Spring was definitely here.
The newest spring and summer fashions in the windows along Main Street proved it. Well, at least the windows in Mandy Stringer’s shop had fashions. There weren’t a lot of clothing stores in Bluebonnet Creek. Mandy did a pretty good job of staying on top of things though, and Val sighed wistfully as she admired a light green twinset paired with a swishy floral skirt and the cutest matching strappy sandals and purse.
No new purses in her near future, she reminded herself. Nor shoes. Her two favorite things to collect were the first things to go when she’d cut her personal budget to build a bed and breakfast.
She saw his reflection when he moved behind her just before he actually spoke.
“Hey there, Val.”
She turned and met his gaze, trying not to sigh. He looked good enough to eat, dressed in a neat shirt and khakis. It was a gorgeous morning, barely cool enough for the cardigan she’d thrown on but he was in short sleeves.
“Dr. Schaffer. What a nice surprise.”
He smiled. “Dr. Schaffer? I guess we’re being formal today?”
She returned his smile. “To everyone else in town you’re Dr. Schaffer.”
“Yeah, well, to you I’d like to be Matt.”
Something about the way he said that, looking at her as if he could see straight to her treacherous heart made her feel all wobbly.
He peeked over her shoulder at Mandy’s latest fashions. “Out shopping?”
She glanced back at the spring emsemble and shrugged. “Window shopping. My real errand is to the hardware store for paint.”
“I’ll walk you down.”
They made their way, side by side down Main. Bluebonnet Creek was coming busy with the daily commerce that kept the town running, though the empty parking spots in front of the stores were testament to the weekday morning. Come Saturday, all the shopkeepers hoped to see them full.
The silence between them felt a bit awkward though. Val wasn’t sure what to say to Matt. Fortunately, he spoke up and saved her the effort.
“Sorry I never called you or came by. Here I go saying we should be friends and then you don’t hear from me for weeks.”
“It’s okay,” she offered.
“Well, that’s nice of you to say. It’s just that I’ve been really busy. My appointment book was full, every virus in the state seemed to pass through and I had a full waiting room every day all day long.”
“It’s a doctor’s life,” she agreed, wishing it wasn’t so.
“Yeah, I guess that’s right. You would know. Your father was Dr. Fielding. I’d forgotten about that.”
She didn’t have a comment for that so she switched the direction of the conversation instead. “So how are you free right now?”
“I gave myself the day off. I needed a break. It was just lucky that I ran into you.”
She glanced at him long enough to intercept his smile and she returned it. Lord, look at them. They were like two school kids with their first crush. Such dangerous territory, she thought. She was a fool to think they should be anything more than friends. The attraction between them was something so alive she could wrap her arms around it.
The hardware store was just a few shops down so a moment later they were stepping inside. She moved to examine the paints while Matt leaned against the counter and chatted with Henry Olsen the owner. Before dinner it would be all over town that they were shopping together at the hardware store. The gossips would have a field day with that one.
She shoveed the thoughts from her mind long enough to concentrate on the paint selection and think about what she would need for the faux painting she was planning to do, There were some old furniture pieces she was planning on adding some painted character to as well. Once her decisions were made and her purchases paid for, Matt held the door while she stepped outside.
“Well, it was nice seeing you, Matt.”
“What are you doing for lunch?”
She paused. “I hadn’t really planned anything other than the usual.”
He glanced up at the blue sky. “How about we grab some sandwiches from the diner and head down to the park at the river? I could use some r and r and I bet you could, too.”
“Okay.” Whoa, Val! Where had that come from? But she’d said it, Matt had a satisfied smile and they were moving on down the road to the diner to pick up lunch to go. Before she could even grasp what was happening, they were sitting on an old blanket Matt had grabbed out of the car, enjoying chicken salad sandwiches, fruit salad and iced tea under the shade of tall pecan trees with the river gurgling over the rocks at the end of the slope.
“So what have you been up to before coming back to Bluebonnet Creek?” he asked once they were settled.
“Me? Oh, nothing too exciting. College and then some work for a design firm.”
“How is Dr. Fielding? And your mom?”
She chewed around the sandwich that had grown suddenly dry in her mouth.
“My dad died about three years ago. My mom passed away last year.”
He set down his sandwich. “Val, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay. They left Bluebonnet Creek when I graduated from college. Dad wanted to retire on the golf courses. He was never too happy with my design degree. He wanted me to be a doctor, too.”
“Really? If I recall, you had the grades for it.”
She shrugged and let her gaze travel toward the river. “Not the heart. When my mom died, I decided it was time for a change. I came up here one weekend, found Andy’s house and left Houston a week later. I gave myself one year to get things done.”
“And if you don’t?”
Her gaze returned to him. He was sitting there, taking in every word she said, focused on her and her alone. When was the last time a man had given her that much attention? Then a thought slid past the pleasantness. Did he have his cell phone on? Would he get a call while they were sitting there and she was telling him her dreams?
“Then I go back to Houston.”
“Wow. That’s some serious discipline.”
“It’s practicality. I have enough money set aside to take the year off and put money into this project. If it doesn’t happen, I have to go back to work.” She cocked her head. “What about you? Straight from Bluebonnet High to college and med school?”
He nodded and opened a bag of chips. “That’s about it. I did my residency in Dallas and thought I might want to stay right there. After a while, I started getting homesick for a small town. It was pure luck that Dr. Hunter was looking for a replacement about the same time.”
They continued to talk about the past, comparing notes on old classmates they’d heard from and those they hadn’t. Matt leaned back on one elbow and Val fought against every nerve in her body that told her to lay prone beside him. She imagined him wrapping his arms around her, pulling her down to him, gently pressing his mouth to hers. She felt the warmth of the sun against her back and felt it as if the heat came from him. The breeze sensitized her skin and made her even more aware of the physical energy she felt between them.
“Val? You all right?”
She shook herself, suddenly realizing she was staring at him without hearing a word he’d said. Her cheeks heated.
“I think I must have bored you. You look like you’re in your own world.” Oh, if he only knew.
“I’m so sorry. My thoughts seemed to scatter there.”
He studied her carefully before he sat up. “You have a lot on your mind with that house. I’ve kept you long enough and you have work to do.”
She jumped at the opportunity to distance herself from him. “I think I’m beginning to daydream about painting,” she said as she gathered up her trash and stood.
He stood, too, and shook out the blanket and gave it a careless fold. “You amaze me, you really do. That’s a huge project and yet you seem to be handling it really well.”
She shrugged. “When you want something bad enough, you work at it.”
He stood still and gave her that same look, as if he were trying to decipher her and wanted to eat her up at the same time. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” They walked to his car and he drove her back down Main to where she’d left her car. He held the door for her and after she’d climbed in, he leaned down and kissed the side of her mouth before she could think to draw away. He lingered a moment and she caught her breath, feeling his lips barely touch hers and the heat of him, still warm from the sun.
“I’ll see you later, Val,” he murmured against her cheek. She had to think long and hard about how to turn the key and start the car as her brain had pretty much turned to mush.
She drove home in a daze.
What was she going to do? She was falling for him, exactly like she knew she would if she gave him any chance or opening to get past her defenses. Damn it but she didn’t want a relationship with a doctor.
You don’t have one, a voice whispered. The kiss was nothing. It was a fond thank you for lunch, and nothing more.
“Yeah, right,” she said out loud. “You keep telling yourself that.”
After unloading the paint, the doorbell rang and she opened it to the cabinet man from Houston who she’d completely forgotten was scheduled for that day. No doubt the sun had addled her brains. That and staring dreamily at a certain handsome doctor.
She ushered the cabinet man in though and showed him the kitchen where she needed some redesigning. His name was Chad and he looked about her age, he sounded intelligent and he was easy on the eyes. Though she could tell he was attracted to her, when he found out that they had both attended St. Mary’s College in San Antonio, he really warmed up with the conversation. This is the kind of guy you need, she told herself. He worked his own hours, had a steady income without being overworked and she’d never be in danger that he would be called to fix a cabinet in the middle of the night.
“Do you want a beer,” she asked later in the afternoon when he was ready to lay out some designs for her.
“Sure.” He sat down at the kitchen table and she joined him a moment later. He scooted his chair closer and spread the plans between them. “Here’s what I was thinking of doing.”
She sat and listened to him, gave him the greenlight to proceed with the production at his workshop and call her when they were ready to install. Then they both had another beer and kept talking. She studied him while he spoke, noticing that even after two beers she didn’t have that same primal attraction she always felt around Matt. He wasn’t really as smart as Matt and he didn’t really give her all of his attention the way Matt did. Lord, it had already started. She would be forever comparing him to other men.
What is happening to me, she wondered vaguely.
She heard, as if in a fog, the sound of the front door opening, her name being called and a moment later Matt himself filled the doorway of her kitchen, a bottle of wine and a bouquet of flowers in his hands.
“Matt?” she said stupidly and then saw his gaze turn hard as he stared at Chad.
“Sorry.” His voice was stiff. “I didn’t realize you had company.”
“Matt, this is Chad,” she introduced quickly as Chad came to his feet and held out his hand. “He’s building some cabinets for me.”
“I didn’t know cabinetry required beer,” Matt said without shaking his hand. Chad chuckled. “Trust me, it doesn’t always.” He turned to Val and winked. “I think I have all the information I need now. I’ll see myself out and call you when the cabinets are ready.”
He picked up his workbook and tape measure and Matt stepped aside to make room for Chad to get past him to the hallway. Matt held her gaze as they listened to Chad whistle his way out the front door. When the door had shut solidly behind him, the silence boomed.
“Chad?” he finally said. “Are you kidding me?”
She glared at him. “I’m sorry. Did I give you permission to judge my life? What the hell are you doing here anyway?”
He moved closer into the room until he was standing only a few feet away. He placed the wine and flowers on the table, his eyes never leaving hers. “I thought I would come over and see if we could continue where we left off earlier today.”
“I guess you read a lot into chicken salad.”
“I think I read a lot into you staring at me like you wanted to rip off all my clothes.”
She gasped in shock but felt her cheeks heat for the second time that day. Her mouth opened and closed like a dying fish but she couldn’t think of a proper retort when she knew what he said was true.
Finally she found her voice. “I thought we were going to be friends.”
He nodded angrily and took a step closer. “Yeah, well, I guess I lied.” He lifted his hand and buried it in her hair to pull her toward him. Her eyes drifted closed only a heartbeat before he kissed her.