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I'm a giggler. My husband says I hide it well, but it's true. Life makes me laugh even when it's not always appropriate to do so. Like during our wedding ceremony (the minister referred to me as Susan). Or during labor (when I transitioned before they could administer pain meds). That's why I'm thrilled to be writing the Sunshine Valley books for Forever Romance. In them, I get to sneak in life's funny moments while a couple falls in love.
Writing is a solitary endeavor but it isn't always a one-person show. Many people had input into this book from the idea phase to my getting over the my-book-sucks phase to the you-can-finish-it-because-it's-awesome phase to the editing phase to the marketing and selling phase. Everyone who touched this book helped me find the yellow brick road and persevere to the end. With that in mind, I'd like to thank my family, Cari, Sheila, Pam, Alex, and all the folks at Forever Romance.
So, whether you were looking for a little giggle over life's sometimes silly moments or for a little sigh when a couple finally earns their happily-ever-after, thank you for visiting Sunshine Valley.
I want to match Darcy Harper."
"Edith!" chorused the three mature females who made up the Sunshine Valley Widows Club board.
"Why are you upset?" Edith Archer demanded, trying to sit as tall as she could at the card table, height not being one of her assets. "I thought we were here to choose someone who needs help falling in love."
She'd overheard her three friends at a Widows Club Thanksgiving potluck yesterday discussing their intent to give Cupid a helping hand this holiday season. Since it sounded like something she'd be interested in, Edith had dropped by because Mims, Bitsy, and Clarice often forgot to extend an invitation her way.
"You can't choose Darcy." Bitsy's head shook so hard her black velvet hair bow slid lower on her bobbed blond hair. "For one thing, she's married. And if you must know, we give priority to matching widows and widowers."
"That's a rule." Clarice shouted, having left her hearing aids at home. She shuffled a deck of cards. "Like having to be on the Widows Club board to participate in the matchmaking."
"I come to all the board meetings." Edith shifted in her seat, wishing Mims had cushioned folding chairs. "Therefore, I'm on the board."
There was another uproar. Clarice's cards spewed like a fountain across the table. Bitsy's bow fell to the floor. Mims stared up at her husband's tall, hand-carved gun case, mouth moving as if having a silent conversation with Hamm.
Edith sat patiently through it all. If possession was nine-tenths of the law, then attendance should count the same. When her husband died last winter, she'd needed an anchor. The Widows Club board had helped keep her grounded. Yes, they sometimes overlooked her but their hearts were in the right place. And she'd been tickled to learn they had a secret purpose and a code name—the Sunshine Valley Matchmakers Club. They were a club, Sunshine Valley's version of the secret society in The DaVinci Code. Only they operated for good, not greed.
"Edith," Mims said in her firm voice, pausing to chew off more of her lipstick as she tried to fluff her white, short, flat curls. "Some may question Darcy's choice in husband." Darcy was in her early twenties and had married Judge Harper, who was pushing eighty. "But that's not why we're here."
"You can't mean to let Edith have a vote." Bitsy stopped trying to fix her hair bow. She was always perfectly coiffed, even if stuck in '80s fashion trends.
Leg warmers had never been Edith's thing. But Bitsy's words…
Edith experienced a rare moment of gut-shaking doubt that things wouldn't go the way she wanted them to. She stared at Mims pleadingly through eyes filling with unexpected tears.
"Listen closely, Edith." Clarice used her outdoor voice and pointed at Mims and her neon orange camouflage sweatshirt. "President." She pointed at Bitsy and her red, silk-covered, linebacker shoulder pads. "Treasurer." She jabbed a thumb at her pink and yellow paisley blouse. "Secretary." And then she faced Edith. "Which means you're—"
"Vice president," Edith interrupted with a relieved laugh. Thank heavens. She'd found a slot to fill. "Boards always have a vice president." A second in command. Edith's chest swelled with importance.
Her pronouncement was met with silence. They were probably all stunned they hadn't seen this before.
"I vote we table the issue of vice presidency to a later date," Mims mumbled.
"Second." Bitsy went back to her hair bow and then shouted at Clarice. "Deal the cards. We'll figure things out later."
Clarice frowned. As a flower child, she'd seen a lot of sun in her day, and when she frowned, her thin face thickened with sun-spotted wrinkles. "There are rules."
Mims waved her hand the way she did with the board when Edith got her way.
Frowning, Clarice settled her long gray braids over her shoulders. "You have to win a game of poker before you can propose a name."
"Preferably the name of a widow or widower," Bitsy said, hair bow in place.
"Who's been widowed at least a year," Mims added, gaze drifting back to the locked case of hunting rifles.
"That could almost be me." Suddenly, Edith had mixed feelings about the game. She'd practically earned a coveted seat on the board. What if the winner of the poker game chose to match her?
"We tend to focus on the younger widows," Mims explained.
"Oh." Edith blew out a relieved breath.
"We could make an exception," Bitsy murmured.
With a snort, Clarice began to deal. "Ante up."
Each of the widows had ten pennies in front of them.
Edith laid two pennies in the middle of the card table. Clink-clink. "One, two. Buckle my shoe." The mood in the room was too serious for her liking.
After a moment's hesitation, Mims slid out two pennies.
"Three, four. Shut the door." Edith beamed.
Clarice stopped dealing cards to stare at Mims and Bitsy. "This is a bad idea."
"You're right," Edith said, grateful the conversation had turned. "Gambling is never to be condoned. My grandson-in-law did a good bit of it before he died."
"How is Mary Margaret doing?" Bitsy sorted her cards.
"The first holidays are always tough." Mims directed her soft words toward Edith.
Who nodded, thinking about the empty side of her own bed instead of her granddaughter's. "I'm lucky to have such good family and friends around, especially the Widows Club." Edith turned a warm smile toward Bitsy. "Did you forget to ante up?"
Bitsy contributed her two cents. "Widows roll with the punches."
"Five, six. Pick up sticks," Edith sing-songed.
"I'm afraid of what comes next." Clarice finished dealing. She set the deck of cards aside and tossed her two pennies on the pile.
"Seven, eight. Lay them straight." Edith beamed at her friends. And then she beamed at her cards, splaying them on the table. "Four queens. Who can beat me?"
The original three board members groaned.
"That's not the way poker is played." Mims exhaled, long and slow. "This isn't going to work."
"Agreed." Bitsy crossed her arms.
"Yep. Can't play without protocol." Clarice stood, reaching for her wooden walking stick. She'd been using it since her double-knee replacement last year.
"I have to go." Bitsy got to her feet, adjusting her listing shoulder pads. "I forgot I have a…a…thing."
Mims had no excuse to leave since they were at her house. She stood anyway.
"I win?" Edith happily raked in her coins. She should have known she'd prevail. Edith had always been lucky. "I thought we'd play until someone had all the pennies. But if not, I'll choose Mary Margaret." Because the anniversary of her granddaughter's husband's death was Christmas.
"You can't choose," Clarice said in her loud voice. "It goes against the rules." And being secretary, Clarice was a stickler for the group's rules.
"All right. Then who will we match?" Edith looked at each of the board in turn, hoping they wouldn't point to her. "I thought Mary Margaret was the perfect choice."
The rest of the board fell silent.
And in that dead space, Edith realized it didn't matter who won their forty-cent game of poker. They'd all had Mary Margaret on their mind.
Mary Margaret Sneed was going to find some holiday spirit if it killed her.
It had been a rough year. Her husband, Derek, had died last Christmas after a second bout with cancer, leaving her with an unexpected pile of debt, no life insurance policy, and only her kindergarten teacher's salary to set things right.
Fulfill your obligations.
Mary Margaret hadn't heard her father's voice anywhere but in her head in more than five years. It still had the power to chill her. She shut him out by humming the chorus of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Memories might not be doing much to bolster Mary Margaret's spirits but Mother Nature was. It'd been snowing for three days in Sunshine. There was two feet of snow on the ground, more alongside the road where the plows had run. It was only two days past Thanksgiving but it looked like Christmas.
Mary Margaret shoveled her walk, made a small snowman, and got out the rickety wooden ladder to string colorful lights along the eaves of her small rented bungalow. Her street was lined with historic Craftsman homes painted everything from light blue to forest green to sunny yellow and would soon be decorated with lights and lawn displays. Small town life in high plains Colorado was all about heritage and tradition, even if you were only going through the motions.
"Good to see you, Mary Margaret." Kimmy Easley waved from across the street. She was going all-out with a nativity scene and spotlights. "If you need help setting up your tree, let me know."
"Will do," Mary Margaret said. She didn't think she was up to indoor cheer, not when she'd decorated for Christmas around Derek's hospital bed last December.
"Now that's going to look pretty at night."
Mary Margaret contorted herself on the ladder to see who was coming up the walk.
Two men wearing black leather jackets approached. One man was tall, thin, balding, and chewed a plastic coffee stir stick the way cigarette smokers did when they were trying to quit. The other man was Hardy to his partner's Laurel. Shorter, stockier, and with the kind of features that said he hadn't had enough to smile about in life.
Neither was a local. Mary Margaret may not have grown up in Sunshine but, as a five-year resident, she knew everyone in town, at least by sight.
"Are you Mrs. Sneed?" Mr. Hardy asked with the narrow-eyed look of an amateur detective.
At her nod, Mr. Laurel said, "Sorry about your loss, ma'am. Derek…He was…"
Mary Margaret's chest locked, refusing to take in air.
Over the past eleven months, she'd learned the lack of words to describe her husband usually meant he'd borrowed money and hadn't paid someone back. Derek had faced his mortality armed with the balm of retail therapy. He hadn't just bought things online, in stores, and at dealerships. He'd bought things from friends in town, promising to pay later, knowing full well that he'd never see a later date.
Drawing a deep breath, Mary Margaret climbed down the ladder, took a stand in the snow, and pushed up her sweatshirt sleeves. "Gentlemen, I hope you're here to tell me Derek had a lottery ticket he never claimed."
She could tell by the lack of change in their expressions that this wasn't the case.
Hardy planted his feet wider than his shoulders on her walk and hinged his hips from side to side. "We represent a company that floated your husband money."
"Loaned," Mr. Laurel clarified, swiveling the red stir stick from one side of his mouth to the other. "Derek had a line of credit."
"Fellas." They'd dropped in her estimation from gentlemen to random dudes. "My husband has been gone nearly a year. In all that time, I've received many invoices for his debt. Have you billed me already? What's the name of your company?"
Shrugging deeper into his jacket, the tall Mr. Laurel gestured toward the front door and the plastic holly wreath hanging there. "Can we go inside and discuss this?"
"No." The rejection was instinctual. Her creep-o-meter was pinging off the charts. These weren't your average bill collectors. Their tans and thin jackets said they'd come from a warmer climate. "So, here's the thing, guys. If my husband owed you money, you need to prove it with receipts, contracts, or invoices." She'd learned that in the early weeks after Derek passed.
"Mrs. Sneed." Mr. Hardy's hips did that unsettling side-to-side mamba. "Last December, your husband lost one hundred thousand dollars to our online gambling casino."
Mary Margaret gripped the ladder, trying to steady herself in the shifting snow.
"We've been trying to get in touch with him through the usual channels," Mr. Hardy continued. "Cell phone." Which she'd canceled. "And email." Which she didn't have the password to.
"That can't be true. My husband only gambled at the Indian casino down the road." But she could tell by their expressions this wasn't a joke.
Mr. Laurel swiveled the red plastic stick in his mouth and handed her a stapled set of papers.
Black Jack Online Gaming. Account for Derek Sneed.
Debt Validation Notice.
No physical address was listed for Derek, just his email. There were fourteen days of transactions listed in December of last year. That alone didn't mean much. It was the Debt Validation Notice that legitimized their claim in Mary Margaret's eyes.
The bottom of her small world fell out.
Her husband hadn't handled cancer well. At the news of his first diagnosis three years ago, Derek had said he didn't want to be married anymore. He'd taken Carina Snodgrass, his high school sweetheart, to Las Vegas with no indication that he was ever coming back. After two weeks, he'd returned to Sunshine without Carina, and Mary Margaret had taken him back because it was the right thing to do.
Marriage is a sacred bond.
But things hadn't been the same. Mary Margaret rubbed her temple, trying to get her father's voice out of her head but, as usual, he slipped in the last word: Always fulfill your obligations.
A little over a year after his cancer all-clear, Derek had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. This time, he swore his love for Mary Margaret. That hadn't stopped him from going on a spending spree the day they'd diagnosed him as terminal. Among other things, he'd bought a seventy-inch flat screen, a fancy laptop, an all-terrain quad, a fishing boat, and a new pick-up truck. And then when his body began shutting down, he'd coerced his friends into taking him gambling, betting big in the hopes he'd win enough to square Mary Margaret away.
Derek had been as unlucky in the casino as with his health.
She'd tried to return and sell everything after he died. The truck and fishing boat had been returned with what she'd felt was an unreasonable re-stocking fee. The all-terrain quad had been sitting in the driveway with a FOR SALE sign for nearly a year. And now this…
"Here's the thing, Mrs. Sneed." Mr. Hardy was gleefully fidgety. "We tried in good faith to contact your husband. We aren't completely heartless regarding your loss." He tried to look sad. Tried, but failed. "Do you own this place?"
"No." Some of the bitterness she tried not to feel toward Derek slipped out. She'd had to sell their starter home last spring. "How much will it take to buy his debt down?" She'd learned that debt collectors would settle for less than the full amount just to get it off their books.
"This isn't a sale at Macy's, Mrs. Sneed." Mr. Hardy's good humor evaporated. His words were as chilly as the thirty-degree air. "We want our hundred grand."
Mary Margaret twitched so hard that the ladder fell sideways into the snow.
"We'll be needing a good faith payment today." Mr. Laurel walked a few feet into the snowdrift and righted her ladder.
Mary Margaret cleared her throat. "Gentlemen…" She decided to upgrade their status in the hopes of leniency. "I've spent months consolidating Derek's debt. I'm on a very strict payment plan. I could maybe add fifty dollars a month for you." She was grasping at straws.
Their heads swung slowly from side to side.
"We'll be needing a good faith payment today," Mr. Laurel repeated.
Mary Margaret only had two hundred dollars in her checking account. But she wasn't the most beloved kindergarten teacher in Sunshine for nothing. She was a quick thinker and had a winning smile. "Can I interest you in a quad?" She gestured to the vehicle to the side of her driveway. The one with the faded FOR SALE sign.
They shook their heads.
"We plan to stay in town until a sizable portion has been paid," Mr. Hardy said. "Our boss wants us back in the office before Christmas." He stared at her blue jean–clad legs.
And it wasn't the admiring kind of look a man gave a woman's gams.
It was the kind of look a kindergarten boy gave to a Popsicle stick before he tried to snap it in half.
* * *
"Daddy, are you sure Santa likes Christmas trees with toy cars?" Five-year-old Tad wrapped a red sports car with a white pipe cleaner and hung it on the ficus in Kevin's office. "I never see trees with cars." His small brow wrinkled. "Or ninjas." His role-playing favorite.
Sunshine Mayor Kevin Hadley stopped working on the road-repaving budget and turned his chair to face his son. "Do you know what Santa likes?"
Tad solemnly shook his head.
"Santa likes Christmas to be fun and full of surprises." Surprises weren't so fun to politicians.
Like the news that your wife had been unfaithful. Or that she considered you boring, in and out of the bedroom. Or that, despite all that, she still wanted to be married to you. As if your shared aspirations of climbing the political ladder to Washington, DC, could survive that.
Their divorce was final. Ironically, that had coincided with his party floating an invitation to run for state assembly from his district. All Kevin had to do was tell them he was ready and pass a few background checks and interviews to earn their support. Not one to leap before he analyzed the situation, Kevin hadn't told anyone about the conversation, not even his parents.
"What are you going to get me for Christmas?" Tad brought a fire truck over and stood at Kevin's side, trying to look innocent and reinforcing all the love Kevin had in his heart for him.
I'd do anything for Tad.
On the outside, Tad was a precocious, sturdy kid, big for his age. On the inside, he was made fragile by his parents' divorce, struggling a bit at school and seeking attention more than he had in the past.
"All I can tell you is this, Tad." Kevin leaned down and whispered, "The present you'll get is a surprise."
"Daddy." Tad climbed into Kevin's lap, continuing to wrap the fire truck with a pipe cleaner.
Footsteps sounded on the staircase from the first floor of the town hall. His father filled the doorway, still looking vital and hale at sixty years, despite his white hair. "Kevin, I need a moment."
"Grandpa!" Tad tumbled to the floor and scrambled across the room to hug him before returning to decorate the ficus.
"I've only got a minute, Dad. I have a meeting with Everett." He and his city manager had decided to convene on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to speak their minds on the controversial development project they were supporting. "How did you get in?" Kevin was sure he'd locked the door downstairs behind him.
"I used my key." Dad shrugged. He'd once been mayor too. Politics and furniture-making had been family businesses for three generations. "Listen, about this distribution center you're considering…"
Kevin sighed. Since he'd been elected nearly a decade earlier, everything about his public service had been smooth sailing, approved and embraced by almost everyone. And then came the dissolution of his marriage and JPM Industries' proposal to build a distribution center on the outskirts of town. Now everyone had an opinion about his life and his leadership.
"It's the wrong choice for Sunshine." Dad moved his hands as if smoothing a tablecloth one final time before company arrived.
End of story, Dad meant.
It was far from the end for Kevin. "Do you want to elaborate on that?" Because everyone in Sunshine was telling Kevin it was the wrong thing for the town but no one would articulate why.
"We're a small ranching community." Which was essentially code for Dad not liking change.
The distribution center would bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to Sunshine, not to mention it would look good on Kevin's political résumé. He'd need that to make the move to the state level.
"Thanks for your input, Dad." Before his father could accelerate his DEFCON level to emergency mode, Kevin turned the conversation in a new direction. "Are you out shopping with Mom? You know, I told her not to spoil Tad." Their only grandchild.
"I wrote a long list to Santa," Tad said, right on cue. "Ms. Sneed mailed our class letters to the North Pole last week."
Kevin made a mental note to ask Mary Margaret what had been on Tad's long list, although something ninja-related was a safe bet.
"Grandma was going into the pet store." Kevin's father ruffled Tad's dark brown hair. "She promised not to buy anything."
A twinge of worry plucked a muscle in the shoulder of Kevin's throwing arm, threatening to cramp. "Rosalie had poodle puppies for adoption in the window." And she was one of the best salespeople in town. "Given I'm never home during the day, any pup she picks up will be living at your place from eight to five."
"Your mother knows my rules about dogs," Dad said with the blind confidence of a lord who thought he ruled his castle. The elder Hadleys were a one-dog household. And Chester, their Labrador, had many years ahead of him. "Now, about the distribution center…" Dad's cell phone chimed with a message. He stared at his phone, swore, and hurried out the door, mumbling something about Chester being his only fur baby.
Kevin chuckled, confident Dad would stop Mom from getting a puppy. They were all too busy for new household members, especially this holiday season.
Tad hung another car on the ficus next to a twinkling white light. "Can I have a puppy for Christmas? All ninjas have puppies."
"But, Daddy." Tad returned to Kevin's side and leaned on his thigh, digging his elbows in and smiling for all he was worth. "I'll keep it at your house and take care of it always."
"No puppies." At least he and Barb could agree on that.
Another set of footsteps sounded on the stairs.
"Merry Christmas." Everett, his city manager, said hello to Tad and sat down across from Kevin, shedding his jacket and red knit scarf. He was a rangy man, a decade older than Kevin. His brown hair was always shaggy, and his clothes were always rumpled, but he was as good as, if not better than, Kevin when it came to running Sunshine. "Rosalie is having a huge sale, plus the rescue shelter is running an adoption fair, and I promised her I'd only be gone for thirty minutes." He and his wife were a unified team.
Like Barb and I used to be.
Or perhaps that had been a lie too.
"Let's get to it, then." Kevin reached for the folder with his notes on the development project.
Heeled footsteps struck the wooden stair treads.
- "A small town brought to life with wit and charm."—SheilaRoberts, New York Times bestselling author
- "You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll want to visit again soon!"—BrendaNovak, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages