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Head-over-heels in love, Lola Williams gave up everything to marry Randy, including a promising career in New York City. Now, after one year of marriage and one year of widowhood, Lola finds herself stranded in Sunshine, Colorado, reeling from the revelation that Randy had secrets she never could have imagined. She swears she’s done with love forever but the matchmaking ladies of the Sunshine Valley Widows Club have different plans…
Sheriff Drew Taylor also knows what it feels like to be unlucky in love. So when Lola comes to him for help uncovering Randy’s hidden life, Drew finds himself saying yes against his better judgment – especially with the Widows Club eyeing them both. Soon enough, Lola is upending Drew’s peaceful, predictable world…and he kind of likes it! But will this big-city girl ever give her heart to a small-town guy again?
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First off, a huge thank-you to Alex Logan, my editor at Forever. You believed in the heart and humor of this book and, with a gentle hand, made it infinitely better. Thanks also to the rest of the staff at Grand Central Publishing—editorial, art, production, sales, publicity, and marketing—for gearing up for a great series launch. Big hug to my agent, Pamela Hopkins, who listens to my story ideas and somehow manages to come up with a strategic marketing plan (plus she knows how to interpret legalese).
A big thanks to my family, starting with my college-sweetheart husband, who didn't blink an eye when I said I wanted to change careers and write romance—okay, maybe he blinked but then he said, "Go for it"—and continuing with my kids, who hand-sell my books to everyone they meet. A special thanks to my son Colby, who has a knack for adding unusual twists to plots. Thanks to my brothers, who've been sideline cheerleaders, especially through the passing of our parents. As anyone who has lost someone important in their life knows, it takes time to get your sea legs back after a broken heart.
Writers tend to collect a tribe of friends. I've been blessed to have some really great ones who encourage me, challenge me, and support me. Thanks much to Cari Lynn Webb, Anna J. Stewart, and Jane Ann Krentz. Special shout-out to Brenda Novak and a twenty-plus-year friendship. Big thank-you to the rest of my professional team—Sheri Brooks at Purple Papaya, Nancy Berland, and the staff at Writerspace. Your support gives me time to write.
And finally, thanks to my readers, bloggers, and reviewers, who spend time with me and the characters I create. I hope Lola and Drew find a place in your heart. I know they found one in mine.
Mims Turner sucked at poker.
She hadn't always but it seemed like she hadn't won in months. She was always betting on the wrong hand or folding when she should call. Just once, she'd like to win. And if Mims could win only once, she'd like it to be today.
"I'll see your five." Mims tossed a stack of five pennies in the pot, followed by a second set. "And raise you five."
"Ditto," Clarice shouted, having predictably left her hearing aids at home. Her pennies bounced into the center of Mims's card table.
"Now we're all in." Bitsy's words rang with finish-line finality. She thought she was going to win. Again.
Just this once…
Mims ground her teeth. She was an outdoorswoman. She was president of the Sunshine Valley Widows Club, a group of thirty women who raised money for causes that benefited the small town of Sunshine, Colorado. She considered herself unflappable. She should be able to master a game of cards. It was just that lately, Mims's entire life was off. She couldn't always make the point she wanted to, and sometimes she lost track of what she was saying midsentence. It was like going through menopause all over again!
She glanced at her opponents. Clarice was a free spirit. She considered bras too establishment. But she knew how to work the hand she was dealt. And Bitsy? Bitsy looked like her ancestors had come over on the Mayflower and settled in Boston. And yet she played cards as if she'd grown up in Vegas.
The trio made up the board of the Widows Club. Privately, Mims, Clarice, and Bitsy liked to call themselves the Sunshine Valley Matchmakers Club. With every Widows Club fund-raiser, they gave Cupid a little help, a nudge to someone they felt was ready and worthy of love. Whoever won this hand would win the pot of pennies and the right to choose whom the group nudged next.
Mims's cards stuck to her slightly damp palms. Two red kings, two red aces, a two of hearts. All that red had to mean something. It had to mean Mims could break her losing streak!
"I like Edith Archer," Mims blurted, unable to hide her agenda any longer.
"You haven't won." Clarice's loud voice reverberated in Mims's cozy parlor.
Bitsy's black velvet hair bow trembled above her bobbed blond hair. "Edith is old."
"We're all old." If seventy was old, Mims was ancient. "Edith is widowed, which means she gets priority." That was a rule.
"You can't touch Edith." Clarice harrumphed. "She's been widowed less than three months." That was another rule. They didn't begin matching widows or accepting them into the general membership until they'd been bereaved at least half a year. Although the club offered a shoulder to cry on, they were primarily an organization dedicated to good works.
"I like Lola." There was something in Bitsy's normally gentle tone that wasn't so gentle. "Lola's a widow. And she's not even thirty."
"Bitsy's got a point," Clarice said, still using her outdoor voice.
Normally Mims would agree that a younger widow needed more help getting back on her feet, but instead she said, "You should have seen Edith at church last Sunday." Her short gray hair had looked as if she'd stuck her finger in a light socket. "When Charlie died, she fell apart." And kept falling.
Not that Mims hadn't been coming apart at the seams too. Charlie had been Mims's first love. He may have chosen Edith more than half a century ago, but when Mims had become a widow, Charlie had become her emotional rock, unbeknownst to Edith. When Charlie had died, it had been like losing Mims's husband all over again.
Mims resented having to share Charlie with Edith, even in death. She'd do anything to keep her rival out of the Widows Club. This was her last chance. "Edith needs a man, or she'll do something she'll regret."
"Mims has a point too." Clarice considered her hand.
"She'll have to back it up by winning." Bitsy showed her cards. "Two pair." Two black kings and two black aces—yin to Mims's yang.
Impossible. Mims couldn't breathe. She spread her cards on the table with cold fingers.
"Well, I'll be," Clarice murmured. She glanced at her cards and then laid them facedown. "It's a tie."
Bitsy looked like she'd missed one of her grandchildren's birthdays. "We've never had a tie before."
"We need a rule to cover ties," Mims said. Such as In case of a tie, the person who's won the least is the winner.
Before Mims proposed her rule, Clarice came up with one of her own.
"This is a sign." A slow grin worked its way across Clarice's thin, leathery face. "I propose we match both Edith and Lola."
She didn't need to ask Mims twice. "I second."
They both turned to Bitsy, who was staring at her cards as if she were a puzzled fortune-teller.
"Just one question," Bitsy said finally, her gaze landing squarely on Mims. "Is either one of them ready for love?"
If Lola Williams had known Randy would be unable to honor his wedding vows…
If Lola had known Randy would toss aside her love like he did his dirty laundry…
If Lola had known Randy was untrustworthy, unfaithful, and untrue…
She would've returned to New York City before his wedding ring left a tan mark on her finger. But after one year of marriage and one year of widowhood, New York was out of reach, lost to her, a log at the bottom of a fast-burning fire.
Because of Randy.
Because of Randy, Lola was no longer doing hair and makeup for celebrities on Broadway. She was doing hair and makeup for the elderly at the Sunshine Valley Retirement Home and for the dead at the Eternal Rest Mortuary.
She might have salvaged her career on Broadway if she hadn't believed theirs was the forever kind of union. But she was a dreamer. After Randy's fatal car crash, she'd decided their love needed a grand gesture of mourning—a year's worth—tying up the loose ends of his life bit by bit, until the only thing left to do was go through his clothes and his side of the closet on the anniversary of his death. Only then had she learned her husband had been sleeping around.
Sitting in her driveway, Lola tossed another pair of Randy's tighty-whities on the bonfire.
She should move her folding chair back from the small blaze before it singed her eyebrows more completely than the afternoon's revelation had made ashes of her heart. Those ashes clogged her lungs, deadened her limbs, and numbed her brain until she couldn't do anything besides bend slightly, reach for another pair of undies, and toss them on the fire.
Cars passed by. And slowed.
Drivers stared. And scowled.
Across the street, Mrs. Everly's mauve curtains twitched.
The familiar burn of being an outsider—Worse! That gal from New York City—made Lola wish she'd used Randy's fifty-year-old bottle of whiskey to light the fire instead of nail polish remover. A swig of spirits might have given her the courage to do more than send answering glowers at passersby.
Couldn't they see she was devastated? Couldn't they see she'd hit rock bottom?
A dented and dinged white Subaru wagon parked at the curb. The governing board of the Widows Club looked at her with interest. Lola sank deeper into the creaky webbing of her folding chair.
Yesterday, she'd been thinking that joining the Widows Club and remaining single until her dying day would be the crowning achievement of her bereavement. Today, she was thinking twenty-nine was too young to join a group of widows.
The first widow to the sidewalk was Clarice Rogers. She wielded her hickory walking stick as if it were a gentleman's cane. Trend-wise, Clarice had never moved beyond the 1970s—not in hairstyle, not in fashion, not in the use of sunscreen. Her long gray braids made her thin, sun-damaged face look even longer. Her lime-green geometric blouse had been in and out of style at least five times in the past five decades.
Bitsy Whitlock's black patent loafers gracefully touched the pavement next. If Clarice was clinging to the seventies, Bitsy was an eighties girl. Her dyed blond hair was held back neatly with a big black velvet bow. Pearls adorned her ears and rimmed the crew neck of her turquoise sweater, which was held up by linebacker shoulder pads.
Rounding out the Widows Club board was Mims Turner, the driver of the Subaru and their president. She wasn't stuck in any specific era. She looked like everyone's grandmother with her short gray curls and navy I ♥ My Grandkids T-shirt. It was the neon-orange hunting vest with utility pockets that gave away the fact that she packed heat in her pink pleather purse.
The three conferred before walking to the edge of Lola's driveway, stopping a safe distance from the cinders of her life.
"Lola, dear." Mims straightened her orange hunting vest and waved a hand toward Randy's smoldering underpants. "What's this all about?"
Was it too much to hope that building a fire in her driveway made Lola a poor candidate for the Widows Club? "I found condoms in Randy's dresser. The receipt for them was dated two weeks before he died."
"Lola, dear." Mims made sympathetic noises. "Don't throw them out. I believe condoms have a three-year shelf life."
The horror of that statement coming out of grandmotherly Mims's mouth temporarily silenced Lola.
She reached for another pair of Hanes, wishing she hadn't waited a year to clean out Randy's side of the closet. She was such a romantic fool. And she'd been one since she was nine.
Back then, at the urging of her grandmother, Lola had started a scrapbook of dreams—a flowered and rainbowed blueprint of how her life should be. Land a job doing hair and makeup on Broadway by age twenty-seven (she'd done it by twenty-five), fall in love with her one true love by age twenty-eight (she'd met Randy on her twenty-seventh birthday), have a whirlwind romance and fairy-tale wedding by age twenty-nine (she'd been ahead of the game, marrying Randy mere weeks after they met), and have babies by age thirty (her only failure).
Who was she kidding? It was all a failure. Lola should have brought the scrapbook out to burn.
"You don't understand. We'd been trying to get pregnant for six months before Randy's accident," Lola said in a voice as hard as the metal coffin Judge Harper had special ordered last week. She didn't use that tone because she was annoyed at being misunderstood by the widows (well, maybe a little), but because she'd cut off her dreams of being a makeup artist / hair stylist to the stars to be with Randy, and because she'd cut back on caffeine and wine to increase her odds of having his baby. And all the while, Randy hadn't been cutting back on anything! "It was a large box of condoms, and it was nearly empty." Thirty used from a box of forty. In two weeks!
Lola felt sucker punched.
"You think he was…" Clutching her pearls, Bitsy drew a dramatic breath. "Cheating?"
The word cut through the white smoke in the air and the ashes in Lola's stomach. It cut and cut and cut until Lola thought she might flutter like ribbons into the flames.
Was she really so gullible? Was she really the woman who'd had no clue her husband was unfaithful?
Lola blew out a breath and admitted the truth. She was.
A mournful, wounded sound collected in Lola's throat. She swallowed it back and gripped the fake-wood chair handles.
Just then the sheriff's car pulled to the curb, lights flashing.
"Thank heavens," Bitsy murmured.
Wearing his crisp brown-and-tan uniform and a stern expression, Sheriff Drew Taylor arrived with a fire extinguisher. He rented the run-down farmhouse Randy had inherited from his grandmother and was everything Lola's husband hadn't been—terse, tall, and trustworthy. Sure, he didn't have Randy's blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American good looks. Drew had short walnut-brown hair, a bump on the bridge of his nose, and a small nick above his right cheekbone. But he had the steady eyes and reserved smile you appreciated in an officer of the law.
Drew planted his boots on the pavement. "Ladies."
That one word. It said, Peace will ensue.
Lola shifted in her chair, not ready to be peaceful.
Now Drew…Drew would never cheat on his wife (for the record, she'd left him and their daughter). He'd probably never cheated on anything in his entire life.
"I'll give you thirty seconds to explain why there's a fire here, or I'm going to have to take somebody in." His gaze bypassed the Widows Club and landed on Lola.
It landed with a brown-eyed howdy-do that rocked Lola against her chair. It landed and made her think about empty seats across the dining room table, of shared laughter, shared pillows, and shared nachos. All the things she missed about marriage.
When Lola didn't explain herself, the sheriff quirked a dark eyebrow. "Twenty-five seconds."
Mrs. Everly's mauve curtains twitched again.
Howdy-do aside, Lola didn't want to take a ride with the sheriff. "My husband did his own laundry," Lola said, as if Drew should understand what that meant. "He bleached all the evidence out of his shorts."
Without so much as a Come again? the sheriff flipped the safety tab on the fire extinguisher.
And yet he didn't immediately put out the fire. His gaze connected squarely with Lola's.
For the second time that day, Lola felt sucker punched.
He knew Randy was a cheater. And if the sheriff knew, everyone in town knew.
Well…Her gaze drifted to the governing board of the Widows Club.
Maybe not everyone.
Lola tossed the last pair of briefs on the flames and went inside.
If Drew wanted to arrest her, he'd have to come and get her.
And give her some answers while he was at it.
* * *
Females plus fire often equaled trouble.
When Sheriff Drew Taylor arrived on the scene, he'd done a three-point inspection of the female with the fire—no weapons, no tears, nothing out of the ordinary in Lola Williams's appearance. In short, this wasn't shaping up to be trouble.
Drew knew all about women and trouble. He was a single dad to a precocious six-year-old girl and the big brother to four younger sisters. When Drew was ten, his dad had seen the pink writing on the wall and hit the road, sentencing his son to a life of hair bows, chatterboxes, and long bathroom queues.
Granted, that made Drew qualified to raise a little girl alone but experience told him a woman's appearance was sometimes more important than her outward expressions of emotion. When his sisters had sunk into Woe-Is-Me mode, they'd called for pizza and raided Drew's dresser for his old sweatpants. The healing power of an elastic waistband and a pepperoni pie was amazing. When his sisters had reached Watch-Out-World mode, they'd donned their female battle gear (tight-fitting clothes, man-hunter makeup) and cut down anything in their path, including cheating boyfriends, backstabbing girlfriends, and well-meaning brothers.
Contrary to what Florence in dispatch had reported, there wasn't a wild woman setting fire to the neighborhood on Skyview Drive. Lola hadn't been dressed to wallow or wound. Her makeup had been as natural as her sun-kissed brown hair. In shorts and a pink tank top, she'd been dressed to wash her car or work in the garden, not eat her way through a pizza or confront her dead husband's lover with a weapon.
Drew aimed a chemical stream at the small flames in Lola's driveway, vowing that Becky wouldn't fall in love until she was thirty. By then, he'd be fifty-five and ready to sit back and enjoy being a grandpa. He wouldn't have to worry about the women in his life—Becky, his sisters, his ex-wife.
Drew gripped the fire extinguisher as if it were an empty, crushable beer can.
He looked around. The widows watched him in patient silence. A gentle breeze rustled bright-green leaves on trees up and down Skyview Drive. Two houses down, Joni Russell watered the daisies in her window boxes. This was Sunshine. Quiet, sleepy Sunshine.
Keeping the peace in Sunshine was easy compared to keeping the peace in Afghanistan, New York, or a household with four sisters. Shoot, worry about his siblings had kept him up more nights than worry about his own kid. The twins were finishing college over in Boulder, occasionally running out of money, occasionally posting heart-stopping activities on social media. Eileen was twenty-seven and worked at the local animal shelter. She had a habit of bringing home strays she couldn't handle. The last stray had two legs and a southern accent. And then there was Priscilla, who was about Lola's age. She was newly divorced and pushing the boundaries of her newly found freedom, acting more like the twins than a woman of twenty-nine.
Sometimes Drew wanted to arrest his sisters for their own good. The absolute last thing he needed was to add Lola Williams to his Watch-Over list, which was already filled with his mother, his four sisters, and his daughter.
He exhaled and changed his grip on the fire extinguisher.
"Drew Taylor." Mims gave him a stern look she'd perfected while running the elementary school cafeteria. "You are not going to arrest Lola."
Having no intention of reading his landlord her rights, Drew set the safety on the extinguisher.
"She didn't hurt anyone." That came from Bitsy, the protector of the underdog. She'd recently retired from working in customer service at a cable company's call center in Greeley, where rumor had it she'd comped irate customers more free services than were listed in the coupon book the high school band sold every year.
"We're here to take Lola under our wing." Clarice shook her walking stick at him, tottering only slightly on those two new knees she'd gotten six months earlier. "What that girl needs is a life, not a police record."
"Oh." As in Oh no. Drew had a sudden burst of sympathy for Lola.
The Sunshine Valley Widows Club did good work, but most of its members were old and set in their small-town ways. For local charities, they held fund-raisers as traditional as bake sales and as politically incorrect as kissing booths at the fair. Tonight, the Widows Club was holding a bachelorette auction at Shaw's Bar & Grill. Clearly, they were looking for another woman to auction off.
They wanted to auction Lola off tonight? If Lola wasn't allowed a little time to come to terms with Randy's infidelity, she'd reach Watch-Out-World mode. And then Drew would need more than a fire extinguisher to control the damage. "Give Lola some space, and I won't arrest her."
"It's her time," Mims said with all the practicality of a woman announcing her car was due for an oil change. "We've given her an extra six months."
"Being widowed," Clarice tsk-tsked, "it can be lonely."
"Loneliness can fester," Bitsy said in that soothing voice of hers.
"And then widows start acting odd." Mims pointed toward the pile of driveway ashes.
Loneliness had nothing to do with Lola acting odd. It was the realization that Randy wasn't the man she'd thought he was.
Six years ago, Drew had seen that same shell-shocked expression on his ex-wife's face. That was the last time he'd seen Jane. He would bet his ex hadn't worn that expression when she'd called him this morning. Nope. He would bet he was the one who'd looked like the rug had been yanked out from under him. Jane hadn't seen Becky since she was three months old and suddenly wanted joint custody? It was enough to T-bone a man.
Frustration crowded its way into his lungs and up his throat until he had to focus on something else to breathe easier—the ashes in the driveway, the sturdy oak door, Lola.
Compared to Jane, Lola was no trouble. Sure, a few people in town considered her stuck-up because she was from New York City, and others couldn't understand how she could do hair and makeup on corpses. There was talk she'd swindled Randy's mother financially after his death, and some folks, like Lola's neighbor Ramona Everly, took that as a personal affront. And despite all that, it probably didn't help that Lola didn't try to blend in. She didn't wear traditional cowboy boots. She didn't have a four-wheel drive. And she rooted for the New York Giants!
But once Lola got over the shock of the truth, she'd be fine. There were guys in town who'd ask her out because she was a looker and didn't have kids. She had roots here now—real estate, two jobs. She'd find her footing and get back on track.
A red SUV parked across the street. Avery Blackstone got out. She was dressed for this evening's auction in high-heeled boots, black leggings, and a shiny low-cut black blouse. She and her family were some of the few Ute tribe members who didn't live on the nearby reservation, and if Drew hadn't gone to school with her, he might have been in awe of her beauty.
Avery nodded to Drew. "Florence called me."
Drew made a mental note to thank his dispatcher for contacting Lola's best friend.
"Just in time." Mims took Avery by the arm and led her to the ashes. "Lola needs you. She burned Randy's drawers."
Avery hesitated, as silent and solemn as if she'd just joined a graveside vigil. Finally, she asked, "Randy's dresser drawers?"
"No. His…" Clarice ran a hand down one of her gray braids and then pointed briefly downward. "His underthings."
"He was cheating on Lola before he died," Bitsy said in a hushed tone. "Can you believe it?"
Avery's heavily made-up, dark eyes widened. "No."
Drew could believe it. The farmhouse he rented from Randy and Lola had a separate two-car garage at the back of the property with an apartment above it. The garage, which wasn't included in Drew's rent, had access to a road down by the South Platte River. Until Randy died, Drew had often been awakened by Randy's truck rumbling in from the back and a text: Do Not Disturb. Randy's truck was always gone by morning, leaving Drew wrestling with his conscience. He didn't consider cheating to be the answer to a bad marriage. But what could he do? No laws he upheld had been broken. And the one time he'd tried to hint at the truth to Lola, she'd thought he was hitting on her.
"Thanks for stopping by, Avery." Drew opened his car door. He had two more calls to answer and needed to move along. But first, he fixed the widows with a stern stare. "Lola needs friends right now much more than she needs to be auctioned off by the Widows Club for a dinner date."
- "Nobody does emotional, heartwarming small-town romance like Melinda Curtis. This is a wonderful tonic of a book."—Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author
- "Curtis weaves laugh-out-loud comic scenes with heartfelt emotions, delivering an endearing, wholesome romance."—Kathleen Gerard, ShelfAwareness.com
- "A fun and heartwarming cozy romance read that gave me hours of entertainment!"—TheGenreMinx.com
- "A small town brought to life with wit and charm."—Sheila Roberts, New York Times bestselling author
- "You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll want to visit again soon!"—Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author
- "Despite the heaviness of a spouse's death and the bitterness that may come with such intense heartbreaks suffered by both main characters, there's warm and pleasant goofiness to the town of Sunshine and the gentle romance between Drew and Lola. The Sunshine Valley Widows Club probably deserves most of the credit. They steal every scene and have perfect timing with comedic relief or a meaningful word."—KirkusReviews.com
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2020
- Page Count
- 512 pages