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Xavier Philip Eaton maneuvered into the empty parking space on King Street. The owner of one of the antiques shops lining the street had called him the day before to let him know that she'd been able to acquire some crystal and silver serving pieces from an estate sale, which he was thinking of giving his sister as a wedding gift. In less than three months, his sister Denise would be getting married and changing her last name from Eaton to Fennell.
He'd been as surprised as his parents were when Denise announced that she'd reconciled with her college sweetheart after a six-year separationand was marrying the successful Washington, D.C. businessman Garrett Fennell on New Year's Eve. When Xavier had asked his mother Paulette Eaton about a wedding gift, she'd suggested giving the couple something in keeping with the late-nineteenth-century architecture of their D.C. town house. His future brother-in-law, Garrett, had purchased a four-story town house just blocks from the city's trendy, upscale Dupont Circle, renovating the first three floors for his various holding companies and the fourth floor as their personal residence. The renovations were scheduled to be completed before the end of the year, and Denise had decided to decorate the town house with period antiques and reproductions. Besides the wedding gift, he also had to buy something for his sister's upcoming birthday.
As the brother of the bride, Xavier was not only part of the ceremony, but he would have the honor of walking his sister down the aisle, since their father Judge Boaz Eaton had agreed to officiate. For the moment Denise's wedding had taken the pressure off of him, since his mother was obsessed with having her children get married and giving her grandchildren. It seemed Paulette Eaton was competing with her sister-in-law, Roberta Eaton, whose children had all married and made her a grandmother many times over.
Xavier wasn't against marriage, per se. It was just that he hadn't met a woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Considering his former girlfriends, he could honestly say there hadn't been "one that got away." He'd been forthcoming with the women he'd dated, admitting that he wasn't ready to settle down and become a husband and father. And at the time, he wasn't certain where he'd wanted to go with his military career. Most of the women respected his honesty, and many of them had remained friends even after their relationship ended. Those who wanted marriage opted for a more permanent break.
In the past year, he had undergone major changes in his life. A combat injury had ended his military career, and he had moved back to Charleston, South Carolina for the second time in more than a decade. In college, he'd been a student at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where he'd graduated with distinction. He'd subsequently enrolled in The Citadel's graduate school, earning a degree in U.S. History and then went on to earn another degree at the Marine Corps War College. This time, he was back in Charleston not as a student, but as a teacher at a small, elite military prep school, teaching U.S. Military History. Just when he'd thought his days of wearing a uniform were over, he found out he still had to wear one whenever he was on campus.
It was late September, and the sultry heat of summer had not yet subsided. After growing up in Pennsylvania, he'd come to appreciate the relatively mild Southern seasons. Walking along King Street, he slowed his pace when he peered into the window of a pastry shop that displayed desserts and sweets reminiscent of a Parisian patisserie.
He smiled when he read the white lettering on the dark blue awning: Sweet Persuasions. The delectable confections were the pastry shop's best advertising. Xavier stared through the front window at the customers sitting at bistro tables, sipping espresso and noshing on savories and tarts. When he saw a sign indicating that shipping was available, he knew exactly what he'd get Denise for her birthday. He'd always thought of his sister as delicate when it came to desserts. She preferred chocolate eclairs and tiramisu to pound cake or peach cobbler.
He opened the doorpainted a high-gloss, dark blueand walked into the cool air-conditioned space. The soft tinkling of the bell just inside the door caught the attention of the young woman behind the counter. She offered him a friendly smile.
"Good morning. Welcome to Sweet Persuasions."
Xavier went completely still. Her voice was as enticing to his ear as the pastries in the window were to the eye. The sound of her voice was low, rich and ethereally melodic. The inflection had Charleston overtones, but not so much that he could detect exactly where she was from.
"Good morning," he said, reluctantly pulling his gaze away from the face that matched the hypnotic accent. If he had been asked to describe her, it would have been in the mouthwatering way one describes a confectionery masterpiece. Her face was the color of toasted hazelnuts, and her almond-shaped eyes were as dark as chocolate chips. He liked the way her nose crinkled when she smiled, but it was her mouth with its perfectly curved lips that garnered his rapt attention. His gaze shifted from the blue-and-white-checkered scarf tied around her hair to the trays of pastries, cookies and tarts.
"May I help you with something?" Xavier stood awestruck. "Sir?" she said, when he didn't respond.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he apologized. "Everything looks too pretty to eat."
Selena Yates felt her heart rate kick into a higher gear when she stared at the tall, slender man who'd walked into her pastry shop. She had lost count of the number of gorgeous men she'd seen since moving from West Virginia to Los Angeles and now Charleston, but the one standing before her literally and figuratively took the cake. He was more than delicioushe was scrumptious.
He wore a white polo shirt and khakis with the aplomb of a well-tailored suit. There was something in his ramrod-straight posture that commanded attention. Thick black eyebrows framed a lean reddish-brown face that lifted a fraction when their gazes met and fused. She found the deep dimples in his face breathtaking whenever he smiled. There was a tattoo on his inner right arm, but she wasn't able to make it out.
"Is there anything you'd like to sample?" she asked.
Xavier laughed heartily, the rich sound bubbling up from his chest. "I don't think you'd want me to do that," he said when he sobered.
Selena smiled. "Why not?"
He leaned in closer. "Because, I'd inhale everything in here like an anteater. I saw the sign said that you do shipping. Where?"
"We can ship our goods anywhere in the lower forty-eight."
"Overnight?" he asked.
"I can guarantee overnight if it's along the east coast. Otherwise, it'll be two-day delivery. Your order will be packed and sealed in a special container that is heat resistant, ensuring that it will be fresh by the time it arrives."
Smiling, Xavier continued to stare into the dark eyes that didn't seem to look at him as much as through him. "I'd like to send something to my sister in D.C. for her birthday. What would you suggest?"
"Is she allergic to chocolate or nuts?" Selena asked him.
It wasn't often that she had male customers. Most of her patrons were women who came into the shop to enjoy specialty coffees and teas with a pastry or savory tart, or to pick up an assortment of cookies or sweets for their offices, or to place an order for a special occasion. In the six months since the shop opened, Selena had been blessed because business was good. Some of her customers had standing orders, and her mail-order business had increased appreciably in the past few months.
Xavier shook his head. He pointed to a tray with cream-filled chocolate cookies. "She prefers sweets like these."
Selena peered into the showcase. "Those are hazelnut galettes. They're chocolate rounds filled with fromage frais, a kind of cream cheese," she explained.
"Will they stay fresh during shipping?"
She wanted to ask him if he'd heard her when she'd mentioned the special shipping container. Flashing a smile usually reserved for children, Selena nodded. "If it arrives inedible, then I'll replace the order at no charge. By the way, they are usually served chilled."
Xavier moved along the length of the display case, his gaze lingering on the trays of brownies. "What kind of brownies are these?" he asked.
"Those are caramel-pecan." Selena reached for a pair of tongs and a napkin with her clear latex gloves. She picked up a brownie square, and handed it to Xavier. "Taste it."
He bit into the moist fudge, chewing slowly while shaking his head. "That's definitely X-rated," he drawled, after swallowing.
"The sweets in this showcase are what I call decadent de-lectables."
Xavier took another bite. "I take it back. It is triple-X-rated."
That's what Selena loved, someone who appreciated her variation on the classic brownie recipe. "Do you think your sister would like the brownies?"
"Yes." If there was one thing Xavier knew for certain, it was that Denise was a chocoholic. "She loves chocolate," he added.
Selena smiled. "Do you mind if I put together an assortment that I think she might like?"
"I'll need you to fill out the shipping information." She pointed to a counter-height table with an empty stool in the corner. "The forms are over there. I'd appreciate it if you would sign the guestbook so that I can send you notices about our specials."
Reaching for his BlackBerry, Xavier scrolled through the directory for Denise's address. He filled out the shipping information, but decided it was best to send the package to her job instead of her apartment.
The coziness of the shop enveloped him as he hummed along with the soft music piped in through the speakers. Three couples sat at bistro tables, talking quietly as the tantalizing aroma of coffee filled the shop. Sweet Persuasions was exactly what the name implied. The subtle charm of the owner and the tantalizing pastries had drawn him in. But taste had been what sealed the deal. His gaze lingered on the raised lettering on the stack of business cards in a silver tray. A smile tilted the corners of his mouth. If the woman with the sensual voice behind the counter was the owner, then she had to be Selena Yates.
As he completed the shipping information, Xavier thought about his mother. Since she had retired from teaching, she'd begun baking in her spare time. Even though Paulette Eaton's cakes and cookies were delicious, they weren't as fancy or elaborate as those in Sweet Persuasions.
He picked up another shipping label. "I'd like another box like the one you're putting together."
Selena's hand stilled. "Is it going to the same address?"
"No. The other one is being shipped to Philadelphia."
"If you look in the drawer under the table, you'll see a choice of note cards and envelopes. Take the ones you want to accompany your orders."
Selena reached for a white box stamped with the shop's logo, filling it with brownies and miniature raspberry and peach almond cream tarts. She added two slices of a chocolate pecan torte and hand-rolled chocolate mocha candies filled with nuts and dried fruit.
She packed a smaller box with four one-ounce jars of homemade preserves: strawberry, plum-vanilla, blueberry-maple and peach. "All first-time customers receive homemade preserves as a gift," she told Xavier, as he stared at the tiny jars tied with blue-and-white ribbon.
"That's really nice," he crooned. He handed her the shipping forms.
Selena noticed that both labels were addressed to women with the same last name. She glanced at the return address. Now she had a name to go along with the face: Xavier Eaton. What she also noticed was that he lived in Charleston, so there was the distinct possibility that he would become a regular customer. Repeat business and local referrals had made Sweet Persuasions profitable.
"They'll go out today and they should receive them tomorrow."
Xavier took a small leather case from his pocket, and handed Selena a credit card. She stared at the plastic card. That's when he realized she was staring at the tattoo on his arm. He'd been tattooed twice. The first time was the Marine Corps insigniaa globe of the western hemisphere with an anchor through it and an eagle on topover his heart. He'd gotten the second tattoo after he was discharged.
As she took his credit card, Selena noticed that the image of a helmet resting on a rifle between a pair of boots, with the words Never Forgotten was the same as the one her brother had tattooed on one of his biceps.
Xavier's eyebrows lifted a fraction. "Does my tattoo bother you?"
Selena shook her head as she processed his payment. "No. My brother has the same one."
"Is he active?"
"No. He was in the reserves. But after two tours in Iraq, he decided it was time to get out. His wife threatened to divorce him if he didn't," she said, trying to avoid his gaze. "Are you active?"
Xavier exhaled an audible sigh. "No."
"Were you deployed?"
There came a moment of uncomfortable silence. "Yes," he finally said.
Selena felt the handsome stranger withdraw, even though the timbre of his voice hadn't changed. It was something she'd witnessed whenever her brother Luke had come home on leave. He'd spend hours locked in his bedroom, and when he'd emerged sometime later he was the brother she'd recognized from their youththe practical joker.
"I'm sorry for prying."
Xavier forced a smile. "It's okay. You weren't prying."
If he hadn't worn a short-sleeved shirt, then she never would have seen the tattoo, he thought. He'd gotten it before the corps began cracking down on them. Suddenly, he seemed all too aware of it.
The carefree demeanor Selena had exhibited when he'd walked into Sweet Persuasions was now missing. "I'll be back to let you know whether my mother and sister enjoy them," Xavier said, hoping her smile and the cute way her nose creased would return.
"You can email me your comments."
He didn't know whether Selena Yates was married, single or engaged. But there was something about her that made him want to see her again. "I'll come by. Maybe next time I'll buy something for myself." She smiled, her eyes lighting up like a hundred-watt bulb. There were some people who smiled with their eyes or mouths, but with her it was both.
"Thank you, Mr. Eaton. I'd like that very much."
She could not afford to turn away any new customer. She knew the risks of starting a new business, especially in a tough economy. But opening up a patisserie when she'd had no experience running a business at all defied common sense.
"It's Xavier," he corrected.
Selena extended her hand. "And I'm Selena."
He took her hand, holding it gently between his much larger one. "It's nice to meet you, Selena." Reluctantly he released her delicate fingers. "I'll be seeing you." Turning on his heels, Xavier walked to the door, standing aside to let a petite, dark-skinned woman with chin-length twists enter.
"Thank you," she crooned seductively.