Excerpt: Bluegrass Courtship | Kentucky Corners | Author Allie Pleiter

Excerpt: Bluegrass Courtship

Book 2: Kentucky Corners

Eight seconds.

Sometimes five, but never more than eight.

Drew Downing knew the world divided itself up into people who loved his television show, and people who hated it. After three seasons of Missionnovation, Drew could size up which side of that very thin line any one person stood. Always in under eight seconds after his trademark greeting of “God bless ‘ya and hello, Middleburg!”

He didn’t need the last five seconds this time not with the pretty face of that woman in overalls standing at the end of the paint aisle. It broadcast pure skepticism. Drew didn’t even need three seconds to tell him Bishop Hardware, while it was Middleburg’s only hardware store, would be no instant ally to his cause. “Hostiles,” his producer, Charlie Buchanan, called them. Sometimes you could win ’em over, most times no matter what you did they were just sure you had an angle. If the hostiles couldn’t find an angle, they never believed you just might not have one. It only meant you hid it well.

Middleburg, Kentucky was the perfect project for the season finale of Drew’s Missionnovation television renovation program. The tiny town’s church preschool had been smashed by one hundred-year-old tree during a summer storm. Toddlers had had to learn their primary colors in the YMCA gym because their preschool had been destroyed. The town had been holding bake sales to buy new roofs and spaghetti dinners to fund drywall. And now Missionnovation was here to help.

Some folks at least were glad of it. “My stars!” came a woman’s awestruck squeal from over by the gardening supplies. “It’s those Missionnovation folks! From TV! Pam, look! It’s him.”

“How may I help you?” The woman in overalls asked

Wow, Drew thought, I didn’t know you could make “How may I help you?” sound unfriendly. “Well, that’s just it,” he said, turning his gaze to the excited crowd that had pooled into the store behind him, “I’m here to ask you the same thing.”

Oh, sure, said the woman’s dark eyes. Drew could be in a sea of people thrilled to meet him, and the only thing he’d notice was the one person who was convinced he was on the take. The one person sure the “ministry makeover” Missionnovation offered was just too good to be true. Charlie was always giving him a hard time about his obsession to “win over the hostiles.”

A chubby older man grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously. “Mr. Downing, we sure are glad to see you and your team here. I’m the one who sent in the application.”

“Of course you are.” Drew recognized him from the application video and clasped one of the man’s shoulders. “And I’m glad you did. You must be Mayor Epson.”

“I am.” He beamed. A few of the locals patted him on the back. Watching the person who’d sent in the application get to be a hero never got old. That application process was long, complicated and demanded a lot of work. Getting to tell that person their persistence paid off, and their dream project would be realized, and on TV to boot, well that was the high-octane fuel that enabled Drew to pull as many all-nighters as he did.

“Howard Epson, life’s about to change. Your town’s about to get a shot in the arm like only Missionnovation can deliver. Are you up for it?”

These folks watched their Thursday night television. They knew what to do when Drew Downing asked “Are you up for it?” The tiny crowd yelled “We’re up for it!” so loud it echoed throughout the store. Two teenage girls grabbed a sheet of paint chip samples off the display next to them and held them out to Drew, asking for autographs. Out of the corner of his eye, Drew caught the lady in the overalls rolling her eyes.

“There’ll be plenty of time for that kind of stuff later, gals,” Drew said to the pair. “Right now we’ve got work ahead. You girls think you could convince your classmates to come on over? We need all the hands we can get on demolition day.”

“I suppose we can find a few friends,” they said. If they were in charge of bringing teens onto the set, Drew knew they’d be the most popular girls in school tomorrow.

“Then I’ll put you in charge of teen volunteers. You go see Annie in the bus and she’ll get you all set up with a box of T-shirts to give out as you sign folks up, okay?”

“Sure!” They bubbled up the aisle toward Annie, who’d be waiting in the bus as always.

“Mayor Epson, lead the way.”

“I’d be delighted!”

Drew turned back to the woman, who hadn’t moved from her spot at the end of the paint aisle. He noticed, for the first time, that the name on her Bishop Hardware name tag was Janet Bishop. Owner? Daughter of owner? Wife of owner? It was too soon to say. “We’ll be back later with a mighty long list,” he said, pointing right at her.

She looked unconvinced.

Why do hostiles always look unconvinced?

Vern Murphy shuffled up the aisle to stand beside Janet Bishop as she stared after the crowd now leaving Bishop Hardware.

“Don’t that beat all,” he said, scraping black grease from under his fingernails with the edge of a screwdriver. “He’s that TV guy, ain’t he? Should spice things up around here for a bit.”

“It’ll do something, that’s for sure.” Janet muttered, even though she could hear her father’s gravelly voice in the back of her mind saying “Jannybean, if you can’t say something nice”

Vern pointed at the green bus so big it blocked the entire storefront. It had Missionnovation across the side in large white letters. “They probably got all kinds of fancy-pants tools in there. You know, like the pneumatic doodads in those catalogues of yours. Might be worth watching. Sounds like they’ll be buying up a storm if nothing else, so business’ll be good.”

Buses full of tourists were fairly normal in Middleburg, Kentucky. It was a charming, rustic – okay, sometimes a little too rustic – town in the middle of horse country. The kind of town with one main street, Ballad Road, running down the center to comprise its “downtown.” A community where everybody knew everyone’s name and often everyone’s business. Not exactly thriving, but getting by on hard work and watching out for each other. Even so, the storm had hit lots of people hard, and the preschool damage had presented a big challenge. This tour bus, however, was more like a rolling subdivision than your average charter bus. People were already gathered around, talking, pointing, straining to see inside the tinted windows.

“Vern,” Janet sighed, “these people have corporate sponsors. Companies who donate everything so they get their stuff on TV. They’re not going to need much from us.” Janet replaced the can of primer someone had knocked off the shelf in their hurry to follow Downing.

“But he just said he’d be back with a long list,” Vern countered.

“A long list of requests, I’d guess. Those people think you’ll do anything to get on their show. That you’ll fall all over them and give them whatever they want. And we can’t afford to be a ‘corporate sponsor’ right now.” She headed back to her office, where she had three orders yet to fill. Actual business, resulting in actual income. She’d have to give Howard a piece of her mind the next time she saw him. He was always pulling stunts like this.

“Sounds like I’d better head on over to that bus and tell them all just what they’re dealing with in here,” Vern said. “We don’t stand for no Hollywood shenanigans.”

Ten minutes later, Janet looked up from her order forms to see a short, round-faced woman in a green button-down shirt and glasses standing in her doorway. “I’m Annie Michaels,” she said, extending a hand, “vice president of Shenanigan Prevention.”

“Um,” she stuttered, genuinely shocked that Vern had gone through with it, “I’m Janet Bishop.”

Annie cocked her head toward the doorway. “They don’t make ’em like Mr. Murphy anymore.”

“Vern?” Janet put down the calculator she’d been using and held out her hand. “No, he’s definitely one of a kind. Been working here since my dad bought the shop, which means he’s been at Bishop Hardware longer than I have.”

“He thinks pretty highly of you. He just gave me an earful about not pulling any fast ones on you. Said you’re too smart to fall for any of thatoh, how’d he put it? ‘Slick-o TV shenanigans y’all may be used to.'”

“Yep,” Janet chuckled, “that’d be our Vern.”

Annie pushed her glasses up into her wavy black hair. She had a sensible, friendly smile. “You got a minute?”

“I guess.” Janet swept the pile of bulb catalogues off the office’s other chair and motioned for her to sit down.

“I meant to come on board the bus,” Annie said, “I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’d like to go over with you, and I can bring it all out here, but”

But we’d rather deal with you on our turf.

“The sponsors give us so much free food, I’m always trying to share it. Honestly, if I eat one more box of chocolate chip cookies”

Chocolate chip cookies? Was Janet staring at good fortune or a great background check that they knew her weakness for chocolate chip cookies? Her stomach growled, as if to say it wouldn’t quibble much either way. “Well, okay.” It wasn’ t as if there’d be many customers. Everyone in town would probably be at the church preschool by now anyway.

The bus doors folded open with a whoosh, and Annie motioned for Janet to step inside. As she walked up the steep stairs, Janet noticed a hand-carved sign hung over the entryway. Home Green Home, it read.

“Drew made that one weekend when it was pouring rain and we were all beyond thankful to have a warm, dry place to sleep. He started calling the bus ‘Home Green Home’ after that, and it stuck. Granted, though, some days this bus feels less homey than others.” Annie shot Janet a look as she turned toward the bus’s center table. The bus was high-end; sleek and well-appointed with all kinds of comforts like a microwave, several televisions and plush furnishings. It also had a chaotic, slightly messy feel to it, as papers and videotapes and a few boxes of T-shirts were parked on every available surface. The table, however, was clear and neatly arranged. “Some days a corporate cubicle looks like a positive vacation. Drew’s nonstop creativity can be well, nonstop. But most days this is an amazing job and I thank God for the chances I’ve got.”

Well, thought Janet, you knew they’d get to the God part sometime.

As Janet sat down, Annie reached up into a cabinet that was top-to-bottom chocolate chip cookie boxes. And not just any chocolate chip cookie, either. Delicious Dave’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, pretty much the finest stuff on the planet.

She’d forgotten that Missionnovation had Dave’s as one of their sponsors. Every show ended with a parting shot of the whole design team sitting down to milk and cookies with whatever congregation they’d just saved. It was the kind of heavily wholesome scene that made Janet dislike the show, even though her mother watched it every Thursday night she happened to be over for dinner.

“I hope you know your hardware as well as you know your cookies,” Annie said as she placed an opened Dave’s box on the table and flipped open a thick file of lists. “Drew can come up with some pretty unusual requests.” She pulled her glasses out of her hair and put them back on. “Do you want us to just purchase whatever stock you’ve got, or do you want us to place our special orders through you, too?”

Janet froze with the cookie halfway to her mouth. “You’re going to buy your supplies through me?”

Annie looked surprised. “You don’t want us to?”

“I’m” Janet hid her astonishment behind a mouthful of cookie. “I just figured you guys got your stuff through Home Base.” The hardware megastore chain was one of Missionnovation’s major sponsors.

“Well, we do loads of business with them, that’s true, but we also try to do as much local business as we can.”

Annie popped up off her chair and filled a mug from the coffeemaker behind her. Janet noticed a bank of electronic equipment, walkie-talkies, headphones, video-cameras and several machines she couldn’t recognize on a shelf over Annie’s head. The woman hoisted her cup Janet’s way in a “want some?” gesture, but Janet shook her head. She had never really been the coffee-after-breakfast type. “And, in answer to your question, yes,” Annie said as she turned back toward the counter to add a big swig of creamer to her cup. “He really is like that.”

“Like what?” Janet hadn’t asked a question. Out loud, that is.

“Like what you see on TV. The thing nobody seems able to figure out is that Missionnovation is exactly what it looks like. There’s no hype or gimmick. Drew and Charlie, that’d be Charlie Buchanan, our producer, just hit on one of those great ideas where everybody wins.” Annie sat back down, and Janet wanted to gulp. Had her suspicions been that apparent? “This is a first-class, faith-filled, high-integrity operation, Janet. If you have any problems, even the tiniest one, you come straight to Drew or me, okay?”

I don’t know the first thing about you except what I see on TV that hardly seems enough to go on. Janet stared at the long lists in Annie’s hands. The first page alone had more orders on it than Janet had seen all month. The first file – and there were six – probably doubled all the sales ledgers sitting in her office. If what this Annie said was true, then Bishop Hardware might not have a “slow season” this fall. And that would make a world of difference. Slowly, Janet nodded. “I’d be a fool not to take you up on it.”

“Good. I’m glad we got that out of the way. We’re the real deal, Janet.” Annie dunked a cookie into her coffee. “And you can take that to the bank. We’ll try never to give you a reason to worry.”

They were just going over the third file when a noise rose up outside the bus and the doors pushed open.

“Annie,” came Drew Downing’s voice over the crowd, “we got our octopus!”

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