Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happily Ever After

Chocolate, Flowers and…

Happily Ever After

     Val and Tina Hart nestled in front of the fire in their suite and clinked wine glasses.
   “Here’s to another successful Valentine’s Day, darlin’.” Val’s deep voice rumbled with a suppressed chuckle.
    “We did good this year, didn’t we?” Tina’s eyes twinkled like an elf’s.
    Val slipped his arm around his wife’s shoulders and snuggled her into his side. “We had a few close calls but all in all, true love won out.”
    “I was definitely worried about the Kramers, honey. She was so distraught over the loss of their little girl, but Spence loves Aileen. They needed the magic of Valentine Mountain to find their love again. You did well on that one.”
     “They’re acting just like newlyweds now. They’re both wearing their golden bands.” He kissed her temple. “And thank goodness Lance and Angie finally figured things out.”
     Tina laughed, the sound, light and airy, warmed his heart.
     “I was about to give up on those two,” she added. “I decided he’d never get it and she would never break that silly girlfriend rule. Those two have been in love forever but just couldn’t admit it. Lance did me proud when he dug through all the candy hearts to find the one that said BE MINE.”
      “Good thing Jesse was here with that dog of his, huh? I’d hate to think what might have happened to Megan without them.”
     “I almost didn’t recognize her when she checked in, even though I read all her books. She gets her own happily ever after now. And that boy finally gets to know how special he is to all of us.”
     “Darlin’, Jesse hasn’t been a boy for a long time. He’s a full-grown man and a hero.” Val squeezed Tina’s hand. “He just needed to be reminded of that he’s not an outsider.” He poured champagne into their glasses.
      Tina giggled, her eyes twinkling with a memory. “What about Taffy and Ben? I can just picture that poor girl coming out the cardboard cake at the bachelor party. Thank goodness Ben is such a gentleman. And thank goodness that party didn’t leave any shocking remnants lying about.” She shuddered in mock dismay.
      “A gentleman with good tastes—in women and champagne. I think the two of them will be very happy together. Do you suppose Taffy’s friend, Kayla, will volunteer for Ben’s bachelor party?”
      Her giggles erupted into a throaty chuckle. “I do hope they’ll celebrate it here!”
Val clinked his glass against Tina’s again. “This has been a year for starting over, don’t you think?”
     Nodding and then taking a sip, Tina swallowed before answering. “When those twins set up the reservations for their parents, I thought my heart would break. Andy and Glory almost lost each other.” She sniffled a little. He reached for a tissue and handed it to her. “I can’t imagine what they went through but I’m so happy love won out and they’re back together.”
      He sighed and then noticed the plate of goodies Tina had set out. “Are those from Holly’s bakery?” At his wife’s smile, he snagged two of the cake balls and popped them into his mouth one after the other. “How long before we’re catering the reception for the sheriff and Holly?”
      The corners of Tina’s mouth curled up. “If I know Brett Landers, not long. He’s a man of action, after all and Holly definitely found a recipe for love.”
     “What do you think about Philomena and Nate getting together?” Val asked, a bit distracted as he eyed the plate.
    “Don’t ruin your dinner, dear,” Tina admonished. “And she prefers Mena. I’m thrilled Nate finally realized she’s not Sean’s little sister any longer—that she’s a grown-up in her own right.”
      Val chuckled. “I don’t think wild stallions could pull them apart now.”
      “It was good to see Toddye back here, and as much as I worried about her being alone, Brian certainly made sure she’d forget about any heartbreak her divorce caused.”
      “That man is handy for all sorts of things.” Val waggled his eyebrows. “I wonder if he’s ever uncovered the sign on his cabin.”
      “You mean the one with the intertwined hearts that says Cupid’s Cabin on it?” Tina leaned closer to kiss her husband. “I loved living there when we were newlyweds. I’m certain the magic is still there.”
    “It was nice to have so much family here this year.” Val's expression turned thoughtful. “I almost sent that Collin packing when he showed up.”
      Tina harrumphed softly. “You and Angelique both needed to trust that young man. Rumors only bring remorse so don’t jump to conclusions when you hear one. Luckily, he was determined to make Angelique see things his way.”
      “And what a way to end the Nearlywed Game! Him down on one knee proposing? He made our Angel a very happy girl.” He slipped his arm around his bride of sixty years. “It bodes well, I think, that Brian and Toddye won the game.”
       Burrowing against his side, Tina sighed happily. “Happy Valentine’s Day, darling.” She raised her face for a kiss, and he was happy to oblige.
     “Every day with you is Valentine’s Day, sweetheart. And every day here at the SweetHart Lodge means true love finds its Happily Ever After.”

Thank you, everyone, for stopping by to read our Valentine stories. We hope you enjoyed. Stay tuned for more editions of the Wild Okie Writers coming to a blog near you. Updates will be posted to let you know about our next project.

Happy Valentine's Day


The Wild Okie Writers!

May you always have Chocolate, Flowers, and a Happily Ever After!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Kathy L Wheeler

“Darling, you made it!”
          Angelique Daugherty hugged her Aunt Tina tightly, a pang of emotion inundating her. She hadn't seen her since last year’s Valentine extravaganza at the SweetHart Lodge. She’d missed her, especially in light of Angelique’s recently changed status—single.
          “I wasn't certain you would be on hand to help out after speaking with Saffron.” Aunt Tina stood back and leveled Angelique a piercing gaze.
          Angelique snorted if only to deflect her aunt’s sharp assessment. “You know you can’t rely on anything my mother tells you, Auntie. She’s stuck in the sixties.” Hence, the ridiculous name she’d been christened. Her father’s was even worse—Ephram. Yet, the two were still as much in love as the day they’d met and changed their names at the infamous Woodstock. Angelique supposed it was lucky for her that they’d married once they’d realized they had their own little “ankle biter” on the way some twenty years later.
          “She just worries for you,” Aunt Tina assured her.
          “I know, I know. But Saffron needs to realize that you cannot force a love that isn't t-there.” Her voice broke only the slightest, but she plowed on. “Just because she and Ephram found the love of their lives, doesn't mean that everyone will.” The sting of tears behind her eyes irritated her. She blinked them away with stubborn ruthlessness and handed her aunt a brilliant smile. “So tell me, what is my mission this year, Aunt Tina?”
          Aunt Tina’s eyes narrowed on her. “Angelique—” she started.
          Thankfully, Angelique was relieved of the forthcoming relentless probe by the entrance of her Uncle Val.
He swept her up in an engulfing embrace. “About time you got here. I spread the magic dust on the Kramers in 717 all by myself. A sorry sight they were too.” He shook his head. “That young couple was on the brink of divorce after losing their only child. All is well now though.”
A shot of guilt pricked Angelique. She’d grown up in a loving home. Even with her mother’s eccentricities, Angelique had never lacked for affection even if it had felt handed out in a somewhat vague manner. It was just. . .well. . .she was so eccentric—like naming her only child after a character in one of her favorite soap operas from the late sixties. It couldn't be anything normal like “Brooke” or “Erica” from All My Children, or “Laura” from General Hospital. No. She’d gone straight for the truly unique from Dark Shadows. A serial that covered everything paranormal long before paranormal was avant-garde, from vampires to witches to werewolves, naming her after one of Barnabas Collins love interests.
How she’d adored Saffron and Ephram’s stories growing up. Until she’d turned thirteen. That was when the girls at school began to tease her. When they snickered behind her back or called her mother a witch. Taunted her with imitations of howling moons and reciting incantations of black spells. But all the fun ended abruptly when she’d opened her locker one day to find a black cauldron filled with dead spiders and crickets.
Saffron’s waist length hair, peppered with gray and hanging down her back, half the time, unkempt, never helped the image, either. Pink tinted sunglasses and flowing robes of neon colors were the staples of her mother’s unfashionable wardrobe. Angelique smoothed a hand down the sleek contour of her Lilly Pulitzer straight cut jeans in Seamist Blue. Now she was as careful in choosing her friends as she was in selecting her clothes. 
Never again had she invited anyone home. Summers and spring breaks were spent with Aunt Tina and Uncle Val, and her cousin, Lance, at the SweetHart. They were all so...normal. Angelique grimaced inwardly. Okay, so she had trust issues.
But everything changed once Angelique had met Collin, at least she'd thought so. She’d fallen fast and hard, with his stern demeanor that wouldn't scare a pussycat. Strong arms that kept her fears at bay. And it seemed he'd fallen just as hard as she had. Theirs was a continued source of amusement and sexy interludes on the play of their names. Every time she’d huffed out Collin’s name as Barnabas, he’d taken revenge by sneaking up behind pretending to sink fangs into the side of her neck only to leave her with an outrageously huge hickey. Any lingering anger she harbored, fled like fog in the heat of the sun. Her closet was stacked with turtleneck sweaters. Difficult to explain during warmer weather.
But now her heart was broken. All due to her live-in boyfriend’s—correct that!—ex-live-in boyfriend’s—blatant betrayal. Was it only three days ago Angelique had opened the door to their overdeveloped neighbor? A blond bimbo from two doors down, with large boobs and pouty lips, holding Collin’s favorite shirt—a Burberry London Pembury Diamond sport shirt. She loved that shirt. Collin called it maroon, but Angelique knew her shades. It was boysenberry, and a pattern so subtlety woven throughout, it appeared solid. And now it reeked with her perfume.
Blinking back another onslaught of threatening tears, she shoved away her cursed thoughts and thanked God for the safety of her aunt and uncle’s presence, thrilled to be back home. She hugged her uncle a little too tightly. “Oh, Uncle Val, I’m sure that couple will never forget their stay at the SweetHart.” She stood back, pushing wayward blond curls from her face. “Now about my duties?”
          Frustration filled Collin Langford. Fingers stiff from the cold, he shoved the key in the lock of his and Angelique’s small one bedroom flat. He wanted nothing more than to warm his chilled body with hers. Winter in Chicago was not his favorite time to travel. Weather, timing and Murphy’s Law had all worked hand-in-hand against him. He was tired. His only desire: to make it home from New York by Valentine’s Day and refuse Angelique any respite from a blast of unrestrained seduction—his. He'd missed her.
Overall, the trip had been a successful one, he supposed, but he should have realized the only luck to be had was bad. It started with his packing. His favorite shirt had vanished. Oh, he knew he’d just misplaced it. It certainly wasn't Angelique's fault. She was a disaster when it came to laundry. Grinning, he shook his head. It would show up eventually. Right now, all he wanted his hot, sweet, adorable girlfriend.
She was not usually one for surprises but for once he wanted to do things his way. Collin thrust the door back, dropped his carryall on the floor, and tossed his coat on the sofa. “Angel?”
          Silence. He worked his way through the small, dark space, flipping light switches. It was cold despite its cozy décor. A sense of dread raised the hair at his nape just as he stepped into the small kitchen. The shirt he’d been unable to find lay in crumpled heap on the tiny dining table; an envelope with his name scrawled across the front lay on top.
          Scowling, two hours later found Collin on a plane bound for Denver, his thoughts teetered between fury and amusement.
          Some homecoming. At least she’d left a note. A note! 
Not a love note. Disgust filled him, shifting quickly to frustration.
          A “get your stuff and get out” note!
He pushed a hand through his hair. No way in hell was he giving up Angelique. He loved her and she loved him. Collin tugged the wrinkled paper from his pocket and studied the erratic handwriting. At best, Angelique’s penmanship was difficult to decipher, but when she was upset it was a miracle he could make out his own name. What had happened? He wondered for the millionth time.
The 727 jumbo jarred as the wheels tapped the runway. He crumpled the note and shoved it back in his pocket. A sense of wry pricked him as realization dawned. The surprise turned out to be his.
          That’s all right. He knew exactly where to find his Angel. After all, it was Valentine’s weekend. With a feral smile, he stood and patted his jacket pocket, made his way off the plane, secure in the knowledge he would and could remedy the situation.
No problem at all.
          “I believe, Philomena, this is the nuttiest idea my aunt has had in a very long time,” Angelique muttered. She and Mena were walking through the lodge from the office to the ballroom.
          “Ugh, can you not call me by that reprehensible name?” she demanded.
“You know her better than I,” her friend returned blandly.
          “A 'Newlywed Game.' Seriously? Not everyone is wed.”
          “We just have to rename it, but you have to admit the idea has charm. Just look around.” Mena said this so wistfully, Angelique shifted sharply to her, but Mena inconveniently turned her head.
          Angelique glanced around then, and what she saw set her teeth on edge. Everywhere she looked a couple walked hand in hand, like Spence and Aileen Kramer, that couple from 717 Uncle Val claimed he’d reunited with the magic dust. Another huddled in some darkened corner, kissing each other with no thought to passersby. Surely, she'd just passed that same  couple who were said to have met at the bachelor’s party held in the ballroom the night before.
          The whole lodge might as well have been in Paris or. . .worse, the sixties with all their free love and flower power. Angelique had even spotted Jess Travers stealing a kiss from Megan Carter­—while Sarge just stood there and watched!
She stalked briskly to the ballroom hoping it had survived the rowdy, overgrown imbeciles with all their drinking and strippers.
“Well, I don’t know what she thought I could add to the game. You’re the events coordinator,” Angelique said, crossing through the double doors. Relief hit her seeing no remnants of confetti or overturned glasses or other unmentionables like discarded condoms. She shuddered.
          “Mena may be the events coordinator, but the event needs a representative of the SweetHart. Besides, you have an excellent speaking voice.” Aunt Tina’s confidence in her was mind-boggling.  So was the way she was able to silently sneak up behind a person, startling her.
          “Thanks,” Angelique grunted. “Were you able to snag your four unsuspecting couples yet, Aunt Tina?”
          Her nose wrinkled. “I have three. I certainly didn't anticipate how skittish people would be when it came to a little innocent fun.”
          Hah! Innocent fun, my foot. “Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a fourth. Brian seems to have the hots for Toddye, and as one of his closest friends, I’m sure I have enough ammunition on him to ensure his participation.” Angelique smirked. “I think all of his spare time from the slopes has expended into private lessons.”
          “How curious, and Toddye’s such an avid skier too,” Aunt Tina murmured.
Angelique smiled and said, softly, “I’ll tell you, Aunt Tina. I’m glad to see it. It’s been three years since her divorce from Darryl. She deserves some happiness. I’ll definitely talk to him about participating.”
          “I’ll leave it up to you then.”
Angelique considered the staging area that needed to sit the eight selected guinea pigs. “We’re going to have to locate a big strapping male to help with these tables. And, of course Jess is nowhere to be found.”
          “Luckily, we've plenty of others hanging about,” Mena said.
          “Yeah, if we can pry one from a dark corner out of his lover’s arms—”
          “Some of us haven’t been that fortuitous.” The depth of that resonance sent a shiver over Angelique.
          She should have known Collin would follow her. Grimacing, she spun slowly to face him. His broad shoulders blocked the doorway, arms folded over his chest, ankles crossed, leaning nonchalantly against the frame. To an innocent bystander he appeared casual. The unreadable depths of his stare made her flinch, until the image of Booby-Pouty-Lips popped in her head, holding out his shirt like some triumphant trophy. The whole scenario filled her head like a badly drawn cartoon.
          Though her fingers itched to push the disheveled hair from his brow, she squeezed her hands into fists. His hazel eyes bore down on her. This was a man who prized order: dinner on the table at six, clean towels on the rack after his shower. Granted he did the cooking and the laundry, but still. She was the wronged party. She hadn't lied about her travel plans.
          “Hello, Phil, Tina. Val said the inn was full.”
          “I hate that name.” Mena muttered under her breath, but Angelique heard her and swallowed a grin determined to hold onto her anger.
          “Collin, how lovely to see you, dear. You do realize it's Valentines?” Aunt Tina said brightly. “I’m afraid we've had to pair you with another single.”
A slight curve touched his lips as  he stared at Angelique. Her flesh pricked and flames rushed her cheeks. Great. No mystery in where her aunt and uncle most likely stashed her ex-boyfriend.
“I suppose it’s fortunate that I’m a big strapping male and not trapped in some dark corner. What is it you need arranged?”
Angelique stood gazing out the plate glass windows from the second level lobby near the elevators of the SweetHart. The picturesque view did nothing to soothe her taut nerves. All was in place for the Newlywed Game, renamed Nearlywed for their purposes, set for later that night, finding her at a sudden loss with no more tasks to complete. She had no desire to hide in her room where, Val and Tina had, indeed, deposited Collin. She should have been honest with her aunt the minute she’d walked in the door the two days ago, though she supposed it didn't matter, and let out a disgruntled sigh. None of the rooms had two beds. Everyone knew that! It was the SweetHart Lodge.
The stairwell door swung wide, startling her. “Collin.” She meant to say it sharply, but to her dismay it came out that breathless huff she abhorred.
“Angel.” His tone, of course, was cool and controlled.
          She pressed her lips together, tightly, and stepped aside.
          “I got your note.”
          “Excellent,” she said, and started to brush by but he caught her arm.
          “We need to talk.”
          “I have nothing to say.”
          “How fortunate. I, however, do.”
          “Take it up with the occupant in 3B.”
          “What the hell does she have to do with us?”
          “Are you going to deny you went to New York?” she demanded.
          He grimaced. “What are you talking about?” he grated. “I ran into her in the laundry room the other day. I never said a word about my travel plans.”
          He leaned in close enough for her to breathe in the faint scent of his soap. He didn't go in for the big name colognes; just stuff that made her feel as if he’d spent the day chopping wood. “A-and I-I suppose she just accidentally found your shirt?”
 “Angelique,” he said softly, sweetly, almost a warning.
  She steeled herself against that tone, that heat that teased the tendrils of loosed hair. The one he used to melt her into a muddled mess at his whim.
“You must know that there is no one for me but you.”
          Luckily, a thread of common sense burst through. She stiffened. “So what?” she hissed. But the doubts edged their way into her brain-turned-mush. She tried to snatch her arm from his grip, but he pulled her in close. The warm breath that touched the side of her neck threatened the stability of her knees. His teeth nipped at her shoulder, followed by his nose nuzzling the assaulted area.
          “Collin?” she whimpered.
          “Angel, when are you going to learn to trust your feelings where I’m concerned?” he growled, just before he covered her mouth with his.
          Angelique’s husky laughter filled the ballroom through the microphone clipped at the vee of her cleavage-baring bodice, sending a rush of desire exploding through Collin. He could swear he detected the shadow of one of his more ardent attempts where the base of her neck met her shoulder. Her vitality captivated him. Yet her lack of trust left his heart feeling as if it had been shredded with a board of nails.
          Collin had finally reasoned out the events that must have poisoned Angelique’s mind. The apartment’s laundry facilities were located in the basement of their building. That little witch in 3B must have taken his shirt just waiting for the opportunity to present it to Angelique when he was gone. He shuddered to think of all that heavy make-up she wore smearing it, wallowing in it.
Regardless, Angelique needed to get past this self-imposed inadequacy. Hope for a lasting relationship was lost if they were doomed to live a lifetime without trust. Trust was the foundation in which love prospered. He was at his wit’s end in how to get Angelique to see they were on the same side. That he loved her. That he would never betray her. He huffed out a stilted breath, and ran a hand through his hair. Still, he refused to let her go. He would just have to show her through example. Love, in their case, would conquer her insecurities, he vowed. Her voice, as melodic as a well-tuned instrument, interrupted his brooding thoughts.
          “Aileen, what would Spencer’s last request on earth be?” Angelique asked.
          Aileen Kramer dropped her gaze before leaning into the mic centered on the table between them and announced softly, “another child.”
          A soft quiet filled the room as everyone waited. Angelique was looking at the cards she held, blinking quickly. “For. . .uh. . .ten points, Spencer, please show us your answer.”
          Collin waited, curiosity teasing him. Spencer was a young man, still in his twenties. His thick black hair, having fallen over his brow, hid an expression that turned his wife’s, thin face, pink. He lifted the card he held, slowly. It read ‘Aileen: the love of my life.’ The audience let out a unanimous “awww.” Collin was certain he heard a sniffle or two as well. Aileen Kramer threw her arms around her husband’s neck, her cries muffled. A boisterous applause that would echo through the mountainous terrain beyond the enclosure of the lodge erupted.
Clearing her throat, Angelique bolstered on. “Now for our bonus round. This should equal the balls you are enjoying by Holly Cavanaugh of Serendipity,” she announced. Cheeks pink after that announcement, Angelique's voice retained a slightly emotional inflection that squeezed something tight in his chest. She cleared her throat. “Complete the following phrase for twenty-five points. We’ll start with the couple with the lowest points.”
Collin’s eyes went to the NHL star center, Lance Hart. His sun streaked, blond hair was perfect. Of course, he’d graced the cover of both GQ and Sports Illustrated several times over, according to the gossip running rampant through the lodge. Lance tossed a crooked grin to the audience before glancing back at his partner. His unabashed appraisal no doubt wrung the hearts of some of the unattached women. Angela was grinning like a Cheshire cat. The woman had him wrapped around her little finger, and she hadn't even heard the question yet.
“Angela, how would Lance say you would complete the following phrase? Chocolate, flowers and. . .?”
“Home,” she said.
Angelique grinned. “Lance? Your answer, please.”
With a wide smile, he lifted the card.
“House!” Angelique read. “An answer along the Venus-versus-Mars lines of communications, but excellent, nonetheless. The judges, me, say it’s a match. Congratulations. That brings your total score to thirty-five. Let’s move on to Ben and Taffy. You have fifteen points. If you answer correctly, you’ll take the lead with forty. Chocolate, flowers and. . .”
The flush that moved up Taffy Sellers neck was interesting, Collin thought. Ben, however, shot Taffy a look that told the audience regardless of her answer, the outcome would end the same—in one bed where sleep would be scarce. “Uh. . .cake?” Taffy squeaked.
The shout of laughter Ben let out engaged the ensemble. He raised his card, but it read ‘Champagne.’ Even with the loud ‘ooh’, it didn't stop Ben Reece from planting a resounding smack on her lips, before Taffy hid her face in her hands.
Collin couldn't help but admire the guy.
Angelique tsk’d and moved to the last couple, Brian and Toddye. “Okay, this is for the win, you two. The Grand Prize, as you know, is an all expense week’s stay at the SweetHart Lodge for next year’s Valentine’s bash. That’s a working vacation for you, Brian.
A rumble of laughter rippled through the spectators.
That same rumble felt like a rising storm in Collin’s blood. It took him a moment to recognize it as jealousy. Angelique’s easy rapport with Brian ate at him but he shoved it away. Her teasing manner and quick wit with others was one of the things he loved most about her. Brian’s nine-year-old son Jason sat front and center next to an older couple he'd heard referred to only as Glory and Andy.
“Let’s have it, Toddye. How would you complete the phrase ‘Chocolate, flowers and . . .’?”
Toddye’s pale complexion was not necessarily complementary to the sudden flaming of her cheeks, clashing violently with hair that was the shade of russet with streaks of fire. But Collin had to admit the brilliant blue of her eyes are what must have turned, not only Brian, but also Jason, into pools of mush at her feet.
“Well?” Angelique prompted.
Brian didn't appear so comfortable with the question either, and Collin found himself biting back a grin. The two hadn't known each other that long.
“Ahem. . .Chocolate, flowers and . . .” Toddye glanced at Angelique, then focused her attention on Jason with a slight smile. She took a deep breath. “Life, I suppose.”
The byplay Collin witnessed included Brian squeezing Toddye’s hand and Angelique blinking quickly. She swallowed before she spoke. “Uh, Brian?”
He lifted his card. It read—life.
          Letting out a held breath, Collin step forward from the corner he’d been holding up. “And you, Angelique?” The ballroom stilled, his voice carrying throughout the room even without the benefit of a microphone. “How would you complete Chocolate, flowers and . . . ?”  He skirted the round tables slowly, working his way toward her, ignored the lovers holding hands, their gaping mouths, their shocked whispers. “Love? Affection? Trust?
          Angelique’s heart pounded so hard, she was certain it rasped through the mic to echo softly, stirring the balloons and their curled ribbons. She had sorely misjudged Collin. He deserved someone much more trusting, but she was too selfish to ever let him go. She was furious at herself. Why on earth would she trust that manipulative, overdeveloped she-devil over Collin. He was the one who’d earned her loyalty and regard. And it was time to let him know.
“You.” Angelique could not get her voice above a trembling whisper, and with the mic, her answer did reverberate against the walls.
          “Yes,” he said. He pulled her into his arms, fit his mouth over hers. She sank into his hold, his kiss. But just as quickly, he pulled away, glaring intently at her. “No more notes kicking me out?”
          She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling outright, and repeated, carefully keeping a demure tone. “No more notes kicking you out.”
          “No more accusations with the bimbo in 3B’s innuendos?” he demanded.
          She had to inhale deeply before repeating that promise. But repeat it, she did. “No more accusations with the bimbo in 3B’s innuendos.”
          Her stomach dropped when he reached into his pocket. He pulled out small concealed box. “No more doubts about my love?”
          Tears clogged her throat, and she found herself unable to speak. She shook her head. Hope filled her.
          “Say it, Angelique. I need to hear it,” he begged, softly.
“No more doubts about your love.”
          “You’ll trust me with your heart?”
          “I’ll trust you with my soul,” she whispered.
Collin dropped to one knee, before God and their onlookers, the couples on the makeshift stage and the crowd. He held out his palm. With a flick of his fingers the small velvet box popped open. “I shall always shower you with chocolate, flowers, love, affection, trust.” His voice dropped lower. “But, I believe I’d like to add diamonds to the list. Angelique Daugherty, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Angelique froze, shocked and touched, at the tremor in his voice. Her knees suddenly gave way, but Collin, hero that he was, caught her fall, his eyes never wavering from hers. The words lodged in her throat, her fingers shook.
          “Angelique?” His strained voice, boomed through the mic clipped to her bodice.
          “Yes. Yes. I’ll do you the honor of becoming your wife. I’ll trust you with my heart. Just don’t make me name our children Butterfly, Freedom, or—or anything with the word ‘Rain’ in it.”
          Collin pulled her into his arms. “John or Mary it is,” he whispered. And sealed his promise with a kiss.

Come back tomorrow for a wrap up of the OKRWA's Wildokies Valentine Anthology. Happy Valentine's Day!!! And may you have all the Chocolate, flowers and . . .your heart desires.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cupid's Cabin

Cupid’s Cabin
Debi Rogers
“Toddye Connors! It’s been too long!” The SweetHart Lodge’s bartender’s bright smile of recognition warmed her heart. He winked and scanned the crowd, looking for her husband. “Darryl keeping you waiting?”
A tiny band squeezed her heart. “No, Sam. We––we divorced three years ago.” 
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. Raw subject.” The bartender busied himself with placing a bowl of chocolates in front of her. Regaining his aplomb, he asked “What can I get you to drink?”
Her next words trailed off as a spray of water shot straight up into the air behind the bar. Toddye squealed, jumping nimbly off the sturdy leather stool.
“Whoa, sorry,” came a muffled voice from under the counter. The water slowly fizzled from a geyser to a light spray of water.
Toddye giggled as she shook her hands and fingers to fling off the tiny, wet beads that had splashed onto her. Not much but as if by magic, the front desk clerk appeared with a fluffy, blue towel.
More clanging and sloshing sounded from beneath the beautifully wrought stone bar. “Just a messy plumber trying to stop this leak. I apologize––ugghhhh. Must. Tighten. This. Joint.” His voice strained with each word. A beautiful bass voice, so low-pitched its resonance reverberated up and down Toddye’s spine. She shivered.
“Have a drink on the house.” 
The words came from under the counter, not the bartender.
She tried to hoist herself far enough over the bar to see the man, but it was too wide. The tinkering and clanging of tools hitting the floor told her he wasn’t finished.
“What will you have?” Sam brought her attention back to him. “On the house.”
She raised her brows. “A hot toddy?” A devilish sparkle lit her eyes.
“For a hot Toddye,” a rumble of laughter echoed from under the bartender’s feet. So she made him laugh. Score. The Josh Turner voice melted her insides.
Even in the low light, Sam’s blush burnished his brown cheeks. “Whatever the lady wants.” Mischief played in his eyes as he comically kicked at the man beneath his feet.
A slight whoosh of air sounded, as if the kick connected and then came a chuckle. “Couldn’t help it,” the voice said.
Toddye took her drink, wrapping her hands indulgently around the thick mug. “Thanks, Sam.” She gazed past the tables of lovers and friends intimately engaged in conversation or staring into each others’ eyes.
She wanted a cozy spot near the fire where she could watch the snow fall and not be disturbed. Finding an overstuffed, double-wide chair in a corner, she curled up against one side, pulling a crocheted afgan over her legs. One similar chair backed up to hers.
She’d shoved her phone deep in her pocket, trying to ignore the outside world. But one caller was persistent. This was the third time she’d heard Elvis and Kentucky Rain. She snorted and sighed before answering.  
“Hello, Mom.” She sipped the hot drink and let the fire of the rum spread through her anxious bones. “I’m okay. You were right. This is soothing, and a great place for a celebration.”
“Of course, it is. Screw that asshole and mingle. Take ski lessons. Shop. Go cross country. You’re in great shape. Hell, try snowboarding. Anything.” She could hear the worry in her mother’s voice.
“I will. I promise. Anything special you’d like me to pick up for you while I’m here in snow country?”
“A man the opposite of him would please me immensely.” Her mother believed if she refrained from using Darryl’s name, her daughter would move on easier. Not working so far.
“Mom, how long did it take you to get over losing Dad?”
Silence. “Well. Ours is a totally different story than yours. You might never get over it completely, dear, but life must go on.” Pragmatic to a fault, her psychiatrist mother had moved on three times in twenty years. Toddye wanted to avoid that at all costs.
In fact, she’d decided men were a bother. But she couldn’t tell her dear mother that. “Right. Ok, blocking all thoughts of the past, I’m going to carve out a new tradition all my own.”
“Atta girl, take your pick of the gorgeous, sweatered men swarming the slopes.”
Toddye couldn’t contain a laugh. “Yes, Doctor. Now let me go and enjoy.”
She gazed around the immense room. The Lodge bustled with energy during Valentine’s week. Every table boasted vases overflowing with red roses. Bowls of candied hearts and wrapped chocolate sparkled in Waterford dishes.
Toddye sighed and basked in contentment. She felt a small tug from Cupid’s arrow, but she diverted the winged angel to the back of her mind, focusing instead on the massive fireplace and the movie of twinkling snowflakes falling heavily.
The hot toddy was doing its job. A blaze of relaxation cascaded smoothly down her throat. The fire and the snow enveloped Toddye in a much-needed cocoon of anonymity. She might never leave. This could be heaven.
Thirty minutes later, Brian Benjamin shouted, “All done! No more drip,” as he jumped to his feet. Wiping his hands on a towel, he searched the bar, the lobby, scanned the subdued great room. Where had that woman gone?           “My turn for a hot toddy, Sam,” Brian said, thoroughly distracted by his quest. He’d recognized her voice and his blood was roaring in his ears. He’d waited three long years to see her again. She’d been another man’s wife at the time, but he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind.
As Elvis began to croon Only Fools Rush In, he spotted her in the great room, sitting alone. He wanted to whistle at his good luck. Her head lay languidly against one chair arm, legs tucked underneath a deep purple and yellow afghan. In the crackling light, waves of red hair, streaming nearly to the floor, reflected the colors of the fire. Hypnotized, he merely sipped his drink and marveled at his good fortune. He needed to get home, but she was here, right in front of him. Too good to be true.
An aura of magic reached out to him and he sat in the seat behind her. He hesitated to break the spell, but he had to talk to her.        
“I don’t usually lose control like that,” he said.
She neither jumped nor answered. Maybe she’d fallen asleep. Sitting straighter in the chair he looked down on her. When she raised an eyebrow, he smiled unapologetically.
“I’m certainly glad to hear you don’t make a habit of dousing guests with water. They might get the idea you were trying to run them off,” she remarked cryptically.  
“Ahh, just the reverse. I believe this is a little piece of heaven. Everyone should live in a storybook land like this.” He spread his arms out to include the outdoors as well as the luxurious surroundings of the SweetHart Lodge. “Don’t you think?”
His phone began to play softly then louder. He slipped it out of his pocket and answered.
“Yep. All done. I’ll be home shortly.” He popped the phone back in his pocket.
The man was gorgeous. More masculine and buff than his voice had indicated. His dark hair touched his shoulders and those dimples. She’d always been a sucker for dimples. No. She wasn’t going to be sucked in to a complete stranger’s spell.
Besides, he had a family waiting on him. What was he doing flirting with her? Deflated, Toddye sipped her drink, to the last drop.
“Here, let me get you a refill.”
“Oh, but I––”
“I insist. To repay you for the splashing.”
He disappeared before she could say another word. Drat. Married and attentive. Her life had been filled with unattainable men since Darryl’s defection, and somehow they all had the same affliction. Wives. Children.    
Oh, well. Such was life. She nuzzled against the soft animal skin that covered her chair. She could sleep here watching the snow fall.
“Hot toddy delivered to one hot––ahem, to Toddye.” He smiled sheepishly and had the decency to blush. Hard to see behind his dark snow tan.
“You’ll be sledding your way home through this.” Her cold voice dismissive, he ignored it like water off a duck.
His eyes grew huge and excited, a child’s excitement. She found it contagious. But she tamped the feeling down. Married. Remember. Unattainable.
“This is the perfect snow for the slopes. Will you be skiing tomorrow?” He turned exuberance onto her which shot arrows of anticipation bolting down her spine.
“Such passion. You love skiing that much?”
“Yeah, it’s definitely a passion. You? What are your passions, Toddye?”
Should she lead a married man on? Nothing in it for her and he should be ashamed––
Then he jumped, grabbed a jacket and started for the door. “Ok, gotta fly. I’ll be on the slopes tomorrow. Hope you come out. Anything can happen here, anything at all. G‘night.”
Vanishing into the blizzard, he left a chill in her heart.
Anything. Anything is possible.
Finishing that second toddy, she floated to her room. She’d forgotten the luxury of the soft carpet, the dark, inviting colors of the furniture on the second floor. Her door had a red heart with Cupid and his arrow dangling that possibility at her again. His knowing smile kind of creeped her out. Slipping into her room, #222, she performed the most rudimentary ablutions for bed––she’d declared a moratorium on make up for the entire trip, only lotion. Lots of lotion with plenty of SPF.
As she slid under the down-filled blankets, she thought of the plumber’s sun-bronzed face, dark curls in total disarray framing huge green eyes, eyes the color of the pine trees covering the mountains, full of expectation, full of joy, full of contentment.
She had to quit thinking about him. He was off limits. Have your own fun, Toddye. Tomorrow she would take ski lessons. Start from scratch as if she’d never been here. Life could be new. It could be washed clean in powdery-white snow. Then the next day she would ski all day before she tackled cross country.
Through the heavy snow, the ski instructor demonstrated snowplowing and then progressed to hockey stops, swirling walls of snow over the heads of his class as he came down the bunny slope right at them. Toddye chuckled at the screams and flying arms of the novices. Only a small number, like herself, stood perfectly still knowing he’d stop in time. Gracefully.
She itched to get on the slopes. Taking the class had been silly, but she had two weeks, so why not indulge? Good way to meet ski instructors. This one impressed her particularly with his strong legs and fluid movements. 
He’d introduced himself as Benjamin, but squinting through her goggles something familiar about his stance tugged at her. He wore jeans. Nice, tight jeans.  A parka, goggles and a colorful ski cap. Hard to see much of anything except his form through all the snow. If nothing else, observing his muscled derriere and eye-popping thighs made the lessons worthwhile
After two hours and several trips down the bunny slope, he directed them to take off on their own. Most of the class trekked back to the bunny slope, but a few skimmed across the powdery field toward more advanced trails.
Sliding close beside Toddye, the instructor motioned toward the bunny slope and she shook her head.
She pointed toward a blue trail sign, mouthed thanks and took off in the direction of the more difficult run.
When it was her turn to get on the doubles chair lift, Toddye moved onto her side, turned and saw her instructor get on beside her. She smiled and took an invigoratingly deep breath of the chilled air, turning her face into the brilliant snow still falling.
At the top of the run, she jumped onto the snow and for the first time in years, let herself go. Though the slope challenged, she’d spent plenty of time on these very trails, slightly different now, but not so much.
At the bottom she raced back to the lift. So did her instructor. They spent the day racing, laughing and challenging each other.
Heavy, beautiful snow continued to fall. Toward mid afternoon, he pointed toward the lodge entry. Toddye’s stomach growled in appreciation as they glided in.
Propping skis on the racks, they faced each other and removed ski caps and goggles.
Toddye stared in wide-eyed amazement. “You. I––what? How could you?”
“How could I what?” Brian asked.      
“First of all, you called yourself Benjamin this morning at class.”
“My last name. It’s how I’m known around here.”
“What are you doing? You follow me all morning, flirt, play, entice. But––’re not free.”
“What makes you think that?”
They made it to the cafe counter and ordered sandwiches. He followed her to a table, but didn’t sit.
Their eyes locked, held and she bristled. “I heard you on the phone last night.”
At first, a frown wrinkled his forehead as he looked up and to his left. That was a good sign. Toddye’s mother would interpret that as merely retrieving memory, not making up stories.
Then his face lit up with understanding.“My call was from home, you’re right about that. Came to vacation one winter and fell in love with the beauty of this mountain. My––”
“And so now you make a practice of preying on single females to––to––lead on?” She felt heat fill her cheeks. What a conniving lowlife.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong.” He raised his hands in surrender. Then he did sit. “Come over for dinner tonight. I’m an amateur chef. I’ll cook for you.” He lay a warmed hand on hers.
She yanked it away. “No. Did you not hear what I said?”
“I heard you. I’ve got nothing to hide. I swear. I don’t invite just anyone home.”
Leery, she studied his body language. Even though her writing was for travel magazines, she liked to observe peoples’ reactions, body language, see if they jibed with their words. His body was alight with excitement. She knew what her mother would tell her to do. She sighed in defeat. Her warring conscious was getting beat up. She wanted to see him again. But did she dare?
So earnest. So honest. Such an exhilarating day with him, she couldn’t say no.
That evening, not far from the Valentine Lodge, Toddye knocked on the  rough-hewn door of the cedar log cabin. When it opened, she was greeted by a young boy with a devastating smile just like his father’s. Dimples and bright eyes.
“Hi. I’m Jason. My father’s in the kitchen. Come on, I’ll show you.”
She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. A son. He had a son.
He took her by the hand and pulled her through the opulent home. Bear rugs, sturdy, hand-crafted furniture, a large wagon-wheel chandelier captured her attention. Then the aroma of grilling steak wafted around her head. The young boy offered her a seat at the bar. He disappeared, while she watched Brian fork and flip two thick steaks.   
“He’s gone to his room to pack. Spending the night with his best friend,” Brian told her with his back to her. “I took the liberty of pouring us wine.”
Alone. They would be alone.Why did that jangle her nerves? She needed the glass of cabernet at her fingertips. She brought the thin crystal to her lips and sipped. Delightful. “Uuummm, fantastic.”
“I’m hoping to get you drunk, you know.”
Her nervous laughter filled the kitchen and echoed off the rafters. “I’m an easy drunk, I’m afraid.” She sucked in her lower lip. “I––I haven’t done this in a long time.”
A devilishly dangerous smile laced his lips. “Good.” His eyes twinkled with desire and yearning. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
A frown creased her brow. “Should I?”
“I’ve been a ski instructor here for seven years. I noticed you and your skiing adventures before today.”
Pouring them more wine, he sat beside her, their shoulders touching.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” She clinked their glasses in a toast. “To memories.”
“You’re a hard woman to forget.” He ran fingers lightly over her knuckles. “My wife left us when Jason was two, before we found Valentine and skiing. Plumbing is my profession, but skiing is my passion.”   
Her cheeks heated as she thought of what she’d accused him of. “Jason’s had no mother all these years?”
“Tina’s taken him under her wing, but yeah, I’ve been mother and father to him.”
Jason skidded into the kitchen with a back pack slung haphazardly over a shoulder.
“Whoa, Buddy, come here.” Jason dropped the bag, hugged his dad tight, then grabbed his hand.
“The Olsens are waiting, Dad,” he said, tugging Brian’s arm, effectively making his point.
“Okay, okay. Say good bye to our guest.”
“Bye, it was nice meeting you.”
Brian followed his boisterous son out the door.
When he returned, he chuckled. “So much energy.”
Her heart fluttered. “Like his father.” Alone in this gorgeous cabin in the snow. With a man so handsome, so broad-shouldered, so athletic. Suddenly the air evaporated, lights dimmed. Things were going black.
Brian had her elbow, a hand on her back. “Do you need to lie down?” he asked her from far away.
She felt herself melt to the floor.
Next she knew, Brian’s concerned face was close to hers, a cool cloth rubbing her brow. “What––” her breath failed, panic suffused her veins. She tried to sit up. “W––Wh…”
Gently Brian lay a warm hand on a shoulder, pushed her back against the sofa. “Probably the air. You’re not used to it and we did ski hard today.” He grinned. “Less wine, more water.”
“You’re a decent doctor on top of ski instructor and plumber.”
Their eyes locked. His darkened to the shade of the firs plentifully populating Valentine Mountain.
He leaned toward her, his lips hovered above hers, only long enough for her to stop him. But she wanted him to kiss her. In a whisper against her mouth, he said, “I’ve wanted to do that for so long.”
“You have?” How could she not have known?
As if he could read her mind, he said, “You were married.”
Oh, there was that. She’d clearly forgotten about her cheating husband.
Brian took her hand and led her to a room, clearly an office. He’d strewn the floor with rose petals and handed her a long, white box filled with red roses.
“I know you recently published your first book. Congratulations.”
How could this be happening? She wanted to pinch herself.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Toddye. I’m so happy you came back to my mountain.”
“Kiss me again, please.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wild Stallions


By Christy Gronlund

            “Alright everyone,” Philomena Clark clapped. “Let’s place the tables four across then three across then four etc. until we fill up our space.”
            At her instructions, the room exploded into a cacophony of bumps and clatter as her staff unloaded the round tables from their carts and arranged them in the desired pattern. The polished wood floors that at first looked barren and desolate were soon crowded with rows of pressboard tables balanced by spindly steel legs. Not much of an improvement but it was a start.
            “Mena?” Veronica, her assistant, pointed to a cart filled with roses, carnations and baby’s breath. “Do you want a single flower on each table or a bouquet?”
            “Fill each vase with one red rose surrounded by three pink carnations. Frame them with a sprig of baby’s breath.”
            Veronica nodded and hurried away.
            Mena watched the rest of her staff drape the first table with a pink cloth topping it with a smaller white one then placed eight chairs around the circumference with practiced precision before moving on to the next area.
“Perfect,” Mena said.
“We were taught by the best, boss,” said Henry, a reliable if not completely reverent worker. He turned to the next table in the area.
This will look great. Mena placed a round mirror at the center of each table. Veronica, close on her heels, placed a bouquet atop.
“The last thing we need are the balloons.” Mena surveyed the area. “Why don’t we tie them to the lights that line the wall?”
“On it, boss.” Henry headed to the far corner and began the process of filling red, white and silver balloons with helium.  Fifteen minutes later the room started to look like a valentine’s card rather than the dark hollow place she had entered just moments ago.
Regardless, the change didn’t lift her spirits as she had hoped. She sighed. As luck would have it, she was here to work. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a date. Not one bit. She chewed her bottom lip. This bash was going to be a success. Nothing could spoil this weekend.
“Hey, Mena, are you ready for me to set up the staging area for the game?” Veronica asked.
“No, I think Tina wants Angelique to have a say in that so let’s leave it be for now.”
Mena took one last glance around the room where Henry was putting up the last bunch of balloons. There wasn’t much more she could do until she met with Angelique. Maybe she should find her brother. Sean had been very cryptic about his news. He insisted it was too big to tell her over the phone but important enough to meet her at the lodge this weekend. An act so unlike him that she didn’t know whether to feel alarmed or excited.
“Phil!” A silky voice spoke behind her. Not the thin raspy voice of her brother but a rich full-bodied one. She stiffened. A deep hollow yearning spread through her, tempered by a sharp burst of irritation. Only one person she knew sounded like that and he had broken her heart nine years ago. Not that she would have admitted it to him. He only thought of her as his best friend’s younger sister.
“Don’t call me that.” She whirled around. Nate Sanders hadn’t changed much. Still had the same perfectly tousled brown hair. The kind a girl liked to run her fingers through. The same piercing, bottle green eyes. The kind that could see right through a girl even if they never could ferret out her true feelings. He stood before her, long and lean, clad in a dark blue business suit holding a drink that looked suspiciously like scotch and soda.
“Come on, don’t be that way.” He held up his arms in a half shrug, half ‘what could I have possibly done?’ gesture.
“You know I hate being called that.” Especially by him. When he said it, even the dress she’d made sure clung to every womanly curve couldn’t stave off the feeling of androgyny. Even if he could never see her as feminine, couldn’t he at least pretend? Just once she longed to be looked at as if she were a woman fully grown instead of his friend’s kid sister. Was that too much to ask? Instead his expression held the same quirky, devil-may-care look it always did when he glanced her way.
“What? No love for your brother’s best bud? Come on give me a hug.”
Without giving her a chance to respond to his entreaty his arms enfolded her in a bear hug. She leaned in. How annoyingly perfect her head fit in the crook of his neck. He smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg. Like Christmas. Just as she gave in to the private luxury of his hold, he set her back with both hands, smiling. “Man, you’ve grown. How long has it been?”
“A couple of years.” Nine years and three months. But what sane person keeps track of things like that? “What are you doing here?” she demanded more sharply than she’d intended.
“I came with Sean. Thought I could get in a bit of skiing.”
“Oh.” Her eyes traveled to his ring finger. It was bare. To her annoyance, relief flooded her. How pathetic. Unaware of the awkward moment churning within her, Nate blithely continued.
“Sean said you were working this gig. He didn’t mention that you were the big bad boss lady.”
“He’s more of a ‘find out as you go’ kind of guy. By the way, have you seen him?”
Nate looked around the room. He shrugged. “He’s a little preoccupied at the moment. So I thought I’d keep his little sister company.”
His eyes met hers and her heart stopped. For one small second, it seemed she was the only one in the room. Like he wanted more from her. She shook her head. Impossible. And just as quickly, the impression fled. His ‘I don’t take life seriously’ smile returned leaving a hollow space in her chest. She cleared her throat. “Ahh, I have to get back to work.”
“Right, hope to see you later.” He patted her on the shoulder and then he was gone.

            Nate sat on the bar stool absently watching the television, vaguely aware that the Cornhuskers were getting a beat down by the Buffalos in basketball game that had most of the other patrons cheering heartily. His meeting with Philomena hadn’t gone well. His fault, no doubt, but old habits were hard to break. Especially where she was concerned.
            “Hey handsome, buy me a drink?” A shapely blonde, slid onto the bar stool next to him hooking her stilettos on the bottom rung.
            “Hi Sandra,” he said without enthusiasm. “Where’s Sean?”
            She placed both elbows on the bar and peered at him. He squirmed. Sandra was too intuitive for his taste. “Oh. You know Sean, always one more thing to do. He’ll be down in a minute. What’s eating you?”
            “Nothing.” He took a long swig of his drink, allowing the liquid to scorch a nasty path to his gullet. “Hey, bartender can I have another?”
            “Are you sure?” Sandra cocked her head to the side. “This isn’t like you, drinking by yourself.”
            “I’m fine.” He waved her off.
            She started to say something but the bartender plopped Nate’s drink down, then looked at Sandra. “What can I get for you, ma’am?”
            “I’ll have a chardonnay, thank you.”
            Nate returned his attention to the game determined to ignore Sandra’s inquisition. Unfortunately, she just wouldn’t leave it alone.
            “Out with it, Nate.”
            “Just because you’re Sean’s fiancée doesn’t give you the right to pry into my business.”
             “Fair enough,” she said slowly. “But I refuse to let you ruin my engagement weekend with some dark, broody drunken spree.”
            But Nate had ceased listening. His attention was on Phil as she passed the bar entrance.
“Who’s that?”
“Philomena Clark.” The object of their discussion was quickly disappearing. He almost called out but thought better of it. Not with Sandra and her prying eyes. A loud cackle drew his attention back to Sandra. Her laughter was so infectious, he couldn’t help but smile back. “What?”
            “That’s Sean’s sister?” She slapped his arm with the back of her hand. “And you like her.”
            “Come on, she’s Sean’s little sister.”
            “Right, and you were looking at her like a little sister too.” Sarcasm dripped generously from her lips. Yep, too intuitive for her own good. “So let me guess, you never made a move.”
            His first thought was to deny her notion again. But he had come here to see Philomena. Once Sandra learned the truth, he would never hear the end of it. Coming clean now would save a lot of headache later. “No.”
            “Why not?”
            “If you hadn’t noticed.” Nate fingered his drink. “She’s Sean’s sister. If I hurt her, he’d kill me.”
            She tossed her head back and chuckled. “This is rich. Our Nathan, the man who can melt an ice princess into bed with the heat of one look. I didn’t know you were so cowardly.”
            “I wouldn’t put it that way.”
            Her gaze met him straight on. “I would.” She stared at him a moment longer before a sly smile tipped her lips. “But maybe we can change that.” She grabbed his hand. “Come on big boy. Time to grow a pair.”
            Mena surveyed the ballroom one last time. Balloons hovered around the perimeter tied with ribbon curled at the ends. Flowers blossomed in the center of each table awaiting the patrons who would attend the big event. Eight chairs with white coverlets, lined the far end of the room ready for the Nearlywed game. She had to admit the scene was picture perfect with all the pinks, reds, silver and white. All that was needed was pixie dust and a fairy godmother to make her own wish come true. Sadly, those items were at a low premium.
            After she’d spotted Nate with that stunning blonde, Mena knew he hadn’t changed from the boy who thumped his chest declaring “Us wild stallions must roam free.” No matter how many years passed, his actions demonstrated he still wasted no time tracking down a new playmate. The last she’d seen of those two, they were racing hand in hand from the bar. Her eyes misted over blurring the festive colors into grey. She wiped away her tears. No matter what, she would enjoy this evening even with its bitter epiphany if it killed her.
            “There you are, Phil. I’ve been looking all over for you.” This time there was no mistaking her brother’s nasal voice.
            She pasted on a smile and turned to greet him, but before she could stop her momentum she threw herself in his arms. “Sean.”
             His arms tightened around her. “Hey, Phil. What is this, tears? From the tough, tomboy sister who broke her arm when she was thrown off her bicycle while charging off a ramp and never cried?” The more gently he spoke the harder she cried.
            He never let go of his hold. Finally, she sniffed and stood back, looking down at the floor. “No.”
            “Liar, come here.”
            She ran into his arms again willing herself to stop crying. This wasn’t his fault after all. There was no need to ruin his evening. “I’m just tired.”
            Over his shoulder she saw Nate walking in with his blonde bimbo in tow. He was carrying flowers. Not just flowers. Freesias. Mena’s favorite and he was probably going to give them to his new girl Du Jour. Mena’s hands curled into fists. How much worse could this night get?
            “Sean.” Great, the blonde knew her brother. That meant that Nate and this unwelcome woman came together. If it weren’t for her brother’s solid form, she would have crumpled to the floor. She pulled away slowly.
            “I have to go,” she sputtered. “I really want to hear your news but can it wait for a bit?”
            Sean frowned down at her. “It could if my news hadn’t just arrived.” He gestured to the blonde. “Sandra, I’d like you to meet my sister, Phil. I mean Mena.”
            Sandra’s face lit up into a smile and she rushed forward. “I’m so glad to finally meet you. Sean tells the greatest stories of your escapades.”
            “Pleased to meet you.” Mena hoped her voiced didn’t sound as stiff as she felt. A diamond glinted on Sandra’s left hand. If possible, her mood plummeted even further. Just let me get out of here. Better yet, kill me now. Mena steeled herself for the news that was sure to follow. Nate was engaged. Her brother’s oblivion showed in the grin that stretched from ear to ear. To her shock Sean put his arm around Sandra and drew her close.
            “Sandra and I are engaged.”
            You’re engaged?” A cold rush of surprise surged through her.
            “I know.” He laughed. “Who would have thunk it?”
            “Not me.” Mena stood frozen in place digesting the information. She had it wrong? Joy in a slow wave gathered momentum, making her so giddy she started to collapse. But a strong arm gripped her. She pulled free from Nate’s timely rescue and tripped forward enfolding Sean and Sandra in a group hug. “Welcome to the family.”
            “Thank you.” Sandra squeaked, alerting Mena that she squeezed a bit too hard. She released them knowing she probably looked like a foolish girl. Not that she minded. That was exactly how she felt.
            Sandra turned to her partner. “Sean, might I have a moment with you out in the hall.”
            “Uh, yeah.”
            Sandra led Mena’s confused brother out the door. Nate took her arm again, but his usual aplomb seemed to have deserted him. If she didn’t know him better, she would’ve thought he was nervous. He thrust the flowers at her. “These are for you. I trust they’re still your favorite.”
            “Really?” Her voice came out somewhat breathy. With a tentative hand she reached for them awed that he would remember such a tiny detail.
            “First let me say, I’ve been a coward but Sandra set me straight.”
            “About what?”
            “I should have asked you out a long time ago.” He gulped and raked his hand through his hair. “But I’m asking you now. Will you be my Valentine?”
            Tears of a different kind blurred her vision. “Really?”
            He drew her closer, crushing the flowers, but how could she care? He lowered his mouth to hers. Her heart beat so fast she was sure it would explode out of her chest and land on the floor.  But that was okay just as long as held her like this for as long as she lived.