Book Excerpt: Take a Chance on Me (Susan May Warren)

Here’s the beginning of Warren’s latest Deep Haven novel:

Chapter One

Ivy Madison would do just about anything to stay in the secluded, beautiful, innocent town of Deep Haven.

Even if she had to buy a man.

A bachelor, to be exact, although maybe not the one currently standing on the stage of the Deep Haven Emergency Services annual charity auction. He looked like a redneck from the woolly woods of northern Minnesota, with curly dark-blond hair, a skim of whiskers on his face, and a black T-shirt that read, Hug a logger—you’ll never go back to trees. Sure, he filled out his shirt and looked the part in a pair of ripped jeans and boots, but he wore just a little too much “Come and get me, girls,” in his smile.

The auctioneer on stage knew how to work his audience. He regularly called out names from the crowd to entice them to bid. And apparently the town of Deep Haven loved their firefighters, EMTs, and cops because the tiny VFW was packed, the waitresses running out orders of bacon cheeseburgers and hot wings to the bidding crowd.

After the show was over, a local band would take the stage. The auction was part of the summer solstice festival—the first of many summer celebrations Deep Haven hosted. Frankly it felt like the village dreamed up events to lure tourists, but Ivy counted it as her welcoming party.

Oh, how she loved this town. And she’d only lived here for roughly a day. Imagine how she’d love it by the end of the summer, after she’d spent three months learning the names of locals, investing herself into this lakeside hamlet.

Her days of hitching her measly worldly possessions—four hand-me-down suitcases; a loose cardboard box of pictures; a garbage bag containing The Elements of Legal Style, How to Argue and Win Every Time, and To Kill a Mockingbird; and most of all, her green vintage beach bike—onto the back of her red Nissan Pathfinder were over.

Time to put down roots. Make friends.

Okay, buying a friend didn’t exactly qualify, but the fact that her money would go to help the local emergency services seemed like a good cause. And if Ivy had learned anything growing up in foster care, it was that a person had to work the system to get what she wanted.

She should be unpacking; she started work in the morning. But how long would it take, really, to settle into the tiny, furnished efficiency apartment over the garage behind the Footstep of Heaven Bookstore? And with her new job as assistant county attorney, she expected to have plenty of free time. So when the twilight hues of evening had lured her into the romance of a walk along the shoreline of the Deep Haven harbor, she couldn’t stop herself.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a lazy walk, stopping at storefronts, reading the real estate ads pasted to the window of a local office.

Cute, two-bedroom log cabin on Poplar Lake. She could imagine the evergreen smell nudging her awake every morning, the twitter of cardinals and sparrows as she took her cup of coffee on the front porch.

Except she loved the bustle of the Deep Haven hamlet. Nestled on the north shore of Minnesota, two hours from the nearest hint of civilization, the fishing village–turned–tourist hideaway had enough charm to sweet-talk Ivy out of her Minneapolis duplex and make her dream big.

Dream of home, really. A place. Friends. Maybe even a dog. And here, in a town where everyone belonged, she would too.

She had wandered past the fudge and gift shop, past the walk-up window of World’s Best Donuts, where the smell of cake donuts nearly made her follow her sweet tooth inside. At the corner, the music drew her near to the VFW. Ford F-150s, Jeeps, and a handful of SUVs jammed the postage-size dirt parking lot.

She’d stopped at the entrance, reading the poster for today’s activities, then peered in through the windows. Beyond a wood-paneled bar and a host of long rectangular tables, a man stood on the stage, holding up a fishing pole.

And that’s when Deep Haven reached out and hooked her.

“Are you going in?”

She’d turned toward the voice and seen a tall, solidly built middle-aged man with dark hair, wearing a jean jacket. A blonde woman knit her hand into his.

“I . . .”

“C’mon in,” the woman said. “We promise not to bite. Well, except for Eli here. I make no promises with him.” She had smiled, winked, and Ivy could feel her heart gulp it whole. Oh, why had she never learned to tamp down her expectations? Life had taught her better.

Eli shook his head, gave the woman a fake growl. Turned to Ivy. “Listen, it’s for a good cause. Our fire department could use a new engine, and the EMS squad needs more training for their staff, what few there are. You don’t have to buy anything, but you might help drive up the bids.” He winked. “Don’t tell anyone I told you that, though.”

She laughed. “I’m Ivy Madison,” she said, too much enthusiasm in her voice. “Assistant county attorney.”

“Of course you are. I should have guessed. Eli and Noelle Hueston.” Noelle stuck out her hand. “Eli’s the former sheriff. Hence the fact that we’ve come with our checkbook. C’mon, I’ll tell you who to bid on.”

Who to bid on?

Ivy had followed them inside, taking a look around the crowded room. Pictures of soldiers hung in metal frames, along with listings of member names illuminated by neon bar signs. The smells of deep-fried buffalo wings, beer, and war camaraderie were embedded in the dark- paneled walls.

A line formed around the pool table near the back of the room—what looked like former glory-day athletes lined up with their beers or colas parked on the round tables. Two men threw darts into an electronic board.

Then her gaze hiccuped on a man sitting alone near the jukebox, sending a jolt of familiarity through her.

Jensen Atwood.

For a moment, she considered talking to him—not that he’d know her, but maybe she’d introduce herself, tell him, I’m the one who put together your amazing plea agreement. Yes, that had been a hot little bit of legalese. The kind that had eventually landed her right here, in her dream job, dream town.

But Noelle glanced back and nodded for Ivy to follow, so she trailed behind them to an open table.

“Every year, on the last night of the solstice festival, we have a charity auction. It’s gotten to be quite an event,” Noelle said, gesturing to a waitress. She came over and Eli ordered a basket of wings, a couple chocolate malts. Ivy asked for a Coke.

“What do they auction?”

“Oh, fishing gear. Boats. Snowblowers. Sometimes vacation time-shares in Cancún. Whatever people want to put up for charity. But this year, they have something special on the agenda.” Noelle leaned close, her eyes twinkling. Ivy already liked her. And the way Eli had her hand wrapped in his. What might it be like to be in love like that? That kind of love . . . well, Ivy had only so many wishes, and she’d flung them all at living here, in Deep Haven.

“What?” Ivy asked.

“They’re auctioning off the local bachelors.”

And as if on cue, that’s when the lumberjack bachelor had taken the stage. Ivy sipped her Coke, watching the frenzy.

“So are you going to bid?” Noelle asked.

Ivy raised a shoulder.

The lumberjack went for two hundred dollars, too rich for Ivy’s blood, to a woman wearing a moose antler headband. He flexed for her as he walked off stage, and the crowd erupted.

A clean-cut, handsome young man took the stage next, to the whoops of the younger crowd down front. “That’s my son,” Noelle said, clearly enjoying the spectacle. He seemed about nineteen or twenty, tall and wearing a University of Minnesota, Duluth, T-shirt. He was built like an athlete and had a swagger to match.
“He plays basketball for the UMD Bulldogs,” Noelle said. She placed the first bid and got a glare from the young man on stage.

A war started between factions in the front row. “Should I bid?” Ivy asked. Not that she would know what to do with a bachelor ten years younger than her. Maybe she could get him to mow her lawn.

“No. Save your money for Owen Christiansen.”

Probably another lumberjack from the woods, with a flannel shirt and the manners of a grizzly. Ivy affected a sort of smile.

“Maybe you’ve heard of him? He plays hockey for the Minnesota Wild.”

“No, sorry.”

“He’s something of a local celebrity. Played for our hometown team and then got picked up by the Wild right after high school.”

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

“Honey, you can’t live in Deep Haven and not be a hockey fan.” Noelle grinned, turning away as the wings arrived.

Ivy ignored the way the words found tender space and stabbed her in the chest. But see, she wanted to live in Deep Haven…

Noelle offered her a wing, but Ivy turned it down. “Owen’s parents, John and Ingrid Christiansen, run a resort about five miles out of town. It’s one of the legacy resorts—his great-grandfather settled here in the early nineteen hundreds and set up a logging camp. It eventually turned into one of the hot recreation spots on the north shore, although in today’s economy, they’re probably struggling along with the rest of the Deep Haven resorts. I’m sure Owen’s appearance on the program is a bid for some free publicity. Owen is the youngest son of the clan, one of six children. I’m sure you’ll meet them—all but two still live in Deep Haven.”

A redhead won the bachelor on stage and ran up to claim her purchase. Ivy escaped to the ladies’ room.

What if she did bid on Owen? Truly, the last thing she needed in her life was a real bachelor. Someone she might fall for, someone who could so easily break her heart.

Maybe she could ask said bachelor to show her around Deep Haven. Teach her about hockey. Certainly it might give her a little social clout to be seen with the town celebrity.

She could faintly hear the announcer stirring up the fervor for the next contestant, then a trickle of applause for the main attraction as he took the stage. She walked out, standing by the bar to survey this hometown hero.

They grew them big up here in the north woods. Indeed, he looked like a hockey champion, with those wide shoulders, muscular arms stretching the sleeves of his deep-green shirt that read Evergreen Resort—memories that live forever. He stood at ease like one might do in the military, wearing jeans that hugged his legs all the way down to the work boots on his feet. The man looked like an impenetrable fortress, not a hint of marketing in his face. So much for winning the
audience.

In fact, to use the only hockey term she knew, he looked like he’d just been checked hard into the boards and come up with some sort of permanent scowl, none too happy to be standing in the middle of the stage of the local VFW as the main attraction.

“C’mon, everyone, who will start the bidding for our Deep Haven bachelor tonight?”

Ivy looked around the room. It had hushed to a pin-drop silence, something not quite right simmering in the air. She glanced over to where Jensen Atwood had been sitting and found his seat vacant.

On stage, the man swallowed. Shifted. Pursed his lips. Oh, poor Owen. Her heart knocked her hard in the chest. She knew exactly what it felt like not to be wanted.

“One hundred dollars? Who has it tonight for our local hero?”

She scanned the room, saw patrons looking away as if embarrassed. Even Eli and Noelle had taken a sudden interest in their dinner.

Owen sighed and shook his head. And right then, the pain of the moment squeezed the words from Ivy’s chest. “Five hundred dollars!”

Every eye turned toward her, and for a moment, she had the crazy but horribly predictable urge to flee. But the words were out, so she took a step forward, toward the stage. “I bid five hundred dollars,” she said again, fighting the wobble in her voice.

Ivy shot a look at Noelle, expecting approval. But Noelle wore an expression of what she could only pinpoint as panic. Wasn’t she the one who’d suggested Ivy buy the man?

And then from the stage, she heard, “Well, that’s good enough for me! Sold, to the pretty lady in the white jacket. Miss, come up to the stage and claim your prize.”

Still, no one said a word—not a cheer, not a gasp, nothing. Ivy swallowed and met the eyes of the man on stage. “I’ll meet him by the bar,” she said, her voice small.

Owen looked as relieved as she was that they didn’t have to create some public spectacle. He moved off the stage and the auctioneer mercifully introduced the band. The men in back resumed their pool playing.

Ivy couldn’t help it. She edged over to Noelle. “What’s the matter? I know he looks a little rough around the edges, but—”

“That’s not Owen,” Noelle said, wiping her fingers with a napkin. She shot a glance past Ivy, possibly at the stranger she’d just purchased.

“What?”

“Owen couldn’t make it. That’s Darek Christiansen. His big brother.”

Ivy turned now, found her man weaving his way through the crowd. He didn’t stop to glad-hand anyone or even slap friends on the back.

In fact, it seemed she’d purchased the pariah of Deep Haven.

Noelle confirmed it. “Brace yourself, honey. You’ve just purchased the most ineligible eligible bachelor in town.”

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