Girls Write Out
Tuesday, January 29, 2013

SafeInHisArms New 195x300

I'm just finishing up a book, and we will be heading to Cambodia next week. That's right--Cambodia! As in the Killing Fields and the Siem Reap temples. We're excited but a little scared too as we're immersed into a totally different culture. Dave was in Thailand during the Vietnam War so he's familiar with Southeast Asia, but it's been over 40 years since he was there. So there will be massive changes too.

We will be routing through Seoul as well so that's going to be exciting. We're traveling on Korean Air, a 22 hour flight. Are any of you world travelers out there? I would love some tips on traveling to such a completely different place. And please pray for us! 

And some of you have asked for an update on Diann. She is at the Treatment Center where they discovered some new small bits of cancer on her omentum but NOT on any organs, praise God! They've started her on a new chemo, and the doctor believes her extreme weakness is dehydration so hopefully extra IVs will fix that. Please continue to pray for her!

And now for the winners of Safe in HIs Arms!

Dorene Carse

Jordan Garner

Cat B

If you'd all send me your address, I'll get the books shipped out. My email is Congratulations!

Colleen Coble  
posted at 10:56 AM  
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Sunday, January 27, 2013
Coming June 4, 2013
I am endlessly fascinated with people. Especially with this question: why do they do the things they do? This is one of the reasons I write stories. When I'm plotting a book, I may be excited about the "hook"of the story ("Barefoot Summer": a woman must enlist the help of her handsome enemy to realize her dream).

But it's the character's inner journey that gets my blood pumping. (The heroine's goal is to win the local regatta, achieving the dream of her twin brother whose death she can't seem to put behind her.) People are motivated by so many things--the list is endless but here are a few: Greed, compassion, love, jealousy, fear--a big one!

It's my job as a writer to get to the bottom of things. Is my heroine afraid to love? Is she desperate for approval? Is she seeking peace like my "Barefoot Summer" heroine? And on to the deeper question: why? This question is the foundation of many great stories and the thing that ultimately stokes the fire for me as the writer.

As a reader, we can learn about ourselves by walking the protagonists inner journey and discovering what she fears (loves, needs) and why. Reading (and writing) is a great way to grow as a person, the pain-free way! Learning through other people's mistakes is a beautiful thing!

What have you learned, about yourself or others, through a book you've read recently?

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Denise Hunter  
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Friday, January 25, 2013

I can look at this picture and hear the rush of the river, feel the cool air on my face and catch a scent of pine and rich, moist earth if I try hard enough. It takes me far, far, far back in time to my childhood, when we lived in Ventura, California. Being from deep in the hills of Arkansas, Daddy often got a hankering for the wilderness, so he and Mom would pack a lunch, buy some salmon eggs and fishing line, and haul me up into the mountains between Ventura and Santa Barbara, where there was no traffic, and where the streams were fresh and filled with fish. Don't ask me what kinds of fish, because this all happened before I turned five.

As soon as we arrived at a creek Daddy took his hatchet and cut bamboo shoots for fishing poles, then strung line for all three of us. Now that I think about it, I don't know if we ever even caught a fish. That wasn't my favorite part of the trip. What I loved was being safe with Mom and Daddy, enjoying the beauty of God's world all around us, playing in the stream, watching pollywogs, plucking cattails for Mom to decorate with, eating bologna sandwiches without having to worry about my weight. Oh, the good times.

What about you? Do you have memories of happy times when you were safe with people you loved, you believed life would always be good, and the simple act of eating bologna and mayonnaise on white bread was a real treat?

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Hannah Alexander  
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Yesterday, Amazon ran a "deal of the day" on Smitten and it was exciting to watch the book fly up the Amazon rankings to number one in Christian Fiction.  Granted, in the scheme of things it means nothing, but ultimately, it was an emotional boost I needed.

The results of our work here on earth often go unnoticed and unappreciated.  Everyone longs to be acknowledged, but often, we don't get to see the results of our hard work here. We wait for those precious words, "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

I just want to encourage you today that if you're involved in some kind of behind-the-scenes work where no one says, "Atta Girl!" Or maybe you're not paid for the work that you do, but ultimately, you know God is watching and He is pleased.  What you're called to do may not be something that is acknowledged financially or in accolades.  (I mean, we worshiped Lance Armstrong and that was a lie, right?)

God says thank you. He knows.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

SafeInHisArms New

It's always exciting when a new book releases, and Safe in His Arms is in bookstores right now. I am going to give away 3 copies, but I'd like to do something a little more fun with this giveaway, so I'm posting the Reader Letter for the book, and the first chapter. I'd like you to share either something you've had to work on about loving yourself or something you particularly like (or dislike) about the character.  Ready, set, GO!

Dear Reader,

I hope you enjoy Safe in His Arms as much as I did writing it! There’s a lot of me in Margaret. Growing up, I always felt awkward and unattractive. I was taller than every boy in my class until I was in the seventh grade. I hated my wavy hair and ironed it when I got to high school in the sixties. I wanted blue eyes not brown. My feet were too big, and so were my hips. Sound familiar? :)

Women are indoctrinated from infancy about beauty. We feel we must be superwoman and have it all: beauty, brains, a good work ethic, great with children, a good cook. The list is long, isn’t it? I think it’s particularly hard for women to accept the unconditional love God offers. We are so used to being held to such a high standard—and failing—that we feel we can never measure up.

What a blessing when we realize that we don’t have to. God loves us, warts and all. We are safe in his arms. Safe to tell him our dreams, our fears, our failings. Safe to relax in his uncondi- tional love.

I love hearing from you! E-mail me anytime at colleen@

Love, Colleen


The town of Larson, Texas, was busy on this warm February day. Cowboys in their dusty boots eyed the women attired in their best dresses strolling the boardwalks. Margaret O’Brien strode down the boardwalk in front of the feed store toward the mercantile. Things seemed to change daily with new stores sprouting like winter wheat. It seemed daily more cowmen arrived to Larson, drawn by the lush grazing land and the water in the Red River.

Pa should be around here somewhere. She nodded to the ladies clustered in front of the general store, the familiar discomfort washing over her. Why couldn’t she look like them? No matter how hard Margaret tried, she remained what she was: too tall and more at home with her hands gripping horse reins than a teacup. She ducked into the store and inhaled the aroma of cinnamon, bootstrap, sweat, and pickles. She busied herself with collecting material for their housekeeper, who had a bee in her bonnet about making curtains.

A cluster of women were talking in hushed whispers about the latest Zulu atrocity in Africa. These early months of 1879 had been full of the bloody battles. Hearing such things always made Margaret wince, remembering her brother’s death at the hands of the Sioux. At least a national monument had been established earlier this year in memory of those who fell during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The women fell silent when Margaret paused. “Good morn- ing,” she said in as confident a voice as she could muster. “Anyone know what kind of material to buy for curtains? I thought this was pretty.”

When she held up a lilac-flowered material, one of the women tittered, a tiny blonde Margaret had never seen before. Her face burned, and she put the bolt of fabric back.

“How about this one?” a woman said behind her.

Margaret’s heart leaped at the sound of her friend’s voice, and she whirled with a smile. “Lucy, I didn’t know you were in town today. Should you be riding in a wagon in your condition?”

The blond woman laughed again at Margaret’s indelicate mention of Lucy’s pregnancy. Lucy linked arms with Margaret. “I feel fine. You like this fabric? I think Inez will love it.”

Margaret eyed the red-and-white plaid. “It’s a little . . . loud.”

“Cheerful,” Lucy corrected, smiling. Her head high, she led Margaret out of the group. “Silly twits. Now don’t start moaning about how they don’t like you. They don’t know you.” Lucy shook her head. “And they won’t bother to get to know you if you don’t take a little more care when you come to town.”

Margaret smoothed her hands on her rough skirt. They had come after cattle feed, and she had work to do in the barn when she got home, so she hadn’t bothered to change. She’d nearly put on a nicer dress. “It was too much bother since I had to help load feed.”

“It’s worth it, Margaret.” Lucy glanced at the watch pinned to her dress. “Nate is going to be looking for me.” She hugged Margaret. “I’m so glad I saw you. You’re coming to the party, aren’t you?”

“Sure. I’m not going to dance, but I’ll come keep you company.” Smiling, Margaret watched her friend waddle away. Dear Lucy. She had barreled past Margaret’s prickly exterior, and they’d become fast friends. Lucy was easy to trust. She was all heart.

Margaret had her purchases put on account, then stepped out into the sunshine.

Cattlemen had driven herds of cattle through here more than an hour ago, but the dust and odor still lingered in the air. Her father motioned to her from in front of the stagecoach station. Calvin stood close behind him.

She started toward them, but the man beside him arrested her gaze. He was tall, even taller than her father, which meant he had to be at least six foot three or four inches. She guessed he was in his early thirties. The man’s Stetson was pushed back on his head, revealing shiny brown hair, and his bronzed face was chiseled with planes and angles that spoke of confidence and determination. He cast a lazy grin her way.

Immediately, Margaret’s hackles rose. That kind of self- assurance—arrogance, really—always reminded her of her uncle. She’d had to assert herself strenuously with him around the ranch because he thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen, not in the stockyard. This man was the same type, the sort of man who would demand to be catered to and obeyed. No one who looked that strong and proud would listen to a woman.

She forced a smile. This man was probably nothing like her uncle. But her trepidation slowed her steps. Her father motioned her forward, though, and she reluctantly moved to join them.

Her father put his hand on her shoulder. “Here’s my daughter, Margaret.”

The man’s gaze swept from the top of her head down to the dusty boots just peeking out from underneath her serviceable skirt, and Margaret’s lips tightened. People in Larson were used to her attire, but this man’s eyes widened. He’d probably never seen a woman dressed for ranch work. She wore a man’s chambray shirt, and her red hair hung over her shoulder in a long braid. The bits of cow manure on her skirt and boots didn’t add much to the general picture either. He’d really be shocked if he saw her in her britches when she was helping with the cattle.

She lifted her head and stared him down. His dark eyes betrayed none of his thoughts. She didn’t think she’d ever seen eyes that shade. Like a buckeye nut they were, a rich brown color. Heavy brows accented the strong planes of his face.

Margaret thrust out her hand. “Pleased to meet you. And you are . . . ?”

He could have stared over the top of her head without taking notice of her at all. But he didn’t. He gazed straight into her eyes, and her breath caught in her throat as she felt the magnetic pull of the man.

“Daniel Cutler.” His handshake was firm and as self-confi- dent as his appearance.

Margaret pulled away her hand. “You been in town long, Mr. Cutler?” He’d given his name but not his business here in Larson. Pa seemed almost proprietorial toward him, but she clamped her teeth against the questions clamoring to escape.

“He just got in today,” her father put in eagerly. “He’s our new foreman.”

“New foreman?” Margaret’s heart dipped like a bronco about to arch its back to the sky. “We don’t need a new foreman, Pa. I can handle things by myself. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life proving it.”

Their ranch hand Calvin straightened as well. “That ain’t right, O’Brien. You said if I did a good job, you’d promote me. This shavetail”—he gestured toward Cutler—“ain’t what the ranch needs.”

Her father glared at Calvin. “Get that feed loaded and keep your nose out of my business.” Her father skewered her with an even sterner stare. “Now, Margaret, I told you it’s time you let go of some of these notions about running the ranch by your- self. I’m getting too old to be of much help, and I’d sure like for you to set your mind to finding a husband and giving me some grandchildren.”

Her father’s gaze traveled over Margaret’s apparel, and dis- pleasure shone in his eyes. “Though what man would have you when you make no attempt to look like a woman is another con- cern altogether.”

She had begun to find her composure, but at her father’s words, the blood rushed to her face. They didn’t need to air their disagreements in front of this stranger. Pa had never understood how his words burned her spirit like a brand. She never let on how he hurt her, and she didn’t now. She narrowed her eyes at this stranger who was set to disrupt her life.

Daniel Cutler seemed to be taking it all in with interest, and a small smile played around those firm lips of his. He probably agreed wholeheartedly with her father’s assessment. Like all the rest of the men in her acquaintance, he would be looking for some dainty young thing with a simpering smile and golden curls.

She tossed her head and glared at him. His smile faltered, and she felt a stab of satisfaction. “I’m sorry you’ve come all this way for nothing,” she told him. “But we really don’t need a foreman. Not you and not Calvin.”

“The thing’s done,” her father said. “Toss your belongings into our wagon, Daniel. We’ll head back to the ranch as soon as we get this feed loaded.”

She caught her breath at her father’s blatant dismissal. “Pa . . .”

He held up his hand. “Enough, Margaret. Daniel is here. Zip your tongue and help get the wagon loaded.”

She would not cry. Biting her lip, she walked to the back of the wagon.

Daniel threw his satchel into the wagon. He didn’t wait to be asked but went to the pile of feed sacks and began loading them. His muscular arms handled the heavy bags with ease. For a moment Margaret stared at the muscles in his back as they rip- pled beneath his shirt. In spite of her dislike of the man, he was a fine specimen of masculinity. Other women strolling by paused and cast surreptitious glances his way. Glances he seemed not to notice.

She helped load the sacks, but he threw the heavy bags into the back twice as quickly, with not even a labored breath. She bristled at his strength. He was probably trying to show her up in front of her father. She’d teach him she didn’t need his help—not for loading feed and not for running the ranch.

She and Daniel worked side by side for several minutes until all she could smell was burlap. Daniel tossed the last of the feed into the wagon and turned to her with a grin. “What now, Boss?”

Boss. The way he said the word with a hint of mockery made her grimace. Just as she opened her mouth to put him in his place, shots rang out down the street. Five men, their revolvers blasting at anything that moved, rushed out of the bank and mounted their horses. The horses came thundering toward Margaret.

“Get down!” Daniel tackled her to the dusty ground.

The breath puffed out of her as he fell on top of her. She strug- gled to free herself, but his strong body kept her pinned beneath him. She could smell the clean scent of soap underneath the scent of his skin. Never in her life had she felt so helpless and dependent. And protected. The word whispered through her brain with a gentle allure. 

Colleen Coble  
posted at 9:00 PM  
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Friday, January 18, 2013

The following people have won a signed copy of "Secretly Smitten"! If you're on this list, send your address to Congrats!

Shandra Hathaway
Rhonda (the one who posted on Monday--Colleen's chapter)

Denise Hunter  
posted at 10:46 AM  
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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Leave a comment to be entered to win a signed copy of secretly smitten! 

4 winners announced Friday.

Love Blooms
Denise Hunter

Chapter One

Clare Thomas smoothed out the hardwood mulch, spreading it under the newly planted hostas. Partridgeberry now carpeted her mother’s flower bed with green, but soon it would bloom with fragrant white flowers, and its red fruit would add a splash of color come fall.
The realization that it looked ten times better than it had three hours ago soothed her wounded spirits.
Anna Thomas dumped the last load of mulch from the wheelbarrow. “That should do it.” She blew her long bangs from her face, picked up the shovel, and spread the load with the vigor of someone half her age.
“It looks beautiful, girls.” Clare’s sister Tess set a tray of iced lemonade on the porch table. Her blue eyes were lit with a joy that only comes from new love.
Not that Clare knew anything about that.
“Thank goodness we’re almost done.” Her younger sister, Zoe, pulled off her pink garden gloves and appraised the sky. “Looks like it’s about to rain.”
Clare breathed in the scent of loamy dirt and rain, hoping the organic fragrance would relieve her unrest. “Smells like it too.”
“God’s going to water my new plants,” Anna said. “Isn’t he thoughtful?”
Oh, yeah, all was coming up roses now that everyone was in love. Everyone but her. Clare chided herself for the selfish thought. She was happy for her sisters, thrilled for her mom. Still, they all had romance and candlelit dinners and kisses, and she had . . .
She set down the rake and frowned at the garden. This isn’t the way she’d imagined it. She was almost thirty, for pity’s sake. Where were her husband, her two-point-five children, her devoted golden retriever? Okay, so she had the dog part covered, but still.
She hadn’t even found love, much less a husband. Somehow her looming birthday hadn’t seemed so terrible when she’d had a relationship in the works. Now there was a countdown clock ticking toward an unavoidable deadline. Was she headed toward an Aunt Violet/Aunt Petunia future?
Her mom nudged her. “What’s wrong, Miss Perfectionist? Did you miss a wilted leaf?”
Clare began gathering the empty plant containers. “I was thinking about Aunt Violet.” Sort of true. “I wonder if she and Grandma Rose are getting along.” Gardening enthusiasts, the two older women helped out at the nursery during the busy spring and summer, mostly giving advice to customers.
“I hope they’re not at each other’s throats,” Anna said. “I shouldn’t have pulled you away.”
“Hopefully they’re too busy to argue. Besides, I needed a break from all the tension.” Clare intended to sit them down tomorrow and talk some sense into them. Their argument over Grandma’s old beau, who had also been her sister Violet’s secret crush, was getting old.
“Some break.” Tess sipped her lemonade. “I hope Mr. Lewis finally gets you some help. You about worked yourself into the ground last year, literally.”
“I forgot to tell you,” Clare said after downing half the lemonade. “He said I could hire someone. I put up some notices around town. Just hope I can find time for the interviews and such. Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and after that it’s a zoo.”
Zoe sat next to Tess on the porch step. “Speaking of Memorial Day, can you ask Josh to bring his camping chairs?”
“Uh . . . Josh won’t be coming.” Clare dumped the containers in the trash bin, mentally dumping the remnants of any feelings she’d had toward Josh. The memory of their date two nights ago still left a sour taste in her mouth.
“Tell me you didn’t break up with him,” Zoe said.
She supposed she deserved that. “He did, actually.” She eyed Zoe just as her sister opened her mouth. “And no, I do not need your help. That’s how I got into this mess to begin with, if you recall.”
Zoe’s lips puckered in a rosy pout.
“Oh, no,” Anna said. “What happened, honey?”
Clare shrugged. “Nothing, Mom, really. We’re just too different, I guess. No chemistry, no spark.” No interest, especially on his part.
“Oh, rats,” Tess said. “I thought you liked him.”
Their breakup, if you could call it that, had nothing to do with the fact that he’d called her boring. Just remembering it made heat flood to the back of her neck where her hair was gathered in a loose braid. She couldn’t believe Josh Campbell, Mr. President of the high school chess team, had the nerve to call her boring.
Okay, so he hadn’t used that exact word, but she could read between the lines. She’d been raised in a female household. Reading between the lines was necessary for survival.
So she liked her routines. So she liked to look before she leaped. That was just smart, sensible. Not boring, Josh Campbell. You should learn the difference.
Clare rolled the wheelbarrow up the board and into the truck bed, then checked her watch.
“Uh-oh. She’s going to be late for her tea run,” Tess said.
“Better hurry, Clare,” Zoe said. “Nat will faint dead away if you fail to appear at 7:17 on the dot.”
Clare frowned at her sisters. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, honey, they’re only teasing,” Anna said.
“We like that you’re predictable,” Tess said.
“I’m not predictable.”
Zoe grinned and flipped her dark hair from her eyes. “Please. There’s a picture of you by the word on Wikipedia. I just saw it yesterday.”
“I go to the coffee shop at 7:17 because I get off work at 7:00. Besides, there’s no line then. It just makes sense.”
“And we love that you’re so sensible, dear.” Her mom rubbed Clare’s rigid shoulders, but it failed to calm her. “It’s a very comforting quality in a world of constant change.”
Zoe stood, brushing off her jeans. “I have to run too. William’s coming over in a bit, and I need to de-grime.” She looked down at her hands. “So much for my manicure.”
Clare shut the tailgate with more force than necessary, then turned to say good-bye.
“You’re not mad, are you?” Tess asked, giving her the hand tools she’d gathered.
Clare stashed them in the pockets of her handy-dandy coveralls. “I’m just touchy today. No worries.”
Her mom thanked her with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“See you later,” Zoe called as Clare pulled from the drive.
The first droplets of rain hit the windshield when she pulled onto Lookaway Lane. Within seconds the slow, fat drops turned into a hard, heavy downpour. She turned on her wipers, her sisters’ words ringing in her ears, louder than the pattering on her roof.
She wasn’t boring. Or predictable. Well, maybe a little predictable, but that didn’t make her boring.
Did it?
Man bored to death by girlfriend. News at eleven.
She squashed the thought, though the mood persisted as she entered town. Tourists huddled under colorful canopies, waiting for the storm to pass. Judging by the gray abyss above, that wouldn’t be any time soon.
She parked in a parallel spot on Main Street and dashed in for her warm tea. Her cousin Natalie had it ready, and Clare was back out the door in sixty seconds flat. See? No line, no waiting. Sensible.
She put the truck in gear and headed toward the nursery. It was closed, but her own shed was full, and she couldn’t let the tools sit in the rain all night.
When she passed the Wind Chill Creamery, her mind returned to Saturday night. Josh had ordered two medium razmataz cones.
“Oh, make mine vanilla,” she’d told Bethany Hopkins, who was looking frazzled on their first open night of the season.
“You don’t like razmataz?” Josh asked.
Truth be told, she’d never tried the multicolored fruit-flavored ice cream. She shrugged. “I just prefer vanilla.”
The other comments had come three licks into her cone, and the night had only gone downhill from there.
So she liked vanilla. That didn’t make her boring. Maybe it was the whole sensible thing that made her come off as boring. Now that she thought about it, she recalled Josh saying something about taking a chance once in a while. He probably thought she wasn’t spontaneous enough.
Her sisters obviously agreed. Maybe she was stuck in a rut. Well, she could be spontaneous if she wanted to be, take a chance now and again.
And she would. She nodded her head once, confirming the promise. That’s what she’d do. Her next decision—completely and utterly spontaneous. No weighing it out, no pondering for days, and above all, no safe choice. It would be good for her. Healthy. And she’d be sure to let her sisters and Josh know about it. Not that she had anything to prove.
She turned onto the rutted shady lane, passing the old wooden sign that read The Red Barn Nursery and Greenhouse, Since 1973. Clare had started working there as a cashier during her high school summers and had learned everything there was to know about growing healthy trees and plants. When she graduated, Mr. Lewis, wanting to cut back his own hours, hired her full time as manager.
Last year she’d talked him into staying open year ’round. With the added tourists, she thought it was a feasible plan. They’d offered holiday plants and decorations, and Clare had started growing tropicals in the greenhouse. They’d made a nice profit selling them to the local flower shop, but the gift shop hadn’t done as well as they’d have liked. Sure would’ve been nice if Smitten had gotten the train contract. She didn’t want to go back to finding winter work.
The sun was long gone by the time Clare crested the hill, the night pressing in through the woods. She passed the deserted barn with all the artistically arranged potted trees and bushes and rounded the corner, pulling up to the old lopsided shed.
Thunder roared and rain pelted her as she dashed from the truck and lowered the tailgate. She guided the wheelbarrow down the plank and hurried toward the shed. The door opened with a loud squeak, and she pushed it inside.
A movement against the far wall caught her eye. The sight of a man hunkering in the shadows made her jump. Even in the dim light, she could see he was big. And hairy.
She grabbed for a tool and came up with the rake. Her heart thudded as loudly as the rain on the roof. “Who’s there?”
The stranger stood slowly, unruffled.
She’d been right. He was every bit of six foot three and broad as a boxwood hedge. He remained by the wall, his body seemingly on full alert.
Clare raised the tool over her head. She wished she weren’t alone, wished she’d taken the time to lock up earlier, wished she were holding something more substantial than a rake.
“I said, who’s there?” She heard the fear in her voice and knew he did too.
Thunder cracked.
Hairy Man stared back. “Name’s Ethan Foster. Just taking shelter till the storm passes.” His voice was deep as a country well. He nodded his chin toward the corner.
Her eyes darted to a motorcycle parked against the wall, then back to him. He had longish dark hair and a face that hadn’t seen a razor in weeks.
Without taking her eyes from him, she reached for the string on the naked bulb. Sixty watts flooded the dank space. He was a little older than she’d first thought. Not some kid, but a man of thirty-three, thirty-five. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans that had seen better days.
She gripped the rake. The nursery was well off the road, not the most convenient place to seek shelter. “What are you doing all the way back here?”
Dark eyes stared back, calm and knowing. “Sorry I scared you. Looking for Thomas.”
It was her last name, but all the better if he thought there was a man on the premises.
“About . . .”
He shifted. “A job.”
Her heart started to settle to a dull throb. He seemed less threatening now that the light was on. She wasn’t sure why; he hadn’t shrunk. Maybe it was his gentle eyes.
She lowered the rake a smidge, loosened her grip. “I don’t charge by the word, you know.”
“Heard he was hiring. What is this place anyway?”
She knew he wasn’t referring to the nursery. “Smitten is a honeymoon destination . . . home of country star Sawyer Smitten . . . Haven’t you heard of it?” After Sawyer’s wedding the year before, she didn’t think there was a soul left in the country who didn’t know about their little town.
“Not from the area. Thomas around? I could really use the work, and I heard he was hiring.”
“We’re closed for the night.” She looked at his motorcycle. There was a big bundle on the back. Was he a drifter? Homeless? One thing was sure, Mr. Lewis would have her head if she let him bunk here tonight.
“You can’t stay here.”
“When will he be back?”
She sighed, lowered the rake to the ground, keeping hold of it—just in case—and stuck out a hand. “Clare Thomas.”
His eyes flickered with comprehension. He reached across the space and wrapped his hand around hers. It was warm despite the spring chill. He squeezed her hand before releasing it. She missed the warmth immediately.
Great. Now she was going to have to turn him down. The rain let up, ushering in sudden silence.
“I’m a hard worker, good with my hands.” He looked away as a flush crawled up his neck. A moment later he found her eyes again. “Good with plants. And I’m a fast learner.”
Clare pushed her wet hair from her face, not letting go of the rake just yet. “Listen, I don’t think this is going to work out.”
“I have references.”
From people she didn’t know. “I don’t think so. Sorry.” Someone else would apply soon. She wasn’t desperate enough to hire a stranger. A big, tall, hairy stranger.
“I’ll work a day for free. Give me a chance.”
Chance. She thought again about Josh and vanilla ice cream. About the vow she’d made only moments before to make her next decision spontaneously.
She looked him over, instantly regretting the promise. This wasn’t a matter of her blue blouse versus the white one. She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Two days free.”
She swallowed hard. Stupid economy. “It’s temporary. Probably only through July.”
“Suits me fine.”
“It doesn’t pay much.”
“Didn’t expect it would.”
Of course he didn’t. Her pulse sped, not liking this spontaneity thing one bit.
I don’t like it either, heart.
It felt wholly unnatural. Like when your food comes up instead of going down.
“Tomorrow then?” he asked.
She stared at him, searching for a reason, any reason, to say no. Something besides his too-deep voice, his all-seeing eyes, and the memory of his warm hand.
But she came up empty, and he was waiting. “All right.”
His lips lifted in something just short of a smile. “All right.”
She cleared a space as he walked his bike past her, out the door, onto the wet gravel. He straddled the seat and started the engine.
She wondered where he was going. Night had fallen, and Timber Lake Lodge was likely full. She doubted he could afford it anyway. Carson’s cabins were no cheaper, and besides, she couldn’t picture the man under a down duvet or in a heart-shaped tub . . .
“What time?” he asked.
She stared at him blankly. “What?”
“In the morning.”
She crossed her arms against the chill. “Oh. Eight, I guess.”
He nodded once and let off the clutch, then sped down the dark gravel drive.
Well, Clare, there goes your spontaneous decision. I hope you don’t live to regret it.

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Denise Hunter  
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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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Knit One, Love TwoBy Diann Hunt

Chapter One

The Sit ’n Knit was Anna Thomas’s world. Her definition of family had widened to embrace the women who came into her yarn shop—especially the regulars.
Some days that was enough.
Anna inhaled the scent of coffee that always perked on the counter behind her. She tore open her UPS package—a high-grade merino-nylon blend of yarn—and smiled. Warm and versatile, the yarn was a great choice for sock knitting. Some people grabbed cheap yarns off the shelf of a department store with no idea of the difference quality yarn could make in a project. She looked around her shop at the bins filled with colored textiles, some bulky, some intricate and thin for lace projects, and gave a contented sigh. She offered quality—and a piece of herself—with every sale. The women in her shop, there for the lesson on picking up stitches, milled around, commenting to one another on their projects, laughing together. Anna’s business also offered a place where women could encourage one another in their creativity and with life in general. Who could ask for more?
The bell on the shop door jangled as someone stepped inside. Anna gathered her ball of cotton yarn, knitting needles, and half-finished peach-colored dishcloth, then bent over and tossed them into the bulging bag where she kept her current projects. She stood upright and stretched a bit. It was then she spotted a man of about fifty. He had a firm, strong jaw; a trim, fit body; and salt-and-pepper hair that looked good on him. His smile was warm and welcoming, and his blue eyes sparkled.
He looked familiar. The lopsided grin on his face told her he knew she was trying to place him. Her heart gave a funny leap as he walked toward her and stretched out his hand. “Michael Conners,” he said. “That’s my mom, Emma.” He pointed her way.
His hand was strong and warm. It shamed Anna that she didn’t want to let go.
“Oh, Emma is one of my best customers. A lovely lady.” She’d spoken of her newly-retired-from-the-Marines son often and fondly. “Nice to meet you. I’m Anna Thomas.”
“Yes, I know.” He paused. “We’re neighbors.” There was a teasing glint in his eyes that caught her a little off guard.
“Oh, so that’s where I’ve seen you. Sorry, I—”
He raised his hand. “No need to apologize. I’ve only lived there about six months. Came back to Smitten to help Mom.”
Emma had cancer. Her body grew more fragile with every passing day, but she still managed to come to the Sit ’n Knit. When Michael looked away, Anna studied him. It was noble of him to come to his mother’s side. Still, Anna would be careful. Clearly, he didn’t plan to settle down in Smitten. Not that she wanted him to. So why was her hand still tingling?
She nodded, trying to calm the unsettled feeling in her stomach.
“Well, good to see you.” He walked over to his mom. Anna watched his every step, her heart pounding as though she’d been running. What was the matter with her?
When the knitting class was over, the ladies spilled into the other rooms, pouring cups of coffee from the brewing pot, browsing through knitting books, touching cashmere yarns. Anna walked around the chairs and scooped up yarn debris, then dropped it into the trash can. Arms elbow-deep into the sofa, then the chair cushions, she dug around for lost hooks and needles. Her efforts were always rewarded. She found several crochet hooks and threw them into a large plastic container with other strays.
Michael, who had suddenly appeared beside her, winced.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“Would you like a rubber band for those hooks? That would keep them all together so you wouldn’t have to dig around for them.”
“I—well, uh, yeah, I guess.” Embarrassment warmed her cheeks. Did he think her incompetent?
Michael walked over to her counter, picked up a rubber band, then playfully stretched it in front of him, acting as though he would snap her with it. She smiled in spite of herself.
He picked the hooks up one by one from the container in her hand, bunched them together in a single bouquet, wrapped the rubber band tightly around it, and offered it to Anna with a slight bow. “For you, ma’am.”
Was that supposed to make her feel better? Was he hitting on her? Did this work with other women? Was that what they taught him in the military? Please. Her husband had been a military man. She wasn’t going back there.
“Thanks,” she said, tossing the bundled hooks back into the container and snapping it shut. She forced a grin, then picked up her load.
“Can I help you carry that?” Michael asked.
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” She was a woman, not a weakling. Her feet moved faster than the rest of her, and she nearly lost her balance. What was wrong with her? She turned for one last glance at Michael and saw him helping his mother out of the shop.
Once inside the sanctity of her office, Anna closed the door and tried to calm her pounding heart. She couldn’t imagine why Michael had unnerved her so. Maybe because he was a man of uniform—or had been. She’d been there, done that.
When she regained her composure, she went back into the store and walked over to Sally Sanderson. Sally was one of Anna’s dearest customers and friends. “I’m going to the bakery, Sally. I’ll be right back. Will you watch the shop?”
“Will do,” the older woman said.
Anna would rather walk down to Mountain Perks, say hello to her niece Natalie, and grab a mocha, but she thought her customers might enjoy some cookies.
After a quick trip to the bakery, Anna stepped back inside the Sit ’n Knit, brushed the snow from her shoulders, and pulled off her coat. “I’m back.” She hung her coat on the wooden rack, then walked over to the group of knitters sitting in the circle, needles clacking away. She waved her bag through the air. “I got some cookies from next door.”
Ooos and ahhs followed.
“You’re too good to us,” Sally said. “But I like it.” Her needles paused long enough for her to pluck a cookie from the bag. “Mm, they’re still warm.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Anna said, straightening her checkout station. “It’s getting colder outside. Wind gusts up to thirty miles an hour.”
“Brrr,” Debbie Matney said with a shiver. “That’s why I love being in here where it’s warm, knitting with my favorite people.”
The others nodded while munching on their cookies.
Anna smiled and counted herself blessed. How many people could say they had a job they could hardly wait to get to in the mornings? When Joe left her ten years ago, she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to smile again, let alone own a business. But with the encouragement of her girls, she’d invested her divorce settlement money into her dream business: a yarn shop where women of the Smitten community could gather to craft, create, and share life. Anna loved the feel of the yarn between her fingers. It gave her pleasure when a customer brought in a finished masterpiece: a sweater, a hat, a blanket. She rejoiced in their creation. When a customer brought in a project gone bad, Anna enjoyed that too. She loved helping them get their stitches back on track, bringing hope to the project.
It had occurred to Anna more than once that God did the same for her when she got off track . . .
The bell on the door jangled. Zoe, Anna’s youngest, stepped inside, stomped her feet on the mat, and walked toward her mother. “It’s freezing outside.”
“I’ve got some cookies and hot chocolate or coffee, if you have a minute,” Anna said.
“No thanks, Mom. I just wanted to pick up another skein of yarn. I underestimated what I would need for Will’s sweater.”
“Hi, Zoe,” the ladies called out.
“Hello, everyone.” She bent down to look at Sally’s knitting. “Beautiful scarf.”
“Thanks, sweetie,” Sally said, winding her yarn around the needles.
Anna couldn’t be happier that God had brought William Singer into Zoe’s life. He was a wonderful young man. The future looked bright for her youngest daughter.
“Let me see. What dye lot have you got there?” Anna took the wrapper from Zoe and matched it with the wool blends in the appropriate wooden bin. “You lucked out. One such animal left.” She waved the coveted skein and walked it over to the cash register.
“I love this stuff. It’s so soft. It will make a nice sweater. I’m getting Will ready for his first Vermont winter.” She leaned in to her mom and whispered, “Hopefully the first of many.”
“How’s the dating business coming along?” Sally asked.
“It’s a little slow, but I believe it will catch on,” Zoe said.
“I still say you need to find romance through the normal course of life. You can’t force these things,” Anna said, ringing up Zoe’s purchase. She tucked it into a pretty bag and closed it with a raffia bow.
“I don’t force things at Cupid’s Arrow, Mom. People have to fill out information. No one makes them date anyone they don’t want to date.” Zoe shook her head and smiled at Sally.
“This world, she is a changin’,” said a woman named Betty. “What with the Internet and all, people are finding each other who never would have the chance otherwise.”
“Exactly.” Zoe grabbed a cookie after all and nibbled at it. “I just want to spread a little love in Smitten.”
Anna poured a cup of hot chocolate and held it out to Zoe.
“Oh, I really don’t have time. But how about I take it with me? Thanks, Mom.” She pulled on the blue woolen scarf, mittens, and hat that her mom had made her last Christmas. “See you, ladies.” Drink in one hand, handbag and purchase dangling from her other arm while she held onto her cookie, Zoe kissed her mother’s cheek and sped out the door.
“Kids, they never have time these days to sit and smell the roses.” Anna shook her head and threw away a customer’s forgotten receipt.
“You still doing Sunday afternoon meals with your girls?” Sally asked.
“Yes, thankfully. I love those days.”
“You’re lucky to have them. Most kids don’t even live around their families anymore. We live in a mobile society.”
“So true,” Anna said, feeling sorry she had complained. Sally’s boys lived in another state.
Anna didn’t know what she would do without her girls, her mom, and her aunties. She loved how they took turns hosting Sunday dinners, the hubbub of family, the chaos and the peace, all of it. She prayed it would never change.
The doorbell jangled again. Anna looked up, and her heart caught in her throat. She couldn’t imagine what Michael Conners would be doing back at her yarn shop.
“Well, well, we meet again.”
All smiles and brawn. Mr. Confidence himself.
“Michael Conners. Back so soon?” Anna gazed around her station to make sure it looked tidy.
“Yeah, but not for long. I’m headed to Sugarcreek Ski Resort.”
“Oh, yes, your mom mentioned you worked there part-time.”
“I do, but I’m off today. Just want to get in a little skiing.”
“I see.” Anna knew very little about skiing, so she didn’t comment. “So do you knit?”
His laughter rattled the windows.
“The boys back on the base would have a good laugh over the thought of me knitting.”
“Some men do,” she said, her tone a little sharper than she’d intended.
“Some men. Not me.” He lifted his calloused palms. “See these hands? They were built for man’s work. I’ll leave the knitting to you women.” He looked toward the circle of women and winked, and they all smiled.
A fire kindled in Anna’s belly. “Are you implying a man can’t be manly and knit?”
He shrugged. “To each his own, I guess. Just don’t expect you’ll ever see me doing it.”
The fire in her belly grew. Did he think it would be beneath his dignity to knit? That these women were frivolous time-wasters to do such a thing?
“Then what brings you here?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest and tapping her foot.
“Mom wanted some new yarn, and she forgot to get it when she was here.” He gave her a smile. “Knitting here with the ladies seems to calm her. I have you to thank for that.”
The words humbled Anna. If she could play a small part in encouraging Mrs. Conners, she was privileged to do so.
Suddenly the deafening sound of needles gone quiet filled the air. Anna looked at the circle of knitters, and they were all staring at her.
She ignored them. Well, she tried to anyway. “What is your mother making?” Anna said in her most professional voice.
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know how much yarn to get?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know what type of yarn she wants?”
“The fuzzy kind?” He grinned. When she didn’t smile back, he cleared his throat. “I thought you would tell me all that.”
“Well, I can hardly do that if I don’t know what she’s making.”
“She finished those tricky slippers she was working on this week,” Sally interjected. “Why don’t you give him some of those pretty new cotton shades that you have for making dishcloths? That would give her something easy to work on for a change.”
There was a definite twinkle in her friend’s eye as she spoke. A twinkle that Anna didn’t like one little bit.
“That’s a good idea.” With her chin hiked, Anna walked over to the cotton bin and showed Michael the different colors. She refused to look up at him, but she felt sure he was watching her and not the yarn.
“Yes, these will work,” he said, plucking a couple of skeins out of the bin without so much as a second glance.
Did he have any idea the work that went into making these yarns? Did he touch them to get a feel for them? Consider the perfect color? Of course not. What was he doing here anyway?
He tossed the skeins of durable worsted weight yarn in the air and began to juggle them. Anna glanced at the women in the circle, and their hands were still quiet. He had them mesmerized. She wanted to bop every single one of them—or at the very least take back her cookies.
She rang up the yarn and announced the price.
His eyes widened. “Wow. Yarn doesn’t come cheap.”
“You get what you pay for, Mr. Conners,” she said.
“Please, call me Michael.”
The way he said that made her guard drop a little. She put his purchase into a pretty bag and took great delight in winding the raffia into an especially elegant, feminine bow. He rewarded her with a frown.
“Thank you. I’m sure Mom will enjoy this.” He turned to the group and tipped his head. “Ladies.” With that he headed out the door, pretty little package dangling softly from his big, manly-man hands.
Anna covered her mouth to stop the giggles until the door closed, then let her laughter out.
“Why did you do that?” Debbie asked.
“Well, you weren’t exactly friendly,” Sally piped up.
“That man just irritates me.”
“Or not,” Sally said.
Her words boiled in Anna’s midsection. “He’s just so full of himself.” She busied herself straightening some of the bins. When she got to the cotton bin, she noticed it was already straightened. “Well, of all the nerve.”
“What is it?” Beth wanted to know.
“He straightened this bin.”
“Wow. Gorgeous, and he cleans too? Grab him.” One look at Anna, and Sally’s smile left her face. Without another word she swept her needles into full running motion.
Michael Conners may have these women fooled, but he didn’t fool Anna. She knew his type all too well.
“Not the friendliest sort around,” Michael said in answer to his mother’s question.
“Don’t be too hard on her, dear. She’s been through a lot. Her husband up and left her awhile ago. Her three grown daughters all live in town, thankfully. They’re a fine family.” Emma Conners’s soft, age-spotted hand patted Michael’s hand the way she had when he was a boy.
“Now don’t you go getting any ideas,” Michael said. “I’m just fine living on my own.” Though he had to admit, the spark in Anna’s gray eyes and melting smile made this woman a definite consideration.
“Sure you are.” Another pat. “That’s what all men think. But we women know better.” This time she squeezed his palm lightly, and Michael laughed.
With his mother settled in her room at the Smitten Assisted Living Center, Michael stopped by the church to see if they needed help with the set for the Christmas program. Pastor Walden assured him they had plenty of helpers, so he headed on to the ski slopes. The snow was sticking to the ground and seemed to be heavy enough to pack. Good news for the slopes.
He the wipers on to brush away the falling snow. Try as he might, he couldn’t get over Anna Thomas’s reaction to him. Not rude exactly, but he obviously had irritated her. He couldn’t imagine why. Maybe his presence intimidated her for some reason.
Not that it mattered. He was in Smitten to help his mom. Period. He had no intention of getting involved with a woman. Once his mom was gone, there was still more of the world he wanted to see, and he couldn’t do that holed up in a small town.
The turn signal clicked off time while Michael waited for a car to pass, then he maneuvered his car into the Sugarcreek parking lot.
He shook off his mental ramblings. This was going to be a good day. He hefted his skis from the backseat. A very good day indeed.

Diann Hunt  
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

by Kristin Billerbeck

Zoe Thomas perched herself atop the metal ladder and straightened the wooden sign that read Cupid’s Arrow Matchmaking Services. She looked down at her older sister, who stood on Main Street’s brick walkway. “Better?”

“A little higher on the right,” Clare called up. Zoe wondered if it would ever be straight according to Clare’s exacting standards.

She pressed upward and peered down again to the brick sidewalk. “Now?”
“Perfect,” Clare confirmed.

Zoe breathed a sigh of relief, amazed that Clare hadn’t produced a level from the overalls she wore. Clare could survive in the woods for an eternity with all that came out of those gardener pockets of hers. Zoe jumped from the ladder and brushed her hands together. Seeing the hand-painted calligraphy announcing her business made everything so real.

“Can’t you just feel the love? Imagine Smitten being bit- ten by its own love bug. And Nat’s marriage to Carson was the perfect kickoff to my new business.” Zoe’s heart filled with possibilities, seeing the fruits of her labor. The tired storefront looked fresh and inviting with its newly painted, wood-paned windows and a gold-framed “services offered” announcement. She’d draped two small crystal chandeliers in jewel tones to bring attention to the services menu, and with a little specialized lighting, the display would emanate romance.

Clare grimaced. “This is still Smitten. If the men here have been bitten by anything, it’s something closer to a mosquito carrying malaria.”

Zoe’s shoulders slumped. Poor Clare, never looking for the spontaneous. “Life is too short to be so serious, Clare. We can’t exactly claim to be the romance capital if we don’t believe our own slogan. Romance should start here; we shouldn’t simply import it.” She blew her bangs off her glis- tening forehead. “It’s hot already today. I’m glad we started so early.”

Clare wouldn’t allow her to change the subject. “The point is, Smitten is a romantic destination. The couples bring the love with them. We just warm the embers of the fire they’ve already built. I’m worried, Zoe. You could lose every- thing with this.”

“We have plenty of single men and women in Smitten. Why shouldn’t we start a spark of our own? Remember that song we sang at church camp?” She struck a pose and started to sing. “It only takes a spark to get a fire going . . .”

“Fire, and a bit of dynamite might get things going.” Clare’s ponytail bobbed as she spoke, which was a lot of pas- sion coming from her serious older sister.

“Now you’re just being surly.” Zoe knew Clare’s words came from a deep need for security. In Clare’s mind, one didn’t just willy-nilly up and decide to start a business. It took expertise like Clare possessed in gardening, and then accountants with ten-year forecasts for the math skills the sisters hadn’t mastered. “If I lose everything, I’ll let you be the first to say ‘I told you so.’ How’s that?”

“I’m only saying”—Clare spoke in her soft, motherly tone—“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I’m worried about you. You’ve worked so hard for what little you have. Why not forget all this and go to college? Smitten will be here when you get back.”

Zoe waited out the recycled warnings. Advice that had already come from her cousin Natalie, from her mother, and from most everyone in town that she’d ever been straight with in her long history of not being able to keep her opinion to herself. People had a nasty way of enjoying telling her their predictions of imminent failure, which only made her want to succeed more. Not to prove them wrong, but because she believed so strongly in what she was doing.

“Not everyone has a big family like we do, Clare. People are lonely. I see it every day when I deliver dinner to the shut-ins. Human contact is what makes life worth living. If I can make that happen for one person, it will be worth it. Okay, I guess it would be two people . . .”

Clare rubbed her head as if the conversation gave her a migraine.

“Smitten needs a matchmaker. Dating in a small town is never a secret, so folks keep to themselves rather than risk public humiliation on a relationship that might fail. This way it’s my failure, and no one is the wiser. Do you see?”

“Not really, but somehow the Lord always looks out for you. I’m going to pray this time He works extra hard.”

“We have different ideas of success, Clare. If all it takes for people to be less lonely is a little initiative on my part, that’s worth my time and money. Don’t you think? The failure is in ignoring my calling.”

“Everyone in town already knows each other,” Clare protested.

“That’s true, but with the neighboring towns, the seasonal employees, and even with the locals, they need encouragement. They need a chance to get to know one another without the pressure of everyone knowing their business. Maybe they think that love is not in the cards for them, but it’s actually right in front of them if they’ll only take this small risk.”

“And pay the small membership fee.” Clare shook her head. “Zoe, I love how you care for people. I really do. I’m only worried there’s no money in this as a business. Your heart is so huge that you never think of details like cash flow. Trust me, it matters.” Clare ran a seasonal plant nursery, and she worried each winter that this was the year she wouldn’t make it to spring. “I know you’re good at discerning people who might belong together, but does that mean there’s a business in it?” 

“Maybe they won’t pay,” Zoe said. “I’ll make you a deal. If I haven’t turned a profit within the year, I’ll apply for college next fall.” She regretted her words the minute they tumbled out of her mouth, but it only meant Cupid’s Arrow had to work.

Clare exhaled audibly. “All right, Zoe. I don’t understand it. I never have understood that romantic view of life you’ve got, but if this is what you want, I’ve got no choice but to support you.”

Zoe had heard that her whole life, about her romantic dreams and magical, dreamy way of thinking.
Why didn’t you go to college, Zoe? Smartest girl in town, but you’ve got no ambition.
There’s an entire world outside of Smitten if you’d only go search it out. But she wasn’t as starry-eyed as everyone thought. She simply had no interest in a world bigger than Smitten. She had everything she needed right here: good friends, people she loved and cared about deeply, a ministry with the town’s senior citizens. Now that she’d started her own business, her family should finally feel the same way.

The screech of metal punctuated by an awkward clank seized their attention. Zoe rushed to the wobbly ladder and caught it right before it hit her storefront window. She braced the ladder against the clapboard wall and pressed her back against it to hold everything steady, but a spray of nails rained down around her. She glared at the stranger who had mistakenly walked into the obstacle, and tried to make sense of what just happened.

The first thing she noticed was his eyes. They were a color she’d never seen before, a watery mix of gray, blue, and green—like a rare marble she might have fought over as a child. Against the man’s tan skin, their intensity was heightened. She searched for something rational to say, but kept getting lost in his gaze, which was like a mystery she needed to solve. She finally snapped out of her dreamy state and realized that he was bleeding.

“I’ll call you back.” The man, dressed in a fancy dark city suit with a look-at-me sheen, pressed at his ear, and she assumed that he was disconnecting from some type of inner- ear Borg device. He took her hands into his own. “Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

He dropped one of her hands and touched her hair—a touch she felt to her toes. He showed her a long silver nail that he’d removed from her hair and smiled in a way that felt so intimate she clutched the collar of her T-shirt to protect herself.

“You’ve got a small cut,” she managed. “C-come in the back, and I’ll clean it up.”

He rubbed his right temple where he’d run into the ladder. She could see the red mark developing. Selfishly she worried she’d have her first lawsuit before she opened the doors for business, but she quelled the thought.

The mystery man pulled a handkerchief from his suit jacket and dabbed the side of his head. “I’ll be fine. I’m not sure how I missed that ladder.”

She looked at the rusted ladder and pondered the same thing, but she didn’t want to say anything to incriminate herself further.

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but it’s against city policy to obstruct the sidewalk during business hours without a permit. Do you have a permit?”

“I . . . uh, what?”

“A permit. You can obtain them at city hall. Soon you’ll be able to download an application off the Internet, but you need to give me at least a month for that.”

“And who are you exactly?” She pressed herself farther back against the ladder in a pathetic attempt to hide it. “What I mean is, how would you know what’s illegal in Smitten? I’ve never seen you before.”

He raised a brow. “I’m the new city manager. It’s my job to know the city codes—and to see that they’re implemented.”

Zoe shook her head in disbelief that a complete stranger was telling her about Smitten. “I’ve been in this town my whole life. We don’t have a city manager.” She looked to her sister for backup, but Clare just shrugged as if none of it concerned her.

“The town board hired me. With all the recent successes after Sawyer Smitten’s wedding, this has become a real destination spot. That requires more management than your select persons can handle, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, I’m afraid too.”

“You’ve heard we’ve been in contact with RailAmerica to get the railroad to come back to Smitten.” He felt his temple, then looked at the tips of his fingers, tinged by his own blood.

“Naturally.” Zoe loathed his know-it-all tone, as if she were some kind of weekender to be patted on the head and sent home with a bottle of maple syrup.

“Dealing with the railroad will be one of my primary duties, but safety is priority one. A ladder on the sidewalk of Main Street in the middle of high season is a genuine haz- ard. I’m glad it was me who walked into it and not an elderly tourist. It’s going to take cash to get that railroad here, and a lawsuit is something we can’t afford.”

Zoe tried to see things from his perspective, but the way he acted, as if he cared more about Smitten than she did, made her want to tell him that elderly people paid attention to where they were going. When she didn’t answer, he kept talking.

“With these uneven bricks, a ladder on Main Street is not ideal in any season. This”—he gripped the ladder—“should be secured and surrounded by emergency cones.”

She stood at attention and saluted. “Aye aye, captain.” 

He looked away from her. “I didn’t mean to give orders.” His hurt expression, combined with the expanding puddle of blood on his temple, made the exchange felt surreal, as if someone else ruled her words—though she knew it was her own dark side afraid of change.

“Come back into the store and I’ll clean that up for you.” Her fingertips aimed toward the small cut, but she clasped her fingers into a fist and veered at the last moment.

“I should have introduced myself first. I’m William Singer.”

“Can you? Sing, I mean. Our choir is always looking for baritones.”

“I can’t. Tone deaf as they come, so the name is, I sup- pose, unfortunate.” He pulled the ladder from behind her and fastened it shut. “Can I put this somewhere for you?” He paused. “I assume you’re done with it.” He looked up at the sign she’d just attached. “You did that yourself?”

She nodded.
“It looks good. Straight.”
“Thanks to my sister Clare.” She nodded toward her sis-
ter, but William never removed his eyes from hers. He set the ladder against the wall again.

“Cupid’s Arrow.” He stepped back toward the street and crossed his arms across his chest. His jacket stretched and protested against his rounded biceps, and Zoe realized how out of place he looked in a suit. No one wore a suit in Smitten except on Sundays for church; during the week, it meant a funeral service. “A baby shop?”

“Aunt Violet told you it sounded like a baby shop,” Clare said.
It was as if they were children again, and Clare had added neener, neener, neener. “It’s a matchmaking service.”

He blinked as though she spoke in a foreign tongue. “People are so busy these days even in Smitten that they don’t make time for connection. Human connection,” she added, staring at the phone contraption strapped to his ear. “Are you married, William Singer?” Clare asked, and
Zoe glared at her sister.
“Me?” He pressed his left hand, void of a wedding ring, against his chest. “No, I’m not married.”

Zoe wanted to change the subject before Mr. Singer asked about signing up for her services. She intended to discourage short-timers—guys like this who might just want to date someone while they were in Smitten, then vanish into the proverbial sunset alone. She might be desperate to sign people up for the service, but she wasn’t willing to compromise her principles. She wouldn’t willingly allow hearts to be broken by a traveling man.

He lifted the ladder again, as anxious to finish the uncomfortable conversation as she was. “You want to show me where to put this before someone else walks into it and the city has a lawsuit on its hands?”

“Mr. Singer, you weren’t looking where you were going. I’m not a fan of this Star Trek communicator stuff becoming reality, for that reason. If you’re going to live here in Smitten, you should know we prefer proper communication. Face-to-face.”

He gave a lopsided grin. “I’m grateful you’ve decided to share that with me.” He lifted the ladder a few inches higher. “Where did you want me to put this?” he asked again.

“I’m Clare,” her sister said. “We weren’t formally introduced.” She scowled at Zoe as if to remind her she was supposed to be a matchmaker. “Follow that alley to the back of the store. That’s where she keeps the ladder.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Clare,” he said, setting the ladder down again to shake her hand. “This country air produces very pretty women.”

Clare rolled her eyes, and Zoe veiled a smile with her hand. “You don’t have to waste your city talk on us Smitten girls. We appreciate the effort, though, and as long as you don’t cite me, that’s compliment enough.”

“Let me ask you something.” William set the ladder down again. “Does this personal communication in Smitten get any easier on a guy?”

“You’ll have to excuse my sister. She’s heavily invested in Cupid’s Arrow, and change is not her strong suit anyway. You represent change.” Clare narrowed her eyes just like their mother did, and Zoe thought maybe it wouldn’t hurt her to be less forthright—as her mother always told her. She could still think her truth without saying it.

Political insincerity may have worked where William Singer came from, but he’d have to sharpen his skills with authenticity if he meant to stay in Smitten. Of course, he wouldn’t stay in Smitten. He had short-timer written all over him, so she tried not to muster any sympathy for the way his strong jaw set against the slightly pitiful scrape alongside his eye. Nor would she notice how darling it made him look, even if her heart did soften at the sight of it.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

InSecretly smitten finalb honor of the release of Secretly Smitten, we're going to post each of our first chapters this week. At the end of the week, we'll pick 4 of the commenters on the blog to receive a free copy. :) Hope you like it!

Chapter One of "Love Between the Lines" by Colleen Coble

Wrapping paper lay strewn around the floor in a happy crumple of color. Tess Thomas handed her cousin one last gift and suppressed a smile. Nat would blush when she saw the filmy negligee Tess had bought. But Tess knew if anyone would look great in the gown, it was her cousin. It was something Tess would never purchase for her- self. But then what need would she have of a honeymoon gown anyway?

While Natalie began to rip paper with abandon, Tess glanced around the packed parlor of their grandmother’s old house. Their friends had all shown up for the bridal shower and there wasn’t space for another chair. A few women even sat on the floor with their backs propped against the wall. That was what Tess loved about the small town of Smitten, Vermont. Neighbors were like family. And they’d all pulled together in amazing ways this past year as they worked to put Smitten on the map as a town based on tourism—a romantic destination, in fact. There were so many new businesses, including a big hotel that had taken over the old lumber mill.

Their Great-aunt Violet bustled in with a tray of cookies and tea. “Tess, dear,” she whispered. “I’m not sure these glu- ten free things are worth eating.”

The cookies were as lopsided as Violet’s red lipstick. The color of that lipstick had never changed over the years—it was the same orangey red that clashed pitifully with Violet’s dyed red hair.

Tess took the most crumbly cookie and took a bite. “They’re good, Aunt Violet. And Natalie will appreciate that you went to the trouble.”

Her aunt’s smile brightened. “I’m so glad, honey. You always were my favorite niece!” She winked dramatically.

Tess’s sister Clare took the tray. “Let me help you with that, Aunt Violet.” She circled the room with the tray in hand, and to their credit, most guests took a cookie.

Natalie took a break from the gifts to nibble on a cookie and glanced around. “Where’s Mia?”

“In the attic,” Grandma Rose said. “You girls always loved to play up there, remember?”

This three-story Victorian was special. Tess, her sisters, and their cousins had loved exploring the attic when they came to visit their grandmother and great-aunts. The grand old home’s welcome enveloped visitors the moment they stepped onto the polished walnut floors.

Tess turned toward the hall. “You stay here with your guests. I’ll check on her, Natalie.”

When Tess reached the bottom of the stairs, Natalie’s adopted daughter, Mia, was descending. The six-year-old had a purple boa around her neck and a red velvet dress, the hem trailing on the hardwood. She’d found some lipstick from somewhere—probably Violet’s, judging by the color—and her small white teeth gleamed behind the smear of orange.

Mia reached the bottom of the staircase and twirled. “Look at me, Tess!”

A wave of love swept over Tess. If only she could have a daughter like Mia someday. “Smashing,” she said in genuine admiration. “That’s an unusual necklace.” She leaned down to examine the tarnished metal and realized it held a pair of dog tags. “Where did you get it?”

Mia looked down at her feet and shuffled. “In the attic.” “Was it in the trunk you were allowed to be in?”
“No.” Mia peeked up at her. She held up her arm to show

a bracelet. “My bracelet fell off and went down a hole. I put my hand in to get it and found the necklace too.” Red stained Mia’s cheeks. “Should I put it back?”

Tess put her hand on Mia’s soft hair. “No, it’s fine, honey. I just wondered where you found them. I’ve never seen them before.”

Natalie appeared in the doorway from the parlor. “Is something wrong?” She glanced at her daughter.

“Not really. I was looking at something Mia found in the attic.”

A frown crouched between Natalie’s eyes. “Are those dog tags? What on earth . . . there haven’t been any soldiers in our family, have there, Tess?” She held out her hand. “Let me see them, Mia.”

Mia’s lower lip quivered, but she took off the dog tags and handed them over. “I didn’t hurt them.”

“It’s okay, sweetie. I’m sure you didn’t,” Natalie said, reaching out a reassuring hand to embrace the girl. Lifting the tag to the light, she studied it. “David Hutchins.”

Her grandmother spoke from behind them. “David Hutchins? Where did you hear that name?”

Tess turned to see the color leave her grandmother’s face.

“On these dog tags Mia found upstairs in the attic.” Beyond Grandma Rose, she saw Aunt Violet turn pale and reach out to steady herself on the wall.

Grandma Rose grabbed the doorframe. “With David’s name?”

For a moment Tess thought her grandmother might faint. She rushed to her side. “Grandma, are you all right?”

Her grandmother wetted her lips. “I’m fine. I’m just try- ing to understand this. David died in the Korean conflict. As far as I know, his dog tags were never recovered. Neither was his body.”

“See for yourself,” Natalie said, joining them, hand outstretched.

Grandma Rose clutched the dog tags, then held them to the light. “Mia, where did you find these?”

“In the attic.” Mia’s voice wobbled. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not in trouble, honey,” Tess said, embracing her. “Grandma is just surprised they were there.” She stared at her grandmother, who was as pale as the white blouse she wore. “Who was David Hutchins?”

Her grandmother was staring at the dog tags. She blinked rapidly. “My fiancé.”

Natalie frowned. “I’m confused. What about Grandpa Martin?”

Grandma Rose bit her lip. “I loved him, of course, but he wasn’t my first love.” She hesitated. “First love is special.” Her face took on a dreamy expression. “He used to call me his Betty Boop.”

Though it hurt even to imagine her grandmother loving another man before her own grandfather, Tess loved a good mystery, and this smelled like the best kind. “If he died in the war, then how did these dog tags get in your attic?”

“I don’t know. It makes no sense.”

“Could the military have sent them back to you?” Natalie asked.

“They didn’t. I would have kept them close. They wouldn’t be in the attic.”

“You’re sure he died?” Tess asked.

“Of course. The army notified his parents. I was there when they told us of his death.” She looked down. “It was the darkest day of my life.”

Darker than the day Grandpa died? Tess studied her grandmother’s face but didn’t ask the question.

“Did he live here in Smitten?” Natalie asked.

Grandma Rose nodded. “Over on Green Valley Road. In that big house where Ryan Stevenson lives now.”

Tess’s pulse kicked at Ryan Stevenson’s name. The handsome widower was a Saturday morning patron at her bookstore. Not that he’d ever noticed her.

“David’s family moved away after his death.” Her grand- mother’s voice broke, then she recovered her composure and managed a smile. “We’d better get back to our guests.”

Tess followed her back to the parlor, but her brain was whirling. What did it all mean?


The last guests had left and Tess and her sisters were picking up bits of confetti and wrapping paper from the floor. The older women had gone out to practice for Saturday night’s concert in the town square. Tess lifted the dog tags from the table and rattled them in her hands. “We have to get to the bottom of this,” she said.

Her mother, Anna, shook her head. At fifty, she was still trim and her skin was smooth and pink. Most people thought she was much younger. “It’s none of our concern, Tess. We shouldn’t be poking our nose into Mother’s business.”

“Something happened, and even Grandma has no idea what it was. Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

Her youngest sister, Zoe, dropped a dustpan full of con- fetti into a wastebasket. “I think Grandma deserves to know the truth. How could those tags have gotten there?”

Clare stopped sweeping. “Let’s think about this.” As the middle child, she was the reflective one, with her feet firmly planted on the ground. “It’s very strange.”

“Maybe he didn’t die in the war,” Tess suggested. “Maybe he came to town. What if Grandpa answered the door when he got here and didn’t let him see Grandma?”

“Now, Tess, I’m sure it was nothing so unpleasant,” Anna said. “I’m sure my mother isn’t interested anymore.”

“Of course she is! You saw how white she went. She must have loved him very much. And what if he’s still alive?” Tess could see it now. A handsome gentleman with white hair stepping out of a restored Roadster. Her grandmother’s face bright with happiness. “We could get them together again.”

“He’s probably married by now, even if he did survive the war,” Clare pointed out. “But you’re jumping to conclusions. It’s more likely that his parents left the tags here or some- thing. Maybe Aunt Violet or Aunt Petunia tucked them away so she wouldn’t be upset.”

“If that’s the case, then there’s no real mystery at all,” their mother said.

Tess was sure it wasn’t something that simple.

Clare’s thoughtful frown was back. “We’ll need to handle this very carefully. If he’s married, we back off without even talking to him, agreed?”

“He should know the truth,” Zoe said. “He should know Grandma thinks he died.”

“The truth isn’t always the best thing,” their mother said. “Not if it hurts someone.”

Zoe rolled her eyes but said nothing. Clare cut her gaze to the carpet.

Tess picked up more paper from the floor. “I’ll do an Internet search. It can’t hurt just to poke around a little.” Ryan’s face flashed into mind. “Maybe Ryan would let me explore his attic, see if there’s any information there.”

“I’m sure you’d like that,” Clare said, her voice teasing. “The most eligible bachelor in town.”

Heat flooded Tess’s cheeks. “I’m the last person he’d be interested in.” She grabbed a last cookie from the plate. She’d mooned over Ryan since high school, not that she would admit it to anyone. He had a way of making you feel like he was really listening, really paying attention to you. With two younger sisters, she sometimes felt her needs were forgotten.

“Now, honey, you put yourself down too much,” Anna scolded. “You look fine just the way you are.” Even as her mother said the words, she stared at the cookie in Tess’s hands. “That probably has two hundred calories in it, sweetie.”

Tess put the cookie back on the plate. She avoided Clare’s sympathetic glance and unbuttoned her too-tight jacket.

Chapter One of "Love Between the Lines" by Colleen Coble

She’d bought it for the shower with the intention of los- ing those fifteen pounds. What was it they said about good intentions?

“You’re beautiful, Tess. You just don’t see it,” Zoe said in a matter-of-fact tone. “And Ryan likes you. I can tell.”

If only Tess could believe it. “His wife was Miss Vermont. I’m hardly in that league.” She resisted reaching for the cookie again. “I’m just thinking that one time at the book- store, Ryan mentioned that he needed to clean the attic. Evidently the Hutchins family left a ton of boxes up there. Maybe he’d like some help cleaning it out.”

“Perfect. It might just take you awhile to go through them,” Clare said, grinning.

“Don’t go getting any ideas. This is strictly research. I’m not interested in Ryan.”

“Whatever you say.” Clare stood up straight and stretched. “Looks like we’ve finished up here. And I need coffee. Anyone want to go with me?”

Zoe got up. “Not me. I spend enough of my life in the coffee shop. I want to go to Ryan’s ice cream store.”

“I’ll go with you, Zoe,” Tess said. When her mother lifted a brow, she added, “If Ryan is there, I can ask him about look- ing through the attic.”

She followed her sisters out of the house and told herself their grandmother would thank them in the end. 

Colleen Coble  
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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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