Read an Excerpt
Rachel Ellis hated Valentine's Day.
Not that she'd ever admit as much to any of the customers who had formed an almost-steady stream of traffic through the door of Buds & Blooms since about 11:00 a.m., but she had expressed the sentimentmore than a few times already todayto her best friend and business partner, Holly Kendrick.
"Can you tell me," Rachel asked, when she went to the back during a rare quiet moment in the shop, "why so many men seem surprised to realize it's Valentine's Day when it falls on February 14 every single year?"
"Because they're men," Holly said simply.
"And is that why they also wait until the absolute last minute to buy flowers for their wives or girlfriends?"
"Next year we should offer discounts for advance orders." They had taken some, but those represented a small percentage of the sales already processed that day.
"It won't matter," Holly told her.
Rachel knew her friend was probably right. She sank down into a chair by the worktable. "I'm just going to take ten minutes to rest my feet before the next rush."
She only managed about half of that before the bell rang, indicating another customer had entered the shop.
Trish, a local college student who helped out part-time, showed up at two o'clock so that Holly could go home to get ready for her date with Shaneher on-again, off-again boyfriend of the past two years. Rachel, who had no plans, would stay until closing time at six o'clock.
It was quarter to the hour now, and there were only a couple of customers left in the shop. Her cheeks hurt from the smile she'd kept firmly plastered on her face as she boxed or wrapped order after order throughout the afternoon, and she was looking forward to the day being over.
But when Andrew Garrett walked through the door, just a few minutes before closing time, she didn't have to force the smile. He was a regular if not frequent customer, coming into Buds & Blooms three times a year without failValentine's Day, August 10 and November 22. She didn't really know him. In fact, she only knew his name because it was on the credit card that he used to pay for his purchases. But for some inexplicable reason, her heart always beat just a little bit faster when he was around.
Or maybe it wasn't so inexplicable. After all, the man was a certified hunk. He stood about six-three with broad shoulders, narrow hips and long legs. His dark hair was neatly trimmed, and moss-green eyes looked out beneath straight brows. His jaw was cleanly shaven, his mouth was deliciously shaped, and when he'd smiled at her the first day he came into the shop, her knees had actually gone weak.
Then she'd dropped her gaze and noticed the well-worn gold band that circled the third finger of his left hand.
She should have expected as muchthe only time gorgeous single men ever walked through the door of Buds & Blooms was Mother's Day.
February 14 had fallen on a Sunday that year, and he'd been one of the first customers through the door. He'd wanted a dozen white roses, and she'd laid the creamy white flowers out on top of a fan of ferns, added some baby's breath, then wrapped the arrangement in silver paper and clear cellophane and tied it together with white raffia. Even after three years, she remembered those details, and she wondered if that was evidence of the customer service she prided herself on or proof that she was pathetically infatuated with a handsomeand marriedstranger.
"A dozen white roses?" she asked.
He smiled, and her heart did a funny little turn in her chest. "Good memory."
She went to the back to retrieve the flowers, then added the accent foliage and wrapped the arrangement. "Can I get you anything else today?"
He shook his head. "No, that's all."
She rang up the purchase and reached for the credit card he held out to her. Their fingers touchedbrieflyin the transfer, but she felt a jolt at the unexpected contact.
Married, she reminded herself sternly.
And even if he wasn't, she'd made too many mistakes where the male gender was concerned to want to risk another one.
She processed the transaction and returned his card along with a receipt and his flowers. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. And Happy Valentine's Day." She kept the smile on her face until he'd walked out the door, then flipped the lock and wondered, Why are the good ones always taken?
* * *
As a single woman, Rachel really did hate Valentine's Day. But as a business owner counting the receipts, she had to love it. They'd sold more flowers in just ten hours today than they would in the rest of the month, and while Trish cleaned up the work counters in the back, Rachel restocked the display cases at the front of the store and made notes on what she would have to add to her orders this week.
"Do you want to go somewhere to grab a bite?" she asked Trish. Because of the thick gloves she wore in deference to the frigid temperature, she fumbled a little with the key as she locked up.
"Oh, um, that sounds great, but"
"But you've got a date," Rachel guessed.
Her employee nodded.
"You should have said somethingI could have finished up by myself."
"Doug had to work until eight tonight, anyway."
"Doug? The advertising guy?"
"Marketing," Trish clarified.
"I thought you dumped him."
"I did." She shrugged. "And then I missed him."
Rachel didn't know Doug, aside from what Trish had told her, so she bit her tongue. She wasn't so far past twenty that she didn't remember how it felt to be young and in loveor at least want to believe that she was. It had taken her a while, but she'd finally realized that being lonely in a relationship was worse than being alone.
She hadn't given up on the idea of finding someone to share her life with, but she'd stopped looking for her elusive soul mate around every corner.
"But I'll be in at seven tomorrow to help with the deliveries," Trish said now.
"I can handle the deliveriesif you can be here by ten, that's soon enough."
"Really?" The young woman looked as if Rachel had given her the moon instead of just three extra hours.
"Really," she confirmed.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Rachel couldn't help but smile at her exuberance. "Have a good time tonight."
"We will," Trish assured her.
Rachel waited until her employee got into her car and waved as she drove off. Because she lived only a couple of blocks from the shop, she walked to and from work. And usually she enjoyed the walk, but tonight, she was tired and hungry and just wanted to be home so she could snuggle on the couch with a bowl of popcorn to watch Criminal Minds.
Except that the way her stomach was growling, she knew popcorn was not going to suffice. When she got home, she exchanged her skirt and blouse for a favorite pair of jeans and a winter-white V-neck sweater, then slipped her feet into low-heeled boots and shrugged back into her coat. She burrowed her chin deeper into the collar when she stepped outside again and tried to ignore the cold as she headed toward Valentino's. Thankfully, the restaurant offered takeout because, even if she wanted to sit down and eat, she knew there was no way she'd get a table tonight.
Pulling open the door, she was immediately greeted by the mouthwatering scents of tomato, garlic and basil. Her stomach growled again. The woman behind the counter looked up and smiled. "Rachel, hi. Just let me put this order in to the kitchen and I'll tell Gemma that you're here."
"Don't. " Her protest trailed off as Maria had already disappeared into the kitchen.
Two minutes later, Gemma Palermo came through from the dining room.
"Happy Valentine's Day, bella" She kissed both of Rachel's cheeks, then looked past her friend and frowned. "You are alone?"
"I usually am," Rachel reminded her.
"But it's Valentine's Day," her friend said again.
"I know. And I didn't mean to take you away from your customers. I just wanted to get some pasta to take home"
"Where you can eat alone?"
Rachel couldn't help but smile at the distress in Gemma's tone. "It's not illegal, you know."
"Maybe it should be."
But eating alone was Rachel's status quo, and she liked it that way. She was a smart, successful woman. She didn't need a man to make her life complete. She firmly and honestly believed thatmost of the time. But she couldn't deny that the prospect of sitting alone in her empty condo eating penne with sausage and peppers from a plastic takeout container on Valentine's Day made her feel just a little bit pathetic.
"I've been on my feet all day," Rachel told her friend. "I just want"
"To sit down," Gemma interrupted again. "Yes, you should sit down and have a nice glass of wine."
She nodded. "Actually, a glass of wine would be nice."
Her friend nodded her understanding. "Tony refused to book any reservations past nine o'clockotherwise, we'd be here all night."
"I guess you don't get to go out for dinner on Valentine's Day, either."
Her friend blushed. "We celebrated earlier. He made me breakfast in bed, and then Well, let's just say we were almost late for work."
"Good thing he's the boss," Rachel noted.
"Only at the restaurant," Gemma said.
Rachel had to laugh. She'd gone to high school with both Gemma Battaglia and Tony Palermo. Tony's grandparentsSalvatore and Caterina Valentinowere the original owners of the restaurant when it first opened its doors almost fifty years earlier. It was, and continued to be, a family restaurant.
Tony had started bussing tables and washing dishes when he was ten years old, then he'd moved up to serving customers and helping with kitchen prep. Now he was the proprietor and head chef. Gemma had worked as a waitress in high school and for several years after, then she became a hostess and was now married to Tony. And so blissfully happy that she wanted all of her friends to be the same.
"Marco is working the bar tonight," Gemma said, referring to her youngest brother-in-law. "You tell him what you want to drink while I put your order in. Penne with sausage and peppers?"
She nodded, and her friend hurried off.
Rachel took a seat at the bar and requested a glass of valpolicella. She unbuttoned her coat as Marco poured the wine and set the glass on a napkin in front of her.
"How did you get stuck working Valentine's Day?" she asked.
"I volunteered," Marco admitted.
She raised her brows. "No plans with Tammy?"
"We broke up."
He shrugged. "How about you? Why are you here instead of dancing the night awayand maybe getting luckywith a handsome man who's not nearly good enough for you?"
"I'll consider it lucky if my feet will take me home again."
"If they won't" he lifted her hand, touched his lips to the back of it "I will."
She smiled at the twenty-two-year-old. "You better be careful, Marco, or one of these days, I just might take you up on that offer."
"I keep hoping."
Rachel knew him too well to take him seriously, but she couldn't deny that his casual flirtation was a nice boost to her ego.
"I should be out of here by ten," he said now. "We could go back to my place and"
"Stop flirting with my friend," Gemma, back from the kitchen, chastised her brother-in-law.
His gaze didn't shift away from Rachel. "Why?"
"Because she'll break your heart."
"She does every single time I see her."
Gemma shook her head at him and said to Rachel, "I've got some counter space for you in the kitchen."
"It would be easier if you just let me take it home."
"It will taste better if you're among friends," Gemma insisted.
Rachel took the second glass of wine Marco poured for her and followed the hostess to the kitchen.
A stool was waiting at the end of a stainless steel workstation that was covered with a linen cloth and set up to replicate the tables in the dining room, complete with a lit candle inside a hurricane shade.
"Okay, this is better than eating out of a take-out container," Rachel admitted.
"Of course it is," Gemma agreed, as the pantry chef set a plate of salad and a small basket of artisan breads in front of Rachel. "I need to check on the dining room, but I'll be back in a few minutes."
As the kitchen staff continued with their rhythms and routines, Rachel dug into her salad. She was about halfway through the appetizer when Gemma returned to the kitchen.
"We can squeeze another chair in here," she was saying. "I'm sure Rachel would enjoy having some company."
"I appreciate the offer, but"
"Then you won't insult me by turning it down," Gemma said.
The male voice sounded somewhat familiar, but Rachel couldn't place ituntil she lowered her fork and looked up, into Andrew Garrett's green eyes.
Andrew appreciated that Gemma had the best of intentions and a good heart, but he really just wanted to take some pasta home and be alone. Or so he thought until he saw the pretty brunette from the flower shop seated at a makeshift table in the kitchen.
When she glanced up, the widening of her deep blue eyes reflected a surprise that mirrored his own. "Oh, um, hi."
He smiled. "Hi, yourself."
The hostess's gaze shifted from one to the other. "You know each other?"
"Sort of," he said.
At the same time the florist responded, "Not really."
"Well, that clears everything up," Gemma said drily.
"Mr. Garrett's been in to Buds & Blooms a few times," she explained.
"Andrew," he told her, and, realizing that they'd never been formally introduced, offered his hand.
"Rachel Ellis," she replied.
"Why are you eating in the kitchen?" he asked her.
"Because no one wants to be alone on Valentine's Day," the hostess answered.
Rachel's cheeks flushed. "Because Gemma refused to let me take my food home."
"There seems to be a lot of that going around," Andrew noted.
"We have a couple paying their bill and no one waiting for their table, if you wanted to move into the dining room," Gemma suggested.
Rachel shook her head, immediately and vehemently. "I'm good here."
His instinctive response was the same. If they dined together in the kitchen, they could share pasta and casual conversation. But if they ate in the dining room, with soft lighting and romantic music, it would take on a whole different ambiencealmost like a date.
"Looks like a pretty good setup," he said to Rachel. "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Of course not," she said.
The words were barely out of her mouth before a waiter was at the table, setting another place. One of the chefs immediately put a salad on the table for him.
"I almost think there's better service here than in the dining room," he teased Gemma.
"Now I'm thinking that I should put your pasta in a take-out container and send you home," she countered.
He was tempted to say "please," but given a choice between sharing a meal with the florist and eating alone, he had to go with the florist.
"The truth is," he said instead, "the culinary genius of the chef is second only to the beauty of the restaurant's hostess."
Gemma laughed. "Flattery will get you anywhere you want to go in my restaurant, but now I must go back to work."