The Bachelor Next Door
Spending her holidays in picturesque Lilac Circle, Michigan, is the perfect place for Nina Jerome to start anew. She's determined to put her painful divorce in the past and focus on the future. She hadn't planned on being distracted by her sweet neighbor, Doug Billings. The successful businessman and temporary dad is clueless when it comes to taking care of his little niece. Getting help from Nina is the perfect setup—but something about the pretty new nanny makes him think about the unthinkable: having a wife and a family of his own. Can he convince Nina that she's worthy of a second chance at love—just in time for Christmas?
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Award-winning novelist, Gail Gaymer Martin authored over 55 novels with 4 million books in print, receiving a Carol and 2 RT Reviewer Choice Awards. Her novel THE CHRISTMAS KITE was optioned for a Hallmark movie. Gail authored Writers Digest's WRITING THE CHRISTIAN ROMANCE and is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers. CBS local news named her as the four best novelists in Detroit. Before publication, Gail worked as a counselor and a university instructor. She lives in MI.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Why did I say yes?"
Nina Jerome looked out her front window at the neighbors toting folding tables and chairs or picnic tables for their annual end-of-summer block party. She'd tried to refuse the invitation, but her neighbor Angie Turner wouldn't listen, and Angie didn't give up.
Retracing her steps to the kitchen, she opened her refrigerator and eyed her pasta salad. It looked a bit bland so she sprinkled sliced ripe olives and slivers of red peppers on top for color. She would attend whether she wanted to or not so no one would think of her as antisocial.
She shrugged. Who would care? In the few months she'd lived on Lilac Circle, she'd gotten to know very few people, but she preferred it that way. Or did she? "Face it, Nina. You can't be a recluse. You need to meet your neighbors." She spoke aloud to herself, and then chuckled. She had become a master of having great conversations with herself—or should she question her sanity?
The sound of the doorbell drew her from the kitchen. When she opened the door, she wasn't surprised. "Hi, Angie. I—"
"You're joining us, aren't you?" Technically it was a question, but Angie's expression was only allowing one answer.
"I sure am." She tried to brighten her voice. "I just put some finishing touches on my salad. It's ready." She opened the front door wider.
Angie stepped in. "Can I help you carry something? You don't need a table. You can share ours, but you might want a lawn chair."
Nina motioned for Angie to follow her to the kitchen. Angie carried her salad, and she grabbed a lawn chair in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other.
Angie led the way across the street and down the block. Cars lined her end of the street where they'd been moved to make space for the food tables.
Angie's soon-to-be stepdaughter, Carly, played on their front lawn with three other children. One girl, Nina suspected, was the niece of the single guy she'd heard about. It was probably that information which had discouraged her from attending the event.
When she'd first met Angie and admitted she was divorced, Angie had mentioned the single man who was caring for his young niece. Nina sensed an ulterior motive, and any reference to matchmaking stopped her cold. She'd had enough of men. Todd had walked out of their marriage at the worst time in her life without an apology or even an attempt to offer a sensible explanation. She had to provide one for herself. And she didn't like what she'd come up with.
"You can put your food down there on the tables." Angie pointed toward a row of long tables behind the sawhorses. "We'll be eating soon."
Following Angie's direction, she worked her way around the lawn chairs, giving a nod to those she hadn't met. When she found a spot for her pasta salad and shifted items to make room for her cookies, an elderly gentleman appeared beside her. "You've made a friend today, neighbor."
She looked up and couldn't help but smile, a real smile, at the man's glinting eyes and friendly greeting.
He extended his hand. "Everyone calls me El."
"El must stand for something." She grasped his palm.
"Elwood Barnes." His eyebrows lifted. "And you are...besides being the lady who brought cookies?"
"Nina Jerome. Everyone calls me Nina." She chuckled, captured by the smile in his eyes. For the first time since she'd moved, she felt comfortable with a stranger. "I also brought a pasta salad." She pointed toward the selection of dishes. "With olives and red peppers on top."
"I'll be sure and try some." He motioned toward a man sitting alone on a lawn chair. "Come meet my neighbor across the street."
While he steered her closer, she tensed, suspecting she was about to meet the single man on the block. He was good-looking with light brown hair and one of those five o'clock shadows that gave him an attractive rugged look, yet he appeared bored, as if someone forced him to join the party. She almost chuckled, aware of the similarity to her attitude.
"Doug, this is another new neighbor, Nina." El shifted his focus. "Jerome, is it?"
Doug rose and jammed his hands into his pockets, his expression polite but stoic.
She eyed him without making a move.
"Nina, Doug Billings and little Kimmy over there." El pivoted and motioned toward the children. "They moved here a month or so before you did if my old brain recalls."
Doug glanced toward the children. "I'm sort of caring for my niece."
She pressed her lips together, hoping not to laugh. "Sort of caring?"
He shook his head, as if waking from a bad dream and finally looked at her. "I do my best."
He looked more uncomfortable than she felt. "Nice to meet you, Doug." She detested the meaningless phrase. "I'll head back before Angie thinks I ran off. Thanks, El, for introducing yourself and for... " She motioned toward Doug. "I'm sure I'll see you both around." She strode away, monitoring her legs to keep from running.
Avoiding meeting people had become a new problem. Though never outgoing, she knew how to be civil and welcoming. And she liked El. He was a sweet grandpatype.
"There you are." Angie looked at her, a hint of coyness in her grin.
Nina grasped her lawn chair and pulled it open. "El is a real gentleman. He introduced himself." She slipped into the chair.
"He is." She arched a brow. "Meet anyone else?"
The telltale look on Angie's face gave her away, and Nina squirmed. "You must have seen El introduce me to Doug Billings."
Angie grinned. "I wondered where you'd gone so long, and then I noticed you with him."
"He's worse than I am, Angie. Either he's very shy or he's preoccupied."
Angie shrugged. "I suppose he's worried about his sister. It has to be hard on Kimmy to be away from her mom so long. It's already been over a month. I think Doug had planned to watch her for a week or so while his sister and her friend went on a trip, and then the accident happened. Now she can't travel or do much for herself with her injuries. Two broken legs plus he mentioned something about a torn retina."
Nina shook her head, unable to imagine what it would be like in that situation and stranded from her child.
Stranded from her child. She felt that way at times. Having a physician tell her she could never carry a child to term and, in fact, might never get pregnant again sliced through every nerve. Her husband's lack of compassion, his turning his back on her and walking away at a time she needed his love, had destroyed her trust and hope of being a wife, let alone a mother.
She jerked her head upward. "Sorry. I was empathizing with Doug and his sister, I guess." She shifted her gaze, wanting to drop the topic. "The kids seem to be having tons of fun."
Angie nodded. "I hate to stop them." She motioned toward the tables. "But it's nearly time to eat." She swung back, a question in her eyes. "Did you receive your wedding invitation?"
"I did. Thank you." Envy stabbed at her heart. "Sorry. I should have mentioned it."
"No need to apologize. A cousin called a couple days ago and said hers hadn't arrived. I know I sent it so I'm a bit antsy now."
"It was most likely a fluke, Angie. Mine came three weeks ago. I wouldn't miss the wedding. Carly's your flower girl, right?"
A glow filled Angie's face. "She is, and she'll look beautiful. I adore that little girl."
"I know you do." She swallowed. "I'm ashamed to say that sometimes I envy you."
"Why? It could be you one day, Nina. Love happens even when you least expect it, and it covers all the flaws and fears we've carried into our lives. Everything worthwhile deserves a second chance."
Angie's words sank in, and though she loved the idea, it seemed impossible. "You might be right." She scrutinized the tables overflowing with casseroles and platters. "I think you're definitely right about the food. I see people heading that way."
Angie looked again. "Then we should round up everyone, I suppose."
"Can I help?"
"I was thinking about inviting El to sit with us." Angie gestured toward his house. "Do you mind asking him?"
"Not at all." She bounded from the chair and retraced her steps toward El's front yard. As she approached, Doug crossed the street with a dish, set it on the table and approached her.
"Hi." He gave her a hangdog look. "I'm afraid I hadn't been very welcoming when Mr. Barnes introduced us." He tucked his hands into his pockets again.
Was that a nervous habit or a way of binding his hands to keep them out of mischief? She grimaced at her thought. "You're forgiven. What's in your dish?"
A faint grin curved his full lips and she spotted a different side of him emerging. "Baked beans. You know. I open a can, pour them into a casserole, add a dash of Worcestershire sauce, dice up onions and cocktail wieners and bake. It's one of my limited bachelor dishes."
Her pulse skipped, wondering how this nice-looking man escaped getting caught up in wedding bells. She often wished she'd made a wiser choice. "I don't think marriage is for everyone."
His eyes narrowed slightly until he shrugged. "Maybe, but in my case life got in the way, I suppose."
Digesting his words, she realized life had got in her way, too. "And you have Kimmy to care for. You must be a special uncle."
"Not really. Love motivates." He looked downward as if embarrassed. "Speaking of Kimmy, I hope she's at Angie's. I forgot the beans and went inside for a few minutes." He shrugged.
"She was playing ringtoss in the front yard."
He craned his neck to check for himself. "She's in good hands. When you go back would you ask her to come home? It looks about time to eat."
"Sure will." She turned toward El, noticing he had a card table sitting with two chairs on his front lawn.
El smiled as she arrived.
"Angie asked me to invite you down to her table to eat." He gave her a wink. "Tell her thanks, but I've already made plans with Birdie. Angie'll understand."
He grinned as if she were in on a joke.
"Okay, I'll tell her. See you later." She headed back to Angie's, curious about El's sudden friendship to Birdie.
When she told Angie, her eyes widened like a full moon. "You are kidding."
"No. He said you'd understand." She anticipated an explanation, but Angie only stared at her with her mouth agape.
Finally Angie chuckled. "Birdie has been one of those neighbors everyone's tried to ignore." She released a long breath. "But you realize El has a loving heart. One day, he asked me to befriend her because he suspected part of her problem was loneliness."
"He asked you?"
"Me." Angie rolled her eyes.
"I'm not sure since I was the one who called her a gossip. I felt ashamed, but I did it because he asked. I baked cookies, of all things, and went to visit, but she wasn't home. I praised the Lord for the reprieve."
Nina couldn't help her chuckle. "And then what?"
"Birdie appeared at my door a couple days later saying she'd heard I'd been snooping around. When I told her why I'd come, she actually apologized in her own way, and softened a bit. She even had a bounce to her step when she left." She lifted her shoulders. "Maybe she's been thinking about her behavior and realizes she's chasing people away rather than making friends. I have no idea but something happened."
"Good for you."
"Have you met Rema?"
Nina checked the direction of Angie's gaze and spotted a woman heading their way. "No, I don't think so."
"Then it's time you two meet." Angie flagged her over. "I thought you were missing the party?"
"No, I goofed. I thought my casserole was warming in the oven." She shook her head. "But I'd forgotten to turn it on." She lifted the cover. "I hope I'm not too late."
"People have just begun to eat." Angie motioned toward Nina. "Rema, I don't think you officially met Nina Jerome."
Nina extended her hand, and then recalled Rema was holding a heavy casserole so she let her hand drop. "I'm glad to meet you."
Angie rested her hand on Rema's shoulder. "If you have no other plans, please join us. We have lots of room here." She motioned to the picnic bench and the long table she'd butted up next to it.
"No plans. I'm just being neighborly." She gave a shrug. "Thanks for the invitation." She tilted her head toward the food. "I'd better get this to the table before everyone's eaten." She turned and hurried down the street.
Nina eyed the food line and spotted Doug standing alone in front of his house. A lonely feeling crept through her. She'd been doing the same thing since Todd had turned his back on her. Alone. Her memory kicked in, and she snapped her finger. "Doug asked me to tell Kimmy to go home so she can eat."
Angie eyed the line and then turned toward Rick. "Time to eat." She pointed down the street.
Carly bounded across the grass with Kimmy on her heels. "Can Kimmy eat with us? We have room." She gestured to the long folding table.
Angie looked down the road. "Kimmy, you need to ask your uncle Doug first. If he says yes, tell him we have plenty of room at our table and he's invited, too. I don't want him eating alone. Okay?"
Kimmy nodded, and Carly jumped in on the task.
Angie grinned. "Okay, you can both go, but wait down there. We're going to get in line, too."
"I'll go with them." Before Angie responded, Nina followed behind the children. As she neared Doug, she scrutinized him in a way she hadn't before. When they met earlier, she'd noticed his good looks but not his physique. He had to be nearly six feet with a lean waist and a great set of shoulders. She liked his executive haircut that seemed to have a mind of its own.
Doug stood as she neared, and she hoped he hadn't noticed her steady gaze. By the time she arrived, the girls had already given him the invitation.
"I'm sorry, Doug. I almost forgot to deliver your message, but here she is." She chuckled, hoping he would smile. "You might as well join us."
He hesitated, a thoughtful expression growing.
"I'm sitting with them, too. Makes it more of a party."
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