Troy Lee has been writing letters to his future bride since he was a boy. Still, she's never been more than words on a page until now. When he meets Destiny Porter, he thinks he may have finally found the woman he's been waiting for. But Destiny came to Claremont with a single purposeto get Troy's permission to print his letters in her magazine. Yet once she lays eyes on the handsome Southern man, Destiny knows she's in trouble. She can't help dreaming about being Troy's bride. But will he still want to be her groom when he finds out who she really is?
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RuthEllen was talking today at her shop about the reason she believes you haven't married, and I think she may have it figured right." Jolaine Bowers peeked beneath the hood of her Camry so that Troy Lee had no choice but to look up and face his grandmother head-on. "Do you want to know what she said?" Her brows were raised and her eyes were so wide he could see white all the way around the blue.
"RuthEllen Riley? At the beauty shop?" Troy wondered how many Claremont ladies had been getting cut, permed or shampooed while RuthEllen chatted about his marital status. Then again, she probably wasn't the only one discussing it if his grandmother had been there, too. "Y'all were talking about me? At the beauty shop? Just how many women were there?"
"The regulars. Maybe a few extra since everyone is getting their hair done before all of the Fourth of July activities this week." His grandmother raised a shoulder. "And we always talk about you, dear. We talk about everyone we care about."
He kept checking the engine on the car. "There's something not quite right about that."
Her mouth flattened. "We only talk about you because we're worried. So, don't you want to know what RuthEllen said?"
He momentarily stopped trying to determine why her car was making what she described as a "weird rattle-rumble kind of sound," climbed out from under the hood and answered her with the only response she'd accept. "Sure, what did she say?"
She stepped away from the car, took a quick breath then spouted, "She said you're a player."
Not at all what Troy expected. "A player?"
His grandmother nodded, then converted the move into one of those subtle head shakes that said she couldn't believe his sad state. "Yes, that's what she said, and everyone in the shop agreed."
It was all Troy could do not to laugh, but she looked so serious that he held it in check. "Does RuthEllen even know what a player is? And do you?"
She fished a bottle of water out of her purse, unscrewed the lid and took a long swallow. Then she twisted the top on and dropped it back in. "I'll be honest. I didn't know until the girls at the shop explained it, but from what they say, it's a guy who, you know, acts like he is interested in a girl and then drops her like a hot potato." She settled her purse strap on her shoulder. "That's you."
He grabbed a shop rag from his back pocket, wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to determine the best way to explain to his sweet grandmother the difference between being a player and being selective.
"I'm not a player. I just don't continue dating someone if I can't see myself marrying her."
"That's what I told RuthEllen, but she said that's called leading them on, and I'm thinking she might be right. Troy, you've dated nearly every girl in Claremont once. Sometimes twice, but mostly once. They get their hopes up, and then you're gone."
Troy winced at the truth of her statement. He'd realized the same thing recently, when it seemed every time he ran into a female in town he received the awkward "what went wrong?" stare.
She grabbed her water bottle again and tilted it toward his face. "See, you know it's true. But I don't think it's that you're trying to be a player. You've set the bar too high, with all of that letter writing you do and envisioning the woman you want to marry and all. That was supposed to get you started thinking about the kind of woman you want. It wasn't supposed to exclude every girl from fitting the bill."
"I'm beginning to think I shouldn't have even told you about those letters." Troy had assumed his grandmother would instinctively understand the importance of those letters to his future bride. Now he wondered if every lady at the Cut and Curl knew about them. "You didn't tell RuthEllen and the other ladies about them, did you?"
She blinked, twice. "No why?"
"Because they're private. I wrote them to one person, and she's the only one I plan to share them with." He paused. "Assuming I ever find her." Troy's first letter to his future bride had been written when he was twelve as an assignment at church camp. Most kids wrote the required letter and then let that be it, but he'd continued over the years. And as he wrote to her, he'd clearly defined the woman he wanted to spend his life with.
He just hadn't found her yet.
"Well." She chewed on her lower lip. "I didn't tell the girls at the shop about your letters, dear." She looked as though she wanted to say more, maybe ask if he'd reconsider letting her share the fact that he'd been writing for over a decade and a half to a wife he hadn't met, but then she must have thought better of the idea and snapped her mouth shut.
"That's good," he said. "I appreciate you keeping that to yourself."
"You're probably right." She fidgeted with the water bottle again. "I shouldn't tell anyone about your love letters."
"I'd appreciate that."
"Right," she whispered.
Troy had returned his attention to the engine but heard a hint of worry in her tone, so he looked back to his sweet grandmother, twisting the lid on and off the bottle. "Hey, it's okay that y'all were talking about me at the shop. I understand that's what ladies do, and I understand you do it because you care about me. I'd just rather the love-letter part stay out of any conversations, okay?"
She nodded and gave him a little smile. "Okay. Well, RuthEllen and the other ladies and I all decided what you need to do. You need to find someone who didn't grow up in Claremont, someone who doesn't know you're a player."
"I'm not a player." Troy couldn't hold back his grin now, finding a lot of humor in making the statement to his grandmother. And while he was supposed to be working, no less. Luckily Bo and Maura Taylor trusted him to get all of his work done at their filling station, and they also understood his grandmother's need to visit him at his job place every now and again.
"Troy Alan Lee, this is not funny. You're twenty-seven years old."
His grin grew. He couldn't help it. "You know, I've heard of guys who didn't get married until they were in their forties."
"Not in Claremont." Her hands weren't fidgeting now, and she uncapped her water bottle to take another swig.
He set his laugh free. "No, probably not in Claremont, but twenty-seven isn't ancient. And just so you know, I have a date with a girl on Friday who I'm sure doesn't see me as a player."
She capped the bottle and tossed it back in her purse. "Really? Who is she?"
Troy could tell from the excitement in her tone that she'd probably make a beeline straight to RuthEllen's shop when she left the filling station with the glorious news. "Don't go getting too anxious. It's a first date, but her name is Haley Calhoun. She moved here from Florida to take a veterinarian job with Doc Sheridan. He's planning to retire in a few years and decided he needed an assistant, someone who could get familiar with all of the families and livestock and such in the area."
A bright smile claimed his grandmother's face.
"That's perfect! She isn't from around here, so she won't know about how you date and run. Maybe she's the one meant to get your letters. You concentrate on making it to at least date number three, and I'll make sure to tell all the girls at the beauty shop and in my quilting group not to say anything to her about you being a player."
He knew better than to try to stop her, so he nodded. "You do that." Then he opened the driver's side door and climbed in. "I didn't see anything under the hood that would cause that rattling you described. Let me drive it and see if I hear the noise, too."
"Sounds good. I'll go inside the store and visit with Maura. I'm so excited about your date with the Calhoun girl. I have a good feeling about this." Grinning, she turned and headed toward the store connected to the garage.
He cranked the car and took it for a short drive away from the station. And while he drove, he thought about the fact that he was evidently now seen as a "player" around town. The absurdity of that was laughable. He wasn't a player, but he had dated a lot of girls, most of them in town, he supposed. And he hadn't gotten serious with any of them. He'd always thought God would make it clear when he met the right one, but maybe all of the letters he'd been writing had clouded his vision. He hadn't given anyone a chance because he had his sights set on perfection. No one was perfect; Troy knew that. But he'd really thought he would know when he met the girl he'd been writing to all these years. He hadn't considered the fact that it might take more than a date or two to determine whether he'd met "the one."
God, help me out here. Part of me thinks my grandmother is right. I haven't given anyone a chance. Help me to see clearly this time, Lord. And help me to know when I meet the right person, and to spend enough time with her to tell. I want to at least see what could happen with Haley. If You could somehow show me whether she's the girl for me, I'd sure appreciate the help. In Jesus's name, amen.
He pulled back into the station and heard the horrid rattle that his grandmother described. He'd heard it a few times throughout the short drive, and it hadn't taken him long to pinpoint the source of the hideous noise. But he couldn't miss the fun of showing her, so he waited for her to come outside to identify the problem. Maura Taylor walked alongside her as she neared the car.
"Well, did you hear it?" Jolaine asked.
"I did. And you're right, it's a horrible racket. I don't know how you've put up with it."
She nodded. "I know. It's been driving me crazy for the past week. How bad is it? Do I need a new car, or is it something you can fix? Tell me it's something you can fix."
"Definitely something I can fix." He climbed out, then squatted down by the driver's seat. "And I can take care of it right now without a single tool." Sliding his hand under the seat, he withdrew an empty water bottle, then another and another. He pulled six bottles out from under the seat, while Maura muffled her laughter with her hand over her mouth.
"Is that what was making the racket? Those bottles rolling under the seat? James would get on me big-time. Don't tell your grandfather, Troy. I've been meaning to clean out the car."
"I won't tell him, but I'm not sure you'll get so lucky with Mr. Taylor knowing."
Her cheeks reddened as Bo Taylor neared the group and didn't attempt to stifle his laughter. She pointed a finger at the man. "You keep quiet, Bo."
"I'll make sure he does," Maura promised.
"I think you'll find your ride much more peaceful now." Troy tossed the empty bottles in a nearby can.
"Thank you, Troy." She kissed his cheek. "Anyway, I got to visit with you and let you know about what you need to do."
"Yes, you did." Troy knew she didn't mean any harm, and he loved her dearly for her attempt to help his love life. Maybe she even steered him in the right direction. He had been a bit picky, and thanks to her visit, he'd made a conscious decision to rectify that soon, this Friday, in fact, with Haley Calhoun. One way or another, he'd make it to date number three.
Destiny Porter sat in her car and waited at the end of the line for gas, all the while watching the mechanic in the garage to the right of the filling station. He wore traditional blue coveralls, and she could tell he had thick, jet-black hair, broad shoulders and a lean waist, but that was it.
She'd left her apartment in Atlanta, packed her things for an indefinite stay and then driven 120 miles to Claremont, Alabama, to see the man and convince him to share his love letters with the world. And now he had his head tucked under the hood of a car.
"Come on, turn around." Her plea was interrupted when an older version of Richard Gere tapped on her window. Destiny rolled it down. "Yes?"
"Ma'am, I can't reach your tank unless you pull up to the pump." He glanced over his shoulder to see what held her attention. The mechanic had finally come out from under the hood and had moved to a bevy of tools against the opposite side wall. "Aah, so you're another of Troy's admirers. I wonder if I shouldn't start paying him some sort of commission for all of the extra customers I get." The man chuckled then nodded toward the pump, still several feet away. "Why don't you move forward a little so I can at least pump your gas while you're doing a rather pitiful attempt at flirting long-distance?"
"Oh, I wasn't, or, I didn't mean to stare."
He raised a dark gray brow.
Destiny felt her cheeks flame. "I've never even met the man." And that was the truth. But she did know everything he wanted in a woman and how he'd treat the one who earned his love, which was why she'd made this trip. However, she wouldn't share that with this man. She also wouldn't share it with the mechanic, who apparently had lots of admirers around town.
He'd have plenty more if he let her publish those letters.
She decided she'd change the subject and attempt to save herself any further embarrassment while the man removed the nozzle and busied himself with his work.
"I don't think I've ever been to a real full-service gas station."
He nodded as he put gas in her red Beemer. "I suspected as much. You aren't from around here." He pointed a knowing finger toward Destiny's face. "Claremont's a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and I'm pretty sure if you were from around here, I'd have noticed." He glanced toward the garage. "But it isn't my attention you're trying to get anyway, is it? Not that it'd matter. I'm happily taken." He winked. "So, you just passing through or staying awhile?"
Destiny wished she could control her traitorous eyes, but the guy in the garage had finally faced her and she was, quite frankly, speechless.
The older man cleared his throat. "I'm Bo Taylor, by the way. The lady who just walked into the station is my wife, Maura. Assuming you're listening to my rambling and all."
Destiny blushed again. She couldn't remember the last time she was so embarrassed. "II'm sorry. I don't mean to "
"Yeah, you do, but that's okay. Every young lady from town comes here as often as possible." Bo frowned as the nozzle clattered and the gas stopped pumping. "This isn't full yet. Let me get her started back up." He flipped the silver lever on the pump and the thing clicked to life again. "Tell you what, I'll go get Troy and offer an introduction. The customer line is gone now anyway."
"No, that's okay. I don't want to disturb him."