Labels: christmas gifts
Shelby: You’ve Got a Friend
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.”
“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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.