There’s a secret in Grandma Rose’s attic—a forgotten set of dog tags belonging to her first love. But David Hutchins was killed in action and never returned to Smitten. How did the dog tags end up in the attic?
The mystery intrigues Rose’s three granddaughters—Tess, Clare, and Zoe—and they decide to investigate, though their mother, Anna, warns against meddling. But as the seasons turn and the mystery unravels, the three young women and their mother encounter some intriguing mystery men of their own. Has a sixty-year-old puzzle sparked something new for this close-knit family of women?
- Sweet, contemporary romance
- Happily ever after
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
- Also by these authors:
- Smitten Book Club
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Kristin Billerbeck is the author of numerous Christian novels, hitting the CBA bestseller list and winning the coveted ACFW Book of the Year in 2004 for What a Girl Wants and again in 2006 for With this Ring, I’m Confused. She has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, World Magazine, the Atlanta Journal Constitition and been seen on the "Today Show" for her pioneering role in Christian Chick Lit. She has a bachelor’s degree in advertising from San Jose State University.
Denise Hunter is the internationally published bestselling author of more than 25 books, including A December Bride and The Convenient Groom, which have been adapted into original Hallmark Channel movies. She has won The Holt Medallion Award, The Reader's Choice Award, The Carol Award, The Foreword Book of the Year Award, and is a RITA finalist. When Denise isn't orchestrating love lives on the written page, she enjoys traveling with her family, drinking green tea, and playing drums. Denise makes her home in Indiana where she and her husband are rapidly approaching an empty nest. To learn more about Denise, visit her website DeniseHunterBooks.com; Facebook: AuthorDeniseHunter; Twitter: @DeniseAHunter; Instagram: deniseahunter.
Read an Excerpt
Secretly SmittenLove Changes Everything
By Colleen Coble Kristin Billerbeck Diann Hunt Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Kristin Billerbeck, Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWrapping paper lay strewn around the floor in a happy crumple of color. Tess Thomas handed her cousin one last gift and suppressed a smile. Nat would blush when she saw the filmy negligee Tess had bought. But Tess knew if anyone would look great in the gown, it was her cousin. It was something Tess would never purchase for herself. But then, what need would she have for a honeymoon gown anyway?
While Natalie began to rip paper with abandon, Tess glanced around the packed parlor of their grandmother's old house. Their friends had all shown up for the bridal shower, and there wasn't space for another chair. A few women even sat on the floor with their backs propped against the wall. That was what Tess loved about the small town of Smitten, Vermont. Neighbors were like family. And they'd all pulled together in amazing ways this past year as they worked to put Smitten on the map as a town based on tourism—a romantic destination, in fact. There were so many new businesses, including a big hotel that had taken over the old lumber mill.
Their great-aunt Violet bustled in with a tray of cookies and tea. "Tess, dear," she whispered. "I'm not sure these gluten-free things are worth eating."
The cookies were as lopsided as Violet's red lipstick. The color of that lipstick had never changed over the years—it was the same orangey red that clashed pitifully with Violet's dyed red hair.
Tess took the crumbliest cookie and took a bite. "They're good, Aunt Violet. And Natalie will appreciate that you went to the trouble."
Her aunt's smile brightened. "I'm so glad, honey. You always were my favorite niece!" She winked dramatically.
Tess's sister Clare took the tray. "Let me help you with that, Aunt Violet." She circled the room with the tray in hand, and to their credit, most guests took a cookie.
Natalie took a break from the gifts to nibble on a cookie and glanced around. "Where's Mia?"
"In the attic," Grandma Rose said. "You girls always loved to play up there, remember?"
This three-story Victorian was special. Tess, her sisters, and their cousins had loved exploring the attic when they came to visit their grandmother and great-aunts. The grand old home's welcome enveloped visitors the moment they stepped onto the polished walnut floors.
Tess turned toward the hall. "You stay here with your guests. I'll check on her, Natalie."
When Tess reached the bottom of the stairs, Natalie's adopted daughter, Mia, was descending. The six-year-old had a purple boa around her neck and wore a red velvet dress, the hem trailing on the hardwood. She'd found some lipstick from somewhere—probably Violet's, judging by the color—and her small white teeth gleamed behind the smear of orange.
Mia reached the bottom of the staircase and twirled. "Look at me, Tess!"
A wave of love swept over Tess. If only she could have a daughter like Mia someday. "Smashing," she said in genuine admiration. "That's an unusual necklace." She leaned down to examine the tarnished metal and realized it held a pair of dog tags. "Where did you get it?"
Mia looked down at her feet and shuffled. "In the attic."
"Was it in the trunk you were allowed to be in?"
"No." Mia peeked up at her. She held up her arm to show a bracelet. "My bracelet fell off and went down a hole. I put my hand in to get it and found the necklace too." Red stained Mia's cheeks. "Should I put it back?"
Tess put her hand on Mia's soft hair. "No, it's fine, honey. I just wondered where you found it. I've never seen it before."
Natalie appeared in the doorway from the parlor. "Is something wrong?" She glanced at her daughter.
"Not really. I was looking at something Mia found in the attic."
A frown crouched between Natalie's eyes. "Are those dog tags? What on earth ... There haven't been any soldiers in our family, have there, Tess?" She held out her hand. "Let me see them, Mia."
Mia's lower lip quivered, but she took off the dog tags and handed them over. "I didn't hurt them."
"It's okay, sweetie. I'm sure you didn't." Natalie reached out a reassuring hand to embrace the girl. Lifting the tag to the light, she studied it. "David Hutchins."
Tess's grandmother spoke from behind them. "David Hutchins? Where did you hear that name?"
Tess turned to see the color leave her grandmother's face. "On these dog tags Mia found upstairs in the attic." Beyond Grandma Rose, she saw Aunt Violet turn pale and reach out to steady herself on the wall.
Grandma Rose grabbed the door frame. "With David's name?"
For a moment Tess thought her grandmother might faint. She rushed to her side. "Grandma, are you all right?"
Her grandmother wetted her lips. "I'm fine. I'm just trying to understand this. David died in the Korean conflict. As far as I know, his dog tags were never recovered. Neither was his body."
"See for yourself," Natalie said, joining them, hand outstretched.
Grandma Rose clutched the dog tags, then held them to the light. "Mia, where did you find these?"
"In the attic." Mia's voice wobbled. "I'm sorry."
Tess embraced her. "You're not in trouble, honey. Grandma is just surprised they were there." She stared at her grandmother, who was as pale as the white blouse she wore. "Who was David Hutchins?"
Her grandmother was staring at the dog tags. She blinked rapidly. "My fiancé."
Natalie frowned. "I'm confused. What about Grandpa Martin?"
Grandma Rose bit her lip. "I loved him, of course, but he wasn't my first love." She hesitated. "First love is special." Her face took on a dreamy expression. "He used to call me his Betty Boop."
Though it hurt even to imagine her grandmother loving another man before her own grandfather, Tess loved a good mystery, and this smelled like the best kind. "If he died in the war, then how did these dog tags get in your attic?"
"I don't know. It makes no sense."
"Could the military have sent them back to you?" Natalie asked.
"They didn't. I would have kept them close. They wouldn't be in the attic."
"You're sure he died?" Tess asked.
"Of course. The army notified his parents. I was there when they told us of his death." She looked down. "It was the darkest day of my life."
Darker than the day Grandpa died? Tess studied her grandmother's face but didn't ask the question.
"Did he live here in Smitten?" Natalie asked.
Grandma Rose nodded. "Over on Green Valley Road. In that big house where Ryan Stevenson lives now."
Tess's pulse kicked at Ryan Stevenson's name. The handsome widower was a Saturday morning patron at her bookstore. Not that he'd ever noticed her.
"David's family moved away after his death." Her grandmother's voice broke, then she recovered her composure and managed a smile. "We'd better get back to our guests."
Tess followed her to the parlor, but her brain was whirling. What did it all mean?
* * *
The last guests had left and Tess and her sisters were picking up bits of confetti and wrapping paper from the floor. The older women had gone out to practice for Saturday night's concert in the town square. Tess lifted the dog tags from the table and rattled them in her hands. "We have to get to the bottom of this," she said.
Her mother, Anna, shook her head. At fifty, she was still trim and her skin was smooth and pink. Most people thought she was much younger. "It's none of our concern, Tess. We shouldn't be poking our nose into Mother's business."
"Something happened, and even Grandma has no idea what it was. Aren't you the least bit curious?"
Her youngest sister, Zoe, dropped a dustpan full of confetti into a wastebasket. "I think Grandma deserves to know the truth. How could those tags have gotten there?"
Clare stopped sweeping. "Let's think about this." As the middle child, she was the reflective one, with her feet firmly planted on the ground. "It's very strange."
"Maybe he didn't die in the war," Tess suggested. "Maybe he came to town. What if Grandpa answered the door when he got here and didn't let him see Grandma?"
"Now, Tess, I'm sure it was nothing so unpleasant," Anna said. "I'm sure my mother isn't interested anymore."
"Of course she is! You saw how white she went. She must have loved him very much. And what if he's still alive?" Tess could see it now. A handsome gentleman with white hair stepping out of a restored Roadster. Her grandmother's face bright with happiness. "We could get them together again."
"He's probably married by now, even if he did survive the war," Clare pointed out. "But you're jumping to conclusions. It's more likely that his parents left the tags here or something. Maybe Aunt Violet or Aunt Petunia tucked them away so she wouldn't be upset."
"If that's the case, then there's no real mystery at all," their mother said.
Tess was sure it wasn't something that simple.
Clare's thoughtful frown was back. "We'll need to handle this very carefully. If he's married, we back off without even talking to him, agreed?"
"He should know the truth," Zoe said. "He should know Grandma thinks he died."
"The truth isn't always the best thing," their mother said. "Not if it hurts someone."
Zoe rolled her eyes but said nothing. Clare cut her gaze to the carpet.
Tess picked up more paper from the floor. "I'll do an Internet search. It can't hurt just to poke around a little." Ryan's face flashed into mind. "Maybe Ryan would let me explore his attic, see if there's any information there."
"I'm sure you'd like that," Clare said, her voice teasing. "The most eligible bachelor in town."
Heat flooded Tess's cheeks. "I'm the last person he'd be interested in." She grabbed a cookie from the plate. She'd mooned over Ryan since high school, not that she would admit it to anyone. He had a way of making you feel like he was really listening, really paying attention to you. With two younger sisters, she sometimes felt her needs were forgotten.
"Now, honey, you put yourself down too much," Anna scolded. "You look fine just the way you are." Even as her mother said the words, she stared at the cookie in Tess's hands. "That probably has two hundred calories in it, sweetie."
Tess put the cookie back on the plate. She avoided Clare's sympathetic glance and unbuttoned her too-tight jacket. She'd bought it for the shower with the intention of losing those fifteen pounds. What was it they said about good intentions?
"You're beautiful, Tess. You just don't see it," Zoe said in a matter-of-fact tone. "And Ryan likes you. I can tell."
If only Tess could believe it. "His wife was Miss Vermont. I'm hardly in that league." She resisted reaching for the cookie again. "I'm just thinking that one time at the bookstore, Ryan mentioned that he needed to clean the attic. Evidently the Hutchins family left a ton of boxes up there. Maybe he'd like some help cleaning it out."
"Perfect. It might just take you awhile to go through them," Clare said, grinning.
"Don't go getting any ideas. This is strictly research. I'm not interested in Ryan."
"Whatever you say." Clare stood up straight and stretched. "Looks like we've finished up here. And I need coffee. Anyone want to go with me?"
Zoe got up. "Not me. I spend enough of my life in the coffee shop. I want to go to Ryan's ice cream store."
"I'll go with you, Zoe," Tess said. When her mother lifted a brow, she added, "If Ryan is there, I can ask him about looking through the attic."
She followed her sisters out of the house and told herself their grandmother would thank them in the end.
Chapter TwoCrème brûlée sundae coming up." Ryan Stevenson smiled at Julia Bourne, who stood waiting with her fiancé, Zak Grant. Zak already had his banana split, complete with coconut and chocolate syrup. The late spring day was unseasonably warm and had brought in a lot of customers.
The bell over the door of the Wind Chill Creamery jingled, and Ryan straightened when he saw Tess Thomas coming in. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her blue eyes crinkled in a smile when he greeted her.
"The usual?" he asked, starting for the Almond Avalanche.
"With coconut topping," she said. "But a small one. Zoe wants to try it too." Her sister moved off to talk to Julia.
Tess moved closer to the display freezer and studied the flavors. "What are you doing working the counter today? I thought you'd be back in the office crunching numbers or over at the creamery supervising the cheese making. Isn't today the big production day?"
"One of the employees here didn't show up today. The cheese was nearly ready to ship to stores, and I needed a break." He opened the freezer lid and began to scoop out the dark-chocolate ice cream loaded with almonds. "How about you? You're usually at the bookstore on Saturdays." Too late he realized he was revealing the fact that he knew her habits. She'd think he was a stalker.
"Natalie's bridal shower was today," she said, showing no sign of catching his slip.
"Oh yes, that's right. Sophia went with my mother-in-law."
"Right, she was playing with my cousin's daughter, Mia." Tess took the cone he handed her. "Um, listen, I have a favor to ask. Are those boxes that were there when you bought your house still in the attic?"
He began to scoop the ice cream for Zoe. "Yeah. I've been meaning to go through them, but it's a mammoth job and I've been putting it off." He grinned. "Are you needing donations for a garage sale?" He might even face that mountain of work if it would make Tess think more highly of him.
"No." She took a lick of her cone and closed her eyes with a sigh. "This is the best ice cream in the world." She opened her eyes and looked at him again. "This is probably an odd request, but I'd like to find out more about the Hutchins family. Especially David. I wondered if you'd mind letting me go through the attic. I'd even organize things for you and let you know what could be hauled to the dump and what could be donated."
He handed the cone to Zoe and hoped his expression didn't reveal his eagerness. "That sounds like an offer too good to refuse. I'll be glad to help too." When she blushed, he tempered his eagerness. "I mean, if you could use the help."
"I don't want to bother you."
"No bother," he assured her. "What's with the interest in the Hutchins family?"
She glanced around to make sure no one was listening. Zoe had taken her cone and gone to an outside table with Zak and Julia, so the creamery was empty. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't say anything about this to anyone."
He made a zipping motion along his mouth. "My lips are sealed."
"David Hutchins was engaged to my grandmother. She says he died in Korea and his body was never found. But here's the funny thing. Mia just found his dog tags down a hole in the attic."
"That is odd. How did the dog tags get in the Garners' attic?"
"That's what we don't know. I'd like to find a clue about where his family went. You bought the house from them?"
He shook his head. "It was bank owned and had been for ten years. The place was a mess when I moved in. Someone else had owned it for thirty years. I'm not even sure if all the junk up there belonged to them or the Hutchins family."
Tess's face fell. "I hadn't thought of that. But surely there's a clue somewhere up there."
"You and your mysteries," he said, smiling. When her brows rose, he pointed to the book poking out of her bag. "You're always reading one."
Her blush deepened. "While you tend to read biographies." She bit her lip. "I mean, I've called you a dozen times when a book you've ordered has come in."
His surge of elation deflated. Of course she would know his reading habits. It was her business to know what all her customers liked. "When do you want to start?"
"After church tomorrow?"
"Sounds good. I'll be happy to pick you up for church. Then we could go straight to my house."
"You'd have to take me home," she reminded him.
"I don't mind. I'll even spring for pizza."
Her dimple appeared. "I don't expect you to entertain me. It's enough that you're letting me do this. I'll just drive and follow you out to your house. I don't want to be a bother."
Easy. Don't rush her. "Whatever you like."
"I'll bring lunch as a thank-you for the access. Something easy like my spicy enchilada casserole."
He grinned. He hated Mexican food, but he wasn't about to tell her. He reminded himself to have lots of milk on hand so he could choke it down.
* * *
It was ridiculous to feel this nervous. It wasn't a date. Tess was going to rummage in his attic, then leave. The aroma of chicken enchiladas wafted up her nose as she stood on the porch of the big old house and pressed the doorbell. She knew better than to moon after someone like Ryan. He was way out of her league.
The door opened, and she caught a glimpse of pale yellow walls and gleaming wood floors. Ryan was dressed in jeans and a Red Sox sweatshirt. Little Sophia hung on to his leg but peeked up at Tess with a shy smile.
"Come in," Ryan said. He swung the door wide. "Here, let me take that." He lifted the bag from her hands. "Smells good."
Tess followed him into the expansive foyer. A flight of open stairs rose to the second floor. The ceilings were at least ten feet high. "Wow, your home is lovely."
"I can't claim any of the credit. Candace did it all." He pointed down the hall. "This way to the kitchen. We can eat there rather than the dining room."
Brown granite topped the cherry cabinets. The slate floors and polished fixtures proclaimed how much the kitchen remodel had cost. Tess eyed the big island. Making bread there would be a dream come true. She couldn't resist touching the smooth surface of the stone. And it was spotless. She'd expected a messy house since he was a single dad. He'd already stacked plates and tableware on the table at the other end of the kitchen. It was a homey wood one that didn't match the cabinets. She wanted to ask if he'd moved it in after Candace died, but the question didn't seem appropriate.
"I baked bread, but I didn't bring butter," she said. "I assumed you'd have some famous creamery butter here."
"You bet." He got it out of the refrigerator.
She scooped up a generous helping of the enchiladas for him. Her serving was half the size of his, but she'd nibbled on M&M's and nuts on the way over. She sliced the bread, then joined him and Sophia at the table. She wanted to believe his expression was anticipation as he eyed his plate, but it seemed more like dismay.
"Did I give you too much?" she asked.
His smile seemed forced. "I had a late breakfast, but I'm sure it will be delicious." He forked a bit into his mouth and chewed. His face reddened. He swallowed, then grabbed for his glass of milk. "Hot," he croaked.
"The peppers were a little spicy," she agreed. "The hotter the better, though, don't you think?"
"My dad hates hot stuff," Sophia said. "I like it, though." Her serving was already a third gone.
Excerpted from Secretly Smitten by Colleen Coble Kristin Billerbeck Diann Hunt Denise Hunter Copyright © 2012 by 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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Table of Contents
ContentsLove Between the Lines by Colleen Coble....................1
Make Me a Match by Kristin Billerbeck....................87
Knit One, Love Two by Diann Hunt....................183
Love Blooms by Denise Hunter....................273