Excerpt for Painted Petals by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Painted Petals

By Kassandra Lea


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

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Copyright 2018 Kassandra Lea

ISBN 9781634865449

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All rights reserved.


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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Painted Petals

By Kassandra Lea

Chapter 1

Winter still held the state firmly in its clutches, with everything coated in a layer of snow. But the beautiful bouquets in the grocery store and displayed in the window of the florist gave hope that spring would eventually come. Besides, for Clara Dickens it was easier to see the blooms that way than thinking of their real purpose. It was February, the month for lovers. Everywhere she turned there were hearts and cute stuffed animals and reminders that the fourteenth was drawing ever closer.

Valentine’s Day.

Her feelings on the holiday, if it could even be called that, were mixed. On one hand, she liked the sentiment behind it, but why show your love only because the calendar and stores said to? She found more meaning in a handful of wildflowers given to her on a Friday in May than lavish presents on Valentine’s Day.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way, so Clara often kept her mouth shut on the subject. Her view had nothing to do with a bitter breakup a few years back, but the whole relationship angle certainly threw its two cents into the ring this time around. New love. It bathed her in warmth from head to toe, thinking of her current squeeze.

As Clara wheeled her cart by a display of lovey-dovey cards she wondered what Asher thought of the whole ordeal. Was he sweating like some other men as he tried to figure out what the best gift was for her? Was he cooking up romantic plans? Should she be giving more thought to the day?

Should I buy him a little something? Maybe a heart of sweet chocolates or a cute little stuffed monkey telling him how crazy I am about him? Do I buy him a card with a mushy phrase or one that will make him laugh?

Hello, Clara, dear.”

She looked up, already smiling, always happy to see her receptionist and good friend Miss Maggie. The kind middle-aged lady was the first to welcome her to town when she arrived about a year ago, and now Clara couldn’t imagine life without her. Miss Maggie was pleasantly plump, had recently dyed her hair in varying shades of blue, and knew everything worth knowing about the people of Sugarbush Creek.

Clara’s vet clinic, The Ark, was closed for the day except for emergencies; which would come through on her cell phone. As much as she adored the townsfolk and their critters, even she needed a day off now and then, especially when her fridge started looking bare and the furry critter she shared her house with needed treats.

Always nice to see you, Miss Maggie.” The older lady was inspecting the selection of candies, from the classic heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to less than appetizing gummy hearts. “Have you found a new special someone?”

Mr. Maggie had gone to the big snow globe in the sky a few years back. Clara wished she’d had a chance to meet the man that worshipped her friend. He must have been an amazing person and she couldn’t help feeling he would have filled the hole left by her father’s passing. Much the way Miss Maggie felt like a second mom. In the picture Miss Maggie placed on the desk near her monitor, her dearly departed husband could have easily passed for Santa, his smile lighting up his entire face.

She must miss him something fierce this time of year. Or any holiday.

Permanently losing the one she loved, the man she planned to spend her whole life with, was one of the biggest fears Clara had.

Imagine giving one’s whole life to another, trusting them with your heart, devoting your days to them and planning out the future just to wake up one morning without them. All of it lost. How does someone get over that sort of heartache? Oh Maggie, you’re an amazing woman.

Oh, sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m looking for a little something for my grandkids. V-Day isn’t just for lovers, you know.”

Have you found anything you like?” She spied Miss Maggie’s empty cart.

I’m torn between going traditional and grabbing a bag of candy hearts, or trying something else. The boxes of chocolates are out. They’re much too picky for those,” she mused.

An idea occurred to Clara. She was already planning to do a little baking, always offering treats to the owners of her patients. What could it hurt to add a few more cookies or cupcakes to the batch? She said as much to Miss Maggie, having already thought out the delicious treats. Strawberry cupcakes with cream cheese frosting dyed bright red, a chocolate heart atop each one. The cookies would be filled with the appropriate holiday-colored chocolate chips. Maybe she’d even get fancy and dip one end of each cookie in red chocolate. Just thinking of the sweets made her stomach growl.

Miss Maggie’s eyes sparkled. “I’ll take you up on your offer on one condition.”

Name it.”

We finish up our shopping and have lunch next door at the café.”

Deal.” She could already taste the cheddar potato soup, a chunk of fresh Italian bread, and a cup of hot cocoa to wash it all down with.

It wasn’t like she would have to worry about her cold stuff, what with the February temperatures barely reaching double digits. As much as she adored winter, even she loomed forward to spring, the flowers making her wistful for evenings on the porch with a good book and a glass of lemonade.

Or, better yet, snuggling up under the stars with her boyfriend.

Clara wheeled her cart by the candy, having agreed to meet Miss Maggie by the registers in fifteen minutes. She pushed all thoughts of the upcoming day out of her mind, focusing on the list she wrote up before leaving the house. Most of her purchases came from the baking aisle. Fruits and veggies, especially those favored by her main squeeze, Rabitat, joined a loaf of bread and milk. Before long the remaining item on her list was dinner followed by a question mark. What, she wondered, would be good? What was she in the mood for?

Clara slow cruised past the meats. Burgers and pork ribs and chicken. None of it jumped out at her as appetizing. She turned her cart to the frozen foods, eyeing the variety of pizzas. Yes, exactly what she wanted. Adding a pepperoni pizza to her goods she declared her shopping done and went to pay, finding Miss Maggie just finishing up.

I’m beginning to think it’ll never be warm again,” George Randolph commented, stepping into line behind Clara. As one of the sheriff deputies George’s days were busy with accidents brought about by the overabundance of snow. This was the talk of the talk of the town, as they’d already reached the seasonal average and crossed the threshold with more of the white stuff forecasted.

I hear some of the ranchers are getting worried,” Penny Jones added in her two cents while ringing up Clara’s purchases. A single mother of one, Penny came by the clinic to have Clara treat her son’s cockatoo. “Mr. Dochese has been rumbling about the price of hay from down south.”

Clara considered her own beloved cowboy. If Asher was experiencing any trouble with feeding his cattle or horses he hadn’t said anything to her. But would he? If there was one thing she’d learned about Asher Barlow it was the sense of pride that came with running the generations-old Sugarbush Ranch. The land, the animals—some of which could be traced back to the founding critters—and all the history ran through his blood, and Clara knew she would always place second to the homestead. Surprisingly she was fine with that, just another part of loving a cowboy.

Love.

Did she love Asher? With all her heart and soul? Did he feel the same? Was she safe with him? Could she trust him to take care of her heart? Their relationship was still young, not even a full two months old. What if she gave him everything she had only to wind up brokenhearted once again? That was the risk, she knew, being left shattered and in tears.

Come on, dear,” Miss Maggie said, taking her by the arm. “I can tell there’s a storm kicking up in that mind of yours. Let’s eat and you can tell me what has you troubled so.”

* * * *

Chapter 2

A handful of minutes later Clara ducked into the welcoming warmth of The Range, an appropriately themed café with food to die for and every item on the menu sourced locally. Miss Maggie grabbed a table near the front, providing them with a view of Main Street. As Clara sat she couldn’t help marveling at how quickly things changed. It seemed like yesterday that the light poles had been entwined with evergreen and lights, every shop with a Christmas display in their front windows.

Those decorations were gone, replaced with items of pink and red and white, and there were hearts everywhere. On virtually every surface. Even the postman had decked out his truck with a huge magnetic heart, the traditional cupid’s arrow through it. There was a special quaintness to small-town living, one Clara always found charming. Everyone, like a big happy family, got involved in the festivities.

Let’s see how green this town gets for St Patrick’s Day.

The waitress swung by to get their order. Clara was unable to resist the soup, and Miss Maggie chose a ham chowder. Their drinks arrived rather quickly. Clara wrapped her hands around the mug, breathing in the sweet scent.

I hope you never move somewhere without proper winters,” said Miss Maggie. “Or I fear you’ll miss your friend there.” She indicated the mug. Clara laughed, which made her friend smile. “Ah, there we go, I was wondering what happened to that joyful light.”

What are you talking about?”

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you’ve been moping around the clinic all week.”

Clara arched an eyebrow in silent question. Had she been? “Oh?”

So, out with it. What are you troubling over?”

There was no point in denying her, Clara knew. Miss Maggie always got to the bottom of everything.

“It’s the festivities, I’m afraid.”

“Are things not going well between you and Asher? You two seemed very happy at dinner the other night.”

The fact that Miss Maggie had seen them didn’t bother Clara. It was a small town. “Things are good, smashing, in fact.” She smiled wistfully, gazing out at the snow. Cars passed down the slushy street, people navigating the sidewalks. “I couldn’t be happier. Asher is amazing. Everything I want in a guy and more.”

“But?”

“What am I supposed to do about Valentine’s Day?”

“Ah, that’s what you’ve been agonizing over. Usually it’s the guy doing that.”

The conversation halted as the waitress brought their food. Steam curled up from the yellowish-white soup. It smelled heavenly. Clara’s stomach growled and her mouth watered. How she lived so long without knowing such a fabulous dish existed was beyond her. All she had to do now was avoid overindulgence or her pants wouldn’t fit anymore. Always a curvy woman, she had shed a few pounds since she started dating Asher. Was she more aware of what she ate or was it because dating a cowboy had her on the go? Hard to say.

“Yes, I suppose so.” She swirled her spoon around the bowl. “Is it too early, you know, to mark the day?”

“Is that what this is about?”

Clara shrugged. “The relationship is barely two months old. I wouldn’t call us official or anything along those lines.”

Miss Maggie dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. “Are you exclusive, seeing only each other?”

“As far as I know,” she said, her face scrunched up in thought. “Suppose we should discuss that, huh?”

“I know Asher, he’s a one-woman kind of man. Besides, with everything else he has to tend to, I can’t imagine him having time for more than one special lady. So as long as he’s your only one…”

Was Miss Maggie fishing, questioning her intentions? “Of course.”

Her ex-boyfriend thought he had free rein to do as he pleased, seeing her as just one of his special ladies. Finding out that he was cheating left her shattered, unable to trust, and perhaps that was the real root of her problem. She was still gun-shy, afraid to give her heart away completely. It remained in a fragile state. What happened if she gave of herself entirely, heart and soul to Asher and wound up once again broken, tossed aside? Clara hated to think of Asher that way, but in the end nobody really knew how a relationship was going to play out. They were still in the blissful embrace of discovering each other. What if she turned up something she didn’t care for or Asher discovered a trait he just couldn’t live with?

Clara sat back with a sigh, her gaze once again focused out the window. An elderly couple strolled along at a casual pace, hand in hand, and instantly tears burned the back of Clara’s eyes. Would she ever be that woman, growing old with the love of her life, happy in the knowledge that theirs was a life fulfilled?

“Oh dear,” Miss Maggie whispered. She reached across the table and took Clara’s hand in her own. ”Clara, if there’s one thing I know it’s that that man adores you. If you believe in love at first sight, consider his heart yours from the moment he crossed that threshold with Sarsaparilla. He was yours before you even spoke.”

Heat crept across Clara’s cheeks. What Miss Maggie said sounded like the stuff of movies and novels, definitely not the sort of thing that ever happened to her. She liked to consider herself a confident, successful woman with her head screwed on right. But when it came to men and relationships all that went right out the window. One bad relationship, one heart left shattered, was all it took for self-doubt to find its way in. So far she’d managed to keep it under control, refusing to blame Asher or make him pay for the mistakes of another. Loving him came easy, perhaps too much so, and it scared her, the depth of her feelings at such an early stage of their relationship. Falling too hard way too quickly just screamed there would be an impending disaster.

Yet, the way he made her feel, the skill he possessed in making her blush and feel like a young girl…Asher sent butterflies fluttering in her stomach. The touch of his lips against hers, his hand on the small of her back; a shiver passed through Clara. With the briefest of caresses he stoked a long simmering fire waiting to rage into flames, and to think, they hadn’t even slept together yet. Not to say she hadn’t entertained her fair share of fantasies, the mighty fine cowboy laying her down on his bed, tracing the lines of her curves…

“I’m beginning to think you might need to step outside,” quipped Miss Maggie, an all too knowing twinkle in her eye.

By now Clara was used to the heat that spread across her cheeks. She was a young woman with needs, desires, and it was tempting to give in, especially when she cuddled up close to Asher. But the lingering doubts, the pain caused by another, kept her from taking that step.

Clara sucked in her bottom lip.

“Don’t worry,” Miss Maggie said, patting her hand. “What will be will be and there’s nothing we can do about it. Besides, you two were meant for each other, I just know it.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“Just let nature take its course, and as clichéd as it sounds, follow your heart. It’ll never steer you wrong. Sometimes we merely forgot how to listen to it.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you are one wise woman?”

From there the conversation turned to Miss Maggie’s grandchildren. Clara did her best to participate, but her mind kept wandering back over the things her friend said, specifically the idea of following her heart. Hadn’t she done that with the last guy and look where it got her. Then her mind focused on the first time she spied Asher and the shot of electricity that seemed to shoot through her body. How she managed to conduct herself without falling into a tongue-tripping mess still amazed her, then again, at that point in her life she’d made the decision to forget about love. Just brushed aside such silliness as she deemed it and started making plans for a spinster lifestyle. Then she saw Asher.

From the waiting room of her clinic to her dreams that night, in one quick whirlwind, the very blink of an eye, the girlhood wish for a fairytale love blossomed anew. Asher became her Prince Charming. And she began to wonder if the broken pieces of her heart could mend.

* * * *

Chapter 3

July

The day had dawned bright and blue, cotton ball clouds floating lazily across the sky. The air was filled with cheery birdsong and the perfume of summer flowers, many of which enjoyed the buzzing visit of bees. It was the sort of day that made Clara want to go on a hike or find a shady spot under a tree and get lost in the pages of a good book. But still being relatively new in town with a lot of time and money invested in her vet clinic, The Ark, she chose to work, leaving the front door open to invite in the surprising cool breeze.

It had been unbearably hot and stuffy just two days ago until the humidity was broken by a good dosing of ground-saturating rain.

Am I the only one wishing there was a beach around here?” The voice was that of Miss Maggie, her first good friend in Sugarbush Creek. She sat behind the reception desk, staring forlornly out the big bay window at the parking lot and beyond. “Crashing waves, warm sunshine, and bare-chested men in bathing trunks.”

Clara smiled. A week before she’d put up the ‘Help Wanted’ sign, expecting to run the gambit of people looking for a decent wage as well as a handful of hopeful teenage girls with a love for animals. But it was Maggie who walked through the door, promptly removed the sign, and asked what her first task would be. Taken aback Clara stuttered, then pointed at some filing that needed doing, though there wasn’t much. Without a formal interview Miss Maggie got the position and Clara considered it kismet, one of those moments when the person she really needed stepped into her life. Here they were talking like old friends, never mind the gap in their ages, or the different paths they’d taken to reach this point in life.

Why, Maggie, I do believe you just want to look at the young dudes.”

I may be old, but I can still appreciate the view of a nice firm rump.”

Clara giggled. “You’re not old.”

That’s right. I’ll always be young at heart.”

A moment of silence passed between them. Clara’s gaze strayed to the open door. She kept sending out a silent prayer for a new client to come waltzing through the door. When she moved to the quaint town she did her research, knowing how foolish it would be to open shop in a small town where there was already a decent, reliable, well-loved vet. She quickly learned about Doc Lawrence and that he preferred working with ranch animals, livestock, but tended the smaller critters as well, mostly out of necessity. Lately, however, she had been hearing grumbling from her handful of clients that Doc Lawrence had lost some of his charm. To Clara it sounded like he was turning into a bitter man in his old age.

Which was one of the reasons she kept hoping for her clientele to increase.

I think I’ll go see about a bit of paperwork, make sure things are in order.”

Don’t worry none, dear, word has a way of getting around in small places like Sugarbush,” Miss Maggie assured her. “I’ve already spoken highly of you and how you handled Fizzy.” Fizzy, it turned out, was her tabby cat, a sweet thing with half an ear missing. “Just gotta give the locals a chance to come ‘round. Then you’ll be one of us.”

Clara arched an eyebrow. “You make it sound like a cult.”

Oh, honey, haven’t you heard? We are, we win you over with good manners and our country charm.”

Clara started for the back and her office. “And here I always thought it was the cowboys.”

They’ll certainly rope you in, especially the hunky one walking this way.”

And that was the first time Clara crossed paths with the devilishly handsome Asher Barlow. He was crossing the wee gravel lot, The Ark having been built in an old converted farm building, with a black labrador cradled in his arms. It was hard to make out the man behind the dog, but he sported Dusty jeans, a red T-shirt that showed off his muscles, and a black Stetson jammed down on his head. Just the sight of him was enough to cause Clara’s heart to flutter. It was like he walked in slow motion off the cover of a romance novel. And then her brain reminded her about the bow she took upon packing up the last of her belongings.

Love, forget it, there was no place for it in her life.

Not when she was running from a broken, bruised, and battered heart.

Still…

Clara licked her lips, stepping up to the counter to greet her newest client. He swept through the door, a man with purpose, and nodded his head at the reception counter. ”Why, hello Miss Maggie.”

Asher, always a pleasure. What’s with your sweet old lady? I hope it isn’t anything too terrible.”

That makes two us,” he remarked, the timber of his voice sending a shiver down Clara’s spine.

The lab was wagging her otter-like tail somewhat enthusiastically, making it hard to keep hold of her. He set her on the floor, dog tags jingling, as Miss Maggie stepped around the counter to give her a loving scratch behind the ears. Clara saw the problem instantly in the way the pooch limped, though the injury didn’t slow her down; as soon as she was done with Miss Maggie she hustled over to Clara, sitting at her feet and leaning into her.

Clara laughed, parting the dog on the head. ”Well, aren’t you the friendly one.”

Sass loves people,” the drool-worthy cowboy stated, pushing back the brim of his hat and providing Clara with the first decent look at him. From what she could tell he sported a mop of dark brown hair touched by the summer sun and eyes that made her feel like she was the only woman in the room when they settled on her. His jawline was covered in stubble, providing him with a perfect rugged appearance, just the way she always imagined her men of the West. He stepped over to her, offering his hand. “Asher Barlow, and this hyper little girl is Sarsaparilla.”

Clara Dickens.” His palm was warm against hers.

I’ve heard some mighty fine things about you, ma’am,” he said, removing his hat completely. Clara felt her heart skip a beat. The man looked ready for a photo shoot to sell jeans. “I sure hope you can help out Sass.”

I’ll do my best. Why don’t we go into one of the exam rooms and you can tell me what happened?”

Sounds good.”

Somehow, he managed to wrangle the energetic dog and fell into step behind her. Once in the small room Asher placed Sass on the metal exam table. Much to her surprise Sass remained, sitting, the perfect picture of obedience. The advanced gray on her muzzle suggested she was getting on in years so it pleased Clara to see her so joyous.

May I ask how old Sass is and is she up-to-date on her shots?” From a cabinet she retrieved a clipboard with paperwork attached. It would be the start of a new file, one she hoped might bring her more business, especially if it meant seeing Asher more. Something told her Sass wasn’t the only pet in his life. ”And what brings you two by today?”

The way he scratched under Sass’s chin, the love evident in his eyes, made Clara smile. “The ole gal is pushing eleven, though she’s two by her standards. And yep, she’s good on her shots. I’m guessing you saw her limp?”

Clara nodded, jotting down a couple of notes.

Well, I noticed it about lunch time when I rode down to the creek for a little break. I don’t know if she slipped in the mud along the banks or maybe got bit or stepped on something…” He trailed off.

Let’s have a look.”

Quiet reigned over the room while Clara checked Sass. With no open wounds, no resistance from the pooch when she flexed the lump, and nothing stuck in the paw, Clara was left to announce the only likely cause. Done with the exam she offered Sass a small treat from her pocket, a bubble of freeze dried beef.

I’m officially diagnosing this as a soft tissue injury. You know how when you roll your ankle?” Asher nodded. “It’s like that. Restrict her movement for a day or two and she’ll be good as new. If you’d like, I can also prescribe a mild painkiller.”

Do you think she’ll need it?”

I could write it up just in case you decide you’d like to have it? I’m fact, I can give you a small bottle with six or seven pills.”

Thank you.”

No problem,” Clara assured. She reached for the door. “How about you and the patient go wait out front and I’ll bring them around?”

Asher gathered up his dog and carried her out of the room, giving Clara a wonderful view of his backside. She found it quite pleasing to watch him walk away, especially with the fit of his jeans. With a shake of her head as well as a silent reminder that she’d given up on love, Clara retreated to the back of the clinic and the locked space where she stored the medications. When Miss Maggie breezed in Clara jumped, realizing she’d been standing before the bottles, gaze unfocused, as her mind wandered to…other places.

So?”

So what?” Clara found the pills she wanted and placed them in an orange bottle. A few quick taps of the keyboard made the printer spring to life, printing the needed label.

I saw the way you looked at him.”

Much like you, I can enjoy a handsome, pleasing to the eye guy.” She slapped the label on the bottle and handed it to Miss Maggie. “However, I’m fine single. And I’m plenty busy enough getting this place running and settling in…” Never mind she was completely unpacked and had called Sugarbush Creek home for more than a handful of months. ”Love can wait.”

For a moment it looked like Miss Maggie might leave, but before she did she made sure to say, “Love doesn’t wait for us to be ready. It does things on its own terms. You and Asher will make a cute couple.”

I’m sure,” responded Clara, for lack of anything better to say.

She wandered back to her office, closing the door before sinking into the desk chair. Miss Maggie’s choice of words bounced through her mind, refusing to be silenced so easily. You and Asher will make a cute couple. Wasn’t she jumping the gun? They’d only just met and what made Miss Maggie think she was even interested or that he was, for that matter? Though she freely admitted Mr. Barlow was a strikingly handsome man, Clara wasn’t in the market for love. Miss Maggie was way off the mark.

* * * *

Chapter 4

Satisfied, both by the conversation with her friend as well as the delicious food, Clara headed out, intent on going home and relaxing. There was a new stack of library books sitting on her coffee table, including a romance she was currently in the middle of and wanted eagerly to see how it ended. Free days were few and far between. Strolling down the sidewalk she conjured up an almost perfect evening, curled up on the couch, a blanket thrown over her lap while she read, a fire crackling in the fireplace. The only thing really missing was the man who owned her heart.

Someone came up behind Clara and wrapped their arms around her waist. A shot of panic sliced through her and she was ready to elbow the offender in the gut when she caught whiff of his aftershave. Clara relaxed against Asher, melting into his firm body. She closed her eyes, allowing herself to get lost in the moment. Her mind slipped away, taking her from the chilly sidewalk along Main Street to a more intimate setting.

Asher’s bedroom.

Candles flickered, strategically placed around the room. Outside the window snow was falling. Asher lowered her onto his bed, his lips pressed to hers, a hand on her hip. He trailed the curves of her body, tracing his fingers over her chest, his mouth lingering on each breast, eliciting a moan from her. And his hand, it dipped lower, touching her in the most private of places, causing her to arch her back. When she was ready he would position himself just right and…

“What are you thinking about?” Asher whispered in her ear.

Heat flushed her cheeks. Why did he possess the power to make her blush effortlessly? “Nothing.”

Asher chuckled, turning her so they stood face to face. “I bet.” Light danced in his eyes. He tweaked her nose. “You should see how red your cheeks are and something tells me it ain’t the wind’s fault.”

She curled her fingers into his flannel jacket, wanting to be as close to him as possible. Was she ready to take that step in their relationship? How? Mere moments ago, she was contemplating the depth of her love for Asher. And if I keep letting my mind wander along this avenue I’ll be as red as a firetruck. Clara cleared her throat, acutely aware of how close his hips were, and considering how he looked in his jeans, oh boy.

“What are you doing here?”

“I was on my way to see Bowie when I spied your SUV parked along the curb.” He slipped one of his hands lower, briefly cupping her right butt cheek. “Thought I might stop and see if it’s my lucky day; which it turns out to be.”

“Is it?”

“I think so,” he murmured, leaning down to kiss her.

When his lips touched hers, Clara felt her toes curl with an ache for him to brush his fingers along other locations. Sensual, delicate, intimate places. Then she recalled that they were out in public and regretfully pulled away, licking her swollen lips. Perhaps it’s a good thing we’re here.

“I find, Miss Dickens, that I quite thoroughly enjoy kissing you.”

“Do you now?”

“I imagine I’ll relish doing other things to you.”

“Asher.”

Another chuckle, his chest rumbling. “There’s a time and a place.” He winked.

Sadly, Clara untangled herself from Asher, letting the cold air rush in between them. “So, on other topics. You said you were on your way to see Bowie?”

“I can be persuaded to skip.”

“No, don’t let me hold you up. I hope everything fine.”

“I don’t mind being held up by you, my dear. In fact, we should find a way to make it happen more often.”

He drew her back to him and Clara went willingly, flushed from head to toe. Her conversation with Miss Maggie, still fresh in her mind, mixed with this moment made her wonder if it a little Valentine’s celebration might be fine. If they loved each other what did it matter If they chose to mark the date in their fledgling relationship? It was their business, their decision. Clara was about to ask Asher his opinion on the whole affair, when a new idea occurred to her. It was part of a conversation she had years ago with high school chums. Oh, those days seemed like a lifetime ago. Her bestie at the time assured her that men usually got cold feet at the mention of commitment, wanting to sow their wild oats.

And look at how your attempt of wedded bliss worked out. Train wreck is a perfect phrase to describe that situation. Do you want to risk losing Asher over a silly holiday? Is this one day even all that important to me?

“What’s going on in that head of yours and does it include me?” Asher’s grin was impish.


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