Daphne Ballinger never imagined that life would turn out like this. As she sat on the front porch of the restored Victorian house, peacefully enjoying her coffee and morning sun, she felt pleasantly amazed. After so many years in New York, she'd nearly forgot- ten how lovely summertime in Appleton could be. And since it was nearly August, she wanted to make the most of this glorious season before it all frittered away.
But like the fly in the ointment, she was also reminded that she now had less than ten months to find Mr. Right, plan a wedding, and seal the deal . . . that is, if she wanted to continue living here in Aunt
Dee's lovely old home. And she did!
Oh, she tried not to pay too much heed to the calendar, and she wanted to trust God to send her the perfect man, but as days slipped into weeks, a quiet niggling tickled the back of her brain. What if it didn't happen?
"Que sera, sera." She leaned back into the wicker rocker. "What will be will be." Then she took in a deep breath. No sense fretting over situations she had almost no control over. And no sense getting bummed about it either. Admittedly she'd been feeling a little blue the past few days. As a result she'd spent those days sequestered in Aunt Dee's office—rather Daphne's office, although that seemed more uncertain lately depending on the day or her mood.
Still she was getting a lot of writing done. She was caught up on the advice column and had even managed to draft several more chapters for her novel. Whether it was good or not still remained to be seen, but at least she'd been productive. And productivity seemed a good antidote to hopelessness.
Daphne sighed, remembering how hopeful she'd been several weeks ago. The future seemed exceedingly bright—almost as if the stars were aligning, as if God was about to shed his favor upon her. She truly believed that her aunt's attorney, Jake McPheeters, was genuinely interested in her. Hadn't he insinuated as much? And she knew without a doubt that she was interested in him. Although true to her nature, she had not said as much. But that was only because she wanted to take it slowly, wanted to savor each moment, wanted to be absolutely positively certain before she threw caution to the wind and jumped in with both feet.
And for the better part of July, it seemed like she was getting closer to the jumping-in place. Her confidence had been growing daily and she felt herself getting ready to become very vulnerable. She saw Jake almost daily. And every time they were together, conversa- tion flowed freely, and they both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. It had been perfectly lovely!
Then just a week ago, everything seemed to change. Just like that glass of soda that's been left in the sun too long, it all seemed to fizzle and go flat. It started with a little disagreement over the column. Jake had wanted Daphne to start sending her pieces directly to the man- ager of the syndicate—just like Aunt Dee used to do. But Daphne put her foot down, telling him she wasn't ready for that yet.
"Sure, you're ready," he told her.
"But I like having another set of eyes on it."
"You already have plenty of eyes on it." Then he listed off the various editors who went over each column with care and expertise.
"But I don't know them personally," she said.
"Maybe . . . but they know you." He held up the local newspaper as if to make his point. "You see their work after they finish their editing and proofing. You don't have any complaints, do you?"
"No, of course not." She frowned. What she'd wanted to say was that having Jake read her work wasn't just about not trusting the edi- tors. The truth was, it was simply reassuring. Plus it made her feel closer to him. It was intimate. And she wasn't ready to let go of it yet.
"Besides," he said lightly. "What will you do when I'm gone?" "Gone?" A wave of panic rushed through her.
He had simply shrugged, then looked away. "On vacation for instance."
This had led to some more disagreeing. Nothing terribly toxic or concerning. But it was the first time they'd been at odds like this. Finally recognizing that she was not going to win this argument, she had reluctantly given in. Perhaps he was right. Maybe it was time for her to take the next step as a writer. Maybe she needed to grow up . . . stand on her own two feet.
But as soon as she'd agreed to send the columns directly to the syndicate, she felt a distinct sense of snipping. Just like a pair of sharp, invisible sheers had cut some vital thread that had been joining them together. Oh, she knew it was silly and she was probably just imagining things. But when most of a week passed without a word from Jake, she felt fairly certain that something was wrong between them.
It was only her pride that kept her from calling him and demand- ing "what gives?" However, when her teenaged cousin Mattie Stone stopped by to pick some zucchini on Thursday, Daphne was not above making a subtle inquiry. After all, Mattie was best friends with Jake's daughter, Jenna. She'd probably know what was up.
"They went on vacation," Mattie said as she cut the stem of a long dark green zucchini. "They left a couple days ago. They'll be gone two weeks."
"Oh . . ." Daphne nodded like this was no surprise to her. "Now that you mention it, Jake did say something about vacation. Kind of slipped my mind."
"Yeah. They have this awesome cabin on Lake Tamalik. With a dock and a ski boat and Jet Skis and canoes and everything. I've been up there a lot. I would've gone this time too, but marching band practice begins on Monday. I can't believe football season starts in just a few weeks."
"This summer is flying by."
"Tell me about it."
Daphne handed her another zucchini. "So what's your mom going to do with all these?"
"She makes zucchini bread."
Daphne looked at the nearly full grocery bag. "That's a lot of zucchini bread."
"She doesn't make it all at once. She grates and freezes the zucchini to use later on."
"Oh." Daphne stood up straight. "Good idea."
"I think this is enough," Mattie told her. "Especially since I'm on my bike. But at least I have a big basket."
"Well, be careful," Daphne warned as she walked Mattie around to the front yard. "I've noticed that a heavy load in my bike basket makes steering tricky."
"Yeah, I know." Mattie glanced at Daphne with a slightly con- cerned expression. "I hope you're not feeling too bad about Mr. McPheeters being gone and all that."
Daphne forced a smile. "No, of course not."
"'Cause according to Jenna, her dad was pretty surprised that her mom wanted to go too. It's not like he planned that or anything."
Daphne tried not to look shocked. "Mrs. McPheeters is at the lake too?"
Mattie nodded as she put the bag of zucchini into her metal bike basket. "Yeah, it's always been a big deal for their whole family. A bunch of Jenna's relatives have cabins up there too. It's like they have this big, old family reunion every summer. It's always the first two weeks of August. But Mrs. McPheeters doesn't usually go. Not since the divorce anyway."
Daphne's smile stiffened. "Guess you can't blame her. A family reunion like that sounds pretty fun."
"Yeah." Mattie frowned. "I wish I was there too."
Daphne just nodded. "Well, being in marching band sounds like fun."
"Marching in the hot sun?" Mattie shrugged as she swung her leg over the bike frame. "Anyway, thanks for the zucchini."
"Tell your mom hi." Feeling slightly blindsided, Daphne watched her young cousin riding down the tree-lined street, slowly disappearing into the leafy shadows. She hadn't wanted to admit it to anyone, but in that moment, she felt like crying. Jake was off taking a two- week vacation—with his ex. It felt as if someone jerked the ground right out from under her.
Today Daphne was tired of moping. She was determined to put her confusion and hurt behind her. During the weekend she had rationalized the whole thing into a tidy explainable package. She had convinced herself that Jake had only meant to offer her his professional advice as well as a platonic level of friendship—right from the beginning. She had simply misread his signals, making it into something he had never intended. And it wasn't the first time she'd been mistaken about a man. In all likelihood it would not be the last. Chock it up to hopefulness and just plain desperation. It was her mistake and she needed to own up to it. The next time she saw Jake, probably not until mid-August, she would act perfectly natural—she might be slightly cool, but she would be kind.
Today she just wanted to get on with her life. It was time to pick herself up, dust herself off, and get back onto that proverbial horse. And maybe, if she stayed motivated, she might already be dating someone else by the time Jake returned from his cozy reunion vacation. At least that was her goal. As she sat on her porch, looking out over the sunny neighborhood, she was determined not to be discouraged or disheartened by her flattened expectations over Jake.
The only problem with her recovery plan was that she still needed to explain it all to her good friend Olivia. And Olivia would prob- ably pick it to pieces. She had been banking on Jake being the perfect guy for Daphne. And even though Olivia was keeping quiet about it, Daphne was certain she was already planning the wedding. Olivia would see right through Daphne's game face, and to make matters worse, she'd probably be all sympathetic. The last thing Daphne wanted right now was sympathy. That would be her undoing.
Daphne peered across the street to see a blonde woman waving eagerly from the other side. Wearing only a short pink kimono robe, she had a little dog in her arms and a frustrated expression on her face.
"Hello there, neighbor," the woman called out. Daphne stood and waved, hurrying down the porch steps to see what was going on.
"Hello," Daphne called as she crossed the street. As she got closer, she could see this petite, albeit scantily, clad woman was exceptionally pretty. But when she was a couple feet away, the brown ratlike dog in her arms began to bark wildly. Daphne had never been fond of Chihuahuas, but when this one started baring its teeth and fiercely growling, she was ready to hurry back across the street.
"Don't you mind little Tootsie here." The woman spoke with what sounded like a Southern accent. "His bark's way worse than his bite." She giggled. "Although I'll warn you he does bite occasionally.
He's very protective of little ol' me."
Daphne cautiously folded her arms across her front, keeping a safe distance. "You must be the new neighbor. Didn't I see you moving into the Tremonts' house over the weekend?"
"That's right. I didn't arrive until late Saturday night. I followed the moving vans all the way up here from Atlanta—what a gruelingly long day." She paused to quiet the still-barking dog, then finally gave up. "I think it's taken a toll on poor Tootsie."
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Daphne said loudly to be heard
over the nonstop yipping. "I'm Daphne Ballinger."
"And I'm Sabrina Fontaine. I feel just terrible to interrupt your quiet morning. It looked like you were enjoying yourself on your porch. But I find myself in need of a good neighbor at the moment."
Wanting to cover her ears to block the sharp barking, Daphne made an uncomfortable smile. "Well, you're surrounded by good neighbors, Sabrina. This is one of the sweetest neighborhoods on the planet."
"It's certainly pretty enough." Sabrina shook her finger in front of the dog's nose now. "Tootsie Roll Fontaine! You knock it off, you hear?" Now she clamped her hand around the dog's muzzle. To Daphne's relief, the obnoxious Chihuahua was silenced. "I was completely blown away when I got up on Sunday morning," Sabrina continued, "just to see how charming and pleasant it is here. All the big green trees and flowers and neatly mowed lawns."
"You moved here sight unseen?"
"I discovered this house on the Internet. The photos were marvelous. My mama told me I was a complete fool, but I loved the house and immediately made an offer."
"Really?" Daphne considered this. "That was brave."
"I suppose it seems brave, but the truth is, I just wanted a place to start all over and I'd already picked Appleton. But there wasn't a lot of real estate listed." Sabrina smiled. "Isn't Appleton just the sweetest name for a town?"
Daphne nodded. "I like it too. Now what can I do to be a good neighbor?"
"Well, I'm embarrassed to ask, but I just don't think I can stand myself for one more day if I don't."
"May I please take a shower at your house?"
Daphne tried not to look overly surprised. "You don't have water?"
"Oh, I've got water. The problem is hot water. I didn't realize when I bought the house that the hot water tank requires propane. Apparently I've run all out of propane. Or else the hot water heater is broken, but I hope not. The water turned ice cold on me Sunday evening right in the middle of a shower. I called the Realtor and she gave me the number of the propane company. Of course, they were closed. So I called them today, but they couldn't schedule me until tomorrow. Anyway, I've been trying to get by with using my teakettle to heat water. You know, like our ancestors used to do. But I am just sick to death of myself now. Living amid a maze of boxes and feel- ing like a slob." She ran her fingers through her mussed blonde hair. "And seriously, I'm sick of being housebound. But I refuse to go out in public looking like a hot mess."
"Of course, you can shower at my house."
"Oh, bless your precious heart," Sabrina said happily. "I'll run and get my things and be right over if you don't mind."
Daphne pointed at Tootsie. "You might want to leave him home. I—uh—I have a couple of cats."
Sabrina laughed. "Oh, don't you worry. Tootsie likes cats just fine."
Daphne started to respond in defense of her cats, but Sabrina had already turned around and was happily hurrying back toward her house. Daphne had difficulty believing that devilish dog would like anything—particularly a couple of docile elderly cats. But one thing she knew, Ethel and Lucy would not like Tootsie one bit. Suspecting her new neighbor might bring that obnoxious little dog with her, Daphne hurried back across the street. She would make certain the kitties were safely cloistered in the spare room. Only when they were secured, did she place some fresh towels in the downstairs bathroom.