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.