Emma Valentine Hurst’s hand hovered over the open chocolate box. Hmm. A sinfully dark chocolate truffle or a heart-shaped melt-in-my-mouth orange liquor? After her dismal morning, both.
She slipped the first one into her mouth, closed her eyes and let it melt on her tongue while trying to ignore the ongoing struggle of wills between mother and son right behind her. A sudden, sharp snap alerted her to trouble. She whirled around to discover her new Cupid-with-arrow display teetering precariously on its pedestal. In a flash, she leapt the short distance, just in time to save the display from toppling over, but not in time to stop the child from taking off with his prize, clutched in his candy-stained hands—the bow and arrow recently held upright and loaded for action by none other than Cupid himself.
“Timmy! Stop that! Put that back right now. Don’t you dare, young man, I’m warning you!”
Timothy Adam Jones took off like a bat right out of, well, Hades for the front door of the newly minted Valentine’s Candy Shoppe, his mother Vanity trying desperately to catch up with the five-year-old. He seemed to have been blessed with feet that must be invisibly winged like Mercury or Hermes, depending on whether one preferred the Romans or the Greeks. Emma was personally more enamored of the Greeks, as their mythology came first, though Cupid was decidedly more Roman.
But the determined child, who had already made the front entrance, also had the advantage of being sugar-fueled, thanks to his doting mother allowing him to graze at each and every candy bin to his heart’s content, hence Emma’s dismal morning. To Vanity’s credit, she was hampered by her four-inch heels, a tight pencil skirt and a multitude of hair extensions that obscured her sideways vision like blinders on a plow horse. The fashion plate succeeded in only teetering dangerously back and forth on the tiled floor and within precarious inches of a towering display of cut-glass crystal stemware.
Emma swallowed the remains of the chocolate and charged after the child, waving off his mother, who gave her a grateful, though chagrined, look. After all, he had her Cupid’s arrow clutched in his tight little fists, having torn it from her new Valentine’s display. So now the display didn’t make sense, for why would Cupid be holding his arms out so awkwardly? Pretending to mime an arrow? It just wasn’t going to work.
And not to mention that her best friend Charm McCall had loaned it to her with the express order that Emma keep it safe and out of anyone’s hands. That it was the real deal. And, knowing Charm, that meant it was charged with magic, whatever that would entail. But right now, all Emma wanted was to get the precious artifact back in one piece and where it belonged before her friend found out what had happened.
Timmy turned the handle of the shop’s front door and slipped through the opening before she could grasp the back of his snowsuit.
“Whoopee, I’m Robin Hood!” he yelled at the top of his surprisingly robust lungs while tearing off down the street, holding his prize in front of him.
Emma took off after him, grateful for her running shoes. She ignored the frosty air that bit at her skin. February in Snowy Lake in the northern reaches of Canada’s heartland was a cold, cold affair. The next two weeks plus one day of celebrating the Winter Festival—claim to fame the longest one in Canada, beating out Quebec by twenty-four hours—concluded with a Valentine’s Dance on Saturday, February fourteenth. The town, competitive? Naw. Well, maybe. But it was the highlight of their winter and helped the residents, all twelve hundred and fifty-nine of them on a good day, beat the doldrums of the endless, freezing white stuff that lined driveways and fields with equal abandon. Snow. The four-letter word that was greeted with such fanfare in late October, and vilified by most by early February.
“Timmy! Stop! I’ll give you a big bag of candy,” she yelled at the small figure disappearing down the street, doing a dazzling display of male daring by pretending to shoot every person he met. He was also too busy darting around the legs of passersby to pay her any mind. She began to gain on him. Just a few more steps and I’ll have that little candy monster in my grasp.
Ah-ha. She reached for him just as he let the arrow loose from the bow. No! She watched in horror as it went flying into the air on a straight trajectory and right into the backside of a retreating figure. The person, a man, stopped in his tracks. Oh—fudge. He was walking alongside Charm’s Mountie, Ace Collins. She grabbed the bow from Timmy and clutched it to her stomach. The child slumped to the sidewalk and began to cry.
The tall man, as tall as Ace—who Charm had likened to Bigfoot on first meeting him out at Saskatoon, berry picking, last fall—turned around and stared right at her. Everyone else backed away a bit, leaving them to sort it out. Of course, they all stayed, lining the sidewalk—a good show in Snowy Lake was not something to be missed. A popcorn vendor was likely on his way.
“You could have just said hello, but I get your point,” the man said, his brown eyes locked with hers. She couldn’t seem to find her tongue to speak. Words. That’s what’s needed. He’d just said something clever, so now it was her turn. But what could she say to this fine-looking hunk of maleness who carried such a striking resemblance to the town’s newest Mountie? Right down to the rich brown, wavy hair and chiseled jawline. Oh. My. Goddess.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t me. I mean, it’s my bow, on loan, but I didn’t shoot you. Timmy, tell the man.” She looked in desperation at the young boy still carrying on his now full-blown tantrum at her feet, rolling around the sidewalk in his bright blue snowsuit. “Tell him you shot him in the—aw—derrière, not me.”
No help in that direction. Timmy ignored everything but his own grief at the loss of his new toy. The man continued to stare at her for a few more intense seconds, eyebrows raised in disbelief, before seeming to realize he had an arrow attached to his backside. Ace, his ever-supportive brother, stopped laughing long enough to inspect the damage.
“Afraid we’re going to need medical intervention, Stone. That thing’s rather well embedded.” Ace’s tone was quite calm for a man whose sibling had just been shot.
“Just pull it out already!” Stone’s deep voice growled from inside his rather large chest. He wore a black leather jacket and a navy-blue wool scarf wrapped around his neck. Too bad the jacket isn’t a longer length. It would have better protected his, ah—assets.
“If you’re sure?” Ace did the honors. Emma stood frozen to the spot, in plain sight of the full-face wince that came over Stone’s handsome features as the arrow was withdrawn from the back pocket of his blue jeans, courtesy of his brother. She tried not to stare, but the removal of the arrow left a hole dead center of the pocket, though surprisingly no blood. Huh.
Ace handed her the arrow. “You might want to keep better control of this.” He didn’t look too concerned, a twinkle lurking in his eyes as per usual. He was of great value to the town. A good man who knew his job and had the smarts to be pairing off with her best friend. His brother took a few more seconds before joining them. Emma swallowed over the lump in her throat. Even though she should be freezing in just a blouse and pants, perspiration trickled down her underarms.
“Stone, I’d like you to meet Emma Valentine Hurst, the new owner of the Valentine’s Candy Shoppe. Emma, meet my younger brother Stone, who’s up to visit for a couple of weeks.”
She looked up, way up now that he was standing so close, and into deep brown eyes that matched the lovely color of melting chocolate, she decided in the moment. He removed his glove and offered his hand.
She took it, a spark of electricity zinging right through her whole body as their hands touched. It made her jump and she tried to pull her hand away. But he held on, his smile widening. His eyes gleamed with some kind of devilment.
“Lovely to meet you, Miss Emma Valentine Hurst.” Even the way he spoke the harmless greeting took her breath away.
“Ah, thanks, nice to meet you. I’m sorry about what happened.” No need to mention all the facts.
“If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of standing here right now speaking to such a pretty lady.”
Ace looked bemused. Actually, kind of flummoxed was more like it. He took off his Stetson and thrust a hand through his hair, then placed his hat back on his head. There was an odd twist to his lips. Had something else happened she wasn’t party to? He looked full of something.
“Anything I can do to make it up to you, please, like free chocolates, or anything, just ask. My store’s just down the block.” She forced herself to look away and deal with Timmy, who had finally stopped his over-the-top caterwauling. She helped the child to his feet and held on tight to his hand, making sure the bow was well away from temptation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend Charm come flying out of the Tea & Tarot café. In mere seconds, she joined them, holding one hand over her chest to ease the sudden flight.
“Hey, I just heard what happened! Everyone okay?” she asked.
Charm looked as beautiful as ever, always making Emma think of Snow White. Perfect creamy white skin and shiny black hair, while Emma had the unruly red hair, sprinkle of freckles and the green eyes of a pixie. Double sigh.
“Sort of.” Emma hedged her bets with a fake grin. “Timmy shot Stone with Cupid’s arrow.”
“What? No!” Charm’s expression scared Emma right down to her running shoes. She shivered as a trickle of dread crawled its way down her spine. She’d been warned that this might not be a good thing. She needed more facts and she needed them yesterday.
“Yup, got him right in the—” Ace was interrupted by Emma, who accidently stepped on his instep.
“Ow, what was that for?” he demanded.
“Sorry, my foot slipped.” She gave a fake look of sympathy and leaned in closer to whisper, certain he was going to say the exact wrong word that any red-blooded male would say about his brother. “Did you know that Granny Toogood is within listening range?” Charm’s grandmother was a stickler for not swearing and she’d just joined the small crowd on the sidewalk.
Emma moved back, adding, “I gotta go. Take Timmy back to his mother.” She looked around but couldn’t see Vanity anywhere in sight. Natch.
“Yeah, sure.” Charm was kept busy chewing on a thumbnail, looking decidedly perturbed.
“I’ll come with,” Stone volunteered.
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why, since he didn’t know her or Timmy’s mother from shinola, but she held it in. Maybe a few dozen chocolates would help ease the situation anyway. Some laced with caffeine would be perfect. Or a soothing liqueur.
“Me too,” Ace said.
“Me three,” Charm said.
“Okay.” Well, this is just weird.
And so, the troop marched its way through the crowd that was breaking up now that the best part of the shenanigans was concluded—hopefully for the day—and down the street to her new candy shop. Emma had a bad feeling, though, that it was really only the conclusion of Act One, and not the entire play.
“Chocolate, anyone?” she asked, picking up an opened box from the counter and holding it out. Vanity stepped up first and nabbed a few, handing a couple to Timmy, who just couldn’t seem to get enough sugar into his system.
“Thanks, we’ll be off now.”
“Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to buy?” Emma asked pointedly. The woman was notorious for allowing her son to graze, then stepping away from the scene of the crime. And while Emma hadn’t said much of anything about it to date, today she felt owed. Emma had taken the hit for her son’s behavior, certain that Stone still believed she was the one who had shot him. The woman blushed and pointed at the chocolate truffle display.
“I’ll take three of them.” When she saw that Emma was going for a paper sack, the less expensive option for so few chocolates, she added, “in a box, if you please.”
Emma did as she was bidden, took her exact handful of change, then watched the woman leave, her son trailing her and still eyeing the bow that she’d placed on the top shelf behind the counter. She squinted her eyes at him. Just you try, young man.