Excerpt - Awakened By a Kiss
Book 5: Once Upon A Romance Series
“What do you mean, you can’t make it, Rico?” Evelyn White grasped her cell phone as she rushed across the marble floor of King’s Department Store. “Hold the door!” she called out as she grew closer to the executive elevator.
The muted gold doors jerked to a halt a foot apart and then slowly opened again.
“Thank you,” she whispered to her unknown rescuer.
“Moi?” Rico’s voice faded in and out.
She pressed the cell phone to her ear. In her other hand, she clutched the bulky black portfolio and barely held onto the straps of her bulging black tote bag. “Not you. Look, you can’t stand me up.”
“I’m not ditching you. I’ll be late. L-A-T-E. That’s all.”
Evelyn slid the last few inches and lunged across the elevator threshold. Several objects in her overstuffed tote flew out. She cursed under her breath. Her hair covered her eyes, but she became aware of a man in the small enclosure.
“Here, let me,” he said. His voice held a deep, rich quality that tugged at her.
He eased the portfolio and tote out of her grasp, relieving her of her bulky burdens. With his other hand, he clasped her elbow and helped her straighten to her feet. Heat seared her where he touched.
Blowing the strands of hair out of her face, she gulped hard at the man staring at her. His baby blues did strange things to her insides. The slight grin caused her knees to wobble.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. Her heart pounded. From the mad dash or this guy’s extra special brand of sexy?
“For being late?” Rico’s high-pitched voice blared in her ear.
The doors bumped shut.
“What floor?” baby blue eyes asked.
“Fifth,” she mouthed.
He leaned around her, and then punched the button. The car moved upward. She teetered on her heels. Bending down, he retrieved the scattered items. She knelt beside him, gathering up her things. Awareness, with a huge dose of attraction, shot through her.
“Hello, Ev, are you there? It’s me, Rico, or have you forgotten?”
“No.” Evelyn tried to concentrate, but had a difficult time when this man wouldn’t stop smiling and his eyes, light blue and warm, held hers. Added to that, his sandy brown hair was tousled, his jaw unshaven, and his biceps stretched his denim shirt.
Holding up a stuffed, multi-colored floppy bunny, he asked softly, “For your dog?”
Grabbing it quickly, she shoved it back where it had hopped from. “Kids.”
He frowned as he plucked up her open wallet. A sheath of plastic pictures unfurled like an accordion right before him. One smiling face after another revealed itself. He counted under his breath. “Seven?! Your kids?”
She shook her head. “I babysit. A lot.” Was it her or did he seem relieved at that answer? As she pointed to each picture, she named them, “Giggly, Wiggly, and Smiley are siblings. Munchkin, Sweet Cheeks, Baby Cakes, and Little Bit are cousins.”
The husky sound rippled through her.
“Evelyn, oh, Evelyn…” Rico called out.
Baby blues shifted and she heard the crinkle. Reaching down, he picked up the wrinkled envelope with the now crushed cellophane window.
“Ah…” She grabbed for it. He held on tight. She tugged on it. Her face burned. No, not that. My results. In black and white, it spelled out her dismal future.
He relinquished his hold. Evelyn sighed, and then jammed the offending missive into the deep recesses of her bag.
The car jolted. She pitched forward.
Reaching out, he righted her. There was an alarming flash of heat that whooshed through her. Hot flash? But I’m only twenty-five.
Once all her things were back in her tote, he helped her stand again. It didn’t help her legs, though; they were still shaking from being so close to him.
“Ev, just who are you talking to?” Rico sounded like he was pouting.
“H1, Rico.” Their code came in handy sometimes.
“Like the flu?” Rico asked. Apparently, he’d forgotten the all-important code.
“H1 at twelve o’clock,” she muttered into the phone, trying not to let the guy hear.
“Hot guy—like, number 1 hot—in front of you? Oh, honey. Why do I have to be running late today of all days?”
Hot guy chuckled.
“You heard?” Her voice squeaked.
His nod made her groan. Her cheeks warmed.
“What’s he doing to you?’ Rico asked. “Dang, I wish I could see.”
“Just hurry up.” It took Evelyn everything she had to smile weakly at the hot guy and gingerly step to the side. Half turning away, she whispered into the phone. “You know she doesn’t like me.”
“The feeling is mutual, honey. Bridezilla strikes again.”
Evelyn could picture her friend shudder. “Huh! That’s too tame for Candace Hightower. She’s unreasonable. And demanding.”
“Is this supposed to make me hurry up?”
“Rico, please. Don’t make me go into that meeting without you. I…I may not be able to control myself.” She looked over her shoulder.
Hot guy was leaning near the buttons with his arms crossed over his chest—very, broad chest—watching her intently, and raising an eyebrow. His sexy smile did strange, tingly things to her.
She turned her back on him, trying to shut him out. But his overpowering presence filled the space. She peeked at him again.
Rico’s laughter brought her back to the conversation. “Oh, girl, I want to see that.”
“Yeah, and see me get fired, too.” Now, hot guy’s gaze traveled over her. That’s it; her knees officially went weak. She pressed into the wall, hoping she’d stay on her feet long enough to reach the executive offices.
“Catfight on aisle nine,” Rico teased.
“Some friend you are,” she muttered, jerking away from looking into those incredible eyes. “Look, everyone knows she’s full of herself. Nothing but the best. Why else would she want King’s Department Store handling her wedding? The Charmings Wedding Boutique is known all over the world.”
“Dealing with difficult women is the price we have to pay to be wonderful,” he agreed.
“So you deal. I’m just your assistant—”
“Tsk. Tsk. Ev, honey. You’ll be fine. Have Peg add some liquor to her tea. Stuff her with petit fours and I’ll be there in,” his voice faded, “twenty.”
“Twenty, as in minutes?” But she asked air, because the phone clicked in her ear. “He hung up on me, can you believe that?”
“For shame,” the hot guy said.
Evelyn whipped around. Gulping hard, she forced another smile.
The compartment stopped. The doors dinged open. She rushed out, and then stopped, going back for the portfolio just as he was handing it to her. It slipped. Evelyn grasped it and turned. The pointy end jabbed him in his gut.
He sucked in a breath. “Are you always so…dangerous?”
“Sorry.” She mumbled her apologies as heat swept across her cheeks. Could she just make this all go away? Backing up, she bowed slightly.
“Wait,” he called out.
Too late, she banged into the glass doors, hitting her head. She dropped the cell phone and reached to rub the sore spot. “Fudge!”
He laughed, holding up his hands. “Don’t move.”
She didn’t dare.
Bending down, he retrieved her phone from the carpet and then gingerly tugged the portfolio from her grip. He nodded for her to shift. When she moved a few steps, he opened the door for her. “After you.” His lips twitched.
Evelyn shrugged and then walked in ahead of him.
Once in the reception area, he handed over the phone and portfolio. “Your weapons.”
Her giggle bubbled up and escaped. “I’m usually not this clumsy.”
“I doubt that.”
“Ev, you got the stuff?” Peg rushed down the hall toward her. Her soon-to-be sister-in-law grabbed her by the upper arm. “Tell me, you got it, ’cause Miss High and Mighty’s been having a full on temper tantrum.”
Gulping hard, Evelyn would rather face a room full of five year olds than the bridezilla at the moment. “Got it. You show her.”
“Me? Holy mother of God, you couldn’t pay me enough to deal with that one.”
Evelyn was afraid of that. “We’re family…”
Peg snorted. “Don’t try that on me, sis-to-be.”
Groaning, she knew it was up to her. “What kind of booze does Griff have?”
“You know he doesn’t drink.” Peg snagged her arm and turned her toward the right and the owner’s office.
“She hasn’t had a drink since before the babies were born. Quit stalling.”
Looking over her shoulder, Evelyn caught the hot guy’s stare one last time. She didn’t even know his name. Didn’t even know why he was there.
Her heart sank. Now she’d never know. Too bad; he might have been interested in her proposition.
Shane Weston shook his head as the super sexy petite brunette half walked and was half dragged down the hall by the lady clutching the clipboard. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the gentle sway of Miss Sexy’s hips in the pencil-thin black skirt with the slit in the back. Lavender silk blouse, gold belt cinched her waist, and those purple heels she wore were at least three inches and hotter than hell.
He swallowed hard. “What just happened?” His body hummed. His mind fogged over.
“Tornado, that’s what it was,” he muttered, feeling like some force of nature had blasted over him.
Something dropped from her tote. “The bunny,” he said.
“Excuse me?” the receptionist behind the desk asked. She brushed back a strand of graying hair and tidied up her paperwork.
Shane dragged his attention away from the stuffed animal long enough to direct his full attention to her. “I’m here for the Snodgrass wedding party.”
She thumbed through her appointment book. “Snodgrass? I’m afraid there’s nothing here…”
“Hightower then.” He dragged the words out. Just the thought of the wedding tied him in knots. Out of the blue, too. What had gotten into her?
The receptionist jerked back and looked at him with wide brown eyes. “Miss Hightower, did you say?”
His grim features must have said enough; she relaxed. With a knowing smile, she said, “The meeting is down the hall. I’ll be happy to show you.”
“No bother. Just point me in the direction.” He didn’t want to deal with this. But it was his duty. He raked back his hair and scrubbed his face with a hand, trying to fix the damage of the eight-hour layover ordeal. He’d flown half the night to get here in time.
“To your right and down the hall. Last door before Charlie’s office. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you.” He left the desk and followed where the sexy lady from the elevator went. He hurried and scooped up the bunny, tucking it into the top pocket of his shirt. Maybe he’d get to return it to her in person.
“Well, really!” Candace Hightower exclaimed, looking around the small, cozy reception area. Her shoulder length, lacquered blonde hair didn’t move an inch. Tall and wearing an expensive red dress that seemed a tad too tight around her middle, her beauty was only marred by the constant scowl between her perfectly arched brows. “Don’t you have anything more…more elegant than this?”
“Yes. However, you didn’t want to conduct this appointment in our normal bridal meeting area in the wedding boutique. This is private.” Evelyn grit her teeth.
“She’s been a pill and a half ever since she arrived a half hour ago,” Peg whispered to Ev. “Nothing’s good enough for Her Highness.” Peg snorted. “Maybe the groom ain’t either.”
That made Evelyn chuckle.
Candace whipped around to face her. “Are you laughing at me?”
Oh, yeah, I am. “Well…”
Peg jabbed her with an elbow.
“How can we make this better for you, Miss Hightower?” Ev put on her best King’s Department Store helpful smile. She should be awarded a bonus for the effort it was costing her. “Is the tea not to your liking? The refreshments? We can get you anything you like.”
She preened at that and touched the corner of her smirky mouth. “Yes. I know.”
It rankled Evelyn. Spoiled. Rotten. Were only two of the words that came to mind. She censored the rest.
In her experience, the more money that the bride had to spend, the more difficult she was. The less money, the more grateful. She liked working with those brides the best.
“This room, if you can call it that, is unacceptable.” She waved to the far end of the area. “Why, it’s a child’s playroom, for goodness’ sakes.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Ev said, smiling, loving the time she got to come up here. The colorful carpet squares defined the space. A long child’s table with several chairs around it was the center of activity. Bookshelves were filled with books and toys, now neat as a pin. “Charlotte, the owner of King’s as you know, loves to have her twin girls close. And her sisters have daughters, too. They have playdates with other employees’ children or grandchildren here.”
It was Ev’s favorite place to be, smack-dab in the middle of the kids. She volunteered to babysit all the time, even her days off.
Now, she wanted her own children. One to start. But it seemed that was the hardest one of all when there was no man involved in the process.
Well, there was another glitch—a big, wide canyon of a glitch—in her plan. She recalled even the doctor had been sympathetic last week. Her long history of endometriosis and several surgeries to alter its course had taken its toll. A one-year window of opportunity to try to conceive was all she had left.
Her eyes watered as she blinked rapidly. It hadn’t fully sunk in until she’d read the follow-up letter with the test results this morning.
Candace shivered in what could only be revulsion. “All those dirty hands. Runny noses. Those germs.”
Evelyn dropped the portfolio and the tote right where she stood and took a step forward.
Peg clamped her hand on Ev’s arm, holding her back. “Easy, now, Evie, I wouldn’t want to call your bro for bail money. And I’d have to be a witness.”
“Witness?” a male voice asked from behind them.
Recognizing that voice, Evelyn spun around. Her gaze met his baby blues. She gulped hard. “H1,” she whispered. “In the house.”
“Holy smoking hot,” Peg said under her breath. “You ain’t kidding.”
“Shane, I thought you’d never get here!” Candace Hightower exclaimed and rushed to him. Throwing her arms around him, she hugged him tight.
Evelyn’s heart sank to her toes. He’s the groom?