"And now, a very generous, warm, and loving donation from our resident pet expert and owner of Pet's Plus, Jillian Snow."
Jillian smiled at her friend Brenda, then looked out over the audience that filled the theater. Recognition and a smattering of applause were unnecessary. These people were her friends and neighbors. They knew she always donated something from her pet store for the Valentine's Day benefit. This year, she'd decided to match up a kitten or puppy with a loving family. After all, everyone--everything --deserved love on Valentine's Day.
So why was she spending the evening at a community benefit instead of snuggling up to some handsome devil on her sofa? Because you're just too darn picky, she answered her own question, stepping forward, smiling, and giving the audience a small wave to get this show on the road. And maybe because you've never met another man who curls your toes like the one who broke your heart, she silently added.
"Let's start the bidding for a puppy or kitten, food and goodies, at twenty-five dollars," Brenda continued when the audience settled back down to the serious business of the annual Valentine's Day auction. "And remember that Jillian will give personal attention to whoever is the highest bidder, making sure your new pet is settled into your home."
Brenda should be on one of the home shopping channels, Jillian thought, amused at her friend's various skills.
"Twenty-five dollars from Mrs. Crabtree. Do I hear thirty? Thirty from Dr. Taylor at the Women's Clinic. Thirty-five from our new librarian, Mandy Thompson."
Brenda knew everyone in town, Jillian thought with a smile. Gossip was Brenda's full-time job now that her daughter was in school. Before that momentous event, she'd had to juggle child care with obtaining and passing along "special news" about her friends and neighbors.
Jillian kept the smile on her face as she looked up the aisle toward the darker rows of the small, old theater. She'd come here nearly every weekend when she was a child, and the smells of popcorn and spilled soda were still the same. She and Brenda and sometimes Brenda's twin, race-walking, giggling, jostling down the aisles, trying to get the best seats without making so much noise that they'd get a stern lecture from Mr. Potter. Or, even worse, that he'd tell their parents the next time they ran into each other at the grocery or at church. You just couldn't get away with much around Mr. Potter.
Now, when she occasionally went to a movie in the Scottsville theater rather than the larger complex in Tyler, she was thankful he still ran it with a firm --albeit more aged and wrinkled --hand and a sharp ear for kids who disrupted the show.
Boy, was she getting old! It seemed like just yesterday when she and Brenda sat side-by-side, with Brad two or three rows back, throwing Gummy Bears at them. The silly memory made her smile again.
She could almost imagine the little boy who was skipping down the row as her childhood tormentor, except this boy was too young, and his hand was firmly held by a striking figure of a man. Too bad the darkness kept her from seeing who approached. He looked vaguely familiar, she thought as he raised his hand in greeting to someone on the stage, but she couldn't place him. Not that Scottsville had many newcomers. She'd just like to know. Darn, was getting as nosy as --
"And fifty dollars from my dear brother Brad Patterson, who has just moved back to Scottsville!"
A smattering of applause punctuated the elevator drop that was her stomach. Jillian felt her mouth fall open like a dead guppy. She probably resembled one too, with her eyes round and her skin pasty white. At least, that's how she felt. Brad Patterson was moving back to town? Why hadn't someone told her? Why hadn't Brenda told her?
She tore her gaze away from the man now standing in the light from the stage --the man with broad shoulders and slim hips, holding the hand of a boy that had to be his son Jeremy --and stared a hole through Brenda. Unfortunately, her friend went on happily taking bids, pushing up the price to sixty-five dollars with a smile and a bit of chatter about everyone.
Darn it, Brenda, why didn't you tell me? Jillian wanted to ask. Why surprise me in front of practically the whole town? She felt like running for the curtains, down the back stairs and out into the early darkness and cool temperatures of this February night. She was sure her cheeks, at least, had gone from pasty white to fluorescent pink.
"Seventy-five," her childhood nemesis announced in a clear, deep voice. Jillian's attention snapped back to the later arrivals. Jeremy jumped up and down beside his dad, clearly delighted with the bidding. Darn it, this wasn't fair! When had Brad's voice gotten so rich and soft? When had he gone from gangly teenager to hunky father?
She narrowed her eyes. While he was off at Texas A & M, making new friends, dating other girls. Marrying someone else. Yeah, that's when, she reminded herself, staring a hole through him now. However, he was just as oblivious to her darkening thoughts as his twin sister, who was trying to drive up the price even higher.
One other bid came in from the doctor, then Brad spoke up again. "Let's make it an even hundred," he said with a charming smile that had everyone agog. Jeremy tugged on his hand, trying to pull him closer to the stage.
No, no, no! Jillian wanted to shout the words. She didn't want to deal with Brad, helping him pick out a puppy or a kitten for another woman's child. Showing him how to feed the little critter, litter box or paper train it, and give it toys for teething and amusement. This wasn't fair!
"Going once, going twice," Brenda said in a cheerful voice, looking around the theater. "Sold to Brad and Jeremy Patterson for one hundred dollars."
Jillian watched as father and son approached. Brad looked at her with intense, all-knowing eyes that seemed slightly amused by the whole scenario. His lips turned up ever so slightly in what she preferred to think of as a smirk. Certainly not a real smile. The man could have purchased a pet for his son anywhere else for far less than a hundred dollars. No, he'd bid on purpose, to make her uncomfortable. He might as well be throwing gummy bears at her again!
The urge to run was stronger the closer he got, but she wasn't about to show him how much she wanted to be anywhere but on this stage. As he swung Jeremy up the steps onto the old wooden floor, Jillian suppressed her need to jump back. Brad took the steps two at a time, still smiling --or smirking, depending on one's attitude --while he approached his sister.
Brenda immediately rushed to Jillian's side, giving her a bone-crushing hug and a big dramatic smile. The move made Brad alter his approach, turning toward her now. She swallowed the feeling of panic that threatened to overwhelm all her senses.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she whispered to Brenda between clenched teeth.
Brenda simply raised her eyebrows in an innocent look that wouldn't have fooled anyone. "Isn't this the best?" she gushed to everyone within earshot. "The three of us, just like in the old days!"
"Hardly," Jillian whispered, again for Brenda's ears only. Humiliating oneself wasn't the goal of the Valentine's Day benefit, although the Patterson twins seemed to be intent on that very goal.
"Jilly," Brad said in that deep, bedroom voice that he'd acquired sometime in the last eleven years.
"It's Jillian," she said, raising her chin. "Or, if you prefer, Miss Snow."
Brad gave her a dark, soul-searching look for just a moment before his nostrils flared and his lips twitched. No doubt in amusement, Jillian thought. Then he bent toward his son.
"Jeremy, this is Miss Snow. She owns the pet store where we're going to get your new puppy."
"Jeremy ..." Brad said in warning.
"Sorry," the cute little boy said in a non-apologetic voice before rushing on. "Hello, Miss Snow. When can I come and get my puppy?"
"Hello, Jeremy. You can come by anytime the store's open. Maybe your Aunt Brenda would like to bring you over? I'd sure like to talk to her," Jillian said, ignoring Brad and giving his sister what she hoped was a look that would chill red pepper sauce.
"Oh, I just couldn't," Brenda said, sidling away from Jillian. "I have so much to do for the benefit. Doing a final tabulation, calling people. I'm sure you understand. Now I have to get busy with the auction. You two get acquainted again," Brenda said with a big smile.
"She should be wearing a T-shirt that says 'matchmaker,'" Jillian murmured.
"Pardon me?" Brad said. "I didn't catch that."
"You weren't supposed to," Jillian replied, not looking at him. "So, Jeremy, you'd like a puppy rather than a kitten?"
"Yeah! A really cool puppy. Do you have any of the spotted ones like in the movie?"
"The Disney movie from a couple of years ago. It's his favorite video," Brad explained. "He means Dalmatians."
"Yeah, Dalmatians! I want one of those."
"I'm sorry, but I don't have any Dalmatians, Jeremy. Maybe you and your father would like to wait until I get some in."
"And when would that be?" Brad asked in an amused voice, as though he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"Oh, who knows? I'm sure eventually someone in the area will get a Dalmatian and have some puppies."
"Could be years."
Jillian shrugged. "Could be."
"I think we'll go with what you have in stock."
"I wouldn't want to rush you," she replied. "Jeremy might have his heart set on a Dalmatian."
"I'm sure he can find something else he likes equally well."
"I don't know ..."
"Daddy, I want a puppy," Jeremy said, trying to interrupt.
"I believe I know both you and my son pretty well," Brad said in an amused voice that compelled her to look at him once again. He ignored his son's comment, focusing totally on Jillian. The heat from the stage lights sent a whiff of his cologne toward her, making her draw in a deep breath as she tried to discount his looks.
"I figure you'll get in a Dalmatian puppy about the time he goes off to college," he tossed out lightly.
Jillian noticed a few of her fellow shopkeepers walk up behind Brad on the theater floor, ready to talk. Well, she wasn't about to let him go. Not with that juicy line dangling in front of her.
"Oh, would that be before or after he broke up with his childhood sweetheart?" Jillian said with enough sarcasm to stop him in his tracks.
"Score one for the angry pet store owner," Brad said, losing some of his amusement as he made an imaginary mark with his right forefinger.
"Who's angry?" Millicent Gardner asked, her lavender-gray curls tipped to one side as she peered up onto the stage. "This is supposed to be fun."
"Yes, isn't it?" Jillian replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "I haven't had this much fun in eleven years."
"Oh, my," Millicent's sister Greta said. "I think we've come at a bad time."
"Not at all," Brad said, turning to the ladies. He hunkered down on the stage so the elderly women wouldn't have to look up so far.
Oh, yes, ever the thoughtful one, Jillian thought. So thoughtful that he'd purchased a puppy from the one person who never wanted to see him again. Who couldn't stand the sight of him. Who didn't want to be in the same theater with him!
Mr. Potter walked up, joining the ladies. "Well, well. Brad Patterson. Haven't seen you in ages."
"I've got to go," Jillian announced, unwilling to participate in the Patterson fan club. "Some of us have to work tomorrow."
"We're working tomorrow," Millicent supplied, obviously a bit confused by the hostility lurking just beneath polite conversation.
"Of course you are. We couldn't get through the morning without a fresh cinnamon roll and coffee from the Gardner Bakery," Jillian said with a smile for the two older women.
"She means him," Greta whispered to Millicent, giving her sister a little punch in the ribs.
"As a matter of fact, I'm working tomorrow too," Brad said. "I may even bring my computer down to the bakery and work there for a couple of hours."
"Oh, my. We've never had a computer in the bakery before."
"I'm sure you'll survive," Jillian said as she walked down the steps. "It probably doesn't eat much."
Mr. Potter laughed. Jeremy giggled. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jeremy, if your dad can pull himself away from the cyber-cafe long enough." She channel-surfed cable television enough to throw around a high-tech phrase or two!
She couldn't resist watching Brad's blue-gray eyes narrow. They no longer appeared so warm and inviting. Good. She didn't want warmth, teasing, or anything else from Brad Patterson. She didn't even want him in her town.
"I'm sure I can find time," he replied. "As a matter of fact, we may need lots of time for Jeremy to make up his mind. Hours, even. And then there's all that personal attention you promised."
Hours with Brad and his son in her small shop, or giving him "personal attention" wherever he'd be living? She didn't think so. If necessary, she'd paint black spots on a white puppy and pass it off as a genuine Dalmatian --a direct descendent of one of those movie dogs --before she's allow him to linger any longer than necessary.
"I'm usually pretty busy. Let's try to make it brief."
"That's not a very charitable attitude, Jilly."
"I reserve my charity for valid organizations, not for every man who happens to drift through town. And that's Miss Snow to you. As in cold, pristine, untouchable snow."
"Or one might say harsh and frigid snow," Brad replied, his own eyes narrowed.
Jillian place both fists on her hips. "One might, if one wanted a black eye."
"Daddy, does it snow here much? It don't snow much in Houston."
"Not now, Jeremy." Brad advanced toward the stairs. "Or as in Snow White?"
The old nickname nearly pushed her over the edge. Her nails bit into her clenched fists as her childhood nemesis walked closer. "That's enough."
He stopped well within her personal space, making her want to step back. She didn't, although she wished she had when she inhaled deeply and smelled the rich scent of his cologne ... again.
"Or how about pure, melt in your mouth snow," he whispered. "I remember eating snow just like that one time. Very fresh, very tasty."
Her face heated so fast she felt as though she might go up in flames. How dare he? The urge to smack that all-knowing look off his face was so strong that only years of overcoming the stigma of a red-head's temper kept her hands clenched at her sides.
"Not very filling, though, was it?" she said through clenched teeth. "One minute it's snow, and the next it's just plain old melted water."
She turned on her heel before he could say anything else, nearly running up the aisle to escape his presence. Oh, Lord, why had he decided to move back to town? This couldn't be happening to her. Not now ... not again. Life wasn't fair!
The darkness of the February night surrounded her as she pushed open the double glass doors and rushed from the theater onto the town square. The cool air caressed her warm cheeks. And what was that moisture --rain? No, not a cloud in the sky. She dashed away the tears with a swipe of her hand as she headed for her apartment above the pet store.
Darn it, this town just wasn't big enough for both of them! And as far as she was concerned, Brad had given up any right to call Scottsville home eleven years ago when he'd driven off to college ... and out of her life.
Brad shut the door to Jeremy's bedroom, listening for a moment to make sure the tired but active four year old didn't try to get out of bed for a last few minutes of play before succumbing to sleep. All was quiet in the big old house. Just a few creaky floorboards, he noticed as he trod lightly toward the stairs. He'd have to get them fixed ... or maybe he'd leave the squeak so that Jeremy couldn't sneak out of the house when he became a teenager. Looking at his son now, that time seemed far away. But Brad knew how fast time could fly. Just look at how quickly eleven years had passed. Eleven years since he'd moved away from Scottsville and out of Jillian's life, he mused as he walked slowly downstairs.
Lord, how she'd changed! He'd only seen her from a distance when he'd returned briefly to visit Brenda and her family. Unknown to his former girlfriend, he'd drive by her pet store, or cruise by her father's house just on the outskirts of town. Once he'd seen Jillian working in the yard; another time he'd seen her through the window of the store, laughing with a customer. But he hadn't seen her up close and personal. His gut still hurt from the figurative punch he'd taken when he'd seen her standing on the stage, wearing a form-fitting red dress, smiling out at the audience.
He flicked on the overhead light in the kitchen and headed toward the refrigerator. The curly, carrot-top hair that had given Jilly such fits as a child had turned into shimmering waves of red and gold. Her freckles had been tamed, but he noticed a few scattered across her nose and perched on her high cheekbones. Her skin was still pale and clear, as unlined and fresh as when she was seventeen.
And that tall, gangly girl's body had filled out in all the right places --even more so than when he'd explored it as thoroughly as possible in stolen moments beside the lake, in his car, and on her couch when her parents played cards. The memory of her pale, freckled breasts and firm, round bottom caused a reaction that any teenage boy --not to mention a twenty nine-year old man --would have been proud of.
He grabbed a cold soda from the 'fridge and thought briefly of using it to cool off the memory-induced reaction. Shaking his head and laughing at his plight, he settled his hips against the counter and popped the lid. Did Jillian have any idea what she was doing to him right now? Probably not. She no doubt assumed he was angry over her caustic remarks. Well, he had been, but not for long. He couldn't hold a grudge when what he really wanted was to kiss the bitterness from her lips. Not when his goal was to make her remember the good times and believe that there were many more ahead.
Moving back to Scottsville hadn't been entirely for Jeremy, as Brad had told Brenda and anyone else who'd asked. He might have moved to any small town where children could still play in front yards and walk downtown safely. Brad knew he could have relocated somewhere else with good schools and a strong sense of community. Maybe even somewhere closer to Houston, where his ex-wife still lived and worked.
But Jillian didn't live in those small towns. After four years of college and several years of marriage to a woman so unlike his former sweetheart that they could barely be compared, he'd returned to his senses. He'd returned to Jillian.
Of course, she didn't know that yet ... and he wasn't about to tell her the real reason he was back in Scottsville. Not that she'd believe him, he thought as he took a sip from the sweating can. Her cutting remarks about their break-up and his purchase of a pet for Jeremy had hurt, plus they'd reminded him what an uphill battle winning her back was going to be. He was up for the challenge, though. He had an arsenal full of weapons, not the least of which was their still smoldering desire for one another.
Oh, she'd tried to hide it, he knew. But he'd seen the look of interest on her face before she'd realized who was walking down the aisle toward her. He'd seen the way she protected herself by hugging her arms across her breasts. She's fisted her hands to keep from popping him a good one. She'd looked into his eyes, reacting with a woman's instinct when she noticed the interest there. Oh yes, Jillian wanted him, too. She just wouldn't admit it to herself yet.
Soon, he swore as he finished the can of soda. He crushed the aluminum in one hand, then scored a three-pointer in the trash can across the room. Soon, he vowed, smiling to himself as he flipped off the light and walked toward his bedroom.