Set in Tennessee’s postcard-perfect Smoky Mountains, Lin Stepp’s Makin’ Miracles is an inspiring tale that reveals why love and forgiveness are most important just when they seem most impossible…
Zola Devon has always been a little different. Half Tahitian, with long black hair and dark eyes, she’s especially distinctive in the mountain town of Gatlinburg. She even stocks her gift shop, Nature’s Corner, with items that reflect her island heritage and tantalize tourists. But it’s her spot-on intuition that truly sets Zola apart. When she gets a hunch about a person, she’s almost always right. And when the surly photographer who owns the gallery next door starts meddling in her business, she can only hope that, for once, her instincts are wrong.
The one thing Spencer Jackson loves more than his camera is the majestic scenery of the Smoky Mountains. Reeling from his painful past, he’s settled in a cabin in the woods to train his lens on the breathtaking landscape. A woman as uniquely beguiling as Zola could only throw his simple, uncomplicated days into chaos—and force him to lay bare his darkest secrets. But as their lives become unavoidably intertwined, they both may discover the beauty of the truth, and the joy of the unexpected.
About the Author
Dr. Lin Stepp is a native Tennessean, a businesswoman, and an educator. She is on faculty at both Tusculum College and King University, where she teaches psychology and research. Her business background includes over 20 years in marketing, sales, production art, and regional publishing. But closest to her heart is her beloved series of contemporary novels set in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Visit her on the web at linstepp.com.
Read an Excerpt
A Smoky Mountain Novel
By LIN STEPP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Lin Stepp
All rights reserved.
Zola heard the bell on the door chime and looked up to see a young couple head into the store. They talked as they began wandering around the aisles, so she didn't make eye contact and offer the greeting she usually gave to her customers. She would later.
For the moment, she turned her attention back to her current customer at the counter. It was a busy day at Nature's Corner. The warm weekend in late February had drawn an unexpected rush of tourists to Gatlinburg—all eager to get out after a rash of cold, snowy weeks in Tennessee.
The plump, older woman at the counter smiled at Zola. "I am so tickled to find this new book by Vera Leeds." She tapped the colorfully illustrated children's book stacked with her other purchases. "I read that Vera Leeds started writing children's fairy books. I'm sure my little Karen will be thrilled to get this fairy story by her for a birthday gift. My granddaughters all love Vera Leeds's Foster Girls books and the television series, too."
Zola thought about telling her that Vera Leeds, aka Vivian Jamison, lived nearby in Wears Valley. Instead, she said, "I'm sure your granddaughter will be pleased with the book, Mrs. Springer—and with the fairy wings, garland, and wand you bought her, too." Zola tucked the items into a gift box, tore off a sheet of fanciful paper, and began to wrap the present. Nature's Corner provided gift-wrapping, for a fee, in three paper choices.
Mrs. Springer tucked her credit card back in her paisley purse. "I do thank you for helping me pick out these things for Karen. Birthdays are so special for little ones." She looked at Zola speculatively. "Do you have children, dear?"
"No. I'm not married yet, Mrs. Springer. I've been busy finishing school, learning the retail business, and establishing my own store." Zola deftly wrapped green ribbon around the box covered in butterfly paper, added a ribbon loop to the top, and taped on the Nature's Corner gold sticker in the center.
Mrs. Springer wagged a finger at Zola. "Well, I'm sure the right man will come along for a pretty girl like you."
A voice slipped into Zola's consciousness before she could reply. She's left her lights on.
Zola paused. "Are you planning on doing other shopping today, Mrs. Springer?"
The woman nodded, smoothing down a pink pullover sweater over her ample figure. "Oh, yes. Raymond and I just got here. He's over in the woodcraft shop. We're going to spend the whole day in Gatlinburg enjoying the sunshine."
Zola laid a hand over hers. "Promise me you'll put this gift in your car before you shop anymore, Mrs. Springer. There's been a rash of people leaving their lights on lately after they park, and I'd like you to check your car. On a busy day like this, it's hard to get help in Gatlinburg if you experience car trouble."
Mrs. Springer pursed her lips and leaned forward. "That's a nice suggestion, dear. I've noticed Raymond is getting more and more forgetful these days about that sort of thing."
She took the shopping bag with the gift in it from Zola. "Besides, I wouldn't want to carry this bag around all day, anyway. Books are heavy."
Zola watched her leave with relief. Sometimes it proved easier, passing the words along, especially when people were receptive like Mrs. Springer.
Seeing two new customers come into the store, Zola blew out a breath. She could use a short break—but she'd need to wait until a lull between sales. Who'd have thought a Friday would be such a busy day?
Zola greeted the two women, who wanted to browse, and then made her way over to the couple who'd walked in earlier. The man was tall and tan, with sun-dipped brown hair, and the woman, a Marilyn Monroe blonde, with a bust to match, her arm tucked possessively through his.
"Welcome to Nature's Corner," Zola said, smiling at them in greeting. "Can I help you with something?"
"Perhaps." The blonde shifted blue, sulky eyes over Zola, scanning her in evaluation.
Zola met her gaze calmly, unruffled by the assessment, watching the woman shift uncomfortably before turning bright eyes to the man.
"Ask her about the scarves." She leaned against him. "See if she knows how to do them."
He turned deep, thoughtful eyes toward Zola—thinker's eyes, artist's eyes. An interesting man. Zola noticed the contradiction of a neat white oxford shirt and trendy loafers, coupled with old jeans and long hair tied back with a leather strip. He didn't know with a certainty who he was, she thought.
The man lifted his eyes to hers, and a swift moment of recognition flashed as they connected on another plane before he dropped his gaze. Zola felt a shiver.
Picking up a square of turquoise patterned fabric, he held it out, his eyes moving to the framed display picture illustrating how to tie the fabric into a garment. "We saw the picture showing how to wrap this into a dress and wondered how it worked—or if it worked—and if it was easy to do."
The blonde fingered the silky, floral fabric. "It's such beautiful material."
"Yes. It's a pareu." Zola smiled at her. "In many island cultures, like in the South Pacific, the women, and the men, wear pareus freely. They're cool and comfortable."
On familiar ground now, Zola slipped off her Nature's Corner apron as she talked. "All pareus are traditionally a fabric piece approximately two yards long and one yard wide, like this one. The material is hand-blocked or hand painted in traditional floral, or tapa, patterns." She took the fabric from the woman's hands to spread it out. "You can wrap a pareu into a dress, skirt, turban, or shawl. There are hundreds of designs, but I can show you one that is especially easy."
Zola wrapped the fabric around her back and brought the fabric ends forward to the front. Then she began to cross and tuck the fabric nimbly around her body and above her breasts until the garment took the shape of a tropical dress, dropping to mid calf.
"Oh, it's gorgeous!" The blonde looked charmed. "I think I could do the wrapping, too."
"Of course you could." Zola encouraged her, taking the pareu off herself in a few quick movements and moving toward the blonde to slip the fabric around her back. "Here, I'll show you."
In a few moments, she helped the woman to create her own dress, this one with a silky strap tucked over one shoulder.
The blonde surveyed herself in the wall mirror with admiration. Glancing over her shoulder at the man, she dropped her eyes seductively. "It would look even better without the clothes under it."
As the woman's gaze slid over him with familiarity, Zola turned away to slip her store apron back on again. She answered a final question and then excused herself to go speak to her other customers.
A short time later the man came to the counter carrying the turquoise pareu and another in vivid yellows and red.
"I'll take both of these," he said, his voice rich and deep.
Zola rang them up, wrapped them in tissue, and tucked them into a dark green Nature's Corner bag. She looked up to find the man quietly watching her. Their eyes met, and Zola frowned—listening to the words that rose up in her spirit.
She put out a hand to touch his without thinking. "She isn't for you. Be careful of her."
His eyes widened. "I beg your pardon?"
Zola shook her head and leaned toward him. "Be careful of her. The woman you're with. She's a thief. She's not for you. In fact, she will rob you tonight after ..." Her voice dropped away, and Zola felt a flush rise up her neck.
The man jerked his hand away from hers. "Who the heck do you think you are to judge me—or her?" His eyes flashed. "You don't know either of us."
Zola met his gaze without flinching. "It's what I heard. Sometimes I simply know things. Keep it in mind, that's all I ask."
She watched him scrutinize her from head to toe with angry eyes. Then he smiled cruelly. "So, what's your next prediction, shopgirl? Do you think maybe you're the one for me—since you think she's not? Is that your next line?"
Surprised, Zola caught her breath, crossing her arms over her breasts defensively. She didn't like the way his eyes raked her up and down.
She took a shaky breath. "I didn't get any knowledge about that, sir," she said softly, meeting his stormy eyes with calm ones. "I only got what I told you. If you're wise, you will remember it later."
His eyes narrowed, moving to the name sewn on her apron front. "What do you think you are, Zola—some kind of gypsy fortune-teller? You certainly have the appearance of one and the name to match. Black hair, dark eyes, with an exotic look. Is it cultivated? And is draping yourself seductively in those scarves, like you did, part of your drama act?"
Zola felt her face flush. She pressed down a surge of anger and met his eyes with honesty. "I am half Tahitian by birth, sir. My looks, and my name, are my birthright, not contrived. I grew up in the South Pacific. Wearing pareus is as comfortable and natural to me as wearing jeans is to you. I show all my customers how to drape and tie garments because it is a part of my business as a store owner."
The blonde slithered up to put a hand through the man's arm. "Is anything wrong?" She looked from one to the other.
The man's eyes challenged Zola to reply.
"Nothing is wrong." Zola smiled at the woman. "We just had a momentary disagreement on a small subject."
As the woman drifted away, attracted by a basket filled with shell necklaces on a nearby display table, Zola spoke quietly again. "Keep in mind what I said." She handed the man the Nature's Corner bag over the counter.
He snatched the bag and gave her a final angry stare before turning to leave. She watched the blonde tuck her arm into his again as they left the store.
Oh, well, she thought with resignation, turning with a friendly smile to her next customer.
A little later, Zola finally got a chance to slip into the back of the store for a quick break. She carried a bottle of flavored water and an apple out to the front with her and sat down on a stool behind the counter for a rest. It had been a long day, and there were several hours yet to go before close.
The bell on the door of Nature's Corner jingled once more, and a familiar figure appeared in the doorway. Zola's face broke into a grin. "Maya Thomas, you're not supposed to be here. It's your day off."
"Yeh, and how else would I get to see your face if I didn't come to find you here?" The brown-eyed Jamaican woman started across the room toward Zola. Tall and lithe, she wore her gray hair short around her regal, warm-toned face.
She came close to Zola, framed her cheeks with her hands, and studied her with pleasure. "It is good to see you, Zolakieran. You've been away to those far islands too long a time. It is a fine thing to see your face again. Jah know."
Zola loved Maya's occasional lapses into Jamaican terms. "The Lord knows it is good to see your face again, too, Maya."
The older woman kissed both of Zola's cheeks before releasing her to step back. "So when did you plan to come and see your good friend, yeh?"
Zola put her hands on her hips. "I only got in last night, Maya. Should I have driven to your place at midnight? I was tired and I needed sleep. It's a long flight from the South Pacific to the mountains of Tennessee."
Maya shook a finger at her. "That it is. And you should have let me work your hours today. I have come now so you will go home to get some rest." She studied Zola's eyes. "You look tired. You know Viola would have worked again today to fill in for you with gladness. She worked your hours all these weeks. Another day longer wouldn't have mattered to her."
"I know. Viola is good to fill in for us when we need her."
Viola Bartlett, a full-figured, warm-natured woman with a grown son and time on her hands, loved to pick up hours at the store part-time whenever Zola needed her. She gladly worked Zola's hours when Zola took her yearly trips home to the South Pacific to be with her family and to do buying for the store.
Maya crossed her arms and lifted a corner of her mouth in a smile. "The truth of it is you couldn't wait to get yourself back in here, and that's a fact."
Zola smiled at her. "You're probably right about that. I've missed it."
"Is that all you're having for your dinner?" Maya eyed the apple on the counter.
"I've been busy." Zola shrugged.
"Well, I'll run behind the store to the Garden Café and get us both a little bite to eat. We'll visit around the customers." She started toward the back door. "You save that apple for later. I'll get us homemade chicken potpies for dinner. You know George's cook has a gift for making those."
"What about your girls?" Zola asked. "Shouldn't you get home for Carole and Clarissa?"
"Ahhh, those girls." She waved a hand dismissively. "They've gone to Pigeon Forge to shop."
Zola leaned her elbows on the counter. "You must love having Carole back home again." Maya's oldest daughter had graduated from college and come back home after Christmas.
"Hmmmph. It's little enough I see of her since she started working in Tanner Cross's accounting office." Maya made a face. "And, of course, it will only get worse as the tax season starts coming in."
Despite her fussing, Zola knew Maya felt pleased that Carole found a job here in Gatlinburg and moved back home after graduation. Since Maya's husband Nigel died several years ago, the girls were Maya's only family in the States.
After Maya left, Zola looked over the posted work schedule for the coming week, where she'd penciled herself back in for her regular hours at the store again. Maya and she had alternated days at the store ever since Zola bought and opened Nature's Corner three years ago. Zola's other part-time employee was Faith Rayburn, a family friend. Faith was a caring, slightly wispy mother of four who worked around her children's school schedule for extra money. She wasn't good with bookkeeping or with running the register totals, but the customers loved her warmth and local charm.
The bell jingled again, and Zola was soon busy with a new sweep of customers. She rang up six more sales before Maya returned.
During the next lull, the friends sat at the front counter on two stools and ate chicken potpie. They talked about the new products Zola found for the store on her buying trip, and Maya caught her up on store news.
Then Zola told Maya about the man who came in the store earlier. "I wish he had been more open to hear."
Maya frowned. "He's a bootoo to take no heed of a useful warning like that."
Zola grinned. She knew a bootoo, in Jamaican, was an insignificant or dumb person. "Perhaps," she said. "But I always feel bad when someone gets mad and doesn't understand. I always think I might have expressed things better."
Maya shook her head. "It is not your responsibility in the Lord to see to it that people like His Words. It is simply your job to offer the words as you are given them."
"I guess." Zola sighed as she spooned out the last remnants of her supper. The Garden did have the best homemade chicken potpie.
Maya cocked her head to one side. "Is it better back in Mooréa—how your gift is received?"
Zola laughed. "No. Sometimes it's worse. Some of the natives make an obvious effort to walk around me or make a sign when I go by."
"Wutless!" Maya lapsed into another Jamaican phrase, meaning worthless.
"Sometimes I get gifts left at my doorstep, like offerings. Hibiscus blossoms, shells, breadfruit, or mangos. Once I actually got a black pearl a diver found. It was a thank-you gift for a word of knowledge that helped to save the man's child." She gathered up their dishes thoughtfully. "I was only seven years old when that happened. Mama made the pearl into a necklace for me. I still have it and wear it."
"Your mama respected your gift and she encouraged it." Maya dumped their dishes and plastic spoons into the paper sack from the café. "She was a good mother. I'm sorry you lost her so young."
"Me too." Zola fingered the pearl around her neck as she remembered her mother. "She told me it was like receiving a pearl of great price to be given the gift of being a seer. She said never to misuse it or to take profit from it or I could cloud its beauty and dishonor God."
Maya made a spiritual sign Zola didn't recognize. "May she be blessed for encouraging you."
Excerpted from Makin' Miracles by LIN STEPP. Copyright © 2015 Lin Stepp. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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