To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’m posting my sweet Valentine’s Day story as a free read through the month of February. You can find it for sale in the Anthology, Romancing the Pages.

Photo courtesy Depositphotos.com

A Valentine for Lily

by Alina K. Field

©2012, All Rights Reserved

 

“I do not belong at this party, Candace.” Lily Harris killed the engine on her old paneled delivery van.

“You are not an old lady, Aunt Lily. You’re not even forty yet.” Candace reached for the door handle.

Lily grabbed her niece’s arm before she could jump out. “I’m saying happy birthday to Beth, eating and running. If this John Candy guy wants to talk, he can find me.”

“His name is Buck.” Candace grinned with palpable excitement.

They opened the van doors and heard pounding hip hop music. “The neighbors must love this,” Lily said. She pulled out her gift, an outrageously large bouquet of flowers, and took a long, deep, satisfied sniff. “Mmm.”

“Just come on,” Candace said.

In the large front room of the sorority house, a DJ bobbed up and down and operated the controls that would keep audiologists in business for the next fifty years. An archway led to a dining room where platters of food beckoned. “Where’s Beth?” Lily shouted.

“Give me the flowers,” Candace said. “I’ll look for her. You eat.”

Lily smiled at a girl tending bar and pointed to a bottle of Chardonnay. A tall skinny basketball player-type leaned close and spoke to her.

“I can’t hear,” Lily yelled.

He moved on.

Her plate filled, she looked for a way out—far away from the head-pounding noise. In the kitchen, unfamiliar bodies leaned against the counters. Even here, a speaker carried the heavy bass to every corner. Lily spotted the open back door, ran the gauntlet of curious faces, and stepped into the cool night air.

She sniffed—a few smokers hid somewhere in the dark corners of the yard. Closer in, a shadowy man lounged against a pergola support. She set her plate on a grayed-out teak table sitting in the middle of the patio and pulled the kitchen door shut with a firm click. “Hope you don’t mind company. Between the smoke and the music, I’ll take the smoke.”

“I don’t mind at all.”

At the sound of the confident, masculine baritone, awareness stirred in her.  He pushed away from his post and moved toward her. In spite of the four-inch heels Candace insisted Lily wear, his athletic frame loomed over her, broad-shouldered, fair-haired, and way more masculine than any of the kids who worked for her.

She felt his grin all the way to her toes. Just what she needed, an oversexed college guy looking for a hookup.

“Are you hiding, too?” he asked with more humor than flirtation.

She relaxed a little. “Kind of.”

“You’re a friend of Beth’s?” he asked.

Again, he surprised her. “Aren’t you?”

He chuckled and extended his hand. “No. I’m her Uncle Buck.”

Her heart fluttered, her mouth went dry, and her hand stretched automatically to let itself be folded into something large and strong, dry and firm.

“I’m Lily,” she said. “Lily Harris.”

He froze, and his grip tightened just a bit more. He checked her over in the dim patio light. Like he’s picking an avocado for tonight’s guacamole. The thought made her shake off her sudden apprehension and smile.

“I believe we were supposed to meet,” he said with more warmth.

Lily’s insides were melting, but she managed a nod. This close, she could see he was older, as in about her age. “Yes. I’m so glad we satisfied that requirement. Your niece and mine are probably looking all over for us. I think I’ll leave now. It will drive them crazy.”

He nodded decisively, and his smile relaxed. “I’ll go with you.”

No, no, no, no. A fresh rush of tingles made her pause for a breath. “If you’ll just give me back my hand.”   

He ignored her request. “You haven’t touched your plate of food.”

And she didn’t want to. Her appetite had vanished.

“Come on.” Still holding her hand, he steered her around the back of the house, and down the side walkway. “I’ll feed you, and we can get acquainted. Did you know you’re my date for Valentine’s Day?”

“I heard that rumor,” Lily said. Candace and Beth and their annoying matchmaking. “But, really, I’m not all that romantic, and I’m completely unavailable that day.”

He shifted her to his other hand and opened the side gate. “You drove?”

She nodded and tried again. “Listen, you’re handsome and charming, but Valentine’s Day is my biggest day, and I can’t go out,” she said. “I’m a florist.”

He paused on the sidewalk, still in control of her hand. Thank God, he was paying attention now. He could go back to the party. There were girls there who would go for a guy in his forties, especially this one. Heck, Lily had married an old guy herself.

She frowned and shook off that memory.

“You live above your flower shop,” he said. “I’ll follow you there, and we’ll leave your car.”

She tapped her foot and sighed loudly. “Uncle Buck—“

“Please,” he said. “Just Buck. From the food piled on that plate, you’re hungry. Come on, we’ll just talk. We can plot revenge against those girls.”

Lily couldn’t help laughing. “All right. But I pay my own way.”

* * * *

As they drove off, Lily watched Buck’s brawny SUV in the side view mirrors. “This is not good, Lily,” she said to her reflection. “Not good. Not good. Uncle Buck is nothing like Bill Harris. Uncle Buck is the hottest hottie ever dropped into your lap, ever.” And Uncle Buck had beamed her enough pheromones to power up the entire town of Summerfield, California. “We’ll just talk. Sure.” She had to get rid of him.

Too soon, she pulled into a spot behind her shop.

Buck was already out of his tank, scanning the lines of the graceful two-story brick building squashed between modern cinderblock midgets. “Nice,” he said. “How old is this place?”

“From the late thirties,” she said.

“You’ve kept it up. Did you have to get it reinforced?”

She’d taken a mortgage for the earthquake retrofit. “Every time the code changes. I’m still paying the bill for the last one.”

A frown crossed his face. “I hear your apartment upstairs is very cool, very vintage.”

“That sounds like Beth.”

“You don’t suppose I could see—“

No, not my apartment. NOT MY APARTMENT.

“—Your shop?”

“My shop?” Lily’s pride pricked, and she pondered his request. Her shop was special, her designs unique. She could talk comfortably about flowers and bore him so much he’d leave. And her shop had no bed, not even a couch.

Of course, the worktable was big and very stable.

She mentally shook herself. Twelve years had slipped by with no kissable men in her life. She was so out of practice, nothing would happen. “Let’s order a pizza,” she said. “My treat. I don’t have any beer, but there’s bottled water.”

“Water’s fine.”

Good. Sober is safer. Lily flipped on the bright fluorescents and got her first good look at Buck. His grin came from inside him and lit up his face, crinkling the corners of the bluest eyes she’d ever seen on a man.

Her heart pounded again. Maybe she wasn’t safe after all.

* * * *

Christopher Buckley Randolph—Buck to his family and most of the world—followed Lily on a tour of the shop, only half-listening. The fit of her jeans and her waves of messy dark hair were far more enticing than floral designs.

His matchmaking niece Beth hadn’t given him the name of the pretty lady she wanted him to meet tonight. He was sure Beth didn’t know his connection to Lily, but no doubt, his mother, Sandra Randolph, had a hand in arranging this meeting—this talk with Lily that he’d been dodging for years.

Talk was for women; Buck believed in action. If he’d known he was being introduced to Lily Harris, he would have skipped the party. Now he was trapped.

But oh, hell, Lily was pretty, and not at all what he had imagined when his friend Kim Salazar called him years ago to talk about Lily’s problems. No one who had seen Lily—not Kim, not his mother—had prepared him for this. Lily’s high-voltage handshake had triggered some Neanderthal urge to drag her out of that party and get her alone. If her heart matched her looks, he was in trouble.

She talked with her hands, and her hazel eyes sparkled as she showed him around. She seemed genuinely happy about her work.

His spirits swelled to match her emotion and the obvious pride she felt in her little flower shop. She didn’t know that for the last few years he had been something of a silent partner.

“Smell this.” Lily handed him a stem of purple flowers.

Buck took a deep whiff of the sweet perfume. “Nice.”

“Freesia,” she said. “My very favorite. Isn’t it wonderful?”

“And I thought that delightful scent was you.”

She rolled her eyes, laughed, and led him to the window display.

How her life had changed, all because he had had too much to drink and let Kim drive. The accident that night had killed Lily’s husband, Bill Harris. Buck’s minor injuries had healed, Kim had done time and for both of them, the guilt still lingered. A few years ago, unable to bear it any longer, Kim had come back to town to find Lily and to try to find some peace. Lily had welcomed her, and forgiven her, and even consoled her.

But Kim couldn’t find redemption so easily. She could see Lily’s business struggled. Cash-strapped herself, Kim tracked down Buck. The chance to do penance—from a very far distance, of course—came as a relief to him. He’d dipped into his trust fund, marshaled his mother’s community contacts, and worked quietly and anonymously to help Lily.

When the pizza arrived, they moved to the big work table in the back room. Lily only nibbled at a slice, probably nervous again.

“So your shop’s doing well?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes. It’s tight sometimes, but I’m paying the bills and making my payroll.”

“As long as enough people die, you’ll be okay?”

“Except when ‘lieu’ interferes.”

Lou? When the only other florist in town closed, most of the local mortuary business went to Lily. Buck and his mother had made sure of it. She had a guy named Lou causing trouble?

“You know, ‘in lieu of flowers?’” Lily laughed. “But no, I won’t wish for more funerals. Just more weddings, and more true love.”

Guilt poked at him. It must be hard without her husband’s second income and moral support.

“I do have one weekly order. Christopher Randolph has been sending his wife Sandra flowers every week for the last two years. Isn’t that marvelous? More than the usual silly romantic gestures, I’d say. It gives us cynics hope.”

Buck kept his face carefully blank. “That’s great. Beth told me you’re a widow.”

That was only a little lie. His niece’s information about Lily had been sketchy—age, a photo, and a three-word character reference, “mature and nice.” Some things he knew about Lily from the accident reports. Kim had filled in the rest.

She tensed. “Yes. I’m a widow.”

“A car accident.”

“Yep.”

“I suppose you got a settlement, but you must really miss him.”

She looked hard at him, stood, and pulled the pizza box closer. “You want any more?”

He shook his head.

She busied herself with the box. “Yes, I got some money, but I made sure it went to his kids from his first marriage. It paid for their college. They’re both doing really well.”

That cleared up a question he’d always had. “But you still miss him? You never remarried.”

Lily sighed with deep exasperation. “Why the questions? He died years ago. You’re not a cop or insurance guy reopening the accident, are you?”

“I was a cop in the military, but not anymore. Just curious why someone as pretty as you isn’t married.”

She colored deeply, proving she was not so cynical after all. The night’s possibilities seemed as bright as that spark of attraction between them.

“It would take a pretty great love for me to still miss him. And no, I don’t miss him.” She looked at him steadily. “I’d love to find a really good guy and have kids, but I don’t meet many straight guys who like to talk flowers. I noticed your eyes glazing over before. You were being polite.”

It had been sensory overload, not politeness. Lily wasn’t fitting his picture of the heartbroken widow whose life he’d helped ruin. After so many years, she might not miss her late husband, but when she talked about him she didn’t sound sad, she sounded pissed off and defensive. Buck found that intriguing.

“Lily, did you, uh, try to knock off your husband?” he teased.

Her stunned reaction made him immediately regret his poking.

“No.” She shook her head and laughed without smiling. “But, I guess I have a guilty conscience anyway.”

Buck sat up straighter. “How so?”

Lily braced herself on her hands. “When he died, I was plotting how to divorce him without losing my business. He was a great guy, till we married. And then he nagged me to sell the shop, sell the building. Get a real job.”

Her gaze searched the table top. He waited.

“He drove like a lunatic, always. I know he caused that accident, but the poor girl who hit him took all the blame. True, she’d been drinking, but only two drinks, for God’s sake. I saw the reports. It’s not like she was plastered, she was just barely over the limit. I know Bill paid a high price, but he was…” she took in a deep breath, “such a jerk. He left so much misery and guilt. It still makes me mad.”

Lily tucked the lid into the pizza box and stepped away.

A weight he’d carried for a long time lifted from his shoulders. Buck inhaled deeply, noticing again the heavy scent of flowers. The night of the accident, he should have been the one driving, except that he was plastered, and Kim had grabbed the keys. Images of that night replayed in his mind, only this time more clearly.

Years of guilt eased by a simple conversation. His mother was right. He should have talked to Lily before.

Lily scowled and attacked the table with a paper towel, avoiding his eyes. “You’re a good interrogator, Buck. I’ve never told anyone I wanted to divorce Bill.”

Buck wouldn’t deny it. He’d always preferred playing “good cop.” And this has been my most gratifying interrogation. Funny, her truth-telling had made him feel better. Maybe he could stop running. Except, if he stayed, sooner or later, he’d have to tell her his secrets.

Lily straightened. “But let’s talk about you now. Have you ever been married?”

She was going for sooner.

He inwardly groaned. He hated this part of the dating ritual, and he definitely wasn’t ready to share everything. “No.”

“How come? You’re a handsome guy.”

“The military’s a hard life for wives.”

“No kids?”

“No wife, thus no kids.”

She laughed at that. “An old-fashioned guy. Refreshing. So, are you home looking for a wife, now that you’re retired?”

Ouch. That was pretty direct. And no. His mother wanted him to take over the family business, but he hadn’t been planning on marriage or sticking around. He’d been telling himself he needed to regroup, grab some R&R. His plan was to cruise through town for the family holidays and Beth’s birthday, then head south, do a whole lot of fishing, and let the future find him.

That had been his plan. It suddenly seemed lame, and kind of lonely.

“Oh no, probably not,” Lily said. “I heard your family wants you to stay, but you’re not ready to settle down. Our nieces have high hopes for us, but don’t worry, there’s no pressure here. You’re free to go.”

She pressed her lips almost primly and crossed her arms, and he wanted to laugh. She wanted him to go now.

He met her eyes and held them, and held them, and… Her eye began to twitch, her pupils expanded, and he heard her tapping her foot under the table.

The twenty-somethings he usually dated were never this twitchy. He sent her his best smile, the one that always charmed the ladies. “I definitely won’t leave before Valentine’s Day, since I now have a date.”

“Ah. So you’re leaving on the fifteenth.”

She didn’t bite on his teasing. That surprised him.

“Where will you go?”

“Where would you go, Lily?”

She blushed again. Frowned. Sent the floral refrigerator and its glassed-in buckets of tall bright flowers a dreamy look.

Buck guessed she didn’t let herself think much about vacations.

“I’d find a tropical place,” she said, “where I could pluck wild orchids, lounge in a hammock, and see a skyful of constellations at night.”

He heard his own pulse pounding wildly, took a breath, and reached for her hand.

She jumped and tried to pull away.

He held on tight. “And you could fish?”

“I suppose. If there’s water around.”

“I’ll go there with you.”

Lily sighed again, pulled her hand away and grabbed the pizza box. “Do you want to take the leftovers home?”

“No, Lily.”

“It was nice to meet you, Buck. You’ll find that Valentine’s date. It’s been a long day. I think I’ll call it a night, and take this upstairs.”

He whisked the box away from her and assumed his most innocent look. She was not getting rid of him yet. “I’ll go with you. I heard you have incredibly well-preserved subway tiles in that vintage apartment.”

“Crap.” She swallowed hard, her voice shaky. “Beth again.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not a nut. I have more levels of security clearance than you have flowers.”

“Buck…”

He gripped the box, resisting the urge to touch her. “We’re not done talking. We haven’t yet plotted revenge.”

She shrugged and sighed and led the way.

He was pushing her, it was true, but he was only here to talk.

He watched  her hips move up the open back stairs and grinned. Right, Buck. You’re here for the talking.

A porch light glowed, but otherwise, darkness swamped the area. Her apartment door, wood with a glass window, had only one lock, and, like the shop, no alarm.

“Is this the only entrance?” he asked.

“The front stairs have a separate street entrance.”

“Geez, Lily, this neighborhood isn’t the greatest. You need more lights. You should change out this back door to metal. At least change this lock to a deadbolt.”

She nodded and turned away. “I’ll put it on my list.”

He mentally kicked himself. Money was tight, she’d said. Well, maybe he could do something about improving her security.

Lily flicked on the overhead light and crossed to the refrigerator. “What do you think?” she asked.

Cream-colored subway tile lined three kitchen walls to eye level and formed a backsplash for the red ceramic countertop and the avocado green appliances.

“Like Santa’s kitchen, huh.” She closed the refrigerator door.

He started humming Jingle Bells, getting her to laugh. She turned, and her unguarded smile froze his vocal cords and pulled him across the room, close enough for him to take her hands and watch the shades go down in her eyes, close enough for him to confirm her scent, vaguely floral, of course, and all feminine.

She didn’t pull away—permission granted. He touched his lips to hers and slid one hand through her thick mass of hair.

Her cool hand on his neck heated him more. She opened her lips and let him linger there, the green light for him to move closer, find her waist, and press her to him, all that warm female softness yielding and conforming.

“Buck?”

Her nerves were back, but hearing his name in that breathy voice made him harder. Please, please, don’t ask me to stop.

She grabbed his head and looked at him through lazy dark eyes that didn’t look at all nervous.

“You’re so lovely, Lily.”

“What are we doing?”

His brain locked for a second. “Kissing.” He held her gaze until she laughed and dropped her head on his shoulder.

“I do like you,” she said.

His heart tried to swell, even more than his dick. He clutched her tighter.” I’m glad,” he said. “I like you too.”

“I can tell. But, Buck, I’m not so old I couldn’t get pregnant.”

Which meant… what? She wants to sleep with me. His heart started clanging.

“I’m not on the pill or prepared, or anything.” She rushed the words out. “I mean, I don’t usually do,” she took a deep breath, “this.”

No pill. No condoms. The clanging diminished. She could get pregnant, mature, responsible, kind Lily. He slid his hand down to her belly, pictured her pregnant, a squalling baby, poopy diapers, midnight feedings, tantrums. It usually helped him stand down.

But tonight, an unfamiliar madness had hold of him, and he kissed her again. He’d take the risk; he didn’t care.

But she cares. He detached himself from her and, hands shaking, dug a small package from his wallet.

Only one, so I’d better make this good.

“Well you’re prepared, soldier.” Her choke was somewhere between a laugh and a cry of alarm. She gripped his neck, pulled him close, and kissed him fiercely.

Still attached at the lips, he lifted her and stumbled into the hallway.

* * * *

Lily woke in his arms and found him watching.

“Hello. You fell asleep.” He smiled and stroked her cheek as if they’d been lovers for years.

She shivered.

“Cold?” he pulled her closer. “Or was that a shiver of delight. Are you ready for more?”

Lily felt herself heat rising until her cheeks burned. She pinched his coarse Viking stubble. “It was more like a shiver of horror. I just slept with a stranger. I don’t even know your last name.”

“Not a stranger. You know Beth, Beth knows me. And my last name is Randolph.”

She sat up. “Are you related to Christopher and Sandra Randolph?”

Buck pulled her down and wrapped her in a hug. “There are thousands of Randolphs in southern California.” He kissed her hard.

But she only allowed him a moment before tearing herself away. “All right. How old are you?” she asked.

“Forty-one.”

“Your astrological sign?”

Buck laughed. “Leo. And I don’t believe that crap.”

“What do you believe? Are you Conservative or Liberal?”

“Depends on the issue.”

“Republican or Democrat?”

“Libertarian.”

“You’re dodging. How about God? Believer or nonbeliever?”

“In combat, there are no nonbelievers.”

Oh, he’s glib. “Dodge this one, big boy. How many children do you want?” She blurted the question, wanting to shock him but surprising herself too.

He opened one eye and studied her. Not so glib now.

“I’m pretty old, and so are you,” he said.

She laughed and punched him.

He pulled her closer. “Okay, Lily. Two kids. Or maybe even three, if we get started soon enough.” He smacked a kiss on her lips, climbed out of bed, and grabbed his clothes.

Her heart sank. The “we” couldn’t possibly include her. Why should it? They’d only just met, and already she’d scared him away.

Her bed suddenly felt empty. She pulled the sheet around her and groped for the right words to hide this rush of unexpected sadness.

He had pulled on his pants and slipped on his shirt, and still the right words eluded her.

“You don’t have to leave,” she said hating how needy that sounded.

He plopped down and sprawled on the bed, lifting the sheet to peek at her. His grin was wicked. “Not that we’re keeping score, Lily, but I brought you to ecstasy twice tonight. If I’m going to catch up with you, I have to run to the all night drug store.” He kissed her cheek. “Rest up. I’ll be back.”

* * * *

A week later, Buck was loading tools into the open back of his SUV when his mother found him.

He steeled himself for questions. “Hey, Mom.”

“You came home last night,” she said.

Actually, no. That morning Lily had visited the wholesale market before dawn. Buck had risen early with her and beat the sunrise home.

He touched Sandra’s soft shoulders and had a pang of guilt for what he expected would displease her. “I’ve been staying at Lily’s.”

Her smile surprised him. “I’ve only seen her from a distance. I think it’s time I meet her.”

“You will. Soon.” But not too soon. Lily still didn’t know he was the Christopher Randolph. Before meeting the in-laws, he and Lily needed to talk, when the time was right. After Valentine’s Day. He planted a kiss on Sandra’s forehead and went back to loading his car.

“Think you’ll stay?” she asked.

Buck smiled, but didn’t answer.

“Where are you taking all those tools?”

“Lily needs a new back door.”

“And she’s having you install it. Well.”

“No,” he said. “It’s a surprise. Her first Valentine’s gift.”

“I hope your second one is more romantic.”

“Lily’s a practical businesswoman, like you, Mom.” He kissed her again. “She doesn’t want candy, and I can’t buy her flowers.” He climbed into his truck and started the engine.

“Diamonds, then,” Sandra waggled her left hand as he pulled away. “Big ones.”

* * * *

When Lily saw the new door, she cried, and quietly handed him the extra key. And he hoped her heart came with it, because she had stolen his.

By Valentine’s Day, Buck had moved all of the contents of the two suitcases he’d brought home to Summerfield into Lily’s apartment. While she planned and worried, pinched dead leaves and watered, trimmed and wired, he made her coffee and made sure she ate. Once the shop closed at the end of the big day, he could make his next moves, including that talk about Christopher Randolph.

* * * *

On Valentine’s Day, Lily brought all of her college kids into work, and the pace was frenetic. Besides the holiday, the mortuary had two funerals, one for a distinguished member of the city council, the other for the matriarch of a large extended family. The phone rang nonstop with orders.

“Breathe,” Candace told Lily. “The viewings are tomorrow night. We can finish the sprays tomorrow.”

“I can help,” Beth called from the front counter.

“I can help, too.” Buck had arrived with sandwiches. “Love and death. So poetic. I watched you work magic with chicken wire and tape. Let me get the containers going, and I’ll drive you to the market in the morning if you run out of flowers for the funerals.”

“Are you sure you’re not gay, Uncle Buck?” Beth asked.

“I’ll vouch for him, Beth.” Lily pecked Buck’s cheek and hugged him. “You humble me.”

Tears pricked her eyes. Buck had said he would leave after Valentine’s Day. They’d crammed months of courtship into three weeks, but Buck had never said he would stay. She’d made up her mind there would be no drama; she would love him and let him go, but it made for a bittersweet Valentine’s Day, even for a cynical florist. After he left, her chances of finding another Buck were… Well, there was only one Buck.

“You’re my Valentine,” he said.

Beth giggled behind Buck. “Isn’t this your best Valentine’s ever, Uncle Buck? All thanks to your favorite niece.”

“And yours, Aunt Lily,” Candace called.

Lily patted Buck’s butt. “Too many children around. Get to work.”

* * * *

When their regular deliveries backed up, Lily sent Buck out before dinner with the weekly flowers for Sandra Randolph.

He had been gone a while when the front door dinged, and an older woman with a sleek white bob and sparkling blue eyes walked in.

“Grandma.” Beth waved from the counter where she was ringing up a customer.

Lily went to greet the older lady. She wiped her hand on her apron and introduced herself.

Beth’s grandmother smiled. “I just couldn’t stay away. You are lovely, and your designs are magical. And—“ she took a deep breath, “—there’s nothing like the scents of a flower shop any day, but especially on Valentine’s Day.”

Lily thanked her and hurried to help a customer. The last hour was a jumble of rushed orders, hurried pickups, and only a couple of disappointed lovers. When the door closed on the last customer, the cash register was bursting, and Lily had sold almost everything.

She locked the front door and pulled one more arrangement, a special one she’d finished that morning, from the front room cooler. This one wasn’t for sale. She held it up. “What do you think?”

Beth and Candace crowded closer. “I love it. It’s like a mini Rose Parade float,” Beth said.

“It’s for Buck. Go on, you two. Get out of here. I’ll clean up.”

Lily draped the arrangement with tissue paper. She emptied the cash register and waited long enough for them to leave.

She found Buck seated at the back room worktable across from Beth’s grandmother—who Lily had completely forgotten—whispering tensely, while Beth and Candace eavesdropped, pretending to clean.

Buck’s body seemed stiff.

The older lady looked up, and Lily’s breath caught. The eyes. Beth’s Grandma was Buck’s mother. Of course. She would have made the connection sooner if she hadn’t been so frazzled.

Her heart plummeted. So much for a happy end to this day. Whatever they were discussing had Buck upset.

No matter. Buck was going away.

She carefully set her gift in front of him. “It’s not much,” she said. “But Happy Valentine’s Day. Ta da.” She lifted the tissue drape.

An elephant ear hammock perched on a sesame seed beach, with white rose-petal foam and delphinium waves breaking onshore. Inland, a stick hut with a Spanish moss roof sat in the green foam yard, with orchids looming like exotic shrubs. A fishing pole with a tiny hook leaned against the hut.

Buck didn’t smile.

Sick disappointment twisted in her, but she used her best sales’ voice. “It’s your next destination, Mr. Randolph. You said you were leaving after Valentine’s Day.”

The look he sent her was unreadable.

He doesn’t like it. She firmed her lips to keep them from quivering and willed herself to not cry. She started to step away, but his hand caught her.

“I love it, Lily.” He slid a finger under her chin and a smile lit his face. “And I’m not leaving. My mother needs help with her business, and I have this beautiful girlfriend here. She’s a florist.”

Beth whooped and hugged her grandmother.

Buck shot his niece a silly grin. “But I need to talk to that beautiful florist, I need to come clean. You know how I made that delivery today to Mrs. Sandra Randolph? She wasn’t home.”

Lily shrugged. “She has Valentine’s Day every week.”

Buck shook his head.

“She’s sick?”

He didn’t answer. He seemed to struggle for words.

“Oh no,” Lily said. “She died?”

Buck’s mother broke into a hearty laugh. “Goodness, Buck. You’re bungling this. Give me your wallet, son.” She pulled Buck’s driver’s license out and handed it to Lily. “Lily, I’m Sandra Randolph. Please call me Sandra. I hope we’re going to be good friends.”

Lily looked at the license. Christopher Buckley Randolph. She plopped on an empty stool.

Her face burned. She handed Buck his license and looked at Beth and Candace. “Did you know about this?”

“About what?” Candace seemed genuinely confused.

Beth shrugged and looked everywhere but at Lily.

“The romantic husband isn’t a husband at all,” Lily said sadly. “Romantic love is dead.”

“No it’s not,” Buck said. “I wanted to help you, and I wound up falling in love with you.”

Someone in that room gasped. Maybe it was her.

Sandra jumped off her stool. “Beth and Candace, you’ll walk me to my car. Now. Lily, I’ll call you this week to have lunch.” Sandra pulled the girls out the door, and closed it behind them.

The compressor on the floral cooler kicked on and shattered the silence.

“Are you angry?” Buck asked.

“I don’t know. I love you, too, Buck.” She shook her head. “I’m… confused. I’m—“ She jumped up.

Stupid. I’m stupid. Her mind raced through the facts. She’d only just met Buck, but the weekly flower orders for Sandra Randolph started two years ago. In fact, in the last two years, her luck had improved. A series of providential events, combined with hard work, and what she thought had been her excellent business skills had brought her through the worst economy since she opened her shop fourteen years earlier.

“We need to talk,” he said. “I’m going to explain.”

“Send me a postcard from Tahiti.”

Oh hell, I knew this was going to end. I promised myself no drama. She plopped back on the stool. “Tell me.”

“We’ll go upstairs.” He helped her up and took her arm. “I have dinner ready.”

They climbed the stairs and opened the brand new metal door. Food smells—meat, garlic, fresh-baked bread—practically spun her head around. He’d transformed her kitchen into a bistro. A crisp white cloth covered the table, topped with two settings of fine china that weren’t hers. Candles burned in hurricane vases that weren’t hers, and Buck pushed the button on a Bose that also wasn’t hers.

Gypsy violins played quietly. Lily closed her eyes and smiled. Romance was a beautiful illusion, but at least, if she could find her appetite, she would eat well tonight.

“I made you this,” he said.

He pointed to a centerpiece of avocado green carnations.

Lily laughed. It was the ugliest bunch of carnations she’d ever seen, but the color matched her stove and refrigerator perfectly.

“I dyed them myself.” Buck sounded very smug now. “It was hard to get the color right.” He nuzzled her neck from behind. “How am I doing so far?” Before she could answer, he nudged her to the table, and pulled out her chair. “Be seated, my love.”

She faced him. “Not just yet. I’m starving, but the explaining comes first.”

He pulled her close so she couldn’t see his face, and it was a moment before he spoke.

“Here’s the thing.” His voice trembled. “The night your husband died, I was the passenger in that car with Kim Salazar. You remember Kim. I was supposed to drive, but I was … completely shit-faced. I’ve been a soldier, so yeah, I’ve had to do some hard things, but that night … that was just utter stupidity. Rank irresponsibility. If I had been sober, the accident wouldn’t have happened.” His heart banged against her. “I wanted to help you. I had to help you.”

Lily pulled away and met his eyes. “Keep going. The flowers you ordered for your mom every week. What else?” A subtle twitch of his eye told her she was right—there was more.

“The Times reporter who did the story on your shop was a friend of a friend,” he said. “But you deserved that story. You’re an artist, Lily. You earned it.”

Numbness spread into her arms. “Henry’s Florist lost their lease when the building sold to … your mother?”

He shook his head. “No, but it was someone Mom knew. They helped Mrs. Henry buy a condo in Palm Springs.”

You helped her Buck.” She held her breath watching him decide whether to lie.

“I did,” he said. “And I’m not a bit sorry. We knew the family. Mrs. Henry was almost seventy, too old to be on her feet six days a week.”

“And the small business grants. Grants, my ass.” Lily felt sick. “Not only do you pity me, you think I’m a complete idiot. Which I am. I never saw through it.”

“I wanted to help you.”

“I swore, after Bill died, I’d take care of myself.” Angry tears pricked her eyes. “I thought I was. I should probably just throw in the towel. Sell the business and building and get a real job.”

Buck gripped her shoulders. “You will not sell this building, or the business.”

She wanted to slap him. “Obviously I’ll have to, since I can’t make it without help.” Exhaustion swept through her. It had been a long day. It had been a long career.

“Lots of businesses struggle. They get loans or find partners. What you need is a partner.”

She sagged against him. “I don’t need anyone. And I don’t need your pity.”

Buck nudged her into a chair. A glass of wine appeared in her hand.

“Take a sip,” he said. “It’s not pity, Lily. It’s love.”

“People get silly on Valentine’s and regret it the next day.”

“Not us, Lily, I gave you a door. That wasn’t a silly gift at all.”

She set the glass down and sniffed.

“Here.” He handed her a napkin and trotted off, reappearing with foil-covered plates of pasta and soft garlic bread.

He dragged his chair next to hers. “I do have one more gift for you. Let’s get it out of the way, and then we can eat.”

He pulled the floral centerpiece close. The arrangement was simple, clipped flowers stuck into a piece of green foam in a low container. The fact that he’d gone to the trouble sent her heart pounding.

“Take a look,” he said. “There’s hidden treasure.”

Lily poked through the blooms and found a box. The gypsy violins switched songs, the melody slowing, out of sync with her racing pulse. Surely, after only three weeks, this wasn’t  a ring.

Or, okay, maybe Buck knew her longer, from a distance. And maybe he had been there for her all that time, quietly helping her in ways that really counted.

He didn’t want her to sell. He said she was an artist.

Her heart swelled with hope. Three weeks of talk, and two years of actions. Her fingers tingled, making her fumble. She rested her head on his shoulder.

“Okay, I’ll open it.” Buck flicked the lid back. Diamonds sparkled in the soft candlelight.

Lily’s hands shook. She hid them at her waist and hugged herself. Two small diamonds flanked one big round one.

“You’re clutching your chest,” he said. “Heart attack?”

Lily wheezed.

“Asthma? Try to breathe.”

She choked in a breath. “Are you staying, Buck?”

“Yes. I said I was, and I am.”

She plucked a carnation from the bouquet without shaking too much. “If you’re this good with dye, I can use you on St. Paddy’s.”

“Sure.” He slipped the diamond ring onto her finger and pulled her onto his lap. “Look, it fits. We already talked about kids and said the ‘I love you’s’. But I’ll say it again. I love you Lily. I feel like I’ve known you forever, and I know what I want. I want you. Will you marry me? We can have a long courtship, so you can feel sure. Just don’t kick me out of your bed.”

His sudden chattiness overwhelmed her. She buried her face in his collar.

“Did I hear you say yes?” he asked.

“Yes, Buck.”

“Seal it with a kiss?”

“Yes, Buck.”

She planted shaking lips on his, but he soon broke the sweet kiss between them. “And do you like your Valentine’s gift?”

She rubbed her hand over his stubbly cheek and pulled a face. “Hmm. Yes. The door is lovely.”

Buck grinned. “It is. Is that all?”

She pressed her lips together to keep from grinning back. “I like the ring.”

“Well, then.” He pulled her close but she broke away before their lips touched.

“I love the door and the ring is beautiful, but the third gift is the best of all.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“You,” she said. “My Valentine’s date.”

His hand slid up her back and his brows furrowed.“I can’t send this Mrs. Randolph weekly flowers can I? I’ll have to think of some other way to make every day Valentine’s Day.”

Her heart soared. She pressed her forehead to his. “I have some ideas.”

The smile lines around his eyes crinkled. “Shall we hold them until after dessert?”

“No.” Lily jumped off and pulled him to his feet, wrapping her arms around this solid, generous, loving man. “These ideas can’t wait.”

“My thought exactly, Mrs. Randolph.” He picked her up and carried through the bedroom door, kicking it shut behind them.

The End

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Alina K. Field

 

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If you’re looking for a collection of fun, free reads, look no further than  Cats on the Keyboard: Real Life Cat Stories by 14 Historical Romance Authors.

This is a collection of cat stories and book excerpts from historical romance authors, including my own story of how this little guy came into our lives:

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