The third time Lillianne Barnes dropped the knitting needle—along with two stitches—should have been a clue. But she kept clacking the needles and wrapping the yarn like Great-Aunt Talitha had taught her, trying to make the soft blue yarn into something...anything. She glanced at the supposedly simple, "no-fail" directions. No fail for everyone else, maybe. But not for her.
Lilly chewed her lip as she tried one more time to carefully slip the loop of yarn to complete the transfer of the stitch from one needle to the other. It went where it was supposed to go, but the last two uneven loops followed prematurely and began to unravel.
She'd left her perfectly good job as manager of women's clothing at a highend department store—secure, enjoyable, with benefits—for this…mess?
With a growl, she tossed the whole bundle aside. "I give up. I cannot knit."
"Must be a problem if you work in a yarn shop."
She yelped, then jumped up, the metal folding chair scraping the floor behind her. A man built like a professional athlete stood in the doorway watching her with a bemused expression. His dark blond hair, playful blue eyes and crooked smile made her suck in a breath and hold it. Still, gorgeous or not, Mr. Six-Foot-Plus and his big, broad shoulders had barged in, ignoring the sign out front.
She exhaled long and loud, as if she found his presence annoying, though in reality, she was more frustrated by her clash with the knitting needles than by the handsome intruder. "I'm sorry, we're closed for the day."
He held up his hands palms forward. "I apologize for scaring you. I'm not here to buy anything." He stepped farther into the room, his rugged jacket and muscular build out of place next to the softest of baby yarns. "My name is Daniel Foreman. I'm Ann Sealy's grandson."
Ann, Aunt Talitha's good friend. The ache of loss once again settled in Lilly's chest, squeezing like a fist.
Lilly left the circle of folding chairs in the corner and walked behind the counter, trying to remember if she'd seen this man at the funeral. But that whole week was still a blur.
She busied her hands straightening receipts, anything to keep from giving in to the tears stinging her eyes. "Your grandmother was very kind to help my great-aunt in her last days."
"I've met Jenna. So you must be Lilly, the other niece who inherited this place." His friendly expression gentled as he moved to the counter. "I'm sorry for your loss. Miss Talitha was a kind, generous woman."
"Thank you." A fresh wave of grief battered her already-tender heart. Talitha Barnes had been both kind and generous. But more than that, she'd been the only family Lilly and her sister, Jenna, could ever count on. Their aunt's longdistance love had been the one constant throughout their unstable childhood.
"I heard you lived in Louisville before moving here to Georgia. Has coming to as small a town as Corinthia been a shock?"
"A bit. But everyone's been really nice."
"So how's business?"
"A little slow today." And the day before. And the day before that. At his look of sympathy, she escaped to the corner seating area and picked up her knitting, pulling out the remaining stitches and starting over.
She wouldn't share the fact that The Yarn Barn was in terrible financial shape. That she'd only sold three measly skeins of yarn earlier that day—from the bargain bin.
Or that Aunt Talitha had requested Lilly and Jenna run the store one full year before selling the business.
Once again, her heart raced—this time in anxiety—making her face tingle and her hands go numb. Not helpful when working with pointy needles.
"So you don't knit, huh?" The sparkle returned to his eyes, teasing her, pushing away his look of sympathy…and with it, a little of her grief and panic.
As she fought for slow, even breaths, she glanced at the bins full of colorful yarn, at the shiny new computer on the sales counter, at the rack of pattern books—anywhere but in his eyes. Then she forced herself to meet his smile with her own. "Can't knit. Or crochet. I'm a total klutz when it comes to anything craftoriented."
A laugh burst out of him, deep and rumbling, warming her, tempting her to relax, to quit worrying so much.
This time, she couldn't look away from those playful blue eyes. She joined in the laughter. "Ironic, huh? Please don't advertise my ineptitude."
"I guess it wouldn't be good for business."
As their gazes locked and held, something passed between them. A kind of connection, or attraction.
She shook off the ridiculous notion. A good-looking man comes in, and she acts like an idiot, imagining things.
She stuffed her ugly, uneven knitting into the canvas tote bag to practice that night at home—Jenna's home—and concentrated on the positive. Another day passed. One day closer to fulfilling the stipulation of her aunt's will.
He turned and stared toward the back wall where she'd displayed some of her photos. "Nice. Who took these?"
"They're mine. I majored in photojournalism. Ended up in retail." When she returned to Kentucky, she planned to remedy that. To finally risk trying the career she'd always wanted.
"Sounds like an interesting story." He moved closer to inspect one—her favorite, of an elderly woman in Appala-chia looking up from a quilt she was working on, laughing. A woman who'd reminded Lilly of Aunt Talitha.
He tilted his head a little to the left. Then he took a step back but kept examining the photo. "You really captured the spirit of the woman in this one."
She swallowed, touched that he'd shown interest. "Thanks."
For a few seconds, he glanced away as if embarrassed. But then, squaring his shoulders, he said, "So is this a place for knitters to hang out?" He sat in one of six rickety folding chairs, dwarfing it, as he checked out the room.
Expecting the chair to buckle at any moment, she watched his expression fall into a slight frown as he inspected the hinges on the chair. She agreed with the sad state of some of the equipment, but they didn't have the money to do anything about it. "What can I help you with, Daniel?"
He quit his perusal and stood. "I'm sorry to bother you after hours. But I've come by to check on the agreement to rent the basement of your building."
Rent downstairs? "What agreement?"
His brows drew downward. "Didn't Talitha mention she'd agreed to let our church rent the space?"
What had her aunt been thinking? "Well, actually…no. Please fill me in."
"I'm pastor of a fairly new church, and we've outgrown our meeting space."
"A pastor?" The man certainly didn't look like he spent his day behind a desk. Or a pulpit.
He confirmed it with a nod. "In her last weeks, Talitha wasn't doing well, and the shop was struggling. So my grandmother suggested she rent us the basement as a solution for everyone."
"Aunt Talitha agreed?"
"She did. Told me we could have the space if we wanted it. I was hoping to take a look around. If it's suitable, we're ready to move in."
"We can't finish the basement right now. Plus, when we do, I plan to offer classes." In the unlikely event she mastered knitting. "I'll need the space."
The pleasant look he'd maintained since entering the shop gave way to a flicker of impatience. But then he masked it. "If our church grows quickly enough, we wouldn't be in your way for long. I don't have anything in writing, but I hope you'll consider honoring Talitha's verbal offer." He pulled a business card out of his pocket and gave it to her. "Give me a call any time." He backed away and waved, once again the epitome of charm. "I'll let you get back to your, uh, knitting?"
Ha-ha. He thought he was so funny. She narrowed her eyes at him. "I'll have you know, I used to know how." No need to admit she'd never been more than proficient.
His crooked smile morphed into a full-fledged grin that sent her heart rate off the charts. A grin she'd find seriously attractive, if it weren't coupled with the fact he was proving to be a complication to her plans for boosting business at the shop, a complication who seemed to think he was a comedian, no less.
"My apologies for underestimating your talent." The teasing look in his eyes said otherwise. "I look forward to seeing your needlework, Lilly. Soon." He gave a jaunty salute as he turned and left the shop.
She tried to suck in a full, stuttering breath to tell him he didn't need to bother coming back. But of course, he'd already shut the door behind him.
She thought about his joke and had to laugh. She'd be a fool to let him get under her skin just because he was so attractive and they'd shared a moment. Besides, it wasn't Daniel's fault she was inept at all things crafty. It wasn't his fault the store was struggling.
And even though she'd like to blame him, it wasn't his fault she found it difficult to resist his charm.
No, she needed to look into his claim. What if Aunt Talitha had made the promise?
The thought sent her heart to racing once again. She'd recently moved to town. Had just joined Jenna in running the business. At the moment, income wasn't keeping pace with outgo. And they still hadn't been able to reach the shop's accountant to learn more about the financials. Now they might have to add landlord duties, as well?
They knew nothing about leasing property. And they'd first have to finish off the basement, which they couldn't afford.
She wished she could simply claim new owner, new policies. Especially since he and Talitha hadn't put anything in writing. But her conscience said she needed to investigate further. Just one more thing to add to the mile-long list of tasks for the business.
She couldn't bear to see her aunt's beloved shop fail. It was the least she could do for the only family member to show her and Jenna love. She looked around the room at the diverse colors and textures. Bins of soft acrylics, rougher wools, knobby blends. All strange and new to her. New like her life in this small Georgia town that Aunt Talitha had loved. Lilly had a promise to fulfill.
Now, back to the first item on the list. To make a go of it, she did need to learn—relearn—to knit and crochet. A huge sigh escaped as she picked up her tote bag of yarn to practice that night. With her skill level, she wasn't worthy of the luxurious fluff of sky-blue yarn.
Blue the exact shade of Daniel's eyes.
She pushed away the thought like a pesky fly. She would love to avoid Daniel at all costs.
But the stack of bills behind the counter reminded her that she better find a way to make the shop profitable—and soon. Or else, agreement or not, she'd be forced to accept his offer.
Daniel chuckled as he reflected on the meeting. With cheeks flushing, her chin raised high, Lilly Barnes had proven she was a spitfire. Had scorched him with one flash of those big hazel eyes. Eyes that had warned him away.
His laughter died on his lips. So why had he felt that pull between them? Even after her clear hesitation over the idea of renting to them, he'd felt the sizzle of attraction. Had enjoyed the good-natured banter about her knitting.
He had to remember she was still grieving. He shouldn't force the issue, but he would have to figure out a way to convince Lilly to rent to him. They didn't have any other affordable leads.
When he pulled in his grandmother's driveway and saw his dad's car, he glanced at the clock on the dash. Why did his father have to be here the one night he'd come in late?
Determined to hold his tongue throughout dinner, he hurried up the driveway and around to the back.
Light from the kitchen spilled out onto the back porch, soothing some of Daniel's tension. He loved this place. Had spent a lot of summers here after his mother had died, after his dad had further buried himself in work. Though his dad had tried to ease the burden on family members by shipping Daniel from relative to relative, time with GranAnn had been his favorite.
Ever since, the white clapboard house with the homey kitchen had been a haven. When she'd asked him to live with her while he started the church in Corinthia, he'd jumped at the chance.
He stepped inside the kitchen door, the aroma of freshly baked bread like a hug from the woman herself.
"Oh, good. I'm glad you made it, baby." Gran's light blue eyes lacked their usual spark, and her normally easy smile seemed strained, as if begging him to behave and play nice. She patted his back and directed his attention toward the table. "Look who's joined us." Once again, GranAnn was trying to force them to spend time together. Something Daniel had tried to do in the past and had failed.
Blake Foreman, a carbon copy of Daniel except for his graying temples and faint wrinkles, sat straight as a goalpost, looking down his disapproving nose. "You're late."
"I apologize," Daniel forced out.
Semiretired, Blake had moved to Corinthia a couple months before Daniel. "Seems you could have called to let your grandmother know you were delayed." Blue eyes a shade deeper than Daniel's narrowed, issuing a challenge.
Anytime the two of them got together, they were like two dogs circling each other, readying for a fight. Animosity sizzled in the air, something he wanted to reach out and seize, to try to understand. But tonight he didn't have the energy for the struggle.
He pulled away his attention from his dad. "I'm sorry I didn't make it earlier, GranAnn. I had a late counseling session, then got delayed over at the yarn shop with Lilly Barnes."
"Oh, good, I'm glad you two met." With a relieved, happy grin, she motioned for him to sit. "I kept your plate warm."
Only then did he notice they'd already finished eating. Man, when he messed up, he messed up good.
GranAnn bustled around the kitchen with her familiar floral apron around her waist, pouring syrupy sweet iced tea from the same brown glass pitcher she'd had when he was child.
Blake leaned back and crossed his arms. "Who's this Lilly Barnes?"
Daniel was tempted to tell him it was none of his concern. Instead, he opted to break down and ask for help.
As if he would ever get involved in something important to me.
He swallowed back his bitterness. The church had to come first. "Lilly and her sister, Jenna, inherited the yarn shop at the edge of town. The former owner had agreed to rent the basement to our church since we need a bigger space. Apparently Lilly knew nothing about the arrangement."
"Oh, it's the perfect space," GranAnn added. "I'm sure Lilly and Jenna will be glad to rent it to you." She pulled his plate out of the oven with a dish towel to keep from burning herself and set the meat loaf and mashed potatoes on the place mat in front of him.