In this competition, it’s not just the house on the line, it’s their hearts.
She has the touch when it comes to food, but PJ McKinley’s dream of opening her own restaurant is one building short of reality. So when a Chapel Springs resident offers her beloved ancestral home as prize to the applicant with the best plan for the house, PJ believes she was meant to win.
Contractor Cole Evans is confident, professional, and swoon-worthy—but this former foster kid knows his life could have turned out very differently. When Cole discovers the contest, he believes his home for foster kids in transition has found its saving grace. All he has to do is convince the owner that a not-for-profit enterprise will be good for the community.
When the eccentric philanthropist weighs the proposals, she proposes an outlandish tie-breaker: PJ and Cole will share the house for a year to see which idea works best. Now, with Cole and the foster kids upstairs and PJ and the restaurant below, day-to-day life has turned into an out-and-out rivalry—with some seriously flirtatious hallway encounters on the side. But could their magnetic attraction cost them everything they’ve ever wanted?
Includes Reading Group Guide
About the Author
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
The Wishing Season
A Chapel Springs Romance
By Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Denise Hunter
All rights reserved.
PJ McKinley was almost ready to call it a night when she heard the sound. She paused in her bed, hand stilling over her tablet.
It was probably just the wind. Or the old furnace or a loose shutter. She'd been in the rental less than a week, wasn't familiar with its sounds. She needed to chill. She was always freaking out over nothing.
She saved the changes she'd just made to her marketing plan. It was almost perfect. Just two more days. She took a breath, her nose filling with the savory aroma of the fettuccine carbonara she'd made hours before. Next time she'd try it with pancetta instead of bacon for a less smoky flavor. Maybe a touch less Parmesan and a splash of white wine.
The sound was close. On the porch. She swung her feet to the floor. Not a 911 emergency yet, but she'd feel better with her cell in her hands. Unfortunately, she'd left it charging in the kitchen. Her heart pumped wildly.
Stop freaking, PJ.
This was Chapel Springs, not Indianapolis. But she was used to living on campus surrounded by dozens of students, not alone. Much less set back off the road in the woods.
Her heart raced. That one was even closer. At the front door. She reminded herself to breathe.
She had to get to her phone, never mind the curtainless picture window or her flimsy tank and boxers. It was definitely 911 time. What good would hiding do if someone were breaking in? She eased off her mattress and tiptoed across the room.
Please, God ... I know it's been awhile, but—
The doorknob rattled as she reached the living room. She sucked in a breath, her eyes darting to the door. The light from her bedroom shone into the darkened room, gleaming off the brass knob.
Her breath became shallow. Think, PJ! She grabbed the first thing she saw: a French violet in a sturdy clay pot. She darted to the back side of the door, lifting the planter overhead just as the door cracked open.
Her breath froze in her lungs. Her fingers curled around the pot. The door flew open, banging against her bare toes and bouncing back into the body that stumbled in. A man. Tall and broad.
She went up on tiptoes, aimed for his head, and came down with the pot as hard as she could. The clay broke apart in her hands as a squeak escaped her throat.
The man grunted, swaying in the doorway. Please oh please oh please! He dropped to the floor with a heavy thud.
"Omigosh, omigosh." PJ danced in place, her hands trembling, her legs quaking with adrenaline. She flipped on the light, ready to grab another weapon.
But the man didn't stir. She hopped over him and went for her phone. She tapped in 911 and reported the break-in to Nancy Lee, who promised she'd send Sheriff Simmons right over. But PJ knew what that meant. The sheriff moved at a snail's pace, and she had a dangerous criminal facedown on her living room floor. A criminal who could wake any second.
Ryan. He could get here faster. She speed-dialed her brother and filled him in with a series of disjointed sentences.
"Lock yourself in your room and take your phone with you," he said. "I'll be there in three."
She hung up, staring at the still lump on the floor, scowling. Not even a week on her own and already needing her family's help.
The man wore jeans and a dark T-shirt. She wondered why he didn't have a jacket to ward off the May chill. Maybe hardened criminals didn't get cold. He had short dark hair and thick arms, one thrown out behind him, the other curling up toward his head. She squinted at something on the floor. Blood?
She tiptoed back into the room, her heart racing. It was blood, she saw as she neared. Matting his dark hair, pooling on the wood floor at an alarming rate.
Omigosh, I killed him.
No way was she checking his pulse. She just hoped he wasn't bleeding out on her floor. A knot was already forming on his forehead, but it was the top of his head that was bleeding.
Thank God Ryan was on his way. He was a volunteer firefighter, an EMT. Should she stanch the blood flow? But what if he woke up? She moved away from the man, staying by the open front door as if that would get her brother there sooner.
A couple minutes later she heard the hum of an engine and the crunch of gravel. Ryan or the sheriff. She was putting her money on her brother.
A car door slammed, and soon Ryan barged through the open doorway.
He took in the sight on her floor, then shot her a look. "I told you to lock yourself in your room."
"He was bleeding."
She neared the man, feeling braver now that her brother was here. She nudged his back with her foot until he rolled over.
"Mister? Hey, mister?" His chest rose and fell. "He's breathing. Thank God."
Ryan knelt down, taking his pulse, checking his wound.
Her eyes roamed the man's face. It was a nice face. Tom Brady nice, with a sturdy jawline and long dark lashes that fanned the tops of his cheeks. A sheen of sweat covered his forehead. He didn't look like a criminal, that was for sure.
Like you've seen so many of them?
"Get a towel and apply pressure to his head," Ryan said.
She followed his orders, kneeling down and placing the towel on the man's head.
"What'd you hit him with?"
She gestured to the shattered remains of the pot and clumps of flowers and soil. "Mom and Dad's welcome home planter. So much for that."
"Yeah, well, not like it stood a chance anyway."
She shot him a look as he began treating the wound.
A minute later he frowned, setting his hand on the guy's forehead. "He's burning up."
"What does that mean?"
Ryan's eyes flickered up. "It means he's sick."
"But why would a sick man break into my house?"
Ryan looked around, picked something shiny off the floor, and held it up. A key. "Maybe he wasn't breaking in."
Her eyes fell on something else she hadn't noticed before. A small gray duffel bag that had fallen between the coffee table and couch. "Look."
Ryan's eyes followed hers. "Looks like your burglar may not be a burglar after all."CHAPTER 2
Cole Evans woke to pain throbbing in his head. Chills racked his body, and he huddled into the warmth. A voice chattered nearby. Water dripped, then something cool settled on his forehead.
Where was he? He fought through the fuzz in his head, tried to pry his eyes open. A bird chirped somewhere. More chatter. A woman's voice, pleasant, lilting. He was dreaming. Then he heard the sound of singing. Bad singing.
He couldn't even dream right.
"Cole? Hey, Cole. Wake up."
Cole fought the pull of oblivion and strained toward the dream. Toward a heavenly sweet flower scent. Pain accompanied the reach. He moaned.
"So you are alive. You going to open your eyes? 'Cause I have to go to work, and I'm not nuts about the idea of leaving you here alone all day again."
He fought the battle with his eyelids and won. A brown-haired angel leaned over him. Doe eyes, silken hair. Pretty lips, the lower one thick, almost buckling in the center.
"Thank God. I was afraid I killed you."
He wet his lips. "Where am I?" His throat was as dry as sawdust.
"Here you go." She held a straw to his lips, and he drank deeply. "You seem more alert this time. Doc Lewis checked you out. You're pretty sick. Well, plus I kind of konked you on the head." Ice rattled in the jug as she set it down.
He dropped his head to the pillow and closed his eyes a second, breathing like he'd just gone twelve rounds.
"You have a concussion. Sorry about that." She winced as she bent over his head, lifting something. She smelled like flowers and sunshine. He inhaled deeply.
Lines furrowed on her forehead. "Oooh, that looks bad."
He let his eyes drop shut for a long second. "Where am I again?"
"You don't remember? You broke into my house. Well, except you had a key, and when you came around you said you'd rented the house? I guess there was some kind of mix-up, so technically you weren't breaking in. And it's not actually my house, but I'm renting it for the summer. This is my pool house—only I don't really have a pool, so I guess it's more like a garden shed.
"Anyway, I'm PJ McKinley. I already know who you are—Cole Evans. My brother looked through your wallet. Sorry, but he was kind of freaked about me taking care of you and asked Sheriff Simmons to run a background check—don't worry, you're clean. Otherwise we wouldn't have let you stay, but the doctor said you needed to stay put, and you said you had nowhere to go—do you remember any of this?"
Had he thought the voice pleasant? It was too loud and saying too many words. He scanned the tiny room, sparsely furnished, windows on every wall, letting in too much light. He groaned.
"You probably have a headache, right?" Susie Sunshine reached for something beside the table, and pills rattled in a bottle. She dropped them into his hand, still rambling about her house.
He raised his head for another sip of water and then lay back, letting his eyes fall shut. He thought back to his last memory. Driving toward Chapel Springs, Indiana, his body aching like it would the morning after a strenuous workout. His mind foggy, his stomach woozy.
Chapel Springs. The contest. The presentation. His eyes snapped open. "What day is it?"
He'd lost a day. Where was his stuff? He struggled to sit up.
She set a hand against his chest. "Whoa, whoa. Where you going?"
He swung his jean-clad legs over the edge of the bed and felt the room spin. "Where's my stuff?"
"Listen, you're really sick. You need to lie back down."
He scanned the room, his eyes settling on his gray duffel on the sofa. He stood, blinking against the wave of dizziness, and crossed the small room.
"You shouldn't be up. You have a concussion, and you're sick."
He unzipped his duffel and riffled through until he found the folder. Only then did his racing heart begin to settle. He wavered, rocking back on his heels.
"That's it. Back to bed." Her hand wrapped around his bicep and tugged fruitlessly.
"What time is it?"
"Morning. I mean it, back to bed."
He let her tug him toward the bed, her hands cool on his heated skin. He clutched the folder in his hands. He had a lot to do before tonight. And somehow he had to think through the fog in his brain.
"I left some food over there. You've got to be hungry. My mom's going to stop by and check on you a couple times like she did yesterday. I have to leave the door unlocked 'cause I lost the key—long story."
He sank onto the flimsy mattress, blinking against the dizziness. She felt his forehead, then gave him a long look as if trying to figure him out. "Your temp is down. That's good." Her eyes darted down his chest, lingering a moment before returning to his face.
Something pulled in his stomach at the look in her eyes.
"Anyway ... are you going to be okay, 'cause I'm going to be late for work. It's not much, but it's all I've got for the time being, and I can't get fired or I'll lose my house. And I'd never hear the end of that." She muttered the last part.
"I'm fine." Or would be when he had all his papers in order and his brain in gear. And quiet. That would help too.
"So, water here, pills, food over there. I won't be back until late tonight, but you're welcome to stay until you're better since I, you know, konked you on the head."
He leaned back against the pillows, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
She turned at the door, her straight hair flipping around her shoulders. Her eyes narrowed as she pointed her finger at him. "Stay in bed."
He would. For a while anyway. "Yes, ma'am."
And then she was gone, taking her sweet flower smell and rambling chatter with her.
* * *
PJ slipped through the door of Grandma's Attic and scanned the antique store, waiting for her eyes to adjust from the bright May sunlight. Her workday had sped by. There'd been a steady flow of customers at Fiona's Fudge Shoppe, and her arms ached from working fudge on the marble slab.
The familiar smell of old treasures filled her nose as she walked into the store. She'd spent many summer afternoons here as a child, playing in armoires and breaking things.
"PJ!" Her mom crossed the room, a feather duster in her hand, and squeezed PJ's arm. With her blue eyes and winning smile, Joanne McKinley was still a beautiful woman. "Don't you look like a savvy businesswoman. That red is stunning on you."
"I can't believe it's time. I'm so nervous."
"Relax. These people have known you all your life."
"That's what I'm afraid of. They remember me running up the church aisle in my diaper, picketing Lonnie Terrell's lemonade stand, and a hundred other foolish antics."
Mom's eyes smiled. "Well, you always were a handful."
PJ pulled at her skirt.
"You look beautiful, and you're completely prepared. Relax and let your passion shine through."
A text came in and PJ checked her screen. "Kayla. Wishing me good luck." Kayla was her roommate from college.
"Did you tell her about your dangerous intruder?" Mom's lips twitched.
"I'm telling you, he busted through the door like a wrecking ball. Scared the tar out of me. How was he this afternoon?"
"Better. Fever's down. He's alert, as you said. Polite, though not very talkative."
"Yeah, I kind of got that."
"He kind of has the looks of Tom Brady," Mom said, "though it galls me to say so."
"I know, right?" This was Colts territory, after all. The Patriots were on their love-to-hate list. PJ covered her mouth as a sneeze built and escaped. Another one followed. "Great. I'm probably getting the flu. That's what I get for tending a sick stranger." She sneezed again.
Mom waved the feather duster. "Or your dust allergies are flaring up again."
"Oh. Yeah, that's possible." PJ tugged at her skirt again. "Is this too short?"
"Not at all. You're just used to wearing pants. Hold your chin up and look them in the eyes. You've got a great plan for the Wishing House, and they'll see that."
"Yeah, but my competition probably does too."
"You've got the hometown advantage. Mrs. Simmons loves you, and she knows you want what's best for Chapel Springs."
Mom walked to the front and flipped the Closed sign on the door. She checked her watch. "Well, I have a young man to check on, and you have an important interview to get to." She opened the door.
PJ slipped by her, turning on the sidewalk. "Wish me luck."
"Even better—I'll pray for you."
Oh yeah. That too. "Thanks, Mom."CHAPTER 3
PJ pulled to the curb and got out of her 2002 Monte Carlo, her eyes taking in the Wishing House. Over a century old, it was a sprawling historical just outside of town on Main Street. A stone retaining wall separated the property from the sidewalk and ended at a set of cracked cement steps leading up to the lawn. A handful of ancient oaks towered over the well-manicured yard and immaculate flower garden.
Her eyes moved over the two-story house itself: white built-in bays, a wide front porch, gingerbread molding that crawled along the high eaves. It was a veritable mansion. The perfect place for her bed-and-breakfast slash restaurant.
She'd never be able to afford a place like this, not if she worked twenty years at Fiona's Fudge Shoppe. And please, Lord—that can't happen.
With trembling legs, she crossed the yard, climbed the concrete steps to the porch, and pressed the doorbell.
Evangeline Wishing Simmons appeared a moment later on the other side of the screen door. Her short stature gave PJ a bird's-eye view of her short silver hair and frail frame. She was lively and spry for a woman in her mideighties and had been known for an antic or two of her own.
"PJ, come right in." Her voice crackled with age. "You look beautiful."
"Thank you. I hope I'm not too early."
"Not at all." She poked her wire-rim glasses into place. "Almost everyone's here. We'll get started once the other candidate arrives."
The house smelled of lemon Pledge and old money. A brass chandelier half the size of PJ's car dangled overhead on a brass chain, its light fractured by a thousand crystal pendants.
PJ followed Mrs. Simmons down a short hall and into the grand sitting room where the sound of quiet chatter echoed through the nearly empty house. It had been cleared out in anticipation of Mrs. Simmons's move to Colorado to live near her kids and grandkids. She could've just sold her family home like a normal person, but "normal" was a word no one used to describe Evangeline Simmons.
Excerpted from The Wishing Season by Denise Hunter. Copyright © 2014 Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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