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Smitten Book Club
By Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Kristin Billerbeck, Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter
All rights reserved.
Mountains of donated boxes teetered against the west wall when Heather DeMeritt entered the Smitten library. The building had been renovated a few months earlier and still held a trace of that new smell in the brown carpet. The oak bookshelves that housed the library's growing collection and the matching tables still shone with newness. Several businesses had donated the bank of computers lining one wall.
Heather spoke to several friends, then turned to eye the job she'd come to do. She was prepared to work, but the sheer number of books surprised her.
Her friend and fellow book club member, Abby Gray, motioned to her. Abby was the Smitten librarian, though she was much too pretty to fit the stereotype, even with her blond hair perpetually up in a bun.
Heather threaded through the throng to reach Abby's side. "This is going to take awhile."
Abby's cheeks were flushed. "Isn't it exciting? So many people want to help Molly."
Their good friend Molly Moore had recently lost her husband in a tragic fire. He was the only volunteer fireman to die in recent memory, and Smitten was still reeling. As was Molly.
Abby waved vaguely. "You can start there."
Heather opened the nearest box and began to lift out the books to put in sale piles ranging from one dollar to five. Five dollars was too much to pay for some of these books, but it was for a good cause, and everyone would feel great about helping.
An hour later her throat was scratchy, and her nose was stuffy from all the dust. But she'd made progress.
"Need some help?" Elliana Burton asked. Lia, as her friends called her, was the kindergarten teacher at the elementary school in town. She usually had a crayon stuck behind one ear and a slash or two of color on her arms or hands from Crayola markers, but today she looked fresh and carefree in a silky blue top over jeans that hugged her slim hips.
"I'll take you up on it," Heather said. "We might finish in time for coffee at Mountain Perks."
There was only one towering stack left. She lifted down the top box and opened it. A cloud of dust wafted out, and she wrinkled her nose.
Lia waved her hand in front of her face. "Some of these are old. They might be worth some money."
Heather took out the top book, a thick tome bound in green leather. The cover was in surprisingly good condition. She eyed the title, then burst out laughing. "Look at this. Have you ever heard of it? The Gentlewoman's Guide to Love and Courtship."
She laughed again as she opened the book. "Look at this opening, Lia. It claims the reader who understands these patterns and uses them will find true love. Pearl Chambers."
"Yes, she was a local author. Pretty famous back in her day. Wasn't she related to Molly's husband in some way? His maternal great-grandmother or something?" Lia peered over her shoulder at the place where Heather's finger pointed. "I could use a little luck like that. How about you?"
Heather's smile faded. "I don't think so. Romance is overrated. And look at this advice." She read it aloud. "'A young lady should not allow a man to address her by her first name.' A bit outdated, wouldn't you say?"
"Maybe so." Lia's eyes went soft. "Honey, don't swear off all men just because you ran into a rat. The right fellow is out there." She tucked the book under her arm. "In fact, I'm going to buy it for you. You like mysteries. This one is about deciphering behavior. It's right up your alley."
In spite of Heather's protests, Lia marched to the library desk and plunked down ten dollars for the book.
Too bad it would take more than a book to turn Heather's love life around. Since her work was done, she carried the book to one of the tables and began to leaf through it. A yellowed envelope fell out. The return address showed it was from a Beatrice Chambers, and there was a paper inside. Curious, Heather pulled it out. Her brow furrowed when she began to read.
Son, as I write this, I know you have no interest in this old book, but I believe when you find this letter, what I have to say will change everything. Your grandmother found a gold mine in the hills, and left the clues to its location in this book. I'm convinced of it. I've never quite figured out all of the clues. I think you can. Be diligent, and use the money wisely when you find it. Give it to someone needy or help fund a good cause. Turn it around for good in some way. Good luck.
Your loving mother
* * *
The book club members sat in comfortable chairs around the fireplace in the back of Lookaway Village Books in downtown Smitten. A small fire gave off a welcome glow that chased away the early March chill.
Heather welcomed the group with a smile. "Thank you all for coming. I know we all feel Molly's absence tonight, but I'm glad we're together. Before we start talking about The Art of Racing in the Rain, Abby, would you give a report on the upcoming book sale?"
Abby's smile stretched across her face when she stood. Dressed in jeans and a red sweater, she looked fresh and appealing. "The donations have far surpassed what we expected. The sale will be held on Saturday, and if we sell even half the stock we'll make enough to pay for Curtis's funeral." She sat down to a soft wave of applause.
Shelby Majors's iPhone buzzed, and she rose to answer it, her long brown hair falling over her shoulders. "Nick is outside," she reported. "He and some of the other firemen want to talk to us about what we might do to help Molly."
Natalie Smitten paused as she was pouring the coffee she'd brought from her shop, Mountain Perks. "Good, bring them in. There has to be something else we can do." She set down the thermos, then sat back down.
Shelby hurried to the door and pulled it open. The clean rush of cold air dissipated the scent of smoke. Nick Majors stomped the snow from his boots, then removed his hat before leading the group of men to the fireplace. The men were even more somber than the women, if that was possible. But then they'd been there when Curtis died.
Heather clenched her fists when she saw one of the men with Nick. She couldn't breathe, couldn't tear her gaze away from the face that still haunted her dreams, even after nearly four years. Paul Mansfield's gaze swept the group, then stopped when he saw her. His eyes widened when he saw her. Did he still remember the way she'd thrown herself at him the last time he was in town? Of course he did.
"Paul!" Natalie launched herself from the sofa and flung her arms around her brother's neck. "When did you get to town? How long can you stay?"
Paul hugged his sister. The two looked alike, same dark hair and eyes. Paul towered over most men at six foot four, and his shoulders strained the fabric of his oh-so-proper oxford shirt.
Heather forced herself to look away. What was he doing here?
She saw several of the single women eyeing him. Paul turned female heads wherever he went with his dark good looks and air of competence. The glasses perched on his perfectly chiseled face added to his sex appeal in some indefinable way, as did the lock of hair constantly falling over his forehead.
Natalie released him and stepped back. "I had no idea you were coming."
"You mean you didn't get the memo? Darn, I thought sure I sent it." He grinned. "There's time enough for that later. Let's concentrate on helping Molly."
"You guys have some ideas?" his sister asked.
Nick took the cup of coffee Shelby offered him. "Yeah, we've been talking. We've never lost one of our own before."
Heather's eyes welled, and she dug a tissue out of her pocket. "I was at Molly's today. She's devastated. She said the house is so empty without him." Several of the other women dabbed their eyes too.
"I still don't understand how it happened," Julia Grant burst out. Her favorite Jimmy Choo shoes showcased her long legs. "Why did he even go in there?"
Heather didn't want to look at Paul, didn't want to notice the way he was even more handsome than the last time she'd seen him. "It seems so odd that Curtis would go inside when the firemen had been told everyone was out."
Nick's mouth was grim. "He was rescuing the family dog. He tossed it out the bedroom window, then turned to get out himself."
And didn't make it. The ceiling collapsed on the veteran volunteer fire fighter. The funeral yesterday had been the largest ever seen in town, with the line spilling out the door of the funeral home and clear down in front of the newly renovated train station. It had taken three hours in line just to get inside the door.
"So, about helping Molly?" Tess Stevenson prompted. The bookstore owner turned her blue eyes Nick's way.
He nodded. "Molly still has Smitten Expeditions. She's got a good guide too. But she's suddenly a single mom with no idea of how to run a business. She'll need our support in lots of ways. Money is easy. The town will give generously. The other things will take dedicated persistence this week, and the next week, and the next. Babysitting, helping with figuring out the books, planning the future. You get the picture. The renovations Curtis had started need to be finished. Some of us can help with that. And we want to be there for his boy. He's lost his daddy." Nick pressed his lips together.
Reese Parker pulled a pen and note pad from her purse. "Babysitting, construction work, accounting advice." She paused and chewed on the end of her pen. "Anything else?"
"She's had a part-time job, but she'll have to quit that. It will take all her efforts to make a go of the business. So she'll probably need more financial help than just paying for the funeral," Lia said.
"I'm not good at the other things you mentioned, but I could clean her house every week," Ellie Draper said. "I can bring in dinner once a week too. I'll organize a food brigade so she doesn't have to worry about that for a while."
"And I'll take up a collection for funeral costs," Abby said. "Just in case we can't sell enough old books to cover the expense."
A chorus of offers filled the air, and Reese jotted them down. "Okay, we'll get this plan put into place. I'll be contacting each of you with your assignment."
Heather's gaze collided with Paul's. He hadn't offered any services. Maybe he was leaving. Again.
* * *
A light still shone out of the bookstore windows. Paul blew warm vapor on his hands and stamped his feet on the concrete as he waited for Heather to come out. Better to get this uncomfortable meeting over with. He'd seen the shock in her eyes when she saw him, and he hadn't done a good job of hiding his own consternation. He'd thought she'd be long gone from here, though if he were honest, he had to admit the thought of seeing her had played a role in his decision to move back to Smitten.
The town had changed since he was last here. White lights sparkled along the street like tiny diamonds. Every storefront wore fresh paint of several colors in the "painted lady" tradition. New streetlights lit the sidewalks, and people milled in the town square even at this hour. The romance destination plan had taken root. He'd played a part in that, and he was eager to see how the new lodge had turned out.
The door opened, and a shaft of light hit the sidewalk. Heather stepped out in a lightweight jacket. Her long blond hair gleamed in the lamplight, and her jeans and knee-high boots accentuated her long legs.
He stepped out from the shadows. "Hi."
She put her hand to her chest. "You scared me."
"Sorry. I wanted to talk to you."
Her lips flattened, and she moved toward the curb. "What about?"
He fell into step beside her as she started across the street. "Can we grab some coffee or something?"
She shot him a look from wide blue eyes like a frightened cat. As well she should after the way he'd treated her.
He pushed up his glasses and gave her his best smile. "I figured we might as well get the awkwardness out of the way. Otherwise we're going to be tiptoeing around each other."
She stopped in the middle of the street and stared at him. "Why are you here, Paul?"
"Can we talk? I'll explain then."
She stared at him as though searching his soul. Her way of looking inside him had been the first thing to attract him. And it had been what sent him running scared from town. He still regretted it. "I'll buy coffee."
She shook her head. "I love Nat, but I don't want her watching over our shoulders. You can come to my house for a minute. I promise to keep my distance." She walked across the street and turned left.
He jogged after her and fell into step beside her. "I'll stop off at the coffee shop and grab us a snack. Be there in ten minutes."
"Okay. I'll see you in a few."
He watched her turn the corner and vanish into the shadows. The hard part was still ahead.
Night, night, Charlie." Relishing the scent of toothpaste and little boy, Heather kissed her son. "Sleep tight."
"Don't let the bedbugs bite," Charlie said. He wrapped his arms around her and planted a wet kiss on her cheek. "Love you, Mommy." The three-year-old sounded sleepily content.
"I love you, honey. Very much." She tucked his stuffed bear into the covers with him, then flipped on his goldfish night-light and backed out of the room. The gentle knock came as Heather walked down the stairs. Her throat tightened as she opened the door to greet Paul. He had a cardboard drink carrier in one hand and a sack in the other.
Lord have mercy, but the man was handsome. The crisp white button-down collared shirt contrasted with his dark, curly hair and tanned skin. His eyes were brown, but a warm golden color that invited you to trust him. She'd made that mistake once.
His smile widened as he stepped into the house. "Nice."
She nodded. "There's a big yard, and I'm able to have a nice garden."
"Organic food, of course," he said.
"Of course. How odd you remember."
An incredulous expression crossed his face.
He handed her a coffee, then took one for himself before settling on the sofa. "Natalie swears these brownies are the bomb even if they're gluten-free. I'm not so sure. I've tasted some of her concoctions."
"They're delicious," she said automatically before dropping onto the chair as far away from him as she could manage.
He regarded her over the rim of his glasses. "I'm moving back to Smitten, Heather. I thought we needed to clear the air between us."
When she managed to get the elephant off her chest, she inhaled. She gulped, then swallowed. "I see. I appreciate the heads-up, and I'll be sure not to bother you."
He exhaled and leaned forward. "I want to apologize for how I acted."
"I'm the one who should apologize." Her face burned as she remembered that night. "I threw myself at you. You did the right thing showing me to the door."
He pressed his lips together and shook his head. "It wasn't that at all."
She didn't want to hear what it was. The humiliation would be too much to bear. She rose. "Well, you've apologized, and so have I. I think the air is clear. We can nod at one another politely in Nat's coffee shop, and there will be no worries. Is that all you had to say?"
Though she knew it was ridiculous, she held her breath with the faint hope he might say he'd never forgotten her. She shook her head at her stupidity.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing. I'll show you out."
"There's something else. We're going to be working together."
"What does that mean?"
"The town has been donated a plot of land to develop as an organic farm. I'd like you to help me design the beds and the buildings. We're going to put in a pumpkin patch and have hayrides for the kids. We'll have a petting zoo, too, with goats and sheep. There are all kinds of plans for it. I've already cleared it with your boss at the county extension office."
The thought of working in close proximity with him took her breath away, and not in a good way. Being around him tonight had shown her she'd never gotten over him.
She shook her head. "I don't think so, Paul. It would be awkward. There are others at the office who can help you."
"Let's put our personal issues away for the good of the town. I need you, Heather. And let's be honest, you're the town expert on organic farming."
What did she say to that? She loved Smitten, was committed to her little town. And he was right—no one knew more about this, even in her office, than she did.
His eyes lit. "Wonderful. I'll pick you up tomorrow and show you what I have in mind. I should have some preliminary sketches by then."
"Mommy?" Charlie stood in the doorway rubbing his eyes. "I had a bad dream."
"You're fine, little man." She sprang to her feet and picked up her son. His warm little body relaxed against her. "Put your head down." She hummed "Amazing Grace," and his lids began to drift downward again. "Sorry," she mouthed to Paul. "I'll be right back." She carried Charlie back to bed and tucked him in. He didn't stir.
She went downstairs and found Paul standing by the window with a pensive expression. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. He's cute. He looks like his daddy?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him her husband had left her when she was six months pregnant, but she'd had all the humiliation she could handle tonight. "Yes."
"I'm glad you're happy. I only wish you the best."
She showed him the door, then leaned against it and let the tears fall.
When she went back to the sofa, she spotted the old book Lia had bought her. How on earth could she find any clues in such an obscure text? Leafing through the fragile pages, she came to a section titled "Encouraging the Male's Attention." The old language made her smile, but her smile faded when she read the last paragraph.
Excerpted from Smitten Book Club by Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, Denise Hunter. Copyright © 2014 Kristin Billerbeck, Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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