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Read an Excerpt
Sweet Southern Hearts
The Willow Hill Series
By Susan Schild
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Susan Schild
All rights reserved.
Linny's heartbeat galloped under her life jacket as they shot down the rapids of the Ocasoula River. Eyes wide, she watched as their orange raft careened toward a jagged boulder, bumped it hard, and spun them toward a patch of choppy water. As the water rushed around the three of them — Linny, her new husband Jack, and their beautiful, Ms. Outward Bound–type goddess of a river guide — they dug deep and paddled hard, straining to pull through the eddy. With a whoosh, they were pulled backward down the roaring, foaming river. Linny shot Jack a panicky glance, but he was grinning exultantly and looking like he was having the time of his life. With the flick of a braid and a pirate's smile, the guide thrust her paddle into the rapids, turned the raft around, and steered them downstream toward calmer water. Too soon to relax, though. Linny saw more rough waters ahead and tensed.
Be a shame to lose a third husband, she thought crazily and paddled harder.
The nimble-footed photographer from the outdoor center jogged along a path on the riverbank, snapping away as their raft rocketed toward the Turbinator, the Class III rapid that roiled ahead in the home stretch of the river trip. The photographer's ponytail bounced as he raced ahead of them, taking shots as their raft bucked, dove, and finally glided through the rain-swollen Ocasoula.
Soon, a shivering Linny stood at the takeout, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. She'd been splashed thoroughly and didn't want to think about how cold the water would have been if they'd flipped over. Though it was late June, the guide told them the water temperature was only in the midfifties. Linny found herself grinning like a fool as she waited for Jack to come back from the truck with his wallet to pay for their pictures. She'd been terrified, but she'd had a blast.
A white water rafting trip might not be high on most women's lists of a must-do on a honeymoon, but when Linny had seen how Jack's eyes sparkled as he reminisced about a rafting trip he'd taken when he was in his twenties, she'd said, "Let's do it!" in an enthusiastic, practically perky voice she'd hardly recognized. In this new and complicated marriage, being a good sport and flexible as Gumby were going to ease the way. Though rafting wasn't her thing, Jack had cheerfully gone on the vineyard tour with her yesterday and, on the drive up to the mountains, had tagged along, not looking bored, as she'd poked through vintage aprons and yellow Nancy Drew books at an antique store.
"Here you go, ma'am." The young man held out his camera and scratched one mesh-sandaled foot with the other as he watched her view the shots he'd taken.
In perfect clarity, the fellow had caught them at the moment she and Jack got sling-shot skyward in their raft after diving down into the roiling water of that last rapid. Linny peered more closely at the picture. The photographer had captured the Carolina blue sky day, the Day-Glo orange of the raft, the lithe young goddess at the helm, and her and Jack — the glowing, sun-drenched newlyweds. Twice coming down that river they'd almost flipped and been swept into the churning waters. Linny's teeth had chattered and she'd buzzed with adrenaline and fear, but she looked alive and exhilarated as she beamed at Jack, pure joy in her eyes. With powerful arms, he was digging away with his paddle, helping power them through. But Linny spotted two details that made her eyes well up: Jack's new gold band glinting in the sunlight and the look he'd given her just as the photographer had taken the shot was one of wonder and delight. He looked like he was thinking, How did I get this lucky?
"You did a great job." Linny smiled at the young photographer.
"Thanks." The young man blushed and pulled down the brim of his cap. He pointed to the visitors' center. "Just give me a minute to load the pictures and you can pick the ones you want."
"Thanks. We'll be over as soon as my husband gets back," she said.
He raised a hand and loped off.
Linny loved saying my husband. She'd probably said it too many times over the three days of this honeymoon. My husband and I are from Willow Hill. My husband is a veterinarian. My husband likes unsweetened tea. Linny smiled at herself. Yup, she was being obnoxious, but she didn't care. She was so dang happy that she couldn't stop. Well, at least for a while.
At age thirty-nine and with her streak of bad luck with husbands, the odds of her and Jack finding each other and falling in love weren't great. Linny sent up a quick prayer of pure gratefulness. After her beloved first husband, Andy, had died of a brown recluse spider bite while cleaning out a shed for Linny — an item on the too-long honey-do lists she always kept for him — she'd been lost for so many years and thought she'd never be happy again. Then Buck the charmer came along. She should have known a golden boy driving a vintage Caddy wouldn't be good husband material, but she'd married him anyway. He'd turned out to be trouble, but just as she was considering divorcing him, he'd up and died on her. When his aneurism blew while he was in bed with a woman named Kandi, he'd left her broke.
Linny had sworn she'd steer clear of men or die trying, and then she'd met Jack. Technically, she'd accidentally hit him in the head with a bourbon bottle while recycling at the dump. She smiled and shook her head, remembering. Most women would pretty up that how-we-met story, but Linny told people the unvarnished version. Maybe she just wanted to spread the word that second chances, fresh starts, and true love were all still possible, even at their ages. The happily ever after you yearn for just might not look the way you thought it would.
So, a few days ago in a backyard ceremony, Linny had married Jack. A small-town vet with a twelve-year-old son and an exquisite ex-wife who was just a little too chummy with him for Linny's taste, Jack came with complications. But so had she. And today she was buoyant and happy.
Jack strode toward her in his Levi's and the dark green T-shirt she'd picked out for him — the extralong one that that fit his tall, rangy frame and was also the exact color of his pine green eyes. Her shivering lessening, she grinned at him.
"Let's warm you up, shug." He wrapped her in one of his large and slightly doggy-smelling fleece he'd gotten from the truck and began to rub her shoulders.
She leaned in to him, enjoying the warmth and solid heft of him, and rested her head against his broad shoulder. "Okay." Hugging him always made her feel safe, like finally arriving home after a long, arduous trip.
On the way back to the cabin Jack cast her a sideways glance from the driver's seat of the truck. "Did you have a good time?"
"I did." Linny sighed. "This has been the best honeymoon ever." As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt her face flame. Why had she said that? She wasn't ranking her three honeymoons, holding up cards like the skating judges with numbers one through ten printed on them. Linny shot him a glance to see how hurt he looked, but he just patted her knee and whistled between his teeth as he adjusted the rearview mirror.
Linny shook her head. She'd drive herself crazy yet.
The tires of Jack's red truck crunched on the gravel as they pulled up beside their hideaway. Linny took Jack's hand as they walked up the front path, admiring the square-cut logs and clean lines of the two-room rustic log cabin. She'd rented it after obsessively comparing reviews on travel websites. Perched on a high ridge, their cabin was skirted by lush pink rhododendron and gave long-range views of the green and blue patchwork quilt of the valley laid out before it. She'd chosen the perfect, cozy honeymoon spot.
Linny took a quick shower, dried her hair, and slipped on a cool floral sundress. Jack was on the front porch playing his guitar, and she smiled as she heard him strumming. Padding barefoot to the tiny kitchen, she opened a beer for Jack and poured herself a glass of the crisp Pinot Grigio they'd bought at the vineyard the day before.
Pushing open the screen door with her hip, she handed Jack his beer. He sat in a rocker, cradling the guitar. A self-taught musician, Jack was still self-conscious about his mistakes, but he was coming along fast. He took a draw of beer, put the bottle on the floor, and eased into the opening chords of James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind." Giving her a sorry-if-I-mess-up smile, he began to sing quietly in his warm tenor.
Leaning against the railing, arms crossed, she watched him and felt a wave of contentment. She held out her hand and examined her glittering ring, made from the emeralds Jack and Neal had dug out of a gem mine especially for her. Unbeknownst to her, the father-son adventure weekend they'd taken last summer was for the express purpose of finding stones for her ring. To have Neal involved in the gem hunt was a majorly smart move on Jack's part, especially because her stepson still watched her warily, worried that she'd try to replace his mother. The stones weren't particularly high quality, but Linny didn't care. She loved the ring.
Jack missed a chord and winced. Noticing her ring studying, a smile played at his lips.
Linny smiled back. Ruthie, the office manager in Jack's veterinary practice, said that after Vera divorced Jack, some women clients feigned reasons to bring their pets in for appointments just to spend time with him. "A woman with a poodle named Precious claimed the dog had ADHD, and another time a tummy ache-toothache-itching issue," she'd said, rolling her eyes and patting Linny's arm. "So glad he fell for you."
Thank goodness he was the type of man who was oblivious to his own charms, unlike her late hound-dog of a second husband. But banish the thought. She wasn't going to allow regrets to tarnish the present. Linny slid into the rocking chair beside his and sipped her wine. After a moment she began to softly sing along with him. No volume from her. She was prone to sudden scale changes and croaks.
A phone trilled from the kitchen and Jack gave her a smile as he put down the guitar and went to take the call.
His son, Neal — her new stepson, she reminded herself — had called to talk with his dad twice each of the three nights they'd been on their honeymoon. Was that normal for a twelve-year-old? A lot of the other stepmothers in the Bodacious Bonus Moms — the online support and advice blog she'd been reading voraciously for the last few months — complained about their teenage stepchildren not sharing a word with them or their husbands because they were too busy texting and Snapchatting friends.
Linny took a sip of wine and thought about it. How much did Neal's clinginess have to do with his mother, Vera, and her new husband bickering? Petite Vera, with her little-girl voice and perfect white-blond loveliness, reminded Linny of an airy, sweet pink confection, but with her sense of entitlement and demands, she was no cream puff. Her husband, Chaz, was a trial lawyer, and no pushover either. She could see why they butted heads. And with Vera's moneyed background and silver-spoon tastes, her wealthy new husband getting into hot water and losing a lot of his — no, their — money probably didn't sit well with her. Linny felt a flash of mean-spirited pleasure that perfect Vera was having problems, then chided herself. Tension in that household hurt Neal and she didn't want that.
Jack came back to the porch, rubbing a spot between his brows and talking on the phone in that soothing voice he used with scared animals at his veterinary clinic. "So they're fighting nonstop. Can you just go to your room and turn on the white noise app on your phone?" He paused and scowled. "That loud, huh?"
Jack looked at her. "Can you hold on, buddy?" He put the phone to his chest, his expression serious. "He's crying and he never cries. I'd send him to the grandparents, but they're all out of town."
Linny inhaled sharply and racked her brain. "My sister loves Neal to pieces, but she's so overwhelmed with her new baby. I could call her, though ..." she said.
Jack shook his head slowly, his face tight. "We need to go home, Lin. Neal needs us."
Linny nodded mutely, feeling bereft. There went her week-long honeymoon, right out the window. She gazed off for one last long look at the rolling land of the valley and slumped in her chair.
Jack spoke to Neal calmly. "We'll be back this evening and you're going to come stay with us for a while until things simmer down." He paused, listening, and his voice grew firm. "I don't care if your mama doesn't like it. I'll deal with her. Right now, everybody needs to just settle down." He ended the call and sent her an apologetic look. "Lin ..." he began.
She held up a hand and tried to smile. "I understand, Jack. I really do." Rising, she trudged in to begin packing, trying to fight the disappointment crashing down on her like a great wave. She and Jack had the rest of their lives to spend together, she reasoned, but it didn't help.
Vera and Chaz were selfish, Linny thought as she thunked the milk, yogurt, and luncheon meat into the cooler she was packing with unnecessary vigor.
Gathering their toiletries and clothes to put in the suitcase, her heart squeezed for Neal. The last thing a sensitive boy like him needed was a ringside seat to the fight of the century. Going home was the right thing to do.
Jack stepped inside and gave her a wry grin. "I just texted Vera and told her the fighting was upsetting Neal and that we were coming home early to take him for a few days. I didn't ask her, I told her. That should set off a firestorm." He grimaced and held up his phone. "The furious calls should start in four, three, two, one ..."
Linny stood with a hand on her hip, sent him a crooked smile, and waited. The phone rang, its tone sounding more shrill and urgent than it usually did.
Jack rolled his eyes, turned it off, and slipped it in his pocket.
Despite knowing that going home was the best thing to do, as they wound down the mountain in the truck, Linny fantasized about what it would be like to deal less with Vera, if just for a little while. Maybe she and Chaz would get a sudden burning desire to live off the grid for a year to fix their marriage. They'd move to a cabin with no plumbing in Talkeetna, Alaska. Normal-looking couples did it all the time on all those Alaska shows Jack and Neal watched. Vera and Chaz could rebond while chopping firewood and fixing their broken snowmobile, which they urgently needed to go into town to get much-needed supplies because a blizzard was fast approaching. For one long moment Linny imagined how serene life would be with Vera in Talkeetna. She and Jack could walk together through a field of wildflowers, each holding one of Neal's hands — something the boy would never allow them to do. Bluebirds and hummingbirds would fly around them.
Flushing guiltily, she glanced at Jack as though he could read her mind, but he was flipping down the sun visor. Linny blew out a sigh. Glumly, she stared out the window. She didn't really wish for that Alaskan adventure for Vera. Neal really needed his mother and he'd grown to love his stepfather, Chaz, too.
Linny and Jack were quiet for much of the long drive home from the mountains to Willow Hill. Even her Technicolor daydream of Vera battling icy winds as she trudged to the outhouse in fifty below weather didn't cheer her up. Linny was just too disappointed to make conversation. Jack looked pensive, the muscles in his jaw working.
Her phone rang and she glanced at the screen. It was Ruby, one of her mother, Dottie's, two best friends. Had something happened to Mama? Her stomach tightened as she pictured her mother lying on the floor like that woman on the TV commercial who lived alone and didn't have the emergency clicker necklace.
But Ruby sounded cheery. "Hi, sweetheart. Hope you're just walking on air now that you're freshly married. You tell that handsome hunk of a husband of yours that I said hey." Ruby had been a looker in her heyday and still had a flirty streak.
Linny breathed out. This wasn't a meet-me-at-the-emergency-room call. She called to Jack, "Ruby says hey, you handsome hunk of a husband."
Jack shook his head, but his mouth crooked up.
"We're at your mama's house and you need to talk to her," Ruby said. "For weeks now we girls have been planning to go to the RV show at the Civic Center to make a final decision about what kind of camper or RV we want to rent for our trip. We're fixing to get in the car to go and now she's making all kinds of excuses for staying home. This is the last day of the show," Ruby said, sounding exasperated.
Since coming to terms with learning that her late husband had had a longtime mistress, her mother had shaken off her dour, church lady demeanor and blossomed. She'd given up the yard sale habit that bordered on hoarding, taken a two-week Caribbean cruise with her girlfriends, and was now seeing a charming older man named Mack whom she'd met on the ship. Oh, and Dottie — a card-carrying Baptist and member of the Sisters of Dorcas ladies' prayer circle — had won $250,000 on the nickel slots on the ship. So, emboldened with her first big vacation, Mama and her two friends had cooked up this RV adventure they called their "trip to see the US of A." It was all the three of them had talked about for months.
"Let me talk to her," a woman's voice said insistently. Linny heard a fumbling as the phone changed hands. "Dessie here," said her mother's other best friend, in her usual brisk tone. "This is the second time she's backed out of the RV show. Yesterday she said her feet were hurting her and today she's claiming her sugar's high."
Linny paused a beat, baffled. "She doesn't have bad feet or sugar problems."
"We know," Dessie said drily.
"Can you put her on the phone?" Linny asked, rubbing the spot on her temple that had begun to throb. What was going on?
More fumbling sounds, and the phone clattered as it dropped to the floor. Dessie picked back up. "Your mama doesn't feel like talking right now. She and Curtis are going in to take a little lie down."
Excerpted from Sweet Southern Hearts by Susan Schild. Copyright © 2017 Susan Schild. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - Good Sports,
CHAPTER 2 - Big Plans for Grand Adventures,
CHAPTER 3 - Back in the Saddle Again,
CHAPTER 4 - Making Adjustments,
CHAPTER 5 - In the Sky with Diamond,
CHAPTER 6 - Campfire Girls,
CHAPTER 7 - The Delights of Dollywood,
CHAPTER 8 - Rolling on to Music City,
CHAPTER 9 - Homecoming,
CHAPTER 10 - Oh, Baby, Baby,
CHAPTER 11 - Jailhouse Mama,
CHAPTER 12 - Juggling Act,
CHAPTER 13 - The New Normal,
CHAPTER 14 - The Duke Finally Arrives,
CHAPTER 15 - The Jig Is Up,
CHAPTER 16 - Happily Ever Afters,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having read and appreciated the time spent with Linny as she tackles the next chapters of her life, I was excited to see if she would find what she has been searching for. Opening with her honeymoon to the handsome Jack, the town vet, she is just starting to find those moments of connection and satisfaction in her new roles as wife, step-mother and new aunt. But, Jack’s rather passive approach to his ex-wife and more than disrespectful son are huge issues, and the ex-wife (Vera) is one of those women who uses little girl lost and that wheedling voice to get what she wants. Whether Jack is capitulating to get away from it, or just because it’s easier to give in than to set limits I’m not really certain. And neither is Linny as everything seems to pile on her plate, while he’s rather free to do his own thing. More than once I hoped she would put her foot in him, and reclaim her zen by making him do some of the mollifying and smoothing. But…I digress What Schild does with such disarming regularity is present the good, the bad, and the mundane of a normal everyday life, with a few added tweaks, and keep you caring about HOW Linny will approach each situation, solve the problems, or simply ignore the misbehaviors (think teen boy) and do what you were planning anyway. It’s delightfully nuanced, layered with plenty of challenges and joys, and even those unexpected moments of humor from people and situations that happens when least expected. It’s been such a wonderful journey with her as she regrouped, realigned and reformed her life into a vision she built and nurtured, and you can’t help but smile as this new friend moves off into her life. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Sweet Southern Hearts, Susan Schild Review from Jeannie Zelos book reviews Genre: Women’s Fiction Well, with so many books out to choose from, readers have to have some kind of rough and ready way of filtering – some days I feel I spend more time selecting possible reads than actually reading!! One of my filters is that I generally avoid titles with the word “sweet” or ones where it figures large in the description, so I would have passed on this if author Susan hadn’t brought it to my attention. That would be a shame as its a wonderful read, even though I’d not read books one and two – one day...they sound just as fun as this one, so I’d like to read them. For me knowing the ending doesn’t spoil a story and I often reread old favourites. Why avoid Sweet though? Well, to me it conjures up those somewhat sickly and rather chaste 70’s Mills and Boon reads, the Barbara Cartland style of romance where ingenuous virgins rule, all is cute and tidy, nothing the slightest bit controversial, and everything remotely sexual is simply alluded to and stops at the bedroom door. Great for others – M&B sell millions so clearly people love that, but its not my taste. Here though its far from that, a story with divorced families, with problem exes, with ladies in their fifties and over looking for men, trying out internet dating, and some terrific Fun. That theme pervaded the novel, kept me sniggering – the Sturgis festival where the ladies are on their RV tour of USA and think they’re going to a country craft fair and end up at a massive bikers convention, looking for Gourd birdhouses and the like – that was wonderful and felt so very real. Still, I’m getting ahead, Linny and Jack are on their honeymoon and a few days in are having a wonderful time...til the problem ex rears her perfectly coiffed head, rows with her new husband, and Jacks son Neale phones really upset at all the drama. Cut short the honeymoon and return home. Neale is a typical teen, and sometimes he seems OK to Linny, sometimes he even seems to like her, but other times its all how his mum would have done something better...Linny’s been reading step parenting handbooks and asking her friends for help – and what a fab group they are. They each are gems in their own right and play a solid part in the story. Then there’s Jack's parents, off on a cruise but a great pair. They liked the ex, and are trying hard to make Linny welcome but she never feels she quite lives up to their view of how perfectly she did everything. Linny’s mum, Dottie and her friends – they were wonderful. I’d love to be one of them. Dottie won some money on the slots when the group went on a cruise, and she’s hired an RV for them all to go adventuring and sightseeing. Boy do they have some great adventures too, and I really felt there along with them. Its a story played out in many homes, divided families, divorces, new families and step parents, and all the issues that follow. I loved Linny, she was trying so hard with her new family, but she’s a business woman too, runs her own fledgling consultancy, and just is not a domestic goddess. Meals from Gus’s Gas and Go feature large in her repertoire. She’s had a tough time, widowed twice, with the last one being a real scumbag who left her with lots of debts. Now she’s got a chance of happiness with Jack, but of course his son Neale is 12, and any parent knows that's coming up to the danger zone of teenagers, when we’re always in the wrong, and don’t
Obstacles, road blocks, family & friends all should be in the past since the wedding has taken place and now it’s time for their honeymoon. Linny and Jack have finally got their happily ever after or at least it was supposed to be that way. The wedding was behind them it was honeymoon time. That was until a phone call. After the phone call things for the honeymooning couple takes on a character of fun, excitement, and entertainment. Through it all you had to feel with and for Linny. She was the champ of this one. She stood by everyone that needed her for something or another. This was one sweet southern American romance with the fact that family really did exists. Susan Schild put her spin a happily ever after for a woman that has had her share of upset, heartbreak, life changing events. With the help and support of the very family and friends that were there for their dating, proposal, wedding planning, and the wedding gives the final installment rich character, enchanting scenes, and a bit of extra southern flavor. Family and friends are an American Southern staple. This read gives you that and more.
Sweet Southern Hearts is the third and final book in the Willow Hill series! Linny Taylor has had bad luck with men until marriage number 3 with Jack Avery but having a new step-son and family issues with her mother and sister is making newlywed life just a little bit harder to contend with. With Linny and Jack on their honeymoon, a call will bring them back home unexpectedly due to Jack's son not wanting to be around his mother or step-dad with all their fighting. While dealing with a new step-son who is resisting changes, a week long RV trip that Linny's mother, Dottie begs her to join will bring more trouble than what Linny was asking for. As she gets back home, nothing goes right but a unexpected surprise will bring everyone together in ways they never imagined in a bitter-sweet ending for Linny! I have to admit that I had to start and stop this book about two times before I could fully get into the story-line but once you get into it, you will love what the story is about and it will make you want to go back and read the other two books in this series. I was a bit confused when someone else was mentioned in the story and I think if I was to read the other two books, it will make sense on what had happened to make this book possible. Overall, it was a good book with the most perfect ending to any story like this that so makes you wish that a movie based on these books was coming soon just to see it played out on the big screen!! Thank You to Susan Schild for making me a fan of yours with this one book!!
Favorite Quotes: Buy Pizza and Get Gas at Gino’s Gas and Go! She grimaced. The best pizza in Willow Hill, which just happened to be located in a gas station, needed to change their motto. … in general teenaged boys are like jackals. They’ll turn on you with bared teeth, tell you they hate your guts, and then they’ll ask you to fix them a grilled cheese sandwich. ‘That was the most perfect day.’ Looking dreamy, she clasped her hands together… Linny nodded, remembering Jerry’s nephew drinking too much beer and driving an ATV into the porta-potty the minister’s wife was using, and Jerry’s uncle from Possum Trot, North Carolina, eating his first shrimp ever and going into anaphylactic shock. But she just smiled at her sister. ‘I only got the necessities,’ Mama said looking self-righteous as she pulled out toilet tissue, marshmallows, two half gallons of ice cream, caramel popcorn, a bag of pork rinds, and a big box of Luzianne tea. Those men claim they love sleeping under the stars on their air mattresses, but in the morning both of them walk crooked and smell like Bengay. My Review: The talented scribe known as Susan Schild has delighted me once again with the latest addition to her highly entertaining Willow Hills series. Sweet Southern Hearts was exactly that, and I adored it. The endearing and highly relatable character of Linny quickly found herself sucked into a whirlwind of chaotic activity with no transition time to ease into her new roles of wife and stepmother. Non-stop challenges continually vexed her attempts at Zen such as the friction provided by her husband’s demanding ex-wife, her surly teenaged stepson pushing her limits, her fledgling new business contracts, and a senior citizen cross-country “freewheeling RV experience” with her mother and two other widows. Linny was beyond overwhelmed as she frantically juggled these many obligations into her already hectic calendar when an even bigger surprise landed on her doorstep. I was holding my breath for sweet Linny for fear that either this new wrinkle or her spineless wuss of a husband would cause her to finally crash and burn. The storyline was lively and relevant and well-paced. Ms. Schild’s writing, as always, was engaging and full of levity, humorous descriptions, and comical observations, insights, and inner musings. Linny has an active imagination that I find highly amusing. I also enjoy her colorful friends with the same level of enchantment and am already looking forward to future trips to Willow Hill.