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The Virgin's Proposal
By Shirley Jump
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStanding on a street corner in a banana suit was not the most humiliating thing to happen in Katie's life, but it came in at a close second.
Dressed from head to toe in yellow felt, she barely remembered what the word dignity meant. She'd checked hers the minute Sarah had talked her into masquerading as a piece of fruit, all to increase sales.
"Hey Chiquita! Can you peel for me?" A carload of teenagers screamed past her. She might as well have been the Soak-the-Bloke clown for all the respect she'd received. Apparently, a five-foot-three, twenty-four-year-old woman in a banana suit was the funniest thing in the tiny town of Mercy, Indiana, today. What kind of suicidal tendencies had made her mention the idea of doing something unique to boost sales to Sarah, soon-to-be-ex-best friend and business partner?
The store. It was all she thought about. Sales had been low when they'd opened a year ago and kept dropping. The rent was due in two weeks, and unfortunately, their bank account didn't have a big enough balance to cover it. Katie and Sarah had yet to find a way to crack the hold their competition, Flowers and More, a shop in the nearby city of Lawford, had on Mercy. Plenty of weddings, bar mitzvahs, showers and funerals happenedaround here, but hardly anyone was buying from A Pair of Posies.
If there was some way to get people to notice the store, maybe Katie wouldn't feel like such a failure - both personally and business-wise. She was desperate to make a go of the store - desperate enough to wear the fruit suit.
She sighed. The four-tone Ford with the teens came swerving back around the corner. "You'd be King Kong's dream!"
She ignored them, her cheeks hot. Sales or no sales, the costume was humiliating. Thank God the foam head covered most of her face. The last thing she wanted was anyone finding out it was her under the peel.
She straightened the sign advertising their sale on fruit baskets, then noticed a motorcycle, gleaming in chrome and black, roar down the street toward her and slip into one of the front spaces. She bit her lip and steeled herself for another onslaught of pubescent humor. The rider pulled off his helmet and swung a denim-clad leg over the bike.
Oh. My. God. The man was no teenager and no joke. Motorcycle Man had extra-dark Hershey-brown hair that raked across his brows and set off eyes the color of a twilight sky. He was tall, taller than she and her banana head put together, and lean in a way that said he hadn't spent hours on a couch playing potato. Stonewashed jeans molded his hips; a white T-shirt hugged his chest. Topped with a battered chestnut-brown leather jacket, he looked as if he'd stepped out of a James Dean movie.
And yet, he looked familiar. But try as she might, she couldn't quite place a name with his face.
He glanced at her as he passed, smiling at her costume. A shiver tingled down her spine. With his slow, easy grin and confident step, he looked like the kind of man who knew exactly what the word pleasure meant and how to give it as well as he got it. That was a skimpy area on Katie's personal r�sum�.
"Great marketing idea," he said before disappearing into the shop.
Katie straightened her tilting foam head and wished men with movie-star looks would only stop in on days when she didn't look ready for trick-or-treating.
Just once, I wonder what it would be like to be with a man like that.
For the first time in her life, she was tempted, very, very tempted, to swallow her shyness and take a chance. To break out of the shell that had gotten her nowhere in life. Talk to him. Flirt a little. Walk on the wild side.
Well, at least cross the sidewalk. Actually walking on the wild side might be more than she could handle. And, according to the breakup letter from her ex-fianc�, Steve Spencer, it was something she would never do. When she'd proved to be too boring for his tastes, Steve had left her at the altar and run off with Katie's bridesmaid - a woman who gave him exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it. Because of that, Katie had become the most pitied person in town. All her life she'd been the good girl: dependable, obedient. It used to be a plus. But all it had done was make her a grown-up doormat.
Not to mention, still a virgin at twenty-four. She used to be proud she'd stuck to her guns, held out for her wedding night. Now she felt like the world's biggest idiot.
Make that the world's biggest banana, she amended.
For a few seconds, she stopped thinking about the shop and the horrible day she'd had so far. Her mind turned to Motorcycle Man and how a glimpse of him had her thinking about tossing her morals right out the window. They hadn't gotten her very far anyway - just alone and dressed like one of the four food groups.
My hormones have launched a mental coup, she thought. There was no other explanation for the fact she was still reeling from his smile. Imagine what a kiss from him would be like, her conspiratorial mind whispered.
Who was he? He certainly didn't live here in town, though maybe he used to and that's why he looked familiar. A man like him, a man who would leave broken hearts in his path as surely as the Presbyterian church clock would chime the hour ten minutes late, couldn't buy a soda at the Bowl-a-Rama without spurring excited twitters among the female half of Mercy's population of 4,036.
Kate wiped away the sweat beading along her brow. The late-April sun beat down, roasting her like the turkeys in a bag her mother cooked every Thanksgiving. She was tempted to toss the banana suit and rejoin the human race. She could grab an icy soda out of the fridge and plant herself under the air conditioner until icicles hung from her nose.
Katie ducked her head, moving back into the cool shade of the awning. And collided with something tall and solid. She teetered, then began to topple over, heavy banana head first. Strong arms righted her before she hit the concrete. "Thanks." She pivoted in suit-restricted geisha-girl steps to see the identity of her rescuer.
Could her day get any more humiliating? Motorcycle Man was standing behind her, a bundle of roses cushioned in one arm and that same easy grin lighting up his face. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," she managed. "Thanks for catching me before I became a banana split."
He smiled. "It's not every day I get a chance to rescue a banana in distress."
Curiosity, helped along by the anonymity of a fruit costume, overrode Katie's natural tendency to be reserved. Walk on the wild side, Katie. Just a step or two. Besides, he's a customer - no harm in being friendly.
"It must be the most apeeling part of your day." The dry humor slipped from her tongue as if she talked this way every day. Geez, put a costume on me and I become Jay Leno. "Or maybe it's better than slipping on one...."
He laughed and put up a hand. "Truce. I guess you've heard your share of jokes this morning."
"Yours just added to the total. I'm at lucky thirteen now."
She flashed him a smile which she knew he couldn't see. "Now that you've teased and nearly toppled me, the least you can do is tell me who you are."
He extended his hand. "Matt Webster."
The name immediately clicked. Handsome and rich renegade son of the Webster family. A few years older than her, so not someone Katie had really known. She did remember the huge wedding-of-the-century his family had held for him ten years or so ago, but then he'd left town and no one had heard much about him since.
She pulled off her glove and shook. His hand was slightly rough and callused, but large, capable and strong. And bare of a wedding ring, she noted. "Katie Dole."
She saw him try to hold back the laughter, but it burst out all the same. "You're joking, right?"
"No relation to the fruit company, I presume?"
She shook her head, the foam head bobbing. "I'm not that lucky."
Excerpted from The Virgin's Proposal by Shirley Jump Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.