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As usual, Marissa Hawthorne was one knight short of a fairy tale.
She stared at the flat rear tire of her wellused SUV, as if her glare might somehow put more air into the rubber. "Great." Swiping a loose strand of blond hair out of her eyes, she let out a sigh. Just when she thought she'd finally adjusted to widowhood over the yearsthe empty right side of the bed, the leftovers from dinner, the struggles of single parentingtimes like this highlighted the fact that she was truly alone.
Marissa tilted her head and studied the tire. She could probably figure out how to put on the spare, but she doubted her ability to jack up the car by herself. Not to mention the late morning Louisiana humidity had already sent a trail of perspiration down her back, despite the lingering remains of spring. At least she had made it to the parking lot of her event planning office, Your Special Day, before the mangled tire bent the rim and added that expense to the incident. She'd dropped Owen off at school and had turned on Spruce Street to head to work, when she felt the telltale thumping of the wheel.
Marissa braced one arm against the door of the hatch and briefly closed her eyes. Nothing to do but give it her best trycalling her dad was out of the question, nor did she want to shell out extra cash she didn't have to spare for a road service crew.
God, You know I don't ask for a lot of favors anymore. But can't I get a break? Just one? She opened the rear door and tugged at the flooring that covered the spare. Here went nothing.
"Need a hand?"
Marissa jerked upright at the deep voice breaking the silence of the parking lot. A tall, darkhaired man wearing jeans and black sunglasses strolled toward her. She'd been so caught up in her own turmoil she hadn't even heard his truck pull into a space across the lot. Marissa forced a smile, a polite no ready to roll off her lips, when the stranger whisked off his sunglasses. Pale blue eyes stared into hers, and her heart stuttered. The stranger's cleanshaven jaw broke into a smile that could have easily thawed winter's chill if the April sun hadn't already long done so. She opened her mouth, but couldn't find her voice.
"I'm Jacob Greene." He held out his hand and she shook it, mentally kicking herself for the distraction. He's only a man, Marissa, not a celebrity. Although he certainly could have been, with those chiseled good looks. In fact, he almost seemed familiarbut she couldn't place how.
She cleared her throat. "Marissa Hawthorne. I own Your Special Day." She released his hand and pointed to the store behind them.
"Then you're the lady I was coming to see." He smiled again, his teeth white and even against his tanned skin. His gaze drifted to her SUV. "And it looks like I was just in time."
You have no idea. Maybe God was still in the business of answering her prayers after all. Marissa smiled back. "I hate to play the damsel in distress, but I have to admit, this one has me stumped. I'd say I was having a Monday, if this wasn't Wednesday."
Jacob laughed. "I know what you mean. We all have those days." He easily removed the tire from the hatch and set it on the ground. "I can have you ready to go in a few minutes."
"I really appreciate it. It's not a big rush, since I'm already at work. I just need to be able to pick up my son later this afternoon from school." She pushed up the sleeves of her thin, peasantstyle blouse, trying to force her eyes away from the tight lines of muscle in Jacob's arms as he worked the lug nuts loose on the flat.
Jacob's eyes darted to hers, then back to the tire as he worked. "That shouldn't be an issue. How old is your son?"
"Owen's seven." Marissa tugged absently at the necklace she wore every dayan amethyst symbolizing Owen's February birthdayher stomach churning at the realization of how quickly her baby boy was growing up. Time was flying fasttoo fast. Kevin had been dead almost five years now, and she'd been back in her hometown of Orchid Hill, Louisiana, for a little over a year. Sometimes it seemed as if the last few years were nothing but a dream.
Sometimes a nightmare.
"I have a niece who is about to turn seven." Jacob wrestled the jack into place and began to hike up the SUV. He grunted with the effort. "She goes to Orchid Hill Elementary."
"So does Owen."
Jacob grinned. "Small world."
"I'm not sure about that, but it's definitely a small town." Marissa looked away, her fingers zipping over the necklace chain as she pretended to study something over her shoulder. Did he have any idea the effect of those dimples? They were downright dangerous.
She shouldn't notice such things. Dating was not a priorityOwen remained planted at the top of that short list, which meant work lingered a close second in order to provide for her son. Thankfully business had been good. At least the recession didn't seem to stop people from celebrating the milestones in their lives.
A familiar tsunami of regret washed over Marissa, mingling with the wind that teased the loose hairs from her hastily applied clip. Happy as she was with Owen, Marissa couldn't help the melancholy that sometimes took over when she was planning a wedding shower or anniversary party for a client. She and Kevin might not have had the happiest of marriages, and he might have put his firefighting career over his family to a fault just like her fatherbut it was still hard to face the fact that she would likely never get to celebrate an anniversary again. As a single mom and a business owner, who had time for anything else?
She tore her gaze away from the navy Tshirt stretching across Jacob's broad shoulders. Nope, no point in noticing his dimples. Or his muscles. Or the way his dark hair curled over his forehead
Marissa jerked as the wrench clattered to the pavement. Jacob removed the flat tire and began to assemble the spare. "Be sure not to drive on this thing for very longor very fast. The last thing you want is a blowout."
"No kidding." Marissa shuddered. "Thank you again for your help. I'd have been stuck." If not physically stuck, then financiallyor emotionally if she'd been forced to cave and call her dad to bail her out.
Jacob tightened the last of the lug nuts and stood, swiping his hands on the legs of his pants before placing the tools and the flat back into the hatch. "Think nothing of it. I'm glad to help awhat'd you call yourself? Damsel in distress?" He grinned, then shut the rear door and wiped sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve.
Marissa's business skills snapped back into effect at his tired gesture, and she motioned toward her office. "Come on inside, let me get you some water. It's the least I can do."
"That sounds good." Jacob fell into step beside her as they crossed the lot to her small, but functional, office space. He opened the door for her. "Ladies first."
Apparently chivalry wasn't dead in Orchid Hill, after all. Marissa thanked him and hurried to grab a bottle of water from the dorm fridge she kept beside her desk. She handed it to him. "Have a seat."
"Nice place." Jacob twisted the lid off the bottle and took a long sip as he looked around the open room, painted yellow with a mural of balloons and children on the far wall, and she couldn't help but warm at the compliment. He paused to touch the top of a bobblehead clown on the bookshelf that held party theme books. "Festive. Olivia would love that."
"Olivia?" His girlfriend, probably. Good thing she decided to put thoughts of his dimples far away. Marissa sat down behind her desk, grateful to be back on her own turf. She might not know anything about changing tires, but she knew party planning. Maybe she could offer Jacoband Oliviaa discount for his help.
"Olivia is my niece." Jacob took the chair across from her desk and finished his water with a quick swig.
Niece. Not girlfriend. Marissa tried to ignore the relief that seeped into her stomach and nodded for him to go on.
"That's why I came to your store in the first place, actually," Jacob continued.
"So it wasn't because you received my desperate SOS signal?" Marissa grinned, then regretted the way her heart thumped when Jacob smiled back, dimples on high alert.
"I thought I heard something." He laughed. "Seriously, though, I was hoping to hire you to plan my niece's birthday party."
"Sounds good." Marissa flipped open her leather day planner and fanned through the pages. Hopefully he wouldn't choose the weeks coming up that she had blocked off for the upcoming fundraiser. A city budget cut had recently led to a decision to lay off six firemen, and members of Orchid Hill Church asked Marissa to organize a big fundraiser for the affected families. As the daughter of one fireman and the widow of another, Marissa could relate all too easily to the families involved and was glad someone had come up with a way to help.
Even if her father, Fire Chief Lyle Brady, wasn't nearly as thrilled by Marissa's participation.
Marissa tapped her calendar with her pen. "What date did you have in mind?"
Jacob offered a sheepish shrug. "That's where my next question comes in. It's sort of short notice."
Marissa looked up. "How short?"
"Less than three weeks away."
"How much less?" Marissa's eyebrows rose.
Jacob's lips twisted to the side. "Four days?"
She couldn't help but laugh. "The party is supposed to be in two weeks and three days?"
"Hey, you're quick with math." He winked, and her stomach flipped with regret at the thought of disappointing him. She had a policy about lastminute parties she didn't take them. But how could she turn him down when he had just done her a huge favor with her car?
She drew a deep breath. It was business, nothing personal. Surely he would understand. "I wish I could, but I have a policy against short notices. It takes time away from Owen." She gestured to the framed photo on her cherry credenza, where Owen struck a muscleman pose for the camera. Feeling wistful, she admired his silky blond hair that matched her own. "Being a single mom is rough enough without working overtime." That was the understatement of the century.
"I'm sure it does."
Why Marissa wanted to share more with him, she didn't know. She swallowed. "I'm a widow."
Jacob's sky blue eyes met hers, full of compassion and something else she couldn't identify. Respect? Admiration? "I'm sorry to hear that."
Marissa lifted one shoulder in a shrug and forced a small smile. "It all happened a long time ago." More like a lifetime.
Jacob nodded slowly. "Listen, Marissa. Normally I would accept your reasons and leave it at that, but I'm sort of desperate. I want my niece to have the celebration she deserves." His expression tightened. "Olivia's family has had a rough couple of weeks, and their budget is tight, to put it mildly. I don't want that to affect her birthday. They've all been through enough."
Marissa's resolve weakened. Handsome, charming and a family man. She shouldn't be following that train of thought, but it chugged into her head regardless as she stared at her day planner. Maybe she could squeeze in one birthday party for a deserving little girlbut no, she didn't even have a location nailed down yet for the fundraiser. If she overbooked herself now, that event would suffer, and the families of the firemen would be even more disappointed than they already were.
She clicked her ballpoint pen on and off, debating, then slowly shook her head. "I admire that and wish I could make an exception. I really dobut a big festival has my schedule tighter than usual right now."
"What festival is that?" Jacob leaned forward as if truly interested in what Marissa had to say. When was the last time a man had looked at her in that way?
She shook her head to clear it. "The Fireman's Festivalto raise money for the families of the local firemen who were recently laid off."
Jacob's eyes widened. "You're the woman organizing the fundraiser? My church is the one that hired you." He smiled. "Like I said, small world."
No kidding. If she knew guys like Jacob still went to church, she might have given it another try instead of spending Sundays sleeping in with Owen. Her faith took a hit after Kevin's death, and so far church brought more grief than healing. It was easier to drown reality in iced PopTarts and cartoons while snuggling with her little man. Marissa forced her thoughts back to the present. "How'd you hear about Your Special Day if not through your church?"
Good to know that chunk of money had been a good investment. Though, at this point, a partially wasted one, since she wouldn't be able to plan the birthday party for him and his niece.
Jacob hooked one ankle over the other, as if settling in for a long conversation. "I know the church appreciates your taking the job. Pastor Rob mentioned the generous discount you're paying forward to the cause."
A warm flush crept up Marissa's neck. She'd hoped to keep that part quietit was embarrassing, especially if people found out how emotionally against the profession of firefighting she remained in the first place. No one would understand why she was doing it. But then again, most people weren't twentyeightyearold widows of a fireman, struggling to raise a child alone. "It's not a big deal. Not compared to what these guys are going through, I'm sure."
Though, a part of her couldn't help but think the laidoff firemen's wives had to be relieved. After the uniformed men lowered Kevin's casket into the ground, Marissa held Owen close and promised herself that if she ever dated again, any future prospects would have a desk jobsomething safe, with predictable hours and lots of free time for family. Between her late husband and her father, she was through with missed holidays and shift work. She wanted to be number one in someone's life.
That is, if she ever figured out how to live again.
The first thing Jacob Greene had noticed when he had walked across the parking lot was the beautiful, petite blonde wrestling with the hatch floorboard of her SUV. After she'd mentioned her son, his heart sank. Of course someone like her would have been snatched up long ago. But the mention of her single status and that telltale bare ring finger lifted his spirits a second time.
Jacob smiled at Marissa from across her office desk. The water he'd chugged down churned in his stomach at her sweet grin of response. He hoped he hadn't made too big an idiot of himself, staring at her the way he had outside when he first arrived. He'd been tempted to leave the sunglasses on to prevent her from noticing during his stroll across the lot. But she'd finally introduced herself in that confident, slightly Southern voice that warmed his insides like his favorite cinnamon rolls and settled in just as sweet, and he couldn't help but relax.