(courtesy of Debbie Mason’s Website)
With each frantic beat of my heart, Adrian’s name echoes in my mind. I have to reach him before he discovers my secret. As I race across the ice-crusted meadow, my breath forms small, frosted clouds in the frigid, moonlit night. My throat, my chest, my legs, everything aches but I can’t stop until I reach the white castle by the turquoise sea. Adrian is there, waiting for me. He needs to hear this from me and no one else. If he. . .
A loud buzzing sound pulled Julia Landon out of the scene she was writing and onto the hard chair behind her desk in her cramped, one-bedroom apartment. She gave her head a slight shake to free herself from the grip of her heroine’s emotions and reached for the Santa timer that danced on top of her narrow desk.
Julia’s timers had saved her butt in the past, and this was no exception. Although it didn’t feel that way at the moment because her secret crush still filled the pages of her book for all the world to see.
She turned off Santa, set him on the crowded shelf above her desk, and replaced him with a turkey. Julia had forty-eight timers in her collection, and she had a sinking feeling she’d use each and every one of them before she sent off Warrior’s Touch to her editor. Her manuscript was due tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp. And unless things had changed while she was running through a meadow on a moonlit night in the Emerald Isle, there were still just twenty-four hours in a day.
Which was where the trouble all began. She’d mistakenly assumed she’d be granted a three-day reprieve due to the Thanksgiving holiday, only to discover that New York editors rarely took time off.
Asking for an extension was out of the question. She’d blown through one deadline already. If she blew through another one, she was afraid her editor would write her off as an unprofessional one-hit wonder and cancel the contract, ruining Julia’s chance of making her dream come true.
Back in June, she’d published the first book in the Warrior trilogy, Warrior’s Kiss, on her own. It had taken off almost immediately, exceeding her wildest expectations. Reader support had been phenomenal, and the extra money had come in the nick of time. Sales were down at her bookstore—Books and Beans—and fulfilling her vow to her late fiancé was costly.
But as much as the digital success of Warrior’s Kiss had been mind-boggling in the happiest of mind-boggling ways, Julia’s dream was to see her books sitting on the same shelves as the authors she adored.
The added benefit, which was almost as important, was the hope that the four alpha males in her life—her father and three older brothers—would believe that seeing her in bookstores across the land meant they no longer had to worry about her, that she had what it took to support herself.
Maybe then every phone call home wouldn’t begin and end with her father and brothers exhorting her to move back to Texas so they could look after her—folding her like a burrito in bubble wrap to ensure she wouldn’t get hurt or have her heart broken again.
Honestly, it felt like she’d been trying to prove herself to them her entire grown-up life. If opening Books and Beans hadn’t convinced them she could manage on her own, she didn’t know why she thought being published would. No doubt her brothers would tell her it was her magical thinking at work again. To her mind, there was nothing magical or wrong with being hopeful.
If she hadn’t held onto the hope that things would get better these past couple of years, she didn’t know where she’d be. Maybe cast adrift on a turquoise sea. She wished she didn’t care what everyone thought about her, but sometimes it felt like she’d been born with an extra people-pleasing gene.
Emmeline, Julia’s mother, would have been over the moon for her. The former actress would have held Texas-sized celebrations the day Julia had finished her first book at eighteen, the day she’d received her first non-form rejection letter at twenty-eight, and the day Warrior’s Kiss hit number sixteen on the USA Today bestseller list a week before Julia’s thirty-second birthday.
Every step of the way, every small victory and minor defeat, her mother would have been there cheering her on. Even though Emmeline had died when Julia was twelve, she believed her mother held parties for her in heaven.
Julia paid tribute to Emmeline in each and every book she wrote. In the Warrior’s trilogy, an Urban Fantasy set in Ireland, her mother was the inspiration for the White Witch. In a way, it was like bringing her back to life. The White Witch looked, acted, and dressed exactly like Emmeline once had.
Julia refocused on the computer screen. She’d been a finger press away from deleting the last three chapters when Santa shook his booty and brought her back to reality. Sometimes reality sucked. Because no matter how much she wanted to, there was no way she could kill off Adrian Greystone, the trilogy’s hero. He was the book boyfriend that readers lusted after and the reason they were clamoring for more.
Including Julia’s friend Olivia, who had finished Warrior’s Kiss a few weeks earlier. But unlike Adrian Greystone’s other fans, Olivia had told her that she was uncomfortable lusting after the fictional hero. And it had nothing to do with her friend being a married woman. Olivia said it was because Adrian reminded her of her brother-in-law Aidan Gallagher.
All too clearly, Julia recalled the knowing look Olivia had given her that morning in the bookstore. She’d brushed off Olivia’s silent insinuation with a laugh before making an excuse to run up to her apartment above the bookstore. She’d taken the back stairs two at a time to check for herself.
The evidence was overwhelming. From his physical description to his badass demeanor to his name. Adrian alone may not have raised eyebrows, but then Julia had made the fatal mistake of using Greystone as his surname. Greystone Manor, the fairy-tale castle standing sentry over the town of Harmony Harbor, was the Gallagher family’s home as well as a hotel.
Julia knew exactly where to lay the blame. It was because of that one kiss they shared under the mistletoe last Christmas at the manor. Given the length of time Aidan’s mouth had been on hers, it probably wouldn’t even qualify as a kiss—more like a peck. He hadn’t known her, and she hadn’t known him, and Kitty Gallagher had been standing right there with a twinkle in her eyes demanding they take advantage of the long-standing tradition or risk a lifetime of bad luck.
Since Julia had suffered enough bad luck at that point, she wasn’t willing to take a chance she’d have to live through decades more. Beside that, Aidan was big and beautiful, and at that moment, she’d needed something big and beautiful to distract her. But she should have risked a lifetime of bad luck.
Because while the kiss was merely a brief touch of his firm lips upon hers, it had an earth-shattering effect on Julia. She’d felt like she’d been transported to another place and time, as if she were dancing among the stars. And when she looked into Aidan’s extraordinary blue eyes, something inside her clicked into place. She’d known then that she’d found him. Her soulmate. Her one true love. In her head, she could almost hear her brothers groaning at the idea she’d discovered her true love after sharing only one kiss.
But they’d be happy to know that thoughts of tall, handsome princes and fairytale endings had vanished the second the Gallagher matriarch had introduced the two. Aidan Gallagher would never be the man of Julia’s dreams. He couldn’t be. Because if he ever found out why she’d taken on the job of the Gallaghers’ fairy godmother, he’d have her thrown in jail and would instruct them to lose the key.
Oddly enough though, she’d begun writing Warrior’s Kiss months before she’d met Aidan. But it wasn’t until he’d kissed her under the mistletoe that the story took on a life of its own and her hero, Adrian Greystone, came fully alive.
As much as Julia knew a relationship between her and Aidan could never be, it didn’t stop her from living vicariously through her heroine and embarking on a love affair to end all love affairs with Adrian Greystone.
Within hours of discovering that Olivia was right and that Julia had exposed her secret crush for all the world to see, she’d developed a debilitating case of writer’s block. Every time she sat at her desk, her brain would freeze and her fingers would seize and her first deadline flew by. And now here she was again, staring another deadline in the eyes.
As she saw it, she had three choices. One, get the manuscript to her editor on time and take the risk that someone other than Olivia—who’d been sworn to secrecy—discovered that Julia was author J.L. Winters. Two, kill off her hero and risk alienating both her readers and her new publisher. Three, ask for an extension and risk the possibility of being dropped by her editor.
Deciding the risk was worth it, she went with number three and brought up a new file on the screen. As she worked on a believable way to disguise Adrian’s resemblance to Aidan, she noticed wisps of smoke floating past her. It always amazed her how quickly the real world faded away and she stepped into her imaginary one, but this was downright freaky. Never before had she. . .
The sound of the smoke detector beeping and the voice inside it repeatedly saying fire cut off the thought.
Her head snapped up, and her gaze shot around her apartment, searching for the smoke’s source. She made out the Christmas tree in the corner of her living room, its colorful miniature lights twinkling through the fog. If it wasn’t the tree . . .The bookstore! She jumped from the chair.
And that’s when the smell of burning cookies invaded her nostrils.
Her Santa timer hadn’t gone off to remind her to get up and shake her booty; it was to remind her that her contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was ready to come out of the oven!
Frantically, she searched for her cell phone on her cluttered desk, around the boxes of Christmas decorations she’d yet to unpack on the floor, and the clothes on the couch that she’d forgotten to put away. Her cell phone was nowhere to be found.
And her overprotective father, who was more overprotective than most fathers of daughters because he was a sheriff, had ordered and installed a state-of-the-art alarm system the last time he’d visited. As soon as the smoke detector went off, Julia had four minutes to call the company and report a false alarm or the Harmony Harbor fire trucks would be on their way, sirens wailing.
Just like they had last month.
* * *
Julia walked down the narrow, smoke-filled stairway from her apartment to the bookstore with a fishbowl in her arms while apologizing for a second time to the fire chief. The sixty-something man with a full head of silver hair bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman, right down to his blue eyes that appeared to be glinting with amusement as he held open the door leading into her store.
“I really am sorry, Mr. Gallagher. From now on, I’ll make sure I have my phone on me before I put anything in the oven.”
He scratched his chin, obviously fighting back a grin. “Colin, remember? And if I’m not mistaken, last time you were making spaghetti sauce and the time before that it was oatmeal. So let’s make a deal. You don’t use the stove or oven until you’re fully awake, okay?”
She typically started her day at five a.m. to get in her word count before opening the store. But it wasn’t like she could tell him she set things on fire because she disappeared into her make-believe world, so she’d told him she fell back to sleep. She’d used the excuse so often that he probably thought she had narcolepsy.
“I think I’ll give up cooking altogether,” she said as she placed the fishbowl on a low table in the children’s section. Her worry that Ariel and Erik had been affected by the smoke in her apartment was alleviated when they began swimming around. But while she could set aside her concern over her goldfish, she had another worry to contend with. . . “My dad didn’t happen to have the alarm system wired so that he gets notified too, did he? Like a three-strikes kind of thing?”
“Not that I know of,” Colin said, no longer holding back a grin. He was giving her a smile that she was unfortunately familiar with. It was the same smile people got on their faces just before they pinched her cheeks. She’d known a lot of cheek pinchers in her thirty-two years.
“He didn’t tell you to call him if my alarm went off, did he?” She made a mental note to ask Paul Benson, the chief of police, the same question. She’d forgotten her pass code and set off the intruder alarm last Sunday when she came back from a walk. In her defense, it was a new password. She’d had to change it when . . . she forgot it the last time. She needed to think about using one password for everything.
“No, he didn’t, but your oldest brother did.” At her groan, Colin added, “Don’t worry. I won’t call unless it’s for something other than a false alarm. You should be glad they worry about you like they do, honey. It shows how much they care.”
Of course he’d side with the men in her family. Just like her father and brothers were the to-serve-and-protect Landons, Colin and his sons were the to-serve-and-protect Gallaghers.
There was one big difference though. Her family got an extra Texas-size helping of alpha which made them way more annoying than the Gallaghers. Thinking back to her interactions with Aidan Gallagher this past summer, she revised that thought. He was the a in alpha and annoying.
“I know they do, and I love them too. I just wish they’d remember I’m thirty-two and not fifteen.”
Colin looked down at her feet, and his lips twitched. She followed his gaze. She had on a cozy red plaid onesie with fake fur lining the hood and reindeer slippers on her feet. She shrugged, smiling up at him. “What can I say? I love Christmas.”
“No one would argue with you there. That’s quite the plan you’ve come up with for decorating Main Street. I got a look at it yesterday.”
“Do you think it’s too much? I made sure there was enough room for the firetrucks to pass under the lights and garland.” It was her first year as head of Harmony Harbor’s Christmas committee, and she wanted to do a good job.
“It’s ambitious, that’s for sure.”
“If you think I’m being ambitious, you should see what they’re doing in Bridgeport. It’s important that we keep up, you know? For the manor’s sake.” Bridgeport was the town adjacent to Harmony Harbor and was the home to Greystone Manor’s biggest competitor.
Which was the reason Julia had volunteered to head up the committee despite having a bookstore and coffeeshop to run and a book to write. Now that she thought about it, it was no wonder she couldn’t keep the code for her alarm straight. But it’s not like she had a choice. Greystone played an important role in ensuring the Gallagher family’s happiness. A job Julia’s late fiancé, Josh Winters, had tasked her with, and one she feared that if she failed, he’d never rest in peace.
“So my mother and the Widows Club keep reminding me,” Colin responded to her keeping up with the Jones comment, or in this case the town of Bridgeport. “Don’t worry, I approved the plan. A few of the boys have volunteered to give you a hand on Sunday. I’ll e-mail you their contact information.”
She hoped his second oldest son wasn’t one of them. “That’s great, thank you. Now we just have to pray that Mrs. Bradford doesn’t try and file another injunction against us.”
The seventy-something woman’s husband owned the local bank and had chaired the Christmas committee for the past twenty years. She wasn’t happy that she’d been replaced by Julia, and she’d made her unhappiness known by taking the town to court for wrongful dismissal. The case had been thrown out of course, but Mrs. Bradford still managed to put them two weeks behind in their decorating schedule.
“She won’t try again. Not with the Widows Club threatening to close their accounts at the bank if she does.” His radio crackled. “I better get going. Give your apartment an hour to air out before you go back up.”
She followed him through the bookstore and the small coffee bar to the front door. “Thanks so much for coming so quickly. I’m just sorry it was for another false alarm.” She wrinkled her nose. “Umm, not that I wanted it to be a real fire, just that . . . well, you know what I mean.”
He laughed and patted her cheek. “You’re welcome. Happy Thanksgiving, honey.”
She held back a heartfelt sigh. Colin Gallagher was the nicest man, and so handsome too. After everything he’d lost, he deserved the happiest of happy ever afters. She was glad that she’d played a small role in helping him achieve it. “You have a happy Thanksgiving too. Say hi to Maggie for me and tell her two o’clock Sunday is fine.”
Julia smiled at the thought that all her scheming and plotting to get Maggie and Colin together had finally paid off. She’d spent most of the fall maneuvering the couple into chance meetings all around town.
Her smile fell at the look that came over Colin’s face. It was not the look of a man who’d just heard the name of the woman he loved. He looked like a man hearing the name of the woman he’d just dumped. Again.
He shifted on his booted feet. “The thing is, Maggie and I . . . Maybe you should just call and let her know the time yourself.”
The bell above the door tinkled as Colin said goodbye and closed it behind him. Through the frosted glass, she watched him get into the firetruck. She didn’t understand it. The man was brave, heroic even. Every day he put himself in danger on the job and had been doing so for more than thirty-five years. But when it came to opening his heart to love again, he got cold feet. This was the second time he’d bailed on poor Maggie. As far as Julia was concerned it would be the last, because one way or another she was getting the couple together for good.
The Gallaghers’ happiness had been her priority, her mission, for eighty-four plus weeks. And as much as she wanted Josh to rest in peace, she wanted to hang up her fairy godmother wings and move on with her life. Being responsible for someone else’s happiness—make that five someone’s—was a heavy burden to bear.
She’d hoped by helping the Gallaghers achieve theirs, she’d find her own. Weighed down as she was by guilt, true happiness had been an elusive thing these past few years. She was ready to change that. Her goal had been to hang up her wings on New Year’s Eve. She’d been thrilled when it looked like she’d achieved her objective months before her self-imposed deadline. Now here she was strapping her wings back on with only five weeks until the ball dropped.
Disappointment and a small dose of self pity caused her stomach to head for her toes as slowly as that big old ball in Time’s Square. But before she managed to sink even a foot into despair, Julia reminded herself of something her mother used to say Nothing is impossible; the word itself says “I’m possible.”
A few years ago, she’d discovered her mother had borrowed the line from Audrey Hepburn. Julia decided she’d borrow some of that positive thinking for herself today. The odds of accomplishing her goal by New Year’s Eve wasn’t impossible or insurmountable. After all, she had only Colin left. And whether he’d admit it or not, he was in love with Maggie. Everyone in town knew it . . . Obviously he didn’t, or at the very least, he was a pro at denying his feelings.
Another small flicker of doubt crept up on her at the thought that Colin’s fear of loving again might be stronger than Julia’s matchmaking skills. But like before, she brushed those pesky worries aside. This time with the reminder that she had four successes to her name—Colin’s sons. Finn, Griffin, and Liam were all happily married, and Julia credited herself with playing a small role in helping them achieve their dreams.
Their brother Aidan’s dream hadn’t included a wife, for which Julia would be eternally grateful. And it had nothing to do with her secret crush on the man. Tall, dark, and dangerous had destroyed any tender feelings Julia might have had for him last summer. Up until then, she thought he was a prince among men. But he’d turned out to be a beast. In good conscience, she couldn’t match him with any of her friends.
So yes, she’d been relieved to learn that what Aidan wanted most was a job. The former DEA agent had moved home to Harmony Harbor in order to prove to a judge that he could provide a stable environment for his six-year-old daughter. But he’d needed a job to do that.
So, in true fairy godmother fashion, she’d finally managed to convince Paul, the chief of police, to hire Aidan at HHPD three weeks ago. She’d even been able to conclude her assignment without any direct contact with Aidan. Not an easy feat in Harmony Harbor. In her book, that made it a win all around.
As long as she didn’t think about Paul who apparently thought they were an item. Because while she didn’t have to interact with Aidan to make his wishes come true, she’d had to interact with his boss-to-be to get him the job. Interact as in date him. Three dates to be exact.
She didn’t have time to worry about Paul now. If she planned to be fairy wing-free by New Year’s Eve, she had work to do and no time to lose. She turned to look over her bookstore, and a plan formulated in her mind. One that would require a pre-dawn visit to Maggie’s house on Breakwater Way.
There was just one teensy problem with her plan. Detective Aidan Gallagher was staying in his childhood home across from Maggie’s. But surely it was early enough that he was still in bed dreaming of sugarplums. She snorted at the thought of anything sweet entering Aidan Gallagher’s dreams. He’d probably shoot it if it did.