Tuesday, February 14, 2023

 Every year I get to blog on Valentine's Day. It is a special day for me because it is also my wedding anniversary. My husband and I have been married for forty-seven years, and we are celebrating with long-time friends, whom we met not long after we were married and lived in a small town in Ohio. We have vacationed with them many times over the years. Recently, we took a trip with them going from our home in Arizona to Los Angeles and up the Pacific Coast Highway to Napa and home again with numerous stops along the way. During this trip we talked about a special trip for our 50th anniversary and a celebration of our 50 years of friendship. I hope we can make that happen.

Since my husband and I started married life in a small town in Ohio, I wanted to set a series in a small Ohio town. So I created Kellersburg. The town is a compilation of several small towns located near Cincinnati, Ohio, a place my characters often visit. Several books in the series have a scene in which the characters attend a Valentine's Day banquet. Here's an excerpt from Hometown Cowboy.

     Wyatt hobbled to keep up with Caroline as she charged toward their assigned table. He had done it again. Said way too much. What was there about her that made him second-guess himself right and left?
     Ever since he’d joined the rodeo circuit, women had trailed after him. They tried to impress him. Now he was trying to impress Caroline Keller without much success. She tolerated his presence because Nathan and Melanie had pushed Caroline and him together. He would have to make the best of the evening, despite her resistance.
     But hadn’t she just invited him to help her at the nursing home? He should take that as a good sign, but maybe her missionary instincts just kicked in as she tried to involve people in her do-good work. Actually she had already succeeded in getting him to do good. Nathan had mentioned how excited Maisey was when she’d learned about the scholarship. That knowledge warmed Wyatt’s heart. He wanted to do good. Maybe it would make up for all the bad he’d done when he was a surly kid.
     When Wyatt reached the table, he pulled out Caroline’s chair, and she looked at him with surprise.
     “Thanks.” Her surprise morphed into a smile as she settled on her chair. “George and Denise, I hear you’re going to be part of the couples’ game, along with Melanie and Nathan.”
     Denise laughed as she patted George’s arm. “I don’t know how we got roped into this, but we’re going to give it our best shot. I hear there’s a trophy that goes to the winners.”
     Caroline nodded. “It’s a doozy of a trophy, not one you’d display on your mantel. I’m not sure who made it, but it’s pretty cheesy.”
     A lively discussion about the couples’ game ensued, and Wyatt observed Caroline. She had a natural way with people that he envied. While he watched, his mind buzzed with his attraction to the banker’s daughter, someone he’d admired from a distance during his school years. Were they on a more equal footing now? He wanted her to know him as something more than the son of the town drunks, who had spent more time in the bars than at home.
     Did she think he’d never grown beyond that rotten kid who had taunted her on the way home from school? He had to show her he was different, but he’d gotten off to a dreadful start with his behavior in the nursing home. Thankfully, she didn’t know how he’d treated his grandparents while he’d been there. Things were good with them now. They were always willing to forgive, because they loved him. He would be forever grateful for that love.
     Wyatt wanted her to know the man behind the rodeo star, but he wasn’t sure that was possible. How could he show her when he wasn’t sure who he was? His identity had been all tied up in being a rodeo cowboy, and that had been taken away from him. So who was he now? Where was he headed? If he didn’t know the answer, there was little chance he could make Caroline see him differently.
As Wyatt pondered his plan of action, Ray Keller hopped onto the stage.
     “Good evening, everyone.” Ray waved the microphone in the air. “It’s good to see you all here tonight. Let’s get the evening started with a prayer of thanks for our food.”
     Wyatt bowed his head along with those around him. After Ray finished praying, he punched a button on a nearby machine. Soft background music floated through the air. Teenagers dressed in white shirts and black pants hurried through the room as they delivered salads to each table.
     While Wyatt ate his salad, his thoughts took him back to his first year on the circuit. He’d fallen hard for Shelby Pollard. He didn’t know why he was thinking about her tonight. Or maybe he did. The last time he’d worn a suit coat and tie was the last time he’d taken Shelby out to dinner. He’d been in love, but he’d been fooled. Maybe he was just a fool for love. He wasn’t in love with Caroline, but here he was entertaining romantic thoughts about her.
     Foolish thinking for sure!
     “You look lost in thought.” Nathan’s voice made Wyatt look in the other man’s direction.
Wyatt shook his head. “Just thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve worn this suit jacket. I didn’t have much use for it when I was on the circuit.”
     “I guess you’d look pretty silly wearing a suit coat while riding a bucking horse.” Caroline smiled at him. “Your tie would be flying.”
     With a chuckle, Wyatt glanced at Caroline, the image of a flying red tie tickling his thoughts. That image was better than the dreams he had about flying through the air himself and waking just before he hit the ground. He didn’t want to think about the bad dreams that haunted his sleep. He was here with Caroline, so he should be thinking happy thoughts, not remembering all the things that had brought him pain.
     “Do you miss the rodeo? How soon before you get to return?” Melanie asked, a sweet smile on her face.
     The question made Wyatt stop his fork halfway to his mouth. Yeah, he missed it, but he was never going back unless something changed. Talking about it only reminded him of what he had lost and could never get back.
     “Melanie, I guess you haven’t heard. Wyatt’s injury will keep him from returning to the rodeo.” Caroline’s gaze flitted between Wyatt and Melanie.
     Melanie’s brown eyes widened as she placed a hand on her chest. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. That has to be tough.”
     Yeah, tough. He should be tough and not let it bother him, but he couldn’t shake his desire to return to the rodeo. A broken dream. Could he find a new dream? He was lost in a desert of doubt about where his life was headed. Wyatt finally nodded but didn’t say a thing.
     Nathan patted Melanie’s arm. “Sweetheart, it’s a subject Wyatt doesn’t want to talk about.”
     A frown puckered Melanie’s brow. “I’m so sorry I mentioned it.”
     Wyatt placed his fork next to his empty salad plate. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something I have to get used to, but it’s not my favorite subject right now.”
     “Okay. Let’s talk about Caroline’s big move.” Melanie put on a perky expression.
     Wyatt glanced at Caroline as he narrowed his gaze. “You’re moving? You just got here.”
     Caroline chuckled. “I’m just moving out of my parents’ house and into the house I’m renting from Nathan.”
     “Yeah, I’m giving up my bachelor pad to move in with this lovely lady and her two rambunctious sons.” Nathan gave Melanie a peck on the cheek. “She makes the best Italian food this side of Italy.”
     Pink tinged Melanie’s cheeks as she gazed at Nathan. “You always say that.”
     “It’s true.” Nathan glanced around the table. “You should taste her manicotti.”
     “Does that mean we’re all invited over to your house for dinner after you get back from your honeymoon?” Caroline eyed Nathan.
     “Inviting yourself to dinner? Do you think that’s good form?” Nathan smirked.
     Melanie poked Nathan on the arm. “I think that’s a lovely idea. Be looking for an invitation.”
     Nathan put an arm around Melanie’s shoulders. “I was only teasing my sister. We’d be glad to have you all over. The boys will especially like it.”
     “Then we’ll plan on it.” Excitement lit up Melanie’s face.
     “You don’t have to include us.” Denise glanced around the table. “You young folks should get together.”
     “You should definitely be included. I love to entertain.” Melanie smiled. “And when I make one of my Italian dishes, I make enough to feed a lot of people.”
     George chuckled. “Well, in that case, we’ll have to come. We don’t want any food to go to waste.”
     “It will go to my waist.” Denise patted her stomach as she laughed.
     George leaned over and kissed his wife on the cheek. “You look marvelous to me, dear.”
     Denise blushed. “He’s so sweet.”
     Wyatt took in his grandparents’ exchange. Why hadn’t he ever noticed how much they loved each other? Maybe because he’d been self-absorbed as a kid and even as an adult when he made his biannual trek to Kellersburg while he’d been on the circuit. He’d like to share a love like that with a special woman.
     His gaze slid to Caroline, who laughed at something Melanie had said. Caroline fascinated him more than he’d like to admit. Besides being pretty, she’d been willing to give up her cushy life in Kellersburg to help those less fortunate in a foreign country. What did it take to do that? He wanted to find out.
What would it take to capture her interest?
     Wyatt shook the question away. He’d asked himself that question too often lately. He didn’t need to go there. His life was in turmoil. He shouldn’t add a romantic interest to the mix.
     “I hear you’re going to be part of the entertainment tonight.” Caroline’s statement brought Wyatt’s crazy thoughts to a halt.
     Wyatt looked at Nathan. “How does she know about this?”
     “It seems that my sweet wife-to-be can’t keep a secret, but she doesn’t know the whole story.”    Nathan smiled wryly as he patted Melanie’s arm. “So we’re good.”
     Wyatt didn’t know how he’d let Nathan rope him into joining his uncle’s chorus, but it would probably be fun to see the look on Caroline’s face when it took place.
Before anyone else could comment, the servers whipped away the salad plates and replaced them with the entrée.
     “You know, even though this is good, Melanie makes it better.” Nathan cut a piece of his chicken parmesan.
     Melanie smiled at Nathan. “If you keep bragging on me, they’ll all be disappointed when they come for dinner.”
     Nathan shook his head. “Never. You will wow them with your cooking.”
     “I can hardly wait to see these two lovebirds in the couples’ competition,” Caroline said.
     “We’ll only have a chance if all the questions are food related.” Melanie gestured toward Denise and George. “I don’t know how we can compete against people who have been married for over fifty years.”
     George chuckled as he shook his head. “You might have a good chance. I think I’ve forgotten almost everything I know about Denise. My brain just doesn’t recall things so well these days. She keeps telling me that my favorite word is doohickey, because I can’t remember what something is called.”
     “Just don’t call me your doohickey.” Denise chuckled.
Everyone at the table laughed, and Wyatt joined in. It felt good to laugh and share this time with his grandparents and the others at the table, especially Caroline. They were surely destined for some kind of connection, but where it would lead was a huge question. Was he brave enough to find out the answer?
     As the meal continued, Wyatt sat listening to the conversation buzzing around him. He thought about how he had a lot of amends to make, especially to his grandparents.
     “You’re awfully quiet. Are you finding the company boring?” Caroline’s voice was barely above a whisper as she leaned closer.
     Trying to keep his voice as low as hers, he took in her concerned expression. “No. Just have a lot on my mind.”
     “You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, not saving the world.”
     He gave her a wry smile. “And how do you know that’s what I’m trying to do?”
     “You look awfully serious.”
     “I’m a serious person.”
     “Hmm. I never thought of you that way.”
     “So you’ve been thinking about me?” He smirked.
     A pink tinge slowly crept across Caroline’s cheeks. She straightened in her chair. “Yes, I’ve been praying for your successful recovery. The extent of your injuries has caused me to think about you quite a bit.”
     “You mean it’s not my considerable charm that has you thinking about me?”
     “Are you fishing for compliments?”
     Wyatt grinned. She knew how to flirt. She surprised him, and he liked that. “Maybe.”
     “Sorry. I’m fresh out.”
     Wyatt laughed out loud. “That puts me in my place.”
     Caroline grimaced. “I didn’t mean for it to come out like that. That wasn’t very nice.”
     “No offense taken. I kind of like sparring with you, Caroline Keller.”
     Caroline’s cheeks pinkened again as she stared at him. “I should behave myself.”
     “Wow! Caroline is misbehaving. You’ve got my interest.”
     Caroline huffed. “Quit teasing me.”
     “But it’s so fun.”
     “You win.” Caroline let out a sorry chuckle.
     “Good. What do I win?”
     Caroline gave him an exasperated look. “What do you want to win?”
     “What do I want to win?” Wyatt’s smile grew mischievous. “That’s a dangerous question, but I’ll come up with an answer and let you know.”
     “Caroline, you’re in trouble now.” Nathan chuckled.
     “Have you been eavesdropping on our conversation?” Caroline shot Nathan an annoyed look.
     “Just looking out for my little sister. I wouldn’t want some cowboy to come along and take advantage.”
     Caroline gave her brother an annoyed look. His statement was all too close to the truth of why she hadn’t returned to the mission field. But Nathan didn’t know anything about that. No one did. She just had to put it out of her mind. “Okay, you two. You’ve had your fun.”
     “Not nearly enough. The fun has just begun.”
     Caroline’s frown deepened. “What are you guys up to?”
     Nathan winked at Caroline. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
     “Yes, I would.” Caroline looked at Melanie for help. “Do you know what’s going on?”
     Melanie shrugged. “Something. All I know is they’re singing later.”
     Caroline sighed. “Okay. I can wait to find out.”
     Wyatt laughed along with Nathan. “She says that, but I know she’s dying of curiosity.”
     While the two men chuckled, the teens whisked away the dinner plates and served the strawberry shortcake.
     Caroline took a big bite. “This is delicious.”
     “But Melanie makes—”
     “It better.” Caroline finished the sentence for her brother, and everyone at the table laughed.
     While they ate dessert, Ray Keller once again took the stage. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, in a few minutes we’ll have our couples’ competition, and after that, we’ll get on with the singing. We’ve got some talented people who are going to entertain us tonight. I want you to welcome our MC for the evening, Seth Finley.”
     Applause filled the room as Seth took the stage and commandeered the microphone. “Good evening, everyone. I hope you’ve had your fill of the delicious food and you’re ready to cheer on our contestants in the couples’ competition.”
     Again applause filled the room as the couples made their way to the stage and the chairs set up for them. They joked with each other as they took their seats. Wyatt’s heart filled with pride as he watched his grandparents. He wished he’d been more attentive during the years he’d been away riding broncs and wrestling steers. They had made a home for him when his parents hadn’t cared.
     Caroline clapped enthusiastically. “Your grandparents are so cute together.”
     “They do make a great couple.” Wyatt gazed at Caroline and wondered whether he could persuade her to take a chance on him. An excellent thought, but highly unlikely. “So who’s going to win? My grandparents or your brother and his bride-to-be?”
     “I’m thinking your grandparents.”
     “Me, too.” Wyatt smiled. “Great minds think alike.”
     “Thank you for recognizing that I have a great mind.”
     “You’re welcome. You do.” Among other lovely attributes.
     The competition started as the men were escorted to one of the Sunday school classrooms, while Seth asked questions of the ladies. After the men returned, they had to answer the same questions. Laughter filled the room over some of the responses from the men that didn’t match what their wives had said. Then the ladies were escorted offstage while the men answered questions. Several rounds ensued, with Seth asking the questions and his wife, Elise, keeping score.
     “Seth sounds like a professional MC,” Wyatt whispered.
     “That’s because he worked as a cruise director for a number of years. That’s where Elise met him.”
     “The Love Boat?”
     “Not quite.” Caroline leaned closer. “Seth broke Elise’s heart, but he realized he still loved her and moved here just to win her back. Just a wonderful love story.”
     Wyatt thought about the love story he’d like to create with Caroline. His mind was on one track tonight—a track that he feared led to nowhere. And even before it got to nowhere, he was sure she would derail the idea. But he could hope…
     When the competition ended, Denise and George held the trophy high while everyone applauded. As they returned to the table, they were all smiles. Nathan and Melanie congratulated their opponents.
Nathan held out the chair for Melanie. “We may not have won, but at least I know I’m not completely ignorant when it comes to knowing my future wife. Just two more weeks. The wedding can’t come soon enough.”
     “It’ll be here before you know it.” Caroline glanced from Nathan to Melanie.
     “And speaking of the wedding, Caroline, you’ll need to give Mom, Dad, and Wyatt a ride to the airport,” Nathan said.
     “I will?”
     “Yeah. Wyatt here won’t be able to drive for a while.” Nathan nodded.
     Wyatt gave Caroline an apologetic look. “Yeah. Sorry you’re going to be stuck with me.”
     “I don’t mind as long as you don’t throw any rocks or call me names.”
Wyatt laughed, hoping she was just joking. “I think I can manage that. I’ve outgrown my rock-throwing and name-calling days.”
     “Good to hear.”
     Seth tapped on the microphone to get everyone’s attention again. “Okay, folks, we have a treat for you tonight. Carl Keller and his band of merry men will perform a special song. Give a big round of applause for them as they take the stage.”
     Wyatt followed Nathan and several other men to the stage. Wyatt grabbed a guitar that sat off to the side and pulled the strap over his head. He was looking forward to this little surprise for Caroline. He smiled as Caroline’s uncle Carl took the microphone.
     Carl looked at his fellow singers. “You guys all ready for this?”
     A chorus of yeses filled the air.
     “Since we’re all ready, we have a special surprise for my niece, Caroline. She’s been away on the mission field, and we’d like to welcome her home with our rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline.’”
The melodious instrumental introduction to the familiar song sounded through the room. As the men gathered around the two standing microphones, the attendees clapped to the song. Wyatt took in Caroline’s reaction, his heart beating in double time to the music. She laughed and cried at the same time as Melanie hugged her.
     As the song came to a close, applause erupted. Then Carl stepped to the microphone. “Okay, everyone, we’re going to do that chorus one more time and give a resounding welcome home to our own sweet Caroline.”
     Voices raised the song, and Caroline cried and laughed some more as she waved and voiced her thank-yous as she threw kisses to the crowd. Wyatt wished he were on the receiving end of a real kiss.    He didn’t know why he kept torturing himself with such thoughts.
     When the song ended for the second time, everyone cheered and clapped. Wyatt smiled in her direction, and she smiled back as their gazes met. Her smile took his breath away. He loved that this was truly a surprise and that she appreciated the sentiment behind the song and those who sang it. Her family, her church, and the whole community obviously loved her. Wyatt wanted a part of that.

I hope you enjoyed the excerpt and look for the books in the Kellersburg series. You can find information by tapping on the link. 

The folks in Kellersburg enjoy a fun Valentine banquet each year. Do you have anything special that you do for Valentine's Day?

Merrillee Whren is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award presented by Romance Writers of American. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty-plus years, and has two grown daughters. Connect with her on her Facebook page and sign up for her newsletter.