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Love by the Numbers

By Laura V. Hilton

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Chapter 1

He was gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.
Lydia Hershberger leaned around the cash register and picked up the glassful of spilled hard candy sticks. Aentie Judith’s kitten knocked over as she dashed past. She half-paid attention to arranging the candy. Her focus was fixed on him. She tried not to gawk but...
Wow. He was hot.
Tall. Sandy blond hair. Milk chocolate brown eyes. Clean-shaven.
He removed his straw hat as the door closed behind him, then glanced around the gift store. As his gaze moved in her direction, she quickly looked away. Wouldn’t do to be caught staring.
But she couldn’t resist a peek back.
He seemed to freeze when his gaze caught hers. Or hers caught his. Held it.
And… He scowled.
What?
This man, one she didn’t even know, glared at her? She had the right to be behind the counter of Aenti Judith’s gift shop while she was in, um, wherever she was, on a mission trip. Any other time, she could’ve spouted the information without thought. But not while she stared into the most incredible milk chocolaty eyes ever.
Were there any leftover solid chocolate Easter bunnies in the store? She needed one. Now. She glanced toward the clearance rack, but it was devoid of candy of any type.
Her gaze snapped back to him.
“You.” His voice emerged as a growl.
And how exactly was she supposed to respond to that? Flirty? Maybe it’d work to tease him out of whatever foul mood he seemed to be in. She grinned and let her gaze skim over him. As if she was interested. Well, she was. Had been. Past tense. She didn’t need to get involved with a jerk. Or anyone. “Have we met?”
The answer seemed to be a resounding nein, because surely she would’ve remembered if she’d ever seen him before.
His reply was a noncommittal grunt.
Okay, then. She fought the urge to giggle, though it bubbled up and almost smothered her when she tried to restrain it. She tried to remember Aenti Judith’s hurried advice about handing difficult customers as they hugged hello and gut-bye at the bus station on Thursday evening, but nothing came to mind. Except smile a lot. Ach, and the customer was always right.
Maybe she should take the time to read the notebook pages of handwritten notes Aenti Judith had left in the apartment. But written pages of instructions ranked up there with math. Rules. Ugh. And the very thought of reading Aenti Judith’s cramped handwriting full of boring rules overwhelmed her. “How may I help you?”
“I’m supposed to do the books for Judith Zook while she and her husband are in Papua New Guinea. Her niece is running the store in her abs… Ach, nein. Nein.” He grimaced as if he’d just caught a whiff of a skunk. As if she offended him. As if doing the bookkeeping for her was a bad thing. Did he see her as incompetent?
Okay, maybe she was. After all, Daed had written his sister, warning her that Lydia didn’t have the strongest math skills, but Lydia had assured them she could handle it. Still, Aenti Judith had mentioned she’d try to find someone who’d come in to make the daily deposits and monthly payments to her vendors. To handle the books.
Try being the operating word. She hadn’t mentioned she’d found someone. Unless she’d written it in the notes.
But Lydia was still getting used to the layout of the store. It was her first day, after all.
“You’re the niece.”
“Imagine that.” Lydia hoped she didn’t sound too wry. This was Aenti Judith’s accountant. She wouldn’t snark off to him. She couldn’t. She needed to keep him around during the six months Aenti Judith would be away.
But she wanted to. What was it about this man that had her wanting to bare her claws?
He straightened, dropped one of his hands from his hat, and let the other fall to his side. He slapped the hat against his hip, twice, then forced a smile, revealing what looked like vampire teeth. She blinked and looked again. Jah. Vampire teeth.
Weird. Creepy. Jerk.
So much for gorgeous. Okay, teeth and personality aside, he was still drop-dead handsome.
The man cleared his throat. “I stopped by to introduce myself since I didn’t get to church this past Sunday. But… we’ve already met.”
Nope. She would’ve remembered.
“Abigail and Sam’s wedding in December.” He filled in the blank. “I came in late. Sat by my cousin, Bethany.”
December? She’d been the out-of-state wedding guest come to support her best friend, Abigail. Lydia had been overwhelmed meeting so many people in Abigail’s new home… But then just before the singing that evening, she’d also received the unbelievable news that her beau, Peter Fisher, who was home in Ohio at the time, had been killed in a freak accident. Hit by lightning, in December, of all things. Nein wonder she hadn’t remembered this man. She’d been in shock, completely disbelieving everything she’d been told by a well-meaning preacher.
“Caleb Bontrager.” He started to extend his hand, then frowned and withdrew it before she had a chance to react. “Your aenti asked me to handle the books for you.”
So he’d said. Lydia nodded. “She mentioned she’d try to find someone. I guess I assumed if she did find someone, then you’d come in the evening, at closing.” Which—she glanced at the wall clock—was now. Almost. About a minute before five.
The hands on the clock made a jerky movement and it chimed five times.
She really needed to read Aenti Judith’s notes to see what else she needed to know.
“I was in town. Thought to… well, as I said, introduce myself. Need any help before I close out the register and make the deposit?”
She wrinkled her nose at the way he talked down to her, as if she was incapable of running the store by herself like she’s done all day so far. Jah, Lydia can do math. If she has to. She rolled her eyes.
Lydia shook her head and came out from behind the counter. He eyed her warily and sidestepped as she skirted around him and flipped the sign from open to closed, then locked the door.
What, did he think she’d attack him? He was the one with the vampire teeth.
“She gave me a set of keys, so I shouldn’t have to bother you again, unless I have a question.”
That’d be gut.
He moved behind the counter, sat on the stool, and opened the cash register.
She could ignore him while she was there and—since he had the keys—never have to see him again. Or at least rarely. A blessing, both to not have to see him, and that she didn’t have to do the math.
She straightened the shelves, putting things back where they belonged. Cards, hand-crafted items, quilted potholders and baby blankets, handmade dolls in Amish clothing, candles, jams and jellies… The English tourists were always setting down one item whenever they found something new to take home as a souvenir.
But her focus was on the annoying man behind the counter. The one Aenti Judith must’ve arranged to handle the bookkeeping after Lydia had admitted she wasn’t sure how she’d do. Math gave her a headache. But she’d promised Aenti Judith that she would try her best.
Apparently, she wasn’t even going to be given the opportunity to try.
Guess Aenti didn’t believe her and arranged for this grump to do it instead.
Which was the lesser of two evils: a math-induced headache, or a tension headache caused by the presence of an infuriating male to whom she was irresistibly attracted? Either way, a trip to the medicine cabinet appeared to be inevitable.
Gott, I have a disagreement with the agreement Aenti Judith made with Caleb that I never agreed to.
When Aunti mentioned the possibility of finding an accountant, Lydia pictured some gray-haired man with glasses perched on his nose. Not a handsome man with vampire teeth…as if he’s hoping to suck the life out of her personality and her aunt’s store.

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