Category Archives: Novel Excerpt

Release Day – His Magical Bride

Mar 20, 2017

It’s release day for Book 10 in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series, His Magical Bride (or Talia: The Magical Bride, if you like the sweet version). I could sit here all day telling you about it, but why not get started reading Chapter One instead?

Haskell, Wyoming – 1877

Sheriff Trey Knighton had entertained some bad ideas in his day. Running away from the orphanage where he’d landed after cholera wiped out his family was one. Taking up with the Skunk Boys of Missouri was another. There were days when he felt like accepting the post of sheriff of Haskell, Wyoming was a bad idea too, but only when his jail cell was filled to bursting with men who’d drunk too much over at Sam’s saloon, The Silver Dollar.

On second thought, turning straight, coming clean, and taking the job in Haskell was the best decision he’d ever made, drunks harassing him on Saturday nights or not. But letting Howard Haskell twist his arm and convince him to send away for a mail-order bride? Definitely not one of his brighter ideas.

“I’m so excited,” Eden Chance told her friends, bouncing as much as her toddler, Winslow. At that moment, he and Wendy and Travis Montrose’s baby, Emanuel, were sitting in a buggy together, laughing and clapping over something that had the two little critters in hysterics.

“Lord knows how happy I am to have my friend Talia nearby again,” Wendy agreed.

“She always was such a sweet little thing,” Corva Haskell added, rocking a buggy of her own. Corva had two babies now, not just one, Howard Franklin Haskell and now a girl, Elizabeth, or Bitsy as people had started to call the poor thing.

Rounding out their group was Elspeth Strong, who hadn’t had any children of her own since coming out last year to marry Athos, the stationmaster. That hardly mattered, seeing as Athos already had eight of the little boogers. Five-year-old Thomas held Elspeth’s hand as he watched Winslow and Emanuel, giggling along with them.

Heck, Trey was surprised the ladies hadn’t decorated the train station with bunting and rosettes. They were treating the whole thing like a big party. True, all four of them had known his bride-to-be during their time at Hurst Home. Trey kicked the boards of the train platform and winced. He should probably take their involvement in welcoming Talia Lambert as an endorsement of her character. It should reassure him, help him to feel confident in his decision to be a husband. But land sakes, domesticity sure did make a man shake in his boots when he came face to face with it.

“No, no, Howard.” Corva jerked forward as her boy—nearly two now—stood in the buggy and tried to lean over the side.

“Down!” he declared, pointing at the ground.

“Don’t step on your sister,” Corva told him in turn. Bitsy let out an almighty wail, and kept screaming. Trey blanched.

“Let him run around a little,” Virginia Piedmont, baby Howard’s great-aunt, told Corva. “We’ll all keep an eye on him.”

“Well, if you think it’s safe,” Corva said, lifting the boy out of the buggy and setting him on his feet on the train platform.

“Of course, it’s safe.” Virginia dismissed her concerns with a wave.

To prove her wrong, little Howard tore straight for the tracks. Corva was too busy picking up and settling her girl to chase after Howard. Trey was closest, so he swept in and lifted the boy into the air before he could tumble off the platform and onto the tracks.

Of course, Trey didn’t know the first thing about how to hold a baby. He clamped the squirmy thing around his middle and held him at arm’s length. The boy kicked and screamed, whether in shock at being picked up by a stranger or in rage over being stopped on his way to certain death, Trey had no idea.

“Here, I’ll take him,” Virginia said.

“Please do.” Trey handed the boy over.

Little Howard continued to squirm in Virginia’s arms, but Virginia hardly blinked. She carried the boy to the back of the platform, set him down, and interested him in a pile of rocks right beside the stairs. The other two toddler boys sure as heck noticed their buddy’s freedom and began to fuss and wail to be let down too. Wendy and Eden were still chattering away in a tone of voice that rendered everything they said as incomprehensible background noise in Trey’s ears. They didn’t seem to miss a beat as they lifted their babies from the buggy and set them down on the platform.

The two toddlers proceeded to chase each other around the buggy, tripping a few times and occasionally hiding in their mothers’ skirts.

“I can’t wait to introduce Talia to Emma and Dean Meyers,” Eden said, managing to catch and steer her boy away from a nail sticking out of the platform without missing a beat in the conversation.

“Of course,” Wendy gasped. “With all her nursing experience, I’m sure Dr. Meyers could use Talia’s help in his clinic.”

“She might even be willing to travel out to the Indian camps with him,” Elspeth suggested.

“Can I go to the Indian camps, Mama?” Thomas asked her.

Elspeth laughed and ruffled his hair. “No, dear.”

“Why not?” Thomas frowned.

“It’s far too dangerous for a little boy.”

“I’m not little, I’m five now.” Thomas stomped his foot.

“But it’s still too dangerous.”

“But I’m brave.”

“And young.”

“It’s not fair,” Thomas shouted.

Trey flinched. Yep, this was definitely a terrible, terrible idea. Why hadn’t he considered it all before? A bride meant a wife, and a wife meant a family. And the only thing more terrifying than having a family, in his experience, was losing one.

A chuckle at Trey’s side drew his attention away from the whirlwind of children. “That right there is why I’ve avoided this whole mail-order bride craze,” Sam Standish, one of Trey’s closest friends, said.

The women weren’t the only ones who had come to meet Talia Lambert at the station. Trey’s friends had come to show their support too, although he didn’t know how supportive it was for Sam and George Pickering to stand there snickering behind their hands.

“Come on,” George argued. “It’s a wonderful thing for a man to have a family.”

“Says the man who only just got married,” Sam argued.

“That only means I’m a new convert to the beauty and wonder of marriage,” George said.

“Yeah, see if you’re still saying that in six months when your baby gets here,” Sam tossed back.

George shrugged. “I welcome my and Holly’s child. Because I, for one, am ready for the challenge of fatherhood.”

Trey swallowed. “Well, I’m not,” he muttered. “Why did I ever let myself get talked into this?”

His friends stared at him in surprise.

“You can’t be having second thoughts now,” George said.

“Second thoughts?” Virginia straightened from where she was playing with Howard at the other end of the platform. “Don’t you tell me you’re having second thoughts about sending for a wife, Trey Knighton.”

“How on earth did she hear me all the way over there?” Trey murmured, even quieter.

“Women are like that,” Sam said with a snigger. “You say something they don’t like and they’ll hear it from two territories away.”

Sam was right. All five of the women on the other side of the platform glared at him as though he’d declared he was done with not only their friend Talia, but the entire female of the species.

“So help me God, Sheriff Knighton,” Eden launched into him. “If you turn Talia away when she gets off that train, I will personally make sure whoever does your laundry washes your sheets with nettles from here on out.”

“How could you even think of not marrying her?” Wendy questioned, hands on her hips. Her stance only emphasized the bump of her and Travis’s next baby, which didn’t help the argument, in Trey’s eyes, at all.

Elspeth only shook her head, and Corva was too busy settling her wailing infant to add to the admonishment.

Trey held up his hands. “I’m not backing out of anything,” he said, though a large part of him wished he could.

“Good,” Eden, Wendy, and Elspeth answered at the same time.

“He couldn’t back out of it if he wanted to,” Virginia added. “Talia’s already on her way, and Trey knows as well as anyone what kind of life you girls from Hurst Home have known. He wouldn’t be snake enough to turn away a woman who has already had a hard time of it.”

The others nodded. Guilt gnawed at Trey’s gut. They were right, of course. He wasn’t low enough to send any woman back to an unfortunate life. But that didn’t mean he had to dive into marriage whole hog once Miss Lambert got there. Men and women had all sorts of marriages, ones that ended up with a parcel of kids and ones that involved separate rooms and separate lives.

“You would never catch me sending away for a bride,” Sam said.

At last, something Trey could latch onto that wouldn’t end with him getting in trouble. He turned to Sam. “You would too, and you know it.”

“Nuh-uh,” Sam protested. “I run a saloon. That’s no place for a good woman.”

“He never said you would marry a ‘good’ woman,” George chortled.

Sam sent a mock frown George’s way. “You sayin’ I should get hitched to one of Bonnie’s girls?”

George lost his smirk. Any mention of Bonnie’s girls inevitably touched a nerve with him, seeing as he and Bonnie were friends from way back. He’d unknowingly given Bonnie the money she’d used to start her cat-house too, although Trey knew as well as anyone in town—probably better—how Bonnie used her place to rescue the unrescuable, educate them, and send them on to new and better lives.

“Sam—” Trey thumped a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “—the day will come when you’ll find yourself wanting the comforts of a wife.”

Sam raised a brow. “What, like you do?”

Trey let his hand drop to his side. Sam had a point.

 

And where can you buy this awesome book, you ask? Why, right here:

His Magical Bride (Spicy Version)

Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XQP4WKB

B&N – Coming Soon

iBooks – https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/his-magical-bride/id1217027807

Kobo – https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/his-magical-bride

Google Play – https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Merry_Farmer_His_Magical_Bride

(Spicy version is not and, alas, will not be available in KU, because it’s available everywhere else)

 

Talia: The Magical Bride (Sweet Version)

Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XQPCW7Y

(Only the sweet version is available in KU)

Weekend Excerpt – His Magical Bride/Talia: The Magical Bride

Mar 12, 2017

Well, I may have been a little lazy these past few days (everyone deserves some lazy now and then), but I’ve been busy behind the scenes! I have the first draft of His Magical Bride (steamy)/Talia: The Magical Bride (sweet), Book 10 of The Brides of Paradise Ranch out at the editors right now. It’ll be out in just one week! Woo hoo! Here’s a bit to whet you’re appetite…

Their whole crew started along Elizabeth Street toward the church. As soon as Trey was ten feet past the hotel, he felt as though he’d been hit by a wave of panic. It was really happening. He was really about to go and get himself hitched.

“Uh, Miss Lambert.” He stopped, reaching as gently as he could for Miss Lambert’s elbow to stop her as well.

She did stop. So did all of her friends. Trey was near to making a run for it, until she told her friends, “You go on ahead.”

The ladies nodded and hummed and gave them both knowing looks. At least they continued on without a fuss. Trey waited until they were a good, long distance away before taking a breath.

“You can call me Talia,” Miss Lambert said. “Since we’re about to be married and all.”

“Yeah, about that.” Trey rubbed a hand over the lower half of his face. Talia’s gentle smile faded. “See, the thing is, if I’m being honest, I’m kinda having, well, second thoughts about this whole marriage thing.”

Talia suddenly looked as tired as a young woman who’d ridden miles in the back of a peddler’s wagon would look. “I see.” She lowered her eyes.

Trey’s chest started to ache in a peculiar way that he wasn’t used to. “I’m not saying that I won’t marry you,” he rushed to tell her.

“You’re not?” She looked up at him with so much hope in her eyes that a lump formed in Trey’s throat.

“No, ma’am. I made a promise. And I know what kind of life it was you left behind.” He knew he was echoing everything Virginia had said to him at the train station, but the woman had spoken the truth. “I will most certainly marry you, it’s just…” He let his sentence trail away and let out a helpless breath through his nose. “It’s just that I’m thinking I might not be ready for all the things that come along with a real marriage.”

“Oh?” She blinked fast, her brow knitting in confusion.

“You know, things like children and intimacy and…and children.”

Talia’s face brightened inexplicably. “Oh, I see.” She was back to smiling again, although Trey had no idea why, considering everything he’d just said. “You want to have a marriage in name only to start with. Until we get to know each other better.”

Was that what he’d asked for? “Uh, yeah,” he answered.

Talia’s smile grew so big that she laughed lightly before saying, “I’m perfectly fine with that arrangement. It’s a sensible one. I always did wonder how a woman could jump into every aspect of marriage so suddenly when her whole world has changed.”

She’d taken all that from what he said? “I’m glad we see eye to eye on this.”

“We do. And thank you, Trey.” She reached out, and it was several seconds before Trey realized she wanted him to hold her hand.

Still feeling a half-step behind, he took her hand, and together they headed on to where the others were just approaching the church.

Trey had stood by George during his wedding, and he’d attended the weddings of more than a few of his friends in the last few years, but he had no idea how fast a marriage ceremony could feel when you were the one standing at the front of the church with a woman.

“Do you, Trey Alexander Knighton take this woman, Talia Lambert, to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

Trey almost answered, “Huh?” when George asked the question, a teasing twinkle in his eyes, but he managed to squeeze out, “I do,” without looking like too much of a numbskull.

“And do you, Talia Lambert, take this man, Trey Alexander Knighton, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love, honor, and obey, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

“I do,” Talia answered with more certainty than Trey would ever be able to manage. She smiled up at him too with a look that said she was confident she’d done the right thing. How did she manage that?

“Then by the power invested in me by God and the Territory of Wyoming, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

 

Release Day – Chaos Theory

Mar 03, 2017

Whew! After delays and set-backs due to everything from illness to just plain bad luck, Chaos Theory, Book 2 in the Nerds of Paradise series, is finally here! And it’s just 99 cents, for this weekend only! Bright and early on Monday, it’ll be back to its regular price of $3.99, so scoop it up now! And to put you in the mood, here’s the beginning of Chapter One…

Will Darling was running late. Which meant he was only five minutes ahead of schedule. Late or early, it didn’t matter. If he wasn’t exactly where his daily schedule told him he was supposed to be, a deep-seated feeling of dread filled him. That’s what came from being raised in a military family.

He closed the spreadsheet he’d taken home from work, and pushed back from his desk. The clock on the wall above his workstation said 11:35. He checked his watch. 11:35. Yep, five minutes early. That gave him time to pop into the bathroom of his swanky, Paradise Space Flight-issued apartment to switch out his glasses for contacts. In theory, he could go around with his glasses and no one would think anything of it. It wasn’t like his father would find out. But he’d rather not risk it.

As soon as his eyeballs were taken care of, he headed across the apartment to the door, picking up his phone from where it was charging on an end table by the sofa and his wallet beside it. He tucked the wallet in his back pocket, and checked the phone. 11:37. He checked his watch to be sure everything was coordinated. Good. Perfect. Let others laugh at him, but there was something about keeping to a schedule, staying on course, that filled Will with contentment. It was why he had chosen to work for Paradise Space Flight in the first place. The company was new, innovative, and miles away from the distracting chaos of big cities and government bureaucracy. NASA might have been more prestigious, as his dad was constantly, constantly reminding him, but PSF was focused. It was comfortable.

So was his apartment. Another awesome perk of working for Howie Haskell. Like most of the rest of the young, single engineers and scientists who had come to Wyoming to build the space flight company from the ground up, Will had taken advantage of the special employee housing. His apartment stood in the center of town, on the third floor above a clothing boutique. It was newly renovated and ran on renewable energy sources. But what Will loved most about it was the clean, streamlined design. He headed out the door, locking it with the fancy, high-security, electronic key all of the apartments had, and made his way down the airy, white-painted stairway to the ground floor and the front door. Even though the building had been constructed in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t frilly and crowded. It got the job done, and that’s all he had ever asked of anything.

“Hey, Will.”

Will glanced up as he stepped out into the balmy, spring air and found his team member, Laura Kincade, waving to him from across the street.

“Laura.” He waved back with a nod, lips twitching to what, for him, counted as a smile.

“Are you heading over to PSF for the big luncheon?”

“In a minute,” he called back to her, then nodded to the General Store one building over from his. “I need to pick up a few things first.” He didn’t really want to have a shouted conversation across a street packed with pedestrians, but it was Laura, so he’d make an exception. Besides, everyone looked as though they were heading up the street toward the PSF building instead of browsing through the shops anyhow.

“Okay,” Laura called back with another wave. “I’ll save you a seat.”

“Thanks.” He raised his hand in goodbye, then strode a few yards down to the General Store’s entrance. The advantage of being slightly ahead of schedule, he guessed, was that he could take time to interact with his friends without tensing up. Although, if he was keeping track, he’d been much less tense since moving to Haskell than he’d been for most of his life.

The General Store was another part of the reason he loved his new hometown. It was the perfect size for dropping in to pick up a few essentials in a hurry. On top of that, whoever had built it had a keen eye for ergonomics. He could make one efficient pass from the toiletries section where he picked up shaving gel—which he would need in exactly two days—to the stationary section for pens—because he was not one of those people who took pens from the office to use at home like they were perks of the job—to the snack food section for a large bag of unsalted nuts—because you had to live a little sometimes.

Yep. Everything was just where it needed to be. Everything was in precise order. Everything was—

“Whoops!”

He rounded the corner and nearly crashed right into a splash of color and brightness and wild blond curls. His heart thumped against his ribs, like someone was punching him from the inside, and his groin tightened.

“Sorry.” Melody Clutterbuck laughed as she made her apology. Her blue eyes sparkled with happiness and light. She wore a long wrap-around skirt printed with an Indian pattern and a white peasant blouse decorated with embroidery that matched the colors in her skirt. Her arms were filled with items from around the store, otherwise Will would have had a big glimpse of the creamy skin of her shoulders and chest.

It took his brain far too long to catch up enough to say, “No, I’m sorry. I should have looked where I was going.”

“You always look where you’re going.” She continued to smile as they headed to the counter at the front of the store. “I’m the one who was floating around like a leaf on the wind.”

Prickles of pleasure filled Will at the image. Melody was a leaf on the wind. He’d seen that the first time he met her, at the winter mixer Howie had held for his employees and the citizens of Haskell after Christmas. She’d been there with a group of her friends, looking just as amazing as she did now. His friends talked about that event as the day his supervisor, Scott Martin, had met the girl he was now engaged to, Casey Flint, but secretly, Will marked it as the night Melody had blown into his world.

He blinked himself out of thoughts that were, frankly, disturbing. He had a schedule to stick to, a routine. “Why don’t you have a basket?” He lifted his own blue plastic shopping basket.

Melody giggled, her face going pink. “I didn’t realize I was going to need one.”

They reached the register, and she spilled her purchases across the counter. Will did a double-take, brow sinking into a frown of confusion. Baby oil, sandpaper, latex gloves, and an enema.

“Hey Bernie,” Melody greeted the cashier, an white-haired guy who Will figured had been working there forever.

“Hey, Melody,” Bernie answered. “This everything?”

“Oh! I’ll take one of these too,” Melody added, face growing even pinker and her giggle more pronounced as she plucked a small jar of cherry lip balm from a display and popped it on the counter.

Will’s blood rushed to all the wrong places. Cherry lip balm? Baby oil? An enema? Why, why, why did that selection of items turn him on? And sandpaper? He swallowed hard, trying to rein in his imagination, and ran a hand over the bottom half of his face.

 

So are you ready to read? Chaos Theory is currently available at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, and will be up on Google Play (as soon as they process it).

Weekend Excerpt – Chaos Theory

Feb 25, 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a big chunk of the shenanigans I’ve been up to! And we’re less than a week away from the release of Chaos Theory (at last!). So here you go! Will Darling is in big trouble….

Will had driven past Clutterbuck’s Flowers several times, and he knew that the family, Melody included, lived in an apartment above the shop. Scott had told everyone on his team about how amazing the apartment was—two apartments in one, really—but he hadn’t mentioned the location of the entry. It took Will several minutes of wandering around the building, feeling more self-conscious by the minute, before Melody’s sister stuck her head out one of the second-floor windows and said, “Can I help you?”

Cringing internally, Will raised a hand to shield his eyes and looked up. “Is Melody home?”

“Maybe.” Calliope’s tone was a dead giveaway to just how badly he’d upset Melody.

“Can I talk to her?”

“Maaybee.” Calliope drew the word out, her mouth twitching to the kind of grin that made Will feel like an insect specimen skewered with a pin.

He paused, waiting for Calliope to say more. When she didn’t, he asked, “How do I get up there?”

Calliope chuckled. “You’re staring right at the door.”

Will lowered his eyes to find a plain, unassuming door directly across from where he stood. The window had been painted to resemble a stained-glass flower arrangement, which is why he’d assumed it led to the shop. Calliope drew her head back into the apartment, and Will marched for the door. It was unlocked, so he went through and found himself walking up a narrow flight of incense-scented stairs.

Soft sitar music was playing on the other side of a closed, painted door when he reached the top. He raised his hand to knock, but the door swung open before his knuckles could make contact.

“You’d better be here to apologize,” Calliope said in a low voice.

“I am.” Will nodded.

Calliope’s expression lightened to a broad, teasing smile. “In that case….” She stepped back, holding the door open and gesturing for him to come in. “Hey, Mel! Look what the cat dragged in.”

Will supposed he deserved it. Dickery like his deserved humiliation as punishment. That didn’t stop him from freezing in his tracks as he crossed through the modest-if-colorful front entryway and into a gigantic, two story high room. The décor was bright and exotic, what he would call hippie-eastern chic. Oriental art vied with thick, green plants for just about every space on and around the walls. But it was the erotic, almost obscene mobile hanging from the ceiling that caught his attention and had his jaw dropping. Male and female bodies circled and entwined above him in a dance that was…distracting.

“Well, hello.”

Even more distracting was Luna Clutterbuck, Melody and Calliope’s mother. Dressed in a silk wrap-around skirt and flowing blouse, the bangles she wore jingling, she swept across the room and enveloped Will in a hug before he could raise his arms to stop her. He tensed instinctively, then battled to force himself to accept the hug.

“Oh dear,” she said as she stepped back and held him at arm’s length. She didn’t elaborate, she just sighed and said, “I’ll get Melody so that you can work this all out.”

Luna floated off, disappearing through a doorway that looked like it led to a corridor. He heard footsteps going up stairs moments later, followed by Luna’s call of, “Melody, you have a visitor.”

Will glanced to Calliope to see if he could judge just how huge of a villain he’d been reported to be. She didn’t look nearly as peeved as he would have been if his sister had been insulted. In fact, she looked as though she was having a hard time not laughing.

Moments later, Melody appeared at the edge of what appeared to be a loft on one side of the room. She had changed into a long, green skirt and short-sleeved shirt, and her curly hair hung in a wild mass down past her shoulders. She arched a brow and leaned against the loft’s railing. “Hello, Darling.”

Will frowned. She was going to make this as difficult for him as possible. Not that he didn’t deserve it. “I’ve come to apologize.” There. Might as well deal with the issue head-on.

Melody chuckled. The sound was low, coming from her chest. With her standing a full story above him, looking down on him, she was like a fairy queen in the kind of story that had been banned from his house growing up. She made the hair on the back of Will’s neck stand up. Other things too.

“Is that so?” she asked.

He took a breath and clasped his hands behind his back, standing at attention. “I spoke to you in an unbecoming manner, and I’d like to apologize for it.”

Melody burst into giggles, leaning against her arms on the banister. “What, are we in some sort of historical novel now?”

“No.” He frowned.

“Because you sound like Mr. Darcy coming to apologize to Elizabeth.”

Will’s frown deepened. “Who?”

Melody pushed herself to stand straight. Calliope leaned away from Will, one brow arched. “Seriously?”

Will glanced sideways to her, wishing there was a polite way to tell her to go the hell away. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Do you really not know who Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are?” Melody asked from above.

Since Calliope was looking at him like he’d told her one plus one equaled three, he was glad to look back up at Melody. “I take it they’re a couple.”

Calliope covered her mouth with one hand to stifle her laugh. She shook her head and crossed behind him, heading toward the hall where Luna had disappeared. “He’s all yours, Mel,” she called up to her sister before vanishing around the corner.

Book Excerpt – Chaos Theory

Feb 12, 2017

It’s Sunday, I’m about to head off to Mannheim for a book reading (I’ll let you know all about it tomorrow!) so I figured this was a good time for another excerpt from Chaos Theory. And I hate to say it, but at this point, between me having a cold all last week and my assistant dealing with some stuff, it Chaos Theory probably won’t be released until maybe the very beginning of March. Alas, these things happen! But here’s a bit to see you through….

“Is this on?” he said into a microphone. “Not that I really need it if it isn’t.”

Everyone laughed. Chairs were turned so people could see Howie, and for a moment, the delicious meal was abandoned.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Howie began. “I’d like to welcome you to PSF today to join us for this grand repast. Let’s have a round of applause for the excellent chefs of Haskell Catering.”

Applause filled the room. The head chef, a woman named Rebecca Standish, who Melody had known since childhood, nodded and smiled in appreciation.

“But, of course, you’re all here to find out what our spring mixer is all about,” Howie went on.

A buzz of excitement filled the large room. Melody grinned at Will. His mouth remained in a neutral line, but she could see the spark of interest in his eyes. Interest in more than one thing.

“Okay, okay,” Howie continued. “I know that it’s the worst-kept secret in town, but what you all don’t know is that we’re going to have a contest within a contest.”

That caught everyone’s attention, even nudging Melody’s focus away from Will and up to Howie.

“Our spring event is in association with Shoshone National Park and the National Park Services,” Howie went on. “And yes, we’re going to be having an orienteering competition.”

A ruble of enthusiasm filled the room. Howie smiled at it, but raised his hands for silence.

“So for those of you who don’t know—and at this point, I expect that’s about three of you—” Several people throughout the room laughed. “—orienteering is a survival game where people are blindfolded and dropped into the middle of the wilderness. Using only a compass and map, they’re challenged to find their way out, or find their way to a specific point.”

He paused so people could let that sink in. Melody found that her heart was thumping in excitement, half at the prospect of the challenge and half because the corners of Will’s mouth were inching up into what might actually be a smile.

“We’re going to be doing things a little differently,” Howie went on. “Since this is a mixer, rather than dropping you into the wilderness alone, we’re going to be pairing you up in teams, one person from town paired up with one person from Paradise Space Flight.”

It took Melody all of half a second to burn with the desire to have Will as her partner. He was exactly the man she wanted to get lost in the wilderness with.

“Furthermore,” Howie continued, “instead of just dropping you with a compass and map, in addition to those two things, we’ll be giving each team member a backpack full of preselected supplies. Some of them will be crucial tools for wilderness survival, and some will be….” He made a curious sound and tilted his head to the side. “Let’s just say they’ll be interesting.”

“Oh my gosh,” Rita whispered, making eye contact with Melody and Calliope. “Does Howie know about your game?”

Casey burst into snorting giggles. “Can you imagine the kind of stuff that would be in those backpacks if he does?”

“Now, in all honesty, the competition is meant for singles,” Howie went on, which only made the girls at Melody’s table giggle harder, as if he was confirming Rita’s suspicion. Will sent a frown Melody’s way, but she only winked at him. That caused Will to snap his eyes back to Howie. “We can make provision for any couples that want to take part, though. And you might find the competition within the competition to be just as enjoyable.”

Melody instantly stopped sniggering like a high school girl and sat straighter.

“As I mentioned,” Howie said, “this competition will take place at Shoshone National Forest. Well, Paradise Space Flight will be partnering them for an even grander enterprise as well. As you know, funding for the National Parks Service has been harder to come by lately, and our national parks have come under a certain level of attack. But Paradise Space Flight is dedicated to preserving and celebrating out natural heritage. Shoshone National Forest has been incredibly gracious to give us unprecedented access to their land. We, in turn, will be doing them a great service as well.”

He reached into his podium and held up a camera. “Each couple in the competition will be given a state of the art, professional quality digital camera. As you make your way through the wilderness, you will be responsible for taking photographs and videos of the natural splendor that Shoshone National Forest has to offer.”

A ripple of excitement and approval passed through the room. Melody exchanged a look with her sister that said photographing nature was right up their alley.

“So in addition to the prize for the couple to make it out of the forest and to the rendezvous point first, a second prize will be given to the couple who takes the best photographs, as judged by a panel of experts from PSF and the National Parks Service. Those winning photographs will be featured in a promotional video that PSF will be sponsoring to bring awareness to the glory of nature and hopefully to encourage donations.”