Ruthie, Crafted with Love, book 7

Coming April 30, 2024

Chapter 1

Ruthie Gates looked at the hand extended to help her out of the car and hesitated. She needed a second to get her racing thoughts under control. If she’d ever wondered how Daniel felt before getting tossed to the lions, now she knew.

You’re being silly.

She gave the little voice in her head points for the obvious. There were no big furry cats waiting for her inside the restaurant. No angry pagan kings. Just her friends, but still…

A breeze sent a parade of crisp fall leaves dancing across the parking lot. The scent of a bonfire came with it and brought to mind memories of hayrides and pumpkin patches. The sight of the bright mums blooming in the planters on either side of the restaurant door intensified her nostalgia. Fall was her favorite time of year, and Elliott had made sure that this Saturday in mid-October would go on record as one of her all-time favorite days.


“What do you think?” Her voice was a breathless whisper.

Elliott crouched beside the open car door. “I think I love you.” He took her left hand in his and rubbed his thumb over the ring he’d placed on her finger an hour earlier.

“I love you, too,” she murmured.

“You can take it off for tonight if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ruthie’s hand fisted around the ring as she looked into the face of the man she’d given her heart to in 1970, lost in 1971, and found again in 2021. How could he still be so handsome enough, at seventy-one years old, that he made her heart flutter? “You aren’t getting this back that easily.” Chewing her lower lip, she looked at the brightly lit building where her friends had gathered to celebrate the opening of Oakleigh’s, Piper and Evan’s new restaurant. “I’d planned on introducing you to my friends tonight. I didn’t know I’d be introducing you as my fiancé.”

Elliott smiled the smile she’d fallen for all those years ago. “Well, if taking the ring off isn’t an option, let’s try something different. These people are your friends?”

“More like family.”

“Then they must love you almost as much as I do.”

Ruthie placed a hand along the soft, wrinkled skin of his jaw. “Almost.” The word carried the smile of a woman who knew she was treasured.

“Then they want you to be happy.” Elliott raised her hand to his lips and placed a kiss next to the ring. “Happy.”

The feel of his lips on her fingers did crazy things to her nerve endings. Happy didn’t begin to cover what she was feeling. It was all Ruthie could do not to pull his face down to hers for a kiss that would’ve made every one of her friends blush. Elliott didn’t seem to notice. His next action was to lower her hand and cover it as if the ring weren’t there. The frown on her face was immediate and sincere.

“Unhappy.” He grinned at her. “Seems pretty simple to me, but you’re the boss.”

Ruthie gave him a small push. “Let me out of the car.”

Elliott straightened and extended his hand a second time.

This time Ruthie didn’t hesitate. She climbed from the car, smoothed the skirt of her new red dress, and reached up to straighten Elliott’s tie. When Elliott pulled her hand through the bend of his arm, she stood on her tiptoes and brushed his cheek with a kiss. “Let’s go show these youngsters what true love looks like.”

His response was a wink and a smile, but it was the look in his eyes that had Ruthie’s heart threatening to thump out of her chest. Comparisons were pointless, but sometimes they came without conscious thought. She’d spent forty-plus years married to Simon Gates. He’d been her rock through the good and the bad, the ups and downs in their decades-long marriage and the raising of three kids. But honesty was as ingrained in Ruthie as her name. And if she were being honest, she had to admit that the first lightning bolt of attraction between her and Simon had given way to an occasional sparking contentment before dimming to the cozy warmth of a banked fire. She was smart enough, and old enough, to understand that that was the way of any long-term relationship.

Elliott had restored the sizzle of romance to her life, something she’d considered herself too old for a few short months before. She liked that she’d been wrong. She liked it a lot.

“Have I told you how lovely you look tonight? Red was always your color.”

The question jolted her out of her musing, and she leaned into him as they crossed the blacktop. “You clean up pretty nice yourself. I know I told you that a new suit wasn’t necessary, but it looks so good on you that I’m almost glad you ignored me. But don’t make a habit of it.”

Elliott chuckled and patted her hand. “Do you want me to share a secret?”

Ruthie paused and looked up at him. “By all means.”

“Meeting your children wasn’t as intimidating as tonight. You’ve talked so much about these women. I feel a bit like a teenage suitor meeting the parents for the first time.” He used his free hand to tug at the bottom of his jacket. “Consider this my suit of armor.” His hand moved to his hip and he stuck out his chest. “This will protect me from whispered disapproval and snide looks.”

“They’re going to be completely taken with you.”

They’re going to save all the comments, disapproving or otherwise, for the Monday morning meeting.

As Elliott reached for the door, she took a bracing breath and brushed away her worries. There would be questions come Monday morning, but they’d be friendly and supportive.

The door to Oakleigh’s swung open and the lights and noise of a party in progress spilled out into the night, shoving all of Ruthie’s concerns into the background. This evening was all about the company of her friends and the renewed thrill of having a man who loved her by her side.

“Come in.” Piper held her hand out to Ruthie and drew her across the threshold and into a hug. With her mouth pressed close to Ruthie’s ear, she whispered. “He gets an A for first impressions. He almost looks good enough to rival dinner.”

She released Ruthie, held her hand out to Elliott, and raised her voice a bit to compete with the sounds of friendly chatter and soft music. “Welcome to Oakleigh’s.”

Elliott took her hand. “Thank you for inviting me.” He touched a hand lightly to his chest. “Elliott Drake.”

“Nice to finally meet you, Elliott. I’m Piper Goodson.”

Elliott sent Piper a glowing smile. “Wife of the owner, new mother, grade school principal, aspiring writer—and you make crosses.”

“Wow.” Piper nodded, eyebrows raised, shooting Ruthie an I’m impressed look.

“I was fully briefed before this evening’s engagement.”

Piper’s laugh was one of sincere joy. “I can see that.” She released his hand. “We haven’t heard nearly enough about you, something we’re all looking forward to rectifying. I have to stay here and play hostess for a little longer. Y’all go mingle and check out the appetizers on the back table. Don’t overdo it though. Evan and his staff have an awesome menu planned for later.”

A clearing throat preceded a man’s words. “You camping here? I think I have a tent in the back of my truck.”

Ruthie looked over her shoulder and caught a cheeky smile from Valley View’s youth pastor, Easton Cramer. “Behave yourself.” But she moved her hand back to Elliott’s arm in preparation to move away from the entrance.

A quick intake of breath and the look on Piper’s face let Ruthie know that her friend had spotted the ring. She ignored the questions in Piper’s eyes. They were here to celebrate the restaurant. They’d get around to the ring.

They cleared the doorway, and Ruthie’s gaze roamed the room. Piper’s husband, Evan, chef and owner of Oakleigh’s, had created an inviting dining room with soft lighting and elegant touches. It was easy to see how the space would accommodate the casual lunch crowd as well as the more upscale dinner clientele he hoped to attract. If the food was as good as the décor, he might have a winner on his hands.

A good-natured “Get your own.” drew Ruthie’s gaze to the back corner of the room, where Ember Abbott stood with her husband, Quinn, next to Lacy and Cole Fields and Sage and Levi Tillis. Each one held a small plate of food, and there was much pointing, pilfering, and hand-smacking going on.

“Hungry?” Ruthie asked.

“I could eat,” Elliott answered.

She nodded in the direction of her friends. “Let’s go see what’s got them so excited, then we’ll visit the appetizer table.”

“I’m a big fan of reconnaissance. Lead on.”

Ruthie took his hand and led him into the fray. “Hey guys.” She allowed her gaze to roam the plates. “Whatcha got?”

Lacy looked up, wiped a spot of something from the corner of her mouth with a napkin, and rolled her eyes in apparent ecstasy. “Nothing now.” She glanced down at her empty plate. “But I’m about to correct that problem.” She smiled in Elliott’s direction. “What you got?”

Ruthie pulled Elliott a step closer. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Elliott Drake.” She swept her free hand to encompass the three couples. “Elliott, meet everyone.” Names and handshakes followed, and once Ruthie was confident that the group was properly sorted out, she motioned to the table. “Looks like Evan’s trying to spoil us. What’s good?”

“The dill crepes with the smoked salmon are my favorite so far,” Ember said.

Quinn held up an empty little metal skewer. “Those olive, cheese, and pepper things were really outstanding, as was the artichoke bruschetta, but that creamy dip with the pita chips…” He shook his head as if the food defied words.

“Baba Ganoush,” Ember supplied.

“Eggplant,” Lacy clarified.

“Now you’ve done it,” Sage hissed.

“What?” Lacy asked as Cole stepped away from the group.

Sage pointed to Levi, who was examining a loaded chip with a critical stare. “He hates eggplant, but that was his second helping. I was waiting to see if he went for a third before I told him what it was. I wanted him to like it because I love it.”

“Opps.” Lacy giggled.

Levi popped the chip into his mouth. Once he swallowed, he put his arm around Sage’s shoulders. “Sweetheart, you talk Evan out of the recipe and learn to make it as well as he does, and I’ll eat eggplant every day.”

Cole returned to his wife’s side, and Lacy glanced at his plate. “More?”

“They brought out a couple of new things. You know me. I’m an equal opportunity snacker.” Cole pointed to the items on his plate. “Cranberry pecan goat cheese truffles, pepper jelly brie bites, and Greek sushi.”

Lacy crossed her arms and gave her husband a disbelieving look. “You can identify those things?”

“I can now. Evan popped out to check on the table, and I asked him. I can also tell you that dinner will be served in thirty minutes.”

Easton, flanked by Maggie’s husband. Randy, and Holly’s husband, Riley, hurried by on their way to the food. Ruthie stopped them and introduced the men to Elliott.

“Where are Maggie and Holly?” she asked.

“Ladies’ room,” Randy said. “Holly said she wasn’t feeling well. Maggie went back with her.”

Ruthie turned to Riley. “Is she sick?”

Riley looked at his feet, and when he finally met her eyes, there was a guarded expression on his face.

“She’s fine, really. I’m sure she’ll be out in a minute.”

Unsatisfied with Riley’s vague answer, Ruthie pointed to the opposite corner of the room. “Over there?”

“Yeah, but—”

“I’m going to go check on her.”

“But, Maggie—”

“Elliott, go with the guys and fix us both a plate, would you? I’ll be right back.” She didn’t wait for him to answer before she hurried away.

“Would you look at that.” Ember’s words were a shocked whisper.

“Oh, my goodness,” Lacy breathed.

“What?” Sage asked.

When Ruthie looked over her shoulder, she saw her three friends huddled together and knew that the new ring was once again in the spotlight. She ignored the distraction. If Holly was sick, that was where she needed to be.

She pushed open the door to the ladies’ room, stepped inside, and found Maggie pacing the floor and wringing her hands.

“What’s—” The sound of someone being very sick cut across her words. A tiny groan filtered out from under the stall door. The miserable sound had Ruthie reaching for the handle.

Maggie stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Don’t. She’s OK.”

She turned. “You and Riley obviously have a different definition for that word than I do.” Ruthie faced the door again, but this time she spoke through it. “Holly, honey. Are you going to be all right? Can I get you something?”

“A handful of wet paper towels.” Holly’s voice was a scratchy whisper.

Maggie yanked towels from the dispenser, wet them, and handed them to Ruthie. Ruthie passed them under the stall door before she faced Maggie again. “What’s wrong with her?”

Maggie lifted her gaze to the ceiling. “Something she smelled upset her stomach.”

“Something she smelled…” Ruthie frowned. Why was everyone being so vague?

The stall door swung open, and a pale-as-a-sheet Holly stepped out. She tossed the bundle of wet paper towels in the trash and washed her hands. “Yeah, second time this week. I made stuffed green peppers for dinner the other night. I was sitting on the porch when Riley got home. He had to finish because I couldn’t stand to go back in the house until the fragrance dissipated.”

Ruthie tilted her head and stared at her friend. She might be almost seventy, but she remembered that feeling. “You’re pregnant.”

Holly’s face split with an excited grin. “But you can’t say anything to anybody. We just did the test today, and we didn’t plan to share the news yet.” She motioned to the world beyond the bathroom. “Sage is out there. Riley’s parents are going to be here soon. We don’t want our news to upstage Piper and Evan’s celebration.”

Ruthie remembered the ring on her finger and her own thoughts along those lines. With a sigh, she swallowed the last remnants of her secret and held her left hand up to the light. The stone shone in the glare of the bright makeup lights Evan had so thoughtfully installed over the three-sink counter.

Maggie and Holly both made a grab for her hand. Holly edged the other woman out by a nano-second. “Ruthie, when—?”

“Forget when,” Maggie said, wrestling Ruthie’s hand free for her own inspection. “When isn’t relevant. All that matters is this.” She pulled Ruthie into a hug. “Congratulations.”

Ruthie maintained the hug for a few seconds before stepping free and facing Holly. “Thanks, but the reason I made a point of showing you my ring is because I wanted you to know that I agree with your sentiment about tonight’s celebration. No matter how much our friends might celebrate my news, and yours, this night is for Evan and Piper. All of the others have seen it—well, except for Cami, she hadn’t arrived yet—but I’m not planning any engagement announcements tonight.”

“Monday morning?” Holly asked, referring to the weekly meeting of the Crafted with Love crafters.

“Works for me,” Ruthie said.

“That’s going to be an interesting meeting. I hope Ember doesn’t have any store business to share,” Maggie said.

“Are you good to go back out?” Ruthie asked.

Holly nodded. “As long as I stay away from the shrimp. I love them, so Riley brought me one of Evan’s Cajun shrimp bites to try. The spices were so strong, my stomach revolted.”

Ruthie put an arm around each of her friends’ shoulders. “Then let’s get back out there before they send in a search party.”


Plates in hand, Elliott decided to grab one of everything for both himself and Ruthie. It all looked so tasty, that he hated to miss anything. He made his way to the final platter just as the last three Cajun shrimp bites were nipped up by a bald, bearded guy in Levi’s and a western-cut sports coat.

The man turned and saw Elliott behind him. “Sorry, were you headed for these?”

“Yes, but,” Elliott lifted the two plates. “No worries. I think this should be enough to get us started.”

The other man held out a hand. “Benton Stillman.”

“Nice to meet you, Benton.” Elliott lifted the loaded plates a fraction higher. “We’ll have to shake later. I’m Elliott Drake.”

“New to the area?” Benton asked.

“As a matter of fact, I am. Why do you ask?”

“Just being neighborly. That, and you’re the only person in the room I couldn’t put a name to.”

“Visitor for now, but I’m hoping to buy a house up the road in Garfield in the near future.”

“Good to hear.” The man fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a card. He smiled at Elliott’s loaded hands and tucked it into the breast pocket of Elliott’s jacket. “Garfield is home to me and mine. I used to do a lot of construction around town. I’m mostly retired now, but I still have a few contacts. You call me when you’re ready to look at houses. I’d be happy to—”

“How long does it take to grab a piece of shrimp?” The question came from a petite blond woman. She took the plate from Benton, smiled at Elliott, frowned at the empty tray, and went back to a group of women.

Benton chuckled. “My wife, Callie.” He leaned closer as if imparting a secret. “She likes shrimp, but it’s the guacamole she’s really after. I swear the woman would bathe in it if she thought she could.” He straightened. “I guess I need to get back. Enjoy the shindig.”

Elliott watched as the man crossed to his wife’s side and plucked an uneaten shrimp from her plate. When the sound of a playful scolding reached Elliott’s ears, he grinned. He was good with first impressions and he’d liked Benton right away. Benton and Callie Stillman. He’d have to ask Ruthie about the couple.

Speaking of… Elliott looked around the room, trying to get a fix on his missing date. When he didn’t find her, he decided to take their plates to one of the tables in the center of the room. She’d find him when she finished doing what she was doing.

“Excuse me.”

Elliott looked up to see an attractive Asian woman standing beside him with a tray loaded with shrimp bites. He took a step to the side, deciding to wait for her to complete her mission before he found that seat. “By all means.”

The young woman made quick work of removing the empty tray and replacing it with the fresh one. She picked up the tongs, and instead of putting them with the shrimp, she offered them to Elliott.

He set the plates on the edge of the table and accepted the utensil. “Thank you.”

“Khong co gi,” She said as she turned back towards the kitchen.

Elliott’s feet froze. He’d heard that phrase before.

You’re welcome in Vietnamese. He hadn’t heard those words since…

His vision blurred, and the pleasant room melted away. The rough, muddy enclosure of a prison camp took its place. The delightful scents of the food morphed into the stench of body odor and dirt. Him and C.J. and Chuck. The three of them fighting to stay alive. The only bright spot in that hell hole had been little Mei’s kindness. A kindness that ultimately cost the young girl her life.

“Are you OK?”

Elliott blinked as reality and memory clashed. It took a second for the hand on his arm and the soft question to register. He took a deep breath and straightened out of a slump. Not Vietnam in 1973, but present-day Ashton, Oklahoma. He was safe despite the ghosts that plagued him.

He turned and found himself face to face with a pretty young woman dressed in a leather jacket and worn denim jeans.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

She gasped, staring at him as if searching for some long-lost object.”

“Cami, there you are.” Ruthie stepped to Elliott’s side, took one of the plates he still held, and put a hand on his arm. “I see you’ve met my friend.”

“Not yet.” Elliott forced his gaze away, shaking off the young woman’s intense stare. He held out his free hand. “Nice to meet you, Cami. I’m Elliott.”

The plate she held slipped to the floor, sending food and shards scattering. She turned on her heel and raced from the restaurant.

“Well, I never…” Ruthie exclaimed. “What got into that child?”

The room went quiet in the wake of Cami’s departure, and before anyone could rally enough to go after her, the sound of a motorcycle split the silence.

The echo of Cami’s screeching tires was all that remained.