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. Quiet, privacy-loving phys ed. teacher Oliver Laurence is alarmed when he finds he is paired with bouncy, outgoing Hope Velasquez to work on the school fundraiser. He thinks she's loud and pushy. She thinks he's not a team player. Both want the Fourth of July Softball Tournament to be a success. Oliver wonders if he can endure Hope for that long. But when they discover that opposites attract, will Oliver and Hope set off a few fireworks of their own?
Summer had begun to make its appearance in Orchard Hill. Pansy Parker sighed with contentment as the porch swing rocked gently and the scent of lilacs washed over her. The lilacs were almost done blooming. She couldn’t believe it was June already.
The year was almost half over and she and her rival Misty Green were tied at two matches each in their contest to prove who was the best matchmaker. Misty had manipulated events to bring together Angel Marcel and Jeff Bradley, and just lately, Faith Fielding and Andrew Thomas. “While I,” Pansy said to herself, “facilitated the romance of Grace Randall and Riley O’Neil as well as that of Lily Robinson and Ian O’Neil.”
The man sitting next to her on the swing reached over and took her hand. Pansy smiled at him. Who would have thought the two of them would have found romance at their ages, which were…Well, let’s just say beyond the normal retirement age, Pansy told herself.
Arthur was retired in fact, and lived in Florida. Pansy still worked as a secretary for the Orchard Hill Community Church. She loved her job and couldn’t see any reason to retire.
Unless Misty won their little matchmaking contest. Pansy could never stand it if that woman managed to weasel out a victory there. Misty was the choir director and chair of the worship committee so she was always at the church, it seemed. If Misty won, Pansy thought she’d have to retire just to get away from the woman’s bragging. She couldn’t believe that annoying woman was Arthur’s daughter. They were nothing alike. Maybe Misty was adopted, thought Pansy.
But she had to get busy and put together another match. She leaned her head on Arthur’s shoulder. He had definitely been a distraction to her, but she didn’t mind. No one had made her feel this special since her husband had passed away so many years ago.
As she and Arthur sat together, and the sun began to set, she pondered the Orchard Hill singles. Who needed her talents? She heard a door slam and saw her neighbor Oliver Laurence coming down his porch steps. When he saw them, he raised a hand in greeting before getting into his car and driving away.
Arthur and Pansy returned the wave, and Arthur remarked to her, “I’m glad you have such good neighbors Pansy. I’d worry about you living alone otherwise.”
“I don’t live alone,” she reminded him “I have my son here.”
“That’s right,” agreed Arthur “but that’s only temporary, and he’s never home anyway. We’ve been dating for weeks now, and I’ve never met him.”
Dating. Pansy wanted to laugh at that. It sounded like they were teenagers. But sometimes, with Arthur, she felt like a teenager again. “He’s been working a lot lately. I know he’s anxious to get established here.” And get out of my house, she added silently. She loved Perry as only a mother could, but she couldn’t believe she’d raised such a slob! Lately she’d begun to sympathize with his ex-wife, even if the woman had run off with another man and divorced Perry.
But she was getting distracted again. She had to find two people who needed each other. Wait a minute. Oliver. He was single and new in town. Who could she match him up with?
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Arthur, breaking her concentration.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Are you avoiding me at church?”
Uh-oh. “Well, not exactly.”
“That sounds like a ‘yes’ to me.”
Pansy pulled back from him a little so she could see his face. “I haven’t wanted to tell you this, but…but your daughter and I don’t exactly get along.”
“That’s silly. Misty has her faults, of course, but she’s a lovely woman. I’m very proud of her.”
“She does a very good job of directing the church choir,” Pansy offered. That was true, even if Misty sometimes picked that awful contemporary worship music rather than the traditional hymns Pansy loved.
“I’m sure you two could get along. Maybe we should all have dinner together some time.”
“That would be…um…nice, dear.” Pansy leaned back and laid her head on Arthur’s shoulder again. “Let’s not talk anymore. Let’s just enjoy this beautiful evening. The stars will be out soon.”
He squeezed her hand gently and fell silent again. Pansy began thinking about a potential girlfriend for Oliver. She had to get going if she wanted to stay ahead of Misty Green.
“Your back door is all fixed,” said Perry, coming from the back room to the front of Misty Green’s health food store, The Green Scene. “It won’t stick any more, and the squeak is gone.”
“Thank you Perry. What can I do to pay you back?”
He set his tool box on the counter. “I know a good place to start.”
Misty couldn’t hold back her own grin. “And where would that be?”
Leaning down, Perry kissed her. “How about right there.”
She giggled. No woman her age should giggle, but she couldn’t help it. Perry made her so happy. “I was thinking I could take you out to dinner or something.”
It warmed her heart when he answered, “Let’s cook something together at your house.” There weren’t a lot of men in Orchard Hill who appreciated her style of cooking. The idea of eating Tofu, alone, had them running the other way.
“Then later,” Perry added, “I could take you to the movies.”
“No, let’s at least go Dutch. You can’t afford it.”
He leaned down again and kissed her nose. “Yes, I can. I’ve been getting a lot of work lately, and I’m up for a steady job with a construction company.”
Misty’s eyes widened, and she bounced a little where she stood. “That’s wonderful! I hope you get it.”
“Me, too. So what do you say to a movie?”
“And then what?”
“How about you sit with me and my mother in church tomorrow?”
Misty’s enthusiasm deflated. Luckily she could avoid that one. “The choir is singing. I’ll be with them.”
“OK. I’ll meet you in the gathering space for coffee afterward.”
Misty faked a smile. There was no way she was getting near Perry if his mother was around. Pansy would probably have a heart attack if she knew they were dating. “That sounds great. I’ll find you after church, OK.” And as soon as I find you, I’m going to avoid you, she added to herself.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
~Romans 12:12 NRSV
Oliver’s gaze followed Hope as she crossed the room. She was everywhere. Everywhere he went, she seemed to show up. How could he have forgotten that Orchard Hill was the name of her hometown? How could he have known she would move back, or that she would be working at the same school where he’d signed on as a physical education teacher, or that she would be a member of the church his neighbor had invited him to attend?
Her bubbly personality, her frequent laugh, her constant chatter, all grated on his nerves. And that smile. Definitely too toothy for his taste. Then there was…there was…Oh, who was he kidding?
Right now, he was inclined to believe in the reality of fate and the likelihood that it found tormenting him to be good fun. Hope Velasquez was the only woman who had ever come close to winning his heart, and that was a prize he wasn’t planning on giving away—ever.
So, naturally, he had to pretend to dislike her. It allowed him to keep his distance. Getting close to Hope was dangerous for him—and for her, because he knew he’d end up breaking her heart. He didn’t want to do that, even if it meant this constant torture of seeing her everywhere and not approaching her, not talking to her, not knowing how she was really doing, and not ever, ever touching her.
But he was doing the right thing, and that had to count for something, didn’t it? He watched as someone said something to her that made her laugh. Her face lit up, her big brown eyes sparkled, and he felt a sharp pain in the region of his heart. Apparently it didn’t.
“There you are, Oliver.”
He turned at the sound of his neighbor’s voice. “Thank you for inviting me today Mrs. Parker. I enjoyed the service.” That was true. He didn’t want to admit to how long it had been since he’d stepped into a church, but he was glad to be back. Thinking of joining a church made him feel settled, as if he belonged somewhere.
”I hope I’m not jumping the gun, but I was wondering...”
“Yes, Mrs. Parker?”
“I was wondering if you might be interested in playing on the church softball team.”
“How often do they play?”
“Just once. The team enters in the Fourth of July tournament sponsored by the elementary school. The money raised is used...”
“For the summer rec’ program. I heard about that. Thank you Mrs. Parker, I think I would like to join. It’s a worthy cause.” He had been thinking about finding a way to become involved in that because it funded the tee ball program he headed. Oliver would have volunteered to be on the planning committee, but it was full by the time he’d found out about it.
Pansy Parker led him to a table at the side of the narthex. It held several clipboards with pencils attached by strings. She handed one of them to him. “Here’s the softball team sign up.”
He accepted the clipboard and checked the names carefully. There wasn’t a single Velasquez among them. He was safe. Oliver signed his name just as he heard a voice calling, “Aunt Hope, will you sign up for the softball team with me, please?”
It was a different Hope. It had to be. But when Oliver turned around, it was her standing there with a teenage girl at her side, waiting for their turn with the clipboard.
He stifled the urge to erase his own name and handed it to her. In spite of his efforts to avoid her, Oliver realized he would have to endure spending some time with Hope this summer. Fate again?
“Thank you Oliver,” she said, her voice as soft and sweet as always.
“Sure,” he mumbled without meeting her eyes. Then, he walked away.
Hope felt her smile falter, but only for a moment. Then, she signed her name and gave the clipboard to Abby. She didn’t know why she let Oliver bother her, but he did. She went out of her way to be friendly to everyone. She didn’t understand what Oliver had against her. They had been friends for a while in college, but one day, he had started to avoid her—and he hadn’t shown any signs of warming to her since he’d moved to Orchard Hill.
Hope shook her head. There was something wrong with her, that she should care so much about his opinion. But she really liked Oliver. She found him an admirable teacher with a true affection for his students—for all his students, not just the athletically gifted ones. He was great with the special ed’ class—filled with a seemingly endless patience for those students. He was encouraging to the book worms and the klutzes. He challenged the sports crazed kids. Plus, he had manners that came from an earlier generation. Oliver was one of the few men she knew that she truly considered a gentleman.
So what was it about her that turned him cold? She didn’t know, but his attitude really hurt.
She knew through the ever-active grapevine that he’d been helping Pansy Parker with her yard work since he’d moved next door to her. Today, he’d even attended church with her. What kind of young man had time like that for old ladies? Especially a man who looked like him? He had hunk written all over his 6’ 2” frame. He was tanned and toned from all the running he still did. Add in broad shoulders, close cropped blonde hair, a strong jaw and crystal blue eyes and his physical appeal couldn’t be denied.
Orchard Hill’s single women were all ready to fall for the new gym teacher—though he hadn’t thrown out so much as a crumb of encouragement to one of them.
“Thanks for doing this with me, Aunt Hope,” said Abby ”I know the team is supposed to be co-ed, but there are usually so many more guys than girls.”
“It’s no problem, Abby,” Hope assured her, her eyes still on Oliver’s retreating back. “I love to play. It’ll be fun.”