent?"
"Yes." Tiffany leaned against the counter. "Not what I expected."
"Uh-oh," her friend said with concern. "Good or bad?" A smile covered Tiffany's face. "Fantastic. I expected some old boring guy with a large belly."
"Nope." Tiffany sighed. "Lani, he was straight out of an action movie-tall, commanding and built like he's been working out since childhood."
"What a meeting. Was business discussed, or did you drool the whole time?"
"It was all business. He's probably married or has a girlfriend."
Tiffany filled Milán in on her appointment with Ivan, then they hung up.
A healthy appreciation for a gorgeous man was fine, but she would not act on her impulses. She had been attracted to one too many men who were unavailable, and for all she knew, he was just the same. Still, it was impossible not to be drawn to him. When it came to first impressions, Colonel Ivan Mangum was definitely an Army of One.
Tiffany almost dropped a glass bowl she was wrapping in tissue paper a few days later when Ivan walked in. He was wearing a pair of jeans, and a dark gray Under Armour shirt that fit him like a second skin.
She walked up to him as he was eyeing a crystal owl pendant. "Wow, you have my quote already?"
Ivan grinned. "Soon."
"Did you have more questions?"
"Not on security. I've got a dilemma and thought you could help."
"Of course. What's the problem?"
"I need a gift. My grandmother turns ninety-six next week."
Tiffany relaxed. "You've come to the right place. What does your grandmother like? Does she have any hobbies?"
As they discussed his grandmother, Tiffany guided Ivan around the store, showing him everything from velvet wraps to ceramic bowls, but nothing seemed right.
"Wait, I've got it." With a grin, she retrieved the owl pendant and held it out to him. "It caught your eye earlier, and from what you've told me about her, I think she would love having something almost as wise as she is."
Ivan's fingers connected with hers. His touch was warm as it grazed her palm. He tilted the pendant in the light.
"That's true. Always go with your gut, right?"
She laughed. "Words I live by."
"In that case, I'll take it."
"Wise choice." Tiffany winked. "I'll wrap it for you."
Celeste, one of Tiffany's employees, rang up Ivan's purchase while she wrapped the gift with care. Tiffany placed the birthday gift in a decorative bag and handed it to Ivan.
"I hope she loves it."
"I'll let you know. Thanks for coming to my rescue."
A warm smile brightened her face. "Anytime."
For the second time that week, Tiffany found herself staring as he walked out of the store.
The phone rang, causing Tiffany to almost jump out of her skin. She picked it up.
"Hi, honey. You're not busy, are you?"
"No, Ms. Jeannie. What's up?"
"I wanted to make sure you're coming to the party tonight."
"Like I would miss Milan and Adrian's anniversary party. Of course I'll be there," Tiffany said.
"Great. Are you bringing a date? If you're not, I've got a few prospects."
Sometimes Norma Jean was overzealous in her matchmaking quest. And it seemed it was too late to dissuade her now.
"Ms. Jeannie," Tiffany began, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but-"
"Trust me, dear. It'll work out great. I promise. Now don't be late."
Before Tiffany could say another word, Norma Jean had hung up.
A blind date was the last thing on her mind, but getting that point across to Norma Jean was more impossible than keeping shoppers orderly at a Bath & Body Works semiannual sale.