Once Bitten, Twice Shy (Chapter One, page 1 of 13)

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Carmen Pulock hunkered down into her heavy chore coat and scooted her chair closer to the potbellied stove. The wooden chair legs grated against the rough hardwood floor, echoing off the bare walls of her sparsely furnished living room. She clamped a rubber booted foot over a new knothole in the floor. Another place for a tin can lid. Not that it could keep the cold outside. The frigid air would simply sneak under the house and ooze up through the cracks in the floor. A rug would help, but it wouldn't stop the wind from climbing the insulationless walls or seeping through the gaps around the mopboards. Winters in Northwest Arkansas were usually mild, but this was the coldest in her memory.

"Happy Birthday," she muttered bitterly. Nothing seemed to be working out lately. Not the dairy, and certainly not her love life.

The stove popped an angry protest about the growing flames and she flinched. The cantankerous old piece of junk. It would be another hour before the room was warm enough to hide her breath. Meanwhile, the wind whistled around the eaves and rattled the plastic covering on the windows, persistently seeking a port of entry. The ancient farmhouse needed repair - or a demolition crew. Neither of which she could afford. The house and eighty wild acres of Arkansas hills and hollows she had recently inherited represented her total wealth. Well, almost. But every dime spent on the house meant that much less she could invest in the dairy - and the dairy was the one thing that stood a chance of stimulating her anemic savings account. If the dairy didn't prove profitable, she would have to go back to Wal-Mart. Working for someone else wasn't her idea of a career. Besides, if the dairy went belly up, it would please Josh too much.

A door slammed down the hall and Katie sprinted into the room, hugging herself. Her words were barely comprehensible through chattering teeth as she leaned over the stove.

"Wh. . .en d. . d. . id it . . t go out?

"Huh? Oh, the stove?" Carmen made a face. "I don't know. I was so tired last night I didn't even wake up to add wood. I had to break an icicle off my lip this morning when I woke up."

Katie giggled. "Only you would think of such a thing." Blue eyes sparkled like sapphires in her round face, and a dimple danced at the corner of her generous mouth. She leaned down; peering through the soot smudged glass on the stove door. "It looks like it's starting to burn good." She straightened and spread plump hands out toward the stove. "Alex sure picked a fine time to visit, didn't he?"

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