TWELVE KISSES LATER by Sandra Sookoo
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 charmingly 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?
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"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's 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.
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