In 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.