Twelve Kisses Later
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Can you find true love in a kiss? How about a dozen?
Lucy Duckworth is comfortable with her life and in her own skin, and her habit of picking up orphaned cats is noble. Yet when her roommate asks her to fill in at a kissing booth during the Winter Carnival, Lucy’s even-keeled existence suddenly tilts.
Matthew Kincaide has one simple motto: live off the land, keep your head down, don’t talk a whole lot and never trust a woman. Divorced and not about to give a female control over him again, all he wants is to deliver his animals for the petting zoo and go home. Too bad his annoying brother coaxes him into buying tickets for the kissing booth.
Lucy’s and Matthew’s first kiss ends with a violent sneeze, but she can’t forget that first lip-tingling, take-me-away moment. Though Matthew’s shocked by his first reaction, he lines up for a second chance. Surely lightning can’t strike twice. Will winter fun and a random accident derail their quest to find out how many kisses it takes to fall in love?
"There's no way I'm getting in that kissing booth." Lucy Duckworth crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head for emphasis. The vigorous motion sent her brunette curls bouncing over her shoulders. She glared at the closed bathroom door her roommate had disappeared behind. All three of Lucy's cats lined the hallway, staring as well. "The only way that would ever happen is if you were dying."
"I think I am." The unmistakable sound of barfing followed the pathetic statement.
"Pam, are you okay?" Lucy knocked on the door. Her anger evaporated in the face of her concern. The calico sat on Lucy's feet.
Another round of heaving preceded an answer. "I knew when that grumpy woman coughed on me two days ago I'd get the flu. I just knew it." The toilet flushed. The tap water ran, and seconds later, the bathroom door opened. Pam stood in the frame, her skin pale, her eyes watery, and her chin quivering. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her oversized blue Indiana Pacers sweatshirt. She must really be sick if she'd chosen to cover all possible skin like that. "Holy crap, there's no way I can go to the Winter Carnival like this, let alone kiss guys, unless you want me to infect the whole town."
Lucy's shoulders slumped. The black cat, Shadow, brushed against Pam's shins. "No, you should be in bed." She followed her friend into her room and waited while the other woman climbed under the covers, closely followed by Shadow. "Do you want some ice water or ginger ale?" She tucked a brown paisley comforter around Pam then smoothed sweaty blonde bangs away from her warm forehead. "You have a fever." Shadow curled into a ball at her side, purring.
"I just want to sleep." Pam's brown eyes widened. "Please say you'll take my place at the booth? Or do it at least until I can track down someone else, okay?"
"I don't know…" Her stomach clenched. In her twenty-seven years, she'd only been kissed a handful of times. Knowing she'd have to do it multiple times with strangers this evening sent shivers crashing down her spine — and not the good kind. "Kissing's your thing, and you're so comfortable around guys…" Pam's string of broken hearts and less-than-moral love life was legendary, at least around Francesville.
"Come on, Lucy." A string of coughing interrupted Pam's speech. "It's for a good cause. Playground equipment for the elementary school. Just think of those excited kids when they get their shiny, new playground this spring."
Crap. Lucy chewed her bottom lip. She never could resist helping others — human or feline. "Fine, but you have to feed the furries later, since I probably won't be home tonight until ten." As she spoke, the other two cats — the calico, Happy, and a ginger male, Punkin — jumped onto the bed and settled in.
Pam nodded. She snuggled into the covers. "Deal. Don't bring any more back with you, even if they do look at you with big eyes and have a great purr. We're running out of room with these three."
"I'll try." Taking in stray cats had become a problem. The three she already owned were hers because she couldn't place them in homes. Francesville didn't have an animal shelter, so there was no other option for the strays. Dogs and cats that were caught by the local population or small police force were taken to the pound in the next town over.
"No trying. I mean it. No more cats, all right? I'm feeling like the old woman who lived in a shoe, except with cats instead of kids. Sooner or later, Old Man Harley will come for an inspection, then we'll both be thrown out."
That was true, and an ongoing fear both she and Pam shared. When they'd leased the tiny two-bedroom house from the older man who'd owned the property for almost thirty years, it had been with the caveat that he might pop in from his RV travels anytime to look over the property. That and he'd explicitly told them they couldn't have pets, not even a hamster or a goldfish.
"I promise. No more cats."
"Or anything else. I mean it. Heaven knows if you come across a wounded bird while you're out there, you'll bring it home." Another bout of coughing had Pam wiping her mouth on her sleeve again as her eyelids fluttered closed.
"I know, I know. Hope you feel better." Lucy exited and left the door open in case the cats needed out.
Once in her bedroom, she grabbed a pillow off the bed and screamed into it, releasing the built-up tension. It was a stress-relief mechanism she'd used since her teens when things were rough dealing with her mom. As it was, she still heard her proper grandmother lecturing her: Ladies don't outwardly show any expression except being pleasant. Men don't want to be weighed down with female histrionics.
She took a deep breath, let it out, then tossed the pillow onto the bed. Though her grandmother had passed away more than five years before, her old-school views of male and female relations lingered. How disappointed would the old lady have been, had she found out Lucy hadn't gotten around to dating for the sheer excuse that she found the company of rescue cats more fun? Plus, Francesville wasn't exactly chock-full of good men.
Not her immediate concern. Lucy planted her hands on her hips and contemplated her closet. What did a woman wear when she'd be presented with dozens of strangers all intent on smooching? Naturally, her thoughts and worries focused on the upcoming debacle. She'd be manning the kissing booth tonight under duress — a job Pam did every year with enthusiasm. Pam had guys lining up to wait for half an hour just for a shot at her famous pucker. Of course Pam enjoyed the task. She used to say it was a good way to weed out guys without having to date them. A guy who can't kiss isn't worth knowing, was her favorite motto.
Ugh. Now it's my job.
Did that mean she needed long-wearing lip gloss or just lip balm, and was there something wrong with her that the thought of having to lip tango with strange men had her pulse pounding and palms sweating?
After yanking a pair of jeans from the dresser, Lucy stormed into the closet and grabbed a thick, ivory sweater from a shelf. The cable-knit piece would keep her warm enough with a scarf, and if she were lucky, she wouldn't need a coat. Too many things to keep track of at the carnival made for a better night.
Pam owes me big time.
Accented with purple mittens, scarf, and stocking cap an hour later Lucy crunched over a plowed path through the snow at the county fairgrounds. Her breath clouded around her. Winter had definitely taken hold of Francesville. Frantic activity filled the area as last-minute preparations for the Winter Carnival were underway, transforming the barren, late January area into a winter wonderland, complete with a huge snowboarding hill at the back of the property.
People scurried about, their arms loaded with bags and boxes. Vendors called to each other as electricians conducted checks of cables and generators. The sweet cinnamon scent from the elephant ear wagon mingled with the aroma from the roasted nut car that competed with corn smell from the popcorn trailer.
Lucy smiled. The food combined with the frosty atmosphere and the cozy scene of people in winter gear gave off a feeling of imminent fun and winter mayhem. If Francesville did anything right, it was the Winter Carnival. They might be a small town east of Indianapolis, but they sure knew how to bring the kitsch, which in turn, ran the tourist mill.
She followed the cutesy hand-painted wooden signs toward the area of the carnival where the kissing booth was set up. Her younger sister, Lauren, had created the signs at her home décor shop Stuff for Your Walls. The snowmen all had touches of her quirky personality, including smirks and a few winks. No need for fancy printed banners when talent was just around the corner. Silly Lauren. She had a shot of having her artwork in gallery showings up in Chicago, but she'd passed on the potential fame to stick around Francesville and look after their ailing father.
The thought of her dad made Lucy's steps falter. He'd had knee replacement surgery six months ago yet hadn't recovered as quickly as the doctors would have liked. It was nearing the point that she and Lauren would need to contemplate assisted living facilities for him. Francesville didn't have any, which meant he'd have to move out of town. That's going to be a crappy convo.
All the worrisome thoughts tumbled into the back of her mind as she caught sight of the infamous kissing booth.
Made to resemble a Swiss chalet, its brown-painted shingles and white-and-brown crisscrossed façade seemed cozy enough, even if it was a small, modified storage shed. Lucy's stomach churned.
A sign above the booth proclaimed "Kissing Booth" in big, red letters on a white background. A set of glittery red lips smiled off to one side. Her mouth went dry. What if it got rowdy? What if some of the guys had colds? What if no one came… or what if there was a line? And, oh goodness, what if some of the kissing hopefuls weren't guys at all? In this day and age, you never knew. What would she do? She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. This would be harder than she'd thought.
As she readjusted the strap of her purse on her shoulder, she walked forward. She had the feeling that no amount of mouthwash, gum, or mints would help her through the evening.
"Will you hang around and enjoy the carnival with me?" An unmistakable whine crept into Mark's voice.
Matthew Kincaide ignored his brother and pulled on heavy work gloves. "Come help me get the sheep out and into the barn." He went around to the trailer behind his oversized pickup and unhooked the latch. When the short, metal ramp crashed down, he swung open the hatch. Both black-faced sheep looked at him with wide, unblinking stares. "Hey, boys." The animals couldn't care less where he took them as long as food accompanied the ride.
"You know, there's this newfangled thing called conversation. It's how people communicate with each other." Mark joined him. He connected a lead to a harness on one of the sheep. "If you don't know how to do it, maybe you should take a class."
"Maybe you should take a flying leap." Matthew smiled at the banter. He and his brother might be fifteen months apart, but that didn't mean they didn't get on each other's nerves every once in a while. He attached another tether to the second sheep and encouraged the animal down the trailer's ramp.
"Are you working tonight?" Mark took both bits of leather as Matthew closed and secured the trailer.
"Yeah, eight to midnight." A few nights a week, he unloaded the delivery truck, restocked shelves, or did inventory at the local farmer's supply store. It filled the time in the winter months when he couldn't farm or be out working his land. "Why? Still got the dumb idea of staying here for the evening?" He swung a bale of hay from the bed of the pickup. The sweet smell enhanced his desire to be at home.
"Hey, it's better than sitting in front of the TV." Mark tugged the sheep across the snow-covered ground. They trotted behind him, their black legs stark against the powdery cover.
"What's wrong with home? You've never had a problem with it before, and it's a nice place now that all the renovations are complete." He'd invested two months last fall repairing the aging farmhouse and wraparound porch, and it was a matter of pride that the property value had nearly doubled. "You said you liked living there." Matthew stalked after his brother, glaring at the back of his head. As a kid, he would have thrown a snowball at him in the hopes of knocking the ball cap off his brother's black curls. Now, he settled for a less violent method.
"Yeah, I do. It's great, and I'm grateful for the invite. Except now, I'm restless, you know? I can't put my finger on it, but I'm in the mood for something different."
"Different how? Maybe if you did something other than dream about what lures and bait you plan to stock your shop with this spring, you wouldn't be so bored." To Matthew's way of thinking, life was pretty much golden at the moment.
"It's a living, and you're good company when you get on a talking jag." Mark snorted as though that didn't happen often. "Don't you think it's time we both started seriously looking for a couple of females to make life more interesting — or at the least, a bit more appetizing in the supper department?"
That was a valid concern. Neither he nor Mark were good chefs. There were only so many fried egg sandwiches a man could eat before he wanted to ban chickens from the farm. Yet he refused to let his brother know that. He'd rather suffer boring food than have a woman under his roof. "Nope. Life's good in my world."
Matthew said nothing further as the gloom of the barn overtook them. The familiar scents of warm animals, fresh hay, and livestock excrement wafted around him. The soft baas from the few goats he'd already brought over rang in the barn, blending with gentle, equine snickers. Besides the animals he'd brought for the petting zoo, he spotted a couple of reindeer in a fenced-off area, as well as several ponies in stalls along one wall. It seemed this year's Winter Carnival would provide amusement for all ages.
"Life might be good, but you have to admit it could stand some female enhancement. Don't you miss the little things a woman does?"
"Depends." He watched like a mother hen as his brother encouraged the sheep into their assigned area. Animals, he understood. Animals needed food, water, shelter, and the occasional pat on the head. Humans got his guts tied into knots and sent his temper into the stratosphere, especially when those humans came in the form of complaining, manipulative women. While Mark removed the harnesses, Matthew broke down the hay bale and scattered the straw around the pen. Then he filled a metal washtub with water from a nearby hose and exited the holding area.
Mark straightened and joined him on the outside the pen. He leaned his forearms on the top rail of the metal fencing. "Staying or going?"
"You already said that."
"Still is true."
Mark's sigh seemed to come from his toes. "On?"
"What you intend to do at the carnival tonight." Matthew removed his battered brown Stetson and ran a hand through his hair. Though he'd missed out on the curls, his hair was just as thick as Mark's, but he kept it short so he didn't have to fuss with it. He slapped the hat against his thigh before replacing it on his head. "I don't mind wandering around and monitoring the petting zoo or visiting the ice fishing area. Man, I'll even hang out in the beer tent with you, but I draw the line at anything else."
"Geez, you hit thirty and got boring." Mark pushed off the fence and headed toward the doors. "You're not dead. You're divorced. Why not learn to live again? Not all women are as bad as Jen."
"Debatable, and by the way, I am living, and I'm having a great time doing it." Matthew followed his sibling out of the barn. A fine, gentle snow had started to fall, the small flakes ebbing away on the dry air. "I'm not willing to take the chance on a new girl and be bossed around like I don't matter. Maybe I'm the kind of guy who's better off without a woman." He turned up the collar of his leather jacket and hunched into its confines as he drew even to his brother. "If the state of the house is your issue, I'll hire a maid. Problem solved."
"No it's not." Mark shook his head. "You gotta trust someone sometime. Who knows? You might find a woman you're interested in tonight."
"Fine, come back all six nights of the carnival, and you'll have better odds."
Yeah, that's not happening. The last thing he wanted to do was watch people spend their hard-earned money on silly booths and midway games that would net them dumb stuffed animals and useless toys to clutter their houses. Instead, he said, "Why is it so hard for you to believe I'm happy being single? I like the farm, taking care of the animals. I even like the night job. Why taint a good thing with a dose of horrible?"
"You don't know that a different woman would be the same as Jen, so humor me." Mark swung around and dropped his hands on Matthew's shoulders. "Look, I get you think you've worked out everything in your head, but dude, you're in danger of becoming worse than a crazy cat lady. How many times have you caught yourself talking to the goats and sheep or even the llamas?"
Warmth crept up the back of Matthew's neck. "No comment."
"Aw, man, have you talked to the llamas?" An expression of disbelief settled over Mark's long face.
"What if I have?" Matthew broke away from his brother. Mark didn't need to know that he had a feeling the llamas really listened to what he said, with their long-lashed eyes and their fuzzy heads tilted just so. If that made him crazy, then that was fine. "It's my life, okay? It's better than being with Jen—we can both attest to that—and I certainly don't miss having a female nag me about every little thing. Drop it, all right?"
"Nope. Not until you promise to stay until you have to leave for work. One night, Matt. It won't kill you."
Matthew slid off the gloves and tucked them into a back pocket of his jeans. He stared at a group of chattering, laughing teenagers who had stars in their eyes and cheeks red from excitement or anticipation. As the kids passed by, resignation hung heavy around his shoulders. The trouble with not wanting anything else to do with a woman meant the chance of not having kids of his own running about. Not that he was sure he wanted children right now, but maybe he would someday in the future. Mark was right. What harm would it do to spend a couple of hours at the carnival?
"Fine, you win. I'll stick around for a while." He scratched his fingers through the stubble on his jaw. "Where do you want to start?"
A sly grin pulled at Mark's mouth. "The kissing booth. Rumor has it the woman who runs the booth, Pam, is pretty experienced. She does it every year. It won't take much for her to give out an all-access pass."
"Give it a rest, Mark." At the last second, Matthew stopped himself from punching his sibling on principle. "I'm not looking for a hookup." To his way of thinking, women deserved more than a casual night between the sheets that didn't mean anything.
"Hey, I'm just saying."
"So, your big goal for the night is to stand in line and kiss a woman who's kissed the rest of the male population of town?"
"First, all proceeds go toward a local charity. Second, what better way to ease you back into the dating scene than a sure thing?" Mark clapped a hand onto Matthew's shoulder and steered him out into one of the main thoroughfares of the carnival.
"I'm not going back to dating." It'd take an act of God for him to be excited about that again.
"Fine, then this is a great shot at getting a cheap thrill by a kiss. Lighten up and enjoy yourself for once." Mark shook his head as they stood in line for the ticket booth. "Matthew, sometimes I have no idea how we're related."
"Cheap thrill, my butt." Matthew ignored his brother's jab while he read the handwritten chalkboard proclaiming prices. "At two bucks a pop, that kiss better be earth-shattering."
"And guess what, bro. You're buying a dozen. Six for me and six for you."
Matthew set his jaw while good-natured laughter broke out around them. Eight o'clock couldn't come soon enough. At least putting up feed didn't make him feel like a fish out of water. Kissing a woman he didn't know but every other male did hit him in the gut. That wasn't special or thrilling.