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CHAPTER ONE Working alone in the downtown flower boutique, Panzina Wilson straightened the skewed displays before getting ready to close up. She attentively arranged assortments of colorful carnations, fragrant roses, and delicate lilies while attaching sales tags on the bins that held them. When the single bell on the glass door of L’Fragrance chimed, signaling the arrival of a customer, she had her back turned, deeply engrossed in her work. The man entered with heavy steps. She missed the admiration in his expression as his eyes took in her petite frame and mistook his stare for one of want and lust. Self-consciously, she tugged at the hem of her dress, a very colorful and full-length sundress that caressed the contours of her body. She normally loved wearing the dress because it made her feel as feminine and soft as the flowers that filled her shop, but this man made her feel as if the delicate fabric were nothing more than strategicallyplaced petals on bare skin. And the pair of yellow, open-toed sandals that revealed her toenails painted midnight blue was no longer a comfortable classic. Her feet felt as naked as the rest of her body, as if she stood barefoot in a moonlit garden with her toes sinking into thick grass. As he stared into her almond shaped eyes a very intense feeling of attraction and embarrassment momentarily

overwhelmed her. Not caring to analyze the feeling, she quickly dismissed it. “May I speak to the person in charge?” he said in a manner that seemed to expect immediate obedience. The pleasant smile on Panzina’s face wavered as she noticed his look of obvious displeasure. She closed the distance between them in an instant. She had a great deal of experience dealing with irate customers. She had found that being professional and polite at all times was the best method. Kill’em with kindness, as the old retail saying went. “May I help you, Sir?” she inquired. Annoyance flashed across his too-handsome features as his hazel eyes slanted. “Yes, you can. You can get me the owner,” he repeated, tight-lipped. Once again, his gaze swept over her, then settled on her face with feigned disinterest. For some reason, the fact that he’d apparently deemed her unimportant irritated Panzina. What if she was the owner? She bristled inside, and then decided to inform him of that very fact. “I am the owner,” she retorted. “Is there a problem?”

His bright eyes widened, which did not go undetected by Panzina. Though he seemed to recover quickly, Panzina had already picked up on his disbelief. She hoped he hadn’t missed the spark in her own eyes before he began his charade. “Yes, there is a problem. You screwed up a wedding order, and I want an explanation.” “Maybe, if you start from the beginning, Mr. er-” She paused, giving him time to volunteer his name. His tone laced with flippancy, he said, “Grant. Trevor Grant.” Now it was her turn to be surprised, but she hid it well behind her professional mask. That explains why he’s so obnoxious, Panzina thought. He was the Trevor Grant, the very prominent fashion designer in the city. She could understand why he would be frustrated with even the smallest details as most designers lived and died by the details of their work. What she couldn’t understand was why he’d come down to the shop himself? Didn’t he have hired help for taking care of the mundane things in life? Panzina’s face was purposefully unreadable as she took in his immaculate appearance. His low cut hairstyle made his features more defined. Baby-doll lashes framed hazel eyes. Panzina didn’t dare let her

gaze drop to scrutinize the rest of him but the thought did cross her mind. Her cheeks turned hot as a carnation blush spread over her face. “Well?” His hard voice snapped her attention back to the present situation. “Oh! Excuse me.” She walked past him to get behind the counter, and a display of roses made it quite difficult. Her face flamed as she brushed against him, feeling the hardness of his thigh muscles. Having squeezed all of her inventory in such a small space made it impossible to not to touch him as she passed. Panzina made a great effort to compete with the larger florists in the city. To do this, she had to keep a large assortment of flowers on hand at all times. Whether or not she had the room for all her blooms was a different story. Amid the many coolers of buds and shelves of vases, she’d managed to squeeze in a tiny desk that held her cash register. Below it, she stored her files and current orders. If his wedding occurred in the last six months, she would have a record of it. “I’ll find the problem, Mr. Grant, and correct it,” she managed to say, rather breathlessly. “That’s great, but it’s a bit too late. The wedding was over two hours ago.” He stood there fuming with his arms crossed, which only infuriated her more. His rigid countenance made it difficult for her to remain calm and professional.

Panzina busied herself with finding the purchase order anyway, ignoring his sarcasm. Locating it, she quickly scanned the receipt. She was flustered, even though she couldn’t imagine making a mistake with his order. She prided herself on getting things done right the first time. Though she had prepared his order, she hadn’t been the one to fill out the form. One of temporary employees she’d hired could have made an initial error on the slip. Trevor Grant was the last person on earth that she had expected to show up at L’Fragrance in person. He was the most talked about eligible bachelor in the city, so his wedding was sure to have been the event of the season. If she had wanted to make a good impression, it was too late for that now. He probably thought the worst of her. As for her opinion of him, well, she wasn’t sure that she even liked the man. A celebrity’s image was always greater than the actual person. She frowned as she looked at the paper in her hands. “What exactly was the problem, Mr. Grant? Wasn’t your order delivered on time?” She asked, daring to gaze at him. She dropped her eyes quickly when she met his cold stare. “Time wasn’t the problem. The condition of those flowers was an embarrassment!” “That’s impossible!” she said sharply. Then remembering her surroundings, she regained her

composure. She recalled another retail saying, “The customer is always right, no matter what.” She really wanted to give Mr. Grant a piece of her mind, but restrained herself. In a calm, controlled voice, she stated, “I personally saw to your order.” She swallowed down her anger and continued. “I would never have allowed damaged merchandise to go out, especially not to such an important occasion. If there was damage done during delivery, you could have called, Mr. Grant,” she said. She sighed exasperatedly. “We can; however, work out an agreement and replacemen-“ “That won’t be necessary,” he said, his tone laced with rudeness. “I have no need for twenty-five dozen flowers!” Panzina fought hard to remain in control of her temper. This was the most arrogant brute of a man she’d ever encountered, but she refused to let herself be intimidated by him. Never had any of her customers been so irate and unreasonable. Well, she could be unreasonable as well and Mr. Grant was about to experience it if he kept pushing her buttons. “Then why the visit Mr. Grant?” she asked, teeth clenched. “I just wanted to see who was in charge of this…this business," he said. "They should never have hired a child to do an adult’s job!” With that final, stinging comment, he stalked from the flower

boutique. The bells over the door seemed to jangle in anger as he exited. *** “The nerve of that man!” Panzina fumed as she hurried to close up the boutique for the evening. When she’d put up the “Closed” sign moments after he left, she’d seen Mr. Grant get into a black Mercedes Benz. He had pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires. He had taken off so fast the bell above the door was still tinkling. Smelling the stench of burnt rubber, she wiggled her nose distastefully. As she locked the door of the boutique, she silently thanked God that Mr. Grant had been her last customer of the day. He had left her in such a frenzy she couldn’t think straight. She wanted to go home and wilt away like last week’s flowers. Doesn’t he have better things to do with his time, like design some clothes or something? she thought as she climbed into her vehicle. She let out a relieved sigh when her 1994 Ford Escort started on the third try. The last thing she needed was for the car to quit on her. She had to pick up TJ from the daycare center and then stop by the nursing home. She would have to rush because she now had less than an hour to visit with her aunt. Panzina clicked on the radio, which was preset to a jazz station. At least that was in good working

condition. As she hummed to the sultry sounds of Anita Baker, she forgot about her heated visit from Trevor Grant. Her thoughts turned to TJ instead. Thinking about TJ brought a smile of joy to her face, yet she was also saddened. TJ’s father, Telvin, had acted differently the last time they’d spoken. He had been in college for a little less than a month and already his attitude had changed. Panzina felt sure that her fiancé would drift away from her, and she didn’t have a clue as to how to hang on to him now that he was a college man. She wasn’t even sure how she felt about Telvin these days. When he’d suddenly told her that he was going away to college, it had come as a shock. Even though some time had passed, it still brought forth pain as Panzina remembered the conversation they’d had. Panzina and Telvin sat in the living room watching a movie of interest to neither of them. Whatever was on television was all right with them as long as they had each other. They would just snuggle up and talk about whatever topic the program spurred. It was their usual routine, but this time Telvin was unusually quiet. He hadn’t laughed at a single joke. Panzina had picked up on the vibes almost immediately and knew that something was bothering him. She’d grown tired of him fidgeting around. He had rewound the movie several times before she finally took the remote control. He never rewound a movie. Telvin wasn’t the type to care

much about the words of a film. He just liked the action. This was a change in him. “Tell me,” she said, folding her arms across her chest and glancing at him. Telvin had begun tracing the patterns on the couch cushion with his index finger. “Telvin!” “Tell you what?” he’d asked. “Something’s on your mind.” Panzina aimed the remote at the television and turned it off. “You’re too quiet. I know when something’s bothering you. You can’t even concentrate on this movie--even though it’s boring me to death too.” What she really wanted to say was that she could read him like a book. The last time he had behaved in this fashion was when he’d revealed to her that he had gotten another girl pregnant. He had been fidgeting then as he was now. “You’re not preparing to tell me that you’re having another child, are you?” she asked, glaring at him. “No! Baby, it’s nothing like that.” Telvin stood up and began to pace. “I just don’t know how to tell you.” “Just spit it out,” Panzina said, frustrated. “Whatever it is, I can handle it.” “Well, I’m going off to college. It’s in Tallahassee and I’m leaving next week.” Then he walked out before she could say anything. Panzina snapped back to reality when she pulled up in front of Happy Workers Daycare. She hated to think about Telvin because it only saddened her. Well, the situation saddened her.

Actually, she didn’t really miss him that much. TJ ran to hug her when she walked in the door. “Look, I drew a picture of you and Daddy,” he said cheerfully. Panzina glanced at the artwork of the four-year old child. TJ had sketched two stick figures. The woman wore a veil and on her hand was a large, spider shaped object. “What’s that?” Panzina pointed. “That’s your diamond ring. When you marry Daddy, I’m sure he’ll give you one,” TJ said in an innocent voice. “Can we go swimming today?” he asked, changing the subject, as four year olds were accustomed to doing. “Tomorrow,” she told him. “I have to stop by the nursing home to visit Aunt Gertie.” “Okay,” TJ climbed into the car and put on his seat belt. Panzina walked around and got in on the driver’s side. “Don’t forget your seatbelt,” he reminded her. She smiled and buckled up. “How was your day TJ?” she asked. He excitedly told her about activities he’d participated in at the daycare center. She listened as he chatted on enthusiastically. “Tomorrow, we’re going to the zoo. Do you like the zoo, Panzi?”

“Yes,” she answered. As he continued with his chatter, Panzina’s mind wandered. If she and Telvin did happen to marry, the matter of TJ was still unsettled. TJ’s mother had walked away from him when he was born, but now she was back in the picture and wanting full custody. With Telvin in college, it was hard for him to make a decision. He wanted to be able to care for his son, but he also wanted what was best for his child. Right now, he thought TJ was happiest with Panzina. And just like that, he had put the issue in her court. It was typical for Telvin to depend on Panzina. That took Panzina’s thoughts in another direction. TJ’s mother, Gina, wasn’t an irresponsible teenager anymore. She seemed to have changed. Panzina had met her and felt that Gina deserved a second chance to be a mother to TJ. Gina had explained how hard it had been for her when she had gotten pregnant with TJ. She had only been seventeen, a mere child herself. She had been afraid and a bit selfish. When she’d run off, she’d thought she’d done the right thing. Panzina believed her and believed in her. She was aware that all people make mistakes. It was a part of being human. Gina wanted a chance to correct her mistake, and Panzina saw no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to do just that. ***

After Panzina dropped TJ off at his grandmother’s house, she headed toward the nursing home, which housed her aunt. It had been a hard decision for her to place Aunt Gertie in a nursing facility, but Panzina simply couldn’t take care of her alone. She didn’t have the necessary resources. When her aunt had gotten to the stage where she’d needed more attention than Panzina could provide, Panzina had researched the different nursing and rehabilitation facilities in the area. Palm Shores had struck her as the best place. She’d visited and found that the patients were well taken care of, appeared to be comfort table, and seemed happy. They came and went when they wanted and could have visitors. Since she’d chosen it, she hadn’t regretted the decision. Most importantly, Aunt Gertie was happy there, as happy as a dying woman could be. Panzina’s vision of the Aunt Gertie that she knew and loved was quickly fading away. Aunt Gertie was now deathly ill. She’d become a shell of the woman that she used to be. Cancer and old age were taking away her precious aunt. Panzina parked in a space close to the front of the building and sat for a brief moment before getting out of car. She had remembered to bring fresh lilies, her aunt’s favorite flowers. She hoped that they would lift Aunt Gertie’s spirits. When she entered the room, her own spirits sank. Aunt Gertie could barely open her eyes. The

shine had left her pupils and her skin looked ashen. It broke Panzina’s heart to see her aunt in such a condition. It saddened her because she couldn’t do anything to ease the pain. She had already resigned herself to the fact that it would only be a matter of time before Aunt Gertie was gone. Still, she’d never be ready to let her go. Panzina leaned over and kissed Aunt Gertie on the cheek. “Hello, Aunt Gertie,” she said fondly. “I brought you some more flowers.” She glided over to the dresser, took the droopy flowers from the vase, and replaced them with the fresh ones. “Aunt Gertie, I really miss you. I wish you could be home with me. I wish that things could be the way they used to.” But she knew that it was futile to wish. All things happened for a reason. Before Aunt Gertie had gone into the nursing home, she had made Panzina promise not to lose faith in God. She had also insisted that Panzina not feel guilty for having to place her in a nursing facility. “Child, I don’t want to be a burden to you or anyone else for that matter,” her aunt had told her. That was before the cancer had taken over and she still had a streak of stubbornness. “You are not equipped to deal with this. You are too young to give up your life to take care of me. I’ll be fine. And

if the Good Lord wants me to come and live with you, He will provide the means for you to do so.” Panzina had stopped in the middle of sponge bathing her aunt and sank to the carpeted floor beside the bed. “I can’t do it,” she sobbed and shook her head. “I love you Aunt Gertie. I can’t just send you off somewhere.” “I know that you love me, Dear Heart,” she’d said softly, wiping Panzina’s tears from her face. “Love me enough to let me go. Soon, child, soon, my spirit will be gone and all that will be left is this old, ragged body.” Now, Panzina sat beside her aunt and read Love by Toni Morrison. She knew that her aunt had enjoyed reading books by that author that’s why she’d chosen it. Before she knew it, the time had passed and she had to go. She kissed Aunt Gertie on the cheek and whispered in her ear. “I love you.” She knew that the words had been heard because the old, withered face took on a serene expression. Aunt Gertie gave her hand a weak squeeze and smiled from within. Panzina drove toward home with a heavy heart. She wasn’t ready for her aunt to leave her. She didn’t want to be alone in the world. She parked the car in the driveway and sat for a while as she’d

done earlier at the nursing home. She knew that she couldn’t sit there feeling sorry for herself for too long. Her aunt wouldn’t approve of that at all. Besides, she’d never been one to mope. She considered calling Telvin, but dismissed it. She wasn’t sure that Telvin would understand how she felt. He was always so obsessed with his own problems. She didn’t need to feel any worse. Instead, she decided to call TJ and offer to take him swimming that evening instead of the next day. *** “Panzi, look!” TJ yelled excitedly as he jumped into the pool with a big splash. Panzina smiled at his childish enthusiasm. Gina was one of the swim coaches at the health spa where she took him swimming. It was such an elite place that you had to have a membership pass in order get in. Of course, TJ got to swim for free because of Gina. Gina finished up with a group of four and five year old girls that she’d been training, and then walked toward Panzina. “Hello, Panzina,” she greeted as she sat in the lounge chair next to her. “Hi,” Panzina replied. She genuinely liked the other woman. Under different circumstances, they might have become good friends. Neither harbored resentment towards the other. Both felt that the past should remain in the past. Gina and Telvin had

something in the past. Now Telvin and Panzina had a relationship, and they left things at that. “I had a talk with Telvin today, and we’re going through with the proceedings. He’s agreed to give me full custody of TJ,” she said and smiled happily. For a moment, Panzina felt a crushing sensation around her heart. She had been like a mother to TJ, and Telvin hadn’t called her to let her in on the decision. Maybe it just slipped his mind, she told herself. “That’s great,” she said, recovering quickly. “I’m sure it’s the best thing. You’re a wonderful mother, Gina,” she told the other woman with all sincerity. “Thank you.” Gina smiled shyly. “Panzina, I really appreciate all that you’ve done for TJ. He loves you. I would like it if you kept in touch with him. Just because I’ll have custody doesn’t mean that you can’t see him. I can admit the fact that I like you. You’re a nice person.” Panzina felt tears sting the back of her eyes. Gina reached out impulsively and gave her a quick hug. “Thank you,” Panzina told her. “I think that you’re a nice person too, and a wonderful mother.”

“Panzi! Gina! Look at me!” TJ’s happy squeal interrupted the moment and made both women look in his direction. As she stared at TJ’s efforts to stand on his hands underwater, Panzina caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye. It was none other than Trevor Grant! She couldn’t help staring. The man had a magnificent body, and she watched as he glided smoothly through the water. She felt her heartbeat quicken as he climbed, dripping wet, from the pool. Small droplets of water glistened on his copper toned skin. His muscles rippled in the revealing swimming trunks that he wore. Or were those shorts wearing him? Trevor seemed oblivious to her admiring glances from the women as he grabbed his towel. He patted himself dry and wrapped the towel around his waist, securing it in front with a twist and a tuck. Panzina felt herself envying that towel, for she would love to be wrapped around him securely. She felt disappointment when Trevor spotted a pretty, brown skinned woman and went over to her. Not long afterwards, Panzina noticed the two leave together. Maybe that was his new bride. She fleeting wondered if she’d been the one to complain about the flowers. Were they visiting the health spa one last time before flying away somewhere exotic for a romantic honeymoon? ***

Back at home Panzina passed the time by writing to her friends that had gone off to college. At times like these, she wondered if she’d made the wrong decision about rejecting those scholarships to different universities. If she had accepted, she could have been at the same school as Telvin, and they’d be together. Instead, she had chosen the business route in an effort to help her family through hard times. She had a lot of people who depended on her, the least of which was Telvin and his irresponsible ways. She thought about the relationship she had with Telvin Coney. She’d been ten years old when they’d met. Her parents had died in a plane crash and she’d moved to Tampa to live with her Aunt Gertie. Telvin was the kid that nobody liked, and she was the new kid. Neither had many friends. At school, they’d been drawn toward each other. Through the years, she had made other friends, but Telvin had managed to stay number one. It was only natural for them to become a couple during high school. It didn’t surprise either of their families when the two announced their engagement shortly after graduation. Now, Panzina felt uncertainty. Telvin had always been a rather selfish person. That’s how he’d ended up being a father at age eighteen. Her aunt had raised her strictly, instilling values and morals that she deemed important.

Chastity ranked high on the list. Even though she and Telvin had been allowed to date, Telvin got no further than the living room. They’d never been left alone much and had only managed to do some light petting and heavy kisses. Consequently, Telvin had grown impatient waiting for Panzina to give in to his sexual overtures. That’s when he’d dated Gina on the side, never thinking that he’d get caught. Innocent in more ways than one, Panzina had never suspected a thing. If Gina hadn’t gotten pregnant, Telvin would probably still be playing them both. However, he’d felt guilty enough to tell her about the baby. That’s how the truth had come out. Even now, she didn’t know why she had taken him back. She couldn’t trust him. She wasn’t even sure if she loved Telvin. She was even less sure that he loved her. She’d read the storybook romances and had dreamed about having one herself. She had fantasies about a man who’d kiss her until her toes curled. Telvin didn’t even cause a spark. She finished her letters and turned on the television. She paid no attention to what happened on the screen until she heard the name Trevor Grant. Her eyes leapt to the TV. Trevor Grant would be sponsoring a fashion show at the pier. The news anchor detailed how his latest designs would be on display and relished in the fact that he would make a personal appearance. Well, she had been on the receiving end of one his personal appearances that very day, and she wanted none of it.

“Trevor Grant’s name and face seem to pop up all over the place lately,” Panzina mumbled. She remembered the anger she’d felt after being told off by him. He was high society, much too classy for her. She doubted if her earnings for a whole week would be enough to buy one of his designs. She’d be better off sticking to the mall.

CHAPTER TWO Panzina returned from lunch to find a letter slipped under the door of L’ Fragrance. She unfolded it awkwardly with one hand and shook it open as she turned the closed sign around with the other hand to read open. It shocked her when she realized it was an apology note from Mr. Trevor Grant! It actually blew her away. Never in a million years would she have expected him to be the type to openly admit when he’d made a mistake and receiving the letter of apology made her reevaluate her opinion of him. She always had been the type to forgive and forget without a moment’s hesitation. He still wouldn’t make the top of her favorite list, but at least now there was hope for all those naughty thoughts she had about him at the spa. Assuming it hadn’t been his wedding order that he had complained about, that is. Maybe it had been his brother’s wedding? And the woman at the spa? Well, she could have been a good friend and nothing more. These thoughts kept the pace of the day moving at an alarming speed. Before she knew it, she was right back to the front door and turning the sign around to read closed. After checking the lock for a second time Panzina stopped by her favorite restaurant to pick

up some Chinese food that she’d ordered. She, Gina, and TJ were going to an amusement park and she had volunteered to provide dinner before they left. Leaving the restaurant with her order, she carried a variety of containers to her car. She didn’t see Trevor watching her as she balanced the food precariously on her hip in order to open her door. The group had a good time riding every ride that TJ was tall enough to ride, and Panzina even managed to win a cute, stuffed bear for him. Gina took TJ to purchase some cotton candy as Panzina tried to throw a ball into a basket to win a gigantic Daffy duck. It seemed to be impossible. After losing five dollars, she stood back to watch someone else try and to scan the crowd for Gina and TJ. She saw a familiar face among the throngs of weaving people. Who else but Trevor Grant? If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought the sexy designer was following her. She stared as he strolled past with yet another, gorgeous female draped on his arm like a fur. Panzina couldn’t stop staring at the couple for the life of her. What was it about that man that made her act so out of character? She never had a habit of staring at people before, and she hoped her infatuation would wear off eventually. If only fate would stop bringing them together in random public places.

As she continued to look, he threw back his head and roared with laughter. His companion had apparently said something that he found humorous. It must have been hilarious because he hadn’t even looked her way. Either he hadn’t seen her, or he was purposefully ignoring her. After his letter of apology, she was certain the latter could not be true. “Was that Trevor Grant?” Gina asked guiding TJ along as he hungrily devoured his blue cotton candy without watching where he was going. “I think so,” she murmured, knowing damn well that it had been Trevor. “I wonder who that lady with him was. It wasn’t the same girl from the pool, but I hear he has a new one every day. He’s a regular Casanova, that one, from what I hear,” Gina remarked. He’s single? Panzina almost blurted out but caught herself. Instead, she commented, “That figures. I wouldn’t put anything past him.” As they walked on, Panzina kept telling herself that what Gina had said about Trevor was not news. But a part of her didn’t want to believe the rumors. She wanted to get to know the real Trevor Grant and find a loophole that explained his reputation away like a feather on the wind. For some reason

she felt the need to justify him to Gina and the world. She started by telling Gina about the flower shop incident as they walked. She was careful not to leave out the part about his sincere letter of apology. Somehow, Gina managed not to hear that portion of the conversation, though. “I thought that he’d been so angry because it was his wedding order that I was supposed to have screwed up.” “What?” Gina exclaimed in disbelief. “I would have lost my temper and told that man about himself,” she said. “You have the patience of a saint, Panzi.” “I must admit that I felt like telling him off,” she said. “Until that day, I’ve never really noticed the man around town. Now he seems to turn up everywhere,” a tinge of annoyance mixed with a dash of secret satisfaction creeping into her tone. “Call it luck, I guess,” Gina said and they laughed. “What’s so funny?” TJ asked looking from one to the other, which made them laugh even harder. He quickly swiped at his face, as though he might have cotton candy stuck to his nose. When he finished, he moved right on to another subject like

young children are known to do. “Let’s get on the bumper cars!” he yelled and tugged the still giggling women towards the line. Panzina searched for Trevor but she didn’t see him again before the evening ended. So, Trevor Grant wasn’t married as she’d assumed. She didn’t know whether the news of his bachelorhood was good or bad. Her mind drifted back to the apology letter he’d left her. What if she’d been at L’Fragrance when he’d shown up? Would they have been at each other’s throats again or would sparks have ignited? She remembered how handsome he’d looked despite his anger. What she couldn’t forget was the way her body had responded to his when she’d accidentally brushed into him. *** Trevor honestly didn’t know why he’d been so furious with the flower shop’s manager. Owner, he reminded himself again and mentally scolded himself for being such a chauvinist pig about the situation. To be truthful, there had been nothing wrong with the order. Only one person had turned up their nose at the floral decorations, and Trevor had expected that from her anyway. Nothing satisfied Marshayla Forbes. She operated on a different level from others, by choice.

A feeling deep inside made him want to go by the flower boutique in person and apologize to the lady for yelling at her. He drove around contemplating the idea. He wasn’t usually so belligerent and obnoxious. When he’d finally made up his mind to stop he found the closed sign on the door of the shop. Maybe the woman wouldn’t think so badly of him if he at least left a note, he thought. So he hurriedly scribbled a brief message and slid it under the door. The next time he’d laid eyes on the girl, she’d been at the health spa’s pool with a small child. He’d briefly wondered if it was her son, and dismissed the thought quickly. She seemed no more than a child herself. When the kid had called to her and another woman, the second woman had pulled him from the pool. Trevor assumed that the other woman was the child’s mother. After that, he had left with his sister-in-law who’d been in a hurry to get off to her honeymoon with his brother. Tyler had finally tied the knot and it made Trevor proud. He’d paid for the entire wedding, had designed the bride’s wedding gown as well as the bridesmaids dresses. He’d wanted the affair to be elaborate and elegant. He’d chosen flowers for the occasion from L’Fragrance flower boutique because they’d been highly recommended from more than one of his clients.

Maybe he’d been hasty in judging the young manager. That’s another reason that he’d felt the need to apologize. Could that really be the reason or did he just want another chance to see her? He could admit that he’d experienced a slight disappointment when he’d seen the closed sign. He didn’t think that he had developed a foot fetish but for some reason he couldn’t forget a pair of midnight blue colored toes. Trevor had briefly laid eyes on the flower lady at the Chinese restaurant and took it as a sign. If he saw her one more time, he would chalk it up to divine intervention. At the amusement park, it startled him to see her again! The woman seemed to be everywhere since that unfortunate day that he’d lost his temper. Once again, she had turned away before he could catch her eye. It was just as well, since Geneva would have most likely gotten an attitude if he’d spoken to another woman. She always had been the jealous type, and very much a Metropolitan girl. She hated fairs and didn’t believe in dressing casual. He wasn’t having fun with Geneva at all. In addition to finding fault with the entire evening, she’d come dressed in high heels and had complained about her feet aching the entire time. She didn’t enjoy the rides and thought that stuff animals and cotton candy was strictly for children.

He’d long since tuned Geneva out and found himself thinking about the flower shop woman. He’d gazed around to see if he’d catch another glimpse of her. He didn’t see her again and left the park wearing a fake smile to hide his disappointment. Another day, found him sitting in his office thinking about the woman. He’d tried to convince himself that he didn’t know why his thoughts turned to her again and again. Glancing at the clock to his left, he stood up and prepared to leave for the day. “Mr. Grant,” his secretary’s voice came over the phone, loud and precise. “Yes, Grace?” “Palm Shores Nursing Home is on line three, Sir. Do you want me to put the call through?” “I’ll take it, Grace. Thank you.” He picked up the extension. After listening for a while his face tightened in distress. “I’ll be there immediately!” He hung up the phone and rushed from his office. *** Throughout the day, Panzina’s mind had returned to her Aunt Gertie. She’d closed L’Fragrance early and had gone to see her. As she drove towards Palm Shores Nursing Home, she felt a sense of urgency. Thinking of the woman that she’d been named after, Gertrude Panzina Crumity, brought quick, stinging tears to

her eyes. The last time she had seen her aunt in such a weak state had left her worried. Aunt Gertie was the kindest soul in the world and the only kin that Panzi had left. Now that she was terminally ill…. “No,” Panzina said aloud. “I won’t think about it. She’s going to hold on for a while longer.” As she said those words, for some unknown reason she felt a need to hurry. Aunt Gertie needed her! Panzina broke all speed limits as she raced towards her destination. An icy grip of fear had closed its fist around her heart. Something was dreadfully wrong. She felt it through the deep connection she had for her aunt. There was no explaining it. It just was what it was. And when it came to Aunt Gertie, she was usually right. Panzina had never wanted to be so wrong in her life. She haphazardly parked between the yellow lines of an available parking space and leapt from the car, ignoring the handicapped parking sign and the fact that she was a bit too close to the car next to her. She rushed through the double doors, concerned only for her aunt. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Mrs. Sterns said. “Gertrude is asking for you. I was just going to call.” “Is she alright?” Panzina questioned, fearing the answer, but needing to know.

“Please, hurry! Go,” the nurse urged. Panzina needed no further prompting. She ran on autopilot to the room occupied by her aunt. “Aunt Gertie, I’m here,” she whispered brokenly as she gently clasped the frail, wrinkled hand in her own. “I’m here.” Her aunt’s eyes fluttered open and she stared at Panzina with such love and recognition. Panzina’s heart twisted. The bony hand squeezed Panzina’s weakly. Aunt Gertie stared into her niece’s face. A radiant smile appeared, causing her whole face to glow. Then, she lay completely still and her hand went limp as Panzina clutched it. Panzina held on as a sob caught in her throat. Aunt Gertie looked to be at peace as Panzina stared at her. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even remember how to breathe. Ten minutes that felt like ten hours passed when the nurse entered the room. “Miss Wilson?” she inquired. Panzina still clasped her aunt’s hand in her own afraid to let go and break the connection. “She’s gone,” Nurse Stearns told her after checking for a pulse and finding none. Panzina felt frozen as she stood up. “It was inevitable,” the nurse stated more to herself than to Panzina. “Do you need for me to call someone?” she asked, concerned.

“No,” Panzina replied softly. “There is no one to call. Aunt Gertie is the only family I had,” she said in a small voice as she headed out the door. She mechanically removed the parking ticket from beneath her windshield wiper. As she stared at the citation, her eyes filled with tears. Her arm reached into the console to retrieve the hanging handicapped sign that she had used when she took Aunt Gertie for outings. It was buried under several CDs and a few of TJ’s toys because it hadn’t been used in a while. When her aunt got too weak for day trips, Panzina had placed it in the console and almost forgotten about it. Now she smoothed her hand over the blue plastic as memories of all those precious times flooded her mind. Then DRIP, DRIP they fell from her eyes in the form of tears. She would cherish every moment she shared with aunt forever. Carefully, she folded the parking ticket around the handicapped sign and placed it in her lap. She would get the ticket reversed when she turned in Aunt Gertie’s sign to the Department of Transportation. But, she couldn’t think about that now. She put her key in the ignition and turned it. Nothing. It wouldn’t start. “Great!” she sobbed loudly and banged the dashboard. “This is all I need!” She leaned her head against the steering wheel as the tears came in great gulps. The pain filled her heart and lungs to

capacity until it seemed as if her whole chest would explode. “Excuse me? Are you okay?” A deep, male’s voice asked. With reluctance, Panzina glanced up through the driver’s side window. Once again, she faced Mr. Trevor Grant, which only caused her to cry harder. Trevor stared, at a loss as to what to do. He didn’t want to scare her, but he opened her car door and knelt beside her. For some reason, his heart went out to this weeping woman who didn’t need to be driving anywhere in this condition. On her level now, he could see her face clearly. Well, it was red and puffy and tear-stained, but he could make out those beautiful features anywhere. From his standing position outside her window, he hadn’t realized that it was the flower shop lady until then. But now he could see that once again fate had brought them together. It was the woman he had been constantly thinking about since the first time he’d seen her. For reasons unknown, he wanted to make amends for being so rude during their first encounter, especially now. His letter of apology hadn’t been enough when he really wanted to face her and say the words. He reached out to stroke her arm and noticed a parking ticket lying in her lap. Her tear-streaked face had moved him, and he wanted to cheer her up.

“It’s only a ticket,” he said lightly. “Certainly nothing to cry about.” Her slim shoulders seemed to heave even more. On instinct, he reached out to comfort her. He moved his hand from her arm to her back and leaned in closer. “It’s okay,” he soothed, patting her gently on the back. “Everything’s fine.” After a while, his warm voice calmed her. Soon, she just sniffled. He pressed a white, starched handkerchief into her hand. She took it and wiped at her nose and cheeks “This stupid car won’t start,” she said weakly, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief that he’d offered. “I don’t know what to do.” From the way she’d made the statement, he detected that the car was the least of her problems. It also went deeper than a parking ticket. He sensed that something had happened in the nursing home, followed by the discovery of the ticket, and then a dead car. He knew a trick-down effect when he saw one. “I’ll take a look and see if I can fix whatever’s wrong,” Trevor volunteered. “Pop the hood lever for me.” She did as instructed and he went around to the front of the car. He disappeared from her view as he fiddled around. Minutes later, frowning, he slammed the hood shut. “I’m afraid it’s the battery,” he told her. “It’s dead.”

Panzina had been sitting quietly while he studied the car, but at the mention of the word dead her bottom lip trembled and tears threatened to surface once again. “Please don’t,” he said gently. “Don’t cry like that. I’ll give you a lift to where you need to go. Just don’t cry,” he pleaded. This Trevor Grant was so unlike the tyrant that had charged into the flower boutique a few days ago. Through her blurred vision, she could see that he’d taken off his jacket and had rolled up the sleeves of his silk shirt. Trevor opened the door and offered her a hand, as she got out of the car. She waited as he retrieved her keys from the ignition and locked the car. “Thank you,” she said through numb lips that matched the numbness in her heart. “Come with me.” He guided her across the half empty parking lot to where he’d parked his Mercedes. His own crisis would have to wait. Besides, there was nothing that he could do about his situation until he’d contacted the rest of the family. Then, they’d all decide on the best course of action together. Panzina settled back in the plush cushions of the expensive car. The interior was all leather and luxurious, not that she took much notice. Though

her body accepted the lavish surroundings her mind was on other things. “Where to?” he asked and she told him her address. They drove in complete silence, arriving at her house in a short amount of time. When Trevor stopped the car Panzi remained in her seat. Sudden fear shot through her. She would be completely alone for the first time in her life! She didn’t know how to handle it. She had no idea what to do next. Before long, she wouldn’t even have TJ. And she couldn’t depend of Telvin either. Trevor noticed the stark fear in the young woman’s eyes and gently turned her to face him. “What’s wrong? Talk to me,” he urged. He sensed her hesitation and added. “It’s all right. I don’t bite. Tell me what’s wrong.” “My- my aunt- she just passed away,” she said through quivering lips. “She was all I had left. I’m all alone now,” she whispered. Now it all made sense. The tears, the bad parking job, the ticket wrapped around a handicapped sign, and her grievous state. Before he realized what he was doing, Trevor pulled away from the curb and headed in the direction of his own home. He didn’t know what he’d do with the young woman, but he couldn’t leave her alone in this current state. It didn’t take long for them to leave the familiar surroundings Panzina was accustomed to. They

passed through a residential, waterfront community filled with classic homes with well-manicured lawns located on quiet, tree-lined streets. Panzina viewed her surrounding with a new set of eyes, a set that craved order and perfection in her own life. She desperately wanted to hide behind a neatly trimmed hedge and pretend to be someone else. She wanted to walk through the front door of one of these beautiful homes and live another life. Perhaps that would take away the hurt for a little while. But she could never do that. And to desire another life would be a mockery to her aunt who always said, “Great pain is a sign of great love.” She knew what Trevor was doing and where he was going. If he felt so guilty about his behavior that he felt he had to take care of her in her time of need, then so be it. She didn’t have the strength to argue. Trevor parked the Mercedes Benz in the garage of a beautiful two-story home and got out. He walked around to Panzina’s side and opened the door for her. “Come on,” he said quietly, sliding his arm through hers to assist her. “We’ll figure out what to do together. You shouldn’t be alone right now.” She allowed him lead her inside the house. She trusted the man and didn’t know why. They walked up stairs covered by white carpet. Panzina

automatically felt like slipping her shoes off. Since Trevor hadn’t taken his off, she didn’t either. She stepped into a spacious but moderately decorated living room. Her eyes rested on the black leather, sectional sofa with matching loveseat and chair. Though obviously contemporary and minimal, the room lacked a woman's touch. It registered in Panzina’s mind that no plants or flowers decorated the room. As a florist, Panzina filled her home with flowers and plants of all kinds. The stark white of the carpet stood out. Once again, she thought about taking off her shoes. “Have you eaten?” he questioned, breaking into her thoughts. Panzina shook her head. “I’ll have my housekeeper put together something. Just make yourself comfortable. And er- uh- I didn’t get your name. What is it?” “Panzina,” she answered. “Panzina Wilson. Everyone calls me Panzi,” she added. “Panzina. That’s different. Unique. Well, Panzi, I know it’s too soon to believe this, but things are going to get better.” He stared at her sad face, which was really very pretty behind the forlorn expression. A stray tendril of hair had sprung loose and curled down her right cheek. He wanted to go over and brush it back into place then kiss those sensual lips that continued to tremble as she held in her pain. She was so like a child, one that needed someone for protection and strength. He

hesitated in the doorway then quickly went in search of his housekeeper. Panzina took a seat on the leather sofa and gazed without interest at the 36 inch, flatscreened television. An episode of Friends played but it could have been her favorite soap opera Days of Our Lives and it wouldn't have made a difference. Nothing could penetrate her grief. The clam chowder soup was tasteless in Panzina’s numb state, but she shoveled it in and swallowed automatically. Trevor kept glancing at her to see how she was holding up. He cleared his throat. “Panzi, maybe it would help to talk about it,” he suggested. “Will you tell me about your aunt?” he asked. Panzi glanced up seeming surprised by his request. Trevor’s eyes were kind and sincere this time; not at all like the angry, cold eyes from two days before. She placed her spoon on a napkin that rested near the bowl of soup. “Aunt Gertie, well, she was something special,” she began. Her voice held an affectionate tone. “She raised me after my parents were killed in a plane crash,” she explained. “She was so filled with love for everything and everyone. She was always giving; and she’d gladly give her last dime if she thought it would help someone else more.” She

smiled gently and continued. Trevor gazed at her, transfixed, as she spoke. “She was just such a warm, soft hearted, carefree spirit.” Panzi paused and grabbed another napkin, unaware of doing so. “When she was diagnosed with cancer she handled it so bravely. I was the one who was a wreck. She had to comfort me.” She grew quiet suddenly, too overwhelmed to continue. Trevor pulled his chair closer and took her hand. “Go on,” he pressed, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “She got so sick, so fast,” she went on. “Before I knew it, she was fading away.” She sighed deeply. “I know that she was in terrible pain. The various medications, the chemotherapy; it drained her. But she hung on to the belief that God would deliver her if it was His will. She was so strong,” she ended. They sat in silence. After a while, Trevor spoke. “Sounds as though your aunt was one remarkable woman,” he said. “Remarkable, indeed.” He got up and removed her half eaten soup and the napkin that she had shredded without realizing it. “So, your aunt was at Palm Shores Nursing Home, right?” “Yes.” It suddenly dawned on her that he had been there also. “Why were-? N-never mind,” she stuttered.

“Why was I there?” he finished the question for her. “I have someone there that I visit,” he answered. He’d turned to the sink but not before Panzi caught the pained expression on his face. She wondered what could break such a strong man. Who could he care about that much? An elderly relative, she assumed but let it go. She’d never been one to pry into people’s personal business unless invited to do so. Panzina’s question had caused Trevor’s thoughts to travel where he didn’t want them to go. He couldn’t open up to Panzina about his problems because of the rawness of her own pain. Besides, he couldn’t talk about the real reason he’d been at Palm Shores Nursing Home. It would be better to keep it inside. Nevertheless, he found himself wishing that he had someone in which to confide. At some point, he needed comforting. Forget about that. He shook it off and turned back to Panzina. “You okay?” he asked. “Yes. You were right,” she told him. “It did help to talk about Aunt Gertie.” “Good. Well, you look tired, which is understandable. Let’s get you settled in.” Panzina offered no protests. She was tired, emotionally drained. She followed him as he showed her to a guest room.

Trevor saw to it that Panzina was resting comfortably. He’d been expected at another wedding reception, but thought it best not to leave her alone in strange surroundings. He wanted to get to know her better, but the timing was wrong. She needed a chance to heal. He wouldn’t add confusion to her grief. He tried to watch television but couldn’t concentrate. A certain lovely face kept appearing before him. He switched from station to station. Finally, he snapped the set off and went to bed. As he tossed and turned, he accepted the fact that sleep would be long in coming with her in the house. *** Panzina thought for sure that sleep wouldn’t claim her. Her mind kept flashing forth scenes of her life with Aunt Gertie. Losing her aunt felt like she’d had a part of her hacked off. Aunt Gertie had been her whole world. She’d loved that woman fiercely. She turned over and burrowed her face in the pillow as the sobs shook her. When she ran out of tears, she slept. Oddly, she didn’t dream of her aunt at all. Instead, she dreamed about a man with caramel colored skin and hazel eyes framed with long, beautiful lashes.

The sun shining through the partially closed Venetian blinds rested on Panzina’s face, causing her to stir much earlier than she normally would. For a moment, she was puzzled in the unfamiliar surroundings. Then she remembered as it all came back in a rush. Aunt Gertie was gone and she had become ensconced in the world of Trevor Grant. She felt overwhelmed with sadness, but she didn’t cry. She had things to take care of and couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity. She saw her dress resting on the back of a chair and retrieved it. If she remembered correctly, there was an adjourning bathroom. She’d been too drained last night to take a shower, but she could use one now. Once dressed, she felt somewhat better. She readied herself for the tasks that lay before her. First, she’d have that piece of junk car towed to a shop. Then, she’d have to make funeral arrangements for her aunt. She would also have to take care of her parking ticket and the return the handicapped sign, but those smaller details could be saved for another day. As she went downstairs and made her way to the kitchen, the silence of the apartment greeted her. She immediately saw the note propped up against a coffee mug in the center of the table. She read it and found that Trevor would be in a meeting until noon and he wanted to talk to her over lunch.

“Sorry, Mr. Grant,” Panzi said aloud. “But I won’t be around.” She thought of writing him a thank you note but really didn’t know where to start. In the end, she decided that the best thing to do was to call a cab and leave. Surely, Mr. Grant knew how grateful she was.

CHAPTER THREE Panzina was reluctant to get out of the security and comfort of her bed. Something about this particular day filled her with a sense of doom. She couldn’t immediately recall what lay on her soul like a dark cloud. Then it hit her hard, leaving her breathless from the pain. It was the day of her aunt’s funeral! Dear Aunt Gertie was gone and today they would lay her to rest. She pushed the crisp sheets sheet to the side but didn’t get up immediately. If she could just postpone getting up, maybe she could postpone the inevitable. She wanted to burrow beneath the covers and create a safe haven where pain and loss couldn’t touch her. But, she knew that was impossible in her world. Last time she checked, there wasn’t a manicured lawn in front of her house with a gardener to take of it. And she certainly didn’t have anyone to take care of her. There would be no avoiding this day, just as there would be no avoiding the three hundred and sixty four days that would surely follow. And, she had to go to her aunt’s funeral, so she slid off the bed. As she stood gazing out the window, deep in thought, she felt her nerves tighten. She knew that this would be a harder day to survive than most. Not

having Telvin around to offer support only compounded her grief. Thinking of Telvin brought back the conversation they’d had the day before. In learning of her aunt’s death, Telvin expressed genuine sorrow. He’d given Panzina his condolences but it had been all he’d offered. He hadn’t suggested or even hinted that he’d fly home to be with her in her time of need, as she’d hoped. Quick tears stung Panzina’s eyes and she turned from the window. A total stranger, Trevor Grant, had offered her more support than her own fiancé. Something didn’t quite add up. Maybe she’d been hasty in her decision not to thank Trevor properly. She really hadn’t had to rush off in such a hurry. The thought of seeing Trevor that next morning had frightened her and she didn’t know why. He’d seen her at her most vulnerable state. Maybe he’d been so kind because he’d pitied her. She neither wanted nor needed for him to feel sorry for her. Panzi shook herself mentally. She had to stop thinking about Trevor and come to terms with her great aunt’s death. That really would take every ounce of her strength to do. She went to the closet and pulled out a dark suit for the somber occasion. *** Gertrude Crumity had been well known in the community. Many people showed up to pay their

last respects. They hugged Panzina and offered their condolences. Panzina, so grief stricken and emotional, she felt dazed. She was barely aware of each person as they embraced her and whispered kind words of encouragement in her ear. And she didn’t see Trevor Grant in the background. When he noticed her standing near the burial site, she looked so utterly sad that he automatically wanted to offer her comfort. But he didn’t move. He didn’t file into line with the rest of the grieving masses. He could see that she didn’t need him. She hadn’t called him and invited him to the services, and it seemed that she had any number of friends and family to care for her now. She didn’t need him to hold her up and raise her spirits. She’d made that obvious by the way she’d disappeared from his life. When he’d rushed home at lunch to find Panzina gone he’d been terribly disappointed. He had expected a call from her or some indication of gratitude but the hours had turned into days and he hadn’t heard anything. Finally, he had decided that the best thing to do was forget Miss Panzina Wilson and allow her time to heal. Hadn’t she easily written him off without as much as a thank you? He watched people he assumed were friends of her late aunt patting Panzina and embracing her. She’d be okay. She had an inner strength that she hadn’t yet recognized. It would get her through the

days ahead. He wished that he could be of some support but he wouldn’t interfere in her life again. Hadn’t he learned anything from the last time? A crowd gathered around Panzina and blocked her from his view. It served him right. He shouldn’t have come to the funeral anyway. He had no business infringing on her right to mourn. If anyone knew this, it should be him. There were times when he just wanted to be left alone to mourn in private. There’s a certain part of the mourning process that must be completed in solitaire. With this thought, he headed out of the church but not before looking back one last time. Two weeks passed. With her aunt’s funeral behind her, Panzina thought the pain would lessen. Yet, things got no better. She found herself just going through the motions of living. Not even the colorful flowers she’d placed throughout the house could bring her out of her mannequin like state. They were the floral arrangements used at her aunt’s funeral. Some kind soul had loaded them into a van and brought them to her home. As the ladies from the community brought dish after dish of food for the reception, others placed the bouquets of roses, chrysanthemums, and carnations around her home. They hadn’t cheered her a bit. She missed her aunt desperately and had no one to talk to about it. She didn’t want to bother Gina with her grief.

Gina had her own life to straighten out. She had called Telvin on several different occasions, but he was either too busy studying or out with his friends. He hadn’t shown up at the funeral, but that didn’t surprise her. Telvin hadn’t even checked on TJ to see how Aunt Gertie’s death had affected him. Panzina knew that the child had to be experiencing the loss because Aunt Gertie had been like a surrogate grandmother to him. Panzina had begun to feel that her burdens were hers alone. It was evident in his awkward manner that Telvin had been behaving that he couldn’t deal with anything that even remotely touched on emotions. She let her mind drift to Trevor Grant. The two men were like night and day. Why had he helped her when he’d found her crying in the parking lot of the nursing home? Since that day she’d left without thanking him, she’d wanted to somehow let him know the depth of her gratitude. Several times she picked up the phone only to return it back to its cradle without dialing his number. How can she thank someone for reaching out to her like he did when he wasn’t even family and barely knew her? Panzina mechanically went from room to room watering the plants for the sole purpose of having something to do. As she cracked the Venetian blinds to allow sunlight to touch the plants, she saw the mailman approach the house. It hit her for the

first time that she was now totally responsible for all of her aunt’s past finances. She would have to handle things concerning the house, such as bills, and anything involving the business. She realized this with a jolt as she went to retrieve the mail. Her intuition struck again and she found herself the victim of her own morbid thoughts. She reread the letter over and over. It concerned L’ Fragrance, which she now owned. When she’d seen the large manila envelope stamped with the red letters CONFIDENTIAL it had alerted her that something was wrong. She soon found out what and it didn’t sound too good. It seemed that her aunt had failed to re-pay the bank and now they demanded the full amount or L’ Fragrance would be foreclosed. Panzina had felt a sense of pride upon learning a week before that her aunt had left her the house, the flower boutique, as well as a substantial amount of money. What she hadn’t counted on were these large hospital and nursing home bills. The excellent care her grandmother had received at the home was worth every penny, but it would eat up Panzina’s entire inheritance and then some. Her hand trembled as she read the letter again. She didn’t know what to do. The sizeable amount of cash left to her wouldn’t nearly pay the outstanding debt her aunt had left behind. She would have to

borrow against the flower shop or sell it to clear Aunt Gertie’s debts. Her dreams, her whole world, had come crashing down around her because of one letter. *** Trevor didn’t know why he wasn’t going his usual route. Instead, he found himself driving towards a particular downtown flower boutique. As he thought about what he would say, it dawned on him that Panzina might not want to see him. It had been over a month and she hadn’t tried to contact him at all. He should just leave it at that and forget the woman. Instead, he was driving out of his way just to get a glimpse of her. Surely, he had to be going mad. He saw the big ‘for sale’ sign in the window of L’Fragrance straight away. His heart dropped because Panzina obviously wasn’t inside the shop. He encountered tightly drawn drapes and a securely locked door. He hadn’t anticipated the disappointment he felt at this latest turn in Panzina’s life. Like a wilted flower he returned to his car and headed for home. *** Panzina could feel the depression settle over her like a dark cloud and tried unsuccessfully to shake it. Putting L’ Fragrance up for sale had been the hardest decision she’d ever had to make. Once again, it had been a decision she’d made alone.

Telvin had been away all week and could not be reached. It had been either the flower shop or the house, and she couldn’t very well live in a flower boutique, though she had considered it. The deciding factor had been the law that didn’t allow shopkeepers to live above or behind their shops in downtown. Had her shop been located in the country, she might not have had a problem. Somehow, she felt as though she’d failed her aunt. Aunt Gertie had struggled for years to keep L’ Fragrance up and running. It had started as a dream. After much hard work and dedication, Aunt Gertie had been successful in managing the lucrative business. She’d given it her all. Now the dream had slowly wilted. Panzina prayed that the new owner would keep her on as an employee. She could very well end up in the unemployment line with the rest of the jobless. That would really frazzle Telvin. He always harped about security and having a foundation on which to build their lives together. If the foundation, Panzina’s shop, was gone, it would be easier for him to back out of the commitment he’d made six months before he’d decided to go off to college. Once again, as she’d done so often in the past few weeks, Panzina began to wonder what type of marriage she and Telvin would have. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was important in life. Maybe he wasn’t mature enough for marriage just

yet. He would definitely have to straighten his priorities out before they walked down any aisle together. Sighing inwardly Panzina made her way to her aunt’s room. It had been over a month since the funeral and she still hadn’t packed Aunt Gertie’s belongings. She considered postponing it until the next day but decided against that. No matter how many days passed, the pain wouldn’t be any less. Going through her aunt’s closet was no easy task. Her aunt had been sixty-eight years old and it seemed as though she had at least that many years of clothes, shoes, hats, and belts accumulated and stored in her closet. Not to mention the scarves, coats, and numerous other items. At least an hour had passed when Panzina heard the doorbell chime. Brushing her dusty hands on her worn, faded jeans, she went to answer. She figured it would be someone stopping by to offer condolences. Loved ones still trickled in as they heard the news, and there were a lot of out-of-town friends and family that hadn’t been able to make the funeral. It completely stunned her to see Trevor Grant standing on her doorstep. “Mr. Grant-” she began, but he silenced her with a cold stare. “I came by for business purposes,” he stated. She stared at him blankly, speechless. “Well, are

you going to invite me in or not?” he asked after she continued to stare as though dumbfounded. “Oh. I-I’m sorry,” she stammered, snapping to her senses. “P- please come inside. Mr. Grant-” she started again. “I know I shouldn’t have left in such a hurry that day. I was-” “You don’t have to justify yourself to me, Miss Wilson.” His icy eyes sliced through her. “No need to dwell on past issues. As I’ve said, I’m here on business.” His eyes took in her disheveled appearance and she shifted uncomfortably. He sensed that he always managed to unnerve her. “I was getting some of my aunt’s things together,” she offered as an explanation. “You really caught me at a bad time.” She remembered how caring he had been in her time of distress and dropped her head in shame. How she wished now that she had thanked him, but she hadn’t known how. She still didn’t know how. “Mr. Grant-” “Trevor. Please.” He spotted the dark smudges beneath her eyes and felt a pang of guilt. The girl’s aunt had just passed. He should at least be a bit more sympathetic. He’d experienced the death of a loved one and knew how tolling it could be on ones emotions. “Are you okay?” he asked more gently. “How are you holding up?”

“Fine,” she offered a quiet reply. Even though she looked anything but fine, he didn’t press the issue. Trevor’s body seemed to fill the small room and Panzina couldn’t help but notice that he wore a form fitting Nike jogging suit. She had never seen him dressed so casually. Her breath caught in her throat as she took in his muscled thighs. Her eyes leaped to his face then dropped again as she saw the knowing look in his gaze. She couldn’t deny his magnetism. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked to break the silence. “Sure.” “Lemonade? Iced tea? A Coke?” “What? No hard liquor?” “No. My aunt never drank and I- ” She saw the smile on his face and realized that he had been attempting to joke and offer a roundabout apology for his rude entrance. She felt extremely foolish. She hurried to the kitchen. “I’ll have iced tea,” he said softly from behind her and she jumped. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She hadn’t known that he had followed her to the kitchen. Again, she felt stupid for not waiting on his reply as to what beverage he’d have. With shaking hands, she poured the tea into a glass. “Here you are.”

As she placed the drink in his hand their fingers brushed. She felt a current of electricity. She jerked back as if shocked, and some of the liquid spilled from the glass. Trevor’s gaze held hers. Had he felt the same thing as she? She knew he had. Panzina quickly turned away and grabbed a sponge. She cleaned up the spilled tea from the tiled floor. Once finished, she cleared her throat, which had suddenly grown dry. Not trusting her voice, she swallowed a few times before speaking. “You said you were here to discuss business. What exactly do you mean?” she asked. “You are the owner of L’ Fragrance Flower Shop, are you not?” he asked. “Yes, I am.” Her brows furrowed questioningly. “I told you that the day we first met, but you refused to believe me.” “I’m sorry I acted like a typical male. I believe you now, and I’m considering buying the place. Have you had many offers?” “Well, actually, no. I haven’t had any offers at all,” she admitted. “It’s only been for sale a short while.” She stared at him, confused. “What would you want with a flower boutique? It’s not your usual line of business,” she added. “Maybe I like beautiful things,” was his low response. His hazel eyes strayed to her lips. “Yes, that’s the reason. I like beautiful things.”

He picked up his glass of tea. Panzina watched as his mouth rested on the rim of the glass. She really must get rid of the man. He was doing strange things to her and she wasn’t sure if she liked it. She was even more afraid that she did like it! He sensed her hesitation and knew that he’d probably said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Don’t push her away, in inner voice warned. “Maybe we can talk about this further over dinner?” he suggested, quickly. “Well, sure. I don’t see why not,” she replied. “I’ll pick you up at say, six thirty?” “That’ll be fine.” “Thank you for the tea, Panzina,” he said softly. “I’ll let you get back to cleaning out your aunt’s things. See you at six thirty.” After Trevor had gone, Panzina tried to figure out why he unnerved her so. She wasn’t usually a tongue-tied, clumsy idiot around men, no matter how good looking they were. She’d run into many handsome men at L’ Fragrance and they hadn’t had the same affect on her as Trevor Grant. He probably thinks I’m dimwitted. The way she had carried on, one would think that men scared her. Did Trevor scare her? She shook her head to get him out of it. It didn’t work. She wasn’t afraid of Trevor at all. It was just that those hazel eyes turned her insides to jelly. She

couldn’t help comparing Telvin with Trevor. Telvin, with his thin, still developing body, didn’t stand a chance. Telvin was just a boy but Trevor was all man. Once again she tried to shake thoughts of Trevor out of her head but he was there to stay. After packing all she could for one day, Panzina rushed to shower and get dressed for the upcoming dinner date. She’d be totally professional and maybe he wouldn’t see her as a fumbling, awkward child. She was determined to act like someone with brains and intelligence. She wanted to impress Trevor Grant, if that was even possible. Thirty minutes later she surveyed herself in the full-length mirror and the results pleased her. She had decided to free her hair of the usual French braid and now it cascaded down her shoulders. She pulled it back with a hair clip. She didn’t need any makeup with her copper toned complexion. Her aunt had always bragged that she was as pretty as any model. She had sharp features accented by her high cheekbones. Her nose was thin and fit perfectly with the rest of her. Her five foot three inch frame was dressed in a form fitting full-length dress. The black dress was plain and simple, but it complimented her very well. She tied a leopard print, silk scarf around her neck, as was fashionable. She slipped her feet in highheeled sandals that were also leopard print. She just loved to wear sandals. She’d just sprayed on her

favorite cologne when the doorbell sounded. Her heartbeat increased as she went to answer and for a moment, she forgot that she was in mourning. She was just a young woman going out for a business dinner with a very attractive man. Trevor looked astounding in a double-breasted, Armani suit and tie. This man totally contrasted the one who’d been overcrowding her living room, radiating pure maleness in his fitting jogging attire. Thinking about his rippling muscles made Panzina blush. “You look quite lovely,” he complimented in his smooth tones, as his eyes swept over her. “Thank you.” Panzina tried to hold his gaze but couldn’t. “Let’s go.” He slid his arm through hers before she realized it, but she offered no resistance. Instead of the black Mercedes that she’d ridden in before, he escorted her to a gold Lexus. The man obviously has money to toss to the wind. She felt a stab of envy when she thought about her own car and how old and unreliable it was. She would have to make a decision about either having the transmission rebuilt or getting another car. But, she’d worry about that later. For now she’d concentrate on other things, like the handsome man sitting next to her. Panzina admired the leather interior of the sleek car as they drove. From the corner of her eye she

could see Trevor’s right hand drumming a beat to the sound that played on the stereo system. She found herself wondering what it would feel like if that soft and beautiful, yet strong hand should touch her. Would it be firm but gentle or rough and demanding? Like the car’s leather interior, she imagined it would feel smooth like silk while still offering the ultimate protection. Her eyes crept up along his arm and rested on his face. What a wonderful profile. Trevor Grant was any woman’s dream man. He had the face and body of a male fashion model. His lips were thin, but perfect. If he should kiss her“- one of my favorites,” he said. “I- I beg your pardon?” she stammered, caught completely off guard. “I said, Luther Vandross happens to be one of my favorite singers,” he repeated. “What about yourself?” “Oh, I love him too. I like all of his songs. I also love Patti LaBelle, and Anita Baker, but Lauren Hill is my favorite.” “Oh, I would have thought you were the rap type.” She turned to look him uncertain of whether he was kidding or not. “I’m not into that. I mean, I like music that I can relate to, as well as understand the words,” she

replied. Genuine laughter rewarded her. She stared at him, amazed at how handsome he actually was when he relaxed. “How old are you anyway?” he asked. “If you care to reveal that information,” he added. “I’m twenty-one, Mr. Grant.” “Please, it’s Trevor. Call me Trevor. You’d think you were addressing someone’s grandfather,” he chuckled. Now Panzina laughed. “How old are you?” she asked, still smiling. “I’m twenty five, but I feel about ninety.” “It can’t be that bad,” she said. “If only you knew,” he answered. The atmosphere seemed to change as they traveled on in uncomfortable silence. Panzi wondered what had placed the rift between them so suddenly. Something troubled Trevor and she dared not ask what. She knew better than to pressure someone to talk. If he wanted to share his troubles with her, then he would have to open up of his own accord. Trevor had chosen an elegant, Italian restaurant for their business meeting. She figured most real estate deals were taken care of in offices and on paper, but she also considered Trevor a friend. So having dinner with him while they discussed the fate of her precious flower shop didn’t at all seem out of the ordinary. Panzina was impressed with the

way that he asked her what she preferred to eat instead of simply ordering for her. Telvin had a habit of doing that, taking it for granted that she didn’t have a mind of her own. She chose shrimp scampi, for she had a taste for seafood. Their salads arrived and Trevor pushed his aside. “I’m a meat and potatoes type of man,” he said lightly. “I need something solid. A salad won’t cut it.” Panzina smiled at the relaxed look on his face. She could tell that he’d be at home in any environment. She noticed that he’d received a lot of admiring glances from the women and she got some envious stares herself. “How have you been? Really?” he questioned. Panzina shrugged, toying with her salad. His question ruined her chances of enjoying her own salad, so she released her fork and pushed it aside as well. “Hanging in there. I really miss aunt Gertie,” she told him, honestly. “My fiancé doesn’t seem to be able to deal with my problems. With him so far away-” Her words trailed off. She hadn’t noticed how Trevor had stiffened at the mention of her having a fiancé. “I never thought I could feel so – so alone,” she ended. Trevor gazed at her with gentle eyes, forgetting the disappointment he’d felt upon learning that she

was engaged. “It’ll get easier with time,” he said. “I know.” “Sounds as though you’re speaking from experience,” she commented. “I know what it’s like to love and to lose.” He grew silent. “Here’s our food. Let’s eat,” he said softly. They ate their meals in a comfortable silence unlike the painful quiet on the car trip to the restaurant. He had unintentionally let his guard down then he had asked the one question that cut her to the quick. Add in her slip about her estranged fiancé, and it added up to a dinner that wasn’t going very well. After several bites where Panzina was aware of every muscle in her jaw, Trevor decided to lighten the mood. Playfully, he reached over and tried some of Panzina’s shrimp. Her mouth opened in goodhumored shock as she cocked her head to one side. The expression on her face seemed to say, “Hey! Get out of my food.” But then she got caught up in the teasing moment, enjoying this playful side to Trevor. Retrieving her fork from her forgotten salad, she tasted his lasagna. They laughed, and for a moment, they were the only two people in the room. The dinner passed all too quickly after this. While they waited for dessert they nibbled on hot, delicious breadsticks. Panzina even got up the nerve

to use one as a gavel on the table. She tapped it several times to get his attention. “So, when are we going to discuss business?” Panzina asked. Trevor’s face became serious once again, though there was a menacing gleam in his eyes after her lighthearted behavior. “I was getting to that part.” He let out a deep breath. “I’m willing to buy your boutique.” He mentioned a substantial amount that was much higher than she’d anticipated. Actually, she hadn’t even thought of an asking price yet. But she figured a smart, businessman like Trevor Grant would know what the shop was worth, so she eagerly shook her head. “The thing is,” he continued. “I know nothing about flowers. Would it be a problem for you to stay on as the manager?” Panzina’s heart jumped at the opportunity but she had some doubts. After all, hadn’t he accused her of being a poor manager? Why would he want a flower shop if he knew nothing about flowers? “Excuse me if I’m wrong,” she said curtly. “But, if I recall correctly, you said I was a child doing an adult’s job. What am I to make of that, Mr. Grant?” Her tone was half-serious and half-teasing over the misunderstanding of their first meeting. “My name is Trevor,” he corrected and tossed a small piece of breadstick at her. Apparently, he had picked up on the fact that she was joking. She took

the offending lump of bread and dropped it in her salad bowl before shaking a finger at him in reprimand. “Panzina, let’s forget that little episode. That was not one of my better days and I’d just as soon forget it altogether. If you weren’t capable you wouldn’t have been the manager in the first place. Right?” “I agree.” “Do you have to discuss this with your fiancé?” he asked as an afterthought. He searched Panzina’s eyes for her true feelings about this man she had pledged her heart to. “No, I do not. I doubt if he’d care, one way or the other,” she retorted. They lapsed into a short silence, while she took a breath to clear her mind of Telvin and he relished the fact that their engagement was on the fritz. Trevor cleared his throat. “So, what do you say, Miss Panzina Wilson?” His eyes met hers. “Is it a deal or not?” “It’s a deal.” Her hand met his and they shook. If he held her hand a bit longer than necessary, she didn’t mind. No, she didn’t mind at all.

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Panzina's Passion (Chapter 1 -3)  
Panzina's Passion (Chapter 1 -3)  

Inexperienced, sweet, flower boutique owner, Panzina Wilson thinks she has nothing in common with snobbish, arrogant fashion designer, Trevo...