Authors: Lori Wilde
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
Dade blinked and he was back in the moment. His muscles were coiled tight and he realized his hands were clenched into fists. Natalie was coming back out of the house again, accompanied this time by a young woman toting a carryall of cleaning supplies.
He blinked, pulled his palm down his face, stepped back from the window. He needed to search the room for clues before the maid cleaned everything up. Quickly, he did a perimeter sweep, opening closet doors, going through the chest of drawers, peering underneath the bed. Nothing but a little dust.
The women came into the room. To keep from looking guilty, Dade grinned wide, but one glance at Natalie and he felt it again—that same overwhelming smack of attraction.
Get over it, Vega. You’ve been too long without sex, that’s all it is.
He could not allow himself to become distracted by Natalie McCleary for so many reasons. Never mind the way she made him feel. He was in Cupid for one purpose and one purpose only. Red had rescued him twice in his life.
Now, it was his turn to rescue Red.
I was blind until one shot from Cupid’s arrow; now I have 20/20 vision.
atalie walked into the community center carrying a platter of Pearl’s chicken salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off, trying not to think about Dade and the uproar he’d caused in her life.
The Cupid volunteers took turns bringing lunch for their meetings held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon when they gathered to answer the week’s letters. There were eight permanent Cupid volunteers, plus a dozen others who showed up periodically or filled in for the core group when they went on vacation, experienced illnesses, or had family obligations. Other than Junie Mae Prufrock, Natalie was related to all of them in one way or another.
The Cupid letter-writing tradition had started in the 1930s in response to two events. One, the Depression hit and the town had a desperate need for extra income, and two, a brokenhearted Wallis Simpson made her pilgrimage to Cupid.
Natalie’s grandmother Rose had spearheaded the campaign, gathering some of the local women to answer the letters that people left at the base of the Cupid stalagmite. At first, the replies to the letters were left on a bulletin board posted outside the caverns. As tourism grew, so did the pile of letters littering the cave, and the town voted to prohibit the leaving of letters at the stalagmite, and as an alternative, erected the statue of Cupid in the botanical gardens, moved the bulletin board where the answered letters were posted over there, and added the “Letters to Cupid” box.
In the 1940s someone had the idea of doing away with the bulletin board and instead printing the letters and “Cupid’s” reply in a free weekly newspaper that was paid for, and distributed by, local businesses. Because of this, tourists would come to town, post their letters, and then hang around for several extra days to read the answers. Cupid’s tourism, which had previously revolved primarily around the mineral springs, shifted, and soon just as many people were coming for the Cupid legend as for the health spas. Over the years a list of letter-writing rules had been posted. They currently read thusly.
1. All letters should be submitted using an anonymous pseudonym.
2. Letters will be answered within one week.
3. Letters of a sexually graphic nature will not be published.
4. The letters are for entertainment purposes only.
5. Cupid is not to be held responsible for what the letter writers do with the advice.
The last two items had been added on recommendation of an attorney, just in case some nut job did something crazy in the name of love and blamed it on the town.
In the digital age, there had been talk of accepting letters submitted online, but they quickly realized the volume of the letters would prohibit the volunteers from being able to answer them all. As it was, they received upward of three hundred letters a week. So they voted to keep things old-school. Besides, it added to the mystique. If you wanted to plead your case to the god of love, you had to come to town to do it.
Natalie laid her purse on the long folding table set up in front of the window, positioned so that the group could look out on Main Street and watch the tourists go by as they answered letters. It was a pleasant reminder of their audience and why they were doing what they did.
Generally, each volunteer sat in the same place, unless someone was mad at someone else. Which, considering they were mostly family, happened with some frequency. As the oldest daughter, of the oldest daughter, of the oldest daughter of Millie Greenwood, Natalie’s place was at the head of the table.
Aunt Carol Ann, Natalie’s mother’s younger sister, was already at the center, busily spreading a cheery paper tablecloth over the buffet table. A five-gallon plastic Igloo beverage dispenser sat to one side, and Natalie knew without having to ask that it was filled with sweet tea.
Her aunt was a sharp dresser, especially for Cupid. She had on a teal green business suit, matching high heels, and a strand of cultured pearls at her neck. She didn’t wear pantyhose because she’d read in
How Not to Look Old
that pantyhose made you look like an
Last year, when Carol Ann had turned fifty, the family had misguidedly thrown her a surprise party. With her feelings hurt over the black balloons and over-the-hill signage, Carol Ann had spent the afternoon in the bathroom, staring at her wrinkles in the mirror and plotting a trip to El Paso to get a chemical peel, fillers, and Botox injections. Now, she couldn’t frown if she wanted to and she had lips to rival Angelina Jolie’s.
“Notice anything new about me?” Aunt Carol Ann turned to smile at Natalie.
Her teeth sparkled as white as Crisco. Natalie wished she hadn’t left her sunshades in the basket of her bicycle. “Um . . . your teeth are very white.”
“Thank you! I had them brightened. Dr. Clinton does that Zoom thing. He lightened them seven shades!” Her smile vanished. “But your uncle Davis didn’t even notice. I swear I could set my hair on fire and he wouldn’t look up from Angry Birds. I wish I hadn’t gotten him that iPhone for Christmas.”
“Your teeth look beautiful.”
“That’s kind of you to say.” Carol Ann took the platter of sandwiches from Natalie and set it out on the table along with paper plates, napkins, and plastic cups.
Her aunt was lean and long from years of Pilates. She’d had the Pilates machines installed in her house and kept trying to get Natalie to give Pilates a go. She was convinced it would help Natalie’s leg, but after years of physical therapy, Natalie knew that this was as good as it got.
“You should try the Zoom. It’ll do wonders for your smile,” Carol Ann prodded.
“I’m pretty happy with my smile just as it is.”
Her aunt shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Tsk.”
“Honey, why do you settle for so little? You could be so beautiful if you’d just try a bit.” She reached over and pulled Natalie’s hair back. “For instance, a Brazilian blowout would take care of this frizz.”
That needled her, but she didn’t like dusting things up, so she let it pass.
“I suppose that’s what happens when you grow up without a mother to guide you.”
“You’ve mothered me plenty, Auntie.”
Her aunt stepped back. “Your mom would have been so proud of you and all you’ve achieved, but I know she would have wanted you to spruce yourself up. She’d be disappointed to learn you still weren’t married at twenty-nine. If you wait too long to have children you might discover that you can’t have them at all.”
“Would that be the end of the world?” Natalie asked, feeling defensive. She had chosen to remain single and virginal, but it was her choice. Never mind that she’d just had a mind-altering morning. In this day and age, a woman should be able to choose whatever path was best for her, whether it be marriage or motherhood or even celibacy. One choice wasn’t any better than another. It wasn’t one size fits all.
“Not the end of the world, just sad. It would be the end of a tradition. No more eldest daughter of the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter.”
Natalie shrugged off her overreaction, put it down to Dade Vega. “Oh well.”
Carol Ann pursed her lips. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Take life in stride.”
Natalie shrugged. “What else am I supposed to do? Whine? Complain? Gnash my teeth? Wring my hands? Shake my fist at God? None of that would change anything.”
“It’s just that . . .” Carol Ann paused, waved a hand, looked pensive a moment. “Oh, never mind.”
“How’s Melody?” Natalie asked about Aunt Carol Ann’s daughter. Melody had escaped Cupid for New York and she was a hotshot Madison Avenue ad executive.
“Terrific.” Her aunt brightened. “She’s heading up Charmin’s new ad campaign.”
“Charmin the toilet paper?” Okay, that was mean. Natalie was a wee bit jealous of Melody.
Carol Ann proudly raised her chin. “People need toilet paper.”
“Turns out not so much. People used to use newspaper, magazines, even leaves to cover the job, and in some other countries they simply use their hands.” Oops, where was this tackiness coming from?
“Well, we’re not in some other country, are we?” Carol Ann sniffed. “This is the God-fearing United States of America and we use toilet paper.”
“ ’Course we do,” Natalie placated. Her insurrections were few and far between, and when she was snarky she immediately felt guilty about it. “I’m happy for Melody and Charmin.”
Luckily, at that moment the door opened and her cousin Lace Bettingfield dreamily meandered into the room.
Lace was three years younger than Natalie and the only daughter of Lincoln and Colleen Bettingfield. Uncle Lincoln was the middle child sandwiched between Natalie’s mom and Aunt Carol Ann. As a child, Lace had battled a severe stutter and it had made her extremely introverted. She’d finally conquered the stutter, but she’d never gotten over the shyness. She was a beautiful girl—the prettiest one in the current crop of Millie Greenwood’s granddaughters—with alabaster skin, in spite of the fact she spent most of her days outdoors as a botanist for the botanical gardens; coal black hair; and startling light blue eyes. Everyone said she looked just like Snow White (and the unkind might silently mumble,
If Snow White was thirty pounds overweight
If Natalie had to put up with Aunt Carol Ann’s unsolicited advice about her limp and her hair, Lace had it worse. Carol Ann was always giving her diet books and signing her up for online weight loss newsletters.
Natalie knew her cousin used the weight as insulation against the opposite sex. Something had happened in high school with a boy that Lace had had an unrequited crush on. As far as Natalie knew, Lace had never had a boyfriend.
While Natalie had had a couple of boyfriends, she and Lace had something ironic in common. They both answered letters to the lovelorn pretending to be Cupid when neither one of them had ever had a successful love relationship.
Well, that is, until this morning.
Wait a minute. Hold the stallions. She didn’t know for sure that she was in love. She couldn’t just jump off a cliff because of these feelings. She didn’t even know the man.
But when he’d looked into her eyes, when he’d touched her . . . wow, just wow.
“Natty?” Aunt Carol Ann was at her elbow.
“Are you okay? You look like you’ve got a fever.” Her aunt placed a palm on Natalie’s forehead. “Hmm, cool as a cucumber.”
Natalie stepped away, but tried not to let her irritation show. “I’m fine. Thanks for your concern.”
“Is something wrong?” Lace asked, temporarily snapping out of her perpetually dreamy state.
Gram used to say about Lace, “I’ve never seen a child daydream the way that one does. She lives in her own little world.” In that regard, to stay with the princess analogies, Lace was more like Sleeping Beauty than Snow White.
And which princess are you?
Natalie shook off the question. She wasn’t a princess at all. She was too practical for any of that regal nonsense, but her favorite childhood fairy tale had been Cinderella. She easily identified with hard work and sacrifice, and like Cinderella, she tried to stay cheerful in the face of her responsibilities. She smiled at Lace. “Everything’s wonderful. How are you, cousin?”
Lace’s face dissolved into a beatific smile. “I got the new adenium hybrid that I ordered six weeks ago from Thailand to bloom. I’m so excited. You have to come by the greenhouse and take a look. It’s the color of peppermint candy cane. I hope to transplant it into the garden by the end of next month.”
Aunt Carol Ann frowned. “A den what?”
“Adenium is a genus of flowering plants in the dogbane family known as Apocynaceae.” Lace gestured enthusiastically.
“Huh?” Carol Ann looked confused.
“It’s a rare strain of desert rose,” Natalie translated for their aunt.
“Oh. Well, why didn’t she just say that?”
Lace rolled her eyes.
Natalie winked at her cousin and gestured toward the buffet table. “Help yourself to some of Pearl’s chicken salad sandwiches.”
“Limit yourself to two,” Carol Ann called after Lace.
The door opened again and Junie Mae came in with Great-Aunt Delia. Delia didn’t drive anymore, so Junie Mae always swung by to pick her up.
Delia was Grandmother Rose’s younger sister. She toddled in, bracing herself on an ivory-handled cane. At seventy-seven, she was the oldest volunteer. Her body might have been compromised by osteoporosis, but her mind was a steel trap. To keep her mental faculties sharp, she did find-a-word puzzles, practiced water aerobics five days a week at the Cupid senior citizens’ center, and took acetyl-L-carnitine supplements. She’d recently heard that learning a foreign language could help stave off Alzheimer’s, so she’d bought the full course of Rosetta Stone Spanish.
” Delia greeted.
“Warning,” Junie Mae said. “She jabbered Spanish all the way over here.”
Todos ustedes deben aprender a hablar a español. Vivimos en Texas
Carol Ann blinked owlishly. “Huh?”
“Learn Spanish and you’ll know what I’m saying,” Delia said smugly.
“You enjoy being a handful, don’t you, Auntie?”
“No more than you, Carol Ann.” Delia caught Lace by the arm with the crook of her cane as she walked past. She pushed her glasses down on the end of her nose and peered at Lace’s plate loaded with three sandwiches. “Are those Pearl’s chicken salad sandwiches?”
“Uh-huh,” Lace said.
“I’ve gotta have some. Pearl makes the best chicken salad in town. It’s because she uses tarragon and those seedless Thompson grapes.”
“I’ll get you a plate, Auntie Delia,” Natalie offered. “You go ahead and have a seat.”
Delia patted Natalie’s cheek. “You’re such a good girl. I’ll have three halves and some of those ruffled-up sour cream and chive potato chips.”
“Chips are full of sodium, Aunt Delia,” Carol Ann scolded.
Delia faked a wide-eyed innocence. “My goodness, should we call Channel Nine in El Paso and tell them about the earth-shattering news?”