Excerpt: Christmas in Harmony Harbor

CHAPTER 1

A power outage on Black Friday was the last thing Evangeline Christmas needed. As the owner of Holiday House, a year-round Christmas store located in the town of Harmony Harbor, Massachusetts, Evie had been planning for this day for months.

She’d scrimped and she’d saved and she’d begged and she’d borrowed (from her tight-fisted mother), pouring every nickel and dime into making this the biggest kickoff to the Christmas season yet. She’d spent more on advertising for this weekend than she had for the past year’s holidays combined.

She wasn’t alone. Her fellow shop owners along Main Street were also pulling out all the stops to get customers through their doors and turning over their credit cards once they had them there. Although Evie more than anyone needed those customers today. Her entire future hung in the balance. She wasn’t being a drama queen or a Negative Nancy.

Evie was a thirty-year-old woman who typically saw her glass as half-full rather than half-empty. But after the week she’d had, her optimism was flagging. Now standing in the dark an hour before customers should be clamoring to get into her store, that glass was bone dry.

If only she could pick up the phone and call her dad. He’d had a way of making everything better. She could practically hear him in her head. There’s always tomorrow, Snugglebug.

“I wish that were true, Daddy,” she murmured, her fear of the dark causing her heart to race as she blindly edged her way past the display tables to the sales counter with only the light on her cell phone to guide her. She caught movement near the front window and whipped around to confront the shadow in the corner.

Show no fear. Show no fear, she repeated in her head with more force, as if that would vanquish the panicked emotion freezing her to the floor. She pictured herself in combat boots instead of the Naughty and Nice knitted booties she wore and with a fierce, don’t-mess-with-me expression on her face. She held up her cell phone. “You better get out of here. You’ve got two minutes before the police arrive.”

Hoping to blind her would-be assailant, she aimed the light where she guessed his eyes would be. It hit him dead-on, right in his painted black eyes that didn’t blink. A small, mortified groan escaped from her. She had nothing to fear from the blow-up Santa Claus.

She wished her fears for Holiday House’s future were also in her head, but they weren’t. Three days before, her circumstances had become as dire as George Bailey’s in It’s a Wonderful Life. Just like poor old George and the savings and loan, she had a conniving schemer trying to bring her down—billionaire developer Caine Elliot.

His glass-and-steel office tower would not only destroy the sea-faring charm of Main Street, but the national discount chains destined to be housed in the tower’s street level would put the future of Harmony Harbor’s mom-and-pop shops at risk.

With some help from Harmony Harbor’s Business Association and some really good friends, Evie had managed to stall the development of the three empty lots beside hers for more than a year. But this past Tuesday, she’d learned Holiday House was in imminent danger.

Harmony Harbor’s town council would vote on Monday whether or not to take her land to accommodate the parking spaces required by a long-forgotten bylaw for a development the size of the office tower. A bylaw she herself had brought to the town council’s attention in a last-ditch effort to quash the development.

“And look how that worked out for you,” she said as she tried first the landline and then the credit-debit machine on the counter, neither of which worked.

Turn your frown upside down and sit a spell, Snugglebug. Let those endorphins do their work. You’ll have your answer in no time.

Despite feeling like the dark cloud hanging over her was about to burst and bury her under a mountain of debt, Evie couldn’t help but smile at her dad’s favorite refrain. Taking his advice, she lowered herself onto the stool behind the counter, once again wishing he was a phone call away. He’d know what to do. He always had.

If wishes were horses. . . The cell phone’s light glinted off the tarnished gold cash register. It was almost as old as Holiday House. At least she’d be able to ring sales through and accept cash, she thought, giving the antique register a grateful pat and her dad a silent thank-you.

She glanced over her shoulder at the three generations of her father’s family looking at her from the framed photos on the wall. Each of them had successfully run the store before her. She wondered what they would have done had they found themselves in her position.

“They wouldn’t have been in your position. The three stores beside you wouldn’t have burned down, leaving the lots ripe for development. And Caine Elliot wouldn’t have been born.” The reminder helped, she thought, getting up from the stool on a wave of determination. It wasn’t entirely her fault she was days away from losing a business that had been in the Christmas family for a century.

Chewing the peppermint-flavored ChapStick off her bottom lip, she moved the light on her cell phone to the stairs leading to the second level. A red brick three-story with classic wood beams and plaster interior, Holiday House had been the family home before her great-great- grandparents had turned the front rooms on the main floor into a Christmas store. The wooden Christmas ornaments her great-great-grandfather made back then had been the biggest draw.

Last year, Evie had taken up residence in the attic, converting three of the second-floor bedrooms into showrooms for the other popular holidays. If she roped off the stairs and found a way to light up the main floor, at least customers could shop in relative safety.

She bent to open the cupboard under the sales counter, moved aside two boxes of bags, and found a flashlight. A lone flashlight and cell phone wouldn’t do the trick, but the fieldstone fireplace across the room would help . . . Candles too. Lots of them. She’d have time to make more to fill the orders, especially if . . . No, she wouldn’t lose hope. She couldn’t.

All she had to do was walk into Monday’s town council meeting with a sack full of this weekend’s sales receipts and the testimonials she hoped to wrangle from customers to prove that Holiday House was an integral part of the community, a much-loved piece of their history that they couldn’t allow Caine Elliot to destroy for his modern-day eyesore.

She forced her lips into another smile in hopes the action would release a bunch of stress-reducing endorphins. Then again, there probably weren’t enough endorphins in all of Harmony Harbor to reduce her level of stress. It was Caine Elliot’s fault.

Almost a year ago to the day she’d picked up the phone and a velvet-smooth deep voice had come over the line. As annoying as it was to admit now, she’d initially been seduced by his dreamy Irish accent. She’d even begun to fantasize about the man behind the voice. A lovely, mildly erotic fantasy that had been rudely interrupted as soon as Caine Elliot got the social niceties out of the way.

She didn’t care about his statistics and facts, his company’s success, or his many business degrees. No matter that he presented his development as the best thing to happen to Harmony Harbor since the advent of electric lights, she knew exactly what would happen to the small town she loved if no one stood up to him.

At the time of that first call from the Ogre of Wicklow Developments, Evie had been running Holiday House for only two months. But she had a long history with the small town. Every year, she and her dad would leave her mom and the sweltering heat of New York to stay with Evie’s great-aunt Noelle and help out at Holiday House for the entire month of August.

They’d visit in the fall and winter too, but it was the month-long summer stays that Evie treasured most as they readied the store for the holiday season. Some of her best memories had taken place in Holiday House.

She’d felt safest here, happiest here, and no way was she letting some hot-shot developer steal that from her or anyone else, which she’d told him that day. And he’d told her she was allowing her emotions to color her decision and that sentimentality had no place in business. The call had devolved after that as emotions got heated. Her emotions at least. As far as she could tell, Caine Elliot didn’t have any. The man was coolly unflappable and arrogant. Their conversations over the last year had only served to validate her initial opinion of the man.

“Okay, enough. Time to get this show on the road.” Her voice sounded odd, higher-pitched than usual. She kept talking to herself anyway. She needed the distraction as she made her way around the tables and out of the shop, heading for the storage room and boxes of candles. “Only an hour until the doors open and all those Christmas-loving customers pile . . .” She trailed off as the darkness swallowed her whole.

Her It’s okay. You’re okay. There’s no one here but you and Santa Claus was interrupted by a rap on glass from the front of the store and her friend Mackenzie’s voice calling to her through the door. Evie ran from the back hall into the main room, almost knocking over a display table.

Relieved to hear dull thuds and not the sound of shattering glass as several items fell to the wood-planked floor, she held onto the edge of the pedestal table until it stopped wobbling. Once it had, she rubbed what felt like a bruised thigh and limped her way to the front of the store. Thanks to her trembling fingers and sweaty palms, it took longer than it should to unlock the three dead-bolts and open the door. Evie smiled as she stepped aside to let Mackenzie in, hiding her hands in the pockets of her knitted green-and-red sweaterdress

“Are you all right?” Mackenzie asked, looking around the shop with a frown while closing the door behind her. Gorgeous with long caramel-colored hair, the owner of Truly Scrumptious handed Evie a bakery box.

“Other than the power being out, I’m fine, and these gingerbread cookies smell amazing. They’re still warm,” she said, praying Mackenzie didn’t notice the box trembling in her hands. “Isn’t your power off too?”

“No.” Mackenzie glanced out the window. “It looks like everyone has power but you. The streetlights are still on.”

Something Evie had failed to notice. Clearly nerves had messed with her powers of observation. Of course they had. She’d thought Santa was about to run across the store and attack her.

“Right. I . . .” She trailed off as the consequences of Holiday House being the only business without power hit her. What if Tuesday’s payment to the electric company had bounced? Could she have forgotten to make it after learning Holiday House might very well be bulldozed into the ground to create a parking lot? She checked her banking app for a notice or payment receipt.

“Evie, are you sure you’re all—”

She smiled. “My payment went through.”

“Oh, okay, that’s good,” Mackenzie said in a halting tone that seemed to indicate Evie’s smile appeared more manic than relieved. “You probably just have to change a couple of fuses.”

And there went her profound relief, right out the front door. The fuse box was in the basement. A basement that hadn’t been updated since the early 1900s and could serve as a stand-in for the basement in The Evil Dead. The closest Evie had come to going down there since she’d taken over the store was opening the basement door for the furnace repairman.

At the thought of descending the wooden stairs into the dark, unfinished cave-like space with only the flashlight to guide her, she cleared the ball of terror from her throat. “You know, I think I’ll leave the lights off. The customers will feel like they’ve been transported back in time. I’ll light the fire, put candles all around. I even have an oil lamp I can use. I’ll put it over here.” She gestured to a table that held a collection of Fitz and Floyd tea sets and Christmas dinnerware. Behind the table sat an artificial fir tree decorated in antique ornaments of red and gold. “I’ll set out your cookies on one of the platters. Did you bring me more business cards?”

Not only was Evie showcasing Mackenzie’s gingerbread cookies, each of her tables displayed items from the shops on Main Street. The other stores were doing the same for her. Mackenzie had two of her Fitz and Floyd Christmas cookie jars on display at the bakery.

“I do, and I need more cookie jars. I sold yours yesterday.” She pulled an envelope from her jacket pocket, handing it to Evie.

“You didn’t buy them, did you?”

Less than an hour after Evie had been informed about Monday’s vote, her friends had begun arriving at the store, declaring they absolutely had to have whatever their eyes landed upon. Their gazes had landed on a lot, but Evie was more grateful for their friendship than the sales. She didn’t want them buying her merchandise just to help her out. She had a special connection with nearly every piece in the store, and she wanted her customers to feel the same.

“I bought one and my sister bought the other one, but we love them. Honest. Give me the singing Christmas trees to display today. I promise I won’t buy them.”

Evie understood why. Listening to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” every time someone opened the lid on the plastic tree got on her nerves, and she’d celebrate the holiday year-round if she could. Which she supposed she already did.

“All right.” She moved the cell phone light around the room. “Now I just have to remember where I put them.”

A muffled ping came from Mackenzie’s pocket, and she pulled out her cell phone. “It’s Julia. She’s opening Books and Beans early and needs her cupcakes. Drop the cookie jars off whenever you get a chance,” Mackenzie said as she walked toward the door. She turned back, digging around in her pocket. “I almost forgot. We’ve been collecting signatures for Monday’s meeting. So far we have a hundred names on our petition to save Holiday House.” She handed the papers to Evie. “I’m sure we’ll get double that this weekend.”

Evie looked from the list of signatures to Mackenzie. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything. This is what friends do for friends.” Mackenzie hugged her. “I’ve gotta go. Let me know if you need more cookies.”

“I will, and thanks. Thanks for everything. I don’t know what I would have done this year without all of you in my corner.”

“It’s us who are grateful to you, Evie. You’re the one who’s led the fight against Wicklow Developments from the beginning. You’ve done all the heavy lifting, and it was for our benefit as much as yours. Now it’s our turn to fight for you and Holiday House. And we’ve got a secret weapon. Rumor has it that Theia Gallagher is like a sister to the CEO of Wicklow Developments, and he can’t refuse her anything. We’ve got this, girlfriend.” Mackenzie gave Evie a fist bump. “Have fun this weekend and forget about Monday.”

Surprisingly, it was easy. With so much to do in such a short amount of time, her mind was kept occupied. And while hauling the candles from the pitch-black storage room took longer than it should have, she’d gotten the job done. It was better than making the terrifying descent into the basement of horrors. Eventually she’d have to ask someone to help her with that. She could play the helpless-little-woman-who-didn’t-know-how-to-change-fuses card, something she hated to do. But if it meant she saved face while at the same time saving herself a trip into her own personal nightmare . . .

She took one last look around the room, from the candles that flickered on every available flat surface to the flames dancing in the fireplace. Despite being unable to plug in the Christmas lights on the three decorated trees, the room was not only well and safely lit, the ambience was as warm and as inviting as she had hoped. She just needed some music to put her customers in the Christmas shopping spirit. As she went to pull up the holiday playlist on her phone, The Grinch’s theme song, her mother’s ringtone, shattered Holiday House’s happy vibe—and Evie’s.

She was tempted to hit Decline—her morning had been difficult enough—but instead she did what her dad would expect her to. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom!”

“You’re a day late.”

“Well, I know, but remember I told you I’d be busy getting everything ready for the Thanksgiving dinner at the community center yesterday. I did text though.”

“Texts don’t count; nor does a video of dancing turkeys.”

Her dad would have loved it. “I’m sorry. I should have called. Did you have a nice time at Auntie Linda’s?”

“Of course not. How could I? Her grandchildren were there. They’re spoiled and have no manners.”

Her cousin’s children were adorable and well behaved. It was just that her mother subscribed to the adage that children should be seen and not heard. Evie wondered if she should text an apology to her aunt and cousin. It used to be her dad’s job.

“But that’s not why I called. I received a registered letter from Wicklow Developments regarding the offer they made to buy Holiday House last month.”

Evie’s heart banged against her rib cage. “I don’t know why they sent it to you. It must have been a mistake.”

“I have a fairly good idea why they sent it to me, young lady. They’ve obviously learned that I own shares in Holiday House and wanted to be sure I was apprised of the situation. The situation in which the majority shareholder doesn’t have a shred of business sense. You’re just like your father. Too soft and sentimental. Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to loan you the money. Now, as soon as I hang up, you are going to call Wicklow Developments and accept their offer.”

“Mom, you don’t understand. They don’t want to buy Holiday House. They want to bulldoze it into the ground.” And that offer would no longer be on the table since they had a ninety-five percent chance of getting their wish without paying a penny, which wasn’t something she would share with her mother.

“So let them. You’re barely eking out a living. Your last quarter—”

Evie hummed The Grinch theme song in her head. Her mother wasn’t shy about sharing her opinion of Evie’s and Holiday House’s shortcomings and did so on a regular basis. Neither of them measured up to her mother’s exacting expectations.

Evie knew it was her own fault for hiring her mom to do her books, but the thing was, if anyone could teach her how to manage inventory, cash flow, and pricing, it was her mother. Lenore Johnson (she’d refused to take her husband’s last name) was a highly regarded accountant who’d won New York’s Outstanding CPA in Industry Award three years in a row.

But more than business acumen and advice, Evie had hoped Holiday House would give them something to bond over. Because of course glass-half-full Evie had been positive that she could turn around the family business. And make her mother proud, she thought with a sigh.

“Mom, Holiday House has been in the Christmas family for more than a century. Daddy would want me to do this. You know he would.”

“Of course he would. He was up for any lamebrain scheme you came up with. Remember when the two of you got it into your heads that you’d make a fortune selling candles for the holidays? There’s still a box of them in the spare bedroom. Or what about the time you two took up knitting Christmas stockings? Noelle sold them for less than it cost for the wool.”

Evie looked around the shop, wondering if her mom had a spy cam installed. “I was twelve, Mom.”

“Your father was old enough to know better than to encourage you like he did. It’s time you admit defeat and rejoin the real world. How you could up and leave New York and your job at the hospital to run Holiday House, I’ll never know. You have a doctorate in psychology, Evangeline. You were making a decent living. You had benefits and a 401K, and now what do you have? Nothing but—”

At the mention of her old job, Evie headed straight for the front door, unlocked it, opened it, and reached under the Santa attached to the outside of the door to flip his battery to On. Then she began opening and closing the door with Santa ho, ho, ho-ing as she did so. “Sorry, Mom. It’s getting busy. I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you later.” As soon as she disconnected, Evie looked at Santa. “I love you. I really do.”

“Probably a good thing considering you own a Christmas store,” said a smooth-as-silk male voice.

A tiny shiver of awareness danced inside her. Some women had a thing for handsome faces; she apparently had one for sexy baritones. She turned slowly as she worked to smooth the reaction to his voice from her face. Unlike people who wore their emotions on their sleeve, Evie wore hers on her face. At least that’s what her friends told her.

Whoa. His voice had nothing on his face. Which, if she was reading the slight uptick of his lips that were half-hidden by his beard correctly, he knew exactly what she was thinking. Unless she’d said Whoa out loud instead of in her head. She snorted at herself. The stress must be getting to her. She wasn’t a fan of men with beards. Except he kind of had her revaluating that opinion.

She had a feeling that, with one look from those incredible blue eyes and that sexy half-smile of his, he’d have her reevaluating her opinion on just about everything: like not dating a man until he had a psych evaluation (given by someone other than herself), not sleeping with a man until she’d dated him for at least three months, or like chocolate was better than sex.

Okay, so maybe not everything.

Not that it would matter because he was out of her league. And no doubt, with the length of time she’d been staring at him, she’d now embarrassed herself not once but twice. Possibly three times if she’d said Whoa out loud. She needed to say something, some witty remark to redeem herself.

“Ha ha, yeah, I love my men with beards . . . White beards, I mean, and jolly. Jolly with big bellies.” What was wrong with her? She should have simply smiled and walked back inside the store. Wait a minute. When had she walked outside?

“Brr, chilly out, isn’t it?” She wrapped her arms around her waist and pretended she hadn’t responded to the siren call of his voice and face and had instead come outside to check her window display. “Okay, everything looks good from here.” She tapped the glass. “I’d better get back inside. Nice, ah. . .” It had been a one-sided conversation, and she couldn’t say looking at you, even though it was true. “Have a good day.”

The corner of his mouth twitched as he walked around her to hold open the door. She glanced at the Red Sox ball cap he wore with a gray knitted scarf, black leather bomber jacket, and jeans. He wore the hat rather low and the scarf rather high, almost like a disguise. . .

“Um, thanks.” Her heart bumped against her ribs when he followed her inside. He hadn’t seemed as intimidating outside as in. Maybe because being this close to him she noticed how big he was compared to her. He had to be at least six foot four to her five foot three.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize you wanted to come inside. Are you looking for anything in particular?” Nerves caused her voice to come out a little high and a little breathy.

“Yeah, you.”