In broken, paint peeling letters, the sign above the door proclaimed: and S ore.
It was supposed to say: Candy Store.
As she pressed her fingers to her temple, Gabriella Hadley thought, and I am sore, so I guess it fits.
The buildings were all attached, tall narrow soldiers running the length of the block, and
every one had a quaint, freshly painted sign affixed over the door and attractive displays in the windows. Every one, that is, except the address the real estate company had given to Gabriella.
This particular storefront stood out from the rest. The color of the remaining letters on the sign above the door was supposed to be green, which she knew from the pictures she’d seen on the Internet. From her current vantage point, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, parked at the curb in front of the building, she couldn’t be certain of their current color. Muddy? Dilapidated? Was that even a color? It should be. Maybe she should go into business creating crayon colors, instead of trying to re-open a worn out old candy store.
The door and two large plate glass windows were haphazardly covered with brown butcher paper. Two planters flanking the door were coated with cracked peeling paint that also may have once been green but now simply looked dirty. Each had a handful of weeds growing from the dried out soil and a lot of brown stuff that had probably also been weeds that had given up the fight.
With a sigh of resignation, Gabriella resisted the urge to pull away from the curb and just keep driving. At the moment, she was left with precious little choice, so she cut the engine, flipped her long blond braid over her shoulder and leaned toward the passenger seat, absently scratching the ear of the yellow-blond cocker spaniel perched there, while she peered out the window at the row of businesses that ran along the sidewalk.
The candy store was nestled between a hobby shop and a small specialty shop with a carved wooden sign that proclaimed, Everything Is Made In Michigan. At least her new business appeared to be in a good location, right on Main Street. Main Street, according to what Gabriella read on the Internet, was the main thoroughfare through a historic downtown district that was located on the fringes of the suburbs of Detroit, and saw more than its fair share of tourists throughout the year. If the store had looked anything like what the real estate company promised, Gabriella might have felt a tremor of excitement, instead of a tremor of dread.
“What are we doing?” Gabriella asked the dog.
The dog wagged her tail in response. The fuzzy cocker spaniel had two emotions: happy and sleeping. It was one of the dog’s endearing traits, and heaven knew Gabriella needed some happiness in her life at the moment.
A desperate bid to find happiness was the reason she sat in a car, parked in front of a ramshackle, closed candy store, in a tiny town five states away from home. Eight days ago, she had packed what little possessions she had into a tiny U-Haul trailer, hooked it to the back of her car, and left Dallas, driving northeast until she hit Little Rock. For the last six days, she had been holed up in a hotel room in Little Rock, hunched over her laptop, researching the Internet for a new life.
While scanning the Internet, she stumbled upon the candy store for sale and thought, I can do that.
The ad proclaimed the candy store was a gem situated in the middle of a prestigious, historical village that was an oasis outside of the city of Detroit. A village with Midwestern values, the ad said, which Gabriella assumed was a good thing.
A place you could be proud to raise your family.
While Gabriella had no intention of raising a family – generally speaking, that required a man in one’s life, and Gabriella had recently sworn off the opposite sex – the idea of living in such a place appealed to her. A village that touted family values should be a safe place in which to relocate, Gabriella thought at the time.
While she shrank away at the prospect of winter – she had lived in Dallas her entire life– she figured it would actually be a nice change from eighty-five degrees in the middle of September. She would give herself six months, and if she really hated it, she would start looking for real estate in Florida. One thing was certain. She was never going back to Dallas.
Not ever again.
“I wonder if I should have just stuck it out?” she said out loud, and, as if she knew what Gabriella was talking about, the dog flattened her ears against her head for a brief moment before she resumed wagging her tail.
Gabriella sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Even winter is better than what I left behind.”
She glanced at the storefront again and continued talking to the dog. “This looks nothing like the pictures on the website. This looks like it hasn’t been inhabited in years.”
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was after seven p.m. She’d been on the road since seven a.m. and lunch had been a long time ago.
It was Tuesday evening in mid-September. The street was nearly deserted and most of the shops were closed. Gabriella recalled from the website that when the candy store had been open, the hours had been ten-to-six on Sunday through Thursday and ten-to-eight on Fridays and Saturdays, except for Fridays during football season, when the entire town shut down at six to go watch the local high school football game. Gabriella, being from Texas, could understand that mentality.
“Come on,” Gabriella said to the dog. “Let’s go take a quick peek and then we’ll go find dinner.” She climbed out of the car and walked around to the passenger side and opened the door. The cocker spaniel leapt out and immediately rushed off to sniff at the nearest tree.
“We have a leash law in this town, you know.”
Gabriella jumped at the sound of a male voice and turned to watch as a dark haired man with wide shoulders and a narrow waist stepped onto the sidewalk and began ambling towards her. His hair was slightly shaggy and he wore dark blue slacks and a white pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He wore a tie that matched the pinstripes in the shirt. The tie had been loosened around his neck and the top button of his shirt was undone. He should have looked rumpled. Instead, he looked as if he were heading to a shoot for GQ Magazine.
Gabriella sucked in a harsh breath. Miguel.
But as the man drew closer, she realized she was wrong. This wasn’t Miguel. Miguel had chocolate brown eyes. This guy had bright, crystal blue eyes. Miguel had deeply tanned skin, indicative of a great deal of time spent in the sun. This guy had olive skin. He looked Italian or maybe Greek. The look in this guy’s eye wasn’t at all calculated and devious, the way Miguel looked almost all the time.
He isn’t Miguel, Gabriella chanted to herself as she held her ground instead of running, like her instincts were begging her to do. He isn’t Miguel.
The man crouched and scratched the dog’s ear before standing again and offering his hand to shake. “I’m Brandon Sarantos. Head of the DDA.”
Fear lanced through Gabriella’s system and must have shown on her face, because he quickly added, “Downtown Development Authority.”
She blew out a breath. She really had been afraid for a few heartbeats. Gabriella worked to pull her emotions under control as she reluctantly shook his hand. “She isn’t going to hurt anything,” she said defensively.
Her hand was dainty and smooth, and he noticed she had perfectly manicured pale pink nails. She wore three silver stackable rings on the ring finger of her right hand and her left hand was devoid of jewelry. No wedding ring.
“Are you the new owner of the candy store?” he asked.
“How did you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
“By definition of my title, it’s my job to know these sorts of things. You aren’t planning to sell drugs are you?”
Gabriella gasped and looked genuinely shocked and he decided the answer was no.
Considering her reaction to the acronym DDA, he felt inclined to ask. “Just checking,” he said amiably. “So what’s your name?”
Brandon stuck his hands in his pockets and took his time appraising the new candy store owner, now that he was up close. From across the street, by the pale blue glow from the new state of the art yet antique in stature lamppost hanging above her head, he determined she had long blond hair that was braided down her back, an average sized chest, small waist and long legs.
Up close, he could see that the hair was professionally colored in a salon. All those shades of blond couldn’t possibly be natural. The chest was still average, the waist was tiny and the legs were indeed long. She wore a fitted white scoop neck shirt under a thin jacket, slim brown pants and tennis shoes. He bet she looked hot in four-inch heels. He wondered how long she’d last in this town, and he decided he wanted to sleep with her before she left.
“I’m Gabriella Hadley,” she said. Her soft voice was as delicate as her hands and had a distinctly southern drawl.
“Nice to meet you, Gabby,” Brandon said, and she corrected him, “Gabriella.”
“How long do you plan to stay in town?” Brandon asked, rocking on his heels and still watching her. He could tell his scrutiny made her uncomfortable. He hoped it was because she was attracted to him.
“Well, since I just bought the candy store, I’d say it’s a bit of a permanent arrangement,” Gabriella pointed out. “Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Sarantos?” she said impatiently. He watched as a guilty look flittered across her features. Did she feel guilty for acting impatient? He was pretty sure he had never in his life met a woman who felt guilty about something so trivial.
“It’s Brandon. I was still in the office and I saw you pull up, so I figured I’d welcome you to town.” And I never miss an opportunity to meet a hot blond. “Where are you from?”
“Thank you for the welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take a peek inside and then go find something to eat. I haven’t eaten since noon.”
He noticed she ignored his question, but he let it slide as he tried to come up with ways to keep her talking. He didn’t usually like it when women talked too much, but he decided that Gabriella could talk to him all day long, with that thick southern drawl. It was sexy as hell.
“That place hasn’t been opened up in years. Why don’t I hang around to make sure no raccoons come flying out at you, and then I’ll show you the nearest pizza parlor?”
She looked appalled, although Brandon wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to the prospect of a raccoon flying out at her or having to endure his company for that much longer. She demurely said thank you, and turned and bent at the waist to retrieve her purse from the floor of the car. Brandon watched and thoroughly enjoyed the way her cotton pants strained against the roundness of her backside.
She stood up and turned around, realized what he was doing and huffed out a sigh. She stalked past him, her nose in the air. The cocker spaniel trotted along beside her and Brandon followed behind, not feeling the least bit guilty for ogling.
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