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CUPID’S COUNTDOWN: 14 Days until Valentine’s
VALENTINE’S HINT FROM THE HEART: Doesn’t matter what street you live on, what clothes you wear, or how you look. What matters is on the inside. The choices you make when no one else is around. The hands you use to help another kid get up off the ground after a fall. The voice you use to speak up when someone else is hurting. The heart you use to offer kindness.
Question: What did the cracker say after reading the cheddar’s valentine?
Answer: That was cheesy.
Savannah Chapman’s chuckle echoed through the empty living room of her two-bedroom apartment in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. There’d been a time when she couldn’t read Peter’s corny jokes without tears soaking her cheeks, or that deep, crushing pull in her chest. Now, even though her late fiancé’s words tugged her heartstrings each February, they were also a reminder of the good in the world. People like Peter, a dedicated elementary school teacher, who believed that with some humor and a bit of encouragement, every child could soar. The printer churned out the Valentine’s Day note into her waiting hands. Doing this in the evening before she went to bed would’ve been a smart idea, but she’d been sucked into a good book again and put it off until morning. That’s why she was doing arts and crafts at five o’clock in the morning. She smeared glue over the pink construction paper cut into the shape of an oversized heart, positioned the note in the center, and peppered the valentine with red and gold glitter. Because, well, what kid didn’t like a boatload of the messy stuff?
“Sorry, Gilbert.” A shimmering fleck landed on her bearded dragon’s forehead. He tilted his head at the sound of her voice, and she could’ve sworn his inquisitive gold eyes sparked with annoyance. Or maybe she spent way too much time talking to the leathery, tan lizard. She’d gone into the animal shelter in search of a feline companion, but a tank in the corner and its lone inhabitant drew her for a closer look. When she’d peered through the glass, the reptile honest-to-goodness lifted one paw—hand?—and waved at her.
Waved at her.
Even though the shelter associate explained the gesture was how they expressed submissiveness in the wild, she was so charmed she didn’t even look at the cats. She’d spent the next month learning everything there was to know about lighting and heat and food sources for her new pal.
“Come on. Back to your digs.” She opened the front of Gilbert’s enclosure and slid him on his favorite basking rock. “Man, you’ve got it good. Want to trade places? You go finish up this build, and I’ll work on my tan under that heat lamp.” She laughed when he flopped down and stretched his head up toward the light.
Shaking her head, she went to the kitchen to wash her hands before getting ready to leave her apartment. Dry and clean, she walked back to the computer and gingerly tucked the card in between fifty boxes of unopened crayons and new pads of paper destined for Caring Heart Kids Club, an after-school program for disadvantaged children. Each donation came with some type of message that included CUPID’S COUNTDOWN, A VALENTINE’S HINT FROM THE HEART, and a FEBRUARY FUNNY. Each year, she recycled Peter’s words in the gifts to the club, the very same one he attended in his youth. Some days it felt good to carry on his tradition of donating supplies, toys, and clothing in the fourteen days leading up to Valentine’s.
Sure, it made February a bit hectic, but as a builder, she was her own boss. Thank goodness for that. Some days though, it dragged her into the past. A place she was desperately trying to move forward from. She laced up her steel-toed boots and stretched into her durable canvas jacket. As usual, she gave the hallway mirror no more than a quick, passing glance. Her blond waves were tucked up in an elastic band where it wouldn’t catch in any of her building equipment. When she did a client consult, she made a point to wear a blouse and nice slacks. Today though, she was putting the finishing touches on a quaint colonial home in the suburbs of the small city she called home.
First things first, though. Monday was her day to buy the crew breakfast to kick off the workweek. Savannah hoisted up the box of art supplies and started down the three flights of stairs. She paused halfway down, a grin tugging at the corners of her cheeks. The stained glass window was her favorite feature in the beautiful, old building. The green, red, and blue mosaic was dark and flat now, but once the sun rose, splashes of color would dance along the wooden banister. She was trying to enjoy the little things more, like the way the light played off of the intricate window design. There was a pang in the center of her chest. Sometimes it was like Peter was murmuring advice in her ear.
The move across town to her third-floor walkup was supposed to be a fresh start, and she’d been lucky to get this apartment. The two friends who had shared it both got engaged and moved in with their significant others right after the holidays—at least that’s what the Realtor told her. She loved her new place, but three years and a ten-mile relocation from the condo she’d shared with Peter didn’t dull thoughts of what could’ve been. Or how things had ended. Shaking off the melancholy, Savannah continued down the stairs and through the lobby to her pickup truck. Spotlights illuminated the sidewalk, and the air was crisp and still. She hit the automatic lock and slid the big haul onto the passenger’s side seat before rounding the front of the vehicle and hopping behind the wheel.
The small city was slowly waking as she pulled away from the curb. Artisan shops housing a treasure trove of local goods snapped on their lights. Early risers and university-bound students sought their destinations on foot with bulging backpacks and take-away cups clasped between cold hands. Available parking spaces around her destination were sparse and it was only quarter to six—she was running behind as usual. As personality flaws went, it wasn’t too horrible. A large brass teakettle hung over the coffee shop, and she wasted no time killing the engine and slipping out of the truck. Her boots slapped against the solid concrete as she dropped to the ground. The wait time for bakery goods was brutal if you didn’t time things right. As it was, a line had already formed in front of the faded brick counter. The bell fixed to the top of the glass door jingled as she swung it open. Cinnamon- and nutmeg-scented heat wrapped around her as she stepped inside. Chrome-colored machines hissed and frothed, steam pluming with rich and bitter espresso. She shifted and checked the time on her phone. An earlier start would’ve been smarter.
“Go ahead. I have a really large order.” A deep baritone cut through the murmur of conversation and the shuffle of activity in the café.
She tore her gaze from the glazed confections and looked up into the steady eyes of a stranger. He was waiting expectantly, but all she could focus on were his eyes. They shared a likeness with the rustic planks she’d stained to a deep walnut in her last build. Or maybe rich, earth-scented soil. Both solid, enduring things. He gave off a vibe of stability, something she’d been missing out on the past few years.
She cleared her throat. Morning chatterer she was not, at least before she consumed her second cup of coffee. “I’m feeding my crew, so unless you have a pack of hungry wolves outside, you can go first.”
“Worse, actually.” His expression was serious. “Fifty kids I lost a bet to.”
She let out low whistle. “I’d hate to be on the losing end of that wager.”
“The opposite, actually.” He smiled now, a small, tentative quirk of his lips. Light came into his eyes, and it was staggering.
“Now I’m intrigued. What was this bet?” She returned his smile, enjoying the exchange—a surprise given the lack of caffeine. Usually people kept their heads down, glued to their phones in a line, something she appreciated at times. Speaking with this man though was interesting, and seemed to make the line move more quickly.
“For two weeks, each kid had to write down something they liked about themselves, something positive, or maybe something they’d achieved that they were proud of.” The stranger tucked his hands into his pockets, and the barista called for the next person in line to come forward.
“I’m impressed and that’s not an easy feat at this hour of the morning. Not with the unquenched coffee-goblin living inside me. It’s so hard to be a kid. All the pressure, the future looming. Not to mention any problems at home.” She couldn’t stand class reunions where everyone pined over the good old days—she certainly didn’t. As an active kid, squirming at a desk all day had been torturous.
“Exactly.” There was a gleam in his eyes, one that looked a lot like appreciation. Her chest expanded, and she straightened a bit. She never needed anyone’s approval, but for whatever weird reason, it felt good to have his and she didn’t even know his name. “By first grade, there’s already a distinction between the popular kids and the general population. In a perfect world, everyone would be accepted.” He extended his hand.
“Savannah Chapman.” His wide palm and long fingers were massive wrapped around her more petite hand. Warmth radiated from his smooth, firm grip, making it hard to let go.
“Savannah.” Her name rolled off his tongue and sounded exquisite in his deep baritone. “I’m Adam Kelly.” He smiled at her. “Your hands are positively freezing,” he said after a beat.
“I left my gloves in my toolbox last night.” When he released her hand, the cold came seeping back.
“What do you do?” Interest lit his gaze, and he leaned closer. He wasn’t handsome in the traditional sense, but there was something arresting about his features. Rugged, solid. He looked like someone you might be able to depend on. Her chest squeezed. This was the first time she’d taken notice of any member of the opposite sex since Peter’s passing. How bittersweet. Maybe she was healing and moving forward, but she’d never get involved with someone like that again only to lose them. All the plans and promises, dreams and hopes, dashed with one ring of the doorbell.
“I’m a builder. And you?” A couple left the register with their purchases, and they inched forward another few spaces in line.
“A psychiatrist and a volunteer counselor over at Caring Heart.” He glanced up at the handwritten menu scrawled in chalk above the counter, then back at her.
What the heck was she supposed to say to that? She struggled for something to respond with, anything really, but couldn’t concentrate with the ringing in her ears. What were the odds? Why did the one man she’d felt a spark of something with have to work at the nonprofit organization closest to Peter’s heart?
“It’s a before- and after-school program to help parents who can’t afford childcare. Have you heard of it?” He stared at her expectantly, so she nodded and focused her attention on the checkout counter. She wasn’t trying to be rude, but the past was assaulting her with guilt-laden memories, harsh reminders of emotional wounds suddenly rubbed raw. She looked past him to the pink and red heart cutouts swooped across the brick exterior, the tinsel hearts suspended from the ceiling above, and the bagels, doughnuts, and pastry decorated in globs of themed icing and confections. They silently mocked her. What was the point of love if you could lose it in a breath? One moment she could look back at the fond memories they’d had together, while at others, the guilt and grief slammed into her, ripping opening a dark, terrible pit inside her stomach.
“Next.” Never had she been so grateful for the impatient call of a cashier.
She gave the intriguing Adam Kelly a brief glance. “Does that offer still stand?”
“Yes, Savannah, it does.” There was her name again, a slow roll off of his tongue. She skirted around him and placed an order for a dozen heart-shaped bagels in pink and red swirls—the guys would get a kick out of that—extra cream cheese so she wouldn’t face a mutiny, and a gallon of coffee for her team of six. They could do some damage to a food order—present company included. She inserted her debit card chip into the reader as the barista bagged her items. She was debating what to say to the man who’d just let her take his spot in line, but he was already engaged in a conversation with the cashier. For the best. If she could get out of here first, she’d beat him to the children’s center. She could put the donation outside the front office, where someone would receive it almost immediately. No one would even know she’d been there. Just as she liked to keep it.
End of Excerpt