Cupid's Strings

by Patricia Hopper

Cupid's Strings by Patrica Hopper
Prudence Velcray has known only rejection on Valentine’s Day. Vowing this year will be different, she ends the romance with her boyfriend before she is dealt another crushing blow. Determined to boycott the romantic holiday, she retreats to Snowline Mountain Resort. Here, she accidentally meets Dr. Sebastian Stone, the brother of her third-grade Valentine, and the culprit of her Valentine’s Day downhill spiral. To wrench matters, cupid’s misguided arrow ensnares her in a hopeless attraction that she neither wants nor can deny.

Sebastian Stone has devoted his life to medicine scarred by his brother Nicholas’s battle with leukemia when they were children. He has avoided long-term involvements and shuns Valentine's Day entrapments. Yet he is captivated by Prudence Velcray when circumstances throw them together, and they share a kiss that Sebastian can’t forget. As he rebels against his feelings for Prudence, he can’t help himself from falling in love with her. When he almost loses her trust, and a childhood secret is revealed, he must prove to Prudence he is worthy of her love.

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Release Date: January 18, 2021
Genre: Contemporary Valentine's Romance



Chapter One 

Prudence fumbled to unlock the door of her florist shop, Bloomsday. Mr. Cortelli owner of Chompin’ Bits, a specialty meats and cheeses store next door, came outside and scattered salt on the sidewalk. Dismissing the bitter cold, he wore only his button-down shirt and dark dress pants covered by a white apron. He looked distastefully at the slick pavement, drawing his mouth into a disapproving line. “They're forecasting more snow,” he said.

“Punxsutawney Phil wasn't kidding when he predicted six more weeks of winter,” Prudence replied.

“I expect the weather pendulum will swing between winter and spring from now until the middle of March. I got in a shipment of fresh cheeses. Try a sample when you stop in for your pastrami sandwich at lunchtime. I’d appreciate your opinion.”

Prudence pushed open the door. “I will,” she said.

Inside her shop, she paused to breathe in lingering fragrances of lilies, freesias, stock, sweet peas, and garden roses. The sight of brightly colored arrangements stored in glass coolers lifted her spirits and the dreary morning. It may be bleak outside, but indoors, it was all sunshine and warmth.

She and her sister Alyssa had added used hutches and side tables they stripped down and refinished themselves in whites and blues to give the shop a more versatile look. Crafted purses, specialty pillows, candles, and china tea sets lined the shelves. Prudence passed through the store to the backroom that served as a storage and work area. She hung up her coat, then sipped coffee as she looked over the day's orders.

Half an hour later, Alyssa arrived with muffins in one hand and coffee in the other. “Got stuck on the Parkway East,” she said. “A tractor-trailer slid sideways, stopping traffic. Good thing Barry isn't making deliveries until this afternoon.”

She flipped one of the Valentine’s Day balloons aside. “A bit early for these, don't you think? Especially since you hate Valentine's Day.”

“I don't hate Valentine's Day, it hates me,” Prudence said.

Alyssa took a bite of her muffin. “Because your romantic relationships always fall apart around then.”

“You wouldn't know anything about that. Keith adores you.”

“He does,” Alyssa said with a kittenish smile. “But of all the holidays to hate, why did you have to pick Valentine’s Day? It’s our busiest time.”

Prudence began arranging cream roses, red carnations, and button chrysanthemums in a glass vase. “Like I said, I don't hate Valentine’s Day. It hates me. We'll survive. Besides, you were always involved with your plans on previous Valentine’s Days and missed most of the chaos.”

“This year will be different.”

“What? No banners with ‘I love you' floating across a mountain top. No carriage rides through Market Square, no rooftop candlelit dinners, no wedding with ice-sculptured cupids. Don't tell me you and Keith have become dull and normal.”

Alyssa sighed. “Nothing like that. Keith is planning the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner. He started with seven recipes and has narrowed it down to three. I'm going to fill the house with vanilla scented candles and I'm working on a nostalgic scrapbook that highlights memories of our journey together so far. We'll cuddle by the fireplace after dinner and watch our favorite movie, Casablanca.”

“A classic.”

“About love, redemption, and new beginnings. Alyssa looked down and patted her stomach.”

“No!” Prudence exclaimed.

“Yes,” Alyssa said, grinning.

Prudence threw her arms around her sister. “I'm going to be an aunt?”

“You are. You're the first to know but promise me not a word to Keith. And definitely don’t say anything to Mom and Dad. They'll have the news all over town in ten minutes.”

“So that's where you went the other day when you disappeared for a few hours.”

“Yes, I wanted to be sure before I told Keith. It'll be the perfect anniversary/Valentine's Day surprise. You going to Snowline Mountain Resort is a good excuse to plan a low-key Valentine's Day celebration.”

Prudence brushed a hand across her forehead. “Phew, for a moment I thought you two were skipping out on romance.” She hugged her sister. “I'm so happy for you.”

“You'll owe me because you're leaving me alone at the shop while you hide out at Snowline Mountain Resort with Josh.”

“I'm not going with Josh. We broke up.”

Alyssa's smile slipped, and she became serious. “Sorry, sis. I thought he was a keeper.”

“I ended it.”

“Because of Valentine's Day?”

“It wasn't working out for either of us. No point in postponing the inevitable.”

“So, you're going to Snowline alone?”

“Yes. I'll be here to help with most of the orders before I leave.”

“There's still the last-minute rush to get everything delivered on time.”

“I've no objection if you refuse orders and close the shop early.”

“And disappoint women expecting Cupid's declaration of love?”

The doorbell jingled, and Douglas Nelson came into the shop. Prudence had known Doug all her life. He was the brother she and Alyssa never had. They grew up in Shenley Heights and their parents were close friends. He was tall and broad-shouldered, had a winning grin and a shock of brown hair. After serving in the Marines, he opened a gym at the edge of the Strip District and was in negotiations to open another gym in Shady Side.

He had a tough guy look, but when he was around women, he became tongue-tied and could barely string two words together. Females mistook his shyness for vulnerability and found this trait attractive. The more forward females asked him out on dates, but their interest waned after conversations became one-sided. He was still trying to break through that barrier. Curiously, his affliction didn’t pertain to men or to Prudence and Alyssa.

His dad had passed away a few years ago, but Doug kept his dad's tradition alive of giving his mother lilies on the fifteenth of every month. His dad's explanation for the monthly ritual had been he never wanted to forget their anniversary, but Prudence believed he never wanted Doug's mother, Rosemary, to feel neglected. She loved lilies and never tired of receiving them.

“Something good must be going on if you two are hugging,” he said.

“It's a secret,” Alyssa said with a smirk.

“Let's see, you've been married for almost two years. You’ve got that cat-caught-the-mouse look on your face that no man could ever pull off because of his gender… Am I getting warm?”

Alyssa's mouth drooped downward. “Don't think you know everything about me.”

Doug picked her up and swung her around. “Your secret's safe with me. I'll keep quiet until you broadcast your news to the world.”

“There's nothing to tell.” She grinned. “Yet.”

He saluted her.

“Here's the bouquet for your mom,” Prudence said, handing him the lilies wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a red bow.

“Perfect as always.”

“Has Pru told you she's celebrating Valentine's Day at Snowline Mountain Resort—alone?” Alyssa asked.

Doug raised an eyebrow. “Your latest beau skipped out early on Valentine's Day?”

“I broke up with him,” Prudence said.

So he can't ditch her,” Alyssa added.

Doug gave Alyssa a confused look.

“Pru won't risk another disappointing Valentine's Day because of her track record of breakups around the holiday.”

Prudence gave her sister a scornful look and went over to one of the glass coolers. She rearranged bouquets on the second shelf.

“At least she makes it past the second or third dates,” Doug said.

“But none of her relationships survive Valentine's Day. Now that Josh is out of the picture, she'll be hiding in plain sight among romantic couples skiing down snow-covered slopes and cozying up to each other.”

“It's the ideal place to go unnoticed,” Prudence said. “There won't be any single people there to remind me I'm alone. I'll be cupid's wallflower, invisible among couples in love.”

“With that attitude, you'll never find your prince charming.”

“Prince charming is a fairy tale. Except in your case. I think Keith is your perfect prince charming.”

“Aw,” Alyssa said. “You're being condescending.”

“And you're being silly. If Doug were to go with me, would that make you feel better? I'll be assured of one other single person.”

“Whoa,” Doug said, surprised.

“See, even Doug won't subject himself to the love fest at Snowline.”

“Whoa,” Doug said again. “How did I become part of this discussion?”

“Tell Pru it's a bad idea to go to Snowline alone.”

“It's not so bad. I wouldn't object to being there alone, but I can't leave Mom. You know how my dad used to go all out for Valentine's Day.”

“You could take Rosemary along,” Prudence said flippantly. “But that might cramp your style with your girlfriend.”

“I'm not dating anyone. Made it to the third date with the last girl before she stopped answering my calls. Mom has been nowhere in a while. I'll see if she wants to join you—us.”

Prudence raised a hand. “I-I—” she stammered.

Doug either didn’t notice Prudence’s gesture or choose to ignore it. “I'll call you,” he said. He grinned and left the shop.

Alyssa and Prudence looked after him. “Did he just stomp all over your solo trip to Snowline?” Alyssa asked.

“Seems that way, and it's your fault. There goes my alone time. I planned to practice skiing, sit by the fireplace in the Meet and Greet Lounge, and people watch; do a little ice skating and dress up in a masquerade costume for the mystery dinner theater evening.”

“Ugh, sounds lonely,” Alyssa said. “You'll have a better time if Doug and Rosemary tag along.”

* * *

Prudence blew up more red balloons and placed them strategically around the shop to remind customers that Valentine's Day was approaching. Better to face painful reminders head-on than to wait and receive cupid's jolt closer to the holiday. It had been a running joke for years that guys ran for the hills rather than face spending Valentine’s Day with her. Each rejection left her feeling hollow and unwanted. It wasn't about receiving flowers and candy, although economics may have played a role; the real crux of the problem was the men she dated got cold feet around the holiday and faded out of her life. This year she had taken matters into her own hands and turned the tables. She had followed through on her vow to break up with her latest boyfriend Josh before he decided to walk out on her.

The Valentine’s Day jinx started in third grade with Nicholas Stone, who had been her best friend since the first day of classes that year. They sat next to each other and clicked right away, even though he was shy at first. He had a way of making everything seem effortless, especially math, which she struggled with. After she asked for his help with a difficult math problem, they began spending recess together sitting on the wide branch of an old oak tree in the playground. With Nicholas's help, she was receiving A's by midterm. It didn't matter that he was diagnosed with leukemia, his illness brought them closer together.

When Nicholas started to lose his thick, dark hair, it hurt Prudence to see the carefree light disappear from his face. She wanted to shave her hair off too and make him feel better, but she knew her parents would never agree to that. She approached her teacher, Miss Boland, about a class project where all the kids shaved their heads so Nicholas wouldn't feel like an outsider. Miss Boland canvased the class who thought it was a neat idea. The news got out what the third graders were up to, and a local hair salon offered to take the hair the class donated and turn it into wigs for cancer patients.

Nicholas didn't want Prudence to cut her hair. He liked her red hair, that was already thick and wavy. He came around to the idea when he didn't have to wear a hat to school or feel ashamed of his bald head. Sometimes he would hold her hand, and the way he smiled at her made her feel special.

As Valentine’s Day approached, she made a homemade Valentine card especially for him and drew a garden with every kind of flower she could think of. In an unexpected twist, his last chemo treatment got moved up, and he had to spend Valentine’s Day in the hospital. She begged her mother to drive her there to visit him because he wouldn’t be in school that day. Filled with anticipation, she stepped off the elevator on the children's oncology floor and walked down the hall. Opening the door to room 524, her heart fell when she saw the bed was empty.

Tears filled her eyes, and her first thought was that something had gone terribly wrong, but then she noticed someone moving in the chair against the wall. He was older than Nicholas, and Prudence could see a resemblance. He had the same thick, dark hair, but what caught her attention was the look in his eyes. A dull ache stood in them that matched the ache in her own heart. She stared for a long moment into those hazel eyes willing the fear and sadness to go away.

“W-where's Nicholas?” she asked.

“An orderly took him away for his treatment,” the boy said, his gaze holding steady. “Are you, Red?”

Red was Nicholas's nickname for her. “Yes,” she said.

He held out an envelope. “My brother asked me to give you this if you stopped by?”

She didn't react immediately, and her mother took the envelope. “Thank you,” she said.

Prudence held out the card she had made herself. “This is for Nicholas.”

The boy nodded. “I'll give it to him when he comes back to the room.”

Prudence felt the ache in her heart ease a little. Nicholas was coming back to his hospital room; that had to be a good sign. She thanked the boy and left with her mother.

“Do you think Nicholas is going to die?” She asked her mother on the way home.

“I'm sure the doctors are taking excellent care of him,” her mother said noncommittally.

Prudence waited until she was alone in her bedroom before she opened the envelope. Like everything Nicholas did, the card inside was made with care. He had sketched leafy green trees and shrubs, a waterfall tumbling over a rock cliff and pooling into a stream below. A wooden bench sat on an observation deck nearby, and clusters of pink rhododendrons dotted the surrounding mountainside. The drawing looked so real she wondered if Nicholas had seen the waterfall somewhere. She decided to ask him when he returned to school. Inside he had written a short poem:

Will you be my Valentine

My best friend too?

I am never alone

As long as I have you.

It was signed Nicholas. She couldn't wait for him to come back to school and thank him for the card. When he didn't show up on the appointed day, she thought the worst had happened. As Miss Boland stood cleaning off the blackboard after classes, she asked when Nicholas was returning to school.

“I thought someone would have told you,” Miss Boland said. “Nicholas's dad got a new job. His family moved to New York. The doctors are better there too.”

“He wouldn't leave without saying goodbye to me.”

“It happened quite suddenly. I'm sure he wanted to say goodbye. Would you like me to get you his address? His new school would have requested his records.”

“That's okay,” Prudence said. She went home and lay on her bed and cried.

* * *

Sebastian walked the lonely nighttime corridors of Pittsburgh General Children's Hospital. He had been a resident here for three years and now he was a fully licensed doctor. He was especially attached to patients on the pediatric oncology floor where he worked. In a few hours, these children would wake up to a new day, new hope. He tried to be cheerful, especially in tougher situations. He never ceased to admire his patients' courage, their smiles, their hope. While they were here, he kept a tight rein on his emotions until their conditions stabilized and they were released back into the custody of their families. It was especially gratifying when they returned for visits and threw their arms around him, thanking him for curing them. A person had to be made of steel not to shed a tear, even a happy tear. As dawn spread over the city, he breathed a relieved sigh there had been no crises tonight. He could go home for a few peaceful hours of sleep.

His cellphone rang, and he stepped quickly into the solarium so as not to disturb his patients. “This is early even for you, Nick,” he said to his brother.

Nick chuckled. “What're you having for breakfast?”

“Not sure. Probably cold cereal. Why?”

“Just curious. Stella is fixing me eggs, bacon, hash browns, and sausage.”

“Are you planning on hunting down Sasquatch?”

“Very funny. I burn more calories at the ranger’s station in winter than I do in summer. We have cross-country skiers testing their skill all over the Monongahela National Forest. There's always someone getting lost or getting into trouble. It's beautiful here in winter, but the terrain can be dangerous and it's darn cold.”

“It's not much better here in Pittsburgh—the cold part.”

“I'm calling to remind you it's that time of year again. Another anniversary of being cancer-free.”

“Hard to forget since Mom and Dad got the news on Valentine’s Day. The same day Dad got hired on Wall Street.”

“The guys at the ranger station know all about my leukemia. This is my twentieth anniversary, and they wanted to mark the milestone. They took up a collection and are giving me a Valentine’s Day family mini vacation at Snowline Mountain Resort. Mom and Dad are already on board, so you have to come.”

Seb was about to refuse, but then he remembered it had been a while since the family had been together for any length of time. Christmas Day had been rushed because he had to get back to the hospital to check on his patients. Mom and Dad, now retired and spending winters in Florida, must've thought this anniversary important enough to leave warm sunny weather for a few days and return to the cold unpredictability of winter. Since he hadn't had much opportunity to go skiing these past few years, it would be nice to hit the slopes and take a complete break from the hospital.

“How long before I have to give you my answer?”

“A few days. Mom and Dad will fly into Pittsburgh, and you can all drive down together.”

“You know Dad will want to go grouse hunting.”

“Already got that covered.”

“Okay, I'll check my schedule and let you know if I can take time off.”

“You have to be here.”

“I know, bro. Catch you later.”


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