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Melanie Stewart slipped out of her battered tan car and slammed the door shut, hoping it would catch.
"You're doing fine, Bessie, old girl," she murmured, patting the ancient car's rusty fender. "I know. You need a paint job and new tires, but that will wait. It has to."
She grimaced at the thought of the number of high-priority items on her to-do list that seemed to multiply daily. Oh, for a little spare cash!
"The love of money is the root of all evil," she repeated to herself. "Remember that, and be glad for what you have."
With a sigh, Melanie blew her auburn bangs from her forehead, resigned to both her penurious state and the blistering July heat.
"Just a few dollars would sure be nice, though." She sighed, glancing heavenward. "Just a little spare cash could make a big difference to so many." Unbidden, images of the residents at the Sunset Retirement Homeher residentsrolled through her mind. "Give me a sign, Lord, please," she pleaded in a heartfelt prayer. "Just a little hint that better things are on the way."
"Oh, Melanie!" Mr. Jones strode jauntily down the street toward her, whistling his usual happy tune as he pushed his delivery cart in front of Melanie's redbrick apartment building. "Afternoon, Melanie, my girl."
Fred Jones was a genial man who had been Mossbank's special-delivery officer for twenty years. He knew everyone in town and most of what went on. Melanie had long ceased to wonder how he kept the residents and their stories straight.
"Hi, Mr. Jones. How's your wife doing?" They exchanged the usual banter about the romance Melanie had helped along three years earlier. Then the older man thrust an ordinary white envelope with Official Notice stamped on the front of it into her hand.
"This looks pretty important, Melanie. Thought I'd better bring it over soon as you got off work. It was addressed to the nursing home, but I knew you'd be coming home about now. Sure hope it's good news." He grinned. "You've got a couple more wedding invitations, too. Reckon Cupid and you were real busy last winter," he said teasingly, watching her face flush.
His wiry tanned hand offered the shabby clipboard for her signature.
Melanie shook her head at the suggestion that she was the local matchmaker. In Fred's mind, the two latest invitations confirmed it, even if she hadn't meant to get involved.
"All I did was lend a little advice," she told him. When there was no response, she turned the plain white envelope over. There was nothing to identify it on the back. She peered at the strange letters on the front upper left cornerPJPB.
"Why do those initials seem so familiar?" she wondered. After a few moments of deep thought, Fred Jones answered her.
"It's probably just another of those form letters announcing you have won an unbelievable amount of money." He frowned. "Then, when you read the fine print, there is always a conditional if or possibly to free the sender of any misrepresentation." He shook his head gloomily and watched while Melanie stuffed the envelope into the outside pocket of her tan leather bag. "Then again, maybe it's a letter from an admirer," he suggested slyly.
"Well, whatever it is, it will have to wait," she told him tiredly. "I need a shower and some supper. Thanks anyway, Mr. Jones."
Fred Jones grinned, waved his hand and strode off down the street to his next destination, still whistling, but this time it was "Here Comes the Bride."
Lethargically, Melanie forced her tired feet up the three stairs and into the blessed coolness of the air-conditioned foyer. The elevator took forever, so she slowly climbed the stairs.
As usual, the events of her day threatened to overwhelm her and she forcibly thrust them to the back of her mind, refusing to allow herself to dwell on the sad situations she often handled as director of Sunset Retirement Home.
At twenty-eight, she had never become resigned to the plight of seniors forced to enter a nursing home when they could no longer care for themselves. Empathy of a world-weary foster child, no doubt, she derided herself.
Melanie spent every minute of her workday trying to make their lives interesting and enjoyable. In short, she hoped to allow the residents the freedom to live as they wished with help nearby when necessary. Since her childish dreams of husband and children had never been fulfilled, the small community of Mossbank, North Dakota, but especially the residents at Sunset, had become her special family.
Melanie placed the letter on the hall table just as the phone rang.
"Oh, hi, Mom." She smiled at Charity Flowerday's excited rush of words. "Yes, Mother. I'm perfectly fine." She grinned at the familiar question. "I will eat supper, Mom. A lovely Chinese dinner that Shawna left for me. She's gone out on another date, I think."
"Aren't you going out, dear?"
Melanie burst out laughing.
"Me? No way. I'm dead tired and I just want to relax." She groaned inwardly. "No, Mother, I don't know Judge Conroy's grandson. You said he's moved here?"
Melanie eyed her letter longingly, knowing that her adoptive mother took a special interest in each and every newcomer to their small, closely knit town and would relay every morsel of information she'd found out about this most recent arrival. It seemed Charity had found yet another homeless chick to spread her wings over. For her own sake, Melanie just hoped this grandson was happily married.
"No, I hadn't heard anything, but then I don't know Judge Conroy all that well. If his grandson's been here for two weeks, I'll probably meet him at church soon. If I ever get another Sunday off!" Melanie smiled at the abrupt change of topic.
"Yes, Mother, I know there are some good men in the world. I just haven't met many of them, and those I think I might be interested in usually want my help to attract someone else." She smiled at the volume of reassurances that issued over the phone.
"Listen, Mother, I was just going to start dinner when you called. I have to go now. I'm starved. Have a good time with Faith and Hope. Bye, Mother."
The letter on the hall table stared at her all the while she ate her dinner. Knowing she could procrastinate no longer, Melanie finally carried her tea to the living room and sank into the depths of her overstuffed sofa.Yawning widely, she slit the slim envelope and drew out a single sheet of heavy white paper.
We are pleased to announce that M. Stewart of Mossbank, North Dakota, has been randomly selected by our computer as the grand prize winner of 50,000 in our recent Papa John's Peanut Butter contest.
This will advise you that prizes will be awarded Thursday, July 15, during a televised announcement at WMIX-TV13. Please be at the station no later than 1:00 p.m. of that day. A company representative will contact you within the next few days to confirm your win and to give you additional information.
There was another paragraph offering congratulations and asking her not to talk to the press, but Melanie absorbed none of it. Her eyes read the words, but her mind couldn't comprehend their significance.
She turned it over to check for the usual qualifying sentences and found nothing. There was only a scrawled signature at the end of the letter which was identified as the CEO of Papa John's Peanut Butter. Stupidly, she stared at the embossed golden logo, afraid to believe it.
"He answered," she muttered to herself, dazed. "I've actually won some money!"
Melanie read the wonderful letter three times before her mind acknowledged and processed the information, and then she let out an unbridled squeal of joy.
"A grand prize winner," she mused, twisting one curling lock of her shoulder-length hair. "Thank you, Lord. As usual, Your timing is perfect. Maybe Mr. Henessey will get his wish after all. And of course, Mrs. Blair."
One by one, the residents of the special-care home flew through her thoughts. Many of the seniors had little or no family nearby. Some, like Mr. Henessey, had very little money for things that would make his last few years so enjoyable. A windfall of cash would be just the thing.
When Shawna sauntered through the door three hours later, Melanie had finished drawing up her list of future expenses. She pounced on her friend eagerly.
"I won, I won," she squeaked, thrusting the letter in front of Shawna's sunburned nose.
Her roommate was cool and efficient, well used to Melanie's bursts of excitement. Calmly she laid her jacket and purse on a nearby chair, wished her gaping date a good evening and closed the door on him firmly, then reached for the letter. After a careful scrutiny, she grabbed Melanie and they danced giddily around, laughing hilariously.
A week later, the thrill of excitement had not diminished as Melanie found herself ushered into the makeup room of WMIX, a Bismarck television station that specialized in North Dakota's news events. Melanie sat nervously while a teenage girl applied a thick layer of shadow and mascara. She felt butterflies dance an entire ballet through her midsection. Finally, eons later, a short, frumpy woman bustled into the room.
"M. Stewart?" Accepting the nod, the older woman wrapped her vivid purple nails around Melanie's arm and led her through a maze of corridors to a busy sound stage.
"Now, dear," she said over her shoulder, "we'll be broadcasting shortly. Don't move from this spot. When it's your turn, I'll be here to guide you on."
Like a plump, busy robin, the woman in the bright red shirt whisked through the menagerie of sound men, cameras and directors to the booth across the room.
From behind the curtain, Melanie saw part of the stage setting. A huge structure meant to represent a peanut butter jar full of gold coins sat front and center with the famous glittering golden letters PJPB on its side. Standing beside it was a man Melanie identified as Papa John, clad in his white shirt, bow tie, blue jeans and red suspenders. Snowy white hair looked exactly as it did on the commercials that flashed across the television screen every night.
In the last forty-eight hours, Melanie had spent valuable hours at work wracking her brain, trying to remember entering any contest to do with Papa John's Peanut Butter. Nothing specific came to mind, but then she had been in such a fog during a particularly low period in her life a few months ago. Right after poor old Mrs. Peters had passed away.
Suddenly the announcer's voice penetrated her thoughts.
"The winner is M. Stewart!"
Melanie felt a hand on her back propelling her forward. As she moved toward the grinning announcer, she noticed a tall, dark-haired man moving from the wings on the far side of the stage. Slim and muscular, he exuded the very essence of a man-about-town. He had rugged, chiseled features and the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
And those eyes were fixed firmly on her!
Melanie gave herself a mental shake and focused on the task ahead. Nervously, she wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt before moving to stand beside the announcer.
"M. Stewart," he boomed in his loud, TV personality voice.
"Yes," Melanie answered, and then heard a yes from directly behind her. Turning her head, she found those deep blue eyes glaring at her.
"I'm sorry, miss, but I think he asked for me." Low and rumbling, his voice rolled past her left ear as the man carefully but still rudely elbowed his way past.
"But my name is M. Stewart," Melanie insisted, wondering if the whole thing was a hoax. The announcer was obviously at a loss as he turned his perfectly groomed head from one to the other.
"I'm Melanie Stewart." Melanie was so nervous her voice slipped out in a soft squeak that no one seemed to hear.
Finally the director hissed from his seat in the sound room. The words were audible over the whole stage. "Do something!"
"I'm sorry, folks," the announcer said slowly, "but there seems to be a bit of a mix-up here. Our winner of the Papa John's Peanut Butter contest is M. Stewart. Sir, may I have your full name, please?"
The handsome interloper gracefully inclined his head as he stated clearly, "Mitchel Edward Stewart." His glittering blue eyes dared Melanie to top that.
"And you, miss. Your name is?" The microphone was stuck in her face, and Melanie forced a tight rein on her temper as she answered.
"Melanie Clarice Stewart."
"Well, isn't this great. Are you two married?"
The stranger's dark head shook adamantly, his blue eyes hurling daggers at Melanie.
"I am not married and I have certainly never met Miss Stewart," he said, arrogantly dismissing Melanie's presence with a brush of his hand. "I was advised by telephone that I had won a contest and that I was obligated to be here today."
Melanie's simmering temper flashed to the surface. Not so fast, she thought, and tugged the rumpled letterhead from the pocket of her skirt, intent on wiping the smugly satisfied look from Mr. Mitchel Stewart's handsome countenance.
"I received this letter by special delivery," she said, waving the letter for all to see. Heat flooded her face as she stared into mocking blue eyes.
"I was to receive a phone call with further instructions, but" She paused for effect. Her tone was acidic in the extreme. "Apparently, that went astray."
Mitchel Stewart looked stunned at her words. Obviously he thought she was faking. Anger rushed through her as Melanie remembered all the things 50,000 could provide for her friends. There was no way this man was going to do her out of what was rightfully hers. She couldn't afford to let Mr. Pushy M. Stewart push her out of the running. If his name really was Stewart!
Just then, Papa John stepped into the spotlight. Taking the mike from the dumbfounded announcer's hand, he spoke into it in the soft, musical drawl known throughout North America.
"Now, folks. It looks like there's been some sort of mixup here today. According to my information, our winner,
M. Stewart, lives at 300 Oak Street in Mossbank, North Dakota."
His weathered face studied the two. Melanie spoke up.
"Yes, well, I work at that address. It's a nursing home. Sunset Retirement Home."
Clearly, Mitchel Stewart was not to be outdone. He stepped forward.
"I am also employed at 300 Oak Street."
Her anger grew as she glared at him, her eyes narrowed and searching. How could he do this to her? He was lying. She knew it. She knew all the tenants in the home, and she knew the employees, as well. He wasn't one of them.
"I started two weeks ago." He said it triumphantly, as if this was a game of one-upmanship. Melanie fumed.
"This sure is a puzzler, folks." Papa John scratched his head, obviously considering the next step.
One of the most popular television stations in North Dakota was broadcasting a lot of dead air, which was certainly not good for business, but it seemed no one could think of anything to say. Finally, the announcer stepped forward and spoke directly to the camera.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you have watched a newsmaking event on WMIX tonight. We apparently have two winners in the Papa John's Peanut Butter contest, both named M. Stewart and both living in Mossbank and working at 300 Oak Street." He smiled fatuously at both of them before glancing at the camera. "Keep tuned, and WMIX will keep you up to the minute with events as they happen."
As he gave the familiar station call letters, Melanie drooped with fatigue. Papa John moved to brush a gentle hand over hers.
"I'm real sorry about this, miss," he apologized. "I don't know what happened. There must have been some error. The selections were made by computer." Papa John grinned at her. "Couldn't have picked a better station, though, could I? WMIX. Mixed up, they should call it."
Melanie smiled weakly.
They both turned at the throat-clearing sound from Mitchel Stewart. The dark-haired man had absolutely no manners, Melanie decided grimly. He stood peering down at both of them, eavesdropping on their conversation without any compunction. She turned her back to him deliberately as Papa John spoke again.
"I'm sorry about you, too, Mr. Stewart. I promise you that I will get this straightened out and let you know as soon as I can. Thank you both for making time to come down." The old man reached into his shirt pocket for a scrap of paper and a pen.
"Where can I reach you during the day, Miss Stewart?"
Melanie shuffled through her purse for a business card. She tried to ignore the tall man directly behind her.
"I am the director of care at Sunset," she told him, keeping her voice quiet.
"That's the one attached to the hospital," Papa John said, scribbling in odd, unreadable ink strokes. "I know about it from friends."
"Here's my address," Mitchel Stewart announced gruffly, unasked. "I'm often at the hospital, but I'll give you my card with office numbers." Trust him to butt in, Melanie thought.