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Today, of all days, Adrienne Chandler should've been swathed in white chiffon and Belgium lace. Instead, she wore khaki pants and a navy blue knit shirt with the words Bayside Books stitched in red over the pocket. Rather than floating down the church aisle on the arm of her father, she hid in the back office of her grandmother's bookstore, hovering over a slightly lopsided birthday cake.
Adrie struck a match and lit the two large purple candles shaped like the numbers seven and zero on top of Nana's cake. With a quick huff, she blew out the match and touched up a spot where the chocolate cake peeked through the pale pink buttercream frosting.
If her life had gone as she'd planned, she'd be enjoying wedding cake rather than birthday cake, but it was time to stop dwelling on what should've been and make today special for her grandma.
Hannah Bodine, curator of Fairhaven's small historical museum and one of her grandma's dearest friends, peeked in the doorway. She held up her bright red cell phone, her cheeks glowing from the warmth of the late summer afternoon. "Your grandmother's on her way!"
Adrie forced a smile. "All right. Let's get the party started."
More than a dozen of her grandmother's friends turned to watch as Adrie walked into the bookstore's cafe, carrying the cake topped with the blazing purple candles.
"They should be here any second," Hannah announced. "Barb has been keeping Marian busy over at Three French Hens."
Adrie chuckled at the thought of thrifty Nana shopping at the trendy boutique rather than the clearance racks of her favorite department store.
Irene Jameson, another member of her grandma's close-knit group of friends, affectionately known around town as the Bayside Treasures, hurried over. "As soon as they come in, I'll shout surprise, but you start the song, because I sing like an old jaybird."
"Oh, Irene, you don't sound like a jaybird."
"Of course not," Hannah added with a teasing twinkle in her eyes. "She sounds more like an old crow."
Irene gasped, then broke out in giggles and clutched Hannah's arm. "I'll get you for that one."
"Quiet, everyone. They're coming in the front door!" The crowd hushed just as the bell jingled. A few seconds later her grandmother and Barb Gunderson walked toward the back of the store.
"Where's Adrie? I thought she was going to hold down the fort until we got back." Marian Chandler stepped around the end of the bookshelves.
"Surprise! Happy birthday!" The chorus of friends leaped up from the tables, clapping and waving purple balloons and handmade Happy Birthday signs.
Adrie walked forward with the glowing cake and started singing.
Nana's expression bloomed from wide-eyed shock to a teary smile. "Thank you all so much. What a wonderful surprise." Her gaze traveled around her circle of friends, then settled on Adrie. "You planned this, didn't you?"
Adrie smiled and shrugged slightly. "Yes, but I had a lot of help from the Bayside Treasures."
"Oh, you darling girl." Nana hugged Adrie, then embraced her fellow Treasures, Hannah, Irene and Barb. "I thought it was odd you had so much trouble making up your mind about that outfit at the boutique," she said to Barb. "Made me wonder if you were losing your grip."
"Not yet, honey." Tall and slim with dark auburn hair, Barb was the youngest of the Bayside Treasures. Though she'd already passed sixty, she still taught more than a dozen piano students each week and played the organ and piano for church services and weddings.
Nana beamed them a bright smile. "So what are we waiting for? Let's eat cake!"
Barb took charge, cutting generous slices. Irene passed them around, while Adrie served coffee and iced tea.
"This is delicious," Pastor James said between bites.
"Who baked the cake?"
Irene's cheeks took on a rosy hue, and she ducked her chin.
"Who else?" Hannah slipped her arm around Irene's shoulder. "Everyone knows Irene Jameson is the best baker in Fairhaven."
Adrie smiled and stood back, watching her grandma make the rounds and greet her friends. Her bright blue eyes glowed each time she received a hug or birthday card. Her grandmother had known many of these people for over twenty years, since she and Grandpa Bill had opened Bay-side Books. It was the only Christian bookstore in Fairhaven, and it served as a lighthouse to the community and a gathering place for family and friends.
The bell over the front door jingled again, and Adrie glanced down the aisle.
Cameron McKenna, owner of McKenna's Frame Shop, stepped inside. Adrie's friend, Rachel Clark, had recently announced her engagement to Cam, and they were planning an early fall wedding. Adrie released a wistful sigh. At least someone's relationship was working out.
Another man followed Cam through the door. As he came into view, Adrie sucked in a quick breath. For a split second she thought it was her former fiance, Adam Sheffield, but she quickly realized her mistake. Though his height and coloring were similar, this man's dark brown hair was longer, sweeping across his forehead and touching his collar in the back.
Over his shoulder, he carried what looked like a black leather camera bag. His well-worn jeans and the light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up sealed the difference. Adam never wore such casual clothes. His were always tailored and professional.
The man's large, dark eyes focused on Adrie. He nodded and sent her a warm smile.
She looked away, trying to shake off her discomfort over his resemblance to Adam.
"Hi, Adrie." Cam crossed toward her. "Looks like there's a party going on."
She looked up at Cam, but her traitorous gaze kept drifting toward the other man. "Yes, we're celebrating Marian's seventieth birthday."
"Sorry, we didn't mean to crash your party," Cam said.
Her eyes snapped back to Cam. "Oh, it's okay. You're welcome to stay. Would you like some cake?"
Cam turned to his friend and lifted one eyebrow.
The man grinned and nodded. "I always say yes to cake."
"Adrie, this is Ross Peterson. Ross, this is Adrienne Chandler. She manages the bookstore with her grandmother."
"Hello, Adrienne." Ross held out his hand.
She hesitated a split second, then offered her hand. His grip was firm and confident, his fingers smooth and warm. She looked into his dark brown eyes, and a ripple of awareness traveled through her. Heat flooded her face. She dropped his hand and turned back to Cam. "So, how can I help you?"
"Actually, I think we might be able to help you," Ross said.
Her gaze darted back to Ross.
"Oh, Cam, Ross, so good to see you!" Hannah bustled over and gave each man a quick hug. She turned and motioned Marian to join them. Hannah knew Cam from the Fairhaven Arts Center. Cam's frame shop was just down the hall from the small historical museum Hannah managed. Cam and Ross greeted Marian and wished her a happy birthday.
"So, did you come for the party, or is there something we can help you with?" Marian asked.
"We heard you were looking to hire a new manager for the bookstore," Cam said.
"That's right. Adrie's been helping me for over a year now, since my husband passed away, but I want to free her up so she can play her flute professionally."
Ross lifted his eyebrows and studied Adrie with renewed interest.
Her face flushedagain.
Cam clamped his hand on his friend's shoulder. "I think Ross might be just the man for the job."
Adrie shot her grandmother a worried glance. They needed someone reliable and trustworthy, not a free spirit, adventurous type. The way Ross was dressed, he looked as though he'd just walked off the ferry from a vacation in the San Juan Islands or a hike up Mount Baker.
"Ross and I have been friends for years," Cam continued.
"And we've also been co-op partners at the Arts Center. I think he could be a big help to you."
Adrie pressed her lips together. Was Cam right? Could Ross be the one to step in and take her place, or would he let them down like the last two men they'd hired and then had to fireone for stealing and the other for complete incompetence?
He seemed very self-assured and good-looking. How could you trust a man like that?
Nana nodded. "I'm glad you came by. Why don't you have some cake, and as soon as things settle down, we'll talk."
"Thanks." Ross flashed a broad smile, his white teeth contrasting with his tanned face. "I appreciate you meeting with me, especially on your birthday." His smile faded a few watts. "But I'd hate for you to miss your party. Maybe it would be better if I came back tomorrow."
But Marian shook her head. "Oh, it's not a problem, not at all. Come on, let's get some cake for you and Cam."
Adrie closed her eyes. Couldn't her grandma see past his charming smile? How could she be so softhearted and trusting?
A wave of melancholy washed over Adrie. She used to be like that before all the heartbreak she'd faced the last few years, but not anymore. Trust had to be earned, and she hadn't met a man yet who could earn hers.
Ross Peterson was probably no different than the rest. And if that was true, she'd need to be on guard and make sure he didn't take advantage of them.
Thirty minutes later Adrie sat across from Ross and her grandmother while her grandmother conducted the interview with him. The store and cafe were quiet now. The only other people around were two middle-aged women browsing in the fiction section. Adrie sat facing the sales counter ready to help them if they had questions or wanted to make a purchase.
Nana reviewed Ross's resume with a warm, pleasant expression on her face. "It looks like you have an excellent education and some good job experience." She looked up. "Tell us about your photography studio."
He frowned slightly, faint lines appearing at the corners of his eyes. "I started out at the Arts Center about three years ago. Things were building slowly over the first two years, but it's been tough this last year with the bad economy. I didn't want to go into debt, so I closed up shop a couple months ago."
"We've had a slump over the last year, as well," Nana said. "But fall tends to be our busiest season, so we're hoping things will improve." She checked the second page of his resume. "You've invested quite a few years in photography. You're not planning to give that up altogether, are you?"
"No, I'd like to do it on the side."
Adrie studied him, trying to figure out the man behind the handsome exterior. What were his real motives for wanting this job? And how did he expect to continue his photography work while he managed the bookstore? This was a full-time job that would become more demanding as they moved into the holiday season.
"I believe you have the skills for the business side of things," Nana said. "But working here would be quite different than running a photo studio."
"In what way?"
"I consider this store a ministry as well as a business. Many of our customers come in with questions and problems. Some are hurting and need compassion and direction."
He nodded, his expression thoughtful, but Adrie couldn't tell what he really thought of her grandma's comment.
"I'm looking for a manager who can connect with people, someone who is willing to listen and can offer encouragement and prayer. Would you be comfortable with that?"
He rubbed his chin. "My faith is important to me, but I'm a relatively new believer." He glanced toward the bookshelves. "I've always loved to read, so walking in here and seeing all the titles makes me feel a little like a kid in a candy store." He grinned at her grandmother, his dark eyes taking on a mischievous light.
Adrie rolled her eyes. It was time to cut to the chase and see where he really stood. "I'd like to ask Ross a few questions."
Her grandma looked her way. "Okay, dear, go ahead."
"Could you tell us where you attend church?"
Ross stared at her for a second. "I've gone to Grace Chapel a few times with Cam and Rachel."
She'd never seen him there. But with two services and over five hundred people attending, it was possible she could've missed him.
"We attend Grace Chapel, as well," Nana added, sending Adrie a questioning glance.
"Don't you find it hard to grow spiritually if you aren't committed to a church?" Adrie asked.
He shifted in his chair, looking uncomfortable. "I think being involved in a church is a good thing, but there are other ways a person can grow spiritually."
She tried to keep a neutral expression. "What would you recommend?"
He glanced toward the window. "Spending time in nature helps me connect with God." He looked around the store. "And of course reading spiritual books can help, too."