Heart's Desire-1st Three Chapters

September 13, 2017

 

Psalm 37:4 Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

One

“Aiden, you have a couple of customers waiting in your office. One of them said she’s here to buy a new car.” Lilly’s adoring grin always made Aiden feel uncomfortable.

 The red-headed receptionist at Weaver Dodge had been accused of sending the best sales to him. If that was true, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was the owner’s son and everything to do with her school-girl crush. Unfortunately for her, he had absolutely no interest in pursuing the matter.

Aiden leaned across the counter toward Lilly and spoke just above a whisper. “Is there someone else who can take them? I need to pick Kensli and Riley up early from daycare today. I’m taking them to the parade.”

Shiloh’s Christmas parade was always the first Wednesday in December. In this small South Carolina town, you were either a spectator or a participant. Most businesses closed early on the day of the parade. Aiden always took the kids, but this was the first year Kensli would really know what was going on. They had been talking about it all week at the daycare. She was so excited, which only made him look forward to taking her even more.

“Everyone else is busy. If you want, I can pick the girls up for you. We can be back and ready to head out as soon as you’re done.” Lilly covered Aiden’s hand with her own as she gazed up at him with her doe-like brown eyes.

This girl was as obvious as a wig on a baby. She’d been trying to get him to ask her out since she started working at the dealership six months ago. Even if he was interested, she was at least ten years younger than him, which was definitely not what he needed.

He slid his hand from beneath hers. “That’s okay, Lilly. Hopefully it won’t take too long.”

He almost felt guilty at the deflated look on her face. He brushed it off, reminding himself that he’d never encouraged her. Aiden hadn’t been on a single date since Jenna left him over two years ago, and he had no desire to start.

When Lilly said he had a couple of customers, the two women studying the pictures on his wall were not what had come to mind. One of them was dark and curvy, the other pasty-white and reed thin, and both probably old enough to be his momma. An old Paul McCartney song started playing in his head.

“Good afternoon, ladies. My name is Aiden Weaver. What can I help you with today?”

The dark and curvy one introduced herself as Aunt Ginger, which was strange. She wasn’t his aunt. She informed him that her green-eyed companion was Jamie Foster. Instead of telling him what they wanted, Jamie gestured toward the wall covered in pictures.

“Do these babies belong to you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He took a step closer so he could point them out. “My oldest is Kensli, and this little one right here is Riley.”

The other salesmen at Weaver Dodge liked to poke fun at him because his wall was covered in photos of his girls, while theirs displayed pictures of cars. He was sure the boss would’ve protested if the photos in question hadn’t been of that man’s own grandchildren.

“I couldn’t help but notice, their mother is in none of these pictures. She didn’t pass, did she?” Jamie touched his arm and gazed up at him with a look of concern, along with a sort of misplaced excitement that left him feeling confused.

“No, ma’am. She left us a couple of years ago.”

“So, you’re divorced?”

“Yes, ma’am.” A year after Jenna left, he’d been served with divorce papers. She’d given him complete custody of the girls, so he’d had no problem signing the papers. He didn’t need a wife. They were doing just fine without her.

Jamie patted his arm. “I’m so sorry to hear that. It must be rough raising two little girls on your own.”

Aiden felt a tingling at the back of his neck. Her somber words didn’t match her expression. How could he end this conversation without being rude? “Not at all. Our lives are infinitely better without her.”

“This one here looks just like you.” The inquisitive woman tapped one of the pictures of Kensli.

The truth was, neither one of the girls looked like him. Kensli had blond hair and blue eyes like him, but that was where the similarities ended. Riley looked even less like him with her jet-black hair and chocolate-brown eyes. He understood the curiosity, but the details were no one’s business. He’d learned long ago not to respond to the overt remarks.

The one calling herself Aunt Ginger placed a hand on her hip and huffed. “Jamie, we didn’t come here to waste this young man’s time. Son, I’m looking to buy a car. Can you help me?”  

“Yes, ma’am. I sure can. Let’s have a seat while you tell me what you’re interested in.” Relieved to move away from the subject of his personal life and finally get down to business, Aiden moved around his desk and waited for them to take a seat before sitting down.

“Now, the last time I was here, I dealt with your granddaddy, God rest his soul, and he sold me a brand new, 1970 Challenger. I want another one just like it.”

He scratched his head, trying to think of the best place to find what she was looking for. “We do have a selection of used cars, but most don’t go back that far. I can search around for one and see what we can come up with, but it might take some time.”

“You don’t understand. I don’t need another 1970 Challenger. I still have the one your granddaddy sold me. I want a new one, but I want it to match the old one.”

Aiden tried not to look surprised. “We might have to special order it. It’ll probably cost a little more than one you’d pick off the lot.”

“That’s fine. It’s what I expected. Now my Beulah is Plum Crazy Purple with black stripes, a spoiler, and a hood scoop. I brought a picture with me, just let me find it.”

While Aunt Ginger dug around in her purse that was the size of a small suitcase, Jamie leaned in and smiled with the purpose of grabbing his attention. “So, are you seeing someone?”

Was she flirting with him? “No, ma’am. I haven’t dated since my wife left, and to tell the truth, I haven’t had much interest in it.”

The dating part would’ve been all right. It might be nice to have someone to hang out with in his free time, but he had no desire to feel the pain of rejection like he had when Jenna left. It may have been different years ago, but no one stayed together anymore. Most of his friends were separated or divorced—except for his best friend, Caleb. He said he was waiting for the one God had in mind for him. Aiden wondered if his friend wasn’t just plain scared that he might end up with someone like Jenna.

“Jamie, I know what you’re up to, and I don’t think this young man would appreciate your matchmaking skills.” Aunt Ginger gave her friend a pointed look even as she handed a picture across the desk to him.

“Yes, but he’d be perfect for Bailey. Don’t you think, Ginger?”

“No offense to Mr. Weaver, but we don’t know anything about him. Bailey has been hurt by enough men already. I’ve said it before, you need to leave that girl’s future in God’s capable hands.”

Aiden had to admit, he was a little put out by her comment. She made it sound like it was always men doing the hurting. That hadn’t been his experience.

Jamie’s shoulders dropped along with her smile. “I know, but I just hate to see two people by themselves who are lonely and broken when I know they could help each other heal.”

Aiden tried to relax the tightening of his jaw. How did she know if he was lonely and broken, or not? Even if it was true, she didn’t have to state it out loud like she did, right there in front of him, as if he wasn’t listening. He wanted to leave this whole discussion behind and fast.

Aiden cleared his throat and held up the picture when both women looked his way. “Miss Ginger, this sure is a pretty car. You said you want all the same features? Do you know what options this one came with, like what motor and transmission does it have?”

“It came with a Hemi. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Hold on, I have the original paperwork.” She went back to digging in her purse while he pulled up the special-order form on his desktop computer so he could start plugging in her order. It was time to move things along. He had a parade to get to.

“Do you go to church, Mr. Weaver?” Jamie was back at it again.

“You can call me Aiden, and yes, ma’am, I attend Community Fellowship over in Bethel Ridge where I live.”

This added an extra gleam to her eyes, if that was even possible. She bumped her friend’s arm. “Did you hear that, Ginger?”

“Yes, I heard him.” She sounded just as annoyed as Aiden felt.

He reached for the faded pages she handed across his desk and started matching options with those on the computer screen. He tried to ignore the two ladies sitting across from him. Hard to do with him being the obvious topic of conversation.

When he was done, Aiden turned the computer screen toward his customer and started reading off specs as fast as he could but slow enough that she’d still be able to understand what he said. He wasn’t even thinking about the girls or the parade as he hurried along. He just wanted these women out of his office before Jamie started trying to set up a date between him and this Bailey.

Aunt Ginger flipped open the purple, rhinestone-encrusted reading glasses hanging from the beaded chain around her neck and perched them on the end of her nose. Her finger moved back and forth across the screen as she read each item listed.

He took a quick glance over at the friend and immediately brought his focus back to his customer, praying she’d hurry. The gleam in Jamie’s eyes made him feel like fresh roadkill about to be devoured.

“Perfect. Let’s do this. Go ahead and place the order, son. How long will it take to get here?”

“It usually takes around six weeks or so. After I send the order in, I’ll get a confirmation email with an estimated date of delivery. I can give you a call as soon as I know something. I’ll just need to do a credit check to finish this up.”

“That won’t be necessary. I’ll be paying with cash.”

He tried to keep the shocked look off his face. She looked like your average everyday citizen, not someone who had this kind of dough to dish out on a brand-new, special-order vehicle.

“Okay, then I’ll just need your full name and address, and a down payment.”

This time there was less digging in her purse when she pulled out an overstuffed billfold. She slipped her license out, handed it to him without looking up, and then flipped to her checkbook and started writing.

Bertha Thompson. That was the name on her license. This woman was full of surprises and curiosities. Aiden couldn’t help but look at the dark hair of the one sitting before him and compare it to the picture on her ID. It was definitely the same woman.  If Aunt Ginger was a nickname, it sure was an odd one. She certainly didn’t have the red hair and freckles usually associated with the name Ginger.

Another peek at the smirk on Jamie’s face, and he was pretty sure she knew what was going through his mind at the moment. He went back to plugging the information into the computer at record speed.

After finishing up, he walked the ladies to the door feeling pretty good about his last transaction of the day. He still had plenty of time to pick the girls up and make it to the Christmas parade, and he was already looking forward to his commission from this sale. Plus, he’d managed to avoid any more digs into his personal life.

Almost home-free.

Aiden opened the door for the ladies to walk through, and Jamie stopped and turned to look back at him. “Will you be coming to Shiloh’s New Year’s Eve ball?”

He looked to Aunt Ginger, hoping she’d intervene like before, but all she did was raise her brows in question. “If you want, I can add your name and your date’s, if you have one, and you can pay your fee later.”

They both looked innocent—too innocent. Did they have an ulterior motive? The New Year’s Eve ball was Shiloh’s biggest event as it also marked the anniversary of its township. Since Jenna took off, he’d avoided that celebration like the plague. It was an event made for couples. If you didn’t bring a date, you were matched up with one. A shudder went through him. Right now, neither option sounded appealing.

“Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.” It was a diplomatic answer— noncommittal and one that wouldn’t offend his new customer.

Ginger shrugged a shoulder. “Well, don’t wait too long to think it over. We’re almost at capacity now.”

“I won’t. You ladies have a good evening, and I’ll be in touch shortly about the car.”

As soon as the door shut behind them, Aiden went for his jacket and headed out the back before anything else caused a delay.

 

Bailey Foster checked the settings on her camera, snapped a picture of her assistant, Macey, and then checked the image on the screen to make sure everything was just the way she wanted it.

“Bailey, are you ready to go yet? It’s too cold to stand in one spot.” Macey shifted from one foot to the other, her breath coming out in a white fog.

She smiled at the impatient teenager. “I’ll remind you of that when we get to the end of this and you start complaining about how tired you are and that your feet are hurting.” They had a long walk ahead of them as they followed the parade route from beginning to end.

The parade would start at three o’clock, so the floats had begun lining up on First Street just after lunchtime. Bailey walked down the line taking photos of the set-up. The sky was cloudy with an occasional appearance from the sun, making it a perfect day for pictures, but the cold had her fingers feeling stiff and clumsy. Macey had it right, it was too cold for standing still. She wished now that she’d worn something thicker than leggings under her skirt.

The Shiloh’s Elite Academy float was the last to line up. As she approached, the kids began to wave excitedly.

“It’s Miss Bailey!”

“Hi Miss Bailey!”

“Cheese!”

She snapped pictures as their greetings rang out, taking extra care to get a shot of every child on this float. These would be going up on the bulletin board in the front office of the daycare center.

One would think running a photography studio would be enough to keep anyone busy, but Bailey always felt she had too much time on her hands, so she’d also taken a part-time job at the academy. She was the official art instructor, which was a really pretentious title, considering the homely projects the preschoolers turned out. Despite her lack of experience, the owner, who was desperate for help and willing to work around Bailey’s photography business, hired her without question. Plus, she enjoyed spending time with the kids.

It was a good thing she didn’t work there on Wednesdays, or she would’ve had to ask for the day off to take photographs. Sure, the parade was lots of fun, but it was also a way to drum up business for the studio. As she focused on taking pictures, Macey followed along handing out business cards with details of how they could acquire photos from the parade. Hopefully, they would remember her the next time they needed a photographer.

Bailey checked her watch. She had ten minutes before the procession would start. Moving along the parade route, she headed down Main Street and started taking photos of the spectators. Eventually the parade would catch up to her. She anticipated the shots she’d get once the action started. Every once in a while, there would be another shout of Miss Bailey. She tried to throw her hand up each time, even if she couldn’t locate the caller among the crowd.

Just about the time the parade caught up to her, the first snowflakes began to fall. Everyone cheered and there were smiles all around. The forecast had only called for the possibility of a few flurries but nothing more. As long as it didn’t start coming down in earnest, this would make for some awesome shots. She steadily snapped pictures of those in the crowd and of the floats passing by.

One little boy caught her attention as he stood with his face up to the sky trying to capture snowflakes on his tongue. He seemed oblivious to the action around him. He reminded her of her ex-husband’s son, Tristan. She had so much wanted to be a mother to the boy, but her efforts were doomed from the beginning.

Bailey’s momma was the one who had introduced her to Jason Holis, and it had been a whirlwind romance from the start. He was a widower with an adorable little boy. After one date that included the three of them, Bailey had been head over heels.

Just three months after they met, the big white wedding with all the trimmings happened. A task made easier by the fact that marriage was the Foster family’s business. Bailey’s parents owned the Little Bit of Love Wedding Chapel. Daddy officiated and Momma did the planning. Every wedded desire could be met all at one place in their hometown. In addition to Bailey’s photography business, there was also a florist, a caterer, and a bridal shop owner in the family, not to mention a hair dresser and a dance instructor. All helped to make that big day even more special.

Everything had been picture-perfect for about six months. Then Jason started making trips to Columbia to see his sister, Trinity. These trips always seemed to fall on the weekends she had a photo shoot scheduled. Every time he loaded Tristan’s things into the car to head off without her, she felt abandoned.

The visits became more frequent, until about two weeks before their one-year anniversary when Jason sat Bailey down and told her that he’d fallen in love with someone else. He was headed to Columbia again and told her not to be there when he got back. She cried and pleaded to no avail. He claimed she was making things worse than they needed to be. Good grief, how much worse could it get?

Bailey moved back in with her parents thinking it would only be a temporary arrangement. Eventually, he’d come to his senses. Two months later, she was served with divorce papers. She had no idea a marriage could be dissolved that fast, but apparently, there was nothing to it if you were willing to admit to adultery. Bailey took back her last name, and Jason married his sister’s best friend, Olivia, the day after the divorce was final.

“Are you okay?”

Bailey lifted her camera and began snapping pictures without looking back at Macey. “I’m fine.”

A rumble sounded behind her, vibrating in her chest. She turned, anticipating the classic car, and watched as it slowly made its way down Main Street. The purple paint gleamed in the faint sunlight, as if a fresh coat had been applied. She snapped several pictures and then smiled and waved as Aunt Ginger passed by.

When she stopped to change her memory card, Bailey heard her name being shouted. She knew before looking up, that the high-pitched voice could belong to none other than Jamie Foster. Sure enough, here she came, barreling across the street right in front of Shiloh High School’s marching band with her hand up as if she was directing traffic. The majorette’s eyes widened at the near collision.

“Bailey! Wait up. Oh, for goodness sakes, you can’t hear a thing with all this noise.” Her momma threw the band members a scornful look as they passed by while Bailey squatted down next to the parade route and resumed taking pictures. The band members’ black and silver uniforms against the gray sky above made for some awesome shots.

Momma pulled her teal peacoat closer together beneath her chin as Bailey turned and snapped a picture of her. “I just wanted to tell you, I found the perfect man for you. He has a good job, he’s a Christian, and he’s raising the cutest little girls all by himself.”

She stood and continued taking pictures as she spoke. “I told you after the last guy that I didn’t want you setting me up anymore. If I’m meant to date again, please just let the man ask me on his own, without interference.” Bailey gave her a pointed look before she started walking again. She had a job to do, and if her momma wanted to talk to her, she’d have to keep up.

“I’m not trying to set you up. He’s a car salesman. All you have to do is go to his job and act like you’re interested in buying a car.”

Bailey pulled her camera down and looked at her momma. “So now you think I’m so desperate that I need to lie and stalk a man just to get a date.” She shook her head and started walking again.

Momma followed. “Just listen. It isn’t like that. You really do need a car. Would you just stop…”

Bailey whipped around suddenly. “No, you just stop. Just stop it, Momma. I don’t mean to be mean, but that’s enough. I do not need or want you to set me up with a date. Look at where your meddling has gotten me so far.”

Her momma just stood there with her mouth open. She didn’t follow when Bailey turned to walk away, but guilt trailed along with her every step of the way.

Bailey squeezed her eyes shut. She hadn’t talked back to her momma since she was a teenager. But she deserved it. Hadn’t she tried being polite? It didn’t help. Maybe being rude was the only thing that would get through to the woman. Bailey walked on, taking pictures until the very end, but all the joy had been sucked out of the event.

 

 

Two

As soon as the parade started to wind down, Aiden began pushing Riley’s stroller toward the truck. He’d purposely parked at the beginning of the parade route so they could leave before everyone in Shiloh tried to head home at the same time. He stopped every so often to point out interesting floats rolling by. He missed the days when both girls could ride in the stroller together, but Kensli put up a fuss every time he even suggested it.

Every once in a while, someone would call out to him, and he’d either throw his hand up or say a few words in passing, depending on how well he knew them. Right now, his biggest concern was getting the girls to the truck. Then he saw someone who stopped him in his tracks.

His ex-wife was headed right for them. Jenna held on to the arm of the man walking next to her with both hands. Aiden wanted to turn away. He wanted to hide the kids from her, as if seeing them would make her want to take them from him. But there he stood, as if his feet were plastered to the ground. Kensli held on to the side of the stroller, and he placed his hand on her shoulder for his own peace of mind.

Jenna’s hair was darker and longer. She was thinner and wore more makeup than he ever remembered her using before. A tight pair of jeans and a short leather jacket completed the look. Everything about her style was different, but she could still turn heads.

He knew the exact moment when Jenna recognized him. Her eyes widened slightly before she turned and placed a kiss on the man’s shoulder. The man looked down at her, saying something that only she could hear, causing her to smile up at him. Aiden watched as they passed by until they disappeared into the crowd.

“Did you know that woman, Daddy?” He looked down into a pair of innocent blue eyes. Kensli didn’t even remember her own momma.

“No, honey, I thought I had, but I didn’t. Are you ready to get out of the cold and maybe get some hot cocoa?”

“Are we going to see Santa Claus first?”

Looking toward the procession going down the street, he could just make out the end of the parade. “He’s almost here.”

He checked on Riley to find that despite the noise, she’d fallen asleep. They started walking toward the truck again. As Santa’s sleigh got closer, he stopped and picked Kensli up so she’d have a better view. Trying to hide how shaken and distracted he really felt, he pretended to join in on her excitement.

How could he have been so stupid? It should’ve been obvious from the beginning that he and Jenna were never meant to be together. It was embarrassing and just plain wrong how fast things moved after they met. Aiden had resisted temptation from the time he’d first noticed the differences between girls and boys until he was twenty-four years old, but it took Jenna less than a week to break down that guard. A month later, she came up pregnant. Two weeks after that, they were married. And six months after the wedding, their first daughter made an early entrance into this world, weighing in at eight pounds, fourteen ounces.

He wasn’t stupid. He could do the math. But one look into Kensli’s face, and it was love at first sight. Besides, God had forgiven him of his sins, who was he to hold his wife’s sins against her—especially ones made before they even met. He had no reason to believe she’d stepped out on him once they were together. As far as Aiden was concerned, the baby was his.

It wasn’t until six months later that he began to suspect Jenna’s unfaithfulness. She started going out with the girls. She called each one by name as she would recount one of their escapades, but the funny thing was, he’d never once met one of these women. If he asked too many questions, she’d accuse him of not trusting her. Well, she had a point.

Eighteen months after Kensli was born, they had Riley. Aiden was in love all over again. A couple of things were noticeably different about Riley. Her hair was jet black and she had chocolate brown eyes. Now how did two blond-hair, blue-eyed people end up with a baby with dark hair and eyes? If he hadn’t been there when she was born, he would’ve sworn there had been a mix up at the hospital.

He couldn’t help but notice the strange looks coming from family and friends as they would hold the new baby and study her features. Finally, Caleb just came out with it. “Man, you need to get a DNA test on this one.” Then his gaze moved on to the firstborn. Kensli may have had Aiden’s coloring, but other people could do math too.

Being Aiden’s closest friend, Caleb Palmer was probably the only person who could say what he thought without causing anger. His friend’s suggestion had freed him to examine the facts for himself.

When he started questioning Jenna, life became unbearable. They argued all the time. After a month of constant bickering, Aiden decided to let the issue drop. What did it matter anyway? He loved the girls as his own.

The arguing quietened down, but things still weren’t right between them. They didn’t touch. They didn’t kiss. It was like they were living in two separate worlds but together. Aiden began to wonder what was in this marriage for him. Jenna stayed home all day, but he did all the cooking and cleaning. She managed to take care of the girls until he got off from work, but then they became his sole responsibility. Taking the kids to a daycare while he worked would’ve been no different. He may as well not have a wife, and six weeks to the day after Riley was born, he didn’t anymore.

He’d returned home from work and opened the front door to an empty house. She’d taken practically everything they owned. His first thoughts were of the girls. Panic closed off his throat as he raced through the house to the nursery. He breathed a sigh of relief when he opened the door to find Kensli playing on the floor with some scattered toys and Riley asleep in her crib. How long had they been there alone? The thoughts of what could’ve happened were terrifying.

Thankfully, that was all in the past now. Aiden buckled the girls into their car seats and was headed around the back of the truck when someone called his name. He turned and saw Caleb dodging through the crowd. He waited for him next to the tailgate.

“You need a ride?”

“Nah, man…” Caleb ran his fingers through his dark hair. The nervous gesture put Aiden on immediate alert.

“What’s up?”

“You’ll never guess who I just saw.”

He lowered his voice. “Was it Jenna?”

“You saw her too?”

He nodded as he laid his arms across the top of the tailgate.

Caleb placed his hand on Aiden’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I haven’t seen or heard anything about her in over a year. I was hoping that meant she’d moved out of the area.”

“Maybe she’s just here for a visit.”

“I hope so.”

“You still love her, don’t you?”

Aiden turned and looked at his friend. They’d been over this before. He would’ve thought of all people, Caleb would know better by now. “What makes you think that?”

“You look upset. I figured the only reason you’d have to be upset is if you still loved her.”

“No, I don’t love her. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m just angry. Do you know she walked right by us and never once glanced at the girls? What kind of woman does that?”

“You’re not mad because she’s with another man?”

“I couldn’t care less about that. I can’t even tell you what the man looked like. I only care about what effect her actions will have on the girls. Why do you keep bringing this up? I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t love her.”

“Well, you don’t date. You know, when it comes to a broken heart, what we say is not always real.”

“I don’t date because I don’t want to get burned again. That’s the only reason. All right?”

Caleb held his hands up between them. “No problem. I get it. You don’t want to get hurt again.”

Aiden moved around toward the cab of the truck. “I’ve got to get the kids out of this cold. You sure you don’t need a ride?”

“No, I’m good. I’m parked on the other end. I’ll see you later.”

“Later.”

 

Bailey took one of her shoes off and massaged her foot. “Why’d I wear boots today?”

“Because, like any self-respecting, Southern woman, you care more about looking good than you do about being practical.” Without looking up, Sadie continued unpacking their supper from the takeout bag. “Are you coming to eat?”

“Did you remember to get me two spring rolls?”

Sadie rolled her eyes. “How could I forget? You order the same thing every Wednesday. Chicken with broccoli and two spring rolls. No fried rice, duck sauce, no imagination.”

They had been taking turns ordering Chinese takeout every Wednesday before church since Bailey had moved into this tiny apartment above her parents’ garage—right after Jason kicked her out. Sadie’s order was always whatever was on special that day. She enjoyed the variety and the surprise of never knowing what she’d get. Bailey had tried other stuff, but the chicken with broccoli was her favorite, so why bother with anything else?

After repeating the process with her other foot, she started toward the kitchenette to join Sadie when she heard the tap, tap, tap of doggy paws on the floor coming up behind her. She turned and pointed back toward the living room. “Winston, you know the rules.”

The little brown and white Yorkiepoo gave her a soulful look before turning and slowly making his way back over to his bed next to the couch. He stopped and looked over his shoulder several times along the way, hoping she’d relent. After turning in a few circles, he settled down, his gaze going back toward the kitchen table, just in case Bailey changed her mind.

Sadie insisted Bailey had paid way too much money for a mixed-breed mutt. She didn’t care. She could count on Winston for unwavering love, making him worth every penny as far as she was concerned.

 Bailey sat down at the two-seater table. “So, what did you get?”

Sadie picked up a puffy pastry with her chopsticks and waved it in front of her before dipping it in the red sauce on her plate. “Crab Rangoon. Want a bite?”

“Ew. No.”

Bailey picked up one of her spring rolls and rocked it between her fingers, taking in the crispy goodness while anticipating that first bite.

“Are you not going to wash your hands?”

“My feet are clean.” She took a big bite of the roll and smiled at her friend.

 “So, I heard you and your momma got into it right in the middle of Main Street. Who was she trying to set you up with this time?”

Bailey gave an exaggerated huff. “Some car salesman, and I can’t believe you heard about that already.”

“That’s what you get for hiring my little sister to work for you. A car salesman, huh? I don’t think I’ve ever met one who wasn’t a little creepy.”

“She wanted me to pretend I wanted a new car just to scope the guy out.”

“Well, you do need one.” Sadie tucked her chin as she wiped red sauce from the top of her white blouse.

“There’s nothing wrong with my Cavalier.”

Sadie looked up from the spot she’d been unsuccessful at removing. “It’s over fifteen years old.”

“So. It still runs. Besides, I happen to like my car.”

Sadie pushed her plate away from her. “Are you going to do it?”

Bailey popped the last bite of spring roll into her mouth and spoke around it. “Do what?”

“Check the guy out?”

“No. I asked Momma if she thought I was desperate enough to tell lies and become a stalker just to get a date.” Guilt pricked at her. “I think I really hurt her feelings.”

Sadie leaned back in her seat. “Well, good for you. No offense to your momma, but she pushes you around way too much.”

“Would you have talked back to your momma like that?”

“Are you kidding me? My mom would knock me into the middle of next week if I did something like that. Besides, she doesn’t even want me to date.”

Bailey could practically hear Karen Harding’s opinion about such things. The only reason to have a relationship is to get married, and a woman shouldn’t need anyone else to make her feel complete. This world is crowded enough without bringing more into it. Why would anyone want to bring a child into this cruel world?

No doubt, the woman was just bitter over the fact that she’d been left to raise two kids alone. Bailey knew how it felt to be abandoned by the one you loved, but she didn’t think she would’ve been too upset at gaining a couple of babies. It would’ve been a better return for her broken heart than what she had now—nothing.

Three

Aiden stared at the email giving the delivery date for one special-order, Plum Crazy Purple Dodge Challenger for Bertha Thompson, AKA Aunt Ginger. Two days had passed since she’d made the order, but the day’s events were etched in his mind.

He picked up the phone and punched in the number from the computer screen in front of him before he lost his nerve. It would’ve been easier to email her, but he was looking for something more than just letting her know the delivery date. Aiden recognized the deep Southern twang of the woman answering the phone.

“Miss Ginger, this is Aiden Weaver over here at Weaver Dodge. How are you doing this morning?”

“Fine, just fine. Is there a problem with my car?”

“No, ma’am. I just wanted to let you know that your Challenger is scheduled to be delivered January the twenty-eighth.”

“That’s wonderful news. Will I be able to pick it up that day?”

“As long as there are no problems, which I don’t expect there to be. I’ll give you a call as soon as it’s ready so you can make arrangements to come get it, or if you’d prefer, someone can pick you up and bring you back here to finalize everything.”

“That sounds good. Sounds very good indeed. Listen, would it be possible for you to email this information to me? I’d like to print it out for my records. Do you have my email address?”

He felt like a fool. This is what he should’ve done to begin with instead of calling. “Yes, ma’am. I’d be happy to send it to you.”

There was a long pause before she spoke again while he silently begged her to bring up Shiloh’s New Year’s Eve ball again. She’d asked him about it a couple of days ago. He hadn’t been interested at the time, but things had changed.

“Was there anything else on your mind, son?”

He cleared his throat. This wasn’t going to be easy. “When you were here, you told me that if I wanted to go to your town’s celebration, you’d put my name on the list, and I could come by later to pay. Is it too late to do that?”

“Why, no. I’d be happy to add your name. Are you bringing a date, or would you like the committee to pick one for you?”

“They can pick for me. That would be fine, but I’d like to pay for me and my date. Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t feel right otherwise.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. I do like a gentleman. I’ll let the committee know. You can go by the town hall to pay, or you can come by the annex building. I happen to know someone will be there today to take your money and information. There’s a lot to do to get ready for the big day.”

“Thank you, Miss Ginger. I’ll do that, and I’ll send you that email as soon as I get off the phone.”

“Thanks, Aiden.”

He said his goodbyes and then sat staring at the phone for a moment. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his blue dress shirt. He’d almost lost his nerve, but it was done. Too late to back out now.

After seeing Jenna at the parade on the arm of another man, he’d thought of little else. She’d moved on, so why hadn’t he? That night he’d decided to get back into the dating game. If for no other reason, it would prove to himself and everyone else that he was no longer attached to his ex-wife.

His friends and family had given up trying to set him up on dates long ago. If he told them he was ready to date again, there wasn’t a one of them who wouldn’t jump at the chance to help find him that perfect mate, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Casual was fine for now. That’s what was so perfect about the New Year’s Eve celebration. He’d be set up with a complete stranger. There would be no pressure for a lasting relationship from a blind date.

Just before lunchtime, Caleb showed up unexpectedly. Aiden had planned to use part of his break to head to the annex building and pay for his ball tickets. He’d had no intention of telling anyone just yet, but his friend was sure to find out soon enough. Might as well be today. “Hey man, what’s up?”

Caleb smiled as he thumped Aiden’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Nothing. Just thought I’d let you treat me to lunch.”

“You out of money again?” He knew that wasn’t the case. Caleb ran a fairly successful roofing company. This was one of their ongoing jokes.

“Today’s payday. I’m good at least until Monday. But I know how privileged it makes you feel to pay my way. I didn’t want to deny you that pleasure.” Their jokes didn’t always make sense.

Aiden grabbed his coat, pulling it on as he walked toward the door. “I just need to make a quick trip to the city annex building, and then we can eat.”

He made a point of not looking at Caleb as they walked toward the truck. Any moment, his friend’s curiosity would pique and the questions begin. As he drove toward the annex, they used the short trip to catch up on the past couple of days. There wasn’t much to talk about other than work.

The parking lot was full. Aiden didn’t plan to be there long, so he just pulled up to the front door. Caleb followed him in but still hadn’t asked what they were doing there. Maybe Aiden could talk him into signing up too. It might be easier that way. As far as he knew, Caleb had never attended the ball.

A silver-haired woman stood at a table just inside the door, gathering stacks of papers into a pile.

“Ma’am, I came by to pay for my tickets to the ball. Miss Ginger Thompson said this was the place to be.”

Her blue eyes peeked out between gray eyebrows and a pair of bright red reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. “Aunt Ginger signed you up?”

It would seem that everyone called the woman Aunt Ginger—even those who were obviously older than her. “Yes, ma’am. Just this morning.”

“One moment.” She flipped through the stack of papers, while grumbling about the fact that it was past time for lunch.

“You signed up for the ball?”

Aiden could feel Caleb’s stare even as he carefully kept his gaze trained on the woman before them. “Yes, I did.”

“Who are you taking?”

Aiden cleared his throat but still didn’t look at his friend. “The Couples Committee is picking someone for me.”

“What if they set you up with the wrong woman?”

He finally turned to look at Caleb. “It’s just one night. It isn’t even a real date. If it doesn’t work out, we just won’t see each other again.”

“Is this about Jenna?”

It sort of was about her, but he couldn’t tell him that. “I’m just ready to date again, okay? I didn’t want a setup from one of my friends. I thought this would be less complicated. That’s all.”

“I found it.” The lady across the table pulled her glasses further up her nose. “It says here that you plan to pay for your date’s ticket as well, but you want the Couples Committee to do the choosing.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s right.”

“Male or female?”

“Ma’am?”

She looked up through her reading glasses which magnified her blue-gray eyes. “This ball is being put on by the city, so we have to ask. Do you want a male or a female date?”

The temperature in the room suddenly felt ten degrees hotter. “Female.”

She wrote his choice on the piece of paper in front of her. “That’ll be two-hundred and forty dollars.”

He pulled a fold of money from his wallet and counted out the correct amount while she wrote a receipt.

“What about you, young man? We still have a few spots left, and men are usually in short supply.”

Caleb glanced at him before looking back at the woman. “If the man pays for him and a date and the woman pays for herself, what happens to the extra money?”

“Any money that’s not used for this year’s celebration goes into a fund for next year.”

“In that case, I just want one ticket, and I definitely want a female date.”

He looked a little put out as he handed the woman his money and gave his name and information, but it didn’t bother Aiden. He was just relieved he wouldn’t be going into this alone.

 

“Oh good, you’re still here.”

Bailey turned from unlocking her car door to see Aunt Ginger heading her way across the academy’s parking lot, the ends of her green scarf bouncing with every step. She’d never hunted her down like this before. Something must be wrong. Thoughts immediately went to Momma. Bailey hadn’t spoken to her in three days. What if something happened? She never wanted her last memory of her momma to be one of her running off at the mouth the way she had.

The woman pursed her lips together and shook her head as she looked at Bailey’s car. “I can’t believe you even bother locking that thing. My offer still stands. If you ever want to get a decent car, I’d be happy to co-sign for you.”

Bailey relaxed a little. If Aunt Ginger was taking the time to trash-talk her car, nothing could be too much wrong. “I love this car. It’s a classic.”

“Honey, my Challenger is a classic. Don’t you go throwing them in the same category. This thing, well…” She just shook her head again.

It was a 1999 Chevy Cavalier. The red paint was faded, and one of the windows no longer worked. There was a hole in the muffler. Bailey definitely wouldn’t be sneaking up on anyone in it. This was the first and only car she’d ever owned. Despite all the jokes and comments it invoked, she really did love her car. As long as it still ran, this was what she’d be driving.

“Did you come all the way over here to talk about my car?”

Aunt Ginger tilted her head down and looked up at Bailey as if she was looking over a pair of glasses, but they hung on the beaded chain around her neck. “Are you trying to get smart with me now too?”

“No, ma’am.” She was duly chastised. She’d never tried it, but Bailey somehow knew her disrespect wouldn’t go over as easy with Aunt Ginger as it had with her momma. She stood as patiently as she could, waiting for the woman to make her point, all the while trying not to think of the fact that she had a photography session to get to.

“Here, I came to give you this.” There was an envelope in her outstretched hand which Bailey slowly reached for. She studied Aunt Ginger’s features, trying to determine if she was angry or not.

She pulled a card from the unsealed envelope. “What’s this?”

“It’s a ticket to the ball.”

She knew that much. What she didn’t understand was why it was being given to her. “I didn’t sign up for the ball. I mean, of course I’ll be there taking pictures, but I’ve never needed a ticket before. Does this mean…”

Her mouth went dry. She’d attended the ball every year, but after her failed marriage and a broken engagement, it had never been with a date. She hadn’t needed to purchase a ticket before. She’d just show up, take pictures, and grab a bite to eat in the kitchen with a few other hopelessly single women who were just there to work and be a part of the festivities without actually participating.

Every time anything went on in Shiloh, Bailey was there to capture it with her camera. She was the unofficial town photographer. She’d send the pictures in to the local paper, and they would pay her a small amount for her troubles.

“I didn’t purchase this ticket.”

“Well, it has been taken care of, none the less. I expect you’ll be getting a letter from the Couples Committee soon with your date’s name and contact information. Maybe you can coordinate your outfits and get to know one another before the big day, if you so desire.”

“Did Momma set this up?”

Aunt Ginger placed both hands on her ample hips. “Jamie had nothing to do with this. You don’t have to marry the man, but there’s nothing wrong with two young people getting together for our town’s celebration. You’ll be surrounded by a bunch of people the whole time. It probably won’t even seem like a date. Do you have a dress yet? And I don’t mean that tired, brown one you’ve been wearing for the past few years either.”

Bailey had planned to wear the same dress. It was fine for what she usually did at the celebration. She liked fading into the background when she took photos. She got better shots that way. Now she’d definitely have to go shopping.

“I’ll find something.”

“If you need money, just let me know. I got you into this thing. It’s the least I can do.” Bailey wondered, and not for the first time, where the woman got her money.

“I’m sure I can manage.”

“Good, good. Well, let me get back over to the annex. There’s still lots to do. I’ll see you Sunday at church.”

Bailey got into her car and headed toward the studio. She must have been on autopilot, because she hardly remembered the trip. She hadn’t dated much in the last couple of years. In fact, her last date had been about nine months ago. Now she was about to be set up on a blind date by a committee who probably didn’t know a thing about her or the man they would set her up with.

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