Valentines day anthology.., p.10

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 10

 

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs
 


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  Adam’s eyes slid sideways. “Uh, you could say that.”

  “Anyway, you know how the old people are—not up on technology. I know things they don’t, and Dad thinks I’m too young and inexperienced to know what I’m doing.”

  “H-how old are you?”

  Cupid’s face lit up with a smile. “Nine hundred ninety-nine years today. Woohoo! Next year we’re going to have a blow-out par-tay, and you will be on the invitation list, my man.”

  Adam pulled Nugget closer to his chest. “Is this really happening?”

  Cupid propped his chubby little elbows on the bar of the stroller. “You’re one screwed up guy, Adam. Lonely and pathetic, but a hopeless romantic. Why aren’t you out looking for love?”

  “Oh my God,” Adam whispered. “I’m talking to a thousand-year-old baby about my love life. Nugget, we’ve gotta get out of here.”

  Nugget wagged his tail and licked Adam’s face.

  “Well, that right there is one reason you don’t have a woman. You always run. Dude, just because your parents didn’t work out, or your sister, or your best friend, and half the population, that doesn’t mean you won’t work out. Follow your heart and trust it. Let yourself fall in love. You deserve happiness.”

  Adam snorted. “If so many people don’t work out, why should I trust you? What do you have to do with anything?”

  Cupid pointed behind him at his parents. “We can’t keep up with everyone in the world, no matter how hard we try. But you’re one of the lucky ones. You just gotta trust me, okay?”

  Adam glanced past the stroller. “Your dad’s coming back.”

  Cupid nodded. “Just remember, you received a whopping dose of love potion. You’re gonna feel pretty, um, well…you know. Probably for days. That anti-love potion won’t even work on you unless you drink the whole thing.”

  Nugget nuzzled and licked all over Adam’s face until Adam couldn’t take it anymore. He pushed himself to his feet. “What if I don’t want to fall in love right now? I’m busy with school. A relationship is the last thing on my mind.”

  Cupid shrugged. “It’s destiny. You can’t fight it.”

  Adam’s face turned red and he clenched his teeth. He tossed the frisbee far down the park lawn. “It’s not destiny. You just shot me up with some kind of magic shit.”

  Nugget took out after the frisbee just as Tiny appeared. “I hope my son has been good for you. I don’t know what got into him earlier. Nap time I guess.”

  Adam narrowed his eyes as he watched Nugget race toward the disk, leap in the air and catch it.

  Tiny held out a cup of steaming hot chocolate in one hand, a little white bag in the other. “My lovely wife also wanted you to have a chocolate covered strawberry and a rose. She sends her apologies.”

  Cupid flopped back in his stroller and popped his pacifier in his mouth.

  “Totally not necessary,” Adam said, glaring at Cupid, “but since you went to the trouble of getting it for me…”

  Tiny smiled as Adam took the cup and bag. Adam sipped, pulled away quickly to blow on it, then took another sip. Tiny watched, his eyebrows lifting as Adam drank, sip by itty bitty sip. Too damn hot for the guy. He should have let it cool a bit before he handed it to him.

  Cupid sat up again and threw his pacifier at Adam which did nothing to slow Adam down. Cupid grew more agitated as Adam continued his careful sips.

  Nugget whooshed in front of them. In an instant, Adam was sprawled on the ground with Nugget clamoring all over him. The hot chocolate soaked into the cold, dry ground.

  Cupid kicked and giggled with glee as Tiny fell to his knees, face in hands.

  Adam scrambled to his feet, tugging Nugget with him.

  Tiny sank all the way to the ground in defeat, but he’d try one more time. “Can we make you another? Please?”

  “You know what?” Adam said. “I think I’ve had enough of the park today. I’m just gonna go straight home. Maybe stay there for a few days. Or a week. I’ll hire someone to walk Nugget.” He nodded as he latched the leash onto Nugget’s collar and grabbed the rose and bag. After all the weirdness, he could at least enjoy those.

  He took off at a walk, seemingly dazed. Cupid had told him he would feel the effects for several days. He wouldn’t chance it. Within seconds, he was jogging, then sprinting. “Yeah, I’ll hire someone. Maybe that kid down the street.”

  Tiny watched as Adam and Nugget ran through the trees toward the roadside sidewalk. “Son, I don’t even know what to say. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

  “Dad, face it. You need to catch up with the times. I’ll show you all my calculations and data if only you’d listen and learn. I’m telling you, he’s not going to get out of this park without finding his true love.”

  Tiny stood and brushed himself off, then pushed all his weight into the stroller in order to get it rolling through the clumps of grass. “Our methods have worked for a thousand years son. Love doesn’t change.”

  “Maybe not love itself, but the ways people find each other do. They’re too busy to notice each other anymore. Humans spend all their time on electronics these days.”

  They reached the ease of the smooth sidewalk and made their way back to their cart. Val was chatting with the woman who stood holding several bags of goodies. Tiny could only guess what was in those bags, but he knew they consisted of more than what was out on display. Val had made a trip to the boxes in the back of the van to get what this woman wanted.

  Tiny gave Val a wink as they approached. This was one of those times where he and Cupid stayed away and let the woman handle it. They were a good trio, each filling the role that made the human target the most comfortable. “I’ll take the baby to the van for a nap.”

  Val smiled in return. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

  The woman watched Cupid with longing in her eyes as he strolled by. He gave her an innocent little baby smile.

  She turned back to Val. “Do you really think it will work? I’m so nervous. What if he laughs at me?”

  Val’s eyes softened. “Sweetheart, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that he’s not going to laugh at you. You know, maybe he feels the same way you do. You’ve both already admitted your love and that you’re ready for the next step, so what’s holding you back?”

  Ellie looked down at the ground. “But it’s the man’s role. What if people think poorly of him? Or of me? I don’t want to embarrass him.”

  Val slid a chocolate covered strawberry into a bag and handed it over. “Honey, it’s the twenty-first century. It happens all the time.”

  Ellie smiled. “You seem so confident. Thank you so much for your support. You have no idea what a boost you’re giving me to do this.”

  “Oh, honey, I do indeed know what I’m talking about. You have nothing to fear. Just enjoy the moment.” With a twinkle in her eye, Val handed Ellie a rose. “Go get yourself engaged, sweetheart.”

  Targets Hit Targets

  Ben continued on his way through the winding, lazy path of the park, trying to get his mind back on his upcoming business meeting. Why wasn’t the path straight and functional? Some people needed to use it for actual travel purposes, not a leisurely stroll through nature.

  Tension tightened Ben’s muscles like Cupid’s little bowstring. His nerves were shot to hell, and his self-confidence was as low as the sludge at the bottom of the ocean. He’d been pitching his ad campaigns to the children’s toy company for weeks. Months, even. They always loved his ideas, but the proposals were never quite right. Just a minor tweak here and there, they’d always said.

  This account meant more than anything to Ben, even though he couldn’t figure out why. He had plenty of other opportunities that were much more lucrative, but he just couldn’t let this one go.

  He huffed with irritation. He was being ridiculous. This would be his last attempt, and if they said no again, he’d let it rest. He wouldn’t be led on forever.

  But now his imagination was running wild
with images of Cupid and his silly little toy arrows. And Val. And Tiny.

  What an odd family.

  And what if he really would find his true love today? Then what? A woman in his life was something he hadn’t even considered. Not seriously, anyway. It might be fun to have someone to hang out with when his buddies were busy, but other than that, he had no interest in being tied down.

  He kicked at a pine cone on the sidewalk. He was being silly even thinking about it. That family was nothing more than a few whacked out people with nothing better to do with their time than to mess with the general public.

  Ridiculous. There was nothing to Tiny’s claims. There couldn’t be.

  Ben neared the woman sitting on the park bench. He gazed at her casually, then studied her hard, trying to summon up a feeling.

  She looked up and smiled, nodding a polite hello.

  Nothing. No feeling at all. Ben scoffed at himself for even trying. Those people were just a bunch of crazies. He lifted his hand to give a quick wave, but instead held the rose and bag up in the air.

  Awkward.

  Why did he even still have those? What was he going to do with them? He should just give them to the lady so he’d be rid of them.

  But the pedestrian crosswalk light was lit up, urging him to hurry toward the intersection and cross the street before he lost more precious time. He needed to get his head back on track.

  Inhale. Exhale. Ommmmmm. He focused on an object in front of him, not even paying attention to what it was. He needed to think. Concentrate. Calm his voice and his facial expression.

  Someone stepped in front of the object of his focus. A woman. A gorgeous, buxom woman.

  Was it a sign? Was she destined for him? It seemed pretty obvious that it was, otherwise the woman wouldn’t have randomly stopped right there where he was transfixed. He didn’t develop a feeling, but she had to be the one.

  A nervous shiver ran down his spine. What would he say? Just walk up and hand her the rose and tell her he was going to marry her? He cleared his throat and started toward her.

  Just as he was in speaking distance, the city bus pulled up and the woman climbed in. Turned out her standing spot wasn’t so random after all. That was a relief.

  He continued the breathing exercises. Continued to think. And continued to notice every single woman in his path. He analyzed each one to see if he would develop a feeling.

  He rolled his shoulders. Cocked his head. Lifted his brows. Yes, there was perhaps a feeling. Maybe a tingle here and there. If he really thought about it. Nothing he’d notice if he weren’t looking for it.

  “Dammit!” he hissed, giving himself a mental slap. This wasn’t good. He needed to concentrate on his pitch, not every female of the human species.

  He looked down at the sidewalk. He was almost at his destination and he didn’t have time to stop and chitchat with some woman who would only think he was as crazy as Val and Tiny.

  Moments later, he entered the building. His heart rate sped up and his palms grew clammy. Damn his nerves. He hadn’t calmed himself properly.

  He climbed the stairs instead of taking the elevator, just to work off his extra nervous energy. Hopefully it wouldn’t make his palms sweat even more. Not likely, given it was only two flights of stairs.

  Taking a deep breath, he stretched his neck from side to side, then practiced a sexy, lazy grin. Waggled his eyebrows. He must have looked ridiculous, but he was trying extra hard to look relaxed, and that was all he knew to do at this point.

  With a smooth, long stride, he swaggered onto the third floor with a face molded in place. He felt like a Ken doll. That wasn’t a bad thing. Ken would probably get the job in a heart beat.

  A shy, quiet voice greeted him. “Hi, Ben. Right on time, as usual.”

  He didn’t want to break his facial form, but he had to speak. It would be rude not to. His eyebrow lifted awkwardly as he tried to move his mouth and hold his plastic smile. “Hi there.”

  The receptionist’s face lit up, her rosy cheeks plumping as she smiled. “You noticed me!”

  Ben’s brow almost furrowed with confusion, but he refused to let that happen. He needed to hold his form. “What do you mean? I always knew you were there.”

  “You never spoke to me before.”

  His smile fell just a little and he lowered his gaze to fully take her in. It was true. He wouldn’t have known her if he saw her on the street. Never even spoke to her. She was just one of the many people he’d passed on his way to his meetings.

  Waggling his brows to make up for his fallen grin, he forced his sexy smile back in place and studied her features. She was cute. Adorable, if he could use such words. It wasn’t a manly thing to say, but manly be damned.

  “I apologize for my previous manners. I’m sure I was just nervous. It would be hard for anyone not to notice you.” A wave of nausea ran through him. He probably looked like a complete creep with his Ken-face and sleazy come-on. He held out the rose and bag, hoping she would forgive him. “For you.”

  The woman’s eyes went wide. “For me? What did I do to deserve this?”

  Ben shrugged. He had no idea what she did to deserve it. Didn’t even know her name. He just knew she deserved it, and that was it. He waggled his sexy eyebrow look. “Just because you’re you.”

  How cheesy. He was just a big ol’ piece of cheese. A cheese sandwich. Cheese pizza. Heck, he was a cheese factory. What an idiot. Sleazy idiot, at that. He should just save himself the humiliation and leave right now.

  Surprisingly, the woman giggled. A tingle started in his chest and spread throughout his body. He needed to find out her name.

  Mr. Cooper came out of his office in a rush, looking through a stack of papers. “Janine, honey, can you let me know as soon as Ben Townsend gets here?”

  “He’s here, Dad. Look what he brought me!”

  Ben chuckled silently. Now he knew her name. Janine Cooper. And she was the big guy’s daughter.

  And he had just been caught schmoozing the big guy’s daughter red-handed.

  Mr. Cooper smiled. “Buttering up the one in charge will get you nowhere, Mr. Townsend. Our decision is already made. Come on in and we’ll talk.”

  Ben was so confused, his face was about to crack. But he continued to smile and swagger and waggle his brow. It was working well so far.

  Mr. Cooper led him into his office and closed the door behind them. “Ben, I’m in a huge hurry, so I’ll make this brief. We’ve been slow to act on this because we weren’t sure of our future. My wife wants me to retire. Janine has been shadowing me for several months to see if she wanted to take over the family business. If she chose not to, we were going to close our doors.”

  Ben nodded, even though he didn’t understand. Couldn’t they just sell the business?

  “I’ve been letting Janine make decisions. I’m confident in her ability, and with your campaign, we’re sure to continue successfully in the toy market. We’ve been very impressed with you and would love for you to become a bigger part of our advertising tactic. Janine has a proposal worked out for you.”

  Afraid to ruin his expression, he shifted his eyes toward the door as she quietly entered the room. His mind was spinning. The woman made him warm and tingly, and now she, the receptionist, was going to hand him an offer.

  “Sorry I didn’t come in right away. I was covering the desk while Mandy was at lunch.” She set a file out in front of her. “I loved every one of your proposals. You are truly talented.”

  “Thank you?” Ben cleared his throat. “I mean, um, thank you.” He wasn’t aware she had seen his presentations. He knew there had been a few other people in the room besides just Mr. Cooper, but he had no idea who.

  Mr. Cooper clapped Ben on the back. “It’s true. We would love for you to become our advertising partner. You two can talk it out. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

  Janine sat in her dad’s desk chair and gazed at Ben. Ben gazed back in awe. He couldn’t care less about the silly j
ob, except that he’d get to work with her. Her skin glowed a golden hue. Little pink sparkles floated in the air around her. And above the sparkles floated the smiling faces of Val, Tiny, and Cupid.

  Adam

  Adam pounded his feet on the pavement, tugging Nugget along. Now was not the time to stop and smell the roses. Not that there were any roses to smell this time of year. Well, at least not growing in the park. He held one in his hand, but they didn’t need to stop and dawdle for that. He needed to get back to his apartment. Now.

  But those darned squirrels…

  “Nugget, enough! It’s a matter of life or death.”

  Nugget woofed and leaped for the frisbee in Adam’s hand.

  Adam swatted at him as he continued to run. “No. We’re done playing.”

  Nugget ignored his master and leaped again, this time getting a firm grip on the disk. He landed and dug in his paws, yanking Adam backwards from his forward momentum.

  Adam tumbled to the ground. Maybe he should send Nugget to obedience school while he kept himself locked in his apartment.

  Nugget licked Adam’s face and pushed into him until Adam was rolling on the ground.

  “Fine! One more toss, and that’s it.”

  Nugget’s whole body wiggled with his wagging tail.

  Adam unhooked Nugget’s leash and tossed the frisbee, then gathered his bag and rose before shoving off the cold ground.

  He looked at the rose and bag. He could just leave them crumpled on the ground, but that would be littering. He could toss them in the trash can. Or take them home for himself. He liked chocolate covered strawberries. Or maybe give them to Mrs. Nelson, the ninety-year-old widow on the first floor. It had probably been years since she’d received a Valentine gift.

  He wafted the rose through the air and sniffed the delicate aroma.

  Oomph! Nugget plowed into him and knocked him back to the ground.

  A beautiful laugh filled the air like a love song.

  Adam smacked his hand over his face. A love song? Really? He never thought things like that.

 
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