Monday, June 26, 2017

Week #26: Freedom's Price by Christine Johnson


When Englishwoman Catherine Haynes loses both her parents and her home in 1856, she decides to cross the Atlantic to find her American mother's family in Louisiana. She enlists the help of Tom Worthington, a dashing Key West man who makes his living salvaging wrecked ships, but whose real goal in life is to bring to justice the man who stole his father's ship and caused his untimely death.

When Catherine finally arrives at her family's plantation, she finds it in disarray and her family absent landowners. Torn between returning to Key West with Tom or beginning the hard work of restoring the plantation, Catherine soon finds herself snared in a plot to steal her inheritance. When an incredible secret comes to light, both she and Tom will face a choice. Can they relinquish the dreams that have been holding them captive in order to step forward in faith--even if it costs them everything?
Staffordshire, England
Early June 1856

“Miss Haynes!”

A rude masculine voice pulled Catherine from that long-ago memory. For months she’d dreamed of the stranger’s return and had romanticized him as a conquering knight. Ten years later, all such fantasies had come to a halt. Dreams were for children. She must deal with reality.

She set her jaw and returned her cousin’s glare. By very subtly lifting her gaze above his piercing gray eyes and fixing it on the portrait of her mother hanging behind Papa’s desk, she could maintain the illusion of control.

“Well?” Ugly red suffused Mr. Roger Whitmore’s neck. “I am waiting for an answer.”

In the months since he and his family first arrived at Deerford, she had learned one important trait about her cousin. He expected compliance. This time she would not bow. Nor could she find words of refusal.

The mantel clock ticked off the seconds.

Whitmore braced his hands on the desktop, leaning forward like a snarling lion eager to capture its prey. “Your reply.”

Not a question.

Catherine drew an imperceptible breath and imitated Maman’s calm. “I cannot.”

“You cannot?” The sentence exploded with unspoken threat.

He would force her into this marriage.

Again the ticking of the clock filled the silence.

What would Maman do? Faced with similar prospects upon her return from the grand tour all those years ago, Catherine’s mother had abandoned her chaperones in the dead of night and eloped. Catherine had no such escape available.

Whitmore’s smile menaced. “If you continue in this stubborn refusal, you will lose what is left of your family.”

Meaning him. She had no one else. Not here. Maman’s family was in faraway Louisiana, and the decision to elope had cost her all contact with them. No letters. No word of any kind. How the separation must have hurt, for Maman often regaled her with stories of plantation life, of balls and soirees and golden days running between the tall rows of sugarcane. Catherine had begged her mother to take her there, but Maman said it was not possible. Then she’d died.

Only the portrait remained. Maman’s rose-colored gown flowed from her waist like that of an empress. At her throat rested the ruby brooch Catherine had often run her finger across when she was very young. She had not found it with Maman’s jewels. Papa must have buried it with her.

Dear Papa. Catherine tugged at her heavy black sleeves to hide the welling of tears.

“I suggest a different answer,” Whitmore said.

Catherine brushed away the past. It could not solve this dilemma. She chose her words with care. “Mr. Kirby does not suit me.”

“Does not suit? You act as if you would bring an heiress’s fortune to your marriage. May I remind you that the terms of your father’s estate leave you but five hundred pounds?”

“And fifty pounds per year.” Eight months had not changed that fact. The passing of time had only increased her cousin’s urgency to be rid of her.

“Until you wed.”

That was the crux of it. Once she married, the annual payments would cease.

Whitmore settled into Papa’s chair.

She clenched her jaw against a wave of revulsion. Whitmore might have gained the estate through settlement, but he did not belong in her father’s place.

“I do not intend to wed. Allow me to manage the estate—”

He snorted derisively. “Is that what you call your playing around in the accounts?” He filled a pipe from Papa’s tobacco jar.

Angry words rose to the tip of her tongue and stopped there. Very few men considered a woman intelligent enough to manage accounts, least of all an estate. Whitmore was not one of them.

“If you examine my entries—”

“I have.” He slammed shut the ledger before him. “Some might consider them adequate, considering your gender, but I found them entirely insufficient.”

“Insufficient! Compare my skills to any man—”

“Use those skills to benefit your husband.”

She choked. “I am in mourning and cannot consider marriage.”

“You have worn black long enough. It’s time to move on. I suggest you change into something more cheerful.” His cold gray gaze, fixed above fashionably long sideburns, bored into her. “That would be welcomed by our guests.”

Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Durning, whose husband had just left for Liverpool to provision his ship for the crossing to the West Indies, were expected. Neither cared about her attire, but at least it gave her an excuse to leave this unbearable interview.

“If you will excuse me, then.” She reached for the doorknob.

“Not quite yet.” He drew a breath on the pipe and exhaled a cloud of rich smoke.

If she closed her eyes, she could imagine Papa sitting there, his spectacles resting on the tip of his nose, where they would slide after his hours of agonizing over the accounts. Papa had been a kind and generous man, often excusing debts and allowing rents to remain in arrears far too long. Of course, she hadn’t known that until he fell ill and she had to take on the accounts.

Whitmore cleared his throat. “At three and twenty you will soon slip from a marriageable age.”

“Apparently not, if Mr. Kirby is still calling.”

Whitmore’s jaw tightened. “His long association with the family places him in a rather fortunate position.”

“Fortunate? That is a matter of perspective, is it not? As you just stated, I bring a pittance into any marriage.”

“Precisely. Few would consider a wife who brings only five hundred.”

She could not resist poking at his unstated desire. “You might continue the fifty pounds per year. We are cousins, after all.”

“Let me spell out what you could never have gleaned from your pitiable scribbling in the ledgers. Your father’s estate is in ruin.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he lifted a finger to silence her.

“Even if I manage to collect the arrears, which I fully intend to do, it will not offset the losses.”

Catherine would not be set down so easily. “Then how do you intend to pay the dowry?”

His lips twitched, signaling triumph. “I will sell the estate.”

“Sell Deerford?” The words barely escaped her constricted throat. “You can’t!”

“As you well know, I can. In fact, a buyer is at hand.”

“A buyer?” She clawed at hope. “Mr. Kirby?” Perhaps she would agree to marry him if it meant saving Deerford.

He laughed. “Certainly not.”

“Then who? Will he continue the tenants’ leases? Will he keep planting the land as always?”

“This clay soil was never suited to farming, dear Miss Haynes. It will fare much better in the hands of the pottery manufacturer that is buying it.”

“A factory?” Her head spun. “But, the house.”

“It would have been too costly to maintain.”

“What will happen to the tenants? You must take care of them. They have worked Deerford land for generations.”

He leaned back and blew out a plume of smoke. “They can apply for employment at the factory.”

“But they’re farmers.” Each face flashed through her mind, from old widow Evans to the two-year-old Herring twins. “They don’t know anything else.”

“Then they can move elsewhere.”

His cold statement sent shivers down her spine. She must help them, but how? The few guineas in her possession wouldn’t feed them long. They needed lands to tend.

“You must find them new homes,” she pleaded.

“Sometimes progress demands change. For them and for you.” He paused. “Deerford is extinct. You have nowhere to go, Miss Haynes. Perhaps a husband—especially one as charitably minded as Mr. Kirby—would find a place for your tenants on his father’s or future patrons’ lands.”

Her throat closed. How carefully he had crafted the snare. If she hoped to help the displaced tenants, she must marry Eustace Kirby.

Whitmore seized his advantage. “I suggest you give full consideration to Mr. Kirby’s suit.”

She sank into the closest chair. “But he’s a clergyman.”

Whitmore’s brow quirked. “Do you harbor resentment against that noble profession?”

Her cousin would not think so highly of the ministry if he had been forced into it as Mr. Kirby had been.

“I wouldn’t make a good minister’s wife.”

“Let us hope Mr. Kirby doesn’t see that fault before the blessed event. I shall give him my blessing.”

“But I did not agree to marry him.”

“You would destroy your father’s hopes for you and leave your beloved tenants without a future rather than commit to a life of serving the Lord?”

Put that way, it did sound rather selfish, but she could not marry Mr. Kirby. The mere thought of kissing him made her stomach turn. Having children? Settling into a country parish? Impossible.

“There must be another answer.” Yet she could not see it.

Thanks you for visiting! I hope you've enjoyed this peek into Freedom's Price. Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy. Winner will be announced Monday, July 3.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Week #25: Hidden Threat by Connie Mann


She’ll uncover who’s poisoning her hometown—at any cost.

An environmental crisis is the last thing clean-water crusader Eve Jackson expected in her hometown. She’s used to taking on powerful DC politicians in her fight, but when a baby in Safe Harbor, Florida, shows mysterious signs of possible poisoning, the danger hits painfully close to home, stirring memories of her own mother’s death.

Eve’s search leads her to the Sutton Ranch, now run by her high school crush, Cole. Focused on keeping the family ranch afloat as a series of deformed calves are born to his herd, Cole has no time for Eve’s crusade. But as her unwelcome questioning ostracizes her from locals, Cole’s irritation turns to intrigue—not only about the source of the poisoned water but also the tenacious, loyal, and passionate woman determined to help.

As Eve digs deeper into Cole’s operation, she sees her suspicions in Sutton Ranch may be misplaced. Yet she can’t shake the feeling that his ranch, and perhaps his past, hold the answers she seeks. When the sabotage escalates, the two must work together to uncover the culprit—if they can survive the investigation.
March—Rural Virginia
Eve Jackson crouched in the mud outside the chain-link fence and wished she’d worn different shoes. Wet sludge oozed into her new ankle boots and her fingers were numb, but a niggle of excitement bubbled up just the same. If her informant’s tip panned out, she’d finally have the proof she needed to nail this company for contaminating the nearby stream. She’d been after them for almost a year but had never been able to come up with hard evidence. If she got it this morning, every shivering minute would be worth it. Nobody messed with the water supply and made children sick, doggone it. Not if she was around to stop it.
She lowered the viewfinder on her brand-new digital camera and rubbed her arms in the predawn light. She’d grabbed her peacoat on the way out the door, but the heavy wool was no match for a cold, damp stakeout, never mind that it was already March. She hadn’t expected the sudden downpour as she’d driven to this sleepy little town in the Virginia countryside, either.
She’d been staked out behind the aging warehouse for almost three hours. Her cramped muscles were beyond stiff, and she would have traded her left arm for a cup of coffee and a hot bath. Nothing and no one had moved since she’d arrived.
She shifted position and wobbled. She flailed her arms and grabbed the fence just before she landed backward in the mud. The camera strap yanked her neck as the camera smacked her chest, but at least it stayed out of the mud. By the time she steadied herself, she was breathing hard, wondering if this would prove to be yet another wasted night.
Several minutes later, her head snapped up when she heard the distinctive rumble of a diesel engine firing up nearby.
Here we go.
Her heart rate quickened as she raised her camera and zoomed in on the activity near the warehouse. Several more trucks rumbled down the dirt road from the main highway. All of them tankers.
Oh yeah. We’ve got you now.

Thanks for joining in this peek into Hidden Threat. Please leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for an autographed print copy (inside the US). Winner will be announced on Monday, June 26.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Week #24: Amish Brides by Molly Jebber, Jennifer Beckstrand, and Amy Lillard

Jennifer Beckstrand
Spirited Suvie Newswenger has three marriage proposals—but not from the man she truly loves. No matter how lonely widower Aaron Beachy is, he seems determined to stay that way forever. Now, with help from his matchmaking great-grandparents, Suvie will do whatever it takes to rekindle Aaron’s hope—and spark happiness for a lifetime.

Molly Jebber
Madeline Lehman fears her fiancĂ©’s family will never accept her because of her rebellious sister. She’s postponed her wedding to Joshua Stutzman until they see the truth. But when Maddie adopts her sister’s abandoned baby, can she and Joshua find a way to unite their families through forgiveness as well as love?

Amy LillardReba Schmucker longs to be a bride. And she knows her mischievous nieces just wanted to help when they “chose” Abel Weaver for her. But he’s the last man in the world she’d ever marry. There’s no way her independence and his stubbornness could ever get along—unless a sudden crisis somehow leads to understanding . . . and love.


Chapter 1 (Joshua's Bride, by Molly Jebber):


1885, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Madeline grinned, put a finger to her lips, and pointed to her daed in his plain coat and snoring on the front porch in his favorite rocking chair with a blanket half covering him. His straw hat lopsided on his head, and his brown hair covering his right eye. She pointed to the back door.
Joshua grinned and went outside with her. He clasped her hand. “Let’s go behind your daed’s shed by the weeping willow trees.”
She squinted and shielded her eyes shivered. She was tired of cold weather and anxious for spring to arrive. Anytime she was with Joshua, she was happy. He had a lilt in his step, smiled most of time, and didn’t let much get him down. He tackled his problems, and had faith they would work out fine with God’s help no matter how long it took. He’d been quiet and fidgety today at the church meal, and he hurried to their shady spot. Something was on his mind, but what? She stood in the shade. “What is wrong? You’re acting odd.”
He held both her hands and stared into her eyes. “Everything is fine.” He cleared his throat. “Beautiful Madeline, love of my life, will you marry me?”
She clapped her hands and jumped for joy. “Jah! Jah! Jah! I’d love to marry you!” She’d found the perfect husband, and they would be together forever. She’d tuck this eighth day of March in her mind as a special day to remember. “I’m so happy, Joshua.”
Joshua picked her up and twirled her around. “I love you, Madeline Lehman, soon to be Mrs. Stutzman. He set her on her feet. “Your daed granted me his permission the other night.”
Her daed loved Joshua, as if he were his son. He’d said so more than once. The two men had become fast friends. Her mamm would’ve loved Joshua. She could envision her mamm and her getting ready for the wedding. They’d have planned, cooked, and sewed to prepare for the special day together. Her mamm had been a strong women of faith and brought so much joy to their lives with her cheerful outlook on life and compassionate heart. She’d been patient with Catherine’s quick temper and curiosity about the world. Madeline was glad Mamm hadn’t known about Catherine’s leaving her Amish life behind for good.
She’d never forget the day she found mamm on the floor. She’d shaken her to rouse her to no avail. Mamm’s body was cool and her eyes blank and wide open. Her older schweschder, Catherine, had screamed and ran to fetch their daed. He’d rocked her mamm in his arms, and then carried her body to the wagon and drove to Dr. Wilson’s office. He came home and said the doctor didn’t know what took her life. It’d been over five years ago when they lived in Shipshewana, Indiana. She laid her hands in Joshua’s. “I wish Mamm were here to share in the most wonderful day of my life.”
“From what you’ve told me about her, she sounds like a loving and wise mamm.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her.” Joshua gently squeezed her fingers.
Two cats a few feet away meowing and chasing each other brought a smile to her lips, as she gathered her thoughts. She tilted her head and stared at their hands. “Did you tell your parents you were going to ask me to marry you today?”
“I did.” He dropped his eyes from hers.
“Please tell me what they said.” She frowned and stared at her hands.
“They asked me not to marry you.” Joshua gently lifted her chin until her eyes met his. “They’re afraid you’ll leave Lancaster like Catherine. As time passes, I’m certain my parents will grow to love you.”
“Joshua, maybe we should wait to wed.”
He swiped sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. “You are the fraa for me, Madeline. I won’t let them ruin this important time in our lives.” He tapped a finger to his chin and stared at the sky for a moment. He smiled. “Let’s ask the bishop to schedule a date in June. It’s not too far away, but we’d have enough time to invite everyone and plan the day.”
She sighed. “Joshua, we have to consider your parents request we not marry.”
He kissed her cheek. “As time goes on, mamm and daed will understand we are committed to each other forever, and they will regret wrongfully judging you because of Catherine’s decisions. I’m hoping Nathaniel will fall in love with a sweet Amish woman someday soon and take his mind off his past with Catherine. Then we can be one happy family.”
The love of her life had a positive outlook for problems. She’d be sad to delay their wedding. She’d throw caution to the wind and have faith everything would work out well. It was unfortunate Joshua’s bruder, Nathaniel, had fallen in love with Catherine, and she’d left without a word to him. But she wasn’t to blame for Catherine’s choices, nor would she do the same to Joshua. Mr. and Mrs. Stutzman were wrong. She just hoped Joshua was right.
“I’m going to visit the bishop tomorrow. I’d like to get on his schedule as soon as possible. I’m ready to start building our haus.”
Her heart swelled with joy. “You are a good provider. I’m blessed Daed moved us to Lancaster three years ago. I had prayed moving from Shipshewana, Indiana and kumming here would be a fresh new start for us.  I’m blessed to have met you, and your friendship with daed has helped him through his grief with Mamm and Catherine’s departure from us. I thought her meeting Nathaniel had turned her life around. I’m so sorry she hurt your bruder, Joshua.”
“It’s not your fault.  I’m confident my bruder will recover. He loved her, and he needs time to get over her. He’s burly, and because of his large stature, he’s mistaken for a hard man, but he’s a softie inside.”
“His soft voice amazed me the first time he spoke. You two don’t look anything alike, but your voices are similar. I’m surprised Nathaniel is two years younger than you. He looks older. Catherine is two years older than I am, but I always felt like the responsible one.” Joshua had average height and thin frame. Nathaniel towered over Joshua with his broad shoulders and muscular arms.
“You and Catherine couldn’t be more opposite. You’ve got blonde hair, and she’s got dark red hair. Your eyes match a dark blue sky, and hers match a green pasture. She’s always looking for adventure, and you’re calm, content, and enjoy the simple Amish life. My parents will kumme to realize what a faithful and loving Amish woman you are once we’re married and show them we are committed to each other.”
“I’m fearful they won’t accept me before the wedding. If they don’t, we must reconsider. It wouldn’t be proper for us to go against their wishes.”
He hugged her. “We’ll treat them with respect and pray to God to change their minds. At the same time, we’ll look forward to our wedding day.”
She blushed. “I love you, and I’ll be counting the days until my name changes to Mrs. Madeline Stutzman!”
Daed cleared his throat and came around the corner of the shed. “I thought I’d find you two here. By the glow on your face, Madeline, I assume Joshua proposed?” He grinned.
“He did! Oh Daed, I’m so happy!”
“I’m thrilled for both of you. I couldn’t ask for a better man to marry my dochder.” He slapped Joshua on the arm and kissed Madeline’s cheek. He chuckled. “Joshua, during the bishop’s message today, you couldn’t sit still. I had an inkling you were on pins and needles to ask Madeline to marry you this afternoon.” His eyes twinkled.
She smiled and nodded. “He took several bites of his food at the after service meal and pushed his plate away. He scrapes and devours every last bite of food on his plate at meals. I wondered why he didn’t have an appetite.”
“I waited a bit for my parents to change their minds, but I grew impatient and chose this afternoon to propose marriage to you. The minutes dragged by until after the church service and the trip back here to our special spot. Now we can tell everyone.”
“You must be hungry, Joshua. You barely touched your sandwich and beets. Kumme with me. I’ve got ham spread and apple tarts.”
Daed rubbed his slightly round stomach. “I wouldn’t mind a sandwich.”
They went inside, and the men sat and talked while she fetched the food. Setting plates and glasses of water in front of them, she sat at the round oak table next to Joshua. She loved listening to the two men discuss farming and life.
Knock. Knock.
“You two sit. I’ll find out who is here.” Madeline went to the front room across the wooden floor and opened the door. “Nathaniel, kumme in.” Mrs. Isabelle Stutzman often sent Nathaniel to her haus whenever Joshua was here. She concocted some excuse for him having to return home. It was a ploy to keep them apart.
Nathaniel avoided looking at her. “I’ll wait on the porch.”



Thank you for joining us. I hope you have enjoyed this peek into Amish Brides...especially Joshua's Bride, by Molly Jebber. Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a free copy!



Monday, June 5, 2017

Week 23: Veiled Gems (Diamond Knot Dreams #1) by Mary Manners

Lila Brooks believes in fairytale endings for everyone but herself. She coaxes her dream of opening a wedding shop into reality when she commissions Morgan Holt to transform a run-down Victorian house into an all-inclusive bridal boutique, Diamond Knot Dreams. Clover Cove’s residents have whispered that the house is filled with spirits, but superstitions have no place in Lila's life.

Morgan Holt spent the better part of his youth transplanted from one foster home to another. Separated from his older brother, Gunnar, at an early age, they’re reunited shortly after Morgan’s arrival to Clover Cove. But the last thing Morgan wants is to trust his heart again to a family—or a woman as beautiful as Lila Brooks. He has plans to finish work on the Victorian and then ride off into the sunset, a move he’s perfected over the years.

Soon Lila and Morgan have a chance at their own Happily Ever After, but will events from the past destroy their future?

1st Chapter:

Lila Brooks shielded her eyes with one hand to peer down the boulevard. Sunlight dappled through graceful branches of weeping cherry trees, turning the pavement to a shimmer of diamonds. Warm, generous rays teased Lila’s eyes and heated her skin through a pressed linen skirt and coral blouse. A gentle breeze carried the musky scent of rich, damp earth and moderated the sultry heat. Hair along the nape of Lila’s neck danced and tickled.
The day was as close to perfection as anyone could wish for. Fresh mown lawns hinted at spring. Yet, the verdant landscape did little to soften Lila’s anxious mood as she paced a length of sidewalk.
            Morgan Haynes, the builder who had come highly recommended by her friend Avery’s father, was late. Lila frowned. Long-awaited renovations for her bridal boutique were poised to begin and she was anxious to get the work underway. She’d spent the better part of a year researching properties and had finally settled on the quaint East Tennessee town of Clover Cove. Her initial visit to the area revealed a flux of growth that would easily support new business, yet the community took pride in maintaining its hometown, neighborly spirit. Subsequent visits, followed by a permanent relocation several months ago, merely served to enhance Lila’s intuition.
She’d planned and labored long months to bring her well-laid designs for the wedding shop to fruition. Now that the property had been purchased and the construction loan signed and sealed, she didn’t want any further delays. An overhaul would transform the majestic three-story Victorian house into a state-of-the-art bridal showplace.
It had been nearly three months since Lila had staked a placard, now slightly yellowed and fading a bit from the effects of inclement weather, in the lawn beside the Victorian’s front stairs. Its message rang simple and to the point:
Coming Soon…
Diamond Knot Dreams: Your One-stop Wedding Shop.
            Coming Soon proved the operative phrase. Lila wanted to complete this project with every attention to detail, but her patience was wearing thin. Excitement took over. She longed to get the boutique up and running. Surely she could find a balance to get everything done well and within a timely fashion.
It was going to take a village to coax the business to fruition, and so far she and Morgan were the only two signed up for the team.
            And as it stood Morgan was AWOL. No phone call, no text, no email.
Where was he?
            Lila felt as if she’d known Morgan for a lifetime, yet she had stumbled upon him merely months ago and quite by accident. After confiding to her former college roommate and lifelong friend, Avery Lakin, her frustration in finding a builder who was both willing and qualified to tackle the boutique project, Avery spurred to action. Less than twenty-four hours later Lila had received a call from Avery’s dad, who supplied Morgan’s information and personally vouched for him as a top-of-the-line builder. Additionally, Morgan specialized in transforming older buildings while maintaining the heart of their original beauty.
Lila snatched the timely lead. A quick phone call to Morgan’s Nashville office set things into motion. Via the countless emails and phone conversations that followed, she found Morgan to be forthright and dependable. Even more importantly, he seemed capable of tackling the project while respecting the confines of her budget. His sense of humor and the ease she found in their ability to communicate proved an added bonus.
As the weeks passed, Lila found herself looking forward to Morgan’s calls for more than the business aspect. His deep, southern accent proved intriguing and Lila knew from his website photos that he had the looks to match. He’d seemed as eager as she to finally meet in person and get this project started.
Until today. Where was he?
Lila gazed down the boulevard once again. A mockingbird in the tree across the way warbled through its repertoire of calls. The branches of a weeping cherry quaked as the bird swooped to a lower limb to continue his lonesome serenade. He seemed to be calling to her—or perhaps calling for Morgan. But his cry did no good at all. Traffic along the road proved light this time of mid-afternoon. Not so much as a motorcycle or even a bicycle crossed her path as she waited there. Lila hoped to enhance the traffic pattern with a clever marketing campaign. She planned to welcome a healthy flow of vehicles as soon as the boutique opened its doors.
Lila nibbled a fingernail as she envisioned Morgan snarled in a traffic jam. She’d learned the hard way that the I-40 corridor between downtown Nashville and Clover Cove could be daunting as rush-hour approached.
Or perhaps he’d changed his mind about coming…
She dismissed the thought as she turned her attention back to the house. The Victorian, with its drooping sleepy-eyed shutters, languished like a neglected woman just waiting for her soulmate to come along so they might embark together on the adventure of a lifetime. A wide, graveled area at the front entrance would, with some serious TLC, serve as an ample parking lot. The weed-infested area led to a broad staircase that opened onto a sweeping wrap-around porch just made for sweet tea and sunshine. The flooring and rails would benefit from a pressure-washing and fresh coat of paint. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a cluster of rocking chairs accented by the colorful spill of potted wave petunias.
Lila’s plan to offer a down-home southern flair, along with impeccable customer service, was sure to draw clients to the bridal boutique like honey draws flies.
Ample, panoramic windows at the front of the wood-framed structure offered a wash of natural light along the interior. Original hardwood flooring would be stripped and polished to a high sheen meant to complement the many displays she planned to showcase.
Lila’s pulse thrummed with anticipation. There were so many things to love about the building; she found it hard to believe this property had sat vacant for several years. But the structure’s crowning detail proved to be a pair of stout, regal turrets. One perched along the east side of the front and a second adorned the back. Both drew the eye in an enchanting architectural display.
The house proved a beautiful, intriguing poem whose architectural lines pleased even the most discerning eye. The structure lacked for nothing—except a thorough overhaul of its inner workings. She and Morgan had agreed that updated wiring and plumbing would be a good place to start. In addition, Lila had requested the removal of a few non-weight-bearing walls. The renovation would open the first floor into a spacious showroom.
Morgan had assured Lila during their many phone conferences and emails that the list of repairs would be easy enough to complete before spring eased to summer. But Lila still felt more than a bit uneasy when she thought of the copious notes and details they’d sifted through. There were just so many things to consider.
Elephants danced a jig through her belly. She splayed a hand to calm the nerves. Had she thought things out well enough? Had she considered every possible detail? There were a million things that could go wrong with this project and any delay could easily cripple her financially. She’d tossed every last penny of her savings into the mix and had gambled on a small business loan, as well, to chase this dream to the finish line.
Even so, the house’s peeling paint and weather-warped deck boards did nothing to dispel Lila’s excitement. She saw beyond the Victorian’s dust and fractured plaster to the beauty locked inside. The house sat like a princess on her throne and Lila vowed to add a bushel of crowning touches.
            But the work couldn’t begin until the tardy Mr. Morgan Haynes showed himself. And if that didn’t happen soon, Lila would surely lose her mind. She reached into her purse for her cellphone and checked the screen for a voicemail, a text. At this point she’d even settle for a flimsy smoke signal.
Any sign of life.
Instead she found nothing but a blank screen. Lila caught her lower lip between her teeth and grimaced as she dropped the phone back into her purse. Pacing the length of the sidewalk did no good to calm the rising tide that turned her stomach. Worry set in. It was so out of character for Morgan to miss an appointment time that Lila feared he might be snarled in a ghastly pile-up along the interstate.
The thought tangled her nerves. She feared she might never meet Morgan face-to-face. The project aside, something more drew her to him…something she couldn’t begin to explain. Could she possibly have feelings for a man she hadn’t even met? One she’d merely conversed with?
Often. Daily. Sometimes several times a day.
She sighed and paused to gather her bearings. The sidewalk swam beneath her feet as she imagined him in harm’s way. Astonished, she realized her eyes had flooded with tears.
The humidity must be getting to her. She drew a deep breath and willed her pulse to steady. As her senses knitted back together, a thought came—perhaps she’d do better to pray instead of fretting over something that was beyond her control.
            She dipped her head and was about to close her eyes and surrender herself when a flash of red swooped around the corner. It took a moment to register the flashy sports car that gleamed like a ripe habanero pepper as sunlight bounced from the waxed paint. The ragtop fanned open. Music blared over the muffled, steady rumble of a high-powered engine.
Lila pressed one hand to her ribcage and drew a huge breath of relief.
Morgan—he’s OK. He’s arrived safely.
She headed that way as the car approached with the saucy swagger of a confident driver at the wheel. She lifted her sunglasses from the bridge of her nose and propped them atop her head. Sunlight stung her eyes, causing tears to gather again. She swiped away the moisture and blinked hard to clear her vision. She wanted a good look at the man to whom she had entrusted her life savings—and her future in Clover Cove.
His dark hair danced in the breeze. Though his voice lost its battle with the thrum of music, his moving lips told her he sang right along with the melody. His eyes were shielded by reflective wire-frame sunglasses, but the kelly-green polo shirt showcased sinewy forearms as well as a broad and well-defined terrain of shoulders. The guy obviously knew his way around heavy equipment.
Lila planted her hands on her hips as the car skidded to a stop alongside the curb. She waited, tapping polished fingernails along the top of her thighs, for Morgan to lower the radio’s volume. Unaffected by her piercing gaze, he belted out the final verse of the song.
Now she heard him. Oh, yes indeed. She narrowed her gaze and made a point to tap the face of her watch.
No matter. He actually had the nerve to wink at her as the last note resonated.
Flashing a magnetic smile as if he didn’t have a care in the world, he switched off the ignition. The music faded, but he continued the tune with a totally original verse.
“Are you finished yet? Are you done belting out your ridiculous rendition of that song?” Lila felt her blood pressure soar to a dangerous level. “Because, if I didn’t know better I’d think you hoped to be discovered by a talent scout.”
“Wow…” Morgan twirled his key ring on one finger. “So you think I’m ready for the big stage?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” Though her nerves still fired with the thought of waiting on him, Lila felt the tickle of a smile along the corners of her lips. She had to admit that although Morgan would probably never win a talent show for his singing—much less an award for being on time today—he possessed a healthy dose of charisma that she found endearing. “Saying you’re ready for crooning in the shower would be a stretch, and that’s only if no one is listening.”
“Ouch.” The smile went flat as he opened the driver’s door and unfolded himself from the seat. His legs were long, lean, and the rest of him followed suit. “You don’t mince words, do you?”
“Not when it comes to my business…or my money.”
“I’ll file that memo for future reference.” He tapped his left temple. “By the way, I’m Morgan Haynes.”
He offered his hand. Huge, warm, callused. The guy was no stranger to physical labor. Yet she sensed a gentleness as his fingers melded with hers.
For a long moment, neither one of them let go.
“Morgan…I assumed as much.” With a tinge of regret, Lila drew her hand back. “I recognize you from the photo posted on your website. I’m pleased to finally meet you. And, as you’ve most likely suspected, I’m Lila Brooks.”
“Lila, yes.”  He stepped onto the sidewalk as his gaze drank her in. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too.”
“Thank you.” She nodded curtly. “For the record, you’re late.”
“Actually, I’m two minutes early.” Morgan smoothed the pad of his thumb over the face of his wristwatch to prove his point. “Two and a half minutes, to be exact.” He ran a hand through his hair, coaxing the dark, windblown waves back into place. A shadow of stubble grazed his jawline, connecting at a deep cleft near the center of his chin. When he removed his sunglasses, smoky-blue eyes tagged hers and held tight. “But if you’d like me to get back in my car and drive away, then return in a few minutes so you can be right on the point, I’m more than happy to oblige.”
“No, that’s certainly not necessary.” Lila gathered her hair as it danced in the breeze to veil her eyes and tease her cheeks. She wished she had thought to secure it with an elastic band, as was her habit, before heading out that morning. “It’s just that in my universe if you’re not at least ten minutes early, you’re late.”
“Well, I obviously don’t reside in your universe, so one of us is going to have to consider a change of zip code.” Morgan turned back toward the car. “And, since we’re filing mental notes, just for the record you need to know that I don’t do well taking orders from high maintenance control-freaks.”
“High maintenance…control freaks?” Lila stuttered. “Who’s a control freak?”
“Take a look.” Morgan grinned as he tapped the car’s side-view mirror. Lila was horrified to find her image gazing back. “If the reflection fits…”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m not high maintenance. ” Lila shook her head to reinforce the fact and pressed a hand to his forearm. It only took a moment for her to regret the touch as sinewy muscles screamed back at her. The guy had obviously spent substantial time wielding construction tools. “At least not usually. My current attitude is merely a reflection of my frazzled nerves, and I suppose I can concede that’s really not your fault at all.”
“You’ve got that right.”
“OK, I’m sorry.” Lila broached a weary smile. “This project has me on edge. So, cut me a little slack.”
“I can do that.” Morgan’s gaze slid to her hand still resting along his arm. “And though the jury’s still out on the high maintenance issue, I completely understand the nerves. This is a huge undertaking.” His gaze shifted to the Victorian. “But she’s a beauty in the rough, that’s for sure. We’re going to accomplish great things together…a total transformation.”
“You think so?”
“I do, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Right. I’m sorry for starting off on the wrong foot and for being so snippity with you.”
“Snippity? Is that a real word?”
“It is now.” Lila removed her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Like I said, I’m just…a little on edge and anxious to get going.”
“Then, let’s get to it.” He started toward the house.
“Yes, let’s.”
Lila fell in step beside him. His stride was long, and she struggled to keep pace. She hadn’t made it half-a-dozen steps when the heel of her navy pump caught in a sidewalk crack. She stumbled—right into Morgan.
“Whoa, there.” Without missing a beat, he caught her against his chest. For a moment she found herself in a tilt-a-whirl of sensations. “I’ve got you.”
A terrain of muscles…the clean scent of soap…a hint of cotton.
She steadied herself and blew a wisp of bangs from her eyes as she slanted a gaze upwards to find Morgan staring at her. “Well, that’s just peachy…nothing seems to be going as planned today.”
“Why don’t you take a breath? We’ll slow the pace a little.” He set her firmly on her feet and took a step back. “Better?”
“Yes. Thanks.”
He offered her a hand as his lips curved into a lopsided smile. Again, Lila found evidence of a strong work ethic along the surface of his palm; calluses lined his fingers.  “You don’t have to go it alone anymore—I’m here now. You’ve got a load on your plate and that’s a lot to handle, so let me share the burden. It’s wise to remember that restoring a century-old house takes a tender, patient touch—not a bulldozer.”
“Of course you’re right. That’s why you’re the expert.” Lila straightened and smoothed a wrinkle from her pencil skirt. She wished she’d thought to wear more sensible shoes along with the hairband she’d also forgotten. The breeze caused her hair to tumble over her shoulders and into her eyes. She brushed it back with her fingers. “I’m pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Haynes.”
“Good grief, call me Morgan. We’re going to be working together from this point on, elbow to elbow, so let’s just shelve the formalities.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m glad we’re finally here together. Those phone conversations and the tedious exchange of emails was getting old fast.” Morgan scanned the length of her, pausing at the area just below her knees, where the hem of the skirt skimmed her skin, before rising up to tag her gaze once again. “You look different than I expected.”
“How so?”
“Just…” He shrugged and tucked the sunglasses into the collar of his polo shirt. “…softer. From your tone during our conversations I expected more of the drill-sergeant type—short hair, loafers, no nail polish or make-up. The no-nonsense type.”
“Loafers?” Lila chuckled. “Well, despite my more feminine attire and the fact that I prefer to wear my hair long and my nails groomed, I am certainly no-nonsense when it comes to business decisions.”
“Yes, that is one footnote that has rung through loud and clear.”
“I suppose your round-about sort of compliment warrants a thank you, so…thank you.” Lila tossed her length of hair back over one shoulder and checked the buttons on her blouse. Morgan regarded her as if he could see right through her. What had he expected—that she’d sport three heads, each with a cyclops eye? “Well, I’m ready to get this project started if you are.”
“Oh, I’m beyond ready. But wait just one more minute. I almost forgot something important.” He turned and jogged a few steps back toward the car. He leaned into the open ragtop and lifted a bulky package from the passenger seat. “Here you go.”
“Flowers…you brought me flowers?” Lila pressed the generous cluster of wildflower blooms to her nose and inhaled the sweet promise of spring. “They’re absolutely lovely, and wildflowers are my favorite.”
“I figured a girl like you would prefer roses, but I’m glad these will do. I thought they were pretty.”
“They are beautiful. And they’re absolutely perfect. Wildflowers top my list. But why did you do this? I didn’t expect—”
“I know you didn’t. That’s what makes it extra special. And I suppose I should warn you that I’m full of surprises. This has been a huge project…the dream, the vision, the plans. I thought you should have something to commemorate the beginning of the final stage—construction.”
“Thank you, Morgan. That’s so sweet.” Lila gently stroked the blooms. “You’re really sweet.”
“Well, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but never sweet. So, you’re welcome.” He bowed elegantly and then rose again to turn once more toward the car. He grabbed a ball cap from the seat and tugged it low on his head to shield his eyes from the sun. “Now, lead the way if you can manage in those non-loafer shoes. Which, I might add, I find highly appealing.”
“No worries.” Lila hid a grimace as her toes pinched in the pumps. She warmed at the thought that he found her appealing, yet chastised herself for her poor wardrobe choice. What was she thinking this morning to don footwear so unsuitable for the day’s tasks? Maybe Morgan’s suggestion of loafers wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Her entire outfit was more appropriate for a day spent behind a desk—not roaming the grounds of the winding, spacious Victorian. She adjusted her purse strap over her shoulder and turned once more toward the narrow walkway that led to the house.
The breeze suddenly kicked up, causing fallen leaves to skitter along the curb. As Lila gazed skyward through the weathered glass of the Victorian’s front turret, she was sure a shadow crossed the window. Her pulse shuddered at the thought of an intruder in the house.
“Did you see that?” She motioned toward the window.
“What?” Morgan followed her gaze.
“Up there…in the window.” She squinted and shielded her eyes against the sun for a better look. “I saw something.”
“Probably just a shadow, a reflection of a tree limb.”
“Maybe.” She strained her gaze, but the scrutiny found no further sign of movement.
She shrugged off the idea of an unwelcome visitor lurking along the property. No one with the exception of she and the realtor had been in the house during the past year. Morgan had yet to step inside. His work had all been done through research using the architectural plans and a computer program. He had yet to see the guts of the structure firsthand.
Lila brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. This sunlight has my eyes playing tricks on me. Morgan’s right, I must have seen a tree limb dancing in the breeze.
“Are you OK?” Morgan eased in beside Lila, notepad in hand, and took her by the elbow. “Let me help you. This gravel is tricky. It’s definitely on the to-do list to repave this lot for easier access and parking.
“I’m OK. I just thought…well, I really thought I saw something lurking in the turret window. It looked like a woman dressed in an old-fashioned gown…you know, with a high-buttoned collar.” Lila demonstrated by cupping a hand above her collarbone. “But it couldn’t possibly have been, or you would have seen it too. I simply saw the reflection of a tree branch or a passing cloud.”
“There are no clouds in the sky today.” Morgan motioned toward the rich expanse of blue above them. “Look…nothing but an ocean of sunshine.”
“Right.” Lila hesitated as she gave the window a final curt scan before drawing her attention back to Morgan. “Then it was a shadow of some sort. There are plenty of trees along the front yard.”
“Yes, there are.” Morgan nodded as he rubbed the scruff along his chin. “So, you’re probably right on that count. But I still have to ask…have you seen them yet?”
“Seen who?”
            “The spirits that are said to be found here. I’ve done a little research of my own on this property and rumor has it that the house took so long to sell because people are concerned that something lingers inside…something not of this world.” He motioned toward the second-floor turret where a pane of glass was fractured by a jagged gash. The damage was just one of the many reasons Lila had been able to snatch this building for a song from the realty company. “By all accounts this place is…well, some would assert that it’s haunted.”
“That’s simply an old wife’s tale.” Lila sniffed and the pollen from a cluster of Bradford pear trees along the drive made her sneeze. When she’d caught her breath and thanked Morgan for his God bless you, she continued. “This house is nothing of the sort. Talk like that is just…well, it’s merely superstition. I would prefer to keep such rumors where they belong—out of the limelight.”
“Whatever you say, but I’m not the one who’s seeing shadows.” Morgan tucked his car keys into his pocket. “Anyway, why don’t we shelve the so-called rumors until later and get this party started?”
“Yes, and I saw the reflection of a tree limb.” She nodded stiffly to drive the point home. “You were right; that’s all it was. Nothing more.”
Yet, now she wasn’t so sure.
“Of course you did.” He tucked the notebook beneath one arm. “Are you ready to head inside?”
“Oh…I’m more than ready. I think I may have seen a vase for these flowers in an upstairs room.” The previous owners had left several pieces of furniture and a flurry of belongings—almost as if they’d left in a hurry. “And the water should be running—I called the company last week to have it turned back on.”
“All systems are go, then.”
“Yes, they are.” Suddenly, Lila felt a tiny trill of excitement at what lay in store. Her life-long dream to own her own business was taking flight now—at this very moment. She’d be her own boss, make the boutique exactly what she wanted it to be. Her imagination—and her budget—were the only limits. The very thought was almost surreal. She stepped carefully along the gravel drive, holding her balance as she crossed to the stairs. “And, Mr. American Idol wannabe, I can manage in these shoes just fine.”
“Sure you can.” Morgan covered his mouth with one hand. Lila was sure his light snickers were directed at her. He bowed once more as he swept his free hand across the drive. “After you, princess. Let’s go.”


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