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Unemployed. Single. And out of brownie mix.
Lori Perkins tapped her nails against the open pantry door. Canned vegetables and peanut butter crackers were nowhere near sufficient for this kind of low. She rested her forehead against the frame and blew a strand of dark hair out of her eyes. It really wasn't her fault—well, maybe two of the three problems were. She probably shouldn't have quit her job at the aquarium gift shop before the administrative position across town was a done deal, and she definitely should have gone to the grocery store before her chocolate stash ran out. But her single status was most certainly not of her own choosing. Add the fact that Valentine's Day was mere weeks away, and it became official. She was broke, hungry and destined to be alone.
The cordless phone on the counter jangled a shrill ring, and Lori snatched it up while peering one more time at the contents of her bottom shelf. "Hello?"
"Lori? I can barely hear you. Are you in a tunnel?" It was her friend Andy Stewart, the youth pastor at her church, L'Eglise de Grace.
She stretched one arm toward the back of the shelf. "No. The pantry."
"Searching for chocolate, I assume."
"Funny." So what if she'd become a little predictable over the years? Lori fumbled around a jar of peanut butter and felt a crinkly wrapper. Maybe a forgotten candy bar? No, just another package of crackers. She let out a huff. Was a little chocolate too much to ask for a girl having one of the worst days of her life?
"Are you all right? I can call back."
Lori shut the pantry door with a loud click and rested her back against the wooden panels. "I need chocolate."
"You're out? How is that possible?"
"Gracie helped me finish the last of my emergency stash."
"And she didn't refill?"
"There wasn't time before the wedding." She supposed Gracie had more important things on her mind at the time, like planning a honeymoon. Excited as she was for her friend's new life, Lori couldn't help the flicker of jealousy in her stomach. Happily-ever-after endings apparently weren't meant for everyone—her ex, Jason, had proven that point well enough.
She slammed the brakes on her runaway train of negative thoughts. "Look, is there a point to this conversation, or can I finish my desperate search for relief now?"
"Ouch. Bad day?"
"Did you not hear me say I'm out of chocolate?" Men. The cute ones cheated, and the funny ones were dense. Take Andy, for example. They'd been practically best friends for how long now—two years? Three? And he'd never once considered Lori as anything more.
Though it was probably for the best. If bitter thoughts of Jason still crept in her subconscious, she wasn't ready for more. The need for chocolate intensified, and Lori squeezed her eyes shut. Maybe if she pretended hard enough she could—
Andy cleared his throat. "How about I bring over some chocolate doughnuts? I have something I need to talk to you about."
Lori stopped the no from automatically rolling off her tongue. She preferred to indulge in her chocolate bad moods by herself, but without the chocolate, the bad-mood part sounded pretty lonely. "Fine. See you in twenty."
"You're late." Lori snatched the box of doughnuts from Andy's hands and left him to shut the front door of her town house. Hopefully, the smile she flashed softened her short words. She didn't want to sound ungrateful, but she had yet to consume any chocolate. She'd be nice after the sugar melted in her system.
Lori ripped two napkins free from the stand and tossed one in Andy's general direction as he leaned against the kitchen counter. "Thanks, by the way." She ripped open the box and inhaled the warm chocolate scent. Finally.
"I only brought a dozen. Hope that's enough." Andy's cheeky grin didn't even bother Lori as the sugar dissolved on her tongue. Bliss. She reached for a second.
"You know, some people might call this constant craving of yours an addiction." He plucked a pastry from the box and tore it in half before stuffing one piece in his mouth. Chocolate smeared down the side of his clean-shaven jaw.
"You tell me this like I'm supposed to care." She grinned back and licked her fingers, deciding not to tell him about the mess on his face. Call it revenge for that time she volunteered at the youth service and unknowingly wore a dot of whipped cream on the end of her nose for two hours.
Andy snorted and tossed a swoop of blond hair out of his eyes. "It's a miracle you don't weigh a ton. Even my youth group doesn't eat like this."
Lori patted her flat stomach. "Good genes. Now, did you come here to discuss my appetite, or was there something else?" She went for another doughnut, dodging Andy's attempt to swat her hand. Forget endorphins from exercise. This was much easier.
Andy swiped his face with his napkin before crumpling it into a ball. "I have a question for you, and ironically, it involves chocolate."
"Mmm, go on." At this rate Lori could almost forget her bad day. Should she go for a fourth? Her stomach rolled a negative answer, and she quickly tucked the lid back into the corners of the box. Breakfast for tomorrow—hopefully Andy didn' t think he was taking any of these babies home with him.
Andy leaned forward and rested his elbows on the counter. "You remember my aunt Bella?"
"Of course. She owns that chocolate shop in the French Quarter." Lori hopped onto the bar stool next to Andy. "I'm in there every time I have enough spare change for a chocolate crocodile. Those things are delicious." Though due to her current unemployed status, spare change might soon be a thing of the past. She sobered.
"Right. Well, she's had a family emergency. Her sister in Shreveport needs around-the-clock care for a while. She has to leave the store with someone temporarily, and I thought of you when she asked if anyone in the church needed a job."
Lori raised an eyebrow. "Why me?"
Andy ticked the reasons off on his fingers. "You ran the gift shop at the aquarium for years. You have an associate's degree in business. And you're currently unemployed, unless something has changed since you told me yesterday. Besides, she's got a college student working part-time, so you wouldn't be thrown in there alone."
Lori nibbled her bottom lip, tasting the leftover remains of doughnut. Working in a chocolate boutique. It did sound perfect for her—but would her fast metabolism hold up to that much temptation? She squinted. Maybe if she limited herself to one piece a day…
"Lori? Are you still with me, or have you slipped into a doughnut-induced coma?" Andy waved his hand in front of her face.
She slapped his hand away. "I'm debating."
"Another pro/con list?"
"No, I gave those up after my list suggested it'd be smart to go jogging after eating a double cheeseburger." For now, anyway. She'd never actually be able to give up her beloved lists.
Andy winced. "Sorry I asked. So?"
So. Working around that rich, tantalizing aroma all day, every day. Bringing joy to people's faces with bonbons and caramel creams and chocolate-dipped marshmallows…and better yet, distracting herself from the fact she hadn't had a date in over a year.
Lori smiled. "Count me in."
"A pie in the face is only funny on TV, Jeremy. Not during church." Andy tried to keep a straight face as he studied the cream-covered teenage duo in front of him. Tufts of meringue rose from the top of the football player's dark hair and peaked beside his ears. "In my opinion, you sort of had the payback coming."
"Ha!" Haley, Jeremy's off-again, on-again girlfriend, stuck out her tongue. Strawberry-pie filling smeared down the side of her cheek, and one hip remained cocked, a sure sign the little spitfire was mad. She tossed her pastry-streaked braids over her shoulder. "I told you he wouldn't get me in trouble."
"On the contrary." Andy struggled to keep his lips from turning up. He couldn't laugh in front of them. Two of his favorite youth-group members—but also the two responsible for those silver hairs he found in his sideburns last week. He cleared his throat. "You're both cleaning up the kitchen in the gym from this little war, and you're on door-greeting duty for three weeks."
Relief etched across Jeremy's tanned features as he relaxed against the door frame. "That seems fair."
"Did I mention you're also going to bring dessert to next Wednesday night's youth service?"
Jeremy's mouth opened.
"Since this pie was sacrificed on the altar of fun and games, it only seems fair." Andy crossed his arms over his chest, daring him to argue.
Haley laughed and pointed at Jeremy. "You have to—"
"I meant both of you."
Her arm fell to her side, and she glared.
"I want it homemade. Together." That would teach them to get along. "And while you're at it, why not make it red and white to celebrate the upcoming holiday?" He bit back another smile. Maybe frosting hearts on a few cupcakes would get the two of them back in their disgustingly lovey-dovey yet nonfood-throwing stage in time for Valentine's Day. He definitely didn't want to deal with two heartbroken teenagers.
Jeremy's eyes widened with panic. A frown dimpled Haley's forehead. "Homemade? We can't—"
"Dishrags are in the drawer beside the fridge. Better get to cleaning." Andy sat in his chair, ducking his head and dismissing them as he pretended to shuffle through the youth calendar on his desk. He pursed his lips. If they didn't leave now—
Footsteps sounded down the hall, Haley's angry mutterings at Jeremy drifting in their wake. Andy palmed his hand over his mouth and finally released his laugh. What a couple. If those two made it down the aisle one day, he could only imagine the cake-feeding moment at the wedding reception.
Too bad Lori didn't get to see their argument. Scratch that— she'd probably have started the food fight. But she'd left early from the youth service, abandoning her usual after-church chaperoning duty to meet Aunt Bella for a job interview.
Andy leaned back in his chair, the leather creaking in protest, and crossed his arms behind his head. Lori should be an easy hire—she'd be great at the position, and Aunt Bella was in a hurry to head north to her family. It seemed like a good match. Hopefully he'd know soon.
A knock sounded on his open office door. Senior Pastor Mike Kinsey held up one hand in a wave. "Andy. I'm glad you're still here."
Andy quickly stood. "Come on in, Pastor." He motioned toward the empty chair across his desk. "Have a seat."
"Those two…" Mike gestured toward the direction Haley and Jeremy had gone and shook his head with a slight smile. "They must keep you busy."
"They still arguing out there?"
"Something about cakes versus brownies." Mike sat.
Andy settled into his chair. "It's a long, messy story."
"I can imagine." The smile slowly faded from Mike's face, and his expression sobered. "Listen, Andy. There's something I need to discuss with you."
Mike shrugged, but the crease between his brows gave him away.
Andy drew a steadying breath. Maybe one of the youth had gotten into some minor trouble. Or maybe the pastor was discouraged about the youth group's sudden drop in attendance these past few weeks. One solemn conversation didn't necessarily mean his job was on the line. He flexed his fingers in his lap.
"I take it you heard about the youth minister who was fired last week?"
Andy nodded. The incident had been on the news for days. A youth pastor at a church across town had been arrested for inappropriate conduct with a minor—one of his own youth-group members. The ordeal had made Andy sick.
"It's created talk in our church."
Andy raised one eyebrow. "Talk?"
"There's no easy way to say this." Mike tugged at his tie. The fluorescent light above their heads buzzed, nearly deafening in the sudden silence. Andy's fingers found a pencil on his desktop, and he gripped it hard. Say it, just say it.
"Some of the parents of our youth have made comments about your single status." Mike released his tie, and his hands fell limply to his lap.
"They feel it creates a bad image. That you'd be a better minister if you were, well… married."
"Married?" he couldn't stop parroting. His own church doubted his integrity? The room darkened around the edges, and he sucked in a tight breath. "That's… Sir, I—"
"It sounds harsher than they mean it. They just want to protect you."
Andy's throat constricted. "And their children."
Mike's shoulders drooped. "That, too."
"They don't trust me?" His stomach felt like he'd swallowed the mirrored paperweight on his desk.
"You've proven yourself to their kids over and over. They're just paranoid right now. That scandal really stirred everyone up."
Apparently. Andy pulled one arm across his chest in a stretch and tried to ignore the way the room closed in like a claustro-phobic's worst nightmare. Marriage. Like it was that easy to find the perfect woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
His eyes drifted to the framed photo on his desk, taken last summer during youth camp in Baton Rouge. Lori stood front and center next to his gang of miscreants, all wearing big smiles and matching yellow tees. His eyes lingered on Lori's image, then quickly darted back to Mike.
"With all due respect, sir, doesn't the congregation realize that if it were so easy, I'd be married by now? It's not like I particularly enjoy going home every night to hot dogs and reality TV reruns."
"I can imagine. However…" Mike shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
Andy's stomach rolled again. Something was up. He braced his elbows against the edge of the desk. "What are you really saying, Pastor?"
Mike twisted his gold wedding band around on his finger. "That the church board would like for you to get serious about finding a wife." He cleared his throat, then met Andy's gaze. "The sooner the better."
"What have I gotten myself into?" The whispered words drifted toward the pink-painted ceiling, riding the wake of a delicious chocolate aroma. Lori planted her hands on the glass display counter and eyed the cozy boutique. Black iron tables for two snuggled in various corners of the shop, inviting patrons to linger over their coffee and chocolate. Fresh roses offered a splash of pink in the center of each table, and the black-and-white tiled floor appeared freshly scrubbed. Bella had left the Chocolate Gator in pristine condition—Lori hoped she'd be able to return it in the same shape after nearly two months.