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Holding a steaming container of freshly brewed tea in one hand and an oversized frosted cookie in the other, Lacey Perkins walked toward the fortune-telling table.
Bright afternoon sunshine warmed Lacey's skin and, unable to resist its alluring heat, she paused for several seconds to savor the sensation. Closing her eyes, she tipped back her head and drew in several deep, appreciative breaths of fresh air redolent with the delicious scents wafting from the various food tents set up around the courtyard. She'd been cooped up in Constant Cravings since early this morning, and as much as she loved her coffee shop, she welcomed this momentary respite.
She opened her eyes, then blinked against the sun's glare. Based on the crowded courtyard and the nonstop stream of customers who had filed into Constant Cravings from the moment she'd opened the doors this morning, the Valentine's Day party celebrating Fairfax's renovations was a huge success. Certainly her sales thus far today had exceeded her expectations. Throughout the course of the hectic day she'd recognized the faces of many of her regular customersBaxter Hills locals and workers whose offices were located in the complex. Everyone from executives to the landscapers who kept the courtyard in pristine condition had dropped into her shop.
But she was even more encouraged by the number of newcomers, many of whom reached for one of the business cards she kept stacked by the cash register. Hopefully those first-timers would come back for more of her specialty coffees, teas andfresh-baked goods. Check out her Web site. Hire her to bake custom items for their next special occasion or party.
She'd worked longand hard to make her dream of running her own store a reality, and all she'd accomplished with Constant Cravingsthe personal touches she'd put into the decor and the menu itemsfilled her with pride. While you couldn't swing a stick and fail to hit one of the coffee-house franchises that occupied space in nearly every block in the Los Angeles area, she'd worked to make Constant Cravings different in every way, from setting up her store in Baxter Hillsan up-and-coming area on the outskirts of the cityto the decorations, to the desserts she served, to the colorful napkins she used. She hoped the exposure from today's party would lead not only to those new faces becoming regular customers but to them telling their friends about her shop. Which would lead to even better sales.
Which might finally get Evan Sawyer off her back.
As if the mere thought of Fairfax's building managerwho, by virtue of that title was unfortunately her landlordcould make him materialize, her gaze happened upon him standing across the courtyard. His features were set in their usual scowl, and she wasn't in the least bit surprised to note that despite the warm weather and the fact that it was a Saturday and this was a party, he wore one of his uptight business suits complete with a perfectly knotted maroon tie.
Annoyance rippled through her. The man always looked perfect, as if he'd just stepped from some GQ photo shootdark suit perfectly fitted, dress shirt without a wrinkle, shoes buffed to a glossy shine. Even though the breeze currently ruffled his dark hair, he somehow managed to look perfectly windblown.
Yes, his was the sort of irritating perfection that always made her feel gauche, messy, wilted and somehow undonelike an unmade bed. Made her want to smooth her hands over her own wrinkled attire, wish she'd taken more time with her out-ofcontrol curly hair and surreptitiously check her teeth to make sure no remnants of her spinach salad remained.
Which was completely ridiculous. What did she care if he found her physical appearance lacking? While she grudgingly admitted that he'd never said such a thing, he did have a way of looking at her that made it clear he didn't approve of her. Certainly he'd made no secret of the fact that he didn't approve of the way she ran Constant Cravings.
She'd been a Fairfax tenant for nearly eight months, and her every interaction with Evan Sawyer had proven frustrating. He was more rigid than a concrete pillar, repeatedly complaining about the lingerie-clad mannequins she re-dressed bimonthly for her quirky window displays. Said they were "too suggestive," as were her best-selling cookies in the shapes of men's and women's torsos. Her latest idea she'd run by himto expand Constant Cravings into one of the storefronts on either side of her should they come up for leasehad been met with all the enthusiasm of having his innards ripped out with a rusty knife.
Sheesh. You'd think the man would be thrilled that she wanted to expand since her store generated such solid sales figures, a percentage of which were paid to Fairfax. But no, all he did was complain. He was an uptight, unbending, workaholic thorn in her side. One of those all-work, no-play types she called Soulless Clones. And given what was clearly his strong aversion to anything the least bit sensual, she suspected he was a dead bore between the sheets.
Which was too bad, because he was very easy on the eyes if you cared for that buttoned-down corporate type. Which she most emphatically did not. Good thing, too, because she'd be a complete idiot to find attractive a man who was so ridiculously not her type in any way. So what if he filled out those uptight suits very nicely? Who cared if his eyes were the most amazing shade of blue she'd ever seen? Big deal. Lots of men had great bodies and beautiful eyes. Most of those other men probably also knew how to smile. And laugh. And take a few minutes to stop and smell the roses. And didn't mind cookies that looked like torsos.
Determined not to allow the irritating man to disrupt this fabulous day, Lacey was about to turn away and continue toward the fortune-teller when Evan's gaze zeroed in on her. Inexplicably feeling as if she'd been caught in a sniper's crosshairs, she froze, and for several seconds they simply stared at each other. An odd warmth tingled down Lacey's spineno doubt aggravation brought on by the fact that the man really was undeservedly handsome. Why the good-looks gods had so abundantly blessed him when he should resemble a troll was a shining example of utter unfairness, one she put right up there with the fact that males didn't suffer from cellulite. And that crow's feet made men look distinguished and women look old. And that every bite of chocolate didn't permanently attach itself to the male ass. It just wasn't right.
Yanking herself from her frozen state, she inclined her head in greeting and forced a half smile. But did he even attempt to do the same? Noooo. Instead, his gaze flicked over her and then his frown deepened into a downright scowl. She looked down at her white short-sleeved shirt, which bore the Constant Cravings logo, her plain black pants and comfy black ballet flats, mystified as to what he could possibly have seen to inspire such a thunderous expression. Talk about a grouch.
Raising her chin, she deliberately ignored him and approached the table with a huge sign announcing that she was in the presence of the renowned Madame Karma. After introducing herself, Lacey said, "I saw that you had a free moment and thought you might enjoy a snack." She set her offeringsthe cookie and the teaon the corner of the brocade-covered table.
Madame Karma's dark eyes sparkled. "Thank you, my dear. That's very thoughtful." She picked up the cookie, her expression turning amused at the confection, which looked like a side view of a woman's curvy leg. The intricate frosting made it appear as if that curvy leg was encased in fishnet stockings and the dainty foot slipped into a sexy, red, high-heeled shoe.
"Wish my legs still looked like this," Madame said with a sigh. "They used towhen I was your age."I call that cookie For Your Thighs Only. It's one of my bestsellers."
Madame bit off the bright red shoe, then slowly chewed. After washing down the morsel with a sip of the tea, she said, "Absolutely delicious. How much do I owe you?"
"It's on the house. I would have brought it out to you sooner, but it's been crazy in the shop."
"Well, if you won't let me give you any money, you must allow me to read your fortune as payment for what is, without a doubt, the most delicious cookie I've ever eaten." She shot Lacey a wink. "And believe me, I've eaten a lot of cookies over the years."
"That sounds like a fair exchange."
"Please, sit down," Madame Karma said, indicating the chair opposite her with a wave of her heavily be-ringed fingers. After Lacey was settled in the chair, Madame leaned forward. Her sharp gaze seemed to penetrate directly into Lacey's soul.
"Your aura is very bright, my dear," Madame said in a low, husky whisper. "I'm feeling a very strong psychic connection." Without breaking eye contact, Madame reached into an ornately carved wooden box and pulled out a deck of cards. "For you, I will use these cards. For a special reading. One that will offer deep insight."
Lacey pulled her gaze away from Madame's and looked at the deck. It looked like a regular deck of playing cards to her. She watched Madame fan the cards, facedown, on the table.
"Please choose seven cards, using your left hand, then pass them to me."
Lacey followed the instructions, then repeated the task twice more at Madame's bidding. After turning up the cards into three rows, Madame pointed to the first group. "These represent your past." She studied the cards in silence for nearly a minute, then said, "I see two women with you. Your mother and sister. There was a man, your father, but his presence was dim and then gone." She looked up and her gaze locked with Lacey's. "He is dead, yes?"
Lacey blinked in surprise at the accuracy of Madame's words, then a lump tightened her throat. "Yes," she whispered.
"He died young," Madame continued, studying the cards.
"From trouble with his heart."
An eerie chill swept through Lacey. How could Madame Karma have known something so personal? An image of her father, always so serious, always so consumed with his career, flashed through Lacey's mind. She had to swallow to locate her voice. "A heart attack," she concurred. "When I was fourteen."
Madame nodded. "I see the sadness from his death. The hardships it caused your family. But I also see your love of life. Your determination to succeed, yet not at the expense of your health, as was the case with your father. Your resolution not to make the same mistakes you feel your mother and sister made."
Another odd chill crept down Lacey's spine, and she had to fight the urge to fidget. It was as if Madame could truly see into her soul.
"These cards represent your present," Madame Karma continued, indicating the middle row. "Your professional life is going very well, although I do see aâ€¦presence. Someone or something that is frustrating you and is, for lack of a better term, a thorn in your side."
Thorn in her side? An image of Evan Sawyer instantly materialized in Lacey's mind, and she found herself gritting her teeth and narrowing her eyes. "What about this thorn in my side? Will ithego away?"
"Patience, my dear," Madame said, looking up briefly. "I will know more after I read the last row, which represents your future. Now, back to the present. While your professional life is progressing nicely, your personal life is decidedly lacking. I seeâ€¦loneliness. No male companionship, althoughâ€¦" She frowned.
"What?" Lacey asked, leaning forward.
"Someone is looming on the horizon." A fissure of hope filled Lacey. "A nice someone?" A nice someone would beâ€¦nice. A non-whacko, non-self-absorbed,non-jackass someone. She hadn't had a date in over a month. And the last three dates she'd gone onâ€¦ A shudder ran through her. Those dates could be summed up in three words: stink, stank, stunk.
"A someone who is somehow related to the shadow hanging over your professional life. Let us continue on to the last row of cards, which represent your immediate future." After studying the seven cards, Madame Karma pursed her lips. "Regarding this thorn in your side, I can see clearly in this grouping of cards that it is a man. A man who is close to you, although only in proximity, not in a sexual way. Perhaps a coworker." She looked up and her dark eyes locked with Lacey's. "You know to whom I am referring."
"I can think of someone who I'd describe as a thorn in my side," Lacey said slowly. "He's the man who manages this building complex."
Madame Karma nodded solemnly. "Yes, that fits perfectly, as your cards indicate he is a man of power."
"Right. A powerful pain in the butt."
"What is this man's name?"
"Evan Sawyer." She nodded toward the cards. "So, is Thornin-My-Side Sawyer about to leave Fairfax?" Lacey asked in a hopeful voice. "Get transferred to Siberia?"
"No. Indeed, just the opposite. The manner of his proximity to you is about to change. From nonsexual toâ€¦can't get enough of him."
Lacey actually felt her jaw drop open. A strange tingle, sort of like a slow-motion pulse of static electricity, eased through her. Then a short huff of laughter escaped her. "There must be some other thorn in my side because I can assure you, that is not going to happen."
"My dear, I assure you that it is. The cards plainly say so and you cannot fight karma. Cannot deny your fate. To do so will bring the wrath of both upon your head, the equivalent of being cursed. Trust me, that is something you do not want. Your luckwill change from good to bad like that." Madame snapped her fingers and her multitude of metal bracelets jangled with an ominous clang. She then reached out and clasped Lacey's hands. "This Evan Sawyeryou think he is all wrong for you, but he is, without a doubt, Mr. Right."