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Stella Montgomery, one of Gwen's permanent boarders at the Tanner Boardinghouse, trotted into the kitchen trailing a ball of yarn behind her, her current crochet project clutched in her hand, forgotten for the moment.
"I smell smoke," Stella announced, sounding worried. "Is something - oh, I see."
"This darn oven," Gwen grumbled as she tried to peel the burned top off her macaroni, cheese and sausage casserole. She was a good cook - an excellent cook. Cooking was probably the thing she did best. But this antique of a malfunctioning oven was going to ruin her reputation, and her boarders were going to starve to death. Unfortunately, she didn't have the money to replace the appliance. Not a lot of people stopped in Jester anymore. The economy in the small town had been in the tank for years. If not for Stella and the other two regulars, Irene Caldwell and Oggie Lewis, Gwen wouldn't be squeaking by at all.
Still, she didn't want to do anything else. Tanners had been running this house as a hotel or boardinghouse for more than a hundred years, and she didn't intend for that tradition to stop with her. Truly she loved her late grandmother's quaint Victorian house, with its turrets and cubbyholes and twisty staircases, though it was in dire need of repairs.
"I think we can salvage it," Stella said, diving into the casserole with a fork to pick out the burned bits.
"Some of it will be edible," Gwen agreed. "With a salad, and German chocolate cake for dessert, we should get by." She sighed and switched on the portable TV she kept in the kitchen. It was almost seven o'clock, time for the Big Draw. Gwen and several other people in Jester pooled their money and bought a bunch of tickets for the multistate lottery. They'd been doing it for eight years, but they'd never won more than a few dollars.
Still, Gwen did it more for the thrill than anything. It was fun to fantasize about what she would do if she won millions of dollars, or even a few hundred. A dollar a week wasn't much to pay for a fantasy.
"The jackpot's up to forty million," Stella said as she helped Gwen set the kitchen table. Usually they ate in the dining room, but since there would only be three of them tonight, there was no sense being formal. Irene was meeting with her book club, which was hosted by Regina Larson, the mayor's wife.
"Mmm, forty million," Gwen said dreamily.
"Split twelve ways, but still. The first thing I'd do is buy a new stove."
"If I became an instant millionaire, I'd get the heck out of Jester," Stella said with a laugh, her tight blond curls vibrating. "We'll never find husbands here, honey."
"I don't want a husband," Gwen declared. "I'm happy with things just the way they are." She'd had to remind herself of that a lot lately. Oh, sure, she'd like a husband, children, a real family. But she didn't go out much, never went on a date. Heck, she'd grown up with most of the guys in Jester, and she had a hard time thinking of any of them in a romantic way. Some of them weren't all that bad-looking. Sheriff Luke McNeil was a hunk, and Dev Devlin, who owned the Heartbreaker Saloon, was pretty easy on the eyes. But even if Gwen was interested, she was shy and rather plain, so none of those guys gave her a second look.
"Oh, pshaw," Stella said. "I've had a man, and I've been alone, and let me tell you, having a man is better."
Stella, who was somewhere in her fifties, had never married, but she'd once been engaged. Her fiancé had died, and it was something she didn't talk about much. But sometimes Gwen sensed a deep sadness behind Stella's twinkly blue eyes.
Oggie Lewis, one of Gwen's other boarders, had a crush on Stella. Everyone but Stella knew it. Gwen was often tempted to mention it, but then she would hear her grandmother's voice: "Stay out of other people's business, and you'll never make enemies."
"Oh, here comes the draw," Gwen said, glad to have an excuse to change the subject. She turned up the volume on the TV.
The announcer drew out a Ping-Pong ball from the hopper. "Tonight's first number is ... ten. Ten."
"Hey, that's one of your numbers," Stella said, checking the list Gwen kept on the fridge.
"The second number is ... twelve. That's twelve."
"All right, another one!" Stella squealed.
Gwen felt an irrational bloom of excitement growing. One more number, and they could win five dollars. That was, what, forty cents apiece? That thought brought her back to earth.
"The third number is ... twenty. Twenty."
"That's three!" Now Gwen really was getting a little excited. The first three numbers were matches. That had never happened before.
In what seemed like slow motion, the announcer called another number, then another. Each one was a match for Gwen's numbers. She reached out and grabbed Stella's hand. "This can't be real," she murmured.
Then the announcer reached into the hopper for the sixth and final number.
"Three," Gwen and Stella murmured together.
"Three, three, three."
"The sixth and final number is ... three."
Both women screamed. All six numbers were displayed on the screen for a few seconds. Gwen quickly compared them against her list, just to be sure.
She'd won the lottery. She and her friends.
Moments later, she heard screaming and whooping out in the street. Apparently she wasn't the only one who'd been watching the draw.
Gwen turned to Stella and hugged her. "I'm rich!"
"You're rich!" Stella agreed.
"What should I do now?"
"Let's go out in the street and celebrate! Sounds like everyone else is."
As they ran through the house, grabbing coats and scarves, whooping and hollering like children, Oggie Lewis rushed downstairs to see what the commotion was about. Oggie, also in his fifties, was the vice principal at Jester High School. He was always dignified and nattily dressed. But when Stella shouted out the good news, he gave a little whoop of his own and ran out the front door without even a jacket - and it was snowing!
Excerpted from Fortune's Twins by Kara Lennox Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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