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"Come on, just one more. You can do it!"
Brandi Collins hoisted her upper body on quivering arms. She held the position less than a second before collapsing face-first in the grass.
"Good job on push-ups, ladies," the trainer shouted at the ten women in the boot camp workout class. "Now flip over and give me two sets of crunches."
Brandi spit blades of dead grass from her mouth and rolled gingerly onto her back. She stared through bare-limbed trees at the gray sky, the hard ground a welcome reprieve from endless push-ups, wind sprints and jumping jacks.
"Let's go, Brandi! This is boot camp, not a day spa."
When she didn't move, the retired military officer jumped off the park bench she'd been barking orders from and stormed toward her. Puffs of smoke from Captain Heather Moore's breath hit the crisp January air and trailed behind her like a dragon's smoke. She knelt and lifted the fleece ear warmer covering Brandi's ear.
"Need some motivation?" she asked softly, so only Brandi could hear. Heather's voice hardened. "Then think about that no-show jerk leaving you standing at the altar. Remember how you felt when his mother informed you he'd eloped with another woman?"
Brandi's hands clenched into fists at her sides. Six months hadn't dulled the humiliation of her would-be groom whisking the stripper he'd been cheating on her with to a Las Vegas chapelwhile Brandi waited for him at a Nashville church packed with well-wishers. It was the most mortifying moment of her thirty-four years, and everyone she knew had witnessed it.
Heather gave the mental sore spot another poke.
"Now he has the nerve to accept the honor of best man at your sister's wedding." She made a tsking sound. "And I'll bet he's bringing his busty new wife along."
Anger began a slow burn through Brandi's worn-out body, energizing her depleted limbs. When she'd learned her future brother-in-law wanted Wesley as his best man, for her sister's sake, she'd hidden her true feelings.
Now Heather's taunts had excavated the hidden rage from the depths of her subconscious and dumped it in the forefront of her mind.
"Getting mad, huh?"
Brandi shot the trainer a look she hoped scorched the smirk off her face, but Heather kept pushing.
"So what's that loser going to do when he sees you next month?"
"Eat his heart out," Brandi practically growled. Cradling the back of her head in her hands, she curled her midsection into the first of fifty sit-ups. She'd never been stick thin, but months of comforting herself with massive amounts of chocolate had her wearing a larger size.
Even worse, she'd used her savingsmoney she'd squirreled away for years on her modest schoolteacher salaryto reimburse her mother for expenses connected to the big, non-wedding instead of its intended purpose of financing her boutique.
Ignoring the burning in her abdominal muscles, she cranked out one last sit-up. No way did she want Wesley back. However, now that pride was all she had left, Brandi refused to let her ex or his new wife see her looking anything less than fabulous.
Heather led the class through a stretch routine to end the workout. Afterward, as the other students milled away, Brandi sat cross-legged on the ground. She glanced around the park, situated across the street from her condo building, too sore and exhausted to contemplate hauling herself to her feet just yet.
Falling temperatures had driven most of her neighbors indoors. Apart from their class, a die-hard jogger and two men playing a game of one-on-one on the basketball court, the small park was deserted.
Brandi zeroed in on the duo playing ball. They'd shed their jackets, and even at a distance, she could see their fit physiques moved with an awe-inspiring mix of power and athletic grace.
Her gaze dropped to her own body, which was a long way from her goal of "fabulous." She'd purchased this violet-colored fleece outfit to boost her spirits. Unfortunately, the neon-bright shade only accentuated her excess lumps, and she felt huge exercising next to her thin, black-clad classmates.
Brandi blew out a sigh to signal the end of her pity party. It didn't matter how many push-ups she had to bang out or salads she had to eat. In the five remaining weeks between now and Erin's wedding, she was going to get in the best shape of her life.
"You okay?" Heather extended her hand.
Brandi groaned as she grabbed a hold of it and staggered to her feet.
"I will be after a soak in a tub full of bubbles and a decent night's sleep." She swiped her hand across her backside to dust away the twigs and dead leaves clinging to her pants.
Hopefully, she could sleep. For the past few nights, she'd awakened to the strangest thingthe overwhelming scent of chocolate.
"Hope I didn't go overboard back there," Heather said as they trudged across the park. "I only said what I did to get those crunches out of you."
"Don't worry. I stopped hating you by the time we started stretching."
Brandi had made the trainer well aware of her objective and the reason behind it when she'd enrolled in the class last week. In return, Heather had vowed to do everything in her power to help her reach her goal.
"That's good to know," Heather chuckled. "And by the way, you're doing great."
Brandi rolled her eyes. "You're kidding, right?"
"You made it through your third session. I had four students drop out after the first class and another "
Heather's voice drifted off and Brandi followed her gaze to the two men she'd spotted earlier on the basketball court still embroiled in their game.
"Check out the eye candy." The trainer sighed. "Talk about yum!"
Brandi took in the view from the closer vantage point. Heather's description was no exaggeration. Both men stood well over six feet tall, and their perspiration-soaked T-shirts clung to wide shoulders, broad chests and impressively flat abs.
However, it was the one with the dark skin that captured Brandi's undivided attention and held on tight. His deep, rich complexion reminded her of the exquisite, midnight chocolate truffles she'd binged on over the past months, and she couldn't help wondering if he tasted as wickedly delicious.
Unconsciously, Brandi licked her lips.
As if he'd read her mind, the dark chocolate hunk stopped playing and turned in their direction. His handsome face broke into a wide smile that made her toes curl inside her sneakers.
"Mmm. I believe I've suddenly developed a sweet tooth." Heather shot her an elbow to the ribs. "What about you?"
Fortunately, Brandi's common sense snapped her out of her stupor at the same time the other man spoke to Mr. Dark Chocolate. He turned away.
"I've given up candy, remember?" Brandi resumed walking. She needed to stand around leering at a man like she needed a ten-pound box of Godiva's finest on her hips.
Heather rolled her eyes. "Come on, you know what kind of sweet stuff I'm talking about. I didn't work you that hard."
"Just because it looks or tastes good doesn't mean I have to have it," Brandi said. "I've learned my lesson."
"What are we talking about here, chocolate or men?"
"Both," Brandi said emphatically.
Adam Ellison couldn't keep his head in the game. "We both know I'm going to win, but you normally put up a decent fight." His brother, Kyle, dribbled the basketball, skirted around Adam and took a shot.
The ball sailed through the air in a perfect arc and swished unopposed through the hoop.
"That's game," the former college-star point guard crowed.
Adam knew his play hadn't been up to his usual standard. He'd mentally checked out of their weekly one-on-one match over an hour ago. Since then, he'd blown easy baskets and let Kyle get away with moves he normally would have challenged with aggressive blocks and hard fouls.
His brother surveyed the pocket park near Adam's condo and frowned. "I can't believe I let you bully me into coming across town to this concrete playground, when there are perfectly good indoor courts at the club and our estate."
"Quit whining, man. It won't kill you to pull the silver spoon out of your behind once in a while," Adam said absently, his mind still hung up on the purple-clad beauty who'd sashayed past them earlier.
All long legs and killer curves, Adam's mouth ran dry at the not-so-distant memory etched on his brain.
Mon Dieu! It had been a long time since he'd seen a woman who wasn't afraid to look like one. In a backward culture that glorified the skeletal and the surgically enhanced, this lush knockout was a throwback to the days when voluptuous beauties like Pam Grier dominated the movie box office and black men's fantasies.
Even from a distance, he could see her flawless complexion was reminiscent of the creamy cappuccinos served in his favorite Parisian cafe. The thought of it brought a smile to his lips.
"What has you so off your game today?" Kyle backed up and began shooting baskets from the free-throw line. "Regrets, maybe?"
He was having regrets all right, Adam conceded, but not the ones his brother hoped. Instead of standing there gawking like an idiot, he should have asked her out on the spot.
"I wouldn't blame you if you did," Kyle continued. "If I'd have tossed my job, a multimillion-dollar inheritance and a woman as rich as Jade Brooks away with one rash decision, I'd be kicking my own ass, too."
Adam let the comment slide. He knew where his brother wanted to steer this conversation, and he didn't want to go there.
"It's not too late to straighten this all out and get your old life back," Kyle pressed.
Although their game was over, Adam stole the ball and went in for a layup. "I don't want it back," he said, lunging for the basket.
"Get out of here with that weak shot." His brother leaped above the rim and slapped the ball out of bounds. He returned the conversation to the topic at hand. "Why the hell not?"
"Because I need more."
Adam wasn't surprised by the incredulous look on his brother's face.
"More what?" Kyle asked, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "The combination of your job, inheritance and marrying into the Brooks Brand fortune would have made you a billionaire by age forty."
And end up like their father, Adam thought, slumped over dead at his desk with no one to grieve but a room full of indifferent business associates, a brother and two sons he rarely acknowledged outside of their role as vice presidents of the company he created.
"I'm doing okay financially," Adam said aloud.
Actually, better than okay. He'd invested his hefty salary wisely during his decade-long tenure as a vice president of Ellison Industries, the household-goods conglomerate founded by their late father, and was presently a millionaire in his own right. Now at thirty-five years old, he could live quite comfortably, even lavishly, without their family fortune.
Kyle retrieved the ball from the grass and took a shot. Despite the distance, Adam wasn't surprised to see it fall into the basket. The two of them may have been roughly the same size and build, but Kyle's legs turned into springs the moment a basketball was placed in his hands.
"What about Jade? You're just going to let her go?"
"She dumped me," Adam reminded him. She did so immediately after he'd told her of his decision to leave his position at Ellison Industries.
Kyle threw the ball to Adam. "Dad was looking forward to you two setting a date. It was all he talked about."
Months ago, his father's enthusiastic approval would have been reason enough for Adam to spend his life with Jade and continue to adhere to the blueprint the elder Ellison had outlined for his firstborn son's life.
Not anymore. Adam bounced the ball twice and hit a basket that would have been worth three points in a game. His priorities had shifted considerably since he'd been the one to find his father dead in his office.
Now Adam wanted more out of life than a job he didn't love and a woman who didn't love him.
"Jade's a good fit into our family," Kyle continued.
Grabbing the jackets they'd thrown on the ground earlier, Adam tossed one to his brother. Although they had different mothers, his father marrying Kyle's mother a few years after Adam's mother had died, they'd always been close. He didn't want this difference of opinion to cause a rift between them, but he wouldn't be manipulated.
His brother had more to say, but Adam forestalled him with a raised hand. "Tell Uncle Jonathan it won't work. Using a gotcha clause in Dad's will to screw with my inheritance didn't change my mind and having you try to play on my emotions won't, either."
Kyle shrugged on a hooded sweatshirt and seated himself on the backrest of the park bench next to the court. "Come on, man," he said. "Uncle Jon is only trying to do what Dad would have wanted. You back with Jade and at Ellison Industries."
"This is my life. Not Dad's."
Kyle scrubbed a hand down his face. "So you're flushing your life down the tubes over a bake-off."
Adam had explained it to his brother already, but Kyle, like their father and uncle, couldn't imagine anyone having an aspiration that was about their passion, not making more millions for Ellison Industries.
"I wouldn't exactly call the International Chocolate Pastry Competition a bake-off, but yes, it's important to me."
"For God's sake, why?"
Adam exhaled a weary sigh. "Haven't you ever wanted to achieve something on your own, without the benefit of our status or money?"
"Hell, no," Kyle replied. "I love being rich."
"Well, I need to do this."
Initially, Adam had only skimmed the application his grandmother had emailed him for the renowned competition. She'd noted for the first time ever there was a concurrent competition for amateur chefs, but Adam had been embroiled in his duties at Ellison Industries.
The day after they'd buried his father, Adam had retrieved the application from his deleted emails. Last week, he'd traveled to Montreal for the North American round of the competition, where his twist on chocolate lava cake won the title, beating out entries from over a hundred amateur chefs from the U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico.
Now he faced the monumental task of creating two chocolate-based entries so decadent and delicious, that he'd win the world title for self-taught chefs.
"But you already won first place for some pie, right?" Kyle asked.
"Cake," Adam corrected, knowing full well his brother couldn't care less.
Kyle hadn't spent summers and school holidays in Paris with maternal grandparents who owned a patisserie. So he hadn't grown up longing to follow in the footsteps of a grandfather who created the most magnificent chocolate pastries in the city.
"Whatever." Kyle tossed the ball in the air and caught it. "You've proved your point. Now it's time to get back to real life."
"The only thing I'm going back to is my kitchen," Adam said.
Scant weeks remained between now and the final rounds of the competition in Paris, and he still found his potential entries lacking. His focus had to remain on impressing an international jury of master pastry chefs. Not on his uncle, his ex or Ellison Industries.
And certainly not pursuing a purple-clad mystery woman.