Authors: Lori Wilde
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
“I’m just trying to help.” Carol Ann sniffed. “Do you want to have to go back on those water pills?”
Bese mi asno
,” Delia said sweetly.
Carol Ann frowned. “What’s that?”
“She said she appreciates your concern,” Natalie lied, sliding the plate of sandwiches and a small amount of chips in front of Delia as her great aunt sat down. She wasn’t about to let Carol Ann know that Delia had just told her to kiss her ass in Spanish.
“Oh well. You’re welcome.” Carol Ann beamed.
Lace rolled her eyes again and bit into a sandwich. She might be quiet and dreamy, but Lace also had a sarcastic side.
Junie Mae wisely stayed out of it.
Delia crunched a chip. “Where is everyone else?”
“We’re here, we’re here, sorry to be late.”
They all turned as the two cousins by marriage, Sandra and Mignon, entered the room.
Mignon was married to Delia’s son, Michael. Mignon had been born in the Loire Valley and she’d met Michael when she worked as a winery tour guide and he’d come to the vineyard for a summer internship. They ran Mon Amour, one of the three wineries nestled in the valley of the Davis Mountains.
Sandra had been married to Delia and Rose’s younger brother, Stephen, before he’d passed away six years earlier. Sandra was in her sixties and ran Cupid’s Cup, the local coffee shop. She and Stephen had had four sons, none of whom still lived in Cupid, much to Sandra’s disappointment. Junie Mae and Sandra had gone to high school together, although Junie Mae had been a senior when Sandra was a sophomore.
There was so much family history to keep up with that sometimes even Natalie got confused about who was related to whom and how.
“You’re not too late,” Carol Ann said. “Zoey isn’t here yet.”
Mignon was the most exotic person Natalie knew and she was responsible for Natalie’s fascination with all things French. When Natalie was growing up, Mignon gave her issues of
and told exciting stories of her numerous love affairs when she lived in Paris.
Even though Mignon drank wine daily, ate her fill of cheese, and never worked out, at forty-five she was as thin as a ruler and almost as tall as Natalie. She wore her hair clipped in a short cap of brown curls, smoked slim brown cigarettes, swore like a stevedore, and did not shave her armpits, but did shave her legs.
That drove Junie Mae nuts. “Either shave or don’t shave, pick one,” she was fond of telling Mignon. “And for godsakes, if you’re not gonna shave those pits, don’t wear tank tops. None of the rest of us wanna see that.”
Mignon would just laugh at that and raise her arms over her head to show off her au naturel underarms.
, it’s hot out there.” Mignon fanned herself with a hand. She had never really adjusted to the southwest Texas heat.
“You’ll feel better after a glass of cold sweet tea,” Sandra soothed.
As the peacemakers of the group, Sandra and Natalie were more alike than anyone else in the room, although Sandra liked to keep things peaceful because she hated conflict of any kind, while Natalie, on the other hand, was terrified of losing those she loved. When things ran smoothly, Natalie felt more secure.
Sandra was plump, possessed ebony hair sprinkled lightly with gray, and lush caramel skin. Three things differentiated Sandra. She boasted the largest collection of teddy bears this side of the Pecos. She was known far and wide for her banana pudding, for which she refused to part with the recipe, but she hinted she might leave it to someone in her will. And she and Stephen had been the first interracial couple in Cupid.
Oddly enough, considering it was Texas in the sixties, their marriage had barely caused a stir. Mainly because in this town, everyone claimed that when Cupid’s arrow struck its target, there was very little you could do about it. Stephen had fallen for Sandra and that was that. Besides, she was one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. No one could hold a grudge against Sandra for long. She was an expert at killing detractors with kindness.
“I shall feel better after a glass of chilled Chardonnay,” Mignon said, “but sadly, I must wait until I get home for that.”
Sandra and Mignon helped themselves to the food and settled in at the table on the same side as Delia. Junie Mae, Carol Ann, and Lace sat across from them.
“We should go ahead and start without Zoey,” Natalie said. “Her summer school class runs long.”
“Very well,” Carol Ann said, reaching into her tote bag for a handful of letters and spreading them out in the middle of the table. She turned on her iPad. By profession, Carol Ann was a CPA, and by hobby, she was a genealogy fanatic, so it was a natural fit for her to keep track of the letters and organize the volunteers.
Carol Ann pulled a pair of snazzy pink and black zebra print reading glasses from her pocket, slipped them on, and consulted the list on her iPad. She smelled of watermelon shampoo and Dial soap. She was a bit OCD and showered two or three times a day.
Their tri-weekly meetings lasted for an hour and a half. They answered what letters they could as a group, consulting with one another, then whatever letters they weren’t able to get to, Carol Ann divided up among them and they took them home to answer. Natalie was supposed to have a response today for Shot Through the Heart. She’d already been dragging her feet over the letter—no pun intended—but after what happened that morning, she was even more confused than ever about how she would reply.
“Natalie dear, have you crafted your response to Shot Through the Heart?” Carol Ann asked.
Natalie slowly finished chewing the last bite of sandwich, stalling. It didn’t work.
“Well?” Carol Ann prodded.
“Um, not yet.” She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin.
“You’ve had the letter for a week. You know our policy. Answered within a week.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Natalie thought of the letter she’d left drying out on the window ledge after her tumble into the pond. “I’m not sure how to answer her.”
“It’s not that difficult. Just give her Cupid’s standard answer. Follow your heart.”
“But the situation is more complicated than that.”
Carol Ann twisted her mouth up. “Really, it’s not.”
“If I tell her to follow her heart and she ends up giving up her scholarship to Oxford, I’d feel responsible.”
Her aunt touched her arm. “You’re not a guidance counselor. This is just for fun. Like going to a psychic. People don’t truly expect us to solve their love problems.”
Natalie met her eyes. “Then why do we bother?”
“Someone has to answer the letters.”
“Therein lies the problem. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve never been in love, much less fallen in love at first sight,” she said, but the minute the words were out of her mouth, Dade’s face popped into her head. She saw him exactly how he’d looked that morning, bare-chested, working on his motorcycle. Another flush of heat went through her. Even now, she felt breathless and jumbled.
“Is it irresponsible to encourage someone to believe in a myth?” She posed the question she’d been wrestling with for some time.
The love-at-first-sight feelings she’d experienced for Dade hadn’t answered the question as she’d believed it would have. In fact, the feelings only raised more questions, like could she trust her feelings and was he feeling it too and what if he was an outlaw or had a substance abuse problem or—
“It’s not a myth, sugar.” Junie Mae interrupted Natalie’s downward spiral of anxiety. She balled up her napkin and made a free throw at the trash can in the corner. Sank it.
Sandra whistled. “She shoots, she scores. You still got it, Junie Mae.”
Junie Mae curled up the fingers of one hand, blew on her nails. “Highest scoring female forward in Cupid High School history,” she said to Sandra. To Natalie she said, “True love is as real as you or me.”
“But can you prove it?”
Junie Mae shook her head, looked beseechingly around the table. “I can’t believe Millie’s very own great-granddaughter is so skeptical. Y’all gonna let her get away with that?”
Junie Mae had known Millie personally. She loved to tell stories of how Millie would open up the Fant home on Pike Street for tea parties and invite the neighborhood girls to attend. Natalie was a bit jealous of that. She would have given anything to have known her colorful great-grandmother.
Junie Mae looked a bit like Dolly Parton, except with less makeup—big-busted, big-haired, narrow-waisted, blond (thanks to Miss Clairol), and she hugged everyone as if they were her long-lost sisters, pressing them into her pillowy chest. She spoke in a soft Southern drawl, sweet as Vidalia onions, and cultivated from an early girlhood in Savannah. She embraced technology. She was the first one in Cupid to own a computer and she was a social networking fanatic. “They invented Twitter just for me,” she loved to say, usually while tweeting.
“There’s a big difference between sexual attraction and real love,” Natalie pointed out, trying to convince herself more than the women around her. “We romanticize the first here in Cupid, downplay the latter.”
“Bless your little heart,” Junie Mae said. “You just haven’t experienced true love yourself, but you will one day. I promise.”
Natalie gulped, tried to ignore the fresh sparks igniting inside her as she remembered the way it had felt when Dade touched her. As if the world had come to a complete halt and nothing existed but the two of them. As if she could trust him with her life and he would never, ever betray her.
But was it just a fantasy? Real love was about more than sparks and sparkle. It wasn’t just about breathless lungs and racing hearts. When it got down to it, how did you really, truly
? She so wanted them to be right, and at the same time, she was terrified of getting plowed under by these feelings.
“Your parents were deeply in love,” Carol Ann said.
“Yes, and look how that turned out.”
Aunt Carol Ann and Junie Mae gasped at the same time.
Natalie shrugged. “Hey, I’m just being honest here. Love didn’t save them.”
“You don’t know that,” Junie Mae whispered.
“Love made them frivolous. Taking an airplane out for a nine-year-old’s picnic.” It sounded harsh, but she’d thought about it often. If her father hadn’t played hooky from work for her birthday, if her mother hadn’t indulged him, they might still be here.
“Silly child,” Delia scolded. “It wasn’t love that killed them, it was wind shears.”
“Your parents were soul mates. They were destined. They died together and they are together somewhere right now,” Sandra said staunchly.
“Love has led many people astray.” Surprised by how angry she suddenly felt, Natalie scooped up a handful of letters and waved them around. Why was she so angry when she was experiencing the very thing she’d longed to experience all her life?
“What do you mean?” Carol Ann asked.
“We have evidence right here. Dear Cupid, I’m in love with a married man. Dear Cupid, I’m in love with a man on death row. Dear Cupid, he hits me but I love him so much, how can I leave him?” She needed reassurance that she wasn’t running headlong down a dangerous path.
, many of those people are misguided. Mistaking lust or dependency for love,” Mignon pointed out.
“How are you supposed to know the difference?” she beseeched them.
“You’re just scared.” Junie Mae reached over to stroke Natalie’s forearm. “It’s understandable, considering what you’ve been through, but you can’t let fear keep you from loving.”
“I love,” Natalie said, gently putting the letters back down in the middle of the table. “I love all of you.”
“That’s not the kind of love we’re talking about.” Sadness tugged down Sandra’s mouth. “If you keep closing yourself off to love, you’ll never find it.”
“I’m not looking for it,” Natalie declared, but in her heart she knew why she was being so contentious. Dade Vega. He’d rocked her world. Junie Mae was right. She was scared. She closed her eyes, blew out her breath.
“Are you okay, sugar?”
Natalie opened her eyes, forced a smile. “I’m fine.”
“Back to Shot Through the Heart,” Aunt Carol Ann said. “We do need to answer her. If you’d rather not answer her, I can give the letter to someone else.”
Natalie couldn’t say why Shot Through the Heart’s letter had gotten such a grip on her, but it had. Now, with this fresh wrinkle in her life, she was more uncertain of her response than ever before, but she hated quitting things in the middle. “I really would like to answer it.”
“You’ll have a response for me by Wednesday?”
“Could I have another week?” Natalie couldn’t help feeling that if she figured out what she was going to say to Shot Through the Heart, it would clarify her own beliefs about love at first sight. There were so many of those bam-it’s-kismet! stories floating around in Cupid, but she had started believing they were nothing but stories. Tall tales.
That is, until this morning when she’d felt it too.
Goose bumps waltzed up her arms. Just thinking about Dade and that glorious moment in the rising sun when their eyes had met . . .
That was the problem. Right there. Those kinds of feelings made people do crazy things like give up scholarships to Oxford.
Dear Shot Through the Heart, get on that damn plane and fly to England. Now!
“I suppose I could give you another week.” Aunt Carol Ann didn’t look happy. “But if you haven’t answered it by next Monday, I’m going to give the letter to Zoey to answer.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said, grateful for the reprieve.
Carol Ann looked around the table. “Shall we get started?”
Junie Mae took the bull by the horns and opened a letter. “Dear Cupid, I’m afraid my husband is losing interest in me.”
“I’ll take that one.” Mignon waved a hand. She loved telling people how to spice up their love lives.
Carol Ann recorded the letter into her iPad. “Who’s the sender?”
“Lost the Spark,” Junie Mae said.
“Next,” Carol Ann prompted.
Lace opened that one. “Dear Cupid, I’m desperately in love with a man who doesn’t love me back.” Her pale face colored and she shoved the letter at Sandra. Lace refused to answer letters dealing with unrequited love. “You take that one.”