“Nothing says February like a bowl of potato soup,” Val’s friend Cassie said as she lifted the lid on the soup pot and inhaled deeply. “And you, my friend, make the absolute best. What does this have, one stick of butter or two?”
Val laughed from her post on top of a ladder as she continued painting the trim molding around the kitchen ceiling. “I’ll never tell. What? No hot date for Valentine’s Day, Cassie? You’re going to paint with me?”
Cassie shrugged and took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yeah, I’ll paint. Jeffrey has to be on duty at the police station. It’s too crazy a night.” She arched a brow at Val. “What about you? Have you even been out of this house since you moved in? Have you met anyone or is this painting party tonight your cover for your loser life?”
Val looked away from her friend and concentrated on keeping her paint strokes smooth and straight. “Who has time? We can’t all date the police chief, can we? Besides, I’m sticking to my timetable. I finished the parlor last week and hope to be done with the kitchen next week. If enough people show up tonight, I should have the entry way and downstairs powder room painted which might actually put me ahead of schedule. Other than grocery store runs and trips to the hardware store, this is where you’ll find me.”
“Dr. Schaffer was asking about you.”
Val paused a heartbeat and then continued painting. She hadn’t seen him since New Year’s Eve. As soon as the phones were on, he’d called a towtruck and disappeared into the night. That was the last she’d heard or seen of him other than some flowers he’d sent with the check to pay for the property damage.
“Oh?” She tried, she really tried, to keep her voice neutral. “Yep. I took Maribelle in to see him the other day at the office he’s sharing with Dr. Hunter.”
“Is she okay?” Maribelle Worthington was one of the Violet Society, a group of grandmotherly women who ran Bluebonnet Creek like they were some multi-personality form of the Queen of England. They looked out for the welfare of the town and its citizens, and now, as they grew older, everyone else tended to also look out for them.
“She’s fine. Dr. Hunter wanted her to visit Dr. Schaffer for her regular heart check-up. He’s in the process of retiring, you know, and he wants to slowly move his patients over to Dr. Schaffer.”
“Did she like him? I mean, was she okay with the transition?”
“Oh sure, he’s got a great way with the Violets. They think he’s, let’s see, how did Maxine put it? Yummy.”
Val nearly dropped her paintbrush and had to steady herself on the ladder. Maxine, though in her seventies, was the colorful one of the group and tended to talk, walk, dress and behave like a twenty year old.
“Wow. I guess he made a good impression.” She was dying to ask what he said about her, but knew the slightest interest shown would alert Cassie. The last thing she wanted was anyone matchmaking. At least not with Matt Schaffer.
She continued to paint, hearing the quiet ticking of the clock, feeling Cassie’s steady gaze on her. The question burned on her tongue, but she clenched her jaw, climbed down the ladder, shifted it down the wall and returned to her painting post. Silence stretched on.
“It’s killing you, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“A gorgeous, single man appears at your door, one you haven’t seen since high school, shares New Year’s Eve and a bottle of champagne, there’s something between you two and then just like that, he’s gone and you don’t hear from him. I think you want to know what he said.”
Val frowned at the molding. “You assume a lot, my friend. All I recall saying to you was that we had some champagne, caught up on old times and then the towtruck came and he left.”
“I read some things in, I admit, but I think I know you well enough to have a good idea what you weren’t saying.”
Val set the brush down and turned to glare down at Cassie. “Fine. What did he say?”
“You can ask him yourself. I invited him to the painting party tonight.”
Val stared at Cassie, too shocked for a moment to reply. Then she gave herself a mental shake. “Wasn’t that thoughtful of you? The more the merrier.”
“I thought a first date in the company of friends would be nice, less tension.”
“Cass, it’s not a date. Did he say yes?”
Cassie smiled. “Of course he did. He sounded pretty excited about the whole thing, actually. Who knew the good doctor liked to paint so much?”
“You’re very devious, you know?”
“I know, I really am, at least when it comes to other people’s love life.”
Val looked at her watch and climbed down the ladder. “There is no love life to discuss, no match making, no dates, nothing. We are two friends and that’s that. You know my rule about doctors.”
“Silly rule if you ask me. Anyway, your friend will be here at seven. Maybe you should take a shower.”
Val felt her face flush. That was exactly what she intended to do. Having Cassie suggest it made it sound as if it she were cleaning up for Matt. Which she wasn’t.
Val looked around the entry way crowded with friends and decided there were way too many single, lonely hearts in Bluebonnet Creek. Besides Cassie, there was Bill Ayers the mailman, Debra Connors from the wine-tasting room, Mandy Stringer the woman who owned the fashion boutique next door to Cassie’s antique store and Nick Allegasi the local winemaker. They were all friends here and she didn’t see any pairing up happening with this crowd, but she felt sorry for all of them, nonetheless.
Well, she told herself, it was her job to make this Valentine’s Day fun for her friends who had cheerfully taken her up on the painting party invitation. She’d decorated the kitchen with red, pink and white streamers, cut-out hearts and had a festive array of food--including the potato soup--and drink piled on one of the kitchen counters. The table had a bright red and white checked cloth and clear vases in various sizes overflowing with red and white candies. She’d found a red T-shirt to wear with her old painters pants and some old Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra to play to which everyone was already singing along. She smiled. This was the kind of Valentine’s Day she needed this year.
Of their own accord, her eyes strayed to the front door. Only one guest hadn’t arrived and she scolded herself for feeling disappointed.
“Who needs a refill on their wine? Remember! When your lines start getting crooked, it’s time to move to the walls!”
Everyone laughed and she handed Bill an iced heart cookie before picking up a brush to paint the trim around the door. She was reaching across the top of the door when it opened. She looked down and saw Matt looking up at her.
“Hey there, am I too late for the party?”
She was momentarily stunned at the feeling of joy that washed over her seeing his handsome face in her doorway. Then she remembered herself and climbed down from her ladder and pulled the door open wider so he could enter. “Not at all. Help yourself to some supper in the kitchen if you want to eat first.”
“Dr. Schaffer!” The others called out when they noticed him in the doorway.
He smiled and waved. “Hey guys. Call me Matt.” He looked back at Val. “I am pretty hungry. Mind if I eat first? I promise I’ll paint an entire room by myself.”
She grabbed his arm and laughed. “Come on.”
The kitchen was deserted, but they could hear the others talking, laughing and singing to Frank in the other rooms. Val ladeled some soup while Matt loaded a plate from the sandwiches and side dishes on the counter. They sat down at opposite ends of the table, Val with a glass of iced tea.
He put a spoonful of soup in his mouth, swallowed and then closed his eyes. She smiled to herself, pleased at his reaction. When he opened his eyes, he stared at her. “We’re getting married.”
Her smile froze in place. “Excuse me?”
He looked down at his soup bowl and scooped more into his mouth. “This soup is amazing. I’d be a fool to let you go.”
Val felt her heartbeat return to normal and tried to laugh lightly. “There’s far more to me than my soup, you know.”
He looked at her again and smiled. “Oh I already know that.” He returned to his soup and she forced herself to remain seated and not melt into a puddle under the table.
“So how’s the new job? Cassie told me the Violets seem to like you.”
“So I hear. Sweet ladies. Hard to believe that the women who used to strike fear in my heart when they caught me up to no good are now my patients.”
“I guess that would seem odd.”
“Seriously though, it seems to be going well and it sure feels good to be back in Bluebonnet Creek.”
She sipped her tea. “It never gets out of your system, does it?”
“No, some things have that affect on a man.” And he looked at her again and she wondered if she was reading too much into this entire conversation. He returned to his food. “How are things with you?” He glanced around the kitchen. “Looks like you’ve gotten a lot done.”
She followed his gaze, but her eyes took in everything that was left to do, including window coverings, new tile and the new appliances scheduled to be delivered next week. “I suppose. I have a long way to go still. I did finish the parlor. You’d hardly recognize it.”
“I’d like to see it. I have a nice memory of that room. Catching up with an old friend.”
She felt that fluttering in her belly again and wished she could squelch all ofthis magnetic pull she felt toward him. “Yes, that is a nice memory.”
“Hey, you two!” Cassie ducked her head around the corner. “Are you going to gaze into each other’s eyes all night or come help paint?”
“Cassie!” Val nearly knocked her chair over in her haste to get up but Matt only laughed.
“I’m on my way. I was too entranced by the soup.”
“Yeah, it does that to people. Come on Doc, I’ll get you a brush.” And Cassie dragged him from the room. Val leaned against the table for a minute, trying to right things in her head.
You can’t get involved with this man, Val, she told herself firmly. When she felt her resistance return, she went into the entry way and grabbed a paint brush, hoping paint would distract her.
The painting party continued on into the evening, and Val was touched that her friends made sure the job was done before they drank too many glasses of Allegasi wine. By midnight, the walls in the entryway, extending on up the stairs, as well as the powder room, were drying and perfectly painted. Val grinned from ear to ear, delighted with the quick progress they’d made.
“I need to entertain more. Ya’ll want to come back for a St. Patrick’s Day party?”
Everyone laughed as they gathered up jackets and purses and began trickling out. Cassie gave her a tight squeeze and a whispered “good luck” that earned her a swat on her arm before she slipped out to where her boyfriend Police Chief Jeffrey Neese was waiting in his police cruiser. Nick offered to drop Debra and Mandy off on his way home to the vineyard. Bill was slumped in the kitchen chair and his glazed-over look had Val worried. “Are you going to be all right, Bill?”
He shook himself and stood up quickly, swaying as he did. Val exchanged looks with Matt who was leaning against the cold oven. Matt shook his head and then moved forward to pat Bill on the back. “Come on, Bill. I’ll drive you home.”
“I have a car here.”
“That’s okay. You can get it in the morning. I have some things I want to talk to you about. Some questions about the mail.” Matt winked at Val.
Bill perked up at that. “Really? Yeah, let’s talk on the way home.”
Val grabbed Bill’s jacket and helped him into it before grabbing her own and following then outside to Matt’s green Volvo. Matt helped Bill into the front seat and then shut the door. Val stood on the grass and waved to Bill even as Matt turned toward her. It was cold, but the streetlight chased away the darkness, enough that Val could see Matt’s blue eyes as his gaze met hers.
“I had a great time tonight, Val.”
“Me, too. I’m glad you were able to come over. And thanks for all of your hard work painting.”
He grinned. “I still owe you a whole room.”
Val knew that was a bad idea. The last thing she needed was Matt by himself in her house, painting a bedroom wall.
“That’s okay. You don’t owe me anything.”
He studied her, and she suddenly had the feeling that he could sense all of her reservations. He stepped closer and pulled her jacket more tightly around her. “Take care of yourself, Val. I’ll see you very soon.” The back of his hands were brushing her cheeks and he wasn’t letting go. He held her gaze and she felt herself drowing in his.
“Don’t kiss me, Matt Schaffer, don’t you dare,” she whispered.
He shook his head ever so slightly. “Not tonight, I won’t. I’ll let you figure things out first.”
She swatted his hands away and stepped back. “Everyone’s assuming too much today.”
He smiled and moved around the front of the car to his door. “I’m a doctor, remember? I know all about the heart.”
“But not about me.”
She turned and made her way to the house, hearing his laughter follow her inside.