Orchard Hill Residents - lock up your hearts! Pansy Parker and Misty Green are rivals in romance. Each believes she is the town's best matchmaker. Now, they're going to settle the question for once and for all. They're keeping track to see who can make the most matches in a year's time. No heart is safe in Orchard Hill - not even their own. Riley O'Neil and Grace Randall have been best friends since kindergarten, and Pansy knows they belong together. After Grace's fiance leaves her at the altar, Riley decides it's time to tell her he wants to be more than friends. Grace is still reeling from her fiance's betrayal. She fears that if she and Riley start dating, it will ruin their friendship--and right now Riley's friendship is something she can't spare. A new year is coming, and it's the perfect time for a fresh start. Will Grace take a chance on love with Riley?
One Day Naomi, her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?”
—Ruth 3:1 NIV
Prologue: The Matchmaker Match
Pansy Parker lingered in her office at the Orchard Hill Community Church on Wednesday afternoon. Pastor Isaac had already left for the day. She was finished with all her work, but still she puttered about, straightening papers that didn’t need straightening, untangling paper clips, and checking the plants she knew full-well she’d watered yesterday. When she’d just about run out of reasons to stay, the person she’d been waiting for breezed in.
Pansy smiled sweetly. “Why hello, Misty, dear. You’re running a little late today.”
The woman in question turned from the bank of cubbies that stored “mail” for all those who held leadership positions in the church. Misty was the choir director. “Oh, not really, Pansy, dear, but you’re here late. I thought by now you’d be home with your feet up.”
The two women eyed each other, sizing each other up. Pansy noted that Misty was wearing her silver and blonde hair loose—hair that was too long for a woman in her fifties and especially if that woman owned and ran a health food store that featured a large produce section and bins of bulk food. She wondered if Misty wore a hair net when she worked. Probably not.
She patted her own hair, cut, curled and tinted with a light blue rinse. Pansy considered Misty to be positively scruffy. Look at her in that long, flowing skirt, with bare legs underneath, no doubt. Pansy would never wear a skirt without hose and low-healed pumps. “So, Misty, what have you been up to lately?”
“Oh, not much Pansy. How about yourself?”
“Me? Oh nothing much. But I did hear that Mary Gruenwald started dating Peter Hanstad lately.”
Misty narrowed her eyes. “Oh, really.”
“Yes. I’d heard you thought Peter would be a good match for Heather Barnes. I’m sorry that didn’t work out.”
“I wonder why?” Sarcasm dripped from Misty’s voice.
Pansy smiled. “I’m sure I don’t know. But I think Mary and Peter make a lovely couple. I have a good feeling about this relationship.”
Misty looked around, as if to check for anyone who could be listening. Then she shut the office door and walked back to Pansy.’
“All right, let’s cut the saccharine. You and I both know that I’ve been trying to set up Heather and Peter.”
Pansy feigned innocence. “Have you?”
“And you set him up with Mary first.”
Pansy lowered her eyes and said with false modesty “I may have had something to do with that. I’ve been known to make a few matches in my day.”
“Yes, you’re quite good.”
Pansy preened until Misty followed up with “almost as good as me.”
“You?” gasped Pansy. “You’re a rank amateur. I’ve got years of experience on you.”
“Well, you’ve got years on me, I’ll give you that.”
Now that was hitting below the belt. Pansy responded with an equally nasty jab. “A woman who’s never had a husband doesn’t qualify as a true matchmaker.”
“Why not? Because I’m not stupid enough to settle for the first guy who asks me. I’m holding out for the real thing—true love.”
Pansy snorted. “I don’t believe in that whole destiny rigmarole. You find a good man and you make the best of things. That’s the way it works.”
“So your husband was no more to you than a ‘good man.’”
Stepping back, Pansy put a hand to her throat. “How can you say such a thing about my sainted Frank? He was the best, the best, of men.”
Misty smirked. “I think you just proved my point.”
“Fine.” Pansy’s eyes snapped with anger. This meeting wasn’t going as she’d planned. “But I found him. You’re still looking for your prince charming.”
“They don’t just fall out of the sky, you know,” protested Misty. “If they did, surely you’d have found another one in the last fifteen years or so.”
“If there was one to be found in Orchard Hill, I’d have found him,” Pansy declared. “I’ve made more matches than any matchmaker in the history of Orchard Hill.”
“That’s a little difficult to prove, isn’t it,” Misty pointed out. “No one keeps records of that sort of thing, do they?”
“Well, I could beat you at matchmaking any day of the week.” Pansy was not normally a woman who boasted, but Misty just pushed her over the edge, and making matches was her only true talent. She wasn’t about to be one-upped by a tofu eating pseudo-hippy like Misty Green.
Misty was silent for a moment. She put a hand to her chin as if contemplating something. “How about we put that to a test?” she finally said.
“What do you mean?”
“One year, starting at New Year’s. We’ll keep track of our matches all year long and the one that has the most at the year’s end, wins.”
“Wins? What does she win?”
Misty shrugged. “The knowledge that she’s the best, and the other one knows it.”
It was good enough for Pansy. “But betting…I don’t know if Pastor Isaac would approve.”
“It’s up to you. It doesn’t bother me. I know I’d win anyway.”
“Now just a minute. You can’t say that if we don’t have the contest.”
“You just said we couldn’t have the contest.”
“I said no such thing. The pastor doesn’t have to know everything.”
Pansy thought it was a very catty expression.
“Then you accept the challenge.”
Pansy liked the word ‘challenge’ a whole lot more than ‘bet.’ “Yes,” she replied. “I do.”
Just then, there was a knock on the office door. One of the choir members poked his head in. “We’re waiting for you to start, Misty. Will you be much longer?”
“No, I’m coming right now.” Before the blonde went out the door she looked over her shoulder at Pansy and winked. “New Year’s” she said and closed the door behind her.
The nerve of that woman! Pansy fumed as she gathered her things to go home. She’d show that Misty Green. Before the next year was over, Pastor Isaac would be up to his eyebrows in wedding preparations.
She’d see to that.
A friend loves at all times…
Riley O’Neil wondered how he got himself into these things. His plans for the day had not included sitting with Grace…who was crying…in the ladies room…at church.
He sighed with frustration and glanced around, noting the flower-covered wall paper, the ruffled, lacey curtains and the bowl of potpourri on the sink. He could feel the testosterone draining from his body with each passing minute.
He put a comforting arm around his friend. “Come on Gracie. You have to stop now. You’ll make yourself sick.” Everyone else called her Grace, but she was always Gracie to him.
As a boy, Riley remembered being curious about what the ladies room looked like. This was definitely one secret he wished hadn’t been revealed to him. His grandmother used this room!
No, Riley did not want to be here. He would very much like to be with his best friend Steve, so he could punch him in the nose. But Steve was on a plane going to Hawaii with Tami, who had betrayed Gracie and stolen her fiancé.
Steve—Riley’s so-called friend—had called him on his cell phone even as the guests were filing into the church. “Sorry, Riley. I just can’t go through with it. Cold feet I guess. Grace is going to be mad, so I’m using the honeymoon tickets and going to Hawaii until this blows over.”
He felt his jaw drop. “You’re doing what?”
“I can’t help it. I just can’t go through with it.”
“What about Gracie?” Riley had shouted. Then, taking note of his surroundings, he lowered his voice. “How can you do this to her?”
“I know, I know. But in the long run this will be better.”
Riley could hear someone talking to Steve in the background. “Who’s that? Is someone with you?”
“Well, there are two tickets, you know.”
Riley was sure he heard a woman’s voice.
“What?” said Steve “Oh yeah, tell Grace that Tami won’t be in to work on Monday…and for a couple of weeks after that.”
Tami was a waitress at The Grace Place, the coffee shop Grace owned.
“Come on Steve, the plane is boarding,” Riley heard Tami call, with a giggle.
“Take care of Grace for me, Riley. I’ll see you when we…I mean when I…get back.” He’d hung up before Riley could say another word and suddenly he was the one stuck with the task of ruining his other best friend’s special day—her wedding day.
Grace had looked forward to this day for years—since she and Steve had become high school sweethearts, really. The day she had spent months planning. She and her mother had even made all the table favors themselves. They were little bundles of candy, wrapped in red netting and tied with gold ribbon and sprigs of fake holly. Grace had said they were perfect for a December wedding. He remembered how she and her mom had cut out all those squares of netting, how they’d taken the time to curl all the ribbons
Wait a minute. What was he doing, obsessing over table favors when he was supposed to be comforting Gracie. How could he do that? At that moment, no amount of faith or Christian principle could prevent Riley from loathing Steve with all his heart. This was not how he had expected to fill his role as best man.
“Riley,” said Grace when her sobs subsided. “You’re the best friend ever. Thank you for sitting with me.”
Like he had a choice? He was the only one she’d let in the room.
“You’re welcome.” Even though Grace’s face was red with crying, she still looked beautiful to Riley. With her dark gold hair, creamy skin and warm brown eyes his Gracie had true beauty, inside and out. What man in his right mind would give her up? And for what? A little fun in the sun with a woman who changed boyfriends like she changed her shoes? And that woman had a different pair of shoes for every day of the week. “I’d give you a hug, but I’m afraid I’d ruin your dress, Gracie.”
She gave him a wobbly smile. “It doesn’t matter anymore if the dress gets ruined. Give me a hug.
So he gave her a hug like they’d shared so many times over the years, and then she started to cry again. Riley pulled another tissue out of the box and handed it to her. As long as he lived, he’d never forget the look on her face when he’d told her. It hurt him more than the time he’d fallen out of the maple tree in her yard and broken his arm.
“I hope that plane crashes,” he declared vehemently.
“Oh, Riley, that’s awful,” said Grace. “Think of all the innocent people.”
“Okay, how’s this. I hope Steve gets a third-degree sunburn in Hawaii.” He thought a moment, then added with a wicked smile “while sunbathing nude if possible.”
He succeeded in making Grace laugh, if just for a moment. Her face quickly crumpled again. “I just don’t understand how I missed it. He was dating Tami all this time behind my back. I feel so stupid.”
“Gracie, he’s the one who messed up. You have nothing to feel bad about.” There was no way he was going to let her take the blame for this fiasco.
“Oh no? What about all those wedding gifts I’ll have to return? What about all the gossip that will be buzzing by tomorrow? I’ll be facing all that while he’s frolicking on the beach with Tami.”
“I wouldn’t worry about the wedding gifts. I think most people just took them along when they left the church.”
“Well, that’s one thing I won’t have to take care of anyway.” Grace sighed. “Do you think everyone is gone yet?”
“I’ll go check.” Riley quickly grabbed at the chance to escape from the ladies room.
Grace’s mother and her friend Lily were waiting in the hallway. “How is she?” asked her mom.
“She’s holding up Mrs. Randall. She doesn’t want to come out until everyone is gone.”
“I wish she’d let us help,” said Lily, still wearing her festive red bridesmaid dress.
“Surely a girl would want her mother at a time like this.” Mrs. Randall gave him a pleading look.
“No,” said Riley firmly. “I’m sorry ladies, but I have my orders.”
Grace’s mom sighed. “All right. Tell her to call if she needs anything.”
“Men are pigs,” growled Lily. She glanced at Riley. “Present company accepted of course.”
“Don’t worry. Even I’m inclined to agree with you at the moment.” Lily had carried a chip on her shoulder since her messy divorce, so he didn’t take her attitude personally.
Grace’s mother sighed. “I suppose I’d better go make sure Ed has taken his blood pressure pill. Something tells me it would be a bad day to forget. Take good care of my Grace, Riley.” She patted his cheek and headed for the door, ready to go search out her husband. Lily followed.
“I will,” Riley assured them, holding the door as they exited. When they’d gone, he continued through the building, checked the sanctuary and the fellowship hall. They were both empty. Everyone must be gone. He turned to go back to Grace.
Riley decided to grab a fresh box of tissues first. The supply closet was in the church office. Luckily the door was unlocked.
Pansy Parker, all dressed up for the wedding that wasn’t happening, sat behind her desk. She smiled warmly at him as came in. “How’s Grace doing?
“She’s going to be fine. She’d just rather not talk to anyone now.”
Pansy nodded. “I understand. Poor Grace. She’s so sweet. She doesn’t deserve this heartache.”
Riley inched his way toward the supply closet, hoping to get the tissues and get out quickly. “You can say that again.”
“Of course, she sort of brought this on herself.”
He stopped. “What do you mean?”
“Grace was the only one in town that would give Tami a job after she broke up Edie and Mel’s marriage. Remember she was Mel’s assistant before she worked for Grace.”
“And the girl Grace hired before that, remember how she stole money from the till and just took off?” Pansy sighed. “Poor Grace. She’s too kind for her own good. Someone really needs to watch out for that girl.”
Riley had always thought Steve did a poor job of watching out for Grace. Now he wouldn’t be there for her at all. He pushed away the notion. She still had her family. Not that they were doing the greatest job either. They hadn’t been able to save Grace from being left at the altar.
“What was it you came in here for?”
Riley dragged his mind back to the situation at hand. “Tissues. I wanted a new box of tissues for Grace.”
Pansy shook her head as she crossed to the supply closet. “That poor girl, crying her eyes out over some worthless man. It’s too bad she didn’t choose more wisely.”
Why had Grace chosen Steve? They’d been dating on and off for years, breaking up one week and back together the next. If their dating life was that unstable, how had she ever thought they could keep a marriage going?
“You’d better get back to her now, Riley.” She held out the box of tissues for him.
“Huh? Oh yeah. See you later.” He grabbed the tissues and turned to go. As he was leaving he noticed the peculiar smile Pansy gave him, but he didn’t have time to consider what that was about.