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Excerpt
Dear Veronica Jayne, I can't believe we have less than two months until our online Spanish class is finished. Have you given any more thought to picking a mission organization? We need to get our applications in soon. I've been seeking the Lord's will on it, but I'll admit I'm dragging my heels a little bit until I know for sure where you are planning to go.

Speaking of our Spanish class, we need to start thinking about how to wrap up our team project. Your idea for our PowerPoint presentation rocks. The Benefits of Knowing Spanish on the Mission Field. It's perfect because we're both going into stateside missions and there are so many Spanish-speaking folks here in America. We'll get an A for our work on the project, and it certainly won't hurt us to know all about the missions that need our skills when we're working on our applications.

By the way, what I've seen of the script you've written is awesome. Keep it up! I'm still gathering and integrating charts and graphics to go along with the explanations you've presented.

I've got to say, this collaboration is surprising in more ways than one. I'm so happy that the professor placed us together as a team. We work well together. I trust you—especially because the team project is nearly half of our grade. Not only that, but I've made a new friend, which trumps any school grade, even an A+.

I'm glad that friend is you, Veronica.

Sorry—I'm starting to sound lame. It's late, and I'd better wrap this up. I have an early day tomorrow.

All the best, BJ

At least I can look forward to working on that project with BJ, Veronica Jayne Bishop, known as "Vee" to everyone in Serendipity, Texas, thought to herself. Because the other man I have to work with today is driving me nuts.

"I cooked dinner last night." Vee crossed her arms, leaned her hip against the counter and glared at the paramedic Ben Atwood, who lounged casually on a folding chair. His legs were stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles, and his fingers were laced through the thick ruffle of dark brown hair he wore long enough to curl around his collar.

Their gazes locked. Ben's eyes were arguably his best feature. Displaying both amusement and intelligence, they were a compelling mixture of green and bronze and contained what looked like a purely and disarmingly friendly luminescence that most women would easily get lost in.

But Vee wasn't most women. And she wasn't buying that oh-so-charming demeanor for a moment.

She scoffed inwardly. She knew just exactly what was behind that sparkling gaze, and it didn't bode well for any woman with a lick of sense in her—just ask her dearest friend Olivia Tate, who knew firsthand how unreliable Ben's handsome smile could be. It still rankled Vee every time she thought about it.

"I'm just sayin'—" Ben started to explain, but Vee didn't allow him to finish.

"What? That because I'm a woman, by definition I should do all the cooking at the firehouse? Benjamin Atwood, you know perfectly well that each of us is responsible for one evening a week in front of the hot stove, men and women alike. The fact that I'm the only woman who works for this fire department makes your attitude all that much more reprehensible. You're welcome to step into the twenty-first century anytime now."

There was a flash of irritation in his eyes, but it vanished as she watched.

"Okay, first of all, only my mama calls me Benjamin," he drawled, his gaze sparkling as a smile crept up one side of his lips. "And second, that wasn't what I was about to say at all."

He lifted his hands level with his shoulders to show he was harmless. "If you would have let me finish, I would have been able to make my point."

She narrowed her gaze on him suspiciously. "And that would be?"

He chuckled. "Only that I'm the world's worst cook, while the lasagna you made last night was mouth-wateringly delicious." He tilted his head and a shrug rippled across his broad shoulders. "It was supposed to be a compliment."

She arched a brow. His expression was absolutely earnest and without the least bit of guile, so why didn't she believe him?

Let me count the ways, she thought to herself.

Because the man was a chronic liar. And a cheat. He used his charm to get what he wanted. She couldn't trust him or his winsome smile any further than she could throw him, and because he was a good two-hundred pounds and she a mere one-twenty, that wouldn't be very far.

"No, really," he insisted. "I know it's my turn. Look," he said, swinging off his chair with sleek, catlike grace and reaching for a paper grocery bag on the counter. "See? I came prepared."

Vee peeked skeptically over the rim of the bag. "Cans of chili? What kind of dish are you preparing with that?"

His grin widened. "Chili."

She snorted and shook her head. "Why did I even ask?"

"Slow cooker chili," he amended, his brow dancing. "My own secret recipe."

"What makes it a secret?" She had to ask. She really didn't want to make small talk with the man, but she had to admit she was curious.

The bronze in his eyes danced with the green. "If I told you, it wouldn't really be a secret, now would it?"

"Seriously? Do you want me to leave the room while you prepare your secret recipe?"

"I'll let you in on it," he acknowledged in a pseudo whisper, "if you promise you won't breathe a word of it to any of the guys."

Vee nodded grudgingly. She didn't like the idea of sharing anything with him—not even a secret—but she couldn't resist a mystery. She watched carefully, curious to see what Ben would add to canned chili to make it his special recipe, something her fellow firefighters might find especially unique and tasty.

Vee wondered if Ben's recipe was something his mother had taught him, and then her heart gave a sudden, jagged tug, twisting painfully as she was once again reminded of her own mother's recent passing, just six months ago.

Would it ever get any easier? She would be fine one minute—or at least she'd convince herself she was all right—and then the next she'd be struck by a sharp-toothed edge of grief that made her nearly double over.

"Need help?" she offered, her voice raspy as she fought to control her emotions. She refused to let what she was feeling show on her face. Busy hands and an engaged mind helped her not to dwell on the unpleasant emotions sparring inside her.

"Nope," he replied, turning to plug each of the slow cookers into separate outlets.

Vee stared at his back, letting out her breath when she realized he didn't have a clue that she'd just fought an emotional battle and had barely come out unscathed. This was one time she was thankful for the man's in-sensitivity.

"As you so enthusiastically reminded me," he continued, tossing a glance over his shoulder, "it's not your day to cook. I've got it covered."

He was right, of course. She had just declared that it wasn't her turn to cook. In fact, she'd made a big stink about that very issue. But willingly offering her assistance wasn't the same thing as being expected to do all the work. Besides, it made her antsy to sit around doing nothing.

"At least let me open the cans for you," she insisted, reaching into the paper bag and grasping a can.

He shrugged. "Suit yourself."

She opened several sizeable cans of chili and handed them off to Ben, who scooped the contents into three large olive-green slow cookers that looked like they were throwbacks from the seventies—which they probably were, come to think of it. The men at the firehouse often used the slow cookers to heat their food, allowing them to throw together simple meals that made large portions—the two main requirements in any firehouse kitchen. The boys had hearty appetites, especially after they'd been working out with extra PT—physical training—as they were doing today.

Ben and Vee had been left to cover the firehouse. In case of an emergency, they would be first on call. It was part of their duties as volunteers for the tri-county emergency team. They were each paid a small stipend, but nearly everyone, with the exception of Chief Jenkins, had second jobs to support themselves, Vee included. She worked in the gardening department at Emerson's Hardware. She knew Ben worked at his uncle's auto garage as a mechanic, using the paramedic training he'd learned in the National Guard as a volunteer for the county.

Ben stirred the contents briefly, took a whiff, groaned in anticipation and covered each pot with a glass lid.

Vee raised a brow. "I thought you said you have a special recipe."

"I said I have a secret recipe. That's not exactly the same thing."

Vee shook her head. Now she was really confused.

"Okay, then…what's the secret? I didn't see you add anything to the beans."

"Exactly." Ben crossed his arms over the broad muscles of his chest, a movement that highlighted his large biceps—which was probably exactly what he'd intended.

Vee remembered him as being rather scrawny and easily overlooked in high school, but he certainly made up for that now. Women flocked to the man like pigeons to a piece of fresh bread. He had the build of a magnificent sculpture, every plane and muscle clearly defined, flaunting the many hours he'd spent in the gym—but sadly enough, he knew it. It was no wonder he drew attention to his physical assets—especially since he so clearly lacked anything emotional or romantic to offer.

"Come again?" she asked, pulling her gaze away from his upper arms.

"I didn't add anything. So you see, that's my secret."

Vee didn't want to react. She definitely didn't want to encourage him in any way. But how could she not laugh at the utter ridiculousness of the situation? "So let me get this straight. Everyone else adds herbs and spices to the chili to doctor it up, and you, by contrast, just serve it right out of the can."

His grin widened to epic proportions. He certainly looked pleased with himself. "Brilliant, huh? I'm not too keen on onions and tomatoes, anyway," he informed her, making a face like a five-year-old boy being served brussels sprouts. "Give me good, plain beef steak any day of the week."

"Or chili?"

"Or chili," he agreed with a clipped nod. "I told you I'm a horrible cook. I don't even trust myself to add things to the food that comes out of a can. I wouldn't want to subject anyone else to what qualifies as my attempt to make homemade food from fresh ingredients. No doubt what I'd cook up would be nothing short of a blooming disaster—food so spicy you'd burn your tongue to a crisp and your eyes would water until you couldn't see out of them, or on the flip side, food so bland it'd put you to sleep.

"If it doesn't come out of a can or a bottle, I'm helpless. If I lived in a bigger town I'd order takeout every night. As it is, Cup o' Jo Cafe and the deli at Sam's Grocery get a lot of my business. I actually enjoy my shifts at the firehouse because I get to eat decently, something a little bit closer to home-cooked."

Vee crinkled her nose. Granted she hadn't been working here very long, but she wouldn't classify any of the food she ate at the firehouse as decent. Acceptable at best, and barely palatable at worst. Cans of plain chili might be a promotion from what she was usually subjected to.

"And I visit my mama every Sunday afternoon," he added, more as an exclamation than an afterthought. "She enjoys cooking for her son, and naturally I'm keen to eat whatever she makes for me."

"Spoiled," she quipped, but she nodded in approval just the same. He might be a player with the women he dated, but she knew he took good care of his parents, which Vee had to admit was a small mark in his favor.

Not enough to erase the black smudges, but perhaps a small offset.

"A little," he admitted. "But mostly I'm just being a dutiful son."

"I'm sure your parents appreciate that, especially your mother." Her voice cracked a little on the last word, and she scolded herself for being so transparent in front of him. But she couldn't help remembering how blessed she had felt to have had the chance to spend time with her own family, before her mother's recent passing. Now her dad kept to himself, and neither she nor her two brothers could help him get beyond his grief.

Ben regarded her with a thoughtful frown. "I'm so sorry for your loss. It must be difficult for you, losing your mother."

"What? No. I mean, thank you. At least I know she's with the Lord."

"Yes," he agreed. "Your mom's faith was a real inspiration. But it still must be hard on you, having her pass so suddenly."

She didn't know whether she was more surprised by Ben's openness or the fact that there was a genuine note of compassion in his voice. She knew he was a church-going man, but then, so was almost every man in Serendipity. Attending church didn't necessarily mean he was a man of faith.

"It was difficult to lose her," she admitted, wondering how they'd gotten on such a serious topic—how he'd turned the conversation and gotten her to talk about herself. She didn't know why she continued, but she did. "It's still difficult. To be honest with you, I don't quite know how to respond when someone says they feel sorry for me."

She shrugged away the statement, wishing it could be simple to shirk off the turmoil of emotion teetering near the edge of her consciousness. She didn't like feeling as if she were on the verge of an emotional breakdown all the time. She preferred to keep her feelings locked tightly away.

"It's a good thing that you're close to your family. There's nothing wrong with that. And despite my loss, I'm still blessed to have my father and brothers, although we don't get together as often as I'd like now that we're all grown up and living away from home."

"Right. There's a change in family dynamics when we reach adulthood. How does Cole like the Navy?"

"Are you kidding? He was born for service," she said, cheering up a little at the change of topic. Cole was the middle of the three Bishop children, the one who was always causing mischief of one sort or another—often involving his naive little sister and leading her into trouble. Now those days seemed pleasantly nostalgic.

"Cole was always one of the tough guys, and serving the country in the military suits him. Same with Eli. He was playing cops and robbers from the time he could walk," she commented of her oldest brother. "I guess it's lucky for us he ended up on the cop side of the equation."

Ben chuckled at her weak attempt at humor. "And you, the firefighter."

"Me, the firefighter," she agreed. "But I never played with matches. No correlation there."

"Never?" he asked, a curious gleam in his eye. "Come on. You can admit it. I won't tell."

She gnawed thoughtfully on her bottom lip, wondering how much she should divulge. Was he baiting her, or was this a sincere attempt on his part to be civil? She decided to take a chance on him. A very small chance. "I might have lit a twig on fire…once or twice, when I was little."

One side of his mouth crept upward in an appealing half smile, the one that sent the single female population of Serendipity all aflutter. "Now we're getting to the good stuff. If the fellows here at the firehouse ever learned that you—"

"But you said—"

Jerk.

"Your secret is safe with me," he assured her. "I'm just teasing. I won't say anything. Besides, if that's the worst of your record, I can assure you that you're lagging far behind me."

"Is that right? How so?"

He returned to his folding chair and leaned his elbows against the long table. His gaze met and locked with hers. "We all have some skeletons in our closets, don't you think? I'm every bit as human as the next guy."
 
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