The most awesomely awful thing has happened. I have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love.
Awesome because I have never felt anything like this. I’ve heard people talk about love at first sight, but I never believed in it. Then with just one look—bam! I was a goner. The minute we laid eyes on each other we knew we were destined soul mates. Suddenly, our minds are wide open and the world is the most beautiful place. How have I gone so long without knowing magic like this?
But that’s what you do, isn’t it, Cupid? Fling your arrow and make people fall in love at first sight. Drive them crazy. Send them over the edge of reason.
It’s awful because I’ve been accepted into Oxford University with a full scholarship. I can’t bear the thought of leaving my guy behind, and family responsibilities keep him from joining me in England. My head tells me that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I can’t pass it up, but I ache at the thought of being so far away from him. What’s the point of the finest education in the world if you can’t be with the one you love? Tell me what to do, Cupid. Go or stay? My fate is in your hands
—Shot Through the Heart
Natalie McCleary folded the well-creased letter and tucked it into the pocket of her Van Gogh yellow sundress. The letter writer’s angst settled in the pit of her stomach. Sometimes, playing Cupid was more difficult than running her bed-and-breakfast, Cupid’s Rest.
It had been over a week since the letter had arrived and she still had no answer for the sender. Her response had the power to change the entire trajectory of Shot Through the Heart’s future, and she did not take her duties lightly.
The trouble was, at twenty-nine, Natalie herself had never been in love. Who was she to give advice to the lovelorn?
You’re Millie Greenwood’s direct descendant, that’s who. It’s your obligation whether you want it or not.
Wasn’t that just the story of her life? Obligation. Responsibility. Tradition.
Natalie shook her head and squared her shoulders. C’mon, don’t be resentful. She’d never been a complainer or shirker and she wasn’t about to start now.
The sole of her right yellow Keds made a slight scraping sound as she scuffed over terra-cotta paver stones. She moved toward the large white wooden box situated underneath the cherubic fountain in the botanical gardens, located in the center of downtown Cupid, Texas. It was just after dawn and the gardens weren’t yet open to the public, but in another two hours the place would overflow with tourists.
Mockingbirds called from pink-blossomed desert willows. Over by a prickly pear cactus, a black-crested titmouse gobbled up a fat grub worm. Undisturbed by Natalie’s presence, a long-legged roadrunner strolled over the limestone rock wall surrounding the gardens. Locusts started a low-hummed buzzing, tuning up for the encroaching late June heat. Dragonflies hovered over the fountain, and a toad peeked up at her from blue pebble gravel around the firecracker plants. From La Hacienda Grill down the street, the smell of huevos rancheros wafted on the air and mingled with the perfume of fuchsia rockroses.
The morning seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. For what, she didn’t know, but the notion dug in so deeply that she hesitated, caught her breath, and glanced around.
Nope, no one, she was totally alone.
You’re losing it, woman.
She cocked her head, listening, but heard nothing out of the ordinary. Off in the distance an eighteen-wheeler ground its gears as it churned up the mountain. The rhythmic sound of a garbage truck’s backup beeper drifted over from First Street, followed by the mechanized wheeze of the lifting arm and the clattering clang of a Dumpster being emptied. From the stables behind the gardens, a horse whinnied.
Still the same, but oddly different somehow.
Inexplicably, goose bumps spread over her skin. She rubbed her arms with her palms.
Junie Mae Prufrock, who owned the LaDeDa Day Spa and Hair Salon next door to Natalie’s B&B, would claim that someone had walked over her grave.
Shrugging off the unwanted sensation, Natalie twirled the combination lock on the white wooden box marked “Letters to Cupid” in stenciled red block print. The lock popped open and she raised the lid.
As usual, it was stuffed with letters. She pinched up the full skirt of her shirtwaist dress with one hand, forming a sling to hold the letters as she emptied the box. The dewy morning air kissed her knees. After one-handing the padlock closed, she limped over to the bicycle she’d left parked on the pathway and deposited the letters into the wicker basket strapped to the front.
One swoop of her foot released the kickstand. She slung her leg over the cruiser saddle seat and she was off, pedaling through the back of the garden to the dirt-packed alley that ran between the gardens and the stables.
The wind ruffled her hair, brought with it the scent of horses. A long-tailed flycatcher perched on a telephone line, its split tail hanging underneath it like scissors. She smiled as the sun warmed her face, more at ease on a bike than she ever was on her feet. When she rode, no one could see her limp.
She bumped through the alley, turned left on Murkle Street, and waved to Deputy Calvin Greenwood, who was also a cousin. Calvin was coming out of the Divine Bakery with two boxes of doughnuts in his arms and headed for his patrol car.
Smiling, she waved a hand, paused in the middle of the road.
“Morning, Nat,” he called. “Lots of love letters this week?”
“Usual Monday morning. Cupid’s got his hands full.”
“That’s a good thing, right? Keeps our economy rolling.” Cal balanced the doughnut boxes in one hand while he opened his cruiser door with the other.
“You can say that again.”
“Maybe you should write a letter yourself.”
“Why would I do that?”
“So you’d have a date to mine and Maria’s wedding next month.”
Natalie snorted good-naturedly. “Cal, there’s no such thing as Cupid.”
“Shh.” He pressed an index finger to his lips. “Don’t let that get out. Maria thinks that’s how she caught me.”
“Any sign of Red?” Natalie asked him about her long-term boarder who’d disappeared four days ago without a word of warning. It wasn’t the first time Red had gone missing, so she was trying not to worry too much, but he’d left all his possessions behind.
“Haven’t seen him, but you know these war vets.” Calvin shrugged. “They ain’t like regular folks. Red can take care of himself.”
“But you’re still keeping an eye out for him?”
“Now you’re just patting me on the head.”
“He’s a drifter at heart, Natty. I warned you about that when he moved in.”
“That’s the issue. He doesn’t have anyone else to worry about him.”
“Your heart’s too big, cousin. It can’t hold the whole world.”
“Doesn’t have to hold the whole world. Just my corner of it.”
“Funny that he disappeared the day the rent was due.”
“If he just left, why didn’t he take his things?”
“Tell you what, I’ll do some more asking around,” Calvin promised. “Now I gotta get to work. Have a good day.”
“Don’t eat too many doughnuts,” she hollered over her shoulder as she took off again, the bike picking up speed on the downhill slope.
She had so much to do that morning—take the letters to the community center for Aunt Carol Ann to sort out, cut fresh flowers for the guest rooms, make sure Zoey got up in time to make it to her anatomy class at Sul Ross, greet the guests at breakfast, order organic multigrain flour before her cook, Pearl, actually followed through on her idle threats to quit, and make a decision about Red. She didn’t want to give his room away, but if he wasn’t coming back, she needed to rent it out.
Natalie had put off the decisions because she kept thinking that Red would pop back up as he usually did, but something felt different this time. Lately, he’d become more reclusive than usual and he’d taken to wearing a John Deere ball cap and dark sunglasses ninety percent of the time, as if he was trying to vanish behind the thin disguise. Maybe he had just walked away, leaving her on the fence about what to do.
After she finished all those morning tasks, she had to head back to the community center for lunch and the tri-weekly meeting of the Cupid committee volunteers, where they gathered to answer the letters written to Cupid. This Monday she wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. The other women were bound to ask why she hadn’t already answered Shot Through the Heart’s letter.
Why? Because she couldn’t think of a single word of useful advice.
Her hand strayed again to the letter in her pocket. She fingered the edges, mentally toying with her reply. She wanted so badly to tell the letter writer that there was really such a thing as love at first sight, but Natalie was having her own crisis of faith.
It was the central conflict she wrestled with every time she answered a love letter. Dishing out advice when she had no clue what she was talking about. She’d expressed her self-doubts to the group, but they’d waved away her concerns.
“Listen to your heart,” they always said. “You know the truth, deep down inside.”
Yeah? Well, her heart was telling her she had no business responding to the letters considering that she’d never been in love. She’d wanted to be in love, had imagined it happening to her a thousand times. How could she not, in a town chockful of romantic legends?
She’d dated six men in her entire life, had kissed four of them but slept with none. She’d been holding out for that one special man.
Except he’d never come.
Waiting had been easy enough when she was younger. She’d been starry-eyed and hopeful. Her limp had made her shy and self-conscious, but she was convinced that the right man would see through all that if she only held out for him.
Then the years rolled away.
She’d gotten swept up in running the B&B and riding herd on her sister, Zoey, but she’d kept the faith. But then as the years kept clicking by, she’d started having doubts. What if it was all bunk? What if there wasn’t one right man for her? What if she’d missed out on some genuinely nice guys simply because she didn’t give them a chance because she’d never felt the magic?
Now, on the precipice of turning thirty, her virginity was an albatross. An embarrassment. How did you bring that up in conversation on a date? Would you like to be the one to deflower me? Take me for my maiden voyage? Pop my cherry?
But this was the part that really bothered her.
What if she just got on with her life, gave up her shaky belief in love at first sight and all that other romantic stuff, found a decent guy, married him, and then The One finally came along?
Then again, what if The One never showed up? Was she expected to live her entire life without sex, without a husband, without kids while she waited around on a fantasy?
She was of two minds. Her heart desperately wanted to believe, but at her core, she was a pragmatist.
“Just you wait,” Aunt Carol Ann would say. “When it hits, you’ll know. There will be absolutely no doubt.”
Natalie wished she could get her faith back, but the last few years her aunt’s promise sounded as much of a fairy tale as Cupid with his bow and arrow, flying around shooting people through the heart.
“You’re too practical for your own good, Natty,” Junie Mae told her at least once a month. Usually when they sat on Junie Mae’s front porch sipping sweet iced tea spiked with lemon and eating sugar cookies. “You need to brush up against Zoey, see if some of her spontaneity will rub off on you.”
Natalie didn’t particularly enjoy being the sensible sister, but someone had to be the responsible one and since she was the older, she’d been elected by default. Sure, she’d love to be like Zoey, twenty-two and still working on finishing her college degree because she’d flakily changed her major four times. Her sister had dabbled in—and ditched—criminal justice, natural resource management, and musical theater. Now she was hung up on the idea of being an archeologist.
Solid career plan, sis.
Her bike clipped along at twenty-five miles an hour, kept pace with her racing mind, until she slowed to round the corner onto Main, and suddenly there he was, big and unexpected.
A naked man.
No, not naked, her brain corrected, catching up to what her eyes saw, just gloriously shirtless.
Speechless, she stopped pedaling.
He was in the empty Piggly Wiggly parking lot, head down, bending over a big black motorcycle as he tinkered with the engine. His torso was leanly muscled, darkly tanned, and glistening with sweat in the early morning sunlight.
The hair on his head was the color of a raven’s wing, so black it looked almost blue, and curled unkempt around his ears and down the nape of his neck. His powerful biceps flexed as he worked. A sexy dark blue tattoo graced his left upper arm. His abdominal muscles were taut as drum skins. A pair of black jeans hung low on his hips, and he wore well-used cowboy boots.
His masculinity was palpable and she could have sworn she caught a faint whiff of his scent, aftershave and motor oil and something sensually seductive—danger. But that was foolishness. Danger didn’t have a smell, and besides, she was yards away.
His cheekbones, cast in shadows, looked sharp as blades. His chin was pure granite and peppered with stubble. Natalie’s practicality vanished as wild fantasy took her hostage with tumbling images—leather tool belts, muscle cars, Desert Eagle pistols, campfires, and mountain lions.
Honest to Pete, she didn’t know men could look like that outside of movie reels. Her jaw dropped, and all the breath left her lungs. She stared, stunned.
Natalie saw him in a freeze-frame flash of blind clarity. A click-whirl snapshot caught in time. Her mouth went instantly dry and her heart slam-pumped blood through her ears. Oh my. Oh dear. Oh no. He’s here.
He reached for a red rag to wipe his hands, straightening to his full height. He stood well over six feet tall, sturdily built and breath-stealingly impressive.
The moment hung in the air, tremulous as a spiderweb spun under eaves in a rainstorm, but bright, sharp, clear, and unmistakably special.
As Natalie coasted past, their gazes locked.
In that fraction of a blink, she memorized everything about him. Eyes the color of coal, chiseled jaw, Olympic shoulders, hard everywhere, all of him bottled into an explosive package.
His eyes pierced into her like an arrow’s point, took her, owned her.
Dear God! What was this?
A lazy, wolfish, one-sided grin spread slowly across his face.
Just one look and all the mysteries of the universe were answered. Every nerve ending in her body tingled to life as if she’d been asleep for a hundred years and was awakening for the very first time.
He was a stranger to Cupid. She did not know him, had never met him, and yet, in that hushed sweet second, her body knew something that her mind did not. She felt him deep in her center.
He’d found her at last.
It struck her like a fever, hot and rushed, an emotion so sudden and sweet that her brain fumbled and stupidly came up with the word “love.”
Did she dare think it? How foolish to think such a thing of a stranger. No. Not love. Love at first sight was absurd, right?
And yet … and yet …
Panic spread through her as more images fell in on her. His big, black cowboy boots parked underneath her bed, her sunny yellow Keds lined up beside them. Warm quilts on a cold winter night. Silver lightning that lingered—burning and brilliant. His hard mouth crushed against her soft one, tasting rich and decadent as pure dark chocolate.
What did it all mean?
She had no explanation for what she was feeling. It was too blissful. Too good. It scared the living crap out of her.
Thankfully, gratefully, she’d already sped past him. She was too terrified to glance back.
A mirage, she told herself. A dream. Not real. He could not be real.
The blood had drained from her face, leaving her cheeks quite cold. Ghostly. The road flattened, her pace slowed. She tried to get her legs moving again, but they were cement, too heavy to move.
This was sheer craziness. She’d lived in Cupid too long and even though she didn’t believe in the love legends, apparently the stories had been like the creeping damp, silently, insidiously closing in on her to culminate in this … this … What the hell was this?
She swallowed, listening to the quickening of her pulse, felt the blood rush fierily back to her cheeks, and suddenly, she could not see. Oh, everything was still there—the trees, the buildings, and the vehicles—but the image imprinted on her retina was not of the scenery before her. Instead, his face blotted out everything else, like a full solar eclipse turning high noon to midnight.
Music filled her vision—violins and saxophones, pianos and drums, Vivaldi and Mozart, Pachelbel and frickin’ Bonnie Tyler. Colors surrounded him—a rainbow of pleasure—crimson, azure, olive, lavender, saffron.
Could she be having a stroke?
Yes. A stroke. That might explain the wild euphoria, the ceaseless pounding of her heart, the inability to breathe. Why couldn’t she breathe?
“When it hits, you’ll know.” Aunt Carol Ann’s words rang in her head. “There will be absolutely no doubt.”