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Running Bear

Love Laid Bear Book 1


By

Amber Belmont


Running Bear

By Amber Belmont

Smashwords edition


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright 2016 by Amber Belmont - All rights reserved.

This book is available in print at most online retailers.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes:

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Smashwords.com, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.


Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven


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Chapter One


I placed the final rose in the table arrangement and stood back to examine my work critically. When you’re dealing with a bride who knows exactly what she wants, it was crucial to make sure every petal was in the right place and Jennifer Rafferty had been one of my more demanding customers. Even if she wasn’t, it was a matter of personal pride that I never supplied any flowers that were anything less than breath taking and I was particularly pleased with how this combination had worked out.

“That’s stunning, Shelby,” commented Jess, my assistant, looking over from where she was putting together the bouquets for our delivery driver. “You have such a good eye for design. That wedding’s going to be stunning.”

“Thanks. Only another thirty to do…”

I grabbed another base and started to recreate what I’d just finished, when I heard the sound of the shop door.

“Could you go get that, Jess?” I asked without looking up, not wanting to lose focus. Once I got my momentum going, I worked fast, but if I was interrupted, I had a tendency to procrastinate before getting back to work and I had a lot I still needed to get done for the wedding.

“Sure.”

Jess put down the flowers she was working with and went out to the front deal with the customer while I carried on placing the foliage in exactly the right place. There was something wonderfully meditative about flower arranging. I loved the challenge of creating brand new designs for weddings and went out of my way to give each bride and groom something unique that matched their theme and personalities. This time I was working with peach rosebuds and white, frilly-edged tulips and the effect was spectacular, even if I did say so myself.

If only my parents could see me now. When I’d taken over my aunt’s florists, they’d predicted that it would fail within a year.

“Sell it,” advised dad when he heard that Aunt Carol had left me the store in her will. “Sell it now while it’s still a going concern and you can get a reasonable amount of money. You could get enough to put yourself through college and then go into a more suitable career. You don’t know anything about flowers or running a business. If you wait until you’ve lost all your customers to realize your assets, you’ll be lucky if you can find someone who wants to buy the building.”

Maybe he was practising some kind of reverse psychology, but there was nothing more guaranteed to make me want to succeed than being told I was going to fail and now the store was unrecognizable from when I’d first taken over. Gone were the dated posters on the walls and the dusty displays, replaced by fresh, off white walls, glorious fresh flowers tastefully arranged to tempt people in to browse and a large window at the front, filling the store with natural light.

The only thing that hadn’t changed was the name: Tulips Are Better than One.

Aunt Carol had always said that I had a natural flair with flowers and if the grades I’d gotten at community college had been anything to go by, she was right. Combining floristry with a business studies course, I’d learned everything I needed to transform Tulips from a business that relied on Aunt Carol’s handful of loyal customers to get by to a high end floral boutique that regularly made its way into the top ten of local florists. I was aiming to make it into the best national lists before too long.

Not bad for someone who was supposed to have destroyed the business within twelve months.

Jess came in, fanning herself.

“You should see the customer who just walked in,” she told me, picking up the order book she’d forgotten to take through with her. “Hot is not the word.”

“Really?” I murmured, chuckling to myself. We got a lot of men in the store looking for something to treat the woman in their life. Jess always thought they were good looking, but I wondered what she’d think of them if she knew that they were probably cheating on their wives. Some might say that 26 was too young to be so jaded, but I’d long since learned that men who bought flowers weren’t worth the trouble. Sure, there were some who were buying them for a special occasion, but the majority of men who bought flowers were only doing it because of a guilty conscience. That’s why I preferred working with brides. At least they gave me hope that true love still existed for a handful of lucky people.

I didn’t care how hot this customer was. If he was buying flowers, he wasn’t worth the trouble.

“No, I mean it, Shelby. This guy is something else. You can see his muscles rippling through his shirt. He’s ripped! Whoever he’s buying flowers for, she’s a lucky gal.”

“If you say so.” I shook my head, turning back to my table displays as Jess went back out front to finish taking down his order. Although I could have peeked round the corner to see if he really was as buff as Jess said, I needed to focus on what I was doing.

“He didn’t want the bouquet delivered. He’s going to pick them up later.” Jess practically skipped back to her station when she was done. “Maybe he was looking for an excuse to see me again.”

I raised an eyebrow. Jess could be so naïve at times.

“Do you think I could get his number?” she asked, leaning against the counter and resting her head on her hands with a dreamy expression on her face.

“Not if the flowers are for another woman,” I pointed out.

“You’re such a spoilsport,” pouted Jess. “Haven’t you ever heard of love at first sight?”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “What message does he want on the card?”

Jess peered at her scrawled notes. “All it says is ‘Love C.’” she finally replied. “They could be for anyone.” She squealed. “Which means that he might give me his number! Do you mind if I serve him again?”

“Be my guest,” I laughed. The enthusiasm of youth! Jess might be a great sales assistant, but she had a lot to learn when it came to men. She’d soon realize that the store wasn’t the place to find decent guys.

As the afternoon wore on, I lost myself in wedding flowers. I might be a cynic when it came to love, but I adored working on weddings. I could daydream that I was the blushing bride who would be carrying the bouquet down the aisle and not have to deal with the reality that ever man I’d ever dated had let me down. This was as close as I ever wanted to get to my own wedding.

“Oh shoot!” Jess gasped suddenly, her hand flying to her mouth. “I’m supposed to pick up my kid brother from softball practice. I meant to ask you yesterday if I could leave early, but we were so busy I forgot. Mom’s going to kill me if I keep him waiting again.” She turned to me, giving me her best puppy dog eyes.

“All right,” I sighed. “You can go. I’ve almost finished the wedding flowers and it’s been quiet today.”

“Thanks, boss. You’re the best! I promise I’ll make the time up.” Jess practically flew out the store, but was back a moment later looking sheepish. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. The bouquet with the zinnias over there is the one for Hot Guy. He should be here any minute. If he asks after me, could you give him my number? I really felt like we had a connection, you know?”

“No problem.” I waved Jess away. “I’ll give him your cell if he asks. Now go get your brother before I change my mind.”

“Bye!” Jess rushed off, but when I heard the door go again, I rolled my eyes and walked out to meet her.

“What have you forgotten this time?” I was about to ask, but the words stuck in my throat when I saw who was standing in my store.

“Caleb Love,” I breathed, stunned.

“Shelby Roberts. Wow.”

Caleb grinned that familiar grin showing off his perfect, white teeth. He’d barely changed since I’d last seen him, his tousled dark brown hair still refusing to be tamed, dark eyes twinkling. Jess was right. He was hot, but I knew all too well that if you got too close, you’d get burned.

“I’d heard that you’d taken over a florist’s, but I didn’t realize this one was yours. Nice.” He looked around the room, nodding his approval.

“Glad you like it,” I replied, surreptitiously smoothing my hands down on my apron so he wouldn’t notice my palms sweating. “Stay professional, Shelby,” I told myself, fighting the urge to yell at him to get out of my store. Screaming arguments were hardly the kind of image I’d cultivated for Tulips, even if the guy did deserve it. “What can I do for you?”

“I ordered some flowers earlier,” Caleb told me. “I was told they’d be ready by now?”

I could barely restrain myself from shaking my head. I should have known. He’d run out on another girlfriend and wanted to try and make things up with her. Well more fool her if she fell for it.

“They are,” was all I said. “I’ll just go and get them for you.”

Once I was out back, I shoved my fist into my mouth, biting down hard to suppress the scream that threatened to burst out. Of all the florists in San Francisco, why did he have to walk into mine?

Picking up the bouquet Jess had prepared, I could see my hands were shaking. I regretted letting Jess go early. She’d taken the order. She should be the one to finish it.

“It’s all right. You got this.” I took a few deep breaths to calm myself before plastering on a fake smile and carrying the flowers out to Caleb.

“There you go.” I handed him the bouquet, proud of myself for not hitting him over the head with it. “She’s a lucky woman.”

“She sure is,” nodded Caleb, as arrogant as always. Whoever he dated was clearly privileged to have him.

For a moment, he stood there, the smile never leaving his face as the seconds stretched out to what was becoming an unbearably long silence.

“Sorry, Caleb. Was there something else?” I said at last, breaking the tension that had built up.

“That’s everything,” he replied. “For now. It’s good to see you again, Shelby. You haven’t changed a bit.”

For a moment, I thought he was going to say something else, but instead, he simply turned and walked out of the store, leaving me feeling as though I’d just been punched in the gut. It might have been seven years since I’d last seen him, but the effect he had on me was as powerful as ever.

Chapter Two


“Caleb! Come back!”

My cry woke me up from a nightmare I thought I’d never have again, a nightmare in which I was running after Caleb but he was getting further and further away from me, laughing at my distress.

Pulling myself up to sitting, I untangled myself from my bedsheets, ending up kicking them away in frustration. I hadn’t dreamed about my ex-boyfriend for years and now he was back with a vengeance to haunt me.

Great.

I glanced over at the clock by my bed. I didn’t have to get up for another hour, but I knew that there was no way I’d be able to get back to sleep after a dream like that, so I got up and padded out to the kitchen to put the coffeemaker on. While it worked its magic, I went to the cupboard where I kept all the things I didn’t use anymore but couldn’t bear to throw away. Buried deep at the back was a box I hadn’t opened since I’d left home. Pulling it out, I sifted through old report cards, certificates and books until I unearthed something I hadn’t seen in years.

Pouring myself a cup of strong, black coffee, I curled up on the sofa, my high school yearbook in my lap. Taking a deep breath, I turned the pages until I found what I was looking for.

There, staring up at me, was a photo of me and Caleb on our prom night, taken just after we’d been crowned king and queen. I was smiling at the camera, but Caleb was looking down at me, adoration on his face. He really hadn’t changed much over the past few years. If anything, he’d gotten even better looking as he’d matured and my fingers traced his jawline in the picture, remembering the feel of his skin against mine, the taste of his lips when we kissed.

Anyone looking at this picture would have thought we were destined to stay together. We were the epitome of high school sweethearts who were deeply in love, the ones who were going to marry and fill a house full of babies. In fact, if you read through all the comments my friends had written in my book, most of them talked about the pair of us staying together forever and what a cute couple we made.

The night that picture was taken, Caleb and I made love for the first time on a blanket up in the woods overlooking the school grounds. Although neither of us had any experience, it wasn’t anything like I’d expected. My girlfriends who’d slept with their boyfriends talked about how quick and awkward it was and warned me that it wouldn’t be anything special, but it was with Caleb, it really was. He was so tender and gentle, taking his time to make sure that I was ready for him and by the time he entered me, I was lost in bliss. Coincidentally, just as he finished, fireworks went off to celebrate prom, making us laugh at the timing.

“I promise to always make you see fireworks,” he told me, kissing me deeply. Young innocent fool that I was, I believed him. Yet only a couple of short months later, he disappeared without warning, not even bothering to write and explain why he’d abandoned me.

It had taken me years to come to terms with how he’d left, going over and over in my mind all the possibilities, questioning what I’d done to deserve being dumped like that. I’d never have thought that Caleb could be so cruel. I’d never imagine there was that side to him, not the sweet, kind boy I’d fallen in love with.

I’d had no warning that anything was wrong. In fact, the day before he left, we were talking about our plans to go traveling around Europe. Even after spending so long trying to figure out what he was thinking, I still didn’t get how he could have sat with me, surfing the net to decide where we should go first when he must have known that he was about to walk out. It took a special kind of mean to keep up the pretence until the last minute.

I’ll never forget the day I found out he was gone as long as I live. I rang his cell when I woke up, just as I always did, to say good morning. We used to love chatting while we lay in bed, thinking about what it would be like when we were finally able to get a place of our own and have our early morning conversations lying next to each other. This time, there was no reply.

It wasn’t like Caleb not to answer, but I figured that maybe he was in the shower or something, so I sent him a quick text asking him to call before heading down to get some breakfast.

When I hadn’t heard anything by mid-morning, I knew that something was up, but I still wasn’t too worried as I headed over to his house. His parents’ car was missing from the drive, so I figured he might have gone out on an errand but I knocked on the door anyway, just in case he was home, and was stunned when a stranger answered the door.

“I-is Caleb there?” I eventually stammered.

“He’s gone,” came the curt reply.

I frowned and shook my head slightly in confusion. “Gone where?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know’s Curtis rang last night and asked if I could watch over the place for a while. Said there was some kind of family crisis.”

“Family crisis?” Panicked butterflies started flapping about in my stomach as I imagined Caleb lying in a hospital bed somewhere. “What kind of crisis?”

“Couldn’t say. Unless you’re family, ‘course.”

“I’m Caleb’s girlfriend,” I told him anxiously.

“So not family then.” The man started to shut the door, but I put out a hand to stop him.

“Wait! Caleb and I were going to have a future together. He wouldn’t have just left without telling me where he was going. Didn’t he leave a message for me or something?”

The man sighed and tutted. “Look, miss. You seem like a really sweet gal and I wish I could help you more, but I can’t. I don’t know where they went and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to tell you without checking with Curtis first and I’m not likely to speak to him for a while.”

“Well when you do, could you at least ask Mr Love to get Caleb to call?” I pleaded.

“I’m sorry. I can ask, but if I were you, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. In fact, if I were you, I’d forget all about him. I don’t think they’re going to come back any time soon.”

He shut the door and this time I didn’t do anything to stop him. As I turned to leave, tears started rolling down my cheeks and by the time I was by my car, I was sobbing, huge wracking sobs that felt as though they were going to tear my body apart. I slid down to the ground, resting against the car door as I turned my head to the sky and wailed.

I didn’t understand what had happened then and I still don’t understand now. The difference is that now I don’t care. I spent years going over every tiny detail of our relationship, desperately trying to come up with an explanation for what happened and in the end, the only thing I could think of was that Caleb simply wasn’t the man I though he was. He’d shown me that all the beautiful promises in the world don’t mean a thing.

It took years to piece together my broken heart, but when I finally felt ready to start dating again, I’d never met anyone who made me see fireworks and I didn’t see the point in being with someone who didn’t make me feel special. I’d been single for a while now and I’d never been happier. I could focus on my business without the distraction of a man and business was blooming in every sense of the word.

Trust Caleb to choose this moment to walk back into my life. All I could do was hope that he’d choose another florist next time he needed to say sorry. Still, whoever he was buying flowers for was welcome to him. Maybe he’d grown up and had learned how to treat her with respect. I wasn’t going to hold my breath though.

The sound of my alarm filtering through from my bedroom told me that I’d spent longer walking down Memory Lane than I realized and I shoved the yearbook back in its box before going off to get ready for work. It had nothing to do with Caleb’s reappearance that I spent a little longer over my appearance than usual. No, nothing at all.

I looked at myself in the mirror. A simple white vest clung to my curves over a pair of light gray slacks. I was never going to be what you’d call skinny, but I liked my figure the way it was.

I’d once gone a date with a guy who’d told me I’d be so pretty if I ‘just lost a few pounds.’ Unsurprisingly, I didn’t invite him back home for coffee, despite his heavy hints that he’d be willing to do me the favour of lowering his usual standards. I wasn’t going to starve myself for the sake of a man who didn’t appreciate me and I certainly wasn’t going to sleep with him.

On a whim, I decided to put on a little more makeup than normal, a dash of green eyeshadow to complement my hazel eyes and a bit of lip gloss, blowing a kiss at my reflection. Take that, Caleb Love! This is what you lost when you walked out.

The extra time I spent over my appearance meant that I was late leaving, despite having woken up early. Luckily, when I got to the store, I found Jess already there, bustling about preparing the orders for the first morning delivery.

“Thanks so much for letting me leave early yesterday,” she gushed. “I got to my brother just as they were finishing practice. If I’d left it any later, mom would have killed me for leaving him with the coach again.”

“No problem,” I replied. “Just next time give me a bit more notice, okay? Yesterday was quiet, but I can’t guarantee that I can let you go just like that next time.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I should be more organized.” Jess picked up the list of deliveries that needed to be prepared. “That’s why I came in early to make it up to you. I’ve already done most of the orders for this morning. There’s just a couple more bouquets left.”

I took the list from her and scanned it. “All right. You do the $30 standard and I’ll take the super deluxe.”

As I gathered together the flowers I needed, I wondered not for the first time whether it would be worth hiring another sales assistant who could help with the admin. So far, I’d managed to get everything done with just Jess helping, but the way things were going, it wouldn’t be long before I wouldn’t be able to cope if she wasn’t around and I couldn’t expect her to put in the kind of hours I did.

I made a mental note to put a sign up in the window later. That’s how I’d found Jess, so maybe I’d get lucky a second time.

“So did Mr Hottie ask about me when he picked up his flowers yesterday?” asked Jess.

“Mr Hottie?” I frowned, pretending that I didn’t know exactly who she was talking about. “Oh, you mean Caleb?”

“Caleb?” Jess did a double take. “Do you know him?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” I replied. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from him.”

“Seriously?” gasped Jess. “But he seemed so nice. Are you sure you’re talking about the same guy?”

I glared at her, daring her to disagree with me.

“Shame,” sighed Jess. “I could get lost in his eyes for days. I can’t believe that anyone as good would be that bad.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” I said through gritted teeth, as I accidentally crushed one of the blooms I was putting into the bouquet. “Dammit! Now look what you made me do. Honestly, Jess, if you were a little more focused on your work and a little less worried about how attractive our customers are, you’d get a lot more done about the place.”

“Sorry,” muttered Jess, rolling her eyes when she thought I couldn’t see. I almost called her out on it, but stopped myself. For all that she could be a little flaky, Jess was a good assistant and the customers loved her. It would be ironic if she walked out right when I was thinking about getting a third pair of hands to help because we were so busy.

“Look, why don’t you go out front and work on the displays?” I suggested, trying to defuse the frosty atmosphere between us. “I’ll finish up the deliveries.”

“All right.” Jess slouched off to the store while I turned my attention to flower arranging. As always, I found myself getting lost in the moment as I worked on creating perfect bouquets. We sold a range of standard arrangements as well as custom designs, and I loved the freedom that came when someone left me to decide what would work. Right now, I was putting together flowers of varying shades of blue, offsetting them with the occasional pink. I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn’t hear the customer coming into the shop, not that it mattered. That was up to Jess to deal with.

“Shelby?”

I jumped at the sound of my assistant’s voice. “Don’t creep up on me like that,” I scolded, dropping the stem I was holding. “You almost made me destroy another flower.”

“Sorry. It’s just that there’s someone out there who wants to see you.”

“Can’t you deal with it?”

Jess shook her head, her face red with excitement. “He’s really insistent that he has to speak to you.”

“He?” My heart sank as I hoped that it wasn’t who I thought it was.

“Mm-hmm.” Jess nodded, beckoning excitedly for me to follow her.

Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I’d taken the time to do my makeup properly this morning. Let Caleb see what he’d been missing out on all these years.

“Go out back and finish the orders,” I told Jess when I saw Caleb standing in the middle of the store. I saw her peering round from the back and I raised my eyebrows, gesturing with my head for her to get lost. She quickly pulled her head away but I knew that she’d be listening in, so I was going to have to watch what I said. I didn’t want to give her any more fuel for gossip.

“What can I do for you, sir?” I asked.

“Sir?” Caleb laughed. “Seriously?”

“I’m very serious.” I folded my arms. “Now what do you want? Don’t tell me.” I gazed around the store. “More flowers. You must have really messed up. Again.”

Caleb held up his hands in surrender. “I don’t blame you for being mad at me.”

“Mad?” I scoffed. “You flatter yourself. I don’t feel anything about you.”

One corner of Caleb’s mouth lifted. “You almost manage to say it like you mean it. You forget. I know you too well. You never could lie to me.”

“Unlike you,” I pointed out bitterly.

“I never lied to you,” Caleb protested. “I just-” He cut himself short. “Look. I didn’t come here to fight with you. I actually wanted to ask you if you’d come out to dinner with me.”

I couldn’t hold back the laugh that erupted. “Dinner? With you? You must be nuts. I sold you flowers yesterday because I’m a professional, but that’s as far as it goes.”

“Please, Shelby. Let me explain-”

“No.” I held up a finger to cut him off. I couldn’t bear to hear him opening up old wounds. “The time for explanations has long since gone. I waited for months, years even, for you to get in touch and you never did, so I moved on. Now all of a sudden, just when my life’s really good, you waltz in here and expect me to fall at your feet like a dumb schoolgirl. Well you can forget it. I’m not the silly girl I used to be. You can’t charm me anymore.”

“If you would only listen to me for five minutes…” Caleb ran his hand through his hair, a clear sign that he was getting frustrated. He wasn’t the only one who remembered the other’s tells.

“You need to leave my store, Caleb. Now.” I stalked over and opened the store door for him, gesturing for him to go.

“Fine.” Caleb came after me, stopping to stand so close that for a second I thought he was going to lean forward and kiss me. “But don’t think I’m going to give up on you. Not now that I’ve found you again.”

I closed the door behind him, leaning back against it as I closed my eyes, fighting back tears. My hands were shaking as I reached up to tuck an imaginary stray hair behind my ear, pulling myself together so I could get back to work.

I didn’t know what Caleb had wanted to tell me and I didn’t care.

Yeah, right, Shelby. You keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll believe it someday.


Chapter Three


Not long after Caleb left, I took not just one, but two large orders, both for new clients, which meant that I wanted to go above and beyond to make sure that they became repeat business. Those orders combined with a seemingly never ending stream of customers walking in meant that by the time Jess turned the sign on the door to ‘closed’, there was still a lot that needed to be done before I could go home for the day.

“Could you stay an extra hour?” I asked Jess hopefully. “Just to help me get the buttonholes done. I’ll pay you double.”

“Sorry, Shelby.” Jess shook her head, shrugging her shoulders. “I’d love to help, but we’ve got family visiting and I promised mom I’d help her cook. Any other time and I’d totally be there.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, trying not to let her see how annoyed I was at the thought of being there until midnight. “You go home and have fun.”

“Yeah, right,” drawled Jess. “Mom and Uncle Bill bicker all the time over things that happened when they were kids while Grammy complains about the food, even when it’s done exactly the way she likes it. It’s a whole bundle of fun!”

“Ah well. At least they’ll be gone soon,” I laughed. “It’s not as though they live with you.”

“It can’t be soon enough,” muttered Jess, grabbing her bag and heading out to the door. “See you in the morning!”

I was wrong when I thought I’d be in the store until midnight. It was gone one by the time I was ready to lock up and it wasn’t the first time I’d had to put in long hours by myself.

“That’s it.” Even though I wanted nothing more than to go home and curl up under my duvet, I fired up the store computer and quickly put together a ‘Help Wanted’ sign. I printed it out and fixed it to the window before I headed hope, exhausted. Hopefully I’d find another Jess before the week was out.

#

“Nice sign,” commented Jess as she walked in the next morning. “You’re not looking to replace me, are you? Because I can tell mom that she needs to get another babysitter.”

“No, no,” I replied. “Nothing like that. The opposite, in fact. I figured that it was about time we got some more help about the place. Until we do, you and I are going to be rushed off our feet – we’ve got another wedding booked and I’ve had a few new enquiries I need to put together some samples for, so if your mom could get another babysitter that would be great.”

“Where do you want me to start?” Jess rolled up her sleeves and came to stand next to me as I talked her through the order book and the work I wanted her to do. However, I didn’t even get half way through the list before Jess clapped a hand over her mouth.

“I am so sorry,” she gasped as she pushed past me and back to the employee’s restroom. The sounds that came from the cubicle didn’t sound good at all.

“Jess?” I knocked on the door. “Are you okay?”

“Not really,” came the miserable reply. “I think it’s something I ate. I guess Grammy had a point after all.”

“I’ll be out front if you need anything,” I told her, going back to start prepping the bouquets for delivery, but by the time she emerged, one look at her pale face told me that the only thing she needed was to go home.

“Go on. Get out of here,” I ordered.

“No, no. I’m fine,” Jess protested, but she was swaying as she tried to arrange some flowers and a moment later, she was back out in the restroom.

When she finally appeared, I was waiting for her, her things in hand.

“You need to be in bed,” I said, shoving her bag at her. “You’re in no fit state to deal with anything right now. Get some shut eye and feel better.”

“But what about all the orders? You can’t do it all alone,” Jess argued, desperately trying to hold it together.

“You let me worry about that,” I said firmly, as I gently pushed her towards the door. “One look at you and you’ll scare my customers away.”

“All right. But I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” Jess insisted as she left. I wasn’t so sure. Whatever she had, it looked serious.

I headed back and put together that morning’s orders as quickly as possible, barely managing to tie the final ribbon before Jed, my delivery driver, arrived. As he headed off, the phone rang, just as a customer walked in to browse. After I’d completed the phone order, I barely had enough time to ring up her sale before the phone went again.

It was as if the universe knew that I was on my own and was sending all this extra business my way out of spite. I needed a miracle if I was going to get through the day.

I heard the door go just as I was on the phone to one of my brides, calling to make sure that everything was fine.

“Just a moment.” I held up a finger, turning on my brightest smile to reassure the walk-in that I’d be with them as soon as possible. My smile faded when I saw who it was.

Caleb.

I just about managed to keep my irritation out of my voice, as I finished up the call as quickly as possible so that I could get rid of him.

“I’m not in the mood for your games,” I warned him. “It’s just me today and I’ve got a lot to get through, so why don’t you turn around and head on back to wherever you came from.”

“I saw your sign in the window,” he replied. “I figured you could use an extra pair of hands.”

“I can,” I confirmed. “But not yours. So if you could-”

I was cut off from finishing my sentence as the phone went again. I waved Caleb away, a pained expression on my face as I pulled out the order pad. Annoyingly, he stayed right where he was, so I put my hand over the receiver.

“Leave!” I hissed, but Caleb just grinned. That man wasn’t going to know what hit him once I’d finished with this call.

As I scribbled down the details of the order, the door went again and a customer walked in. I turned to tell them I’d be there in a second, but Caleb got there first.

“How can I help you today, ma’am?” he beamed.

I was too professional to roll my eyes as the woman simpered, easy prey to Caleb’s natural charm. I watched her flirting with him as he took her round the shop, making suggestions until he’d put together a rather expensive selection.

I hung up the phone, just as Caleb brought her flowers to the wrapping area. “Can I leave this with you to finish up, Shelby?” he asked as if he were the one in charge.

I narrowed my eyes. “Of course,” I replied through gritted teeth, as he moved away to tidy up the displays.

I waited patiently for the customer to drag her gaze away from Caleb’s behind. I could understand why she’d want to feast her eyes. There was no denying that his body was amazing. He could have any woman he wanted. All he had to do was snap his fingers and they’d come running. I always thought how lucky I was that I was the one he’d chosen, that I was the one who got to ruffle his hair, run my hand down his chest. Just thinking about it was enough to make me blush.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked the woman, as much to force myself to stop staring at my ex-boyfriend as to finish up the sale.

“What?” She finally turned to look at me, but I could tell that she was still fantasizing about Caleb. “Oh. Yes, it’s my mom’s birthday.”

“I’m sure she’ll be thrilled when she sees these then,” I smiled, as I got out the birthday cards for her to choose from, while I wrapped the flowers so they’d stay fresh.

“Your sales assistant is a real asset. You should give him a raise,” she advised, handing over her credit card when she was all done.

“Caleb? Oh no. He doesn’t-”

“Need one,” he finished smoothly, coming over when he heard his name. “Being able to work with Shelby is payment enough. Now you remember to come back and let me know what your mom thought of the flowers. We have a loyalty scheme for our regular customers and there’s nothing like the smile on your mom’s face when she gets a surprise bouquet.”

“I’ll definitely be coming back,” gushed the customer as Caleb escorted her to the door. I watched as she handed him her business card, clearly hoping he’d call.

“There you go.” Caleb tossed the card onto the counter. “Add her details to your mailing list. Unless you’d like me to do it for you?”

“Nice try, Caleb.” I folded my arms. “You don’t work here, though.”

“Really? Because I could have sworn I just sold that woman some flowers. I talked her into doubling her spend as well. She only wanted carnations, but I persuaded her to be a little more adventurous.”

“Yes, well, you always were far too charming for your own good. But much as I appreciate your efforts, I need someone in the store who’s a little more… reliable. I can’t have staff who are going to do a disappearing act when they feel like it.”

A shadow flickered across Caleb’s eyes, his smile fading a little.

“You can trust me, Shelby. I’m not going to let you down.”

“No, you’re not,” I nodded. “Because I’m not going to give you the chance. I don’t know why you’re refusing to take a hint, so let me spell it out nice and clearly for you. I’m. Not. Interested.”

Caleb opened his mouth to reply, but we were interrupted by the door.

“How can I help?” asked Caleb, striding forward to meet the customer so that it was impossible for me to interfere without making myself look bad. I had no choice but to let him serve them, especially since another one walked into the store right behind them.

If I thought business had been brisk already, that was nothing compared to the rest of the day. It pained me to admit it, but Caleb was incredible with the customers. When he turned on that brilliant smile of his, women were putty in his hands and I watched as he made customer after customer part with more of their hard earned dollars than they’d planned.

By the time I was ready to close the store, I knew that I wasn’t going to have to look at the books to see how well we’d done. Single handed, Caleb had managed to double my sales in just one day.

“Same time tomorrow, boss?” he asked, leaning over the counter as I added up the takings.

“I’m not your boss, Caleb,” I sighed, losing count of the coins in my hand.

“Come on, Shelby. After a day like today can you really turn me away? That was the ultimate in job interviews and I passed with flying colors.”

“You were good with the customers, sure,” I conceded.

“And we got on well, didn’t we?”

I felt my stomach twist as I thought back over the day. We’d been so busy I hadn’t had a chance to stay mad at him and it had been just like old times, the pair of us laughing and joking together. Caleb seemed to be able to read my mind, knowing exactly what I needed him to do with little training and being able to let him handle the customers made it easy for me to deal with all the other, more complicated tasks. It was true that it had been one of the best days I’d had in a long time and it was all down to him.

“You’re a dangerous man, Mr Love,” I whispered at last, turning back to the till. I fought to keep my focus on getting the figures right and not drop any coins because my hands were shaking so much.

“Shelby…”

Caleb put his hand over mine, forcing me to stop what I was doing. I closed my eyes, inhaling his scent. I hated that he still had such a powerful physical effect on me. Every part of my body was crying out for him to touch me. If he tried to kiss me, I didn’t think I’d be able to tell him no.

He turned me to face him, gently running the back of his hand down my cheek. I wanted him so, so bad, but I couldn’t risk him hurting me again. I didn’t think I’d survive him walking out a second time.

“Please, Shelby,” he said gently. “Let me take you out to dinner tonight. I want to explain why I left the way I did.”

I shook my head, not trusting my voice.

“All right, a drink, then,” he urged. “Just one little drink. Come on. You saw what a good team we make. All I want to do is talk. Can you really send me away without hearing what happened?”

The minute he said the words, I knew he was right. I’d managed to fool myself into thinking I didn’t care why he’d abandoned me, but the truth was that if I didn’t take this chance to find out why he’d skipped town, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering. I’d had enough sleepless nights already because of him.

“Okay,” I finally agreed. “You can take me out tonight. But you need to let me finish up here and I want to go home and change before we go anywhere.”

“Great!” Caleb just about managed to restrain himself from punching the air. “I’ll pick you up from your place at eight.”

“No.” I shook my head. I wasn’t ready for him to know where I lived and I didn’t want to leave myself without a way of getting home if we had an argument. “I’ll meet you.”

“All right,” said Caleb. “There’s a bar on Chestnut Street – the Tipsy Pig. Do you know it?”

“Sure,” I nodded.

“I’ll meet you there at eight.”

“I’ll be there,” I told him. “Just make sure that you are.”

“Trust me. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“I wish I could,” I whispered as he left. After the day we’d had together, I wanted to trust him. I wanted to welcome him back into my world and pick up where we’d left off, but there was nothing he could say that would convince me it was worth the risk.

I’d meet him to night and hear him out. Maybe the answers he gave me would give me closure. But once he’d had his say, then that was it. I was going to find someone else to help me round the store and it would be goodbye Caleb.

Only this time, it would be my decision.


Chapter Four


Clothes lay strewn around my room as I tried to decide what to wear. What outfit do you wear to send out the right signal to your ex-boyfriend who you may or may not still be in love with? I wanted to look drop dead gorgeous with a ‘yeah, I’m hot, but you can’t have me,’ vibe. I didn’t want to give Caleb any ideas. Things were complicated enough without having to deal with Caleb making a pass at me, but at the same time, he needed to know what he’d been missing out on all these years.

In the end, I settled on a simple black dress with a halter neck that hinted at cleavage, while the waistline clung to my hips, flaring out to emphasise my curves. I kept my makeup light, adding just enough to heighten my features but without making it look as though I’d gone to any real effort.

Tying my hair up, I let a few tendrils curl artfully down to frame my face and I finished the look with my grandmother’s moonstone pendant.

“Not bad, Shelby,” I commented to my reflection. “Not bad at all.”

I’d spent enough time getting ready. I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to go and meet Caleb and find out what was so important that he’d had to vanish into thin air.

I managed to find a parking spot on the street not too far from the Tipsy Pig and took a few deep, calming breaths before I got out of my car. Now that I was actually here, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to talk to Caleb after all. How was I to know that what he told me would be the truth? It would serve him right after walking out on me that I did the same to him. Let him learn what it felt like to be abandoned.

Only it wouldn’t be the same. Caleb knew where I worked. If I bailed, I didn’t doubt that he’d just show up tomorrow and the next day and the day after that until I finally agreed to let him tell me whatever it was that was so important he vanished without a trace. When Caleb wanted something, he didn’t stop until he got it. I might as well get this talk over and done with and then he could go and crawl back to wherever it was he’d been hiding all these years.

I smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle from my skirt, straightened my dress straps and pushed open the door to the bar, scanning the room for Caleb. The place was packed and it took a while for me to spot him by the bar. I squeezed through the crowds and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Shelby! You made it,” he beamed, making to come and give me a hug before thinking better of it, so that we ended up shaking hands awkwardly.

“I thought you wanted to talk?” I asked.

“What?”

I stood on tiptoe so I could speak into his ear. “I said, I thought you wanted to talk? This place isn’t exactly quiet. What are we doing here?”

“Ah yes.” Caleb put his unfinished drink on the bar. “Follow me.”

He beckoned to me to go after him. I frowned in confusion when he led me straight out of the bar and onto the street.

“What kind of game are you playing, Caleb Love?” I demanded, hands on hips. “First you invite me out for a drink so we can talk, then you take me to a bar that’s so loud I can barely hear myself think and then you make me leave before I can order anything! I’m not in the mood for games, so you better give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just turn around and go straight home.”

“I’m sorry, Shelby. I really want to tell you everything, but it’s difficult.”

“Oh you poor thing,” I sneered, turning to leave.

“It’s not like that.” Caleb put out a hand to stop me.

“Let go of me or I’ll rip your arm off,” I snarled.

“Look, it’s just… I…” Caleb ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “It’s easier to show you what happened than try and explain, all right?”

“Show me?” I frowned in confusion.

“I promise you, it will all become clear real soon. I asked you to meet me here because it was close to the Bridge. If it’s all right with you, I want to drive you somewhere and then you’ll understand everything. Please, Shelby. Come with me and let me show you why I did what I did.”

Every instinct in me screamed to get out of there. What could Caleb possibly have to show me that would make sense out of any of this?

But there was a vulnerability in his eyes that made me want to give him a chance, so somehow, I found myself nodding. “All right. But if I find that you’ve been wasting my time, then so help me…”

“I’m not wasting your time, I promise,” Caleb assured me, relief all over his face as he led me to where his car was parked.

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said as he opened the passenger door for me. “I’ll follow you. My car’s just over there.”

“Please, just let me drive you,” begged Caleb. “Where we’re going, there are a few tricky turns and trails. It’ll be so much easier if you let me take you. I promise I’ll bring you back as soon as you ask me to.”

I don’t know what it was that made me agree. Maybe it was the long day at work, maybe he was wearing me down. But somehow, I found myself throwing caution to the wind and climbing into the passenger seat as Caleb buckled himself in next to me.

“If you think that I can afford to pay you the kind of money that will get you a vehicle like this, you’re sadly mistaken,” I warned him as I ran my hand over the leather trim of his new Chrysler.

“Yeah.” Caleb had the good grace to blush. “Is it wrong that I came in to help you out because I wanted to be near you rather than because I needed the money?”

“It kind of is,” I replied, although I couldn’t help but be flattered. “I mean, I really do need someone else in the store, someone who’s going to stick around permanently. What am I supposed to do when you decide that you’re bored and want to move on again?”

“Bored?” Caleb turned to look me in the eye. “Is that what you think happened?”

“I guess,” I shrugged. I wasn’t going to tell him that I also thought that he’d decided I wasn’t pretty enough or good enough for his family and a million and one other things, none of them good.

“Jeez,” he breathed. “I know I can’t apologize enough for what I did to you, but if I’d known that’s what you thought, I would have come back sooner.”

“What did you think I thought?”

“I thought you found someone else, that you got over me almost as soon as I’d gone.”

“Are you kidding?” My eyes could have popped out on stalks. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What on earth gave you that idea?”

“I heard that you were dating Brandon James.”

“Brandon?” I frowned. “I never dated Brandon. Who told you that?”

Caleb’s skin turned even redder. I used to find his tendency to blush endearing and now I was grateful that he couldn’t hide his embarrassment from me.

“Nobody had to tell me. I saw you.”

“Saw us? What are you talking about?”

“I came back for you.”

“You came back?” My heart leaped into my mouth. “You couldn’t have. Somebody would have told me you were in town. I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it or not, it’s the truth,” Caleb shrugged. “I went to your house. You have no idea how hard it was to knock on the door, knowing how much I must have hurt you, but I did it. When your dad answered, I didn’t know what to expect. He’s the kindest man I know, but for a moment, I thought he was going to punch me. Instead, he told me that you’d gone out with Brandon and warned me to stay away if I knew what was good for me. I couldn’t leave without knowing the truth, so I went to find you. When I saw you sitting in our booth at the diner, I knew your dad was right and I should leave you to get on with your life, so I left and didn’t look back.”

He turned the key in the ignition and pulled out, using his driving as an excuse to avoid my gaze.

“But I never dated Brandon, I swear,” I protested. “I used to tutor him in math. Sure, he made a pass at me once, but I made it very clear that I wasn’t interested and he’d regret it if he tried again. He was a perfect gentleman after that.”

“So your dad lied to me,” said Caleb grimly.

“It wasn’t like that. He didn’t actually tell you I was dating, did he?” I pointed out.

“Well, no,” conceded Caleb.

“He must have been trying to protect me. You weren’t there.”

“But I came back and he didn’t tell you, did he?” Caleb asked.

“No, he didn’t, but you didn’t see how upset I was. He was the one who wiped away my tears, encouraged me to go out and get on with my life when I wanted to curl up and die. I guess he just didn’t want me to get hurt again.”

“Did it work?”

Caleb glanced at me. I bit my lip, unsure of what to say. I didn’t want to feed Caleb’s ego by telling him about all those sleepless nights when I stayed up crying or the nightmares that had started up again. I couldn’t blame dad for wanting to spare me all that pain again, even as I wished he were still alive for me to ask him what he’d been thinking.

“Where exactly are we going?” I asked, glad for the chance to change the subject when I realized that we were heading in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s a secret,” came the mysterious reply. “All I can say is that it’s somewhere that’s been in my family for generations and only the chosen are allowed to visit.”

“Only the chosen?” I laughed. “What is this? Some weird cult?”

“No, nothing like that.” Caleb laughed with me. “You haven’t got anything to worry about. You’re perfectly safe with me.”

The way he made me feel, I wasn’t sure that I could agree with him. I didn’t think that I would ever be safe with Caleb. Not at all.


Chapter Five


“Are we going to Muir Woods?” I asked when I recognized the direction we were going.

“Not exactly. I told you we were going to a family place, remember?” replied Caleb. “And we’re almost there.”

He indicated to take a small turn off on the right that was so narrow, you could easily miss it. There was no sign post and the road was only big enough for one vehicle with no passing points, so I hoped that we didn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction. I could understand why he hadn’t wanted me to drive down here. I wasn’t exactly the most confident of drivers and this kind of trail was my worst nightmare.

After about ten minutes of driving in silence as I let Caleb focus on where he was going, the road opened out into a clearing with space for about twenty cars to park. We were the only ones there as he pulled up into a space, but it was clear from the tracks that there were times when it was packed.

“What is this place?” I asked as Caleb switched off the engine.

“I told you. It belongs to my family. Or, more accurately, to my clan.”

“Your clan?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean?”

“Come with me and I’ll explain,” he promised for what seemed like the thousandth time. “We’re almost there and then you’ll understand everything.”

He held out a hand to me and I took it without thinking, as he led me down a dirt track and deep into the redwoods.

“Watch your step,” he cautioned as the track narrowed and we pushed through the undergrowth. It might be that the family gathered here a lot, but it didn’t look as though anyone came to this section of the land very often.

“Almost there…” Caleb let go of my hand to hold a branch out of my way, beckoning for me to go on ahead. I pushed through and gasped when I saw what was waiting for me.

The moonlight filtered through the trees, the nearly full moon nearly as bright as the sun, revealing a stunning woodland glade. Ahead of us, a small pool was fed from a little waterfall, the moonlight glistening off the water so that it looked almost as though it was liquid silver trickling down. There was magic here. It felt as though any minute a fairy would come floating out from the trees to swim in the water.

“This is incredible,” I gasped. “I had no idea your family had anything like this.”


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