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Excerpt/SWEET ON YOU

 


Chapter One

Nothing happens unless first we dream.

~Carl Sandburg

San Diego 2001

 

“It's already seventy degrees in America's Finest City and this is Charlie Chattham bringing you all your favorite golden oldies on a perfect Monday morning in sunny San Diego.”

Gabe Freeman winced at the over-the-top cheerful voice and lowered the volume of the radio. “Enjoy your final Monday morning broadcast, Charlie. I hope you know what you’re getting into.” He shook his head as he reached for the new stainless steel commuter mug, craving some must-have morning Starbucks.

He had to agree with Charlie, though. It was a perfect morning in southern California. At the age of thirty-five, he had the ideal life, and it was getting better every day. Flipping off the air-conditioning, Gabe lowered the driver's side window. A moist ocean breeze filled his BMW's interior space that, for some reason, suddenly felt much too cramped.

Everything was perfect—except for the traffic. He wasn't used to dealing with a backup on the Coronado Bridge. In fact, he wasn't used to even being up before noon, let alone sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Since Charlie’s decision to jump ship and his own promotion at radio station KGLD, Gabe had finally been given a reprieve from the graveyard shift. He’d finally secured the prime early morning drive time slot, something he'd worked for, and he intended to enjoy every moment—as soon as he woke up enough.

A horn blared somewhere in the line of cars behind him, jarring his thoughts. Guess I'll get used to all this noise eventually. He increased the volume of the radio to catch Charlie’s commute report.

“Traffic is just starting to back up this morning and the bridge is slowing down as you approach the toll plaza. Hang in there, ‘cause if all goes well, next year those toll booths will be gone.”

“Not soon enough, Charlie.” Gabe glanced in the rear view mirror at the car that had just changed lanes and squeezed in behind him. An attractive blonde in an identical Alpine white BMW was talking on her cell phone, her free hand periodically slapping the steering wheel.

Gabe watched her finish the call and then she immediately answered another call. The reality of what people were like driving to work every morning was beginning to sink in. Even so, he found he was looking forward to the challenge of capturing their attention. He intended to distract them from obsessing about how much business they could get done on the way in to their jobs and convince them to relax and listen to some good music.

“ . . . and if you're listening out there Gamblin' Gabe Freeman, you had better be good to my faithful KGLD listeners or I'll have to leave smog city and come down here and kick some major butt . . .”

Groaning, Gabe ran his fingers through his short brown curls. He glanced at himself in the mirror of his visor. The shorter style definitely provided the more professional look he needed in his new position. And it certainly was much easier to deal with, though part of him missed his previously shoulder-length hair.

Another horn blared. The early morning commute was becoming an exercise in patience. Gabe's jaw tightened as he clenched his teeth because there was no doubt in his mind that the bridge traffic was going to make him late for his first advertising meeting at the station.

As he eased his car forward, Gabe was forced to stop abruptly when the car in front of him braked hard. He reached for the white floral box on the seat next to him to prevent it from falling. The box was filled with long-stemmed red roses to commemorate the six months until his wedding. Jillian. Their wedding was planned for June. Right on schedule. Perfect.

“Hey! You want to get your head out of the clouds and move up a little?”

Blinking, Gabe realized there were now two car lengths between him and the car ahead of him. The grating voice of the beautiful blonde shouting out her window pulled him back to reality.

Man, this line is slow.

As Gabe pulled forward and slowed to a stop, the line of bright blue toll booths finally came into view. As more horns blared, he watched as a denim-clad arm swung out the open window of a black truck in the next lane, enthusiastically flipping the bird to the impatient drivers. Then the man’s arm arced and pointed toward a grassy area.

A poster sat on an easel—red and white heart-shaped balloons floated above the sign, bouncing in the light breeze.

Pulling forward another few inches, he was close enough to read it:

 

STOP AND WISH CELESTE

A HAPPY 40TH BIRTHDAY!

 

SHE'S SINGLE & DEFINITELY

NOT OVER THE HILL!

 

Gabe sighed. He was stuck in the birthday-girl line. At least that explained why the line was crawling. Hope flew out the window as he resigned himself to the fact that he would be walking in during the middle of his first important meeting, and not making the greatest impression on the rest of the day crew. At times like this it certainly helped to be engaged to the owner's daughter.

As he continued to inch forward he stared at the source of his troubles, watching the woman leaning in and out of the toll booth collecting money and giving back change. His gaze was drawn first to her hair. Shoulder-length, it hung in wild, unruly waves and curls. Bright auburn highlights in her brown hair caught the sun's rays every time she leaned out of the opening in the booth to collect a toll. The hairstyle's effect was a little extreme, though the color was dazzling—flames in the morning sunlight.

As she leaned out of the booth, he could see she wore a silky, purple sleeveless blouse tucked into a bizarre-looking skirt that was actually made of silk ties that had been sewn together vertically so that each point formed the hem.

“Happy Birthday, Celeste!” a cheerful voice called out from a cherry red Jeep in an adjacent lane.

Gabe watched as Celeste pivoted, then smiled and waved at the driver as though she might know him. Sunlight reflected off the dozens of silver bangles on her raised arm and flashed painfully in Gabe's eyes. It took a moment to blink away the glare.

The blonde's horn blared from behind him. Gabe winced, then shot the woman a glare in his rearview mirror and slowly eased his car forward.

“We've got a listener's request up next. This one's just for you, lovely Linda-in-La-Mesa. And if you're supposed to be at work at the eight o'clock hour, you're already seventeen minutes late so you might as well just kick back and enjoy the—”

Gabe pressed the radio’s power button in frustration. Maybe everyone else was running late too...it was possible, right?

His attention returned to the birthday-girl. Without the information the poster provided, it would have been difficult to guess her age at forty based on what he could see from three car lengths back. Perhaps it was her outfit. No, it was more her attitude. She had a sort of youthful glow about her—a free spirit who wouldn't understand the flare of tempers the unexpected delay was causing in the line of cars caught in the morning rush hour traffic.

Celeste probably flitted from job to job, Gabe considered, definitely not the kind to fit into the corporate world. Even though some people thought radio was more art than business, he knew better. He’d gotten his business degree with that in mind—applying economics to a world that the average listener didn’t really understand. Demographics, listening patterns, advertising dollars, statistics. It all mattered and he knew success was measured in numbers even though he enjoyed the perks of the music end of things.

Gabe stared openly as Celeste flashed a broad grin at an SUV filled with twenty-somethings now singing “Happy Birthday” to her in boisterous, off-key voices. The smile she offered was radiant and candid, as if she was the kind of person who held nothing back. Unrestricted. Uninhibited.

Probably what she was like in bed.

He blinked. Where had that thought come from?

Watching her wild curls bounce as she tipped her head back and forth in rhythm to the song, she stood next to the vehicle with her hands on her hips, waiting for the serenade to end. He lowered his gaze to where her hands rested. She was definitely curvy and feminine—so unlike the stick-thin models his fiancée emulated.

A horn blast followed by the staccato beeping of his own watch alarm brought Gabe instantly back to reality. Only one more car between him and the birthday-girl.

As the Jaguar in front of him paid the dollar toll, Gabe glanced at the white box on the seat beside him. Impulsively, he loosened the lid and, without taking his eyes off Celeste, he reached in and pulled out one of the roses.

***

Celeste turned away from the flow of traffic, sneaking a look at the digital clock on the cash register as she deposited the toll and pressed the “go” button. Fifty more minutes left on her shift and the embarrassing ordeal would be over. Thank God.

Her cheeks ached from smiling and she longed to say her final yes-it's-really-my-birthday and get back home. Over three hours of being cheerful and enduring the steady stream of comments and questions had been exhausting.

In between tolls she contemplated an appropriate payback for her friend Kay's good-natured antics. Perhaps introducing Kay's three young daughters to makeup and nail polish would do, smiling at the vision of Kay's youngsters with bright lilac eye shadow and chili-pepper-red lip-gloss.

It would serve her right. Celeste sighed, put on a forced smile and readied herself for the next birthday commentary.

As she turned and leaned out the opening in the booth, she extended her hand toward the driver of the next car, but instead of currency, the stem of a red rose was placed in the palm of her hand.

Her gaze locked on the perfect bloom, for the moment ignoring its presenter. Her fingers wrapped around the stem and she brought the unexpected offering to her lips, feeling the petal softness and breathing in the intoxicating fragrance. Most roses these days looked good but had no smell. Not this one. This one smelled divine.

“I . . . I still intend to pay . . .”

Celeste returned her attention to the driver of the waiting car. “Excuse me?”

“Here's my money, I mean . . . the rose is just . . . well, for your birthday. The sign . . .”

The driver's words came out in an adolescent-sounding tumble as Celeste stared at him. After a quick glance it was obvious he was just another motivated executive in a hurry to join the rat race. A drop dead gorgeous one, though. He was impeccably dressed in a cotton tweed sports jacket, pressed white long-sleeved shirt. Gold cufflinks, she noticed. Nice touch. Expensive tie. Hair tousled casually, but most likely carefully cut and styled at some exclusive salon. Obviously he was very image conscious—one of San Diego’s many overly ambitious upwardly mobile professionals. She knew the type all too well.

“I bet it's been a tough morning for you,” he said.

Celeste blinked in surprise at the empathetic comment. Not what she'd expected.

“So, who put up the poster?” he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the sign.

“An overly concerned neighbor of mine who thinks I'm lonely.”

“Have you been plotting your revenge?”

She grinned. “I have the perfect retaliation in mind when I—” The painful blare of a car horn interrupted her words.

“I'd better go,” he said, offering a shy grin.

“Right.”

As Celeste watched him pull forward, within two seconds screeching alarms sounded and she realized she hadn’t collected his dollar or pressed the “go” button. Great. As she stepped out of the booth to retrieve his toll she ignored a loud wolf-whistle coming from someone somewhere in the never-ending line of cars. Could things get any more embarrassing?

She felt the heat in her cheeks as she did her best to maintain what little dignity she had left.

“Sorry about that,” she said, “I forgot to hit the switch.”

“No, it was my fault—”

“Thanks for the rose. It was a nice surprise.”

“Happy Birthday, Celeste.”

“Enjoy the rest of the day,” she replied softly, liking the way he said her name. Definitely a sexy, memorable voice. Her lips were inches away from his as she bent to retrieve the toll and she realized part of her wished he would offer a birthday kiss. What!!?? As she stared into his eyes, she swore he was having the same thought. Was he?

A whisper soft breeze blew the sides of her hair against her cheek, causing her to bring her hand to her face. She watched as he stared at her fingers, where each nail was painted a different color. No, Mr. Hot Executive was more likely thinking she was a weirdo in her silk-tie-skirt, bare feet, wild hair, and way too much jewelry.

“Thanks a lot,” she said hoping to end this strange encounter and get past the now very awkward moment.

As Celeste re-entered the toll booth, ready to greet the next driver, she glanced toward him for an instant and couldn’t keep from offering him a dazzling smile. He had turned his head as though to get a final glimpse of her and she waved a goodbye, bringing the rose to her lips once again.

 

 

Celeste glanced at the time and calculated her shift relief was twenty-two minutes late. Just as she was getting ready to clock out, Kay had called to warn her and beg her forgiveness. Which she’d given her, of course. Truth was, her patience had finally run thin and she’d pretty much depleted her quota of cheerfulness for the day.

All she could think about was getting back home, already behind schedule for her own busy day.

“I'm so sorry to be so late—I'm Sandy, by the way. You were such a doll to cover for me this morning and I really appreciate it. I got my daughter into urgent care and then had to pick up a prescription and then dropped her off at my mom’s.”

Celeste jumped at the perky voice, startled by the jumble of words that interrupted her thoughts. Instantly she forgave the young woman, canceling her negative thoughts and replacing them with sympathetic ones.

“It's all right, really. Don't you worry about it. I hope it's nothing serious—”

“Oh, no, just another ear ache. Has it been busy? I saw the sign when I drove up—did Kay do that?”

Celeste nodded as she continued to take tolls while the young woman stowed her purse and clocked in.

Sandy patted her hair and checked her teeth for lipstick in the always-have-a-smile-ready-for-the-customer mirror on the counter. “Kay's the best boss I've ever had. I never thought I'd keep as busy as she's kept me. I’m used to working crappy temp jobs with horrible bosses.”

Celeste nodded in agreement. She knew Kay was good to her workers. Flexible when she could be, but clear with her expectations.

“It's just perfect for me,” Sandy continued, “and keeps me from being bored with my husband gone on the ship so much. I'll be so glad when he's out of the service. I never thought it would be so hard.”

Celeste struggled to concentrate on the woman's conversation. She didn't want to be rude, but she was more than ready to be on her way and she just wasn’t in the mood to chit chat.

“Thanks again. Hey, what's this?” The young woman picked up the rose from the counter and brought it to her face to breathe in its perfume. “Oh, my. Secret admirer?”

“Some guy in a BMW.”

“Some cute guy, I hope?” Sandy asked.

“Just a guy. Nothing special.” Celeste felt a twinge of inaccuracy in her reply. Why did the encounter with the stranger seem special? She had no reason to still even be thinking about him.

But she was thinking about him and that alone added to the strangeness. She'd noticed the floral box on the front seat so she figured the whole event was just an impetuous gesture on his part to join in on the birthday gag.

Nothing special.

He was just another executive eager to play with the other rats, Celeste reminded herself. Still, she allowed herself to dwell a tiny moment on the memory of the expression in his brown eyes. Eyes that had seemed honest, maybe even a little naive.

A soft wave of warmth pooled in her as a little shiver simultaneously caused her arms to goose bump—a strange mixture of fire and ice.

“Celeste?”

“What?” She shook away the memory of the stranger and returned her attention to the present.

“I'm ready when you are.” Sandy touched her arm and they smoothly changed places in the toll booth.

Celeste took the rose from Sandy, then clocked out, slipped her feet into her sandals, and grabbed her purse. She waited until the approaching car came to a stop at the booth and then made a beeline to her pale blue Volkswagen van.

Walking quickly to the parking area, she reached inside the large tapestry tote she used for a purse to locate keys and sunglasses. It was another beautiful sunny day in San Diego, though her mood had quickly transformed in sharp contrast.

She felt stressed, for sure, putting up with hundreds of commuters, each thinking their birthday comments were unique. Normally when she filled in at the toll booth, the job was pleasant, mindless work. Almost therapeutic compared to anything she'd ever done in her life.

Today had been a dramatic exception, reminding her how much she loved her life now—having her own business, being her own boss.

As soon as she turned her van around and aimed for home, her brain kicked back into work mode. She lowered the volume of the soothing sounds of her favorite CD of piano music that filled the interior of her van. Mentally she began to make a list: Place her supply order before noon. Do a new price comparison of floral boxes. Proof the yellow pages ad and fax back any corrections or changes. Enter last week's expenses into the computer.

And, most importantly, find out exactly what was delaying her latest potential account from making a final decision about her proposal. Didn't they realize she had a business to run?

Celeste rubbed her forehead, now wrinkled with the tension of her thoughts. Relax. At a stoplight, she breathed deeply, commanding herself to ease the pressure that was automatically building and sending her heart thumping in a familiar way.

Remember, you left the corporate world so you wouldn't have to feel this kind of stress. Celeste ejected the CD from the player she’d had installed in the classic VW van,—a decision she had no regrets about even though purists would cringe at the thought—and the radio station's announcer reminded her of the time and temperature.

She glared at the radio. “And you are at the root of my morning anxiety.”

“This is Charlie Chattham signing off on my final Monday morning of my final week at wonderful KGLD, your station of golden oldies and magical memories. Stay tuned for news and weather. Drive safe everyone and I'll be talkin' to you all tomorrow, bright and early.”

Celeste snapped off the radio as she pulled into her driveway, anxious to get her real day underway.

She grabbed her tote and hurried through the wrought iron gate and up the path to the quaint white stucco beach cottage she had called home for almost a year now. As she closed the door behind her, she glanced at the blinking light on her answering machine, hoping for some good news.

She pressed the play button.

“Celeste, this is Brent, Sales Manager at KGLD, and we still haven't made a final decision about using Celestial Cookies for the Valentine campaign—our new morning DJ, Gabe Freeman, has some reservations and we needed to ask you—”

The machine screeched, interrupting the message in midstream.

“Ask me what?” Shaking her head, Celeste mentally added ‘buy new answering machine’ to her to-do list.

Not even setting down her purse, she headed back out the door. It was time for the radio station to make a decision and it looked like she'd need to go there in person to make it happen.

After all, she had her own deadlines. If she was going to service their upcoming Valentine's Day promotion, she would need to order triple her normal supplies. And the supply order needed to be called in within the next few hours.

Enough was enough. They either made a decision today or she would withdraw her proposal.

Just as the words formed in her head, another thought followed. But you really need this account, the voice in her head whispered.

It was true. Her gourmet cookie business was steadily growing but she had a new oven to pay for and bills that needed more attention than she'd been able to give them since she'd plunged headfirst into self-employment.

The radio account was more important than she wanted to admit. Resigning herself to the fact that she may need to do some major schmoozing, Celeste did an abrupt about-face and went back into the house.

Inside, she grabbed a decorative tin of chocolate chip cookies. She would use them to tantalize and tempt the stubborn morning DJ that was causing all her headaches.

A grin replaced her frown. You won't even know what hit you, Mr. Gabe Freeman.

Now she was determined to leave the radio station with a signed contract, no matter what it took.

 

 

Chapter Two

Celeste pulled into the parking lot of the KGLD radio station, choosing a visitor spot perpendicular to the busy main street. She might as well take advantage of the drive-by traffic.

Just a week ago she'd had her van custom painted to help advertise Celestial Cookies. It now featured air-brushed chocolate chip cookies—complete with angel wings—floating against the blue sky and puffy white clouds. After much contemplation, she'd decided to expand her business card logo to create a mobile billboard of her classic VW van.

Her company name and phone number were featured prominently on both sides in metallic blue script. The effect was positively eye-catching and she'd already received a couple dozen calls from people who'd seen the van around San Diego.

It had been an expensive investment, but she was convinced it would quickly pay for itself in new gourmet cookie customers. Mostly people were interested in her unique cookie bouquets, she'd discovered, though her custom gift baskets were a close second in popularity.

Satisfied with the position of the van in relation to the street, Celeste made her way into the radio station's lobby, cookie tin in hand.

She stood in front of the main desk and waited until the receptionist finished transferring a call. Then she opened the tin, allowing the concentrated aroma of the freshly baked cookies to escape.

“Hi, how can I help you?” The young woman barely looked at Celeste, the words being spoken almost mechanically.

“Won't you have one?” Celeste watched as the receptionist closed her eyes and deeply breathed the scent rising from the tin like an invisible heavenly cloud of sugar and spice.

“Glad I skipped breakfast this morning. One couldn't hurt, could it?”

Celeste glanced down at the nameplate on the desk. “Shelly, is there any way you can get me in to see Gabe Freeman?”

Shelly delicately bit into the cookie and closed her eyes again. “Oh, God, these are wonderful . . . homemade cookies are my weakness.”

“Glad you like it. Why don't you take another one for later,” Celeste urged. Once she had perfected her recipe, more than once she’d noticed the unmistakable effect her cookies had on people.

Shelly grinned her acceptance and took another cookie from the tin. “One for the road—”

“And about Mr. Freeman?” Celeste asked again, hoping she had adequately sweetened the receptionist into compliance.

“Um . . . what?” Shelly's voice had a dreamy quality as she finished eating the cookie. “It just melts in your mouth, it's so fresh . . .”

“I'm Celeste Parker—with Celestial Cookies—and I really need to talk to Mr. Freeman about the Valentine's Day promotion.”

“Well, I'm not supposed to, but I could put you in Gabe's office—and find him and send him there, if you like,” Shelly said.

“That would be perfect. I promise not to take up much of his time,” Celeste assured her. One down and one to go. She knew well the power of making friends with the receptionist and Shelly was now behaving like her newest best friend.

“Follow me.” Shelly pressed a buzzer under her desk and indicated for Celeste to come with her through a secured door.

Celeste placed the lid back on the cookie tin, readying herself for the next challenge—one resistant morning DJ who was the primary source of her business worries.

***

“Oh, Gabe, they're beautiful,” Jillian murmured as she unfolded the white tissue and carefully scooped the red roses from the box that sat in the middle of the glass-topped table she used as her desk.

Gabe watched as she meticulously arranged the stems in a crystal vase that was already filled with water. As usual, Jillian was well prepared for the expected arrival of the roses.

A week ago, she'd made it quite clear to him that it was appropriate to mark the six-month date before their wedding with the groom-to-be presenting a gift of flowers to the bride-to-be. Gabe sighed. It had already been a rather tedious six months of participating in every form imaginable of pre-wedding etiquette—following every rule and protocol directed by the expensive wedding planner Jillian had hired.

Much to his surprise, the wedding preparation itself seemed to be an event—one that he had not been fully prepared to deal with on what seemed to be an almost daily basis.

Part of him questioned what all the fuss and bother was about, but he tried to empathize with Jillian. Weddings were important to most women, and by the looks of it, theirs was going to be a doozie.

“What florist did you use?” Jillian's voice held an irritated edge, somewhere between disappointed and annoyed.

“What?” Gabe tried to shake loose the lingering mood of distraction he still felt. For some reason, while he stared at his fiancée, he couldn't quite get the picture of the toll-booth-birthday-girl out of his mind. As he'd neared WGLD’s building he had even missed his turn, forced to double-back to make his way into the entrance of the parking lot.

“There are only eleven roses here, Gabe. Whoever you used, don't use them again.” Her tone was patronizing as she further inspected each bloom as though looking for flaws.

Gabe felt heat flush his cheeks. What was he supposed to say? One thing he was very sure of—that Jillian would not understand, let alone approve of, his impulse to give one of her roses to a beautiful stranger at a toll booth.

“Here you two are.” Jillian's father walked into the office, his loud baritone interrupting the conversation.

“Hi, Dad. Aren't these gorgeous? Only six more months until the big day.” Jillian planted a quick kiss on her father's cheek, turning her back to Gabe.

“Say, that's right—doesn't time fly? Seems like only yesterday when I threw you two together, doesn't it?” Her father wrapped his arm around Jillian's slender waist. “I'm awfully glad you both came to your senses and decided to take the big plunge.”

Gabe fought from grimacing at his future father-in-law's remarks. Becoming engaged and marrying the boss's daughter had once been the farthest thing from his mind, but later it seemed like the rational thing to do. Even Jillian had agreed with the logic behind it.

They were fairly compatible and both were too busy to spend much time navigating the singles scene. She seemed truly fond of him, and he didn't really expect the passion peddled in movies and popular fiction. To him, romance was really just a commercial item sold to the public in order to manipulate, and not something to truly strive for.

Theirs was a modern, sensible agreement—a practical merger, actually.

The marriage would reinforce both their careers, and the idea definitely pleased Jillian's father immensely. And Gabe had quickly learned how important that was to her.

Jillian was her father's daughter, anxious to follow in his footsteps, and always eager to please him. In the end, it had even been she who had first suggested the idea of marriage. She'd presented the proposal to him in precise detail, listing the pros and cons as though they were in a business meeting.

An unexpected shudder ran up Gabe's spine. Until today, it had seemed like a completely acceptable notion. Why did he suddenly feel a little uncomfortable with the how his life would soon change?

The phone buzzed on Jillian’s desk, signaling an internal call. Jillian punched the speaker button. “Yes?”

“Actually, I'm looking for Gabe, Jillian.”

Gabe leaned toward the phone. “I'm here, Brent, what's up?”

“Sales meeting. Conference Room. Fifteen minutes.”

Thankfully, the morning meeting had not started without him, which Shelly had quietly informed him as he’d walked past her desk. In fact, Gabe's late arrival had not even been mentioned, though he had noticed Jillian's father glancing at his watch when he'd greeted him earlier in the hallway. Tomorrow morning he would definitely allow more time for traffic. He couldn’t afford a repeat performance—or a reputation for tardiness.

Jillian punched the speaker button to end the call, turning again toward her father.

“Valentine's Day?”

Her father nodded, raising an eyebrow and giving a slight nod toward Gabe. “Your fiancé’s not so sure about using Celestial Cookies to tie in with the listener call-in promotion.

Gabe felt Jillian's glare before he looked up to check her expression. It was fairly obvious she wouldn't dream of questioning a decision her father had already made.

Again, the phone buzzed.

Jillian hit the speaker button and answered through tight lips, “Yes, what is it?”

This time, it was the cheerful voice of the receptionist. “Is Gabe there?”

“I'm on my way back to my office, Shelly. I'll take the call there, thanks.” Gabe happily took advantage of the opportunity to end the uncomfortable discussion in Jillian's office. With any luck, it would be a short call and at least he'd have a little time to get his thoughts collected before the sales meeting.

“See you in a few,” he called over his shoulder at Jillian and her father who were already deep in dialogue over the listener demographic reports on her desk.

Gabe made quick time in reaching his office down the hall. He flung open the door and walked to his desk, immediately realizing his phone was not flashing a call-on-hold light.

Without looking up, he pressed the front desk intercom button. “Did we lose the call, Shelly?”

“Actually, it's not a call, Gabe. There's someone in your office to see you.”

Gabe finally looked up. He disconnected the intercom as he stared at the woman standing opposite him. Celeste? Toll-booth-Celeste? Wait. How did she know where he worked? A slight dizziness accompanied his surprise as his thoughts raced to apply logic to the situation.

He continued to stare at her, simultaneously confused at both her appearance and his own feeling of delight. He'd never expected to see this particular birthday girl again in his lifetime, let alone find her standing in his office within an hour of meeting her.

Celeste extended her hand toward him.

He gazed at it, his eyes focused on the multi-colored nails, the silver bangles. Finally he looked up, dumbfounded . . . utterly speechless.

***

Celeste cleared her throat. “Well, this is a surprise. I'm Celeste Parker and you must be Gabe Freeman.” Her hand still extended in the air between them,

Fighting to control her voice, she hoped it sounded more confident than she felt at the moment.

Gabe finally reached out his own hand, firmly grasping hers as he shook his head in dismay.

“What can I do for you, Celeste?”

“Well, actually, I brought something for you.” Celeste slipped her hand out of his and placed the cookie tin on the desk between them and lifted the lid. She looked up to gauge his reaction, but his gaze was still frozen on her face.

“I'm the owner of Celestial Cookies—the Valentine's Day promotion . . . ?” She struggled to make her words sound self-assured because inside she felt totally out of control, her stomach squishy with nerves.

He was not who she expected. She'd been prepared to march into the radio station and fast-talk her way through a stubborn stranger's resistant opinion of using her product for the advertising campaign. Instead, she found herself talking with BMW-man. Cute BMW man.

Gabe finally blinked and looked down at his desk, at the cherub-decorated tin sitting there, filled with cookies.

“Celestial Cookies?” he asked.

“Yup, that's me. Won't you try one before you make a decision about the promotion? People really love my cookies . . .” Her voice faded to a whisper. Now that was not the most intelligent thing I've ever said. What's wrong with me?

Thankfully, Gabe didn't even seem to be listening to her. He slowly reached toward the tin and selected a cookie. She watched as he bit, chewed, and swallowed.

His eyes revealed his obvious pleasure, and Celeste waited for his positive comments.

“They're pretty good,” he began, “but I'm still not convinced we should do the promotion.”

Celeste narrowed her eyes as she scrutinized Gabe's face. His brown eyes now masked his pleasure—merely proclaiming polite interest. But she knew better. “Why?” she asked.

“Well, I just think we need to explore all of our options . . .”

“Of course you should. That's why I decided to try to see you. I just wanted to take a minute and give my proposal a . . . a personal touch.”

She continued, finally beginning to feel more confident, falling into the more comfortable role as salesperson. “Is there any reason why you think using my cookie bouquets is a bad idea?”

***

Gabe stared at her mouth, watching her full lips speak words that he barely heard. What was it about her that attracted him? Maybe because she was so . . . different. In the bright, natural light of his office and up close, her complexion was flawless. She wore little makeup, not much more than lip and cheek color.

He stared at her hair, still a little wild-looking even out of the breeze. She was quite attractive, in a very unconventional way. Eye candy, his brain shouted. Gabe blinked in confusion and sensory overload.

She stood before him patiently, as though she had all the time in the world. And, at the moment, time felt a bit peculiar to him. More like timelessness, like he had all the time in the world. He leaned forward. Her gaze never faltered.

He stared in her eyes, eyes the color of clouds readying for a gentle rain, then watched the corners of her lips turn up into a soft smile.

Gabe reached for another cookie, trying to stall. He chewed, praying his mental faculties would return so he could figure out what to say to her. The cookie's flavor exploded in his mouth. He'd never tasted anything so . . . what was it? Buttery? There was some . . . different, extra flavor. And they had more vanilla, maybe? If he was making his decision via a taste test, there would be no decision. Celeste's cookies would win hands down. It was the best cookie he’d ever eaten in his life.

Celeste reached her hand toward him, her silver bangles clinking and sliding toward her elbow. She reached one purple-tipped finger toward him, gently brushing a crumb from his chin.

Once again, he had an unmistakable desire to kiss her . . . just like when she’d leaned in to take his toll earlier that morning.

“You ready for the sales meeting?”

Gabe tore his gaze from Celeste and looked over her shoulder to see Jillian standing in the doorway.

“Jillian—”

“Brent's waiting. Will you be long?”

Jillian's voice sounded quite neutral, betraying no reaction to either Celeste or the fact that he was still leaning forward toward her, passionate kisses lingering in his mind.

“Jillian Caufield, this is Celeste—”

***

“—Parker.” Celeste finished the introduction, turning toward the woman. “Of Celestial Cookies.” She was surprised to find she could control her voice, hoping like hell her words sounded more composed than she felt. Her stomach still felt a little jumpy, almost queasy—maybe she was coming down with something.

Jillian stepped into the room and extended her hand. “I've just looked at our demographics and I'd say your product is perfect for the campaign, right Gabe?”

“We haven't made our final decision yet, so—”

Celeste caught Jillian’s dagger glare toward Gabe as she added, “As I was saying, the demographics plus all my market research indicate the cookies are a good choice.”

Gabe’s jaws visibly clenched as though he was more than a little annoyed at her jumping in. Who could blame him?

“Right, Gabe?” Jillian continued her glare, waiting for his response.

Celeste reached for the tin of cookies. “Would you like one? They're a special recipe and I—”

“No thanks. Wouldn't be worth the fat content and calories.” Jillian raised her chin and sent a cool stare to Celeste.

Celeste held her gaze. “Right. Well, perhaps I should call later and—”

“That won't be necessary,” Gabe interrupted. “Looks like Celestial Cookies is the confirmed choice. Congratulations.”

Celeste nodded. Okay, not the way she would have predicted her impromptu meeting would have gone. Same outcome, but oh so awkward. “Great, so what's next?”

“Actually,” Jillian began, “why don't you join us? The sales crew is anxious to get things started.”

“I'd be happy to,” Celeste said.

Gabe's face seemed slightly pale as he smiled at them both. He definitely seemed...what?...not really resistant. More like he was uncomfortable with her going to the meeting. Maybe something else. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“Let's go,” he said, turning to grab a portfolio and pen from his desk.

“Oh, by the way, Celeste,” Jillian continued, “how do you feel about helping out with the voiceovers for the commercials?”

“Sure,” Celeste answered, sneaking a glance at Gabe as his jaw dropped.

“And,” Jillian said, “as part of the campaign to launch Gabe as the new morning DJ, he'll be going out with you each afternoon to deliver cookie bouquets to each winner.”

This time Gabe’s face was hidden, but Celeste had the distinct impression he didn’t like Jillian’s idea one little bit.

 

 

Chapter Three

“Everyone,” Jillian began, her voice blatantly triumphant from her recent victory, “this is Celeste Parker of Celestial Cookies.”

Gabe sat in the chair to the right of Jillian's father and watched as Celeste made her rounds, shaking hands with the ad execs already seated around the conference table.

Completing her circuit, she shook hands with Jillian's father.

“I'm George Caufield. Welcome to the snake pit, Celeste.” Jillian's father stood up and then pulled out the chair for her that was the only empty one left, putting her directly opposite Gabe.

“Glad to be here, Mr. Caufield.” She flashed him a confident smile as he watched her settle into her place at the table.

They would eat her alive, he thought, hoping the guys would cut her some slack. More than once he had witnessed the sales crew's raucous, cutthroat behavior.

“Let's get started,” Celeste began, “now, who can give me a bullet point description of the campaign and both the statistical goals and the revenue goals you have targeted?”

Gabe could almost hear jaws drop as the sales crew stared at Celeste in shock. Perhaps this woman was not your run of the mill cookie baker after all.

Jillian broke the silence, responding with a jumble of demographics and sales statistics. She was in her glory when it came to revenue analysis and the effect of listener promotions.

“Listeners will call in to our Valentine Loveline from seven to eleven in the morning,” Jillian continued, “and leave a message as to why their Valentine deserves a Celestial Cookie bouquet.”

Gabe watched as Jillian glanced coolly toward Celeste. He also noticed that as she spoke, she caught everyone's gaze but his, probably still perturbed with his resistance to the campaign.

“Gabe will play some of the messages during his morning air time—between the love song sets designed for the two weeks before the holiday.”

“And there are to be how many winners per day?” Celeste asked.

“At the end of the morning show,” Jillian resumed, not even glancing at Celeste, “you and Gabe will select five winners from each hour and personally deliver a cookie bouquet to each hour’s top winner that afternoon. The other winners can be delivered in your usual way—”

“I’ll use Don’s Deliveries during the campaign,” Celeste explained. “So, twenty bouquets each day, with us personally delivering four each afternoon,” Celeste interjected. Her tone was even, deliberately polite.

“Yes, as I was saying . . .”

“So, twenty each day for two weeks—are the weeks calendar weeks or working weeks?” Celeste asked.

Gabe cringed. He'd learned quickly how Jillian detested interruptions during meetings. When she had something to present, he'd learned it was best to let her have her say and wait for her consent before bothering to share ideas or ask questions. Today, her routine seemed more annoying than usual to him.

And it was quite obvious that Celeste was not playing along. He had a feeling that though Celeste might look naive and quirky, it also appeared she knew how to swim with the sharks.

Work weeks.” Jillian glared at Celeste.

Jillian's father drummed his fingers on the table and cleared his throat as he took back the helm, almost as though he was a little bored with the details of the campaign. “Celeste, why don't you and Gabe join Brent in the sound booth and get started on the commercial spots. I'd like to announce the promotion on the air tomorrow if we can get the voiceovers done.”

In immediate response, chairs scooted away from the table and the room emptied within seconds. Gabe silently followed Celeste and Brent to the sound booth, not looking forward to the cramped quarters.

He shook his head. Spending the next few weeks with Celeste was not sitting well, not one little bit. He could feel his anxiety level rising, along with his heartbeat. The effect she had on him wasn’t unpleasant, really, and maybe it was simply the sugar rush from those delectable cookies he’d eaten on an empty stomach.

That had to be it, right?

He took a few quick steps forward and resisted the urge to touch one of her long curls and instead breathed in her delicious scent.

What woman these days smells like vanilla and cinnamon, anyway?

***

Celeste sat in her van, rubbing at the tension that had accumulated in her neck muscles. After a few laughter-filled starts, the voiceovers had gone exceptionally well and they had managed to complete enough commercial announcements to kick-off the Valentine campaign.

When Jillian's father had poked his head into the room to check on their progress, he was obviously quite pleased at her flexibility in adapting to his request to record the spots.

But, she was glad the morning was finally over.

And the worst part was sharing the microphone with Gabe. Every time they'd leaned intimately close together to record their dialogue, the butterflies in her stomach felt like they were going to escape by way of her throat.

Why did he affect her so profoundly? She shuddered. And it had been almost painful being in such familiar territory—the obvious tension of the sales meeting, plus being surrounded by over-eager ad execs, each ready to sacrifice the rest to get ahead.

Much too familiar. She had to admit she'd enjoyed the fact that the crew hadn't expected her to be aware of what the campaign meant to the business. And she'd smugly kept to herself the fact that radio campaigns had been her specialty when she was . . . one of them.

Celeste sighed and glanced in the mirror. For a split second, she imagined her old self. Dark, designer double-breasted suit. Expensive, understated jewelry. Italian pumps. Kick-ass attitude. And, truthfully, Jillian could have been her twin. Except for Jillian's impossibly light blonde hair and turquoise eyes, the similarities were definitely there, she admitted.

“Never again,” she muttered, turning the key in the ignition, pumping the gas pedal to coax the van's engine to life.

And Gabe Freeman was one of them too, she reminded herself. Though she had to concede he'd been quite amiable during the recording of the commercials. And the end result was good—their spots definitely exhibited a chemistry that would elevate the appeal of the promotional information meant to entice listeners to call in.

It would be a good promotion. She could feel it in her very experienced bones.

***

“Thanks a lot, Celeste. That's the last time I'm ever going to make your birthday memorable,” Kay said, her voice tinged with mock severity.

Celeste grinned, shouldering the phone. She was putting the finishing touches of navy blue nail polish on Kay's oldest daughter. She'd already sent the younger two home to show their mom their “makeovers,” causing Kay's immediate phone call.

“I think they look adorable,” Celeste said, “and besides, they think they look adorable. You know how you're always so concerned about their self esteem.”

She knew Kay would have no argument. “Kay, don't stay mad and just come on over. Maybe you and the girls could help me catch up. I'm about four hours behind schedule today and you owe me.”

“I'm hanging up now,” Kay replied.

Celeste sighed when she heard the dial tone, then hung up the receiver and replaced the lid on the bottle of polish. “Blow on your nails like this, Angela.” She showed the eight-year-old how to curl her fingers and move them in front of her pursed lips. “That's it.”

She heard the opening and closing of her front door, and a moment later Kay walked into Celeste's kitchen, her five-year-old twins close on her heels. Annie carefully balanced a plateful of chocolate cupcakes and Anessa carried brightly colored paper plates and napkins.

“Happy Birthday, Celeste,” the twins shouted.

Celeste sighed. Another delay. Although part of her was secretly glad not to have to face her fortieth birthday alone and with nothing to do, this was getting a little ridiculous.

“Thanks, guys. Did you bake those cupcakes?” she asked.

The twins nodded until their pigtails wagged wildly.

Angela paused in her nail blowing just long enough to add, “And I frosted them and put on the sprinkles.”

“And I licked the bowl,” Kay added, causing all three of her daughters to collapse into the giggles.

In Celeste's mind, Kay was the epitome of the successful single mom, and she truly cherished her friendship. She also loved the interaction with Kay's daughters, who daily caused her heart to swell. It had been a surprise to her. She had never thought of herself as having much maternal instinct.

The first time she had succumbed to Kay's request to babysit on short notice, Celeste had discovered how much fun the three girls were. Since then, she'd become almost a second mom—or perhaps a favored aunt—able to calm disputes, showing them how to bake, and looking forward to their after-school visits when she would catch up on the latest likes and dislikes of the young girls' world.

Kay pointed to the single rose Celeste had placed in the delicately etched crystal vase on the kitchen counter. “So, what's this all about?” Her voice was shaded with exaggerated interest.

“Long story,” Celeste said, reaching up to smooth her wavy hair away from her face. Her finger caught a lock of hair, twirling a long curl until it was wrapped completely around her finger. Hair twirling had developed into a new nervous habit since she'd let her hair grow out and had stopped trying to blow dry it straight.

“I've got the time—unless you have other plans—”

Celeste cut her words off with a glare. “My plans, if you remember, now are to try to catch up from losing half my day helping you out at the toll booths.”

Kay ignored her words and reached over to put Annie's napkin in her lap. “Try not to drop crumbs, sweetie. Goodness sakes, my girls make yummy cupcakes, don't they, Celeste?”

“Sure do,” she agreed, “guess they take after me.” Celeste lifted her chin in exaggerated pride. In the year she'd lived next door to Kay, she'd seen and learned a great deal. In the first month she'd seen the end of Kay's abusive marriage—shortly after Kay's discovery that her husband had once again gambled away the grocery and rent money, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Then Celeste had recommended a good attorney she knew and helped Kay navigate her divorce.

And she'd witnessed how strong Kay was and how, amazingly, she still believed in marriage. She was even dating. She'd carefully talked with her girls about it first, though, and introduced her beau to them on neutral ground to test their reaction.

Luckily, they'd fallen head over heels for Jack. And he was a good man. Hard working. Blue collar all the way. And he was patient. He seemed to know that Kay and the girls would need to take some time to learn how to trust again.

“So? The rose?” Kay softly punched Celeste's arm to regain her attention.

“Okay, short version: this guy in a BMW came through the toll booth and handed the rose to me instead of the toll,” she said. She purposely left out details about how he'd made her feel—how she still felt, truth be told. Her cheeks burned just remembering his adorable, embarrassed expression when the toll alarms had sounded.

“Then I came home and there's half a message from the radio station, so I decide to go over there and talk some sense into them and—”

“—oh, and I bet BMW-Man works at the radio station! It’s fate!!” Kay actually squealed in delight.

Celeste ignored this and continued, saying, “His name is Gabe Freeman, and he's the one who has been holding up the decision to use Celestial Cookies, in fact.”

“What's he look like?” Kay wiggled her eyebrows and rubbed her palms as though waiting for a treat.

Celeste threw her a warning glare. “I'm pretty sure he's . . . involved.”

“How do you know? And so what if he is?” Kay's eyes widened in feigned innocence.

Celeste's thoughts froze. She was fairly certain the tension between Jillian and Gabe stemmed from an office romance of some kind. It was classic. When Jillian had declared her support of using Celestial Cookies for the promotion, she'd sensed Gabe's calculated decision to abandon his opposition.

And she would gamble big bucks that Gabe's decision was based on how much it would affect his and Jillian's relationship, not to mention the fact that it also appeared that his fiancée was the boss' daughter.

“Details,” Kay coaxed.

“Okay.” Celeste took a deep breath. Kay was her friend, she reminded herself. Someone to really talk to, confide in. A real friend. “He's a “suit” just like . . .” Her words faded.

“Like Wade,” Kay finished, reaching out her hand to touch Celeste's arm.

Kay had listened to every detail about Wade after she'd finally persuaded Celeste to talk about her husband's sudden death at forty-two, hyped up on pills and driving too fast on his way to a meeting.

Celeste inhaled sharply, lifting her chin a little before she continued. “Very ambitious,” she said. “Nice clothes, expensive taste, corporate all the way.”

Kay stared at her, her eyes squinting. “But cute, I'd say, by your deliberate lack of physical description.”

Celeste paused. “Okay. Yes, he's drop-dead gorgeous, actually. Short brown hair, big, brown eyes. Eyelashes to die for. And funny. And good at what he does.”

“Ah, that's better, now we're getting somewhere.” Kay grinned. “Girls, I bet your show's on. Why don't you go into Celeste's TV room for a little while?”

The three girls bounded out of their chairs.

“So, are you going to see him again?”

Celeste rolled her eyes at the double meaning of Kay's question. “Every day for two weeks starting the first of February. The Valentine's Day promotion requires us to pick each hour's winning call-in Valentine messages and then deliver four cookie bouquets each afternoon.”

“Interesting opportunity to get to know each other,” Kay commented. “So, what exactly are you afraid of?”

“Honestly?” Celeste bit her lower lip. “Spending that much time with him. I'm . . . attracted to him.”

“So, what's wrong with that?”

“I don't want to be, for one thing. He's not what I would be looking for even if I was looking.”

“Oh, come on,” Kay's voice dropped in volume. “You can't possibly think it's rational to cross every eager executive off your list just because of what happened to Wade.”

Celeste balled up her napkin and put it on her empty plate on the counter. “On the way home from the meeting, I just kept having flashbacks, you know? Intense sales meetings. Everybody twitching from too much caffeine and pills and ambition. I feel so lucky to be out of that environment.”

“I know. And you've done wonders with your business. And I've watched you grow with it,” Kay said.

Celeste absorbed Kay's words. She had changed. And, honestly, she didn't have to assimilate the tension of Gabe's world. She didn't even have to get involved in Gabe's world. He was just an account for Celestial Cookies. Nothing more.

“You've learned how to balance,” Kay said, “and you need to trust yourself. Just go with the flow. It'll be okay—I promise.”

Celeste nodded. She had to confess she at least half believed Kay's remarks. But could she spend hours every day for two weeks with a man who made her feel the way Gabe made her feel—a man she wanted to run from and run to?

END OF EXCERPT


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