Authors: Kathryn J. Bain
by Kathryn Bain
Published by Astraea Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
GAME OF HEARTS
Copyright Â© 2012 KATHRYN BAIN
Cover Art Designed by Elaina Lee
I would like to thank my awesome critique partners, Fay, Beth, Mary, and Susan for putting up with all my ditzyness while writing this book. I would also like to thank my children for all their patience. If it weren't for them, I'd never have any inspiration. Love ya, girls! I'd also like to thank Barbara Warren for all her help with the edits. You're awesome!
I shouldn't have been a single m
other at this time of my life. There
be a nice guy supporting me
while I lived
home with a white picket fence. The name on the mailbox should read Mrs. Deborah Doesn't-Have-a-Care-in-the-World. But it didn't, and my children liked to eat.
For the last two weeks I'd skipped lunch in order to afford the small round cake for my daughter's high school party, a small luxury on my already tight budget. On the plus side, I'd lost three pounds. But now I might end up slinking away without anything at all.
I turned my shoulder to the nagging people behind me and spilled my purse out on the counter, searching for any penny I might have buried.
How could I not have enough? The store manager, Mr. Mason, wouldn't let me write a check, and my debit card for the new account hadn't arrived yet. I had no other way to pay but cash.
"Lady, are you going to take all day?" someone grumbled.
go wrong? I scrounged until I found two more cents. An elderly woman behind me graciously handed over the final penny. After thanking her, I hurried to the exit. I daydreamed of paying for a cake with a hundred dollar bill, then opening the box and shoving it into the mean grocer's face. The thought
brought a smile and my good mood returned. I whistled under my breath.
Rain pounded down on the plastic awning over my head. With no end to the storm in sight, I decided to take my chances. I raced to my vehicle in the heavy downpour. Will the strip mall ever get around to fixing these potholes? Behind my car, I jumped around a deep one filled with water. I looked down at my feet, hoping I didn't slip and drop the cake.
My body met a soft roadblock. I flailed, my feet sliding on the slick pavement. My protective grip on the cake box loosened. It tilted. I juggled it with my left hand, then my right. I overextended. The box and its contents flew up like pizza dough thrown by an Italian chef. I hit the ground and a rush of air escaped my lips. My gaze traveled upward past a man's face to spot the cakeâ¦
freed from its confines and rushing down to meet me.
Plop. The cake fell onto my head. Icing dripped down my face. Apparently, butter whipped icing is waterproof because the pouring rain barely washed it away. The lyrics from "MacArthur Park" played in my mind as I sat in the water. I hated that song. "I'll tell you who left the cake out in the rain," I muttered as pieces of vanilla pastry swam toward a storm drain. "I did."
The man I had bumped into snickered. "You did, huh?"
"Stop laughing at me." I smacked the puddle. Drops bounced up and hit me in the face.
He knelt in front of me. "You have to admit, this is a rather humorous situation."
"I don't find anything funny about it," I snapped. "I bought the cake for a party and now it's ruined." I certainly couldn't afford another one. The thought of no dessert at all disappointed me further. Naturally, the rain had settled down to a sprinkle by now. Why hadn't I waited under the awning?
"I'm sorry I laughed. It's probably more amusing from my vantage point than yours."
"I'm sure it is."
He extended his hand toward me. "Here, let me help you."
Fat chance. "I think you've done quite enough already." I grabbed the bumper of my Honda to pull myself up. My feet hit the icing-slicked cement. They flew up and out from under me. Splash.
Tears danced on the rims of my eyelids as icing oozed down my face. The sugary taste of frosting flooded my mouth while I sat soaked and flat broke. All for what? A silly high school bash. "Why don't you watch where you're going?" I swiped once more at the glaze as it crawled down my cheek.
"I believe you bumped into me."
He was right, but I refused to look at him. I didn't want him to see the tears building.
"Now," he said, "are you going to sit there all day in that puddle, or would you like me to get you out? Of course if you're comfortable, I'll just go and leave you to enjoy."
"Of course I'm not! Do I look comfortable to you?" I paused. People had started to gather. I sighed. "I would appreciate your help."
I grabbed the large hand he offered. As he pulled me up from the ground, I wondered how much it would cost to clean his leather bomber jacket. I finally took a good look at him to see what kind of disaster I'd created.
My breath caught in my throat. He had the deepest, most penetrating mocha-colored eyes I'd ever seen. When I stood upright, he grabbed me around the waist and swung me away from the slippery mess, placing my feet firmly on the pavement. I wasn't sure if the leap in my stomach came from the twirl or from the gorgeous creature holding me.
"Better?" He wiped something from my cheek. His touch not only soothed, but excited at the same time.
"Yes. Thank you." My pulse pounded in my ears. His hand remained on my waist. My stomach coiled with a strange desire. Warmth flowed through my body. I swore he could tell every thought running through my mindâsome of which were not pure.
His dark brown hair, slightly grayed at the temples,
matted down from the rain. Light stubble surrounded his chin. I fought the urge to kiss his full lips. Several seconds passed before I realized he still had his hands on me, and I shook my head. What was wrong with me? I've been without a man too long. It's the only thing to explain my lightheadedness. I pushed myself away and focused attention on the icing on my forehead.
I swallowed hard and tried to regain my composure. "You're right. It was my fault." I giggled when a sugary green leaf zigzagged its way from the man's forehead to his cheek. Green and gold sprinkles trailed after. "I'm sorry, I can't help it. You look so funny."
"You think I look funny? You should see yourself." He reached his hand up, grabbed a small piece of cake from my hair and shoved it into his mouth. "A bit gooey from the rain, but pretty good overall."
"I'm sorry about your jacket." Unease set in. I'd forgotten how to speak to any guy I didn't know, much less one so attractive.
"I think I'll live." The handsome man placed his finger in his mouth with a wink. "I have to admit, you taste pretty good."
His fascinating eyes sparkled when he smiled. His jeans and deep brown jacket fit him to a tee. By contrast, my gray sweatpants hung off my waist, and my windbreaker was covered in multicolored icing. My pants were soaked. I felt like I'd wet myself.
"I guess we need to see about that cake you just lost. Come on." Mr. Handsome led me back toward the store. "What are you celebrating?"
"My oldest begins high school this year." I followed like a lost puppy before I realized we were heading back into the building. I hesitated as we reached the entrance, too humiliated to go forward. So I stood firmly planted. The automatic glass doors opened and shut in front of me. The handsome stranger proceeded inside as if unaware of my stance.
Someone rushed by, bumping me forward. My feet finally moved. Unfortunately, they took me inside. I rushed to catch up with my tall stranger, already halfway down the canned food aisle. I tried to ignore the gasps and finger-pointing. After all, who could blame them? Two people soaked, covered in colored glopâI'd stare, too. Could this day get any worse?
"Let me guess, a girl?" The stranger didn't seem fazed by the looks. Of course, on him frosting looked good.
I took two steps to his one as I followed. "How'd you know?"
"I can't imagine those roses would be for a boy." He took a sharp right at the meat counter. "From what I know, teenagers are a rowdy bunch when there's not a lot of sugar around."
"They're even worse when there is."
He stopped at the bakery and extended his hand to me. "The name's Brandon Nash." Sugar grit crossed between our fingers.
"Deborah Zimmerman. My friends call me Deb." My body melted at his touch. It had been way too long since I'd been this close to a man.
The aroma of fresh bread rose into my nostrils. My stomach growled, reminding me I'd neglected to eat breakfast. I prayed he didn't hear it. I focused my attention on the pastries under the glass enclosure. If I could find an inexpensive dessert, and if one of the ladies worked the register, I might be able to write a check. Unfortunately, I had only $9.96 left in my bank account
not enough for another small cake. A $35.00 overdraft fee would be the last thing I needed.
"How many people are you having at this party?" Brandon asked, interrupting my thoughts.
"About eleven or twelve."
"May I help you?" The woman behind the glass shield swiped a flour-dusted hand across her cheek.
"Hi, remember me?" I said. "I fell outside and need to replace the cake I just bought."
"I'm sorry. Do you want the same thing?" She slid the window open.
"You'll need something bigger." Brandon leaned on the display case. "I don't know much about teenagers, but I understand they eat quite a bit. Even the girls." He tapped his finger on the display case. "Here, this one. It should do."
Anxiety rose in my stomach as he pointed to a fifteen-inch sheet cake, almost twice the cost of the first one. My mind yelled for the clerk to stop. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. The woman pulled the pastry from the display and walked to the back.
Well if I'm going to do something illegal like write a bad check, I might as well go all the way with it. My mind raced for ways to get money in the bank before anything bounced. I knew the bank would cover the check for the store, but they'd still hit me with the large fee. How much do they pay for plasma?
"Here you go." The baker returned and slanted the cake up to show us the decorations. Beautiful. Much better than the earlier one. Each girl could now have her own yellow rose. The words "Good Luck" stood out in blue gel on the white background.
Brandon nodded his approval and carried it to the checkout counter. I followed, feeling as if I was riding on a locomotive about to crash. Maybe Rachel would loan me the money. Thank you, God, for giving me rich friends.
When we got to the counter to pay, Mr. Mason still guarded the only register available. Fat chance on my luck changing now.
Brandon slid the box onto the conveyor belt, grabbed a candy bar from his right, and gestured for me to go ahead of him. Mr. Mason looked at the cake, then at me. His eyes rolled into the back of his head. I prayed they'd stay thereâthen someone else would have to take over the register.
"You could barely afford the last one. How do you expect to pay for this one?" He looked at me over the rim of his wire-framed glasses. "And no, I don't plan on letting you write a check."
The heat in my face burned all the way down to my neck. Why couldn't God just strike me down right there? From now on, I will drive the extra thirty minutes to shop somewhere else.
As if he hadn't been rude enough already, the manager added, "I also won't wait while you count out all those pennies at the bottom of your purse."
"The lady's not paying for it." Brandon pulled out his wallet.
"I can't let you pay for this." I wiped at a tear straggling down my cheek. "It's for my children. Also, if I recall right, we determined I bumped into you."
"Let it be my gift to the next generation of high school kids. Besides, where I come from, if you fall in a store's parking lot they replace any broken items for free." Brandon glared down at Mr. Mason, whose mouth fell open.
"Iâ¦she didn't say anything about falling," Mr. Mason sputtered as he tugged the receipt from the register.
"Is your back still sore?" Brandon winked at me before lifting the cake. He shoved the candy bar into his pocket, and we walked out of the store. "I'll get this out to your car. Once you get home, you're on your own."
I couldn't help but smile. "You're ornery, you know that?"
"Guy's got to have fun where he can find it. Besides, I didn't care for the manager's attitude. Maybe if he thinks you're about to sue, he'll treat you better next time."
"Thank you for paying." Though I was more grateful he'd told off Mr. Mason than for buying the cake.
"My pleasure." Brandon placed the box on the front seat. "You have a good party. And watch any sharp corners. I have a feeling it's more difficult to get icing out of upholstery than your hair." He pulled the candy bar from his jacket and handed it to me. "Here. You might want to eat this before you devour that cake on the way home."
My knees weakened when he gave me another wink. I tore into the wrapper as I watched my hero walk off. What a magnificent view, and not because of the studs
sewn into his jeans. I glanced down at my sweatpants,
ran a hand through my hair. My fingers caught halfway through the sticky mess.
Why do I always look terrible when I meet a nice man? Even if I'd been dressed appropriately, though, the frosting wouldn't have done me any favors. As I climbed into the driver's seat I imagined Brandon with his friends, laughing as he described the crazy lady covered in cake whose stomach growled loud enough for everyone to hear.