BE MY VALENCRIME

~

CHAPTER 1

Valentine’s Day was Lilly Carlsen’s least favorite day of the year, followed closely by the day the clocks spring forward. Both days left her tired, grumpy, and in need of chocolate. In the case of Spring Forward, she usually settled for strong coffee. In the case of Valentine’s Day, though, nothing but chocolate would do. 

She had been forced to buy her own chocolate beginning the year she married Beau. He wasn’t much of a romantic and didn’t like chocolate, anyway. And from the time he had left her and their two toddlers fifteen years previously, she hadn’t had a boyfriend who would buy her chocolate for Valentine’s Day.

Until now. 

Lilly had been dating Hassan Ashraf for over a year. This would be their second Valentine’s Day together, but the first one didn’t really count because Hassan had been on a gem hunting trip in Sri Lanka and hadn’t even been able to get in touch with her via telephone. He had given her a box of chocolates, a bouquet of roses, and an apology when he returned from his trip. 

But this year was going to be different. This year he would be in Juniper Junction and they already had reservations at their favorite restaurant, The Water Wheel. He knew how much Lilly loved chocolate, so she was pretty sure she could look forward to a gorgeous box of gourmet treats from her favorite chocolatier. 

Her only dilemma was what to give Hassan for Valentine’s Day. He didn’t need jewelry, so a watch was not an option. He didn’t usually wear ties, so that wasn’t a good idea, either. She had been browsing online to find leather-bound travel journals, but she wasn’t sure he would use one of those. 

 Valentine’s Day was fast approaching and she needed to make a decision.

The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day were among the busiest of the year at Juniper Junction Jewels, Lilly’s shop on Main Street in the small Rocky Mountain town. It usually started getting busy midway through January with romantics looking for the perfect gifts for their Valentines. Lilly had always thought it interesting that women tended to do their shopping early—men tended to wait until the last minute.

Her favorite days in the shop were when men came in looking for engagement rings. Though some of them had ideas for precisely the ring they wanted, the majority of them were unsure of themselves and needed some gentle guidance through the process of buying such an important piece of jewelry.

That was where Harry, Lilly’s shop assistant, came in handy. Harry wasn’t just a darling man—he was also a natural when it came to knowledge of different gems and stones, and many of the men who came into the shop in search of an engagement ring seemed to relax under his capable attention. 

It was early February and Juniper Junction Jewels had been bedecked in pink, red, and white gauze, cupids, and hearts since mid-January. Lilly hated the sickly sweet look, but it was necessary.

Toward the end of the day, Harry and Lilly were taking the pieces of jewelry from their light pink velvet displays and placing them in the vault until the next morning. Harry lingered over the rings, paying special attention to one with a pale pink sapphire in a white gold setting. 

“Isn’t that a gorgeous ring?” Lilly asked, noticing that Harry had slowed his pace in dismantling the displays.

“Mm-hmm,” he answered, staring at the bauble.

“Say, how’s Alice these days?” Lilly asked. Harry had been dating Alice for many months, and the young woman was every bit as sweet as Harry. The two were a perfect match.

Harry’s head snapped up and he gave Lilly a suspicious look. “Why do you ask?”

Lilly smiled. “I just happened to think of her when I saw you mooning over the pink engagement ring. If I remember correctly, Alice’s favorite color is pink.”

Harry blushed four shades darker than the ring.

“She’s fine. Just studying hard. Midterms will be here before she knows it,” he said, sidestepping the elephant in the room—was he was looking at the pink ring with the intent of buying it for Alice?

Lilly grinned and dropped the issue. It was obviously making Harry uncomfortable. “Let’s get these pieces put away and go home. It’s been a long day,” she said. Harry turned his attention away from the dazzling ring and picked up several bracelets to take to the vault.

“Have you heard the forecast?” he asked over his shoulder. “It’s supposed to storm tonight.”

Lilly glanced outside the big plate glass windows in the front of the shop. It had already been dark for almost an hour. “I heard that. The clouds rolled in this afternoon.”

“I can’t wait for spring,” Harry said. Lilly smiled, but didn’t answer. She loved winter, with its moods and its snowfall and its cold temperatures. Fall was her favorite season, but winter was a close second. 

When they had locked the vault and triple-checked it, they both left. Snowflakes were already falling thickly.

“Be careful getting home,” Harry said, then drove off. 

Lilly stood looking at the sky for a moment before getting into her own car. She loved watching the snow fall through the darkness. She shivered just a little and followed Harry out of the alley behind the shop and onto Main Street.

***

Barney, the Carlsen family’s soft-coated wheaten terrier, greeted Lilly, as usual, with a frenzy of barking and tail-wagging when Lilly walked into the kitchen through the back door.

“Hi, Barn!” she said, laughing. The big lug of a dog jumped up and placed his paws on her coat, trying to lick her face. She bent closer to him to accept his kisses.

“Hi, Mom,” Laurel said as she came down the stairs and into the kitchen.

“Hi, honey. How was school?” Lilly was finally getting used to having only one child at home. Tighe had been away at college since the previous August, and though Lilly had been sure she would never adjust to the situation, she was getting accustomed to it. She brushed away the thought that Laurel, a senior in high school, would be following her brother out of the nest in another six months.

“It was good.” Laurel opened the refrigerator door. “What’s for dinner?”

“Leftovers,” Lilly said. “Can you grab the jar of soup in there?” Laurel handed her mother a large jar of zuppa Toscana they had made over the weekend and Lilly emptied it into a pan on the stove. While the soup warmed she cut slices of Italian bread and placed them on the table with olive oil for dipping.

“Can I go over to Nick’s tonight?” Laurel asked as they sat down for dinner.

“I don’t think you should. There’s a storm coming and I don’t want you out driving in it,” Lilly warned.

“All right. I’ll just call him and tell him I can’t come.”

Lilly looked at her daughter. She had expected a barrage of whining and eye rolling, but there was nothing. Lilly wondered what was going on.

She got her answer a couple minutes later.

Laurel toyed with her bread, breaking it into tiny pieces and arranging them in a circle on her plate. “Vanessa is going shopping for her prom dress this weekend.”

“Oh?” Lilly suspected Laurel would want to accompany her best friend.

“I think I’m going to go with her,” Laurel said. 

“That sounds fun,” Lilly said. “Isn’t it early to be shopping for a prom dress?”

“Not really. Lots of girls have their dresses already.”

Lilly had a hunch about where this conversation was headed.

“Maybe I’ll look for a dress while I’m out with Vanessa,” Laurel suggested.

“Has Nick asked you to prom?” Lilly grinned.

“Not yet. But it can’t hurt to have a dress picked out, right?” Laurel’s grin matched her mom’s. 

“No, it can’t hurt.”

“Depending on the price, do you think you could help me pay for it?” Laurel asked.

Well, that escalated quickly, Lilly thought. So that’s why she didn’t give me a hard time about staying home tonight. “I suppose I could chip in some,” Lilly said. “Um, how much are you thinking of spending on a dress?”

Laurel shrugged. “Five hundred dollars, maybe.” 

Lilly almost choked on her bread. “Five hundred dollars?” she wheezed. “For a prom dress?”

Laurel must have sensed her mother’s disbelief. Anyone with a pulse would have sensed it.

“I’m just throwing a number out there,” she hastened to explain. “I have no idea how much the dress will cost.”

“I don’t mind helping to pay for a dress, but for heaven’s sake, Laurel, my wedding dress didn’t even cost five hundred dollars.”

“That was ages ago, Mom. I’ll look for something cheaper than that, obviously,” Laurel said, her tone taking on just a hint of snippiness.

“Good.” Lilly unclenched her jaw. “Where are you going to look for dresses?” 

“Ruby Red’s,” Laurel said. Lilly glanced at her daughter out of the corner of her eye. Ruby Red’s was the most fashionable dress shop in town. Also the most expensive.

“I doubt you’ll find a prom dress under five hundred dollars at Ruby’s.”

“We’ll look at other places, too.” Laurel hurriedly pushed the rest of dinner into her mouth. “I have a lot of homework to do. I’ll come down and do the dishes in a little while.”

I raised a smart girl, thought Lilly. She knows how to make a quick exit and she knows that by mentioning the word “homework” I won’t give her grief. Well played, Laurel. Well played.

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© 2021 by Amy M. Reade.