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Keira Noble peered out her apartment window at the first snow of the season, and a shiver ran through her. Snow set her on edge. Winter in the quaint Bavarian village of Leavenworth, Washington, always meant snow, but it was only the middle of Octobermuch too early. Taking a sip of her morning coffee, she tucked her feet under her legs and snuggled deeper into the quilt. She closed her eyes, unwilling to gaze at the one thing that tortured her every winter.
"Momma." Four-and-a-half-year-old Cody padded out from his room and climbed into her lap. He nestled his head against her chest. "What's for breakfast?"
"How about oatmeal with blueberries?" She didn't open the candy shop until ten on weekdays, and treasured this time with her son.
"Really? I thought you loved blueberries." He shook his head. "I like gummy worms. Can I have them in my oatmeal?"
"Eww. I don't think so." She gave him a squeeze and stood, setting him on the chaise. "Maybe after lunch you can pick out a few gummy worms from the bin." She smiled to herself, imagining he'd be the most popular kid in school someday with his access to candy.
She heard footsteps on the stairs that led to the alley. Right on time. Her best friend, Susan, had a way of showing up a couple of mornings a week for breakfast. She especially appreciated the visit today, considering the weather. Susan knew the fear snow brought on. Just the thought of driving now She shuddered. A rap on the door sounded and Keira flung the door open. "Morning." She gave Susan a quick hug and stepped back.
"Brrr. It's freezing out there." Susan unwound her scarf, pulled off her boots and hung her coat on a hook by the door. "Where's my little buddy?" She tiptoed over to the chaise. "Boo."
Cody squealed and laughed. "Aunt Susan, you always do that."
Sitting beside him, Susan wrapped an arm around Cody. "And you always laugh." She poked his belly. "What's for breakfast?"
"Oatmeal, but Mom said no gummy worms."
Susan snapped her fingers. "Bummer, but I'm sure she'll let us have brown sugar." Susan got up and walked into the kitchen. "I have a surprise for you."
Keira looked over her shoulder and raised a brow at her eccentric friend with the purple streaks in her long black hair. "I'm not a fan of surprises."
"You might like this one."
"Might?" She measured out the water and poured it into a saucepan. "I don't like the sound of this. Spill."
"Sorry." Susan pulled a card from her pocket. "Be at this address tonight at six and look hot."
"Huh?" Her friend had never told her to look hot. She turned around and took the card. "Visconti's?" She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. "What's going on? I'm not going to show up someplace unless I know why."
"Oh, all right. But you have to hear me out without interrupting."
"We set you up on a blind date." The words tumbled from her lips. "Pete is great. He's a veterinarian. Josh knows him from church and got to talking with him when he took his dog in the other day and realized the man has no social life"
"And he immediately thought of me. I need to have a few words with your brother."
"The two of you set me up? Why don't you go out with him?" It had to be an all-time low when her friends thought they needed to find her a man.
"He's not my type." Susan grinned and batted her lashes.
"Don't try that on me, missy." She'd date again when she was ready. "I'm not going." Keira turned her back on Susan and measured out the oats.
"But you have to. Josh already told him you'd be there."
"He will have to un-tell him. What kind of person agrees to a blind date at the last minute?"
"Actually Pete's known about it for a week." She ducked her head. "I didn't know how to tell you, and then time got away from me and " She shrugged. "You can't cancel now. It's too late."
Her friend knew her well. Of course she would've canceled. Keira bit her lip. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to meet the man. Besides, it would be rude to back out at the last minute and she had always wanted to try the food at Vis-conti's, one of the best Italian restaurants around. Considering how small the village was, it was crazy she'd never been there before.
But there was one problemCody. Who would take care of her son and what would she tell him? Since her husband was killed four years ago in a car accident, she had gone out only once. Keira didn't want him to get confused or attached to a man who wasn't going to stick around. Ack! She was getting ahead of herself. It was only one date.
Susan touched her arm and lowered her voice. "You need this. It doesn't have to be anything serious, but it's time you started getting out there again. You keep yourself holed up in this apartment or the candy shop all the time. Live a little. And don't worry about Cody. I'll take care of him."
"Will you come here to watch him?"
Susan nodded. "Whatever you want."
An hour before closing Keira walked out of the back room and into the candy shop, the boxes in her arms partially blocking her view. Her chocolatier would be making a delivery soon and she needed to get these unpacked before her arrival.
"Whoa." Strong hands gripped her arms and kept her from colliding with the chest in front of her.
She peeked over the boxes and saw a man holding a charcoal-gray wool coat. "Oh, excuse me. I didn't hear you come in."
"No harm done." He flashed a smile.
Oh, but he was handsomestriking blue eyes, a strong chin and an incredible head of dark wavy hair on a fit body. She cleared her throat and stepped past him. What was she thinking? She had no business checking out the man. He was probably married anyway. "Are you here for the weekend?"
"No. I live in Leavenworth."
She pursed her lips. She really did need to get out more if Leavenworth had men like this. "Is there something I can help you find?" She set the boxes beside a display she'd been working on.
"I'd like a box of chocolates."
"That's our specialty," she said with a smile. "What kind?"
"I'm not sure. They're for my date and I don't know what she likes. Maybe this is a mistake." He turned toward the door.
He turned back and raised a brow.
Keira stepped toward him. "Even if she doesn't like chocolate it's a nice gesture. And take it from a woman, most of us love chocolate. You can't go wrong with truffles."
"Are you sure? I don't want to look desperate."
Pete Harding sized up the petite woman clad in the traditional German costume some shopkeepers still wore. Her green eyes had a kindness about them. As if she really cared and wasn't just trying to make a sale. "Okay."
A wide smile lit her face and he caught his breath. Amazing. He'd agreed to a blind date and regretted it all week, but felt guilty backing out. Now he was glad he hadn't, otherwise he wouldn't have come into the candy shop. Pete checked out the store clerk's left hand and didn't see a ring. Things were looking up. He didn't have much of a sweet tooth, but Christmas was fast approaching and he hadn't done any shopping yet. Maybe this year he'd give everyone on his list a box of chocolates.
The woman held up two. "Which size would you like? I have a collection with six or a dozen."
No sense in overdoing it. Besides, he was more interested in the woman standing before him than his blind date. "Six."
"Good choice if you don't want to look desperate." She filled a gold-foil box with an assortment and rang up the purchase, thanking him for stopping in. Another customer with children came in, signaling it was time for him to leave. Too bad. He hadn't caught her name.
Keira looked in the mirror one last time. She'd spent more time than usual straightening her wavy hair with the flat iron. But now it hung perfectly straight and rounded to her chin. Black slacks and a red silk top completed the look. She tucked dangly silver earrings through her lobes and sighed. Was she really doing this? What would Michael think? She shook off the thought, suspecting her husband would've approved of her getting back out there.
A knock sounded on her bedroom door.
The door opened and Susan walked in. "You look gorgeous! Pete isn't going to know what hit him."
"Are you sure? Maybe I should change." Her stomach flip-flopped. She didn't recall ever being this nervous before a date.
Susan reached out to her and grasped her arms. "No. You're perfect. And if you don't leave now you'll be really late. At least Visconti's is close."
Keira glanced at her watch. "I didn't realize the time. How will I know him?"
"Give the host or hostess your name and don't worry. Pete has everything under control."
"Okay, if you say so." She liked a take-charge kind of man.
Susan grinned. "You'll be fine, Keira. Pete is a very nice man and even if it doesn't work out you'll get to know the town veterinarian and have a delicious meal."
"I don't own a pet, and I'm so nervous I don't think I can eat."
Susan waved her comment off. "Stop. Pete's great, and Cody's been asking for a puppy. Maybe he'll have a lead on a good choice."
Keira had no intention of getting her son a dog. There was no time to take care of a pet with all that needed to be done running the candy shop and raising her boy.
Susan took a step closer and grabbed her hands. "Tonight will be fun. Just relax and live in the moment for a change." She briskly rubbed Keira's hands between her own. "You're freezing.''''
"That's because I'm terrified. Maybe I should just call the restaurant and leave a message that I'm ill. That's not far from the truth."
Susan took her by the shoulders and marched her to the door. "No way. I'll be watching from your living room window. It has a perfect view of Front Street, so don't even think about detouring and standing him up."
Keira's stomach fluttered. "I feel like a teen going on my first date." Why had she agreed to this? Cody smacked into her legs, wrapping his arms around them. Keira gently pried his arms loose and squatted down. "You be a good boy for Aunt Susan. Okay, Cody?"
He nodded. "Bring me back something?"
She chuckled. "We'll see." She slid into her wool coat, then blew a kiss to her two favorite people. "I won't be late."
Five steps down the stairs and she nearly fell on the slippery surface. It wouldn't do to break a leg on the way there. She should've gone out through the store below, but old habits were hard to undo. She took the front way only if she was heading to work. She gripped the railing and continued down the snow-covered stairs with care. Almost there. Keira stepped onto the bottom step and her right foot slid forward on a patch of ice. A scream escaped her lips as her left knee buckled and she hit the sidewalk in a heap. She groaned and lay there for a second. That didn't happen. But her throbbing backside told a different story. She rolled over and stood. At least no one lingered about to see her graceful fall.
"Are you okay?" Susan called from the doorway.
Keira stood and inspected her pants. Wet snow covered her legs. "I'm okay except for my pride, but I'd better change before I go. My pants are a mess." Instead of risking a repeat performance she went around to the storefront and unlocked the door. She climbed the interior stairs to her apartment.
The door swung open and Susan stood there with a panicked look on her face. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"No. Yes. What difference does it make?" Her pride stung and so did her hands, but she didn't have time to waste. What would she wear? This was her best outfit. She rushed to her bedroom with Susan close behind.
"Momma, why were you playing in the snow?"
"Cody, honey, I'm in a hurry. How about you build something with your blocks?"
"I want to play in the snow."
Keira sighed and squatted in front of him. "Tomorrow, okay? I'm meeting someone for dinner and I'm late. Now scoot, so I can change." Her little guy padded into the front room and she zoomed for the dresser. Jeans would have to do. At least she had a nice pair that would go well with the blouse she already wore. She kicked off the slacks and slipped on the jeans. "Well?"
Susan nodded. "Very good. Now go." She nudged her toward the bedroom door. "And take the front. You don't have time to change again."
Keira passed Cody, who appeared to be building a fort out of blankets. "Bye. Love you."
"I know. Love you, too."
She smiled at her son's favorite phrase and closed the door. If Cody thought he knew everything at four, what would he be like at sixteen? But there was no time to worry about that now. A glance at her watch had her running through the candy store. She was never late. Of course Pete didn't know that. What a way to make a first impression. Oh, well, at least it was only ten past six. Surely he'd find it humorous once she explained. But what if he didn't?
Pete Harding nervously eyed the box of chocolates he'd placed on the table across from him. Maybe it was too much. Did men give chocolates on a blind date? It'd been forever since he'd last dated. He reached across the table to grab the box and tuck it back into his jacket pocket, but before he could a waiter approached. Pete pulled his hand back.
"Would you like to order something to drink, Dr. Harding?"
Pete glanced at his watch. "No thanks. I'm sure she'll be here any minute."
The waiter nodded and left just as his cell buzzed in his pocket. Not tonight. He knew that special sound. When he'd agreed to tonight's date he'd forgotten he was on call. "This is Dr. Harding." He listened as the answering service explained the emergency. "Okay. I'll be right there." He caught the waiter's eye and waited for him to approach. "I have to leave and my date isn't here yet. Would you let her know I had an emergency?" As much as he wanted to tell Keira himself, he couldn't wait. A dog's life depended on him.
He pushed back from the table and stood. Too bad he hadn't thought to ask for her phone number. He'd have to remember to call Josh ASAP and explain what happened. He strode for the stairs that led down to street level and past the beautiful blonde from the candy shop as she walked inside, completely oblivious to him. Wow. He slowed his gait. Gone was the German maiden costume and in its place a lovely modern woman in jeans that fit just right. He definitely would be buying candy for his family and friends this year.