Girls Write Out
Friday, December 30, 2011
Look more closely. This little cutie isn't a bear. At least, I don't think it is. I think this is a sloth, and that's what I've been this month.

Typically, I rush around buying presents, buying the bags to shove them into--I haven't wrapped packages in twenty years--and even sent cards to those who sent cards to me. Due to social expectations, I made dinner, set the table, had Mel put up the tree, starting late so our company could help him finish it. So he's a sloth, too. Sue him.

Then one year we had deep snow on Christmas day. Christmas, of course, wasn't called off. In fact, the silence and peace of that day, when everyone stayed home to ponder Christ's birth in a new way, was a huge blessing to me. No one to complain because I didn't get all the meat off the turkey bone, didn't make the dressing moist enough, forgot to take the giblets out of the turkey before I placed it all, totally frozen, into the oven to bake. No one snooping through drawers in the kitchen and finding private-very private-notes I sent with Mel's lunches. was pure peace.

I realize it may have been considered an insult for the innkeeper to send Joseph and Mary out to the barn, but I can imagine having the warm body of my own donkey and no noise besides a sheep bleating every so often must have been more relaxing than an inn full of people complaining about their taxes. But who am I to say? I wasn't there. I do believe it started a precedent, though, because Jesus often retreated to the wilderness when the crowds pressed too closely, wise Savior that He was. I've followed His example as often as I could. It's my favorite.

The Mexicans have a special day, January 6, when they believe the wise men visited Jesus with gifts. Since my stepson's wife, a beautiful and intelligent Mexican woman, is due to have her baby any time, they are hoping the little boy will be born on January 6 to receive a special blessing. I do know seeing that little darling--as well as my stepson, Jason, his wife Kenia, and Jason's mother, Linda--will be a special blessing for me this year.

Until I can get out there, however, I will be hiding out here at home, not attending parties or dinners or exchanging gifts, just spending special time with Mel and my mother and writing and being thankful for the special peace God has given us this Christmas.

If you had your druthers, what would your perfect Christmas be next year--what is peace to you?

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Hannah Alexander  
posted at 12:29 AM  
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011
There is nothing better than the wonder of a child at Christmas. This year Punky is old enough (3) to really enjoy it. We went to church with the kids and she was big enough to pay attention to the video about Jesus and the story the pastor told the children. I watched her little face filled with wonder and it blessed me so much to see the new generation begin to absorb what Jesus did for us.

I was smiling as I read Denise's blog yesterday and it reminded me how even gift-giving is individual. She's great at keeping secrets. I, uh, am not so much. LOL I got the girls Pandora necklaces. There are two charms. One says Best Friend and the other is a teal bead. Teal is for ovarian cancer and it was a reminder to us all of how we've stood shoulder to shoulder with Di and how our friendship has been blessed as we've gone through the fire together. It's a symbol of our belief that with God's help, she will beat the beast. So even as the girls are opening their bags, I'm showing them the necklace around my own neck and telling them all it stands for. LOL I couldn't even wait for them to pull the paper from the top of the box!

So that's why I wait until the last minute for Christmas shopping. I'd end up giving it to the person before Christmas if it's in my house too long! Denise, on the other hand, could probably buy those presents a year out and happily wait with anticipation of the big moment. Cracks me up how different we all are! So how about you? Can you keep the presents secret without much problem or are you like me?


Colleen Coble  
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Monday, December 26, 2011
The older I get, the more I realize that it really is more blessed to give than receive. Watching the face of a loved one opening a gift they've longed for is priceless.

This year's favorite gift moment was our middle son Chad. He'd been asking for a Rudy Notre Dame jacket for years. Birthdays, Christmases, there that jacket was on the list. But it's expensive so we always opted for other things.

This was the year we decided to do it. Watching his face was so much fun. He didn't expect it--he'd probably given up hope and only put it on the list out of habit. And surprise, I've learned, is half the fun. Seeing his eyes widen and the smile spread across his face was so worth it.

What was your favorite giving moment this Christmas?
Denise Hunter  
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shelby: You’ve Got a Friend

Diann Hunt

Chapter One

Shelby Evans spotted the fire truck at her house and knew instinctively this was not going to be a good Monday.

Maybe she’d been a little distracted on her walk in the park, but she didn’t think she’d been gone that long. But it was such a beautiful September day and she had taken her journal, run into a couple of acquaintances, stopped for a bagel . . .

Clutching Penelope, her seven-pound Shih-poo, Shelby stepped over the neighbor kid’s bicycle on her front walk. Penelope barked at the intrusion of the monstrous truck parked in her driveway and the men winding up the heavy hose.

Nick Majors touched Shelby’s arm, catching her by surprise. She swiveled around to face him.

“What’s going on?”

“Your neighbor reported smoke coming from your house.”

Shelby gasped.

“It’s contained in your dining room. Not too much damage—smoke damage mostly. The fire had just started when we got here.”

She reached for the door and pushed it open. Thick smoke lingered inside the house, causing her to cough. “If this is ‘not too much,’ I’d hate to see what real damage looks like.”

“What are you doing in here?” A firefighter dressed in a cumbersome uniform, a fire extinguisher on his back, gave her a forbidding look.

Nick stood behind her. “It’s all right, Captain. She lives here.”

Thankfully, Nick was a volunteer fireman and could plead her case. She’d be upset if she couldn’t at least see the damage for herself.

Holding a dainty handkerchief loosely over Penelope’s nose, Shelby held the dog close and looked around her dining room area. Water on her floor and dining room table. Wet walls. Though it could have been much worse, the scene overwhelmed her.

She spotted wet broken pieces of wood on the floor and cupped them in her hands. “This was the clock you made me.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make you another one for Christmas,” Nick said.

The pieces spilled from her hands and she choked back her emotions. Burying her face in Penelope’s soft, clean fur, Shelby stepped back outside, away from the acrid smell, and took in long deep breaths.

Classes for Social Graces were scheduled to start in two weeks. In this very place. With an apartment-like setup, Shelby lived in the upstairs of her Victorian home and used the downstairs for the school. It had been the perfect arrangement.

Until now.

Shelby had invested most of her money into the house to make it functional for her purposes, so she had little to use toward renting another place while this one was repaired. Her sewing business provided enough, but offered little extra. Social Graces, the place where she taught young girls how to become ladies, was more of a calling than a moneymaker.

She’d have to call her insurance company, then contact someone to clean up the mess.

“We’ll figure it all out,” Nick said.

Shelby nodded. Just having him near sent a rush of relief through her. He was right. They’d figure it out. And God would help her get through this, one step at a time. The tension eased from her shoulders.

The captain came out of the house, talked to Shelby again about what would happen next, and left.

“I have to wash my truck, and then we could stop at the coffee shop to talk things over. You need to get away from this place, the smoke and all, so you can think. Want to go?”

“Aren’t you on duty?”

“I came when the pager went off, but they had enough responders when I got here. Since things are quieting down, Captain just told me I could go.”

One of the other firemen called him over. Shelby watched them as they talked. She didn’t like the growing frown on Nick’s face or the way he stomped back toward her.

“They found out where the fire started.”

“Oh?” She had the distinct feeling she didn’t want to hear this.

“You left the glue gun on in the dining room, Shelby. How many times have I told you when you’re finished to turn it off and unplug it?”

A flicker of irritation gained momentum—especially when she noticed several people looking their way. “I’m sorry, Mr. Safety, but not all of us qualify for the Smokey-the-Bear Award.”

“How can you defend yourself when we’re talking life and death here?”

“I’m not defending myself. I’m just saying we don’t all think of things the way you do. I messed up. So sue me.”

His gaze pinned her in place. “I don’t believe this.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck.

Shelby knew it was her fault, but he didn’t have to point it out so everyone could hear. “Look, Nick, I appreciate your concern, but you’re not a superhero. Deal with it.” She whirled around and attempted to walk away, but he grabbed her arm.

“Listen, we’re both a little tense right now. Let’s go to the coffee shop and talk about the repairs.”

Shelby lifted her chin. “I need to change my exercise clothes and put Penelope upstairs away from the smoke.” Her anger was really with herself, but when backed in a corner, she couldn’t help taking it out on Nick.

“To be safe, you’d better take Penelope to a neighbor’s house, at least for today. Then you can get some fans and dehumidifiers in there to help with the smell.”

Shelby sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Once she had changed her clothes and taken Penelope to a neighbor’s house, she rejoined Nick. They climbed into his old black Chevy truck and drove past the quaint storefronts that lined Main Street. Shoppers strolled from the candy shop to the clothing boutique. Any other time she would have stopped at Sweet Surrender to soothe her pain with chocolate, but even that failed to tempt her. What was she going to do? This catastrophe would derail all her plans.

Nick swerved into the do-it-yourself car wash. “Be right back.”

“Want some help?”

“No, thanks. I can handle it.”

Shelby sighed. Why couldn’t he get his truck washed at an automatic wash like normal people? She watched as he pulled some rags from the back of the truck and set to work sloshing soap around the vehicle. His arms looked strong, capable. She supposed Nick’s determination to do things himself was what kept him so fit. He grabbed a brush and scrubbed the hubcaps. She decided “fit” looked nice on him.

After the rinse, polish, and dry, he rejoined her in the truck.

The remaining water sloshed off the wheel guards as Nick nosed the truck carefully onto the street and into traffic. The coffee shop was about a five-minute drive away.

As they stepped inside the shop, a wreath of grapevines and violets shifted on the front door. Nick grunted at it, but Shelby ignored him. One problem at a time. That was all she could handle today.

Bold coffee smells greeted them. Adjusting the ruffled border of her periwinkle sweater, Shelby dipped into her small pocketbook and pulled out her debit card.

Nick motioned it away. “This one is on me.”

Natalie Mansfield waved at them from behind the counter. “Be there in a sec.”

“Thanks.” Shelby fingered the small notepad in her hand while they waited.

“Hey, Shelby. Peppermint tea, or are you going to break down and have coffee today?” Natalie gave a big smile, but it faded quickly as she looked at Shelby. “What’s wrong?”

When Shelby hesitated, Nick jumped in and explained what had happened.

“Oh, Shelby, no. I’m so sorry, sweetie. Let me get your—tea, is it?”

Shelby nodded.

“I’ll bring it out.” Natalie took Nick’s order while Shelby found a table for them.

Once seated, Shelby took a quick glance at her friend in the navy T-shirt, work boots, and long jeans. With dark hair that shagged a little long in back and drooped lazily over his ears, she couldn’t deny Nick was handsome in a rugged sort of way. Strong jaw, inset dark eyes. But the stubble? What made a man want to leave little bits of hair on his face? It was like dark confetti strewn about that no one bothered to clean up. Once a mountain man, always a mountain man. How would he ever find a woman, looking like that?

“So have you played your Christmas music yet? It is September, you know.” Nick pulled out a chair and sat down.

Shelby smiled. “Maybe once or twice.”

“Good girl.”

“How about you? Decorated any trees lately?” They both knew they were avoiding discussion of the inevitable.

“Not yet. But soon. Very soon.” He winked.

“Would you stop talking Christmas already? It’s not even Halloween yet, for crying out loud,” Natalie said, easing a cup of tea to Shelby and a plain coffee toward Nick.

Nick laughed. “I can’t exactly fault a woman for enjoying Christmas. After all, that is my line of work.”

Natalie shook her head. “All right, you two, let’s get down to business. What are you going to do about your classes, Shelby? Don’t they start in a couple of weeks?”

“Yeah. I thought I would ask Rose if I could hold the classes at her house until the repairs are finished.”

“Good,” Natalie said. “Now, what about the repairs? Any idea who to hire?”

Shelby turned to Nick. “You mentioned you know someone?”

Just then several customers walked through the door and headed toward the counter.

“Uh-oh, gotta get back to work. Let me know if you need anything, Shelby.”

“Okay. Thanks, Nat.”

“Griffen Parker is back in town. He’s a good contractor and a great guy. I think he knows a little about fire restoration, too. We could see if he’s available,” Nick said.

“Didn’t he do the work on Carson’s cabins?”

“Yeah. Want me to call him for you?”

“That would be great. Thanks, Nick.”

He shrugged and took another drink of his coffee. “I’d better get back over to your house and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”

She had to admire the way he took charge of things for her at a time when she could hardly think straight. “Yeah, I need to talk to Rose. Call me the minute you hear from Griffen.”

“Will do. You ready to go?”

“Yeah.” She said good-bye to Natalie and followed Nick out the door.

“Thanks for your help, Nick. I’m sorry you always have to come to my rescue.”

“Why are you sorry? I want you to count on me.”

“But I can’t expect you to always fix things for me. You have your own life.”

“That’s what friends do, Shelby. Period. I want you to come to me for anything you need.”

Shelby saw the disappointment on Nick’s face, so she said nothing further. Besides, as much as she hated to admit it, she did need him.

* * *

Those flowered wreaths had been springing up all over town for months. Nick grunted. Losing the mill was one thing, but now Smitten was on its way to being the laughingstock of the state.

Rolling down the roadway, Nick’s truck chugged and groaned. Its big tires crunched and stirred up gravel dust behind the taillights. With a crank of the handle, he rolled up his window from the chill. He needed to finish his cup of hot coffee to get his mind off of what those women were trying to do to the town. He let out a sigh. He knew they meant well, but this was his town. He’d lived there all his life, and he couldn’t stand by and just let them turn it into a “girly” town, could he?

His thoughts turned to Shelby and the way she had looked at her house. Her eyes, dark pools shadowed with fear beneath thick fringy lashes, the tinge of pink that stained her cheeks. In one protective moment, he wanted to scoop her dainty form into his arms and hold her close.

He shook his head. You’re thinking nonsense, dude.

Passing the church, he spotted the violet wreath on the front doors. His sour mood zipped back into place. Seemed to him the church should stay neutral on such matters. Regardless of what the pastor said about the wreath standing for faith in the town’s survival, the fact that little Mia came up with the idea told him it was a nod for the women and their ridiculous idea to make Smitten a romance capital. If he’d wanted to live in a love capital, he’d have moved to the Poconos.

Women. The big ones and the little ones were all the same. He should thank his lucky stars he didn’t have any around his house. He took a careful swig from his paper cup, then let out the kind of sigh that came with thinking ahead.

Frank Sinatra’s voice called from his cell phone, and Nick clicked his finger on his Bluetooth. “Hello?”



“This is Catherine Givens.”

His body sprang to attention. He hadn’t talked to his mother-in-law since the day of the divorce. She hadn’t been exactly civil at the time.

“Hi, Mrs. Givens.” The words felt strange as they slipped off his tongue. He had called her Catherine once upon a time.

A cold pause hovered between them, causing a thread of fear to wind through him. “Is Willow all right?”

His twelve-year-old daughter barely talked to him when he called her each week, and she acknowledged his gifts with forced thanks. Still, he loved her deeply. Unfortunately, there were more than miles between them.

“Willow is fine. It’s Camilla.”

He could only imagine what his ex-wife had gotten herself into now. She and her high society friends always seemed to stir up something.

“What about her?” He braced himself. When things like this came up, it usually cost him money.

“She’s dead.” The way she said that, as though Camilla had the nerve to intrude upon her organized plans, sent a momentary wave of compassion through him for his ex-wife. He didn’t know what to say. Though there had been no love lost between them in the last few years, she was at one time his wife and would always be the mother of his child.

Nick eased his truck to the side of the road so the vehicles behind him could pass.

“Did you hear me?”

“I heard,” he said, his tongue thick, throat dry. Say what you would about Camilla, he’d never imagined her . . . dead. “What happened?” he whispered.

“A yachting accident.”

He took a minute to digest the news. Then another thought crashed into his head like a tree downed in a storm. “Where’s Willow?”

“She’s with me.”

He bristled. “I’ll come get her.”

“Yes, I supposed you would. Of course, Charles and I would be happy to have her stay here, but we travel so much and she would . . .”

Get in the way. Like mother, like daughter. “I’m her father. She should be here.”


Just as he suspected, no argument. The sooner he got Willow, the better. Poor thing. She hardly knew him, and now she had lost her mother. He’d make it up to her somehow. He had to.

He took down the particulars on the funeral and made arrangements to take Willow home with him afterwards. He clicked off his cell phone and realized his hands were shaking.

* * *

“Are you all right, honey? I’ve been out of town and just heard the news.” Shelby’s next-door neighbor stood at the front door.

Shelby opened the door. “Come on in.”

Rose Garner, Natalie’s aunt, stepped inside. Her silver hair, threaded with black strands, was pulled back into a flawless knot at the nape of her long neck. Her complexion, fresh and glowing, made her look twenty years younger than her age of sixty-two. A soft white blouse and trim dark pants gave her tall, lithe body an elegant appearance that matched her gentle nature.

Shelby took her into the dining room and showed her the damage.

“My, my.” She turned to Shelby. “I’m just so thankful you’re all right.”

“I’m thankful that none of my sewing projects was ruined. Several of the outfits have deadlines, and that would have really put me behind.”

Rose nodded.

“Would you like to go upstairs?”

“No, thank you, sweetie. I can’t stay. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.” They stepped back outside. “By the way, what are you going to do about your classes?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that—”

“Yes, of course you may hold your classes at my house,” Rose said with a smile.

“You’re such a blessing. Just like your niece.” Shelby smiled, thinking how Natalie and Rose shared the same spirit. “Thank you, Rose.”

“The blessing is mine.” Rose gave Shelby a hug. “While I’m thinking of it, do you still want my help when you get to the dining etiquette section?”

“Absolutely,” Shelby said.

“Wonderful. Have you found someone to do the repairs?”

“Nick contacted Griffen Parker for me, and he’s agreed to do the job.”

“Nick is quite the gentleman.”

Shelby thought that an interesting comment. Nick was a great friend, no doubt about it, but “gentleman”? Somehow an ax-wielding, whiskered mountain man did not conjure up a gentleman in her mind.

“Well, I’d better get going. We’ll talk later about the classes. Bring over whatever you need anytime. I’ll get my dining room ready.”

Shelby waved good-bye and stepped back inside, wondering where to begin.

Diann Hunt  
posted at 8:47 AM  
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Julia: Small Town, Big Dreams

Kristin Billerbeck

Chapter One

Julia Bourne paced in front of the metal hangar at Smitten’s regional airport. There’s nothing to be nervous about, she told herself, but her body wouldn’t comply. No amount of positive thinking would allow her to relax. Her dress, a simple cotton sheath from Tahari’s previous season, clung to her in the sticky June heat. She wished she could stay cool under pressure like one of her New York socialite clients, but Julia wore her nerves like a conspicuous piece of jewelry.
It was bad enough she’d had to endure the stares of the town as she walked about in stilettos, but to convince Devlin Stovich that Smitten was ready for an upscale spa seemed utterly ridiculous at the moment. One local coffee shop and a few dessert places didn’t exactly scream Fifth Avenue. She felt like a child wobbling about in her mother’s high heels, and her hometown felt like preschool next to the sophistication of New York City. At that moment she wanted to abandon the whole scheme and beg Devlin to let her have her job back.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. Her mom still needed her. Smitten’s mill was closed now, and all that remained of the once bustling logging town were the Sugarcreek Mountain Ski Resort ten minutes outside of town and one square block of struggling but infinitely quaint shops and a few modest inns. Julia and her friends were convinced that the town’s only hope of success was to redefine itself as a romantic destination, worthy of hometown hero and country singing sensation Sawyer Smitten’s Hollywood-style wedding. Any romantic destination needed what Smitten had to offer: gorgeous scenery, outdoor activities for both summer and winter, and, naturally, a high-end spa. She tried to summon Natalie’s enthusiasm for the future as she waited.
Julia held her breath as the Leer jet glided elegantly onto the runway, the same way a flock of geese landed on a summer lake. She tugged at the collar of her fitted dress and wished she’d worn something more appropriate for life in Smitten. Devlin would know it was last season’s dress, and there was no sense putting on airs when asking for money and his support. Reality required a certain humility. She needed to stay in Smitten for her parents’ sake, and Smitten needed to find a new industry for its future. Tourism seemed the logical choice.
The private jet unfolded from its side like a metal yawn and thrust down a set of stairs. Julia’s heart pounded at the sight of Devlin’s tall, intimidating frame. He’d come without an entourage, and for that she felt grateful.
Even her best friends didn’t understand the honor of socialite Devlin visiting their town, but the full weight of it pressed on Julia. She paced some more and practiced the breathing techniques Devlin had taught her for dealing with a particularly difficult client. Breathe in, hold for three seconds, exhale deeply, forcing out her lungs. To Smitten, Devlin was just another prospective businessman. To anyone in the spa business, he was a rock star. She watched him leave the plane.
Devlin Stovich’s awkward looks worked for him. His dirty blond locks curled around his strong jawline. There was almost a comical air to him, as if he were playing a 1950s Julius Caesar role, but his charm gave him that “it” factor that invited awe and commanded respect. He always wore silky black slacks with a black turtleneck, like a theater arts major. In the summer he switched out his turtleneck with a short-sleeved knit—also in black. Whenever he left the spa he threw a gray linen sport coat over his uniform, and what seemed a lack of creativity became fashion-forward. For as trendy as he appeared in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he looked equally ridiculous in Smitten.
She’d lost sight of him, when suddenly large hands surrounded her waist and lifted her up from the floor, twirled her around full circle, and placed her back down in her original spot.
Devlin laughed heartily, “I will never get tired of that, lifting that lithe, tiny figure. Julia, you are the picture of heath.” He kissed her on both cheeks, as was his custom. “I think country life agrees with you. Look at your skin.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “It’s like pure spring water. I wish I could take credit for it, but in Manhattan we can only work with what we have, and we’ll never have this clear air.”
“You can take credit for my skin. I’m using all your products, and it doesn’t hurt that I learned from the best.”
“Always my best cheerleader. It’s so dreary in the spa without your perky personality.” He gripped both of her hands. “Come back to me.”
“Is that a marriage proposal?” she answered flirtatiously.
Devlin grinned. “I’m not the marrying kind, Julia, or I might say yes. I see far too many beautiful women in a day to stay true to one. But if I were going to stay true, you’d be my girl.”
“Such an offer. To bad I’m not a gambling woman.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I saw the size of this town from the air. An upscale spa here?” He shook his head and stared across the expansive but empty parking lot. “One of my estheticians will quit eventually. You can come back to New York then.”
She frowned. “I’ve made a commitment, Dev. Smitten needs me. Manhattan needs you. We have to face that what we have is unrequited love,” she joked in her best dramatic voice.
“I miss you, Julia. You always manage to see the beauty in everyone. That’s what I saw when I discovered you behind the makeup counter at Nordstrom’s. The way you had with people. You had that old woman on the stool, do you remember?”
“No, actually, I don’t.”
“She was not an attractive woman, clearly a tourist from the heartland. She didn’t have a stitch of makeup on, and I think she was wearing sweatpants. You used eye makeup on her, and the blue of her eyes was suddenly obvious to me. I’ll never forget that. I saw her.”
Julia couldn’t help but feel sorry for Devlin and how much his prejudice kept him from seeing. “All your clients are beautiful. I don’t see what you thought I could add.”
“You saw potential in average people. It made me realize I might be missing clientele who would feel comfortable with you. You could take Quasimodo and find something about him that’s attractive. ”
She couldn’t find her voice. Quasimodo equated with a woman who didn’t dress in St. John knits and fill her face with Botox? She would never understand how Devlin saw the world—or she prayed she wouldn’t, anyway. She wanted to tell him that not noticing “normals” was pure narcissism on his part, and noticing them not any extraordinary ability at all. But that wouldn’t serve her purpose, so she kept her mouth shut.
Devlin walked outside the hangar and into the parking lot, where he shielded his eyes. “Like this place. I see the natural beauty. But Julia, what do you do here with your days in the middle of nowhere?”
“I take care of my mother. I hang out with friends. I make plans for the future of a history that’s in my blood. Life moves slower here, I’ll give you that. But it moves deeper as well.”
“If you say so.” Devlin placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the expanse of open space, his line of sight to the pine trees and mountaintops. “What makes you think there’s enough clientele here to support a spa?”
“W-well,” she stammered. “There’s not yet, but the town is changing, and our tourism is growing rapidly. Sawyer Smitten is getting married here, and that announcement alone has put us on the map. His fans will come, as if they’re on some kind of pilgrimage. Our bed-and-breakfast hasn’t had any vacancies since the announcement, our coffee shop has a steady business, and at night the town is lit up with sparkling lights. There are carriage rides, and in the spring there’ll be tours of the maple sugarhouses. All that’s missing for after a day on the lake or the slopes is a spa.”
He didn’t look convinced, so she kept talking.
“With Sawyer’s wedding, we are prepared to wipe the Poconos off the map as the East Coast romantic destination.”
“I’ve always appreciated your enthusiasm, Julia, but a spa needs steady clientele. It needs customers who value—” His critical gaze pulled away from the mountains and looked back at her as if he was ready to get back on the plane that moment.
“It’s more than my friends and me, this town project. Sawyer’s speaking out about his wedding and what his hometown means to him. This is a calling. There’s a little girl in our town, Mia, who prayed that—”
He held up his flat palm, as he always did when she said anything remotely faith based. Dev’s religion was beauty and eternal youth. He had no interest in anyone else’s belief system. “I believe in you, Julia, but there’s a long lead time and start-up capital that comes with the spa business. I’m sorry, I just didn’t see the potential here from the air. Maybe you can convince me once we get downtown. Smitten doesn’t happen to have a Ben & Jerry’s, does it?”
Devlin’s sweet tooth would keep him from getting directly back on the plane.
“We have a shop called Sweet Surrender that would give Serendipity a run for its money. I’ll take you there as soon as I’ve shown you the location possibilities. We also have Piece of Cake and the Vermont Creamery. Smitten is a sweet lover’s paradise.”
He didn’t look convinced, which only made Julia speak faster and her dress feel stickier.
“I know when you see the potential of our downtown, you’re going to be impressed. You have vision, Devlin, and that’s why I called you here . . . because I think this is an incredible opportunity.”
“Somehow I doubt that, but for you I’m willing to take a look.” He brought his lips near to the crook of her neck and whispered the rest. “For you, I’d do a lot of things. Just say the word.”
She forced a smile, but shivered involuntarily at the reminder of how uncomfortable Devlin could make her. She’d invited him, so she put on her game face and focused on his strengths. Devlin knew how to run a successful spa, and he had the money to invest. In fact, the amount she needed was less than his annual summer rental in the Hamptons. She suddenly wondered if she wasn’t selling the soul of Smitten for money.
“So who is this Sawyer person, and why should his wedding make any difference to this town’s tourism?”
Julia’s mouth dangled, but she snapped it shut when she realized he really didn’t know. “He’s a country singing sensation. Well, maybe not a sensation, but he’s on his way. ‘You Turned My Heart to Sawdust’? ‘Sugar, You’re Sweeter than Maple Syrup’?”
“Are you singing me a song? Or is this some strange mating call of Smitten folks?” He laughed. “I’m kidding. Tell me about this sensation I’ve never heard of.”
“He crossed over into pop after winning The Country’s Best on television. He’s had concerts in New York, too.” She felt protective over Sawyer’s image. He’d been the most popular boy in her high school when she was a freshman and he a senior. He wasn’t the cocky type at all, and though music was never “cool” in school, Sawyer possessed that star quality that would have made it cool if he played on the badminton team. “He won a talent show and became an international sensation!”
She felt an urge to tell Devlin how ignorant he could be about pop culture, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Dev wouldn’t serve Madonna at his spa because he found new money vulgar. He catered to the elite of Manhattan and made no secret of his disdain of the self-made man.
They’d been standing outside of her car for several minutes now, and at some point, she’d have to admit to owning the Subaru. She should have borrowed Shelby’s car for the occasion. Shelby’s classic styling may not have been practical when they were hiking outside of town, but her Lincoln would have proven infinitely more upscale and appropriate for Devlin’s appearance in town.
“We need four-wheel drive here,” she explained, rather than saying Yes, this is my beat-up Subaru, get in. “For the winters.”
“A four-wheel drive and everything. You’re a regular Sarah Palin.”
She knew he hadn’t meant it as a compliment, but she ignored that fact. Unlike Dev, she could camouflage herself in either place, the city or Smitten. There was something to be said for not carrying your location on your person.
“We’re not going to shoot our lunch, are we?” he quipped.
“Get in the car, Dev.”
Once inside the car, she turned the ignition, and Third Day blared from the stereo system. Considering the band also sang Sarah Palin’s theme song from her reality show, Julia thought it best just to shut off the music.
As they approached the town, her heart swelled with pride. Smitten’s Main Street belonged on a post card. Its brick Main Street and sidewalks ended at the old-fashioned, whitewashed church, where the traditional steeple and cross rose high into the bright blue sky. In the afternoon, the cross displayed its shadow across the village, as if Smitten’s church stood sentry over the town’s history and future.
“You say there’s skiing in the winter?”
“We have a lake. There’s water skiing in the summer as well, but yes, both downhill and cross-country in the winter. Mountain biking on the fire trails. It may not look like much yet, as far as the shopping and conveniences go, but the women of Smitten have our minds set. We come from a long line of tough stock, and I daresay nothing will stop us.”
“I hope for all your sakes you have enough capital to keep going until the town finds its footing.”
She pulled her car up alongside the coffee shop. “This is my girlfriend’s coffee shop. There’s open retail space alongside her there.” Julia pointed. “Natalie is very proactive and always searching out the latest coffee-roasting techniques. Anyone in Manhattan would be quite comfortable having a hot cocoa or an organic green tea in there. Don’t you think that would be a nice location for a spa?”
He shook his head. “Coffee fumes aren’t right for your location, and I can tell from here there’s not enough water available for a spa. It would cost you a fortune to get that place piped.”
“H-how can you tell that?”
“Easy. It’s what I do. And what if your friend burns the beans? Have you ever smelled that? It could ruin the day’s profits for you.”
She didn’t want to admit that she had.
“Aromatherapy is going to be a part of your business, so you have to take that into account. Drive up the road here, away from the church. I think off the beaten track would be better. Like the latest nightclub, it’s almost a well-known secret. I know you can take the ugly duckling and turn it into a swan, Julia, but you can’t pretty-up strong smells that don’t belong in a spa experience. What’s up this way?” He pointed to the end of the street.
“Natalie’s an excellent chef!” She didn’t want to mention some of Natalie’s infamous “tries” at the perfect, gluten-free cookie. “Maybe you’re right. Off the beaten track might be more relaxing.”
“Drive up here a little bit. The downtown is perfect, might be under ‘quaint’ if you looked it up in the dictionary. We want to make the most of that aspect. In Manhattan, you want to be right in the midst of things, but not here.”
“No,” he answered firmly.
“I’m so excited you see the potential. It confirms what we’ve thought all along. Smitten’s an old logging town, you know. The idea of bringing anything feminine into this town is offensive to the men, but we know this is our future. We can’t cut down trees any longer, so we’ve got to create a green economy out of the beauty here.”
“Stop!” Dev said as they reached the end of Main Street. “What’s that building?”
He pointed to a rustic, log cabin-looking building that defied the rest of Smitten’s idyllic downtown, like a permanent stain on its cuteness.
“That? That’s the Smitten Grill.” She said it as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. “It closed a little while after the mill, but he opens it during ski season generally.” One side of her lip lifted. “If you think upscale clientele would despise the scent of brewed coffee, imagine what they’d think here with scorched meat.” She let out a nervous laugh and hoped he’d join her, but he was still mesmerized by the restaurant.
He put his hands in the shape of a picture frame. “No, this is it, Julia! I can see it here. There’s so much potential. You realize that you can’t copy a Manhattan spa and plop it here in the country.”
“Naturally,” she said. “No plopping.”
“You have to know what would work here in Smallville. All this enchanting nostalgia is money in the bank if you know how to take proper advantage. Pull over.”
She steered the car to the curb. Devlin didn’t wait until the car was at a full stop before he leapt out and walked along the boardwalk sidewalk under the shingled overhang.
Can we go now?
“That’s another thing,” she yelled out the window. “Everywhere else in town has brick sidewalks. Those old planks probably have dry rot, and you’d be looking at a lot of extra costs on the building.”
“Nonsense.” He jumped on the wide wooden planks. “They’re in perfect condition.”
Dev’s sleek black image looked wrong against the rustic wooden lodge. As though Matt Damon strode into a Yosemite Sam cartoon. She shuddered as she stepped out of the car.
“The Smitten Grill isn’t exactly a place the women in town frequent.” The dark-stained wood exterior made it the town’s eyesore and something the girls and she hoped to eliminate with enough time. It was nowhere to be seen on their future maps.
“All the better to bring in some masculine energy into the mix. Couples business is going to be tantamount in a tourist town. You do realize that?”
“We have an appointment up the street in ten minutes.” She turned her wrist toward Devlin.
“We’ll be there. Let me just see inside here. Humor me, if you will.”
“If we hurry, maybe we’ll have time.”
Devlin pressed down on the spring button, and to her dismay the unlocked door sprang open. “After you.”
She stepped gingerly onto the cracked cement floor covered by sawdust, which crept inside her peep-toe heels. Like a cat on a hot sidewalk, she lifted her feet gingerly, anxious to get the tour over with as soon as possible. She searched the room with wide eyes. Stuffed animal heads stared at her from the walls, burned-out neon signs surrounded them, and primitive wooden stools set at burl-wood tables dotted the room. “Well, you’ve seen it. Not exactly a place Smitten is proud of, and you can see why.”
“If it’s closed, I can’t imagine the owner wouldn’t want to rent it out. Make some money.” Devlin walked toward the bank of dirty windows. “Is that a pond in the back?” He fluffed a gray handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the window.
“Whitetail Pond. Named for the deer that came to drink there before the sludge from this place probably poisoned the water.”
“Julia.” Dev pushed off from the windowsill and stared at her with his intense blue-green eyes. Eyes that had broken lesser women’s resolve. “I think you’re totally missing the vision, and that’s not like you. You take ugly things and make them beautiful. That pond alone is sheer, feng shui perfection. Imagine a rock waterfall just over there.” He pointed to the corner, then turned on his heels. “Or a fireplace back there where clients wait or relax after their treatments in their white, fuzzy robes. The gentle, soothing sound of trickling, clear water, the warming scent of maple syrup. Soothing couples’ massages out on the deck in the summer. Think like one of my students. Think outside the box and you’ll see there’s no other place in town for this spa than right here. I don’t understand how you’re missing this.”
“Outside the box? I can’t think at all in here. All I want to do is grab myself some bleach and grease-cutter. Do you mind if we get on to the next building? I had an appointment.”
“Julia, forget the appointment. Work with me here. You’ve got all the elements built in.” He took her by the hand and walked around the expansive room. “Wood . . . water . . . fire would be easy enough to put in . . . metal . . .”
Devlin went on in his Eastern meditation trance, and she questioned his involvement for the first time. She could handle his flirtatious passes, but not actually meddling with the location or “feel” of the spa. Maybe she had been in New York too long. She certainly knew Devlin’s belief system to be different from hers, but for the first time, she questioned if she’d truly relied on faith for Smitten’s future rather than Devlin’s money. She slipped off a heel and emptied it of sawdust.
“Can we talk about this after we’ve seen the other building? I told Ms. Draper we were coming. She owns the sweet shop and keeps the key.”
She didn’t want to mention that the people of Smitten didn’t bow out of appointments. It simply wasn’t done.
Besides, she wanted to get out of there before— “Zak!”
She felt the blood drain from her face at the imposing sight of Zak Grant. He hadn’t changed at all, and she willed herself to lose the swirl in her stomach that made her feel like a prepubescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
Zak Grant, with his sleepy-eyed gaze and stretched, taut T-shirt. She searched for an excuse as to why she’d entered his antlered, Medieval lair. He raked his hand through his thick, boyish curls, and she noted that being out of business had apparently left Zak plenty of time to build up his muscles. He was built like a Vermont maple: tall, filled-out, and sturdy. She felt sawdust invade her shoe again and twitched her leg trying to get it out.
“Julia,” Dev’s smooth voice chastised. “You look like a dog being tickled on its belly.” He chuckled.
She glanced at Zak, who bit his bottom lip. “Do you own a broom, Zak?”
“I do. You looking for a job? I was just thinking I should hire someone.”
“You two know each other, I assume,” Devlin said, eyeing what he must have seen as competition. The truth was, any normal fifty-year old man would know he was no match for the athletic perfection that was Zak Grant, but Devlin’s delusional view of himself trumped his reality.
“This is Smitten. Everyone knows each other,” she said. “I’m sure Zak has lots of work to do. We’d best get out of his way.” She grasped at Devlin’s elbow. “Zak, this is my former boss from New York, Devlin Stovich. Devlin, my brother’s best friend, Zak Grant.”
The two men shook hands.
“Julia’s going to open a spa here in town.” Devlin’s eyes thinned.
“So I heard,” Zak said. He rubbed his three days’ worth of stubble. “What kind of treatment would you give me?” He bent toward her and rubbed his jaw. “Do I have sun damage?”
“Can we get out of here now?” she asked Devlin. “There’s no texture here. Wood on wood. Oh, and while you’re at it, add some wood.”
“That’s part of the beauty of it. You could so easily add the other elements. This pond, it’s positively picturesque. Manmade?”
“God-made,” Zak clarified.
“I can see the brochures now. From across the pond, we see the massage tables on the deck in the distance. Can’t you see it, Julia?”
“No.” She crossed her arms in front of her.
“A few orchids in the background, some rock water features . . .”
“Sounds like you have big plans. That right, Julia?” Zak, with his barrel chest and dark, earthy green-brown eyes stared at her with his meaty hand wrapped around some blueprints. His muscles bulged out of his dark gray T-shirt, and she wondered if he had added to his wardrobe at all since high school.
She thought all those nasty things rather than remember his stinging rejection as one of the popular boys in school to her quiet, pensive geek. She used to spy on him when he’d play basketball in the backyard with her brother, but he’d never noticed her. Just like that woman in Nordstrom, she’d been invisible to Zak.
“Looks like you’ve plans of your own.” She nodded at the blueprints in his hand. “Sorry to have bothered you.” She hooked her arm into Devlin’s.
“Are you renting the place out?” Dev asked Zak.
“Only half of it. I’m using the other half for my office. I live upstairs.”
“Unemployed body builders need an office?” Julia regretted her words immediately, but she couldn’t take them back.
Both Zak and Devlin gazed at her as if she were the devil himself.
“Still as charming as ever, huh, Julia?”
“What do you plan to rent the place for?” Dev asked him.
“More than she can afford.” His steely gaze rested on her in a silent challenge.
“I’m considering investing in her business,” Dev said, handing Zak a business card from a jacket pocket. “But only if she’s smart about it.”
“It’s more than either of you can afford.”
“I doubt that. I take it you two don’t care for one another,” Devlin said. “But you seem to be a businessman, Mr. Grant, and I’d consider it a great favor if you’d reconsider Julia as a tenant. I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically believe in her abilities as an esthetician.”
“An esta– what?”
“Julia, look here. These cabinets are already built in. I’m seeing earthy-browns under soothing candlelight, cedar and sandlewood as signature scents. Or perhaps maple, if you want to go for that local flair. Muscle repair massages after skiing, with mountain arnica extracts and oregano . . . surely even you can see the need for that, Mr. Grant.”
“Nope. Oregano goes on food, not me. If Julia wants to make me spaghetti sauce with it, we can talk.”
Zak’s refusal seemed to ignite Devlin’s competitive nature. “Mr. Grant, wouldn’t you like to see the women of Smitten looking younger with anti-aging facials after a day in the sun? It repairs the collagen with licorice extract.”
“What? Food on people instead of in people isn’t right for Smitten. We don’t go for all that frou-frou stuff you city people like.”
“Detox? Surely a body builder knows about detox. Julia could do the best detoxifying treatments there under the crackling fireplace.” He pointed toward the corner.
“There is no fireplace,” Julia said dryly.
“There will be. An exfoliation treatment with the local maple sugar scrub. Julia, Zak, this is a gold mine. What’s it going to take to get you two to see it?”
“A miracle,” they said in unison.
“I need to get back to work.” Zak tapped his blueprints against the wall. “Let yourselves out when you’re done.”
Julia watched him stride to the back room, untouchable as ever.
posted at 12:17 PM  
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Delicious Delicious

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We're so excited that today is Smitten's official release date! But I have to share some even more spectacular news! Di's CA-125 was 39 yesterday! 4 pts above normal!! Thank you for your prayers, friends. Keep them up. We're so grateful for you and your love and prayers for Di. When Di texted me, I started crying and burst into tears every few minutes all afternoon. So thankful to God for his touch on her life! Love you all.

Chapter One

Natalie Mansfield’s heart swelled as she stood on the perimeter of the town square and watched her niece and the other children decorate the town for Easter. A gigantic smile stretched across five-year-old Mia’s face as her Sunday school teacher lifted her to place the lavender wreath at the top of the clock.

Mia saw her and waved. “Aunt Nat, look at me!”

Natalie waved back, her smile broadening. “She’s growing so fast,” she told her aunt Rose Garner. “I love her so much.”

Black threaded Rose’s silver hair, and her smooth skin made her look twenty years younger than her sixty-two years. “I still remember the first day I laid eyes on you.”

“How could you forget? I was a morose ten-year-old who snapped your head off every time you spoke to me.”

Her aunt pressed her hand. “You changed our lives, honey. We were three lonely spinsters until you showed up. Now here you are providing a home for your niece. A full circle, just like that wreath. I’m so proud of you.”

Her aunt’s words made Natalie’s heart fill to bursting. “You gave me the only stability I’d ever known. I want to do the same for Mia.”

Aunt Rose wasn’t listening. A small frown creased her brow. “Something’s wrong.”

Natalie looked at the men standing a few feet away in front of the hardware store. Their heads were down and their shoulders slumped. The dejection in their stances sent her pulse racing.

She recognized one of her coffee shop patrons, Murphy Clinton, and grabbed his arm as he walked past. “What’s happened, Murphy?” she asked.

He stopped and stared down at her with a grave expression. “The mill’s closing.”

“That’s not possible,” she mumbled. Her thoughts raced. The mill was an institution and the main employer in Smitten. If it closed . . .

He finished her thought. “This town is finished.”

* * *

The aroma of the freshly brewed coffee overpowered the less appetizing smell from the drum roaster in the back room. Natalie let her employee Zoe handle the customers at the bar and took the hot beverages to the seating area by the window where she and her friends could see white-topped Sugarcreek Mountain. Spring had come to their part of Vermont, and the sight of the wildflowers on the lower slopes would give her strength.

“So what are we going to do?” she asked, sinking onto the overstuffed leather sofa beside Reese Mackenzie.

“Do? What can we do?” Reese asked. Her blond ponytail gleamed in the shaft of sunlight through the window. She was the practical one in the group. Reese was never afraid of hard work, but while Natalie saw only the end goal, Reese saw the pitfalls right on the path. “We can’t make them keep the mill open.”

While rumors about the mill had been floating for months, no one had really believed it would fold. The ramifications would be enormous. Natalie’s business had been struggling enough without this added blow.

She took a sip of her mocha java. A little bitter. She’d have to tweak the roast a bit next time. “If the mill closes, the town will dry up and blow away. We can’t let that happen.” If Mountain Perks closed, she didn’t know how she would provide for Mia.

And she wasn’t leaving Smitten. Not ever. After being yanked from pillar to post with an alcoholic mother until she was ten, Natalie craved the stability she had found here with her aunts and her friends.

Julia Bourne tossed her long hair away from her face to reveal flawless skin that never needed makeup. “This is one of those things outside your control, Nat. I’d guess we’d all better be looking for jobs in Stowe.”

Shelby Evans took a sip of her tea and shivered. Her Shih-poo, Penelope, dressed in a fashionable blue-and-white polka dotted shirt, turned around in Shelby’s lap and lay down on her navy slacks. “I don’t know about you all,” Shelby said, “but I wanted my kids to grow up here.”

The women had no children of their own—and none of them was even close to thinking about settling down—but that was a moot point for Shelby. She had a storybook ending in mind that included a loving husband and two-point-five children for each of them. Natalie was sure her friend would find that life too.

Natalie moved restlessly. “There has to be something we can do. Some new export. Maple syrup, maybe? We have lots of trees.” She glanced at Julia. “What about your New York friends? Maybe you could ask some of your business friends for advice?”

Julia shrugged her slim shoulders. “They know spas. I hardly think a spa is going to save us.”

Reese had those thoughtful lines on her forehead. A tiny smile hovered on her full lips, and her hazel eyes showed a plan was forming. “We don’t have time for exports, but what about imports? Tourists would love us if they’d come visit. We have heart.” She took out her ever-present notebook and pen and began to jot down ideas.

“They come to ski in Stowe anyway,” Shelby said. “All we have to do is get them here.”

Natalie rubbed her forehead where it had begun to ache. “But what do we have to offer that’s different from any other town?”

Julia crossed her shapely ankles. “Smitten is cute with its church and all, but cute doesn’t bring tourists. I can’t even get a decent manicure in this dinky town. People aren’t going to pay for ambiance. We need some kind of gimmick.”

Reese tapped her pen against her chin. “I have an idea,” she said. “Everyone jokes about the town name. Why not capitalize on it?”

“How do you capitalize on a name like Smitten?”

“What does Smitten make you think of?” Reese asked. “Love, right? What if we turn the town into a place for honeymooners?”

Shelby adjusted the bow on Penelope’s head. “I went to Santa Claus, Indiana once. Tons of people, even in July.”

Natalie swallowed a groan. They’d all heard about Santa Claus too many times to count. She needed to derail Shelby before she broke into a rendition of “Jingle Bells.” “We could have love songs playing as people strolled the streets.”

Julia snickered and nodded toward the man striding past outside the window. “I have a feeling Carson would have something to say about that. He hated all the jokes about his name in high school.”

Natalie followed the angle of Julia’s nod. Her gut clenched the way it always did when she saw Carson Smitten. He was a man who attracted female attention wherever he went. He looked like his lumberjack great-grandfather, with his broad shoulders and closely- cropped dark hair.

He had all the single women in town drooling after him. Except for her, of course. If the other girls knew what she knew about him, they wouldn’t think he was so great.

“I’m still thinking about my idea,” Reese said. “This will mean new businesses, new jobs, lots of revenue pouring in. We’d have to get the entire town on board.”

Natalie’s excitement level went up a notch as she imagined the town transformed with its new mission. “The town meeting is coming up. I can present the idea there.”

“It’s a good thing you’re a selectperson,” Shelby said. “People listen to you.”

Natalie dug a paper and pen from her purse, a Brighton that Julia had given her for her last birthday. “There needs to be a cohesive plan. What would this love town look like? Besides romantic songs playing over speakers around town.” She peered at Reese’s list and copied down the items.

Shelby retied Penelope’s bow. “We need a lingerie shop that sells perfume,” she said. “Chocolates. Some plush hotels and bed-and-breakfasts with tubs for two.” Her smile grew larger. “Maybe old-fashioned lampposts along the path around the lake. You could put outside tables on the street and white lights in the trees. Flower boxes all around town.”

“And we’ll need more restaurants,” Julia added.

Natalie eyed her. “You said a good manicure was impossible to find. What if you started a spa?”

Julia’s perfectly plucked brows lifted. She grabbed the tablet and pen from Natalie. “I don’t know. I’d like to move back to New York eventually.”

“The honeymooners won’t spend all their time in their rooms,” Reese said, her eyes gleaming. “We offer great outdoor activities. The skiing here is as good as anywhere in the country. People just don’t know about us.” She gestured toward the mountain. “And look at that view.”

Natalie groaned. “The last thing I’d want to do on my honeymoon is go skiing. I’d rather sit holding hands across a linen tablecloth with a lobster in front of me.”

“But I’d go skiing in a heartbeat,” Reese said. “Our big draw is our outdoor beauty. We don’t have an outfitters shop. We’d need that.” She jotted it down on her paper. “You know how I’ve been saving for a shop like that for years. Maybe now is the time.”

“Now is the time,” Natalie said. “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. We’re going to push you until you do it.”

“I love it!” Shelby stood and paced by the window. “Maybe my etiquette school can be part of it too. I can coach women on how to put on the best parties and cater to the society women who come to town. Maybe teach ballroom dancing.”

“And your designs,” Natalie said, unable to keep her voice from rising. “Those cute outfits you make for Penelope would sell like hot cakes.” She glanced at the picture on the wall of herself with Mia. “I have to do what I can to save the town. I want Mia to have the security I’ve never had. A-And I’ve been thinking. I want to be Mia’s real mother. I’m going to see about adopting her.”

Her announcement left her friends with mouths gaping. She glanced at Shelby, whose soft heart she knew would be the first to agree with her.

Shelby’s dark eyes glistened. “Oh, Nat, that’s just like you! You have so much love to give. Mia’s a very lucky girl.”

A lump formed in Natalie’s throat. “Starting the adoption is going to be my birthday present to myself. Every day I wake up and wonder if Lisa is going to take her away from me someday. I can’t live with that fear.”

Julia grimaced. “Lisa is never going to own up to her responsibilities, but I’m glad you’re going to make sure Mia is safe.”

“I’ll be praying for you,” Reese said softly. “There will be lots of frustrating paperwork. Let me help you with that.” She flipped the page on her notebook. “And it’s all the more reason for us to get this idea sold to the residents. You don’t want Mountain Perks to go under.”

This was not going to be an easy sell to Carson Smitten. Natalie stared out the window again and watched the man yank on the door to his hardware store in his usual confident way. She had no doubt she could convince the rest of the town over his objections. After all, what did they have to lose?

* * *

Smitten Town Hall was packed. Carson Smitten scanned the rows of people. Folks were talking excitedly, mostly about the mill news that had been announced two days ago. There looked to be a lot of interest today on the things listed in the warning that had been published thirty days earlier. Once the moderator had been selected and brought down the gavel, the participants recited the Pledge of Allegiance and began to go through the list of items on the warning. Things went smoothly with no surprises until Natalie Mansfield took the mic.

Dressed in jeans and a red sweater that showed her curves to advantage, she stepped forward on the stage. “We’ve all been reeling with the news that the mill is closing,” she began. “I have a proposal to bring to the town. A way to bring major tourism to Smitten.”

A wave of murmurs rose, and people leaned forward. Burly George Metcalf called out, “If you can save my plumbing business, I’ll eat dirt.”

She smiled. “It won’t take that, George. But make no mistake—it’s a major change.”

Carson narrowed his gaze on Natalie. He liked looking at her. He’d always been drawn to her dark-haired beauty, but she’d been distant with him ever since that fiasco with her sister, Lisa.

Natalie moved to the podium, and the screen behind her illuminated. The picture that came up showed Smitten, but a very different one from the rough lumber town that now existed. Was that a skating rink? Carson studied the screen, intrigued by the picture-perfect town.

“We’ve all heard the jokes about our name, but it could be the thing that saves us.” She turned to look up at the screen. “We can cater to lovers, honeymooners, those celebrating their anniversaries. We’ll have love songs playing in the streets, encourage more businesses that cater to couples.”

Carson shot to his feet to object, but before he could voice his opposition, others got in ahead of him. The town meeting buzzed with excitement as voters threw out ideas on how to make this idea credible. Terms he’d never associated with his town were bandied about. Terms like spa, candle shop, lingerie shop of all things. It was insane.

He finally got the mic. “We don’t need a new marketing plan. We need a new industry.” He glared at Natalie, who leveled a stare back from calm brown eyes. She’d done this on purpose just to rile him. He knew it.

“But don’t you see—this is a new industry. It’s tourism, one of the best kind. Instead of the mill ruling our lives, we’ll be in charge.”

“It’s a good idea,” Harold Warren shouted from the back of the room. “We can sell our town. I’ve lived my whole life here, and I don’t want to leave.”

“Me neither,” a woman’s voice chimed in. “We’ll need a publicist. I can help with that.”

Someone else volunteered to be on a task force. In spite of Carson’s resistance, the proposal went to a vote and passed. All around him he heard people laying plans for how they could contribute to the idea. He couldn’t believe it. Grabbing his jacket, he stormed from the building. Out in the town square he sank onto a park bench and rubbed his forehead. How could they jump on such a crazy idea so quickly? Love capital. Good grief. They’d be the laughingstock of Vermont.

A female voice spoke behind him. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

He looked around to see Natalie standing behind the bench with her navy peacoat in her hand. She was the last person he wanted to talk to. “I think you’ve said it all,” he said.

She ignored his comment and joined him on the bench. A light scent, something flowery, wafted from her hair. He nearly rose and walked away, but courtesy demanded he at least hear her out.

“It’s clear you hate the idea,” she said.

“You’re getting people excited about an idea that won’t work. We’re not a touristy town. We’re blue collar workers. We need another plant, maybe a furniture manufacturer. Something we can sell.

“Think about it, Carson. This is totally unique. People will eat it up. What else do we have going for us?” Her voice held excitement.

He struggled to ignore her enthusiasm. She’d always been persuasive. “Recreational stuff like skiing, hunting and fishing. We can work on that.” He glanced at her. Big mistake.

She leaned toward him on the bench. “We’ve worked on that for years. It’s no secret your fishing cabins are only half full most of the year. And you’re practically running your hardware store by yourself.”

He winced. “We can brainstorm ways to do a better job.”

“We’ve tried that. There’s too much competition, even here in Vermont. But no one else is doing this. No one else can do it. We have the name and the great setting. All we need is to work together.”

“It’s my town, Natalie. My great-grandfather built Smitten. I’m not going to stand back and watch you make a joke of it.”

She nodded toward the hall. “The meeting is breaking up, and I have another appointment. Come to the coffee shop in the morning. I have some ideas to discuss with you. Please.”

“No, Natalie, you’re wrong about it. All of it.” Just as she was wrong about him and her sister.

Her hand touched his. “Come on, Carson, I’m not going to bite. What do you have to lose?” She bit her lip. “I know Mia is an issue between us.”

“She’s only an issue because it’s clear you believe your sister’s lies,” he shot back. “And what makes you think you know what’s best for this town?”

Her dark eyes studied him. “Just because you’re a Smitten doesn’t mean you’re the only one who cares about this place. Can’t you put our differences aside and work with me for the good of the town?”

Good of the town? When she put it like that, it made it sound like he was being petty. Which he wasn’t. She just didn’t know what was good for the town. This was his town, passed down from the original Carson Smitten in the 1700s. If he had a prayer of saving Smitten, he had to derail this crazy plan.

“No thanks,” he said.

Her dark eyes widened, then thick lashes shuttered the disappointment in them. She’d thought he’d agree, had she? She’d clearly thought she could convince him.

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Colleen Coble  
posted at 8:44 AM  
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The Authors
Kristin Billerbeck
Kristin Billerbeck is a proud Californian, wife, mother of four, and connoisseur of the irrelevant. She writes Christian Chick Lit; where she finds need for most of the useless facts lulling about in her head.

Colleen Coble

Colleen Coble writes romantic suspense with a strong atmospheric element. A lovable animal of some kind--usually a dog--always populates her novels. She can be bribed with DeBrand mocha truffles.

Denise Hunter

Denise Hunter writes women's fiction and love stories with a strong emotional element. Her husband says he provides her with all her romantic material, but Denise insists a good imagination helps too.

Diann Hunt

Diann Hunt writes romantic comedy and humorous women's fiction. She has been happily married forever, loves her family, chocolate, her friends, chocolate, her dog, and well, chocolate.

Hannah Alexander

Cheryl Hodde writes romantic medical suspense under the pen name of Hannah Alexander, using all the input she can get from her husband, Mel, for the medical expertise. For fun she hikes and reads. Out of guilt, she rescues discarded cats. She and Mel are presently taking orders from four pampered strays.

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