He was just supposed to check on her. Not fall for her.
Book 1 in the Celestial Springs Salon Series
The last thing military widow Summer Bettes wants in her life is a new man. Correction, a new military man, though they’re all over Barrum, Kansas.
She’s convinced herself she works hard enough between taking care of her daughter, trying to maintain control of her asthma, and styling hair in the salon her mother owns, she doesn’t need a man in the mix as well.
Then, Matthew Hennessey walks into her life–or rather, back into her life, she starts to question everything.
Her husband’s rival on the wrestling mat in high school, Hennessey knows who Summer is. Always has. And she always held a special place in his heart. So after serving with her husband overseas, it was only right that he pay his respects to the widow when he came back state-side. He only wants to do right by her.
Unfortunately his desires are eclipsing his logic, and doing right by Summer is harder than he thought.
Celestial Springs Salon Reading Order:
I glanced at my watch.
Every hairdresser in the world lived by their watch--knowing the time was part of the job description.
“Miss Evelyn will be here for her shampoo and set in fifteen minutes, and then I have the Norbert twins for their haircuts and colors,” I said to myself as I tossed the remainder of my lunch in the trash. The break room was empty at the moment. My fellow stylists were out on the salon floor with their clients.
I patted my pocket where my rescue inhaler sat in my black smock. Always got to make sure I have that. Hadn’t needed it for a while, but you never know.
I grabbed my purse and darted from the break room to the waxing room, which had the best light to touch up my face. I powdered and puffed, wiped things off, and even fluffed my dirty blonde hair. It had some extra volume for a second, but that fell in a flash.
I tipped my head to the side. “Maybe that’s what I should do,” I said, looking at my mousy hair. “Get some highlights. It’ll brighten me up. Maybe I won’t be so wallowy.”
The thought cheered me. After all, I worked in a salon. Surely we could find the time to brighten my hair.
The door to the waxing room opened, and Winter stuck her head in. “Summer? There’s a guy here to see you.”
I blinked. “Who is he?”
“He wouldn’t say, only that he wanted to speak to you,” Winter said.
“Do you know him?”
She raised an eyebrow. “I would have said if I did. He’s cute, though.” As the salon manager, my sister Winter knew every client that walked in the door. “Maybe he’s here to take you on a date.”
I rolled my eyes.
Yeah, because that won’t happen.
I wondered who he was--maybe a client’s husband, wanting to treat his wife? It happened every so often. But it usually happened in December, not in July. Maybe one of my clients was having a birthday?
I walked through the salon floor, where stylist Audra finished up with the client in her chair. The client, Shelby, otherwise known as my nemesis, gave me the stink eye.
Everyone in town knew of me and Shelby’s sordid past. I fell in love with a boy. She stole him from me. I beat her up under the bleachers at the football game. She got me suspended from school…
Yeah. It was a whole thing.
Why the woman had to come to my beauty shop--okay, my mom’s beauty shop--to get her hair done, I didn’t know.
I turned and smiled at Shelby, that business smile I’d mastered over the years, and continued through the salon.
The other stylists and nail techs were working, and the buzz that never entirely goes away filled the salon--a culmination of voices, blow dryers, sprays, and nail files running had become a backwash noise that, in a strange way, felt like home.
I’d been a hairdresser for over a decade--even when Jake and I moved from base to base, I could always find work, and it was the same sounds, no matter what salon I worked in. All the traveling made the familiar environment more home than anything I had for a long time.
Stepping around the corner, my hand bumped the little patriotic flag table topper on the edge of the reception desk. Mom put it there when I married Jake--it was the only patriotic decoration that remained up year-round. It had other accompanying red, white, and blue pieces that filled the reception area, even though the Fourth of July was last weekend.
The receptionist, Mikelanne, rubbed her ready-to-pop, pregnant tummy and gestured to the man who stared at the retail shelves near the door with a grin on her face.
The guy was in fatigues.
He turned around and had his hat in his hand. Immediately my eyes darted to his shoulder and recognized the stripes for Sergeant, First Class.
My heart pounded.
A man in fatigues hadn’t come to see me since, well… that day...
I had to force myself to cross the reception area. This wasn’t a repeat. It couldn’t be…
I met the Sergeant’s eyes.
He took a step. “Mrs. Bettes?”
I nodded. “Sergeant.” Somewhere my insides jumped into gear. I held out my hand, and he shook it.
“I, uh,” he paused, closed his eyes, and then opened them. “I came to pay my respects.”
I blinked, then my brain kicked in. “Of course, thank you.” Why else would a man in fatigues be visiting me?
He squeezed the hat in his hand. “May I speak with you privately?”
“Sure.” I led him to the small consultation room we had tucked into a corner. However, most of the time, the room was a catch-all, where advertising was sorted, and the extra stock got shoved that didn’t fit on the retail shelves.
Today was an explosion of rainbow-colored flyers for a charity event next week. A contrast to the room’s pink and white décor--like a grown-up version of a princess’s room. Mother’s whimsy knew no bounds, sometimes.
Not exactly masculine décor.
I closed the door, and the background noise of the salon disappeared. Sort of, anyway. Now it was a dull roar rather than loud chaos.
“Pardon the mess,” I said, immediately shuffling the flyers into more manageable stacks. “This is about as private as it gets around here.”
“This is fine, ma’am.” He took a seat in one of the pink, high-backed chairs.
And I couldn’t help the little bit of a grin. He did look pretty ridiculous in the chair. The green fatigues clashed with the pink carnation seat.
He must have been uncomfortable because he shifted in the chair a couple of times.
“What can I do for you, Sergeant?”
“Hennessey,” he said. “Matthew Hennessey.” He ran his hand through his short dark hair--longer than a crew cut but still pretty short. My eyes darted to the sides, quickly assessing the haircut’s correctness, looking for places where it wasn’t blended right.
I didn’t see any.
Focus, I told myself.
“As I said, ma’am, I wanted to pay my respects.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“I served with your husband. Bettes was a good man. I can’t say we were close, but we were friends.”
This was not the first man to pay respects to me. After all, Jake had been gone three years now. Several showed up that first year after Jake died, but it had been a couple of years since I’d met another one of Jake’s brothers-at-arms.
Hopefully, this one wouldn’t bring me to tears. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if Jake had mentioned someone named Hennessey the last time I saw him.
Nothing registered, though.
Only general memories of my late husband and how he made me laugh. I bit my lip to hold back errant emotions because I didn’t want to cry in front of this man.
He got a far-off expression for a moment, then shook his head and cleared his throat. “Anyway, I promised him that I would check in on you when I got stateside and make sure you were okay.”
I blinked, his words jarring me out of whatever wash of memories lingered in my mind. “Pardon?” This was new…
“I promised him I would check in on you. Since we went to school together.”
I held my hands up. “Wait, what? I didn’t go to school with you. And I went to the same school as Jake, so surely I would remember you.”
He smirked. “He said you would say that.” He stroked the brim of the hat he had clenched in his hand. “We did, for a while. I was on the wrestling team with Bettes junior year. We kept fighting for the varsity spot.”
I snapped my fingers, suddenly remembering how he would go back and forth with Jake, and Jake’s frustration that year, fighting so hard for the spot. “Oh yeah! You only went to South for a little while, and your family got transferred?”
This made him smile. “Yes, ma’am, that’s correct.”
I looked him up and down. “You grew,” I said, associating the thin young boy I remembered from that school year with the man sitting across from me. “You were skinny, lanky, and awkward,” I said. Then slapped my hand over my mouth.
How could I say that?
Oh my God! My cheeks got hot, and I wanted to bury myself in the chair.
“I’m sorry! Oh, I’m so sorry!” I said through my hand. “Sometimes, my mouth runs away from my brain.”
He laughed, and it made his blue eyes sparkle. “No big deal. You speak the truth, though, ma’am.”
“Stop calling me that. You’re maybe a year older than me. Make me feel so old.” Not that I needed any help in that area--I already felt older than dirt every time I saw those grays mixing in with my mousey-blonde hair.
“Sorry,” he said. “Thirteen years of training. It’s hard to kick the habit.”
“It’s okay.” He’d become so different from what I remember back in high school. His complexion was warm, and his eyes were sunk deep. His jaw was hard, and when he didn’t smile, his expression took on a deeper, darker cast to it--like someone who’d experienced the world's darkness and couldn’t shake the images.
If he’d been in Iraq with Jake, I imagined he had.
While he was clean-shaven, there was scruff along his jaw--like no matter how often he shaved, the hair would be back in a blink.
Like my leg hair…
“Did you transfer to the base here?” I asked. Barrum had a large military base on the city's southwest corner.
“I’m here for training. Only a few weeks.” When he said the last couple of words, he sounded, well, sort of sad.
I opened my mouth to say that his wife would appreciate him only being gone for a few weeks, but I noticed he didn’t have a wedding ring.
A knock at the door jarred me.
Winter stuck her head in. “Summer, your appointment just pulled in.”
“Thanks.” I glanced at my watch. If Miss Evelyn was here already, she was early.
I turned back toward Hennessey, but he was standing.
Probably glad to be out of the pink chair.
I stood as well.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Then for a second, he grinned, like he’d said that on purpose.
“You’re ornery,” I said as I smiled.
“I should let you get back to work.” He took a step toward me. “Please know that I deeply respected your husband, and if you need anything, please ask.”
There was something about the way he looked at me, his eyes very serious and dark, that I knew he truly meant what he said.
I nodded, feeling a bit like an idiot because he left me so dumbfounded, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. This strange sensation flooded me, and I was certain that he would be there without hesitation if I asked for anything.
And I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Another Army man wasn’t what I wanted in life. I was pretty happy with my roots planted firmly in Kansas.
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