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Sergeant Shane Harrison regarded the photograph of the pretty blonde as he sat in his car, which was parallel parked across from the storefront. His gaze zipped from the photo to the black metal numbers marking the address, and then to the lettering on the window that spelled out Celebrations, Inc., Catering Company.
Yep, this was the place.
His gaze zagged back to the photograph for one last look at the woman's enticing smile. At least the first person he'd met in Celebration, Texas, had a pretty face. He'd always been a sucker for a pretty face. The photograph had been the tipping point that had convinced him to make this personal delivery of chocolate and snapshots to a civilian.
He wasn't in the habit of playing delivery boy for strangers. However, when he'd visited Maya's Chocolate Shop as he'd passed through St. Michel on his way back to the United States from the Middle East, he'd struck up a conversation with Maya, the shop's proprietor. When she'd learned the next stop on his tour was Celebration, Texas, she'd nearly leaped over the counter in excitement.
Maya had a good friend who'd just opened a catering business in Celebration. Her name was AJ Sherwood-Antonellia mouthful of a name if he'd ever heard one. Maya thought it would be fun to surprise AJ with a special delivery of "celebratory chocolates," as she put it. She'd said something about a "chocolate-gram from a nice-looking soldier"or something like that. Her words might've embarrassed him, if he'd been prone to such a weakness. But he wasn't. In the endafter several samples of Maya's sweetsit was her bribe of a box of hand-dipped truffles as payment that convinced him to bring a box to her friend.
Actually, if the truth be told, it was the photograph of the beautiful woman that persuaded him. He studied the picture again. Something about AJ's smile captured him; or maybe it was something in the way her eyes shone as she looked through the camera.
Whatever it was, that indefinable "something" made him want to know her better. Or at least meet her. He wasn't looking for anything long-term. Actually, he wasn't looking for anything. Period.
For the next six weeks, he was stationed at Fort Hood. He'd be spending most of his days in Celebration on an undesirable assignment scouting sites for an off-base MOUT school (Military Operations Urban Terrain). The assignment, known in the army as "Realtor duty," was the hell most soldiers dreaded. Once he'd secured the venue, he'd help set up the school training facility.
Six weeks of drudgery. He couldn't think of many other things he'd rather not do.
Centering the stack of photographs on the box of chocolates, Shane gave himself a mental shake, preempting a downward mood spiral. The assignment was only six weeks. Then he'd head off on a plum European assignment he'd coveted for eighteen years. In the meantime, he needed to just suck it up.
So what was another six-week tour?
It was a trade off. That's what it was. And even though getting stuck in suburban hell made him feel like doing anything but "celebrating," maybe the diversion of female company would help pass the time.
The door chime beckoned AJ from the backroom kitchen where she'd been perfecting a selection of sliders to serve at A Taste of Celebration, a food festival sponsored by the Celebration, Texas, Chamber of Commerce. The event was next weekend, and it would be the first big community-wide showcase for her new catering company. She'd done a steady stream of business over the past year and a half out of her home kitchen, but A Taste of Celebration was the first time Celebrations, Inc. would make its debut to the public as an official business with its own commercial kitchen and office space.
It was September, and even though the holidays were a couple of months away, it wasn't too early to start getting the word out about the catering company's new digs. People would start thinking about the holidays soon, and in the meantime, there would be tailgating parties and fall festivalsall sorts of catering opportunities. A Taste of Celebration had the potential to earn her some bookings.
She wiped off her hands and made her way into the reception area. Since she was the only one in the office, she kept the door locked. Not that she felt unsafe in this town where everyone knew everyone Okay, so maybe she did have a few issues about safety. Even so, she kept the door locked because she didn't want to be surprised by someone happening in unannounced.
But surprised she wasand a little warywhen she saw the tall, good-looking stranger peering in through the glass and clutching a sack of photographs and a small box.
She was five-three, and he had a good foot on her in height. He also had close-cropped blond hair, broad shoulders and muscular arms. Quite a nice sight to behold, but the frivolity of his Adonis-like assets faded when he rapped on the glass door again and held up one of the photos.
She squinted at it, and her curiosity blossomed when she realized it was a picture of her and her friend Maya LeBlanc.
It had been taken last fall when she and her friends had gone over to St. Michel with their boarding-school buddy Margeaux Broussard to support her as she mended relations with her terminally ill father.
Hoping she didn't have flour on her face, she wiped her hands on her apron and gave a quick swipe across her cheeks before she turned the lock and opened the door. After all, a stranger in possession of a photo of her with her friend Maya surely wasn't there to cause trouble.
She opened the door a crack. "May I help you?"
"Yes? I'm AJ "
"Special delivery, all the way from St. Michel." He slid the photo through the small opening in the door. She accepted it.
"Where did you get this?"
"From Maya. This is for you, too." He held out the pink and black box, which AJ immediately recognized as Maya's signature package. Her mouth watered at the thought of the confections inside.
"She said to tell you congratulations on your new business. I think there's a note in the box."
She opened the door wider and took the chocolates. "Won't you please come in?"
He stepped inside, glancing around the unfinished lobby areaall plain, plastered drywall, no furniture. Not even a desk. A self-conscious wave washed over AJ.
She'd moved in three months ago. Essentially, Celebrations, Inc. was a one-woman show financed by her own seed money, which was supplemented by monetary and in-kind investments from her friends Caroline, Pepper and Sydney. They helped her in various capacities such as prepping desserts, marketing, booking and serving. However, AJ had been so busy with the food end of the business, she hadn't had time to fix up the front of the house.
In the little bit of free time AJ had, she'd concentrated on testing new recipes and refining the company's menu. The kitchen had been the sole focus of her efforts. There hadn't been much time left for decorating the public area of the small space she was leasing.
Pepper had been after her about it. AJ was so embarrassed by the sudden realization of how stark and unfinished this first impression must be, that she made a mental note to give Pepper the green light to have her way with it.
She could already hear her friend's I-told-you-so's. And they'd be well deserved.
Standing here with this attractive man, AJ was acutely aware that if business kept growing at the current rate, having Pepper do something about the reception area would alleviate this woefully self-conscious feeling she currently had standing here withwith
"And who are you?" she asked. "Shane Harrison." He offered his hand and she accepted, giving it a quick shake.
"Nice to meet you, Shane. How do you know Maya?"
He smiled and the appeal of his crooked grin dazzled her for a moment. "I don't, really," he said. "I happened into her shop last week while I was in St. Michel, and when she learned I was coming to Celebration, Texas, well, basically she bribed me with chocolate to bring you this care package. Ohhere are the rest of the photos."
AJ accepted them. As she flipped through them one at a time, smiling at the memory of the trip to St. Michel she, Pepper and Caroline had taken a few months ago, her mind raced as she remembered Maya talking about how she fancied herself a matchmaker.
But that's not what this special delivery is about, she told herself.
AJ stole a quick, assessing glance at Shane, then returned her gaze to the photos. He was a good-looking guy, tall and tanned and solidly built with sturdy, mile-wide shoulders. Not at all my type. Even so, the thought sparked a heat that started in her cleavage and crawled uncontrollably up her neck, until it burned on her cheeks.
It was ridiculous. No, not only ridiculous, just plain absurd. When was the last time a great set of shoulders caused her to blush like a high school girl with a crush?
It had been a very long time.
She hated being out of control.
As she flipped through the photos one more time, she bit the insides of her cheeks hard until finally she felt her face cooling.
"Well, Mr. Harrison" she began.
"Actually, it's Sergeant Harrison. I'm stationed over at Fort Hood for the next six weeks or so. But actually, I'm living in town for closer proximity to a project I'm heading up."
A military man.
Even though he wasn't in uniform, she could see that he fit the bill. Physically fit with shoulders so wide he could probably carry the weight of a nation.
Inwardly, she rolled her eyes at the cheesy sentiment, bringing herself back down to earth by reminding herself that shouldering the weight of a nation went hand in hand with a willingness to fight to the death for it.
She'd once loved a man who'd sworn to serve and protect. And he was dead now. The pain of that memory helped deflate the silly direction Maya's living, breathing candygram was tempting her thoughts.
"Thank you for delivering this, Sergeant Harrison, but I have to get back to work. I was just getting ready to grill some sliders."
For a split second she considered asking him in for a taste test. Instead, she extended her hand. He gave it a perfunctory shake. Then AJ reached for the door and held it open. "Have a nice stay in Celebration. It's a lovely town."
He offered a brisk nod and turned to leave. As she watched him walk away, she had a sinking feeling this wouldn't be the last time she saw Sergeant Shane Harrison.
Her heart betrayed her and leaped at the thought.