When Charlie first walked into Carol Gilman's confectionery, she was in a pretty good mood. She had several errands to run, but the sun was shining brightly on a warm February day, something that almost never happened back in Wisconsin.
Ever since the end of the Patriot War, things had been looking up for her and her family. She and her mother had reached an agreement of sorts and had even managed to put aside a lot of their differences. Texas had employed not only her, but Miles and Bass as well. The two men had fixed their friendship and seemed to be well on their way to being best friends once again. And she had more than made her peace with Bass.
"Hey, Charlie," Carol said as soon as she entered. "Looking for anything special today?"
"Actually, I am." Charlie glanced down at the bakery case in front of her. Since the end of the war, Texas had entered into trade agreements with Central and South America, meaning sugar, flour, and cocoa beans were easier to purchase. Several bakeries had popped up around Austin, and in Willoughby, Gilman's had become a staple for both baked goods and candy. "I really loved those chocolates my grandpa had last week. Do you have any more?"
"Sure do. Let me just grab a box from the back."
While Carol went in search of goodies, Charlie's thoughts returned to Bass; she never called him Monroe anymore. They'd even become roommates, moving into a house not too far from her grandfather's. It made sense to both of them, considering they worked together a lot, and it was easier to discuss their jobs living under the same roof. Rachel hadn't been nuts about it, but she'd kept quiet, probably because Miles had convinced her that it was safer all around to have someone like Bass watching Charlie's back.
And it had worked perfectly for the past six months. But lately, Charlie had noticed her feelings for Bass had been...changing. He was on her mind a lot, and she hated being at home when he went out on assignment for a few days by himself. At first she chalked it up to the quietness of an empty house, but she'd quickly come to realize it was Bass himself that she missed. She missed chatting with him about her day and hearing about his; she missed the long talks they had deep into the night. She missed his sarcasm, his laughter, his voice. And it was right about then she knew she was in trouble.
She couldn't fall for Bass; the entire idea was preposterous. He was General Monroe...she was Charlotte Matheson. But none of that seemed to matter anymore. The heart wants what the heart wants. And it seemed after all they'd been through, her heart wanted Bass.
Of course, she had no idea how to even approach the subject. She suspected the attraction might be mutual, but she really didn't know how to bring it up to him. So for now, she was sticking with the friendship they'd forged and being happy in the knowledge that Bass didn't seem to be interested in any of the woman in Willoughby, despite more than a few trying their hardest to change that.
"Do you need anything else?" Carol asked, walking in from the back room.
"No, that should do it." Stepping over to the counter, she shook a few diamonds into her palm. "How much do I owe you?"
"Three diamonds." While Charlie separated the stones, Carol wrapped the box in white paper, another commodity the Republic of Texas had brought back to its people. "Oh, Bass was in here earlier."
Charlie looked at Carol. "He was?"
"Yeah, he was picking up chocolates for a Miss Jackson," Carol said, tying the wrapping with twine to hold it in place. "I would imagine it was for a date. He requested some of my freshly made chocolate covered strawberries. You know I have to make those fresh everyday, otherwise they just go bad. But they are very romantic, don't you think?"
"I suppose so." Charlie tried to control her breathing, tried to keep the tremble that was starting at her feet from spreading to her hands. Who in the hell was Miss Jackson?
"Well, he seemed very excited. And today is Valentine's Day, you know. Time for all those secret admirers to come clean to their sweethearts." The older woman just kept talking, not having any clue that Charlie's entire world was shattering in front of her. But how would Carol know? Everyone knew they lived together, but to all of Willoughby, it was simply a platonic arrangement. "Although, I've got no idea who Miss Jackson is. The only Miss Jackson I know in town is old Edna Mae, but she's about 85. Can't imagine Bass meant those for her."
"No, probably not," Charlie whispered. She wasn't sure how much longer she was going to be able to hold it together. Grabbing her box of chocolates, she headed for the door. "Thanks, Carol."
Out on the street, she ducked down the nearest alley, pressing her back to the wall and sliding down it. Struggling to catch her breath, she fought back the tears that threatened to escape. Bass had found someone? It had to be someone in Austin; someone she wasn't aware of; someone he was spending all those nights with when he went out of town.
And he'd never mentioned a thing about it to her. If they were such good friends, why hadn't he said anything? Or had he figured out her feelings and felt it was best not to tell her? That thought sort of dug at her. Like he thought she was some high strung woman who would cause a scene. Like he thought she had to be handled with kid gloves. Like he thought she was just going to spend all her time being heartbroken over him.
More angry now than sad, she stood up and straightened out her jacket. The hell with him. If he'd found someone else, then that was just fine. She'd find someone else too.
Stepping back out of the alley, she headed across the street to the men's clothing store. She'd promised to pick up a shirt that Rachel had ordered for Miles. He and her mom were out of town for a romantic weekend in Austin, and while part of her was happy for them, the other part of her kind of wanted to gag at the very thought of exactly what that meant.
But actually, she was happy for them, and she realized if she cared as much about Bass as she thought she did, she should be happy for him as well. If he'd found someone to love and care for, who would do the same back for him, she shouldn't begrudge him that. As much as it might break her heart, she couldn't deny him a chance at finding peace. More than just about anyone else she knew, Bass deserved a happily ever after.
With a heavy heart, she walked into Brennan's Clothiers. Dennis, the shop's owner, nodded as she entered. "Charlie, hi. I have that shirt your mom ordered."
Pulling a box out from a cupboard, he laid it on the counter. "There you go."
"Do I owe you anything?"
"No, Rachel took care of it." He leaned forward on the counter and signaled her closer. "And can I just say, your uncle is one of the worst customers I've ever had to measure and size a shirt for. If it wasn't for your mom, I think he'd live in the clothes he's had for the past 10 years."
Despite her slightly sullen mood, Charlie chuckled. "Yeah, I guess he would."
"Bass was in here earlier." Charlie's head snapped up. "Now, he is a man that is easy to tailor for. Maybe it was all those years spent in Philadelphia. I imagine he had to be fitted for uniforms more than once or twice."
"I'm sure." Not certain she wanted to hear about Bass and his new woman, she tried to cut the conversation short. "Well, Dennis, I have to-"
"I just hope he's happy with that new shirt and jacket. It was some of my finer material, so it cost him a bit, but he didn't seem to mind. I suppose Miss Lee isn't exactly going to mind either." Dennis winked at her.
Charlie's eyebrow raised. "Who?"
"Miss Lee. He must have some big date with her because he ordered these clothes three weeks ago. Picked them up today."
Her blood started boiling from her toes on up. Who in the world was Miss Lee now? She could learn to deal with a woman in Bass's life if it was a woman who meant something to him. But to have dates with two separate women...that she couldn't handle. As far as she could tell, Bass had dropped his womanizing ways; apparently, she'd been wrong. So very wrong about a lot of things. And it pissed her the hell right off.
"I'm sure they're beautiful, Dennis. And I'm sure he loves them." Walking out the door, she muttered to herself. "If he ever gets to wear them once all his broken bones heal."
No longer in much of a mood to run errands, she forced herself to make the last stop. She'd told her grandfather she would pick up flowers he'd ordered for Valentine's Day. Gene had found love again after Marion's death and was planning a big night with his special lady. Geez, even her grandfather had a date. As much as she loved him, that didn't make her feel any better.
Her disposition running even fouler as she walked to the flower shop, she mentally scrapped all the other plans she'd had for the day, which involved dropping her packages off and going for a nice long walk.
The second she got inside the shop, she was greeted by Crystal Gibson, the perky florist who was in a perpetual good mood. "Hi, Charlie, how are you? It's Valentine's Day, and we've been super busy. Isn't that great?"
With a tight smile, she made herself be polite to the young woman. "Yeah, that's great. I need to pick up my grandfather's order."
"Oh, sure. I just made it up. It looks really good, if I do say so myself." The girl pulled a beautiful display from off the back counter. "Here it is."
Paying as quickly as she could, Charlie scooped up the flowers, holding them in her right hand while she tucked her other packages under her left arm. All she wanted to do now was get the flowers to her grandpa and go home.
But Crystal had a lot more to say. "Oh, and Bass was in here earlier. He picked up a beautiful bouquet of roses. A dozen red ones. Ordered it last week because he wanted to give me enough time to make sure I had the flowers. Isn't that sweet of him? Miss Grant sure is one lucky woman. Bass sure is cute. Have you noticed that, Charlie?"
While the girl took a moment to breathe, Charlie's mind replayed the last few sentences. "What did you just say?"
"Oh, Bass was in here earlier and he-"
"No, just the part about the woman."
"Oh, you mean Miss Grant? He seems to really like her, at least that was the impression I got...Charlie...Charlie..." But Charlie was already out the door.
She was going to kill him. How dare he make her fall for him and then traipse around town with three different women. As she stomped down the sidewalk, the other citizens walking around Main Street got out of her way; it was full knowledge around town that only two people could put Charlie in such a state...her mother and Bass Monroe.
Jennifer O'Shea, who ran the local women's clothing store, apparently didn't catch Charlie's mood as she stepped out of her shop and halted the irate young woman. "Charlie, hi. Listen, Bass was in earlier to pick up his order, and I forgot to put this in the box for him. I wanted to make sure he got it before he gave the gift to Miss Sherman."
The woman placed a delicate silk tie, like the belt of a robe, into Charlie's hands. Staring down at it, Charlie temperature shot through the roof. Silk was extremely hard to come by, and a gift that included a silk sash like the one she held must have cost him a fortune. She had half a mind to toss the beautiful fabric out into the street, but considering the time and effort that Jennifer probably put into the creation of...whatever the sash belonged to...she just couldn't do it.
"I was lucky to have a bolt of silk left over from before the Blackout. And Bass wanted this gift to be just right for such a special young lady as Miss Sherman."
Oh, yes, she was special alright. So special she was one of four women Bass would be juggling for Valentine's Day. "Oh, I'll make sure Bass gets it. He'll be getting a lot of stuff when I get home."
Hurrying away, she dropped the flowers off at her grandfather's bar, happy for once that he was too busy to talk. Apparently, Valentine's Day business started early in Willoughby. And she was in such a foul mood that she was bound to ruin not only his day, but his patron's as well.
She made it home in record time, her anger fueling her pace and pushing her towards her house. Infuriated beyond reason now, she slammed the front door and tossed her packages onto the couch; as the noise echoed, Bass ran out of the kitchen. "Charlie...I wasn't expecting you back so soon. I mean, I thought you had errands to run...and then you mentioned taking a walk."
The uncharacteristic babbling of a man as smooth as Bass needled her even more. "You mean, you were expecting to get the house all fixed up for your...hussies...so you could just scoot me out before they got here. Well, I've got news for you, pal. I'm not leaving, so you'll have to find somewhere else to take them for the night."
"Wait, what?" Confusion crossed Bass's face. "What hussies? And how the hell do you even know a word like hussies?"
"Did you seriously think I wouldn't find out? That you could just get away with it and I would never know?"
"Charlie, stop." He approached her carefully, like she was a wild animal who needed to be tamed. "I think we're on two separate pages here."
Stomping over to the couch, she yanked the sash away from the package of candy and flipped it at him. "Jennifer O'Shea told me to give you this. She said she forgot to include it along with the rest of your very expensive gift for Miss Sherman."
Staring at the tell-tale ribbon of silk, he sighed. "Damn."
"And then, I stopped in to pick up some flowers and Crystal, in all her breathlessness, tells me that you picked up a dozen red roses earlier today for a Miss Grant." Nailing him with her eyes, she stalked towards him. "And here you told me you were just going out for a few groceries."
But she wasn't having any of it. "And then I hear from Dennis that you bought a new shirt and jacket for your big date with Miss Lee."
"And finally," she said, the volume of her voice growing louder, "I understand you bought some freshly made chocolate covered strawberries for Miss Jackson. So tell me, Bass, just how many women do you plan to see tonight?"
"Charlie..." Bass stopped and stared at her for a minute, a strange look crossing his face. He was studying her, the way he once had in the bottom of a swimming pool back when they were still enemies. "Why do you care?"
"What?" Taken aback by his question, she faltered in her anger.
Turning the tables, he stalked towards her, closing a lot of the distance between them. This was how they always hashed it out best. Face to face and toe to toe. "I said, why do you care if I've got one woman lined up or 50? Why does it matter to you?"
"Could have fooled me."
"A chicken with its head cut off could fool you."
Rolling his eyes at her well-inherited sarcasm, he stepped forward once more. "I don't buy it, Charlie. It pisses you off that I might have a date tonight."
"Or four," she spat. "I just don't like the idea of getting kicked out of my house."
"Still not buying it."
"Whatever. You need to find somewhere else to have your little get togethers."
"Well, I can't do that, Charlie. I just spent the last hour cooking a special meal for tonight, and I'm not leaving."
Fury colored her face. "How dare you."
"How dare I?"
"Why is this so easy for you?" At his befuddled look, a little of her anger dissipated. "Doesn't it matter to you?"
"Doesn't what matter?"
"Me...don't I matter. We spend all these nights hanging out and..."
Suddenly, Bass understood. She was jealous, and if he wasn't mistaken, she was a little heartbroken as well. That could only be good for him. "Charlie, of course you matter."
"Then why would you do this right under my nose?"
"Come with me." Grabbing her hand, he pulled her towards the dining room, pushing her in front of him as they entered. Standing so close behind her that he could whisper in her ear, he brushed her hair back over her shoulder. "Now tell me what you see."
The table set out before her was beautiful and elegant, and she could tell Bass had gone to a fair amount of trouble to make it so. They hadn't had dishes this fancy before, which meant he'd bought them all in the recent past. A crystal vase of red roses sat in the center. "Those are Miss Grant's roses."
"Miss Jackson's chocolate covered strawberries." Her eyes shot to a gift box next to the one place setting. "And Miss Sherman's silk...whatever."
Bass sighed. "It's a robe. Sadly, the surprise of that is now ruined."
Turning towards him and finding him right there behind her, she gazed into his eyes. "What surprise?"
"Charlie, look at all this stuff. Look at this table. Do you really think I could ever hide something like this from you?" Her head whipped back to the spread and she studied every little detail. "Say those names again, Charlie. The last names of the women I bought these things for."
She glanced at the chocolate, the roses, the gift. "Jackson, Grant...Sherman..."
"And the new clothes I bought are for..."
"Lee...they're all generals..."
"You know I have a thing for the Civil War. But just how quickly do you think word would have spread around this small town of ours if I'd given the name of a general from my own militia?"
Her heart stopped. He couldn't possibly mean... "W-which general?"
He smirked. Leave it to Charlie to make him spell it out. "Matheson, Charlie. Everything you see here is for you."
She couldn't breathe. When she turned to him, their eyes locked. "Bass..."
Not ready to waste another second, he swooped down and captured her mouth in a kiss. Being their first, he was willing to take it slow, allowing her to pull away. But she didn't. Surging towards him, her mouth opened, her tongue coming out to play with his.
After a moment, he drew back, his eyes a little hazy as he looked at her. "I wasn't trying to hide anything from you."
"Oh, yeah?" She arched an eyebrow.
"Okay, I was, but for a surprise, not to pull anything over on you." He pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. "I just expected you back later than this."
Suddenly, all her righteous anger seemed awfully unjust. She'd just been so furious when she heard those names, and it never occurred to her that he was doing it all for her. "I'm just...overwhelmed."
"Oh come on, Charlie. You had to at least suspect I had a thing for you. I mean, it's mutual, isn't it?" For one second, the infallible Sebastian Monroe looked very unsure of himself. It was actually rather adorable.
"It's very mutual." She grabbed his hand. "It's...this is...it's perfect. Thank you."
He shrugged. "It's Valentine's Day. I figured what better time to tell you I've fallen for you than now?"
"Fallen?" She swallowed thickly. "This really is even better than I thought."
"You really think I'd do all this for someone I 'kind of, maybe' liked?"
With a smile, she tugged on his shirt, yanking his body against hers. "Maybe if you wanted to get her in bed."
"Well, that thought had crossed my mind." His expression turned serious as he gazed into her eyes. "But it's you, Charlie, and I needed you to know that this means more to me than just that."
Nodding, she pulled him into another kiss, this one even more intense than the last. "Wow, well, I could really get used to that."
"Plan on it."
"But you did say something about a dinner, right?"
"And...I heard you bought these nice new clothes."
She stroked a hand down his chest before turning her eyes up to him. "Well, I have this pretty dress my mom gave me a few months ago that I haven't worn yet. So...can we go on our date?"
"Meet you back here in half an hour."
Kissing him one more time, she pulled away and bounded up the steps. In her world, Valentine's Day had always meant next to nothing. But this year, it was shaping up to be one of the best days of her life.