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Walking into Paradise Books in Marietta, Montana, York Parker was a man with a mission. He might not be a captain in the air force any longer, but he was the big brother of two incredible women—Dakota and Nevada—and one needed his help tonight. He was used to scanning code on his computer screen and watching trajectories on monitors, so he went into surveillance mode to find Dakota.
Rows of chairs and a wooden podium suggested a reading or some other event had taken place recently, maybe tonight, but his sister wasn’t there. She also wasn’t among the bookcases or with the customers who stood in a line along the left-hand side of the store.
Where could she be?
The place wasn’t that big.
Someone crashed into his back, and he took a step to maintain his balance. He was fine, but he couldn’t say the same about the person clinging to his left arm and shoulder like a dead weight.
“Oh, no.” The voice was feminine and breathy. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
“That’s okay.” And man, was it.
Soft curves pressed against York. The scent of vanilla surrounded him. He couldn’t see her face, but everything else about her was near perfect. If he were looking for a hookup.
Which he wasn’t.
He went into big-brother mode, turned, and put his free hand on her waist to help her balance. “Are you hurt?
“No, just a big ball of nerves.” She straightened, and he missed her warmth and scent. “Though don’t tell anyone I said that please.”
“Your secret is safe with me.” He took a good look at her.
She was in her mid-to-late twenties with a beautiful face that could stop a convoy of Humvees and long, blond hair that belonged spread over a pillow or a man’s chest.
York’s pulse kicked up a notch. Okay, more than one.
She wore a pale blue above-the-knee skirt and matching jacket. Attractive and well dressed. A combination that was hard to resist.
“Thanks, but…” A big, blue-eyed gaze—the color of the sky on this fine day in May—met his.
His breath caught in his throat. Something twisted in his gut. He stared, captivated.
Not the reaction he was expecting, nor like anything he’d felt while charming scantily clad women on the beach last week.
“Did I hurt you?” she added.
Reality returned in an instant. He bit back a laugh. If she could hurt him, he needed serious help. She was average height to his six-two. Not skinny by any means. She had curves a man could hold onto or sink into. Just his type. And too small to do much damage to someone as big as him by accident… or even if she’d tried.
But he heard her concern and appreciated that she knew she was the one at fault. “I’m fine, Miss…?”
York wanted to know her name.
“Good.” She glanced around the store instead. “I need to find the restroom. Do you know where it is?”
“Sorry, first time in here.”
“Well, I’d better keep looking. Thanks for keeping me from hitting the floor. That would have been more embarrassing.”
“No need to be embarrassed. You can bump into me anytime.”
With a quick smile flashed in his direction, she hurried away.
The sway of her hips and heels that showed off her long legs had him watching her go. He didn’t get her name, but that was probably for the best.
“York. Thank goodness you’re here.”
He turned toward the sound of his sister’s voice. She stood by an artful display of chocolates that had been set up on a large, rectangle table.
“You called for help,” he said. “I got here as soon as I could.”
Dakota wore her work uniform—indigo blue shirt, dark jeans, and a copper-colored apron. Her light brown hair was pulled back into a French braid. She looked the same as when she’d left the house at nine-thirty this morning. Not surprising since she hadn’t been home. He and their sister Nevada had been there to let out the dog this afternoon. No reason for Dakota to come back on her lunch break.
She placed chocolates on a white platter. Wearing plastic gloves didn’t slow her down, but she’d worked at Copper Mountain Chocolates for almost four years. She was an expert at this, and loved her job selling chocolates. He’d be getting a first-hand look at what she did when he filled in at the shop for a couple of her coworkers.
A smile spread across her face. “I knew I could count on you.”
The relief in her voice made him glad he’d arrived quickly. The dark lines under her brown eyes, however, bothered him. She’d worked a full day at the chocolate shop and was now at the bookstore. She had to be tired. Yesterday on her day off, she’d volunteered at the Whiskers and Paw Pals Animal Rescue. Only two hours, but still…
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I told you Portia’s baby is due at the end of the month.”
Portia was one of his sister’s co-workers at the chocolate shop. He hadn’t met her yet. “Is she okay?”
“I think so. She was supposed to work tonight. When she arrived, she looked exhausted. I sent her home to rest. Sage’s kids have fevers so she couldn’t be here, either. And Rosie is in LA. That’s why I need your help. This is a two-person job.” Dakota handed him a copper-colored apron like the one she wore. “Here.”
He grinned. “This doesn’t look like my SuperBro cape.”
“Capes are overrated. And you’ll be wearing one just like this when you work at the shop tomorrow. Put it on, bro.”
He did and was happy to do whatever she needed.
Dakota and Nevada were the reasons he was spending the month in Marietta. What better place to be than with his sisters before he started traveling nonstop with his new job as a computer consultant? Being here also gave him time to check out their respective boyfriends—Bryce Grayson and Dustin Decker. York wanted to make sure the guys were as wonderful as his sisters claimed.
He planned to use Dakota’s place as a home base after his job started since he would be traveling and not around much. If he determined he needed a better location to live, he would move.
She gave him a once-over, and the corners of her mouth turned downward. “Your hair is wet.”
“I grabbed a quick shower before I drove over. Didn’t think you wanted me showing up without one after replacing windows all day. Too dirty and sweaty.”
“You’re right, good call, but you didn’t have time to shave?”
“Nope.” York tied the strings around his back. He didn’t realize the chocolate shop had such high appearance standards. He’d better come clean on one more fault. “I also couldn’t find an iron.”
Her smile returned. “That’s because I don’t own one.”
What? And why did she sound so proud about that fact?
No matter. He knew what to get Dakota for her birthday.
“You’re not in the air force any longer,” she said. “A couple of wrinkles won’t hurt you.”
York was adjusting to being a civilian. He kept thinking he was on leave, but once he was working full time, he’d stop thinking that way. “Don’t let Mom hear you say that.”
Growing up, their mom ironed everything from bedsheets to T-shirts.
“At least the colonel’s not here to ground us if we’re wrinkled,” he added.
The colonel was York’s nickname for their father who’d retired from the army. A name York had never called the man to his face.
“I hated when Dad did that.” Dakota made a face. “Though you appreciated the extra time to play on your computer, and Nevada loved being able to read more.”
Neither of those things had appealed to Dakota due to her reading disability.
“But no kid deserved to be treated like a trainee in boot camp,” she continued.
Forget the iron. York would get his sister something else for her birthday. “True, but Dad didn’t know any other way.”
And the three of them hadn’t turned out too badly.
York smoothed the front of the apron and then struck a pose. “How do I look?”
“Nice.” Dakota’s brown eyes twinkled. “The copper color brings out your tan and your blond highlights.”
Both were due to spending last week in Fiji on an all-expenses-paid dream vacation courtesy of Nevada’s boyfriend, Dustin Decker. Except…
“Not highlights,” York corrected. “Sun streaks.”
He shook his head. “No salon visits or spa days for this guy. The colonel would kill me if I did anything like that.”
Dakota returned to putting chocolates on the platter. “Maybe sailing around the Caribbean has mellowed him.”
York might be thirty-two, but his father was still this larger-than-life, all-knowing figure. One who was a tad intimidating, but that hadn’t stopped York from leaving the air force when the colonel wanted him to reenlist. His father had liked the stability and security of being career military, but earning retirement benefits didn’t make up for the daily routine and lack of control over the future. No way could York keep doing it for another ten or twenty years.
“Let’s hope so.” A sigh welled up inside York. He hadn’t spoken to his parents since he’d gone to Fiji. “What can I do to help? Taste chocolate?” York asked in a hopeful tone.
“You can do that at the shop tomorrow.” Dakota handed him a pair of plastic gloves. “Tonight, you’re going to pass out chocolates.”
He made a sad face. “None for me?”
“You can have any leftovers,” she said in that patient voice she used with her many foster animals. Her current menagerie consisted of an old, gray-faced dog named Fang and a sleeps-all-day cat named Sapphire, who would go to her forever home tomorrow. “Though there might not be much left with this crowd. Marietta loves Sage’s chocolate.”
Sage Carrigan O’Dell owned Copper Mountain Chocolates. He’d met her the last time he was in town. A nice woman.
York put on the gloves.
Dakota looked at the line of customers against the far wall. “More people are here than expected. I’ll prepare another tray and pour hot chocolate samples.”
“You’re going all out.”
“All of our events are important, but this one is…special.” She double-checked the platter. “Be sure to smile.”
“When I’m around chocolate and you, smiling happens naturally.”
Dakota beamed. “You’re the best brother.”
He couldn’t let her words go without saying something. “I’m your only brother.”
She stuck out her tongue at him.
That made York laugh. He missed her. And Nevada, too. Spending a few days with them during the holidays wasn’t enough.
Being a big brother meant looking out for his sisters and teasing them, too. Dakota and Nevada meant more to him than anything. Yes, they could push his buttons, but he could press theirs right back. That was what being siblings was all about.
Growing up, he’d worn sparkly tiaras and pink boas, attended more tea parties than he could count, let his sisters cry on his shoulder, and taken care of the jerks who broke their hearts.
Who was he kidding?
He still did those things—minus wearing the crowns and feathers. Although, he would if they needed him to.
He picked up the platter. “Looks like I’m good to go.”
Dakota dragged her upper teeth across her lower lip.
Funny, but their mom did the same thing. He’d never noticed his sister doing it, too.
“Keep Chantelle’s plate full of chocolate,” Dakota said. “We want her to fall in love with Sage’s special recipes.”
Chantelle was a name he hadn’t heard before. “Who?”
“The author. Chantelle Cummings.” Dakota’s voice held a hint of awe. “She gave a talk earlier, and now she’s signing her book The Chocolate Touch.”
The title explained why Copper Mountain Chocolates was catering the event, but… “Never heard of her. Or the book.”
“Shh.” Dakota looked around as if to see if anyone heard him. “Chantelle’s an expert in the industry. Her book is a collection of reviews and articles she’s written about the chocolate from the shops she’s visited. A positive review from her can bring in customer orders from all over the world.”
“Sage seems to be doing well on her own.”
“Yes, but new customers keep a business growing. Can you imagine if Cooper Mountain Chocolates made it into Chantelle’s next book?”
Based on Dakota’s excited tone, that would be a big deal. “I’ll make sure the plate is full.”
His words seemed to appease his sister.
“Sage invited Chantelle to tomorrow night’s tasting, but we don’t know if she’ll attend.” Dakota handed him a stack of small napkins. “When you interact with her or anyone, please be my charming brother. Not my annoying one.”
Come on. She had to know he wouldn’t do anything to embarrass her.
He grinned. “I’m only annoying when it’s you, Nevada, and me.”
York walked to the end of the line. That seemed like the best place to start since these people had to wait the longest to meet the author whose name he’d forgotten. He handed out pieces with a smile. A few people he recognized from his past visits, but most he didn’t. His last visit to Marietta had been over two years ago.
The size of the crowd, however, surprised him. Marietta residents must either support their local businesses or be addicted to Sage’s chocolates.
Maybe both given how fast the platter was emptying.
When he reached the front of the line, only four chocolates remained. So much for leftovers that he could eat. Oh, well. Maybe there’d be more left with the next round.
Laughter—a sweet, almost melodic sound—caught his attention. York looked over. He did a double-take.
The woman sitting at a table stacked with books was the same one who had bumped into him. She spoke to an older woman with gray hair who stood on the opposite side of the table.
That must be the author.
Her smile was warm and genuine. He could tell she liked speaking to people about her book. Passion gleamed in her eyes.
Passion for chocolate.
Awareness hummed through him, followed by a rush of anticipation.
Uh-oh. He’d better stop staring. Dakota had told him to keep the author’s plate full—it wasn’t. But he remembered how she felt against him—how she smelled—and that was more of a turn-on than he wanted to admit even to himself.
York made his way to the right-hand side of the table. The author didn’t glance his way. She was preoccupied signing a book. He would wait for the right time to refill her plate.
He glanced at the book’s cover.
Chantelle. That was the name he’d forgotten.
A photograph of two chocolates on a plain white plate was on the front. He would have rather seen a woman holding a piece of chocolate, or, better yet, putting a piece into her mouth. Chantelle Cummings had nice, full lips.
As the older woman walked away, he picked up one of the chocolates with his gloved hand and placed the piece on Chantelle’s plate.
She jumped. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you more chocolate.”
Eyes wide, she looked at him as if he’d grown horns and smelled like Big Foot. Then she relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.”
He took her remembering him as a good sign. Maybe she didn’t make a habit of splaying herself over strangers.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” he said. “But it was my turn.”
She laughed. “That’s true, and you were nicer than me.”
He raised a brow. “How’s that?”
“You didn’t make me catch you.”
Okay, she had a sense of humor. That was good, too.
“What do you have for me?” she asked.
Ten lines ran through his mind. He could come up with many more. Not one he could use on her now, though.
“You won’t find better chocolate in Montana.” He might as well sell the product because that was what Dakota would do, and this was what he’d be expected to do when he filled in at the shop. “What other pieces would you like?”
Chantelle’s gaze traveled from him to the three chocolates on the platter. “What’s your favorite?”
York heard a challenge in her question. For someone who seemed a bit of a klutz and out of sort a few minutes ago, she seemed to pull herself together quickly.
His smile didn’t waver, even though he didn’t know the names of the pieces. “All are good.”
That sounded like a safe answer that wouldn’t get him or Dakota into trouble.
“What kind of truffles are those?” Chantelle asked.
Truffles? He glanced at the platter. Two pieces were rounded. Those must be the truffles, but he had no idea of the flavors. The square one had salt on top so it might be a caramel.
He’d try a logical answer. “Chocolate.”
Chantelle eyed him as if she knew his secret. Her mouth quirked. “You don’t know what they’re called, do you?”
“No.” He’d gotten out of more than one tight spot by keeping his cool and a smile on his face. “I’m helping out my sister tonight. But even if I don’t know the names, my tastes buds don’t care. Everything Sage makes is delicious.”
A beat passed. And another. She gazed into his eyes. Hers were questioning. Curious.
Time seemed to stop. He felt as if he were floating in the pools of blue. The feeling didn’t suck.
She looked away. “You’ve convinced me.”
That was easy, but Chantelle’s matter of fact tone didn’t tell him whether she was amused or annoyed with him. Given the way her gaze flickered from him to the line of autograph seekers, he’d say the latter.
“I’ll take all three, please,” she added.
York placed the remaining pieces on her plate. He liked that she didn’t hold back on the chocolates. “You’re a woman who knows what she wants.”
The wariness returned to her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at him. She seemed more interested in everything else in the store besides him, and he wished she’d go back to being a ‘ball of nerves’ as she’d put it.
“When it comes to chocolate, yes,” she said.
“That’s because you have the chocolate touch.”
Chantelle pressed her lips together. She looked like a completely different person from the one who had bumped into him.
“Heard that line before?” he asked.
Too many based on the hard set of her jaw. Probably too late for damage control, but he’d try. “Then I won’t ask you about chocolate kisses or anything else.”
“Good. Otherwise, I’d have to invoke the chocolate curse.”
“Curse? You’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Sorry. Top secret.”
He had a security clearance. Or did and would again once he started his new consulting job. But that wasn’t something he’d tell a stranger, even a beautiful one who probably wore fancy, lacy lingerie.
Where did that come from?
He’d better get out of there before he said something inappropriate.
“Your plate’s full. My job is done.” He didn’t want to embarrass Dakota or himself. “I’ll let you get back to signing books.”
“Champagne and mocha.” The words rushed out of Chantelle’s mouth.
“Those are the two flavors of truffles you gave me. There’s also a dark chocolate salted caramel, and the first thing you put on my plate is a toffee.”
She spoke fast. That breathy tone was back. Confidence in a woman was a sexy trait, but he liked seeing her less in control.
“One out of four isn’t bad.” He half-laughed. “I guessed one was caramel due to the salt.”
His gaze met hers.
Something passed between them. A look, but not like before. This was more of a…connection.
Forget acting like a big brother with this one.
A spark raced up his arm even though they hadn’t touched. The flash of hunger in her eyes made York think she’d like a taste of him, too.
He wouldn’t mind a nibble. “Enjoy them.”
“I will. And thanks for catching me.”
“I’m not a klutz.”
“Did I say you were?”
“No, but…” She bit her lip.
He was tempted to put his mouth there. Really tempted.
But people were waiting to speak with her and get their books signed. He was out of chocolate and needed a new platter. Still, his feet didn’t want to move.
There’d been energy—chemistry—in that look. Heat, too. Enough to intrigue him and send his temperature rising, both before and now. He had gotten enough of a feel of her body to want to touch her again. The only thing he risked was rejection, and he’d never let that stop him before.
Until he remembered his reason for being in Marietta.
Dakota and Nevada.
He wasn’t in Fiji anymore.
A vacation romance wasn’t on his radar.
He had a month before his computer consultant job started, and then he’d have to travel to wherever clients needed him. He’d be living out of a suitcase with no vacation time. He wanted to make the most of his time in Marietta.
Holding onto the empty platter, he walked away, forcing himself not to look back at the beautiful author with the chocolate touch.
His sisters were the priority this month.
No one else.
End of Excerpt