My Imperfect Valentine
From the USA Today Bestselling Author Vicki Hinze comes My Imperfect Valentine, a standalone novel (published in 1998 and rewritten in 2015) about one woman with two dreams and three men in her life.
Amanda realizes her dream of owning her own card shop. But can she hold onto it? Struggling to stay afloat has her questioning her own judgment, making it the worst possible time to decide on one of the three men in her life. But now is the time she must choose and, with her future at stake, she can’t afford to be wrong.
Three men. Three very different relationships.
Jonathan, the illustrator who touches her soul yet remains a stranger who might or might not love her.
Bradley, her father’s wealthy protégé who doesn’t touch her soul but offers her marriage and security.
Or Max, a man who attracts her, supports her and her dreams, but carries secrets he won’t share.
What does she want most?
Stranger? Security? Secrets?
Which man will be perfect for her? Her soul mate? The one? Which man will inspire her to say, “He’s my imperfect Valentine?”
“Delightful.” Affaire de Coeur
““Vicki Hinze’s has created a story that is more than meeting the perfect someone and “living happily ever after”. My Imperfect Valentine is also about taking chances and living dreams.” –Bookcruiser
“A beautifully written romance story about believing in yourself and taking control of your own destiny. You won’t want to put this one down until you have read the whole story — you will become immersed in the story and find yourself encouraging the main character to believe in herself and do what she knows is right for her. You can’t go wrong with Vicki Hinze books – I highly recommend.” –Jo Anne Vincent
This is a feel good book which one won’t be able to put down until the last page is read.” –J.L. McCrimmon
Amanda Jensen slammed down the phone.
No grown woman should have to contend with this kind of nonsense. It was enough to drive a stable person insane. Why couldn’t her mother just accept her for who she was and encourage her to be the woman she wanted to be?
She supposed that being the only daughter of the Biloxi, Mississippi, social icons, Edward and Veronica Jensen, and not being attuned to them or to their lifestyle, had made her hurting and disappointing them inevitable. Probably inescapable. Oil and water just don’t mix. But each does have its value. So why couldn’t her mother recognize Amanda’s value, get over the fact that they were different, at least acknowledge that Amanda didn’t enjoy being a disappointment, and spare them both these miserable conflicts?
The motion detector installed to warn her of shoppers’ arrival in her mall store, the Card Shoppe, chimed. Hating buzzers that grated on the ear, Amanda had installed a little bell that tinkled softly; a pleasant, soothing sound. Appreciating it even now, she gave the phone a resigned sigh, then did her best to calm down and stop snarling before greeting her sorely needed customer. Her time for proving the lifelong dream her mother called “Amanda’s ridiculous little commercial venture” was nearly up. She’d had a window of time between college and, well, now, to make a success of the shop and that window was about to slam shut. Failure appeared so imminent that she’d swallowed her pride and contacted Kirsten, her brainiac roommate at Holy Cross, for advice.
Kirsten shared some fantastic tips and solid advice, and Amanda’d had to fight to learn a lot in a short period of time, but she had what Kirsten called the X-Factor: the desire to succeed and the willingness to sacrifice to do it. Amanda still had plenty of both. This card shop was what she’d always wanted. She couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been her dream, and she couldn’t let it fail. She just couldn’t.
She smoothed a wrinkle from the skirt of her red silk sheath, pasted on a smile that probably still looked more like a snarl, and then, standing behind the cash register, turned toward the entrance.
Her favorite customer, Chatty, shuffled in. Relieved to see her after last night’s heavy thunderstorms, Amanda looked her over carefully. She felt certain Chatty was homeless—all of the signs were there—though the woman flatly denied it. Still, Amanda had her doubts and made sure Chatty ate. She never had been able to pinpoint Chatty’s age. Under the Salvation Army garb it was hard to tell, but she was probably between fifty and sixty. Her pink floppy hat was soaked with raindrops, the sleeves of her three-sizes-too-big army jacket rolled-up, her jeans faded, and her mismatched sneakers dragging shoestrings that left a muddy, wet trail in her wake. Though rain-splotched from head to toe, Chatty looked warm enough, and she was carrying her brown grocery bag, which she’d protected and kept dry, so all must be okay in her world.
Mumbling to herself, Chatty meandered over to the two cushy chairs before the display of the Tender Touch cards Amanda carried exclusively in the area. She wrote the verses herself—another ridiculous venture, according to her mother—and the mysterious Jonathan Maxwell illustrated them. He was a reclusive world-class artist, so why he’d agreed to work with a woman still in college, she had no idea. She’d asked him on a whim shortly before graduation when the shop was still in the planning stage—all he could do was say no—and amazingly, he’d agreed. She’d nearly fainted and walked on clouds for a solid month. Then she’d wondered if her mother had intervened, but both she and Jonathan claimed they’d never met. That came as a huge relief that had Amanda pinching herself. She’d actually landed the artistic coup on her own, and knowing it had given her a much needed shot of confidence.
Now, two years later, Amanda still knew Jonathan only by name, though they had worked together via Email, texts and couriers, and naturally she’d googled him, but not one photo of him had surfaced. That intrigued her, and she’d fantasized about the man every day since—a fact she admitted, of course, only to her closest confidante, Chatty.
“Brr, it’s cold out there today, Mandy.” Chatty lowered her grocery bag to the burgundy carpet, near the fern positioned between the two chairs, then sank onto the chair’s plush cushion with a relieved sigh. “Ah, I’m ready for my tea.”
Amanda couldn’t help but smile. With Chatty’s flyaway gray hair peeking out from under the brim of her hat, her vacant glances, and her shade-shy-of-aware ways, she often reminded Amanda of Kirsten’s crazy old aunt Addie, who pinched your cheeks and snuck you goodies when no one was looking. Both of Amanda’s parents were only children, but she had wished for a ditzy aunt like Kirsten’s Aunt Addie, anyway. Chatty bent low to ditzy but she had a totally different temperament. Addie didn’t have an attitude. Chatty had enough attitude for both of them and two more. Amanda loved that about Chatty. You never had to worry about what she was thinking or where you stood with her. She’d bluntly tell you all that and more. “It’s already steeping.”
“Mmm. It appears the tea isn’t all that’s steeping around here.” Chatty sent Amanda a wary, sidelong look. “What’s the matter, pet? You’re looking miffed.”
“Mother just phoned. Bradley’s on his way over.” Amanda didn’t linger to hear Chatty’s reaction to that disclosure. She knew her retort would be short, snappy, and snippy. Though they hadn’t met, Chatty found Amanda’s parents’ choice of a prospective husband for Amanda about as appealing as she found the man: not at all. But try telling that to them. Both were as tone-deaf to Amanda’s opinions and wishes as Bradley himself.
Amanda returned from the little kitchenette in the back of the shop with a tea tray, bearing sliced apples, a whole one for Chatty to nick and take with her, cookies, a steaming teapot, her best china cups, fresh lemon wedges, and snowy linen napkins. She set the tray onto the little table in front of the two chairs, then sat beside her friend and waited. Chatty always poured.
“Why don’t you give that man his walking papers?” With a little grunt, she tucked the apple and two extra cookies into her pocket then reached for the pot. “He isn’t fit to carry your sack.”
Glancing up from Chatty’s grocery bag tucked near the leg of her chair, Amanda reached over the fern and accepted the cup. “He isn’t that bad.” Actually, he was considered the most eligible bachelor around.
“He’s worse, and you know it. The man drives you right up the wall.” Chatty filled her own cup. “Ditch him, I say, and get on with finding yourself a real man. Maybe meet your Jonathan. Now, that one has potential. You’re half in love with him and you haven’t even met him. Imagine what could happen if—”
“I can’t just do either.” Boy, didn’t Amanda wish she could meet Jonathan, or ditch Bradley Wade. She sipped the steamy brew. Japanese green tea felt so good going down the throat. Soothing. “We’ve been over this a thousand times, Chatty. Jonathan insists on staying anonymous, and ditching Bradley would break my mother’s heart.”
“And I say, maybe her heart needs breaking.” Chatty opened her mouth again, likely to express her doubt Veronica Jensen had a heart, but then she thought better of it and held her silence.
Grateful for the reprieve, Amanda watched the fragrant steam lift. “I admit it, okay? She’s a snob, an art patroness with a long nose she loves to look down on at other people. But she didn’t just get that way, she’s always been that way. The bottom line is what it’s always been: She drives me nuts, but she’s my mother. That trumps pretty much everything. You know how it is—”
Chatty interrupted. “So being your mother gives her the right to make you miserable now and for the rest of your life?”
Fair question, but one that sounded ridiculous even to Amanda. “Of course not. But she doesn’t mean to make me miserable. It just kind of happens.” Innately compelled to defend her mother, Amanda frowned. “You don’t understand, Chatty. Mother and I live in different worlds. We did even when we lived in the same house.” Forget being on the same planet. Sometimes Amanda had wondered if they resided in the same universe. “It’s…complicated.”
“I don’t see what’s so complicated. Nothing complicated about it really.” Chatty harrumphed, then muttered, a knowing gleam in her eye, “Your mother’s a twit, if you’ll pardon my saying so, pet. She wants you to marry a man you can’t stand because he’s a social snob like her. And you think you have to date him because you’ve hurt her enough already by bucking her vision of your future and opening this shop when she wants you to marry the snobby jerk and take your rightful place in society.” Chatty blew out a sigh that ruffled the gray silk hangings surrounding the Tender Touch card display. “Like I said, there’s nothing complicated about it.” She narrowed her gaze. “Pardon my saying so, pet, but you’re being a twit, too. About this, anyway. Letting her make your life all about her and what she wants.”
Amanda didn’t take offense. She and Chatty had met during the Card Shoppe’s official grand opening, and in the nine months since then, they had become good friends. The adorable woman was both blunt and honest; she genuinely cared about Amanda, and Amanda loved never having to wonder what Chatty was thinking because she rarely hesitated to speak her mind. “I probably am.” She admitted the obvious and tapped the handle on her teacup with her thumb. It made a soft, dull clink that calmed her down. “But twit or not, she’s my mother and I love her. I don’t like hurting her.” Amanda shifted on her seat. “Opening the shop was a real blow to her, you know? Any more shocks like that one and I’ll put her under.”
“Bah. She’s as healthy as a horse unless she ain’t getting her way. Then she’s fragile and weak. Don’t look at me like that. Truth is truth, and you know it as well as I do. Even if you won’t admit it out loud, I know you see it. You’re not bat-blind.” Knitting her brows, Chatty stuffed an apple slice into her pocket. “On the other hand, when it comes to that woman, you do have a way—”
“She’d be devastated,” Amanda countered, rubbing her cup’s rim with the pad of her forefinger. How many times did she have to let her mother down? She wasn’t a kid anymore. Okay, so she didn’t have all the answers to all the questions, but she was on her own and too old now to pretend her actions didn’t impact anyone but herself. That recognition was part of being a mature adult, for crying out loud. Sooner or later she had to stop screwing up and inadvertently hurting people who loved her. She had to get things right.
“Devastated? Your mother? Not bloody likely,” Chatty said. “What she’d be is embarrassed.”
She would. Horribly. She’d hideout and cry for a week. Maybe even have to go to that retreat in Arizona to recover again. She’d spent a month there when Amanda had opened the shop, which still ticked off her father. “That, too.”
“Listen to me, pet. I know you’re all torn up inside about this. And not wanting to hurt your mother is admirable. Really.” Chatty patted Amanda’s forearm reassuringly. “But that don’t make the truth of the matter any different. It’s as simple as sunshine. You stuck out your neck to open this store because it was your dream for your professional future. All I’m saying is, well, shouldn’t your personal life deserve at least that same amount of investment and consideration from you? I’ll bet your friend, Kirsten would agree with me on that one.”
She did agree—often and loudly. “Neither of you get it. That’s exactly why I don’t dare.” Amanda swallowed a knot in her throat that was half sob and half-shattered pride. “You and Kirsten talk about the truth, and you’re both right. I’ve tried everything to avoid it, but it’s time for me to face it.”
“The truth.” Amanda stiffened. “The shop is failing, Chatty. My judgment about this place isn’t proving to have been exactly great.”
“I know you’re not telling me your dream’s a nightmare.” Chatty stiffened. “You love this store.”
“I do, but I’m in the danger zone of losing it. Actually, of losing everything. That’s the problem.” When Chatty gave her a vacant look, Amanda blew out a steadying breath. “Don’t you see? I was so sure this place would work out. I had no doubt it’d be a success, but it isn’t. It’s failing on a grand scale.” She looked Chatty straight in the eye. “I’m failing on a grand scale.”
“How does that connect to you marrying the jerk?”
Kirsten hadn’t made the mental leap on the phone last night, either. “If my judgment was flawed and I was wrong about my career, it could be flawed and I could be wrong about my personal life, too. What I’m saying is that my mother, annoying as she surely is, could be right.”
“Bah.” Chatty swiped the air with her hand sending cookie crumbs flying. One clung to her lower lip. “One thing ain’t got nothing to do with the other.”
Kirsten hadn’t thought so, either. But they were wrong, and deep down Amanda knew it. “It does. Like it or not, good judgment is good judgment.”
Chatty frowned. “Yes, and love is love and it don’t give two flying figs what your judgment thinks. You feel love or you don’t, and that’s the whole of it.”
Amanda opened her mouth to object, but Chatty held up a staying hand. “Wait. I got a question.” She dipped her chin. “You think locking yourself into a relationship with a man you can’t stand ain’t going to be worse than losing a store you love?”
“Girl,” Chatty harrumphed. “Maybe I was wrong and you are a bat-blind twit.”
Maybe she was. “Being stuck in a relationship with Bradley is bad enough.” Been there, done that. Amanda pushed her spiky black hair back from her eyes and cast her friend a pleading look. “But now mother’s pushing me to marry him.”
“No.” Chatty’s face fell. “When?”
“Now would suit her just fine.”
“Well, that’s a bit surprising—the now part, I mean. It takes time to plan a big society wedding, and nothing less would satisfy her. But it sure as spit ain’t no news she wants you to marry the man. She’s wanted that for months.”
Since the day Amanda graduated from college. “She and Bradley have been indulging me in my little shop, looking at the whole venture like it was an after-college fling.”
“You know, like a trip to Europe or something to celebrate graduation. Some go to Europe. I opened a shop.”
“Ah. Not even an ounce of genuine support between the two of them, then.”
She hated to admit it, but as Chatty liked to say, truth is truth. “I’m afraid not. And now with the shop not taking off, the problem is, Mother’s becoming more and more insistent about the party being over and it being time to settle down—and so is Bradley.” They’d joined forces to push Amanda against the proverbial wall and hold her pinned there. She hated that and resented it—and their lack of support.
“What’s your dad say about all this?”
Never in her life had she called her father her dad. He’d be in Arizona with her mother, recovering. “Nothing.” She bit the disappointment from her voice. “You know he doesn’t get involved. When Mother makes up her mind, Father never messes with her.” Had he even noticed the conflict? Amanda seriously doubted it.
“He says and does nothing.” Chatty could have said more and from the twist of her mouth, she nearly did. For some reason known only to her and God, she held her tongue and stilled for a long moment, then tilted back her head to look at Amanda from under the brim of her floppy hat. Her soft green eyes glittered resentment and curiosity. “So what are you going to do about all this?”
“I don’t know.” Amanda’s confusion spilled out. “I don’t want to marry the man. It isn’t just that I don’t love him. I don’t like him. Actually, he irks me, Chatty. When I’m around him, I feel like every nerve in my body is on the outside of my skin and he’s grating them until they’re raw.”
“That’s pretty bad.”
“It’s awful,” Amanda agreed. “But is the reason he irks me just me being hardheaded and against him because my mother likes him, or is it more of my bad judgment? By every other woman’s standards, the guy’s a winner. A great catch. Even Kirsten thinks he’s got it all.”
“What others think don’t make no never mind. In your marriage, the only standards that matter are yours—and his, of course.”
“True, but if my judgment isn’t sound, I don’t know if I’m against him to spite her or just against him. I’m not sure, and that’s not fair, either.” Amanda sighed and slumped back in her chair. “Then there’s the whole other side of all this.”
“There’s another side? What other side?”
Chatty had forgotten. “Mother holds the loan on my shop. It’s make or break time. I have three months. Just three more months.” Panic laced Amanda’s voice. “If I can’t make this shop a success by then, she can call my loan—and she will do it. I know she will. She’s been waiting with baited breath to jerk the rug out from under me since the day I unlocked the front door for the first time.”
“And if she calls the loan, you’re up the river without a rowboat or an oar.” Chatty shifted her gaze to the front of the store, at the rack of sunglasses and the little table loaded with Valentine’s Day goodies: lacy red sachets, velvet-covered journals, sweet-smelling potpourri. “I hate to have to agree with you, pet, but I do. If Veronica Jensen can call your loan, she’ll do it, to force you to toe her line. But you can’t marry a jerk just to avoid a family feud.”
“I know.” Amanda groaned, more resentment burning in her stomach. It was a lose-lose situation. “I won’t. But unless a miracle happens around here, I’m going to have to close the shop and find something else to do.” Just thinking about the death of her dream broke her heart. Her eyes burned and she blinked hard.
“What else would you be content doing?”
“I have no idea,” Amanda admitted. “I never had a Plan B. This shop is all I’ve ever wanted. Well, this and the right man to share my life.”
“I don’t know it all, pet, but I know this store is your world and you belong in it. Life without your dreams, well, it ain’t no kind of life at all.”
Sadness flooded Amanda. Her breath hitched. “Some people never realize their dreams. At least I had mine for a while. That’s something.”
“Sounds like you’ve already given up.”
“No. No way.” Amanda would fight tooth and nail to the last second. “But unless I want to lose my apartment, too, I have to be realistic. A miracle isn’t going to drop into my lap, Chatty.”
“It’s not impossible. Miracles happen, but odds are against it,” she agreed. “We both know sometimes a woman has to fail her way to success. The war ain’t won all at once but in a series of battles. So what’s your battle plan? I’m figuring you and Kirsten worked up something.”
Astute even when vacant. “We did. I had an idea and I’ve implemented it, but Kirsten’s not sure it’ll work. She ranked her confidence level at 4. On a ten-point scale, a four isn’t exactly great.”
“Do you think it’ll work?”
She paused to weigh the potential one more time, then answered. “You know, I do. I’m not sure why, but I do think it’ll work—and I hope I’m not wrong, because it’ll be the final nail.” Admitting that had her sick inside. “Success hinges on Valentine’s Day.”
Chatty spied the quill pens near the register, and that familiar, appreciative gleam lit in her eyes. “So far, so good. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and the perfect time, I’d say, to launch a war.”
A war? Amanda thought about it. Chatty was right. This was a war for her future. And failure wasn’t an option. Amanda had to succeed or go bust trying everything, using every weapon in her personal arsenal. She turned her thoughts to her Valentine’s Day plans, and feeling her enthusiasm bubble, she disclosed them to Chatty. “If my idea works, it could be a winner. Really, it is a winner. I know some of my promotional schemes have fallen flat, and you and Kirsten have called them, but this one should be stellar. It has all the right ingredients.”
“Now you sound more like my pet. So quit stalling cuz you’re scared I’ll shoot it down and tell me—what’s your idea?” Excitement flickered through Chatty’s eyes. She refreshed her tea and then added tart lemon and bit into another cookie.
“A ‘Meet Your Secret Admirer’ party.” Amanda’s pulse quickened. “It’s in progress, like I said. I wrote the invitations and hired Jonathan to illustrate them. People have been signing up all week.” She waved toward the end of the register counter to the mailbox she’d covered in red satin and white hearts. “They fill out their card to their ‘admiree,’ and then I seal and mail them. The seal proves they’re authentic and from the shop,” she digressed to explain the safeguard against crazies using them to lure innocents for nefarious purposes. “Then Valentine’s night, all the couples meet here for a formal affair…very romantic… We’ll have roses, champagne, dancing—the whole nine yards.”
“It sounds wonderful!” Chatty set down her cup and walked to the front of the store, her shoestrings still leaving a slinky, wet trail on the carpet. She pointed out into the mall, center court, to the huge bronze sculpture roped off by velvet brass-pole swags. “You can have candlelit tables for two out there. A band right under the tip of Cupid’s arrow, near the little bench, and dancing… Oh, Mandy, people will love it!”
Reassured by Chatty’s excitement, Amanda smiled. “I think so, too.”
Chatty looked back over her shoulder at Amanda and sobered. “Have you ever really noticed that statue of Cupid?”
“Cupid’s Arrow?” Amanda asked, reciting the name the renowned and reclusive artist Millicent Fairgate had tagged the sculpture.
Chatty slid her a worried look, as if wondering if she were a half-a-loaf short of whole. “It’s the only statue around, pet.”
Amanda resisted the urge to squirm. “It isn’t easy to miss.”
The bronze stood a solid ten feet tall. She’d avoided close scrutiny of the piece because her mother had purchased and then donated it to the mall for the holiday. Yet curious now, Amanda walked over to Chatty. “What about it?”
“The arrow nocked in Cupid’s bow points directly into the entrance of your store.”
Surprised, Amanda studied the giant bronze. “It does.” She grunted. “Maybe that’ll bring us good luck.”
“It hasn’t so far, and I’m sorry as spit to say it ain’t likely to this morning.” Chatty grimaced, obviously vexed. “Here comes Mr. Perfect.”
Chatty swiped past the fern, rustling its leaves, put her cup down on the little table, and then grabbed her grocery sack. “I don’t care if Bradley Wade is the youngest partner in the history of your father’s law firm, pet, the man’s still a twit. Handsome as sin, but a shallow twit.” She pocketed yet another cookie.
Through the store’s front windows, Amanda saw women strolling the mall crook their necks to watch Bradley walk past. He was handsome in a perfectionist kind of way, and she’d have liked to disagree on the shallow twit remark, but she couldn’t honestly do it. “He has good qualities.” Weak, but the best defense she could manage.
Bradley sauntered into the shop, glancing around as if he were appraising it. He did have appeal: dark hair, bedroom eyes. Perfectly dressed in only the best, he carried himself like a winner. A very confident, successful winner. And maybe he would be a winner, if he’d broaden his horizons a little, develop some compassion, and realize other people have needs, too. If that occurred to him a tenth as often as his own needs did, he’d have a whole lot more going for him.
That was Amanda’s biggest gripe about Bradley Wade, and one she just couldn’t seem to get beyond, though she didn’t much care for the inspector-general way he looked at her shop or at her, either. The shop was lovely, teal, burgundy and gray and softly scented with vanilla; warm and welcoming. And her red sheath flattered her coloring, her nape-length, spiky black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She was lean and attractive if not classically beautiful like her mother. Certainly she deserved better than him glaring at her throat, her hands, and her earlobes and then giving her a resigned sigh.
Ah. The reason hit her. No jewelry. She resisted sighing herself. He knew she hated jewelry, of course, yet he still resented her for not wearing it. He took it personally, as if she hated jewelry to deliberately to deny him the opportunity to flash his generosity to observers he wanted to impress. That, unfortunately was so Bradley. About as deep as a pane of thin glass. Shallow twit.
He cast a disdainful look Chatty’s way, as if wondering what in the world a woman wearing rags could be doing in Amanda’s store. “Amanda.”
“Good morning, Bradley. I’d like you to meet my friend, Chatty. Chatty, this is Bradley Wade.”
Chatty held out a hand and offered him a smile.
Bradley looked at her as if she carried plague. “Charmed.”
He nodded, then turned his back on her.
Clearly in a snit, Chatty grumbled her way to the cash register counter, picked up the quill pens she’d been eyeing earlier, dropped two of them into her sack, and walked out of the shop.
She headed straight across the mall to the statue of Cupid, sat on the bench, and within seconds engaged in a serious discussion with the bronze.
Seeing red, Amanda glared at Bradley. “Why were you rude to her?”
“Me, rude?” He lifted a brow. “Darling, has it escaped your notice that your ‘friend’ is a bag lady and a thief? She just stole two pens from you. I would think you would ban that kind of riffraff from your store, not refer to her as a friend.”
“Riffraff?” Amanda had to work at it to swallow an outraged bellow. “Don’t call Chatty names, Bradley. I mean it.” Knowing her voice was elevating anyway, she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “She’s my friend, and I don’t give a flying fig if she walks out with all my stock.”
He crossed his arms akimbo. “Spoken like a true businesswoman.”
His sarcasm, and the inference that he shared her mother’s certainty Amanda was doomed to fail, infuriated her. “Look, I realize Chatty’s a little eccentric, and she’s not apt to find herself welcome at garden club luncheons or country club balls, but she’s welcome in my shop any time. As for her stealing, well, she knows things aren’t important. People are. She cares about me, and I care about her. Now if you can’t accept that and be nice to her, then you’d better leave.”
Red crawled up his neck, staining his skin, then crept to his face. He was angry all right, nearly choking on it. He glared at her, then turned on his well-shod heel and left the shop without uttering another word.
The bell tinkled, signaling he’d gone. Still trembling from the confrontation and intending to apologize to Chatty, Amanda turned for the entrance.
A gorgeous man stood near the cash register. About six two and dressed in a navy blue suit with an exquisite glove fit, he held his gaze averted so Amanda couldn’t see his eyes, but his hair was black, a little shorter on his nape than hers, and he had a strong jaw and the kind of broad shoulders a woman in need could lean on. Appealing package. But why hadn’t she heard him come in?
Well, she had been a little preoccupied, screaming like an idiot. She probably wouldn’t have heard a bomb explode. Oh, no. Had he heard her shout at Bradley? Unless he was stone-deaf, of course he had. Talk about raunchy first impressions. This one had to rank right up at the top of the list.
He glanced her way, and she looked into the most fascinating gray eyes she’d ever seen. Empathy shone in their depths. Her stomach knotted and her face went hot. The man had stood there long enough to witness her confrontation with Bradley and, heaven help her, he’d heard every humiliating word.
Was there a first impression worse than raunchy? Doubting it, and wishing for a hurricane, a tornado, or any other disaster that would let her avoid this embarrassment, she paused, but nothing happened. Figured. She slid Cupid’s Arrow a glare for refusing to bring her even a smidgen of good luck, then brazened out meeting the man on her own.
Walking over so the counter would be between them—truthfully, she needed the support of leaning on it—she stepped up to the register and then addressed the man, doing her best to dredge up a smile. “Good morning. May I help you?”
“Good morning, Miss Jensen.” His voice sounded soft and rich, as soothing as her Japanese tea. “I understand the woman who was just in your store has been shoplifting.”
He knew her name; had to be with mall security. Oh, mercy, he couldn’t mean to arrest Chatty!
Amanda’s chest went tight. Think. Think!
She had to lie. What other choice did she have? “Are you talking about Chatty?”
He nodded, and Amanda let out an absurd laugh, hoping it passed muster and she didn’t land herself in jail with her friend. “Of course not. That dear woman wouldn’t steal anything from anyone.” She pointed to the tray. “We had tea, Mr…?”
“Jones,” he said. “Max Jones.” His brows knitted together and his jaw tensed until his discomfort became more overwhelming than evident. “I’m not sure exactly how to put this.”
Amanda offered him a tentative smile. No one so gorgeous and gentle-voiced should ever be so uncomfortable. “Just say what you want to say, Mr. Jones. I’m the queen of uncomfortable conversations and I’d hate to be responsible for you feeling you’re in one with me.”
“Thanks. Call me Max, please. Everyone does.”
“Max.” He was letting her get away with the lie about Chatty stealing and, more than a little grateful, she widened her smile. Now here was a man with compassion.
He rubbed his neck and stiffened visibly, as if forcing himself by sheer will to meet her gaze. His hand wasn’t quite steady. “Chatty is my aunt.”
Amanda blinked, then blinked again. Chatty never had mentioned having family. Especially wealthy family, and from the looks of his suit—definitely custom-made—and the Rolex winking out from under his starched shirt cuff, Max Jones was far more than just financially comfortable.
He dragged a fingertip over his temple. “Mandy, I’m sure you’ve noticed that my aunt is a little…eccentric.”
He must be Chatty’s nephew. Only she had ever called Amanda “Mandy.” Clearly, they’d discussed her. “We all have our eccentricities. Chatty’s are just a little more apparent.”
“They are that.” He smiled.
Amanda’s knees went weak. Gorgeous, compassionate, smelled like a slice of heaven, and he had a killer smile. She almost sighed. Forgivable, though. Men like him didn’t just walk into her shop, much less walk in claiming to be the nephew of a friend Amanda had thought homeless, despite Chatty’s claims to the contrary.
“I’ve been away on business and just returned to the coast,” he said. “I was told you knew about this…situation. Now, I learn you had no idea.”
He paused, letting his gaze wander over the collection of wind chimes, then the hourglasses and atomizers, as if weighing his options. Finally he looked back at her. “I’m sorry, but I guess there’s no easy way to tell you this.”
Amanda braced instinctively. From the tense look of him, whatever was coming had to be awful.
He stretched an arm across the counter and placed his hand atop hers, as if by touching her he would absorb the shock for her. “Earlier this morning, Chatty confessed that she’s been ‘borrowing baubles’ from you since the day you opened your shop.”
Amanda stared at him, not sure what to say.
“I’m so sorry, Mandy, and I’d like to make restitution without involving the police, for obvious reasons—if you’d be agreeable to it.” Sincerity radiated from him. “Chatty doesn’t mean any harm, she’s just…well, eccentric.”
Relieved that this was all there was to it, Amanda thought she should move her hand. She should, but she wasn’t going to. His was large, his fingers long and fluid, his nails short and blunt and his palm was warm on the back of her hand. So very warm: Compassionate, soothing…and comforting. She liked all of that about him. A lot. And she felt a deep need to ease his mind. This situation clearly worried him. “I know, Max,” she said softly. “Chatty’s been rather obvious, at times actually deliberate, in letting me know about her ‘bauble borrowing.'”
Surprise flickered through his eyes, and maybe a sliver of admiration, though Amanda couldn’t fathom what there was to admire in a businesswoman admitting she’d allowed herself to be duped out of merchandise since the day she’d gone into business. “If it’s any consolation, she never takes any of my expensive items. Her cutoff seems to be around the five-dollar mark.”
“It isn’t consoling. Stealing is stealing. But I appreciate your trying to make me feel better about this.” He pulled out his checkbook. “Oddly enough, she’s kept an accounting of all her, er…”
“Baubles?” Amanda suggested, hating that he felt he sat on the hot-seat. Having spent most of her life there, she knew too well what an uncomfortable place it could be.
“Yes.” He scratched the tip of his gold pen across the check, filling it out, then tore it from the pad and passed it to her. “I’ve added sales tax. If you find that’s insufficient, please let me know.” He let his gaze drift away. “I do feel terrible about this, Mandy. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She’s never done anything like this before and has no reasonable explanation for doing it now.”
“What does she say is her reason?”
“She’s keeping life interesting. Entertaining herself.” He frowned his thoughts on that.
From his flushed skin, he felt embarrassed to the bone. “Please don’t be upset.” This time Amanda’s smile was genuine. “I’ve always had the distinct feeling that if I’d called Chatty down for her borrowing just once, she’d have stopped.” Amanda gave his hand a gentle squeeze, then glanced at the check.
Something about his handwriting tugged a familiar chord in her, but unable to peg exactly what, she put the check into the register, then snapped the cash drawer shut.
“Why didn’t you call her down on it?” Curiosity lit the irises of his eyes with mesmerizing silver flecks. “And when I asked, why did you deny knowing about the thefts?”
Even mesmerized, Mandy couldn’t hold his gaze. He’d think she was a lousy businesswoman, just like Bradley. And while she didn’t give two figs what Bradley thought, for some goofy reason, Max’s opinion of her mattered. It had to be her reacting to the compassion in him. Still, truth was truth, and in coming here, he’d earned it and her respect. This hadn’t been easy for him. That was obvious. “She’s my friend. I didn’t want her to get into trouble.” Amanda shrugged. Sure his censure would follow and not wanting to see it, she dropped her gaze lower, to his gray silk tie, and confessed, “I thought you were with mall security.”
A little chuckle escaped him, and from the tender smile that curved his lips, she saw that he didn’t think at all like Bradley. “On the Q.T., I’m a businessman, not at all secure, and I find your protectiveness…touching.”
Unaccustomed to praise and to men admitting their flaws, Amanda liked both far more than she should. “What are friends for?”
“Support, caring, sharing—all the things you’ve given to Chatty. Thank you for that, Mandy.” As if he regretted letting her see inside him, Max turned his voice from tender to crisp. “Tell me, how did you and my aunt become friends?”
Relieved that he hadn’t wondered why the daughter of Edward and Veronica Jensen would stoop to “unacceptable commercialism,” Amanda felt the knots in her stomach melt. “Chatty’s a warm, wonderful woman.”
“She is,” he agreed. “Though people seldom see that side of her.”
Amanda’s focus sank deeper into his eyes. They were so beautiful. Magnetic. How many women had discovered themselves lost in them? “That surprises me. She’s so open and honest.”
“With you, she’s open. With others, not so much.” He glanced outside, then looked back at Amanda. “Did you meet here?”
“Yes, we did. Grand opening day.” Amanda smiled. “Chatty came in cold and wet, bless her heart, carrying her grocery bag, like always. She introduced herself, wished me every success, had tea and cookies—she loves cookies—and then snitched two Christmas ornaments on her way out of the store.” Amanda let out a little laugh. “I was so stunned, I couldn’t move.”
Max looked torn between laughing with her and groaning. “Is that why you didn’t have her arrested?”
“No.” Amanda shrugged. “I know I should have reported her, but I just couldn’t do it.”
She focused on a point beyond his shoulder. “I thought she was homeless,” Amanda confessed. “She’s always assured me she wasn’t, but a part of me still believed she was, and I guess I couldn’t say anything about the borrowing because anyone can get down on their luck.” Less than comfortable with being so frank, Amanda shifted on her feet and hoped she wasn’t one of them in three months. “Maybe that sounds like a silly reason, but it’s not. You never know when it might be you and you’ll need a kindness.”
“That doesn’t sound silly at all.”
Pleased, she smiled at him again. “I’ve become very fond of your aunt, Max. In her own unorthodox way, she’s kind and gentle and wise. More than idly interested, she really cares about people and their hopes and dreams, and she has a quirky way of looking at things that makes me laugh.” Amanda looked back at him, knowing she’d gone solemn and he was far too astute and observant to miss it, knowing she should hush now, before she made a bigger fool of herself. But something in his eyes urged her on. “I’ve heard too little laughter in my life to squander it over the borrowing of a few baubles.”
The look in his eyes told her he understood, and as if sensing her discomfort, he withdrew emotionally. “I trust we’re considering this matter settled, then, without the police?”
“Very gracious, Mandy. Thank you.” He smiled, and his eyes lit up from their bottoms. “Chatty’s lucky to have you for a friend.”
Amanda crossed her chest arid rubbed at her arms. “Honestly, I’m the lucky one.”
Looking thoughtful, he turned to walk out of the shop, then stopped and glanced back at her. “Mandy, would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
Her heart skidded to a near-halt then thudded hard, threatening to shove through her chest wall. Liking him, and incredibly intrigued—Why did the eccentric aunt of a wealthy man dress in rags and run around carrying a grocery bag?—Amanda smiled. “Yes, I will. Where should we meet?”
“Antonio’s?” he suggested. “Eight o’clock?”
Antonio’s? Now what would he know of a place like Antonio’s? It was a hole-in-the-wall off Highway 90 near Rue Magnolia, far from the glitz and glamour the casinos had sprinkled along the Gulf Coast, and a choice that would send her mother into a dead faint. Definitely not a socially acceptable restaurant, but Amanda had been there many times, and she loved the food. “Can’t wait,” she said, chiding herself because that statement held a little too much truth, and Antonio’s delectable linguine and white clam sauce had nothing to do with it.
“I loved this book. When the truth came out it opened her eyes to see what was real. She found something truly beautiful.” ~Ramona Kekstadt
“Vicki Hinze’s has created a story that is more than meeting the perfect someone and “living happily ever after”. My Imperfect Valentine is also about taking chances and living dreams. This is a light romance that touches on kindness, good deeds, and making the dreams in your heart come true. For the reader looking for an enjoyable romantic story this is the perfect Valentine treat for you.” ~ Bookcruiser
“My Imperfect Valentine is a perfect Valentine love story… She finds her Imperfect Valentine is really the Perfect Valentine. I really loved this book. Ms. Hinze is a writer who gives readers a great book time after time. Enjoy!” ~Debra from Birmingham
“This is a really fun romance story.” ~Judith A. Pflueger
“A beautifully written romance story about believing in yourself and taking control of your own destiny. You won’t want to put this one down until you have read the whole story — you will become immersed in the story and find yourself encouraging the main character to believe in herself and do what she knows is right for her. You can’t go wrong with Vicki Hinze books – I highly recommend.” ~Jo Anne Vincent
“I loved it. No one’s perfect. The main characters are flawed but loveable. I sat down and read this straight through. The dilemma Amanda finds herself in is real life. She questions her decisions, her choices, her judgment. She’s totally relatable. The ‘bag’ lady is a delight. Max is yummy in so many ways. Amanda had a pretty cool promotions idea for her store. I would have liked to read about her other promo ideas…and attended her Promo event. =)
I could go on and on about all the things I like about this delightful story, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Pour a cup of hot chocolate curl up in your favorite chair and settle in for a sweet, feel-good story.” ~L.Root
“I love this book and it is perfect for Valentine’s Day! The author, Vicki Hinze , does a great job developing the characters, who are believeable and captivating and so the journey begins. She also supplies a great element of suspense and will leave one guessing how it will all turn out. The story is about finding the right relationship where one can be honest, supportive and respectful after past relationships only left pain and suspicion. In addition, separating from ones mother is not easy, but this story shows how it can be done with respect and honesty. This is a feel good book which one won’t be able to put down until the last page is read.” ~J.L. McCrimmon
First published by St. Martin’s Press in 1998 as part of an anthology. Rewritten and published in 2015 by Magnolia Leaf Press.