Negotiating Love

Chapter I

“How much did you say the new tires will cost?” A mental picture of her check merrily bouncing flashed through Valerie McFadden's mind. Fighting the anxious feeling gnawing at her, she stared at the man behind the counter of Family Tire Center.

He repeated the price, then added, “your front tires are balding. That’s why you got the flat. We can show you where they're worn down. And,” he added, looking troubled, “your rear tires aren't in such good shape either. You should really replace them too, for your own safety.”

Valerie swallowed, calculating how she was going to afford to replace her two front tires, let alone all four. She wouldn’t get another paycheck until September 15—three weeks from now. The Board of Education paid the teachers twice a month, and they got no paychecks during the summer. And her part-time summer job at the discount store in the next town didn’t give her much spending money, either.

“Can I wait at least a few weeks to replace the back tires?” she asked.

The man gave her a sympathetic look. “If you’re not driving long distances, you might be able to. But I wouldn't wait too long.”

Valerie sighed, reviewing her finances silently. She had money budgeted for food for the next few weeks, and she'd just bought a couple of outfits for the new school year. But she hadn't anticipated getting new tires. However, she couldn’t drive an unsafe car. She'd have to charge the expense. She was reluctant to take any money out of the savings account which she so carefully added to each month.

The young man—he couldn’t be over 25—was twisting his gleaming gold wedding ring. He caught her look, and grinned. “I just got married a few weeks ago,” he said.

“Congratulations. Well, I guess I’ll have to charge the front tires, and wait a few weeks to get new ones for the back.”

“Ok,” he said. “I’ll tell the mechanic. It should only be about 20 minutes til your car's ready. But don't wait too long to get those other tires.”

“Alright.” Valerie sighed inwardly again.

“Excuse me.” A deep voice from the other end of the counter broke in.

Valerie turned to see a tall, handsome man with thick brown hair and blue eyes moving closer to the young man.

As she did, she felt something leap inside her—like when she tried to skip jump-rope with a student. Her heart accelerated.

She looked from one to the other. They looked very much alike, with similar features and the exact same shade of brown hair touched with auburn. Brothers, she surmised.

But the older man, who looked around 30, had a certain air of maturity, of quiet command, that the younger man lacked. It added appeal to his handsome features.

“I couldn't help overhearing,” the man was saying, a smile touching his mouth. “You know, we're running a Labor Day sale next week. If you come in and get your back tires then, you'll save 15% on each tire.”

“Oh! Thank you. That will be a help.” Valerie tilted her head and smiled up at the man, He had to be over six feet—he was towering over her. “I'll come back then.”

“Sorry, I should have mentioned it,” the younger man apologized. “I was thinking about my wife...”

The older man shot him a tolerant look. “Daydreaming again? The sale starts next Thursday,” he continued, focusing on Valerie. “Thursday and Friday it won't be as busy as Saturday, so I suggest you come in one of those days.” He leaned closer, and Valerie felt her heart skip again.

“Thank you,” she repeated, grateful for the suggestion. She tried to ignore her thudding heart. Labor Day wouldn't be the most convenient for her budget, but a sale would definitely save her money... something she tried to do whenever possible. She caught the faintest whiff of the man's masculine aftershave.

She smiled, and he smiled back.

And her heart did a little flip.

A handsome man who was also nice... she could just hear her sister whispering, “go for it, girl!” Ask his name!” But then, Jill was a self-admitted flirt.

Valerie looked from one man to the other. “You must be brothers,” she said, deciding that might be a subtle way to ask his name.

“Cousins, actually,” the younger man said, grinning. “I’ll go tell Sam to replace your front tires.” He disappeared through the door to the huge garage.

“Thanks,” she called after him, then turned to look at his older cousin.

He was studying her.

She felt herself flushing. What did he think of her, she wondered? She was wearing denim shorts, her old sandals and a simple pink T-shirt. She knew she looked far from glamorous. But then, she hadn't expected to meet a good-looking guy when she drove her limping car to the tire center this warm August morning. A guy who somehow did something to her insides, making them feel like melting ice cream when he smiled.

For a moment they regarded each other. He leaned closer, and smiled again. Valerie wondered if he was subtly flirting with her.

Then the slap of sandaled feet broke the moment, sounding above the old Beatles tune on the nearby radio.

“Look!” A young girl ran out from what must have been the office area. The top of her head was visible behind the counter, her thick, straight brown hair the same gleaming color as the hair on the man standing before her.

Of course. Valerie felt her heart dip and slowly sink. A handsome, thirty-something man like this one must be married already. And apparently a father.

The girl stretched her arms out, holding a colored picture. “I drew Riley,” she said proudly. Valerie glimpsed a drawing of a dog.

“Wow! It looks just like her,” the man said, his voice full of enthusiasm. “We'll have to hang it on the refrigerator.”

Disappointed, Valerie forced herself to tamp down the attraction she’d been feeling. Not now, she told herself sternly. He's a married man.

She sighed inwardly. “Thanks again.” She smiled at him, then went to sit on one of the chairs in the waiting area. Settling on the comfortable chair, she pulled the romance novel she'd been reading from her purse and opened it.

So, she'd felt an instant attraction to the man. It had happened to her once or twice. But it was obvious this guy was not available.

Someday she'd meet the right man, she reminded herself. Someday.

For a second, Stuart's face flashed across her mind. She firmly pushed it away. She wasn’t going to think about Stuart's betrayal.

She was happy with her life. She loved her teaching job in western New Jersey. She liked Green Valley, the small town she taught in and now lived in too. And she had good friends she could count on. If she was just a little more financially secure, she'd be perfectly happy.

And if she could find true love...

Someday.

She began to read. But as she did, she kept seeing the book's hero as a tall man with thick brown hair and blue eyes.