The Sweetest Valentine
by Lacey Baker
Book 4 in the Sweetland Series
When the idea for a new script brings Hollywood actor Kelan Hunter to the Wine & Chocolate Festival in the small town of Sweetland Valley, MD, sparks fly with the charming candy shop owner who has a list of reasons for why their love isn’t meant to be.
Ruthlessly organized Sydni Murray’s life goal checklist was derailed after her broken engagement last Valentine’s Day. Now, with the holiday fast approaching again and the town’s biggest chocolate festival on the horizon, she must put her biases about love on the backburner. Until Kelan walks into her shop with his model good looks and a box of his grandparents’ love letters that melt her heart.
The Sweetest Valentine
Book 4 in the Sweetland Series
The Sweetest Valentine
What a clever name for such an intriguing man. I enjoyed meeting you, but I’m sure you already know that. I was raised to be more reserved, or not to be a “fast tail” as my Grandma Annie used to say. But I wanted you to hold my hand. I know we’d only known each other for a couple hours but the chilly breeze felt different blowing against my skin the moment you arrived at Briarcliff. You wanted to see the vines but it wasn’t time for a tour. I took you anyway, praying Mr. Danford didn’t catch us. You didn’t know how wine was made and I felt proud to be the one to tell you. Now, I’ll never look at those vines the same way again. I’ll never walk those rows at sunset without recalling the sound of your voice or the curiosity in your eyes.
I almost didn’t write to you tonight. Never wrote letters to a boy…man, before. I’ll take it to the post office first thing in the morning. Hopefully Ms. Melanie won’t be there. She’s so nosy she’ll read the name and address and pressure me into telling her who you are and why I’m writing to you. I don’t put it past her to steam the envelope open and read the letter before sending it along. So I’m going to get there early, while she’s still sitting on her porch drinking her morning coffee. She doesn’t even work at the post office, just sits there all day watching who comes and goes, taking mental notes for the stories she wants to create about them. Pitiful woman.
I’ll wait for you to write back. I hope you do. I wish you lived closer. Wish the festival hadn’t been just a weekend. Those were the best three days of my life.
–Hattie Lynn Moss
A series of bells jingled as Kelan stepped inside the Sinfully Sweet Shop on the corner of Maple Avenue. He had just enough time to close the door and inhale the sweet fragrance wafting through the air when a conversation captured his attention.
“I love chocolate.” The woman’s comment was punctuated by a moan of delight and a round of applause from two other women standing close by.
“Love is chocolate. End of story.” A different woman, the one behind the counter, spoke with appreciation, her broad smile reaching her eyes. “That’s why I opened Sinfully Sweet so we could have chocolate all the time.”
Okay, so she was the owner of this store that was in the location he could’ve sworn his grandmother’s letters described as the post office. Then again, Nana’s letters were almost fifty years old, a lot could’ve changed in that time. Yet, from what he’d seen of this town called Sweetland in the few hours since he’d driven the rental car from BWI airport, he was betting change wasn’t something they did well.
“And what an ingenious idea to team up with Gina’s cupcake truck to make these bourbon infused chocolate cupcakes. My mother picked one up yesterday while she was down at the docks and couldn’t stop raving about it last night. That’s why I told Nessa we had to get over here today to try them out.” This was the other woman again, the one who’d been moaning just a few moments ago.
Not wanting his eavesdropping to seem obvious, Kelan walked around the store, his booted feet causing a muted sound on the glossed wood floor. It was a nice setup for a small shop; glass cases created the counter space that stretched from one wall to the next, three small tables and a set of chairs at each along the back wall. When he’d been outside, he’d noticed the innovative window display featuring tiered silver trays and clear boxes all holding some form of chocolate candy. Inside, there were five feet tall glass structures placed throughout the open space housing even more displays of candy that didn’t resemble anything he’d ever tasted. Of course, since this was February, the customary Valentine’s Day decorations were also present, but not in a gaudy, elementary school type of way. No, the bursts of red and pink that appeared throughout the store were subtly placed with balloon bouquets in the far corners, small heart-shaped candy boxes here and there amidst the candy displays and fresh flowers in various shades of pink in a huge crystal vase on the front counter.
They were carnations. The only flower he knew on sight besides roses because his Nana had loved them.
“Can I help you?”
The sound of her voice and the fact the one he presumed was the owner of the shop was now standing directly in front of him startled Kelan and he took a step back. Clearing his throat, he tried to shake the feelings of loss and the odd sense of nostalgia that had been plaguing him since he arrived in this town.
“Ah, yes.” He cleared his throat again because for some reason his voice didn’t sound normal. “I was looking for the post office, station 79803.” Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket he pulled out one of the letters. “It says it was on the corner of Maple Avenue and Honeysuckle Lane but didn’t give an exact street address. Across the street is what looks like it might be a dog park, so I took a chance that this was the building, except I’m pretty sure the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t started making chocolates.”
She raised her brows while he spoke—perfectly arched brows, above lovely warm brown eyes that watched him precariously.
He grinned, an act he hoped would calm the quickened beat of his heart as he’d begun to speak while holding Nana’s letter. If his smile also worked to stop this woman from looking at him as if he was some goofy tourist, he’d take that too.
“Look, I know this might sound strange, but I’m not from around here.”
“Oh, that doesn’t sound strange at all,” she said before lifting a hand to hide the giggle that slipped free. “I mean, we love tourists here in Sweetland, especially during the month of love. Are you looking for a Valentine’s gift for someone? The person who wrote you this letter perhaps?”
He’d been so caught up in watching the faint dimples that appeared in her cheeks when she smiled that he only partially heard what she’d been saying. “Uh, what? Wait, no. No! This letter wasn’t written to me. It was written…” He let the words trail off as he wondered how to explain what had come to him in the early morning hours after a night of grief drinking.
“Well,” the moaning woman began as she came over to join them. “If you’re unsure of what to get your girlfriend I’d suggest you purchase the large sample box. Syd creates the most surprising chocolate masterpieces I’ve ever tasted. There won’t be any candy in that box your girl won’t love. I can promise you that.” She was taller than the woman she called Syd and had a shock of red wavy hair.
Syd, on the other hand, was still staring at him with that quizzical but now slightly amused look. Her natural hair was a shoulder length riot of black curls that he imagined were soft to the touch. He’d call her skin a variant of milk chocolate, but that would be cliché and so, as he gazed at her smooth complexion his mind searched for the name of the exact color. Not that it made any difference to why he was standing here.
“I didn’t come to buy a gift for my girlfriend,” he said and watched as both Syd and the other woman’s brows raised in question. “I don’t have a girlfriend. I’m here because of this letter.”
“Oh. Em. Geeeeeee.” The third woman squealed as she came over to join them. “It’s him! Him!” She had her phone in one hand but as she jumped up and down, tapping Moaning Woman on the shoulder with her free hand, the phone was waved through the air so nobody could see what was on the screen.
Kelan couldn’t get a clear look either, but he presumed it was a picture of him. The third woman had no doubt googled him as she’d stood across the room.
“Nessa, please, you’re making my ears hurt with all your screaming,” Moaning Woman said before taking a step away from Nessa.
“Please excuse my friends, they’ve had a little too much bourbon chocolate today,” Syd said with a quick smile. “I can help you select the perfect gift if you want to follow me over here. I like to start at the front of the shop with the simple chocolates and then work new chocolate lovers up to the gradual bursts of flavor.” She took a step away from them, but one of the women gasped and Syd turned back.
“My gracious it is him,” Moaning Woman said while she and Nessa stared at him.
Syd frowned then went over to stand next to them, leaning in she grabbed Nessa’s wrist and pulled it closer until she could see the phone screen.
“You’re Kelan Hunter from the Guild Racer movies,” Nessa whispered.
It had taken them a little longer than expected to figure out who he was. He’d opted not to walk around town in his sunglasses for fear of missing any detail of the place where his grandparents had fallen in love. “Yes. I am.” His voice was even, calm, and a bit proud. Not at all irritated at the fact that he knew his purpose in being here was about to get sidelined while the women discussed him, his movies and no doubt the scenes in Guild Racer 4 where he’d bared much more than his chest.
“What are the Guild Racer movies?” Syd asked.
“What are the…my gracious, you can’t be serious, Syd.” Moaning Woman seemed appalled.
“I’m perfectly serious, Julia. I don’t know what it is.” Looking away from Julia and now resting her gaze on him once more, Syd asked, “What are the Guild Racer movies about?”
If he were doing a press junket Kelan would’ve had a rehearsed reply. But standing in a candy shop in this small coastal town across the country from where he’d lived all his life, it caught him off guard.
He opened his mouth to speak but Nessa beat him to the punch.
“They’re action movies with sooo much action! Like, I mean from the moment the movies start he’s on the screen kicking butt and taking names later. In GR1 he was disarmed and knocked out three men in the first five minutes on the screen and he looked damn good doing it!” Nessa’s eyes had grown so big as she spoke, the excitement in her voice so palpable Kelan couldn’t help but feel proud.
His agent, Hannah, had been certain the movies would launch his child and teen acting career into the stratosphere and she’d been right.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he said with a slight nod.
“Enjoyed it is an understatement, Mr. Hunter,” Nessa continued. “I’ve seen it over a dozen times and I drove to Easton for opening day each time a new one released. Then when it came out on DVD, I hurried to order it to add to my Kelan Hunter collection. I just can’t believe you’re here in Sweetland.” She was clenching her phone now as she took a step closer to him. “I don’t want to sound like some type of groupie or make this weird for you. Still, can I get a picture? There’s nobody here but us and I—”
“You’ll stop overwhelming Mr. Hunter with your quick chatter and let him be a goofy tourist,” Syd said when she stepped between him and Nessa.
She turned to him quickly. “I mean, let him be a tourist,” she corrected.
He chuckled. “She’s fine. We can take a picture and then I’d like to finish our conversation.”
He’d barely gotten the letter tucked back into his pocket before Nessa was on one side of him, Julia on the other, both ladies leaning in for what was the first of half a dozen selfies. Kelan took it all in stride, after all, this was his life. He’d been acting since he was three years old. Now, at thirty-six, he was used to taking pictures, signing autographs and having his private time interrupted by fans. What he wasn’t used to was the jolt of awareness that the amused Syd hadn’t attempted to get a picture with him, nor did she seem overly impressed by who he was or what he was doing here other than how much chocolate she could manage to sell him.
None of that should’ve been a concern for him. He wasn’t in Sweetland to meet a woman—he met plenty of them everywhere else he went and still hadn’t managed to end up in a serious relationship the way his Nana had hoped. Yet, the cautious and polite shop owner intrigued him. Something no woman had done in an awfully long time.