Authors: Elise K. Ackers
Elise K. Ackers
A beautiful love letter to the most troublesome of holidays
Soft-hearted Reese Ahearn is single for Valentine’ Day. Again. But that’s not going to stop her from spreading the holiday’s sentiment on the streets of Melbourne with short, sweet, anonymous love letters, left for strangers to find.
The last thing she expects, however, is a reply...
Elise K. Ackers is a magnet for unusual accidents, a frequent world traveller and an enthusiastic couch commentator. She writes contemporary romance, romantic suspense and new adult, lives in Melbourne, Australia and – like Reese – has written many love letters to strangers.
An enormous thank you to my parents — you’re such incredible people. Thanks also to Harlequin’s Escape Publishing team, namely Managing Editor Kate Cuthbert; to my fellow authors, who are so supportive and generous with their time; and to those few I share my drafts with — for not laughing too hard.
To all you strangers out there
Summer in Melbourne had called in sick. Winter had stepped in like a bad-tempered substitute teacher, unexpected and impatient, and shaken up the program. Reese Ahearn wished things were different. If there was ever a day that should burn gold with sunshine, it was this day. Now was not the time for the rain and the grey — not when there were so many fragile hearts out there.
The recent downpour had darkened the concrete footpaths, the sky was bruised with a building storm, and the wind that rolled between the buildings was cold and obnoxious. Reese saw echoes of this in the hunched shoulders and tight lips of chilled commuters and tourists.
But there were those who were immune. They walked along in a dream, lost in recollections or expectations, the weather kept at bay, unable to touch or affect. These people smiled smiles of love. Some even carried tokens of it — Valentine’s flowers, stuffed toys, envelopes containing sweet verses, confessions or thanks.
These were not the hearts that Reese sought. The people she was looking for carried no such smile or token, nor the promise of either.
By day’s end, a dozen people would have a little piece of her heart. Perhaps it wasn’t the heart they longed for, but hers was a willing one.
Dressed for the occasion, Reese was a shock of colour on the subdued street. The bust of her dress was red and the lower half white. Just below her breasts the block of colour broke apart into tumbling hearts, which fell and pooled around the hem. The pockets of her long, red coat were stuffed with envelopes, none of which bore her name. Because these letters were not for her.
Reese didn’t know who they were for.
Each boasted the same sentence:
If you’ve found me, I’m yours
Ian Mitchell had half an hour to revamp his attitude. Storm clouds belonged outside, not over the heads of singles, and there would be people at work waiting for him to return their smiles when they recounted their romantic mornings.
Coffee. Coffee was the first step to improving his mood. A special someone would be better, but unfortunately one of those couldn’t be ordered and delivered as quickly as a cappuccino.
Ian’s regular café was decorated with hearts and rosebuds. A plastic cupid hung from the ceiling vent, turning a slow circle, aiming its arrowhead whichever way the warm air-conditioning nudged it. At the moment it was pointed towards a woman who matched the décor. Near her was a couple whispering sweet words to one another over salt and pepper shakers, and beside them, a man with a glossy new paperback and an espresso. He was using a Valentine’s Day card as a bookmark.
Ian was sure there were other single people in the city, but they certainly weren’t here. The scent of romance rivalled that of ground coffees beans and frothed milk. It was just shy of overbearing, and one that was only likely to thicken as the day progressed. He thought of the recent rain and the light, salubrious smell of ozone, and wished to rejoin it.
The line progressed slowly.
His aimless gaze returned to the woman sitting in the far corner. She seemed vaguely familiar. The poster-girl for coupled bliss despite the absence of a smile. Her romantic dress was so apt, he couldn’t decide if it was cliché or novel. She had a mug lifted to her lips, and watched the room over the rim of it. There was a single envelope on the table by her elbow and from time to time, she looked down as if to check it was still there.
He wondered if it was for her or from her, if it contained a few simple lines, or if it were a letter.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d written one of those. Wasn’t certain he ever had. But her obvious preoccupation with it made him think it might be something worth doing one day, for someone worth doing it for.
When it was his turn at the counter, he decided not to take his coffee to go. Instead he lingered, watching the loved-up woman in the corner. And when he took a seat at the nearest table, he turned in her direction.
It would be nice to watch a little happiness today. That way, when he was sprawled on his couch tonight, thumbing the remote and wishing his life were a little different, he could picture what he was missing out on with a certain degree of clarity.
He’d picture her. He’d pretend that letter was from him and that she was working late. That their night together would start after dinner. That she was coming to him in that dress, wearing the smile she wasn’t wearing at the moment.
She was pretty. She had a narrow face, and her chin was a little pointed. Her brown hair tumbled down her back and over her shoulders, curling at the ends. If she were his, he imagined he’d tease his fingers through the length of it whenever he drew her close. There were small beauty spots on the alluring curve of her throat which her lover no doubt kissed at every opportunity. And her lips…she’d painted them the same red as her dress.
If a siren song were a colour, it would be that one.
By the time she’d finished her coffee and shrugged on her coat, he’d imagined half a dozen alternate lives with her. And that might have been enough — the wist and the wonder — had she not left the yellow envelope behind.
Ian abandoned his chair and coffee, thinking only of reuniting her with the words she valued, and reached the vacated table at the same time as a man looking for a seat. Ian flashed the stranger a distracted smile, seized the envelope and hurried out to the street.
His thoughts that she would stand out were dashed — it wasn’t so early now and people had flooded the street in coats and colours which defied the grey sky. Red was everywhere, and she was gone.
A tram lumbered past, rattling and scraping on its rails. Commuters bustled from place to place, eyes fixed ahead. The city was coming alive, and in doing so, was coming between them.
Ian lifted the envelope, expecting to learn her name. But he saw a version of his own. The finder of this letter seemingly owned it, yet had she found this letter or had he?
Where he stood no longer had meaning. There was only the curious envelope and the secrets it contained.
The card within had three green stars on the front, arranged in no discernible pattern, and inside, the handwriting was loopy and slanted to the right. He checked the front of the envelope again to be sure he wasn’t reading something private.
If you’ve found me, I’m yours
Wishing the sentiment extended to the brunette herself, Ian returned his attention to the card.
There are some days that we savour and some days that we endure. Today the world just may be divided in half
If you no longer possess your heart, I hope that you’re lucky enough to possess the heart of the person you’ve given it to. If your heart belongs to you, I hope that you are content and kind to yourself. If you, like me, wish to give your heart away, know that love is around every corner, in forms you might overlook and in people you might not expect. Be open, and generous, and hopeful, and know that love will find you somehow. It is looking for you
I hope that whatever you carry isn’t a burden and that whatever you are celebrating comes again in some form
You are special. One of a kind. You’re a limited edition
So if your heart is unclaimed today, consider it mine
When Ian Mitchell looked up, the storm had moved inside him.
Reese ate a quick lunch at her desk before she ventured outside into the rain. She’d originally decided to leave more letters in the park nearby, at the uncovered bus stop and on the front steps of the State Library, but she’d been forced to rethink this owing to the weather. She now planned to walk the surrounding streets and look for buildings people were seeking shelter in — book shops, food courts, and the like.
She unhooked her pale blue umbrella and lifted it over her head. Standing at the intersection of two main thoroughfares, she was overwhelmed with options. Everywhere she looked there were people striding from one place to the next, heads down, shoulders lifted against the wind. There were fewer tokens in people’s hands now, but Reese suspected many such demonstrations of love had since been perched on desks and windowsills.
Her morning had been highlighted by flower deliveries to colleagues and sweet stories of morning spoils. There was a lot of love in the air today, but there was also a lot of want. There were so many wistful faces. These were the people Reese wanted her letters to find. She hoped those who were indifferent to Valentine’s Day would leave her letters to be found by those who weren’t, and she amused herself thinking of her envelopes as warm reprieves from the chill.
As Reese passed a newsstand, she tucked an envelope amongst today’s newspapers, and another between the salt and pepper shakers on a table outside a popular lunch spot.
When a bookstore caught her imagination, she stepped inside. She opted for the romance section, figuring an open and optimistic heart would stumble across a letter there, and left a second letter in the gift section beside a range of quirky greeting cards.
Eleven letters, she thought, walking up the escalator that led back to the street. Eleven chances to change someone’s day for the better. In her pocket she carried her twelfth and final chance, and she wondered where she might leave it.
She lifted her eyes to the sombre sky and found her answer.
Amongst the many shapes of tall buildings, rooftop features and billboards, was the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral — a beacon for the hopeful, for the lost and for those who refused to believe they were alone in this world.
A fitting, if not perfect place for a message such as the one she carried.
Resolved, Reese crossed the street. And when she stepped inside into what felt like a whole new world — a world apart from the noisy, bustling complexity that was her everyday existence — she looked up. Gone was the moody expanse of grey. Here the ceilings seemed high enough to bump against the storm clouds, and the stained glass windows above the archways looked romantic somehow, their striking colours softened by the low-lit sky.
Her heels clicked on the mosaic floor. They didn’t appear to disturb the man sitting on one of the front-most pews, nor the woman lighting a candle in the Sanctuary — each was lost in private reflection.
And within moments, so was Reese.
Seated amongst all that beauty, she stared at the front of the last yellow envelope. As expected, her Valentine’s Day had been nothing of note. These letters — these love letters to strangers — were one of the few points of light in an otherwise overcast day. She wished that there were other letters out there. If not thousands for just as many wanting, deserving hearts, then just one more. For her.
She didn’t know what she wanted it to say. Something about not losing hope, maybe a reminder that she wasn’t as invisible or unremarkable as she felt.
But Reese was the author, not the recipient. Which meant it was left to her to rally herself. So once she released this envelope, she was going to walk over to the café in Federation Square and treat herself to a double shot mochachino. A bit of self-indulgence would go a long way for her slipping mood.
Wanting this letter to be found today, she left it propped against the backrest of the pew. It looked like a small rectangle of sunshine against the rich, antique walnut. For the final time that day, she hoped that the letter would find the right person, then she gathered her things and walked quietly outside into the steady, rhythmic rain.
Ian was losing patience with himself. There were two coffees singing in his blood stream, he’d opened and folded the brunette’s letter so often it was beginning to show signs of wear, and now he’d just ordered the wrong lunch. It would seem kind words had the power to upend his balance.