By Kay Keppler

Hope took the hat and put it on her head. She tilted it forward over her forehead the way Tanner had done. She bent the brim down. Tried to bend it down. The brim was too crisp. It didn’t curl right.

“Let me,” Tanner said.

He stepped closer, putting his hands on the hat brim just above her ear. She could feel his fingers brush her ear lobe as he gently curled the hat brim down. He stroked his hands along the brim toward the front and back of the hat, smoothing it carefully, bending it the way he wanted. His fingers brushed her hair, her cheek, her neck as he shaped the straw.

She stood very still and watched him in the mirror as he concentrated on the hat. He frowned slightly as he worked. His hair was overgrown and shaggy, his eyes glued on what he was doing. She felt his attention like a beam of light. Every inch of him was focused right this minute on her, on making this hat the best it could be for her.

His touch was as light as thistledown. She felt a little shiver even as her skin grew warm. Her breath became light, shallow.

He took a long time getting the curve just right. He urged the straw to curl down, the crown to stay sharp. He nudged the hat just a little lower over her eyes. The whole time, she couldn’t move. Her feet were rooted to the spot as Tanner nudged and brushed and floated his fingers over her face, her ears, her hair, her neck, always adjusting the hat.

Finally he turned her to face the mirror. His hands were warm on her shoulders, and then they were gone. But he stood so close behind her she could feel his heat against her back as they both looked at her reflection.

“There,” he said.

The hat was fantastic.

The color, a pale golden straw, lit up her hair and skin. The wide brim framed her face, the turquoise stones on the hatband set off her eyes, now almost navy as she looked back at him in the mirror. The crown added a good three inches to her height, so now she appeared only a few inches shorter than Tanner, who must be six two if he was an inch. She looked tall and strong and ready for anything. She looked adventurous and daring. She looked hot. She was grateful to Tanner for taking her here and picking out this hat.

“Pumpkin, that’s the hat.”

The warm and grateful moment faded.

“The hat is great,” she said. “Don’t call me pumpkin.”

“Why not? You are a total pumpkin.”

She turned to frown at him. “No endearments. Plus—orange, fat, round. That’s why not.”

“That’s how you see pumpkins? Orange, fat, and round? And your sister an organic farmer. It’s sad, that’s what it is.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“Pumpkins. The most beloved item at the farm. When everybody goes out to the country in the fall to pick vegetables, what do they look at first? Do they run to the corn field? No. To the tomatoes? No. Do they go and shriek with happiness at the green peppers? No. They rush to look at the pumpkins. Why is that?”

“I’m not following you.”

“The pumpkins. People want their special pumpkin. Each is separate and distinct, unique. Their color is glorious, the color of kings, of riches, of sunsets.”

Hope rolled her eyes. “Jeez, Tanner. You are so full of it.”

“And the pumpkin is the hardest working vegetable in the garden. It can be soup, or soufflé, or pudding. You can mash them, boil them, or bake them. Even fry them. For something sweet, there’s nothing like pumpkin pie. Or cake. Or bread. Muffins. Pancakes. You want a vegetable that will feed you forever, in more ways than you can count, in ways you never will tire of, you go with pumpkin.”

Hope blinked. Tanner’s voice was soft and hypnotic. They were alone in the aisle, facing the mirror, and he was looking into the mirror at her, and she was looking back at him. He was standing so close behind her that she could feel the roughness of his shirt against her bare back. She was too warm. She couldn’t breathe. And she couldn’t make herself look away.

“And when you go to the field to pick out your pumpkin—well, you’ve seen how it happens. You’ve probably done it yourself. You don’t pick the first one. You look at them all. You hold them. You feel them. You stroke them. Are they the right fit? The right size and shape? A good color? You have to be sure.”

“Oh,” Hope said. She felt herself swallow. Tanner’s voice was very soft.

“And then, you see it. The pumpkin that’s yours. The one you’ve been looking for. The one with the glowing skin and a few bumps to make it interesting. The one with luscious, perfect curves. Shaped by creases and folds and indentations, so a man’s hands can stroke it and always find something new.”

Hope felt her breath catch.

“Maybe it’s not a perfect pumpkin. Maybe it’s got a few little flaws. But you know when you see it, when you touch it, that’s the one you want to take home. That one and no other.”

For a second more, they faced the mirror. Hope’s feet were frozen in place, her whole body electric, her breathing shallow. She saw her own blue eyes wide and dark in surprise, Tanner’s brown ones alight with heat. When he leaned into her and kissed her softly on the neck, Hope thought she’d melt completely away and leave nothing but a big messy puddle right there in aisle five.

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