She licked her lips. It was all the encouragement he needed.
He kissed her and kissed her again, until his heart felt like it would fly away with the butterflies.
Summer’s gaze caught his. She smiled. No, she smirked at him, and then blew a kiss his way, like she knew exactly what he’d been reliving.
His jaw clenched.
Not again. This time he wouldn’t be weak. He would remain strong.
The humid morning had turned into perfect North Carolina summer weather with blue skies, fluffy clouds, and the occasional gentle breeze. Couples strolled along Broad Street, while downtown employees exited the local eateries with take-out bags. American Flags waved, in honor of the soldiers still serving in a war on a foreign land.
Ladybugs flittered by, almost too quick to catch. Her hand shot out, closing around one. A mother pushing a double stroller gave her a strange look as she passed by. Slowly opening her hand, she found the red and black insect on the corner of her palm. The perfect companion for killing time while waiting for Harrison Collins to get back from lunch.
It wasn’t easy walking along the streets of a town that hated the very thought of her, but it was her own fault. Perpetuating the every-Holland-woman-was-after-your-man legend seemed to have that effect on people.
Not to mention the times she’d padded her pockets in the General Store with cans of fruit, toothbrushes and toothpaste, or slipped a pair of shoes for Skye in her purse, without paying. But her sisters had been hungry, she had been in charge, and none of them had money.
There had been a big part of her that demanded she take from the people of Holland Springs. People so high and mighty that they couldn’t help three little girls who went to bed hungry every time their mother didn’t bother to come home from her ‘dates’, but let them have a relationship problem? They practically beat down the front door of Strawberry Grove.
Three little girls left to defend for themselves. Three little girls who wore clothes decades out of date. Clothes stored in steamer trunks that smelled of dried flowers.
Tiny feet tickled her skin as the bug crawled. A small smile pushed up the corners of her mouth. She held up her hand, puckered her lips, and blew gently until the ladybug flew away.
Her sister, Rose, hadn’t minded, mostly because Azalea would give them some story about each item belonging to a particular Poppy Holland. Summer hadn’t believed her for one minute.
Okay, so she had believed her mother, maybe even smiled and giggled as Azalea sighed dreamily about the former lovers of their great-something or another grandmother.
When Azalea was home, the entire house came alive. They’d spend hours giggling, making love potions, and chasing Blackbeard. Hours and hours playing in an old house full of ghosts, make-believe, and laughter.
All that changed when Azalea had finally agreed to quit homeschooling them—not that anyone could call learning math, science, and reading from the family’s potions book a state-approved curriculum. The baby had wanted to go, and no one said no to Skye, so off they went.
The window of a children’s dress shop caught her eye. She stopped and turned. Child-sized mannequins, all sweetly dressed in ruffles and bows, with matching shoes, were on display.
Summer held her hands out at her sides, the reflection of her fingers touching the smaller, plastic ones. She and her sisters had walked, hand in hand, to the end of their road to wait for the bus. Just the three of them, with dust on their scuffed-up shoes and anticipation making their little hearts beat fast.
Anticipation had quickly turned to dread when they couldn’t find a seat and kids began to whisper, until, that is, a familiar face with a friendly smile had flashed from the back of the bus.
Gabriel Edwards—their guardian angel. He’d waved them over, giving up his seat to sit across the aisle.
Bittersweet emotions gathered in her chest. In the darkest and happiest hours of her life, Gabriel had been there for her. Except once. But it had been enough to sever the ties that had bound them together.
A sharp whistle pierced her memories.
Not this. Couldn’t she walk down the street without someone harassing her? With a frown, she glanced over her shoulder, but only found the town’s trash collectors pointing at their next stop.
She tucked her hair behind her ear, and then resumed her walk.
The Bradford Pear trees lining each side of the street had gone from showy white blossoms to full-on lime green leaves. Shop doors were propped open with daily sale signs, or large pots of in-season flowers.
Her thoughts turned back to Gabriel (as if he’d ever left them). She had to see him today. That glimpse of him, standing in the window of his office, had taken her breath away. She wanted her breath back, and the only way to do it was in person.
Candles set out on a half-off sale table sparked to life as she passed by them.
Mr. Crane, a middle-aged man wearing a paisley shirt and striped shorts, looked from the lighter in his hand, then back at the table. He scratched his head. “Lisa sent me trick candles. No wonder they didn’t sell,” he muttered, heading back inside his shop.
Summer bit back a smile, running a finger along one candle, making the flame dance and her skin grow hot. Water dripped on her cheeks from the green and gold striped awning. She turned and walked away, swiping at the moisture.
“Stop right there, missy.”
Missy? Summer pivoted on her heel, arching a brow at Mr. Crane. “Can I help you?”
“You can help me by putting back the candle you just stole from me.” Mr. Crane’s eyes narrowed as he crossed his arms. The supersized black magic marker stuck out on one side. If she pulled it, would he go flying in the air like a balloon shooting out helium?
The marker flew out of his hand, hitting the store’s brick façade.
“I didn’t take your candle.” She yanked open her purse. Humiliation coursed through her veins, heating her skin as she waited for him to search it. “See for yourself.” A part of her wanted to tell Mr. Crane where he could stick his candle. And maybe if she wasn’t so tired of playing the immature shrew, she would have.
Mr. Crane poked a finger in, moving around her wallet, brush, lip gloss, and roll of lifesavers. He glanced back at her. “Pockets?”
“Seriously?” She gestured at her shorts, the pockets ripped and showing through the bottom, as they lay perfectly flat against her body. Stepping to one side, she squatted on the ground and looked under his table. “I see a candle by the left side, in the back.”