by T. A. Hampton
“Good morning, Fair Lady!”
Conner swept into the store from the back room where he’d just checked the delivery schedule. Deirdra looked up the counter and greeted him with a smile that rivaled the daisies behind her. She was in the middle of a large arrangement of stargazer lilies.
“Hello, Conner, you big tease.”
“You wound me, Deirdra.”
“If the truth is too painful to bear….”
“Ouch.” Conner clutched at his chest as if he’d been shot with an arrow. He moved in behind the counter to look over her shoulder at the order she was working on. “Another Valentine wedding, I see. Ah, let’s see, who is it this time?” Conner turned the work order so he could read the names. “I give it a year.”
“Conner!” Deirdra turned and smacked his arm. “Don’t mock.”
“I wouldn’t dare. Romance and love are, after all, my livelihood.”
There was a rude sound like a snort of laughter from his backpack. Conner dropped the bag on the floor and kicked it out of the way, but thankfully, Deirdra didn’t seem to have noticed the sound.
“I have a full day of deliveries. I’d best get to it.”
“I have reinforcements coming in this afternoon,” Deirdra said, turning back to her arrangement.
“You remember Niko? He’ll be delivering part-time through the holiday.”
Deirdra glanced up at his tone. Conner turned away and retrieved his bag heading for the back room and his delivery list.
“Oh, come on, Conner. You’re not still angry about what happened last year?”
“What’s to be angry about? I just don’t like the guy, that’s all.”
“Well, you’ll probably rarely see him. If at all.”
“I’d better go load up.” Conner bent to retrieve his bag before returning to the back room.
“Need a hand?”
“Nah, I got it. You’ve got your hands full with that wedding.”
In the back, Conner checked the delivery log again and began removing arrangements from the refrigerator. Smaller ones went into boxes to be loaded into the back of the delivery van. There was one larger arrangement destined for a local funeral home. Conner liked those sort the least. Death was so contrary to his nature.
Once loaded, Conner climbed into the front of the van, carelessly tossing his backpack onto the passenger seat beside him.
“Ow! Enough of the abuse!”
“Oh, shut it. You’ll live.”
Conner took a moment to remove the heart-shaped box from his bag and set it on top of the bag. With a quick glance at his itinerary, he put the van in motion.
“I thought you were going to give me to the girl.”
“I am.” Conner shot a glare at the box. “I will.”
“It won’t work, you know,” the box continued. “You’re doomed. Cursed.”
“Shut it. It’s different this time.”
The box only laughed. At a stop light, Conner stuffed it roughly back into his bag. He studiously ignored any further attempts to draw him into useless conversation. Instead, he focused on making his deliveries.
Usually, when he delivered flowers to offices or homes, he was met with smiles and happy greetings. Today, however, his most cheerful delivery was the to the somber funeral home. One woman evenburst into tears and threw the flowers back in his face. Conner tried to catch the vase, but it slipped and shattered on the ground in a puddle of baby’s breath and roses, splashing him with water and bits of floral foam as it fell.
When he climbed back into the van, the box of chocolates was laughing at him again from inside the backpack. Conner pulled it out, ready to tear the box to pieces.
“Doomed,” it whispered.
The fat, baby angel on the box lid mocked him. An arrow clutched in its chubby hand. Conner hated the image. He wondered how on Earth had he ever become associated with this image.
But the box was right. He was doomed.
Conner put the box back into his bag. He put the key in the ignition, ready to head back to the store and call it a day. He started the engine, put his hands on the wheel. But rather than put the van in reverse, he dropped his head onto the wheel.
“Good afternoon, Fair Lady!”
Conner swept into the store from the back room, this time, the box of chocolates with the chubby angel baby in his hand. Let the fool box try and speak now.
Deirdra’s soft laughter ceased at his entrance. Only then did he realize the lady wasn’t alone in the store. Leaning insolently on the counter across from Deirdra was Niko.
“Conner.” The other man didn’t rise, instead picked up a Queen Elizabeth rose, twirling it in his hand.
So much for never seeing the bastard.
“Play nice, boys.”
“You needn’t worry for my sake, Deirdra.” Niko turned to Deirdra and held out the blushing pink rose. When she moved to take it, he took hold of her hand and lifted it to his lips. “Until later.”
Niko brushed past Conner on his way into the back room, nearly knocking the box of chocolates from Conner’s hand.
“I’m glad your back, Conner,” Deirdra said once Niko was gone.
Conner joined Deirdra behind the counter and watched her carefully arrange the roses. He never tired of watching her work.
“I finished the wedding flowers, and I’d hoped you would be back in time to deliver them.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“What? No. Nothing like that.”
Conner tossed the box onto the counter, momentarily forgetting what he held. The pudgy Cupid stared up between them.
“What’s this, Conner?”
“Uh, I—. I got you a gift.”
Conner dared to lift his gaze to hers, ready to find the anticipated rejection. But her eyes only glinted with merriment, and her lips lifted into her signature smile that never failed to raise hope in his chest. He forgot how to breathe.
Deirdra’s gaze returned to the box, and the spell was broken. Conner could breathe again. He watched her hands as she moved to lift the box lid. The angel stared back at this with a mocking gleam in its eyes. Conner moved to prevent her opening the box, then saw again Niko lifting her hand to his lips.
She lifted the lid. Inside were a dozen tiny Cupid figures, all with bows drawn. Conner nearly groaned in despair. He’d forgotten how ridiculously childish the candies must seem, especially in light of Niko’s suave charm.
“What is this, Conner? Are these supposed to be arrows shot to my heart? Make me fall in love?” Laughter danced in her eyes.
“Haha!” Conner laughed, the sound one more of desperation than of mirth. “I don’t know, Deirdra. Did it work?”
“Hmm. Let’s see.” Deirdra plucked a chocolate cherub from the box and lifted it to her mouth. Conner couldn’t look away. She bit the candy, letting it melt on her tongue. Her eyes closed as she savored the sweet. “Mmm. That’s good chocolate.” She held the box out toward him. “You want one?”
Conner glanced at the candy, but gave a slight shake of his head. He knew a little too well what was possible with just a taste. Been there, done that. A tiny bit of chocolate clung to her lip, and Conner wanted nothing so much as to lean in to kiss her. Before he could, however, Niko returned from the back room.
“Deirdra, you want me to deliver those wedding flowers? I’ve plenty of time.”
“I’ve got the wedding flowers,” Conner said, turning to Niko in irritation.
“Sure thing, Conner. Just offering to help.”
Niko didn’t return to the back room, moving instead to stand in front of the counter. He reached for a chocolate before Conner even realized what was happening.
“What are you doing here, Niko?”
“I forgot my keys,” Niko said, popping the candy cherub into his mouth.
“Hey, that’s—.” Not yours. Conner finished the thought silently as Deirdra handed Niko a set of keys from behind the counter.
He watched as their hands touched. Watched the secret smile on her face, the one that dashed all his hopes. The cherub on the candy box grinned up at him in malicious delight.
“I’ll see you later,” Conner said turning away from the bitter scene. “I’ve got flowers to deliver.”
As he passed into the back room, Conner plucked a yellow carnation from a bucket of flowers. He glanced back over his shoulder at Deirdra and Niko. With a sigh he turned away and dropped the flower back into the bucket.
It was true then. In every age he was fated to find the most beautiful woman on Earth. Doomed to fall madly in love with her. And cursed to watch her fall in love with another man.