Sometimes love is just around the corner . . .
With her dreams of being a wedding dress designer suddenly over, Arianna Bell isn’t expecting a holly jolly Christmas. Instead, her heart feels about three sizes too small. That is until her high school sweetheart Connor Gallagher returns to town and she finds his mere presence still makes her pulse race. But just when she starts dreaming of kissing under the mistletoe, he announces that he will be her opponent in the upcoming mayoral race….
Hot-shot attorney Connor Gallagher has something to prove. He’s tired of playing runner-up to his high-achieving brothers. So when the opportunity to enter the campaign comes up, he takes it. Even if it means running against the only woman he’s ever loved. But with a little help from Harmony Harbor’s local matchmakers and a lot of holiday cheer, Connor and Arianna may just get the happy ever after they both deserve.
Chapter One (Courtesy of Debbie Mason’s Website)
At the sound of a drawer slamming outside her closed bedroom door, Arianna Bell awoke with a start. She blinked, trying to get her bearings. Was it morning or night? The blackout curtains in her bedroom made it difficult to tell. Down the hall, someone continued their frenetic opening and closing of drawers, and she sat up in bed.
Burglar or her grandmother? she wondered, not in the least alarmed either way. After barely surviving the fire that destroyed her business and three others, Arianna wasn’t fazed by much these days. Besides, it wasn’t like they had anything of real value in the small Cape Cod home where she now lived with her grandmother, Helen Fairchild.
Another drawer slammed. “Where did you put the damn car keys? I have to hit the campaign trail.”
Arianna’s stomach muscles bunched in response to her grandmother’s angry question, making a lie of her claim that nothing fazed her anymore. At that moment, she’d moved beyond slightly fazed to really worried.
And not because her grandmother was hitting the campaign trail. At eighty, Helen was the oldest woman to run for mayor of Harmony Harbor, a small town less than an hour from Boston. Her grandmother’s habit of misplacing things was nothing new either. But over the past few weeks, Helen’s forgetfulness hadn’t been so easily explained away.
As much as Arianna would like to blame moments such as this on the stress of the mayoral race or the typical forgetfulness of old age, she couldn’t. Her grandmother had given up driving a decade before and had sold her BMW around the same time. Arianna had lost her car in the fire. It had been parked in the alley between Tie the Knot and the beauty salon that had burned down.
Cradling her injured arm to her chest, Arianna scooted off the bed. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d gotten out of bed of her own volition in the past seven weeks. Which the piles of books, water glasses, and tea cups on the floor by her bed attested to. One benefit of spending so much time in the dark was that she seemed to have developed bat-like sonar and safely made it through the obstacle course and to the other side of her bedroom without knocking something over or falling on her face. She reached for the doorknob with her good hand.
“Arianna, where”—the door flew open, shoving Arianna and her elbow into the wall at her back — “the hell are the keys to my Beemer?”
So much for my bat-like sonar, she thought, trying to breathe through the pain. It felt like someone had whacked the elbow of her damaged arm with a tuning fork, the ache vibrating up and down her forearm and hand. Which might have been a good thing, not the pain in her arm obviously, but her inability to speak. She had no idea how to deal with this. She didn’t know whether she should tell her grandmother the truth or protect her with a lie.
“Where is that child?” her grandmother muttered, her voice raspy from years of smoking.
“Standing behind the door, Glamma,” Arianna said through clenched teeth.
Her grandmother had coined the moniker Glamma years before it became popular. Not a surprise since Helen had been forty for as long as Arianna could remember. She was all about fashion and glamor. Once a highly sought-after runway model in Paris, she’d returned to Harmony Harbor to raise her daughter (Arianna’s mother Beverly) and open Tie the Knot, a bridal shop on Main Street. The shop she’d passed down to Arianna a decade before. The same shop the mad man had burned to the ground in July.
“Don’t go there,” Arianna told herself firmly. She relived that night over and over again in her dreams and refused to relive it when she was wide awake.
“Don’t go where?” her grandmother asked, clapping her hands
Arianna came out from behind the door. “Nowhere. You can stop clapping, Glamma. The lightbulbs are burned out. I have to replace them.”
Arianna had a thing for Clap On! Clap Off! lights. Her baby sister, Jenna, knew about her secret addiction and had replaced the lights in Arianna’s bedroom with Clappers the day she’d come to live with her grandmother. Jenna was the sweet, thoughtful sister. Much sweeter than Arianna deserved after the way she’d treated her growing up.
Glamma’s lips thinned. Her silver-blond hair was pulled back from her face, giving her an instant facelift and showcasing her pale blue eyes and exquisite bone structure. “You mean I will. You haven’t been out of the house since the day you got home from the hospital,” she said as she walked to the window on the other side of the bedroom.
Arianna was so relieved her grandmother remembered exactly when she’d last ventured outside that the sarcastic tone didn’t get under her skin. Besides, half of what came out of her grandmother’s mouth had bite. She’d always had a dry sense of humor, something she’d passed on to Arianna. Although Arianna’s sense of humor had been missing for quite some time.
The blackout curtains rattled along the rod as her grandmother whipped them open with strength and purpose. Just like her walk, Arianna thought with a smile. She must have been imagining things. There was nothing wrong with her grandmother, nothing wrong at all. Arianna felt like sinking to the area rug in relief. She might have if the bright autumn sunshine pouring through the window wasn’t half blinding her.
Squinting, she turned away from the sun’s rays. Big mistake. The position put her in direct view of the mirror on her dresser. There was a time not so long ago when catching a glimpse of her shoulder-length blond hair, blue eyes, and thin frame in the mirror wouldn’t have bothered her. It did now.
“All right, I’m off to . . .” Helen frowned and then rubbed her forehead as though she’d forgotten what she’d been about to say, or maybe where she’d been about to go.
That wasn’t unusual though. People complained about forgetting why they walked into a room all the time. You couldn’t go a day on social media without a meme about it popping up. Women in their menopausal and post-menopausal years posted them all the time. No doubt if Glamma was on social media, she would too.
Helen lowered her fingers from her forehead and bent to pick up a copy of the town’s local newspaper, the Harmony Harbor Gazette, from the floor.
Arianna was impressed and checked off another box in the “Glamma’s fine” column. She wasn’t nearly as flexible as her grandmother.
Helen’s face cleared. “Campaigning, that’s it. I have to get out there and pound the pavement. I’ll see you later, darling. I won’t be back until late. Don’t forget to eat.”
Arianna took in her grandmother’s attire as she passed her on the way out the door. Just like she suspected, they were pajamas. Pink satin pajamas. “Wait. You don’t mean you’re leaving right this very minute, do you?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. I have to get a leg up on the Gallagher boy.”
This wasn’t good. Not good at all. Arianna’s heart began to gallop. She could barely look after herself. How was she supposed to look after her grandmother? “Why don’t we both get dressed and go together? It’s about time I got out there on the campaign trial with you, don’t you think?” Arianna said, working to keep the panic from her voice.
Her grandmother blinked at Arianna’s suggestion and then blinked again like a sleepy owl. Arianna wasn’t sure whether it was because Helen didn’t recognize her or she was stunned by her offer to accompany her.
“You want to come on the stump with me?”
Thanks goodness, it was the latter. Wait a minute. What had she been thinking? She’d just agreed to leave the house! “Yes, unless you think it’s going to rain and we both should stay home.” She looked out the window, hoping to see water-logged black clouds darkening the cerulean sky.
Her grandmother’s lips flattened. “I knew you’d back out.”
“I’m not backing out. I’ll bring an umbrella just in case.”
“We don’t need an umbrella. We’ll take my car.”
Arianna bowed her head and then lifted it to look at her grandmother. “Glamma, you—”
Helen interrupted her with a snap of her fingers. “I don’t know what came over me. I haven’t had that car in years.”
She didn’t know whether her grandmother truly remembered or had picked up on
Arianna’s distress. Memory issues aside, Helen Fairchild was one sharp cookie.
Arianna gave her grandmother a reassuring smile. “We all forget things now and again. No big deal, right?”
“Right. Right,” she said in a voice that didn’t sound nearly as confident as Arianna’s.
An hour later, her heart pounding like she’d run a one-minute mile, Arianna stepped out of the house on the corner of Holly and Ivy. Positive she was about to faint, she turned back to the door, fumbling for the knob with her good hand.
Obviously, she hadn’t learned from her past mistakes. She knew better than to allow strong emotions to influence her decisions. That was the one benefit that had come out of the fire on Main Street, Arianna no longer had feelings or acted upon them. She’d been an apathetic shell holed up in her room for the past seven weeks. Now look at her, venturing outside when she’d be perfectly content never to set foot out of the house again. A fact she couldn’t share with her closest friends and family because they had no problem sharing with her that they thought she needed professional help.
In the middle of the night when she woke up beneath sweat-soaked sheets and gasping for air, she agreed with them. But then morning would arrive and push back the shadows that haunted her, and she’d come to her senses. Nothing a therapist could say or do would help her recover from the Nightmare on Main Street.
Her grandmother called out to her from where she stood smoking, leaning against a white picket fence draped in ruby-red vines. “Come on now, the primary is next week, and the Gazette says the Gallagher boy is in the lead. We don’t have a moment to lose.”
If her grandmother had been running a strong second, it would have been okay. Next Tuesday’s primary election narrowed the field to two candidates from the seven currently in the race. However, according to the Gazette’s latest poll, that was not the case. Helen Fairchild was running dead last in the mayoral race.
Arianna reluctantly released the door knob. Her eighty-year-old grandmother had a dream. She wanted to be mayor to protect her beloved home town from the vision Daniel Gallagher had for Harmony Harbor’s future.
Arianna knew a little something about dreams herself. Before the Nightmare on Main Street, she’d lived and breathed her dream of becoming the next Vera Wang and of Tie the Knot becoming the next Kleinfeld Bridal. A thirty-six-year-old (admittedly bitter) divorcee, it seemed her entire grown-up life had revolved around ensuring every bride had the wedding dress of their dreams.
She’d spent twelve hours a day, seven days a week, working with customers who could turn into a bridezella or a weepy mess in the blink of an eye. But the most difficult for her to deal with had been the sweet, wide-eyed innocents who thought their lives would be perfect the moment they said I do.
She’d survived the daily drama and stress without sarcastic rejoinders and eyes rolls because of what awaited her at the end of her day. The moment she retired to the room above her shop on Main Street, everything else faded away. It was the place where the magic happened.
Sometimes she’d be holed up there from dusk to dawn hand sewing lace, crystals, and pearls onto the tulle and organza gowns, turning them into one-of-a-kind works of art. And while the hours were long and the work sometimes tedious and backbreaking, she’d never once complained. After all, she’d been following her passion, living her dream.
Her dreams were over now. Everything had gone up in smoke. But it was more than guilt at the loss of her grandmother’s legacy and worry about her that forced Arianna out of the house today, it was her deep and abiding love for the woman who was at that moment regarding her through narrowed eyes and a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“What on earth are you wearing?” asked the woman who only an hour before planned to knock on doors in pink satin pajamas.
Arianna looked down at the mocha-colored lounge pants and top she wore beneath a calf-length blush velour cardigan. In deference to her damaged arm, the right sleeve was empty and the top two buttons fastened to conceal the sling she still wore. In deference to Helen, Arianna had changed out the pink sneakers her sister Jenna had paired with the outfit for brown suede ankle boots.
“It’s the new trend. Loungewear chic,” Arianna informed Helen, who’d obviously recovered from her momentary fashion lapse and looked effortlessly elegant in wide-legged cream pants and a blouse with a bronze-colored sweater draped casually around her shoulders and bronze ballerina slippers on her feet.
Arianna, who’d once been as style conscious as her grandmother, didn’t care about that sort of thing anymore. Comfortable and cozy pajamas were her wardrobe of choice these days, which her sister knew. Not that Arianna would mention Jenna to Helen. She didn’t blame the Nightmare on Main Street on her sister, but her grandmother did.
Helen’s brow furrowed, the expression on her face turning from distaste to concern. She approached the step where Arianna stood poised to take flight. She could handle the distaste, the concern . . . not so much. But she didn’t have time to run back inside. Helen was surprisingly fast for an eighty-year-old. She lifted her walking stick—most people would refer to it as a cane but not her grandmother—and moved Arianna’s cardigan aside. “You’re too thin.”
The statement took her aback. In Helen Fairchild’s book, you could never be too rich or too thin.
Arianna was saved from responding by their neighbor from across the road. Mrs. Ranger looked up from raking the autumn leaves into a pile and smiled. “Arianna, it’s so good see you, dear. How are you doing?”
She didn’t expect the truth, did she? What if Arianna said fine like she always did and Mrs. Ranger wanted specifics—like how was her arm? It would open up a conversation about the Nightmare on Main Street, wouldn’t it? Of course it would.
Obviously, Glamma had caught her at a weak moment. Arianna had been out of her flipping mind to agree to accompany her today. Because no matter how much she loved her grandmother and didn’t want to see her hurt or embarrassed or her dreams dashed, Arianna wasn’t up to interreacting with people who weren’t family or her closest friends. She had a difficult enough time interacting with them. And it’d be a cold day in hell before she’d talk to anyone about what happened on that warm summer night. Her sister Serena had been smart. She’d left town two days after Arianna was released from hospital.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Ranger. Thanks for ask—”
Her grandmother interrupted her with a horrified gasp, which was immediately followed by choking from inhaling a stream of cigarette smoke.
“How could you, Irene?” Helen said once she got her coughing under control. “We’ve known each other for more than sixty years.” Before Mrs. Ranger had a chance to respond, Helen strode down the leaf-littered flagstone walkway and flung open the front gate.
Arianna frowned, confused by her grandmother’s angry outburst until she spotted Daniel Gallagher’s campaign sign on the far side of Mrs. Ranger’s front yard. And there it was, the main reason Arianna should have convinced her grandmother not to put her name in the race. Helen wouldn’t take defeat well, and she had a temper. A temper that sometimes made her act without thinking.
Arianna protectively cradled her right arm to her chest to keep it from bouncing against her body as she hurried after her grandmother, who was already halfway across the road by then. “Glamma, you get back here.”
Now in a face-off with Irene on her front lawn, Helen ignored Arianna. She wished Mrs. Ranger would do the same to her grandmother. Instead, she’d apparently decided to add fuel to the fire. “Yes, we have, and you’re the same age as me, Helen. Far too old for this sort of thing. It’s time to give the younger generation a chance.”
“Speak for yourself. I don’t look a day over sixty, and I don’t feel it either. And why should I give a man like him a chance?” She slapped the lawn sign with her cane. “He’s going to ruin this town with his modern ideas. He hasn’t lived in Harmony Harbor for decades. He’s an outsider now.”
Stuck on the other side of the street thanks to slow-moving traffic, Arianna waved the rubberneckers on. “Nothing to see, folks. Move it along before you cause a pile-up.”
“Helen, he’s a Gallagher. Without his family, Harmony Harbor wouldn’t exist.”
Arianna groaned. Her grandmother blamed Daniel Gallagher’s nephew Connor for ruining Arianna’s life and took it out on the rest of the family. Connor had represented her ex in their divorce, and Arianna had walked away without anything to show for the years she’d given to her marriage.
But she and Connor had a history long before Gary and their divorce. Connor Gallagher had been her first love. And, at one time, she’d thought he’d be her only love. She considered herself lucky that her grandmother had no idea the price Arianna had paid for her teenage love affair with Connor. It was a price she’d continue to pay until the day she died.
“Don’t talk about them as if they’re something special. William Gallagher was a pirate who made his money on the high seas, burning and pillaging. The rest of them are no better. Especially him.” She whacked the sign again, taking out one of Daniel Gallagher’s blue eyes.
At Mrs. Ranger’s outraged gasp, Arianna held up a hand and darted between the two idling cars on the street. She reached her grandmother just as she put her cane through Daniel’s toothy grin.
“It’s time we were on our way, Glamma. Sorry about that, Mrs. Ranger. The heat of the campaign and all that. I’ll, ah, I guess I could call and ask for a replacement sign. I’m sure the Gallaghers have plenty on hand.”
Tugging on her cane, her grandmother glared at her. Arianna glared back. It’s not like she wanted to call the Gallagher campaign headquarters, but what did Helen expect her to do? She’d defaced the sign. It was a punishable offense. One of them had to be the responsible adult.
“I don’t know, dear. There’s been a run on the signs since Daniel’s nephew Connor was put in charge of delivery and set-up. He’s a high-powered attorney, you know? Such a handsome boy. Charming too, just like his uncle.”
Okay, so she wasn’t going to be calling for a replacement sign after all. The last person she wanted to talk to was Connor.
She glanced at the cars idling on the street. Their audience had grown. Instead of four cars, there were now six. Seven, she corrected when a black Porsche slowed to a crawl. She sagged with relief when the Porsche pulled around the idling vehicles. Maybe now the others would get the idea they were blocking traffic and move on. Except the Porsche didn’t keep driving, it pulled alongside the curb, and the others followed suit.
“You think Connor Gallagher is charming, do you, Irene? Well, have I got news for you,” her grandmother said with another vicious tug of her cane, which remained firmly attached to Daniel Gallagher’s mouth.
“Don’t even,” Arianna muttered close to her grandmother’s ear and closed the fingers of her good hand around the cane. “Let me do it.”
While Arianna tried to wrestle the walking stick from the sign, her grandmother trash- talked the Gallagher men and Irene Ranger defended the handsome, blue-eyed devils. Frustrated with both women and her inability to unstick the cane, Arianna lifted her booted foot and kicked Daniel Gallagher in the head.
It felt so good to release some of her pent-up anger and emotion that she did it again and then again. A loud grunt escaped from her mouth each time she hit the sign with a solid thwack. It took a moment for her to realize that the only sound she heard was thwack, grunt, thwack, grunt. Helen and Irene were no longer arguing. Except for the god-awful noises Arianna was making, it was uncomfortably quiet.
She glanced over her shoulder to see her grandmother and Mrs. Ranger staring at her openmouthed, and just beyond them, a handsome blue-eyed devil watched her from where he leaned against the black Porsche.
Debbie Mason is the USA Today bestselling author of the Christmas, Colorado series and Harmony Harbor series. Her books have been praised for their “likable characters, clever dialogue, and juicy plots” (RT Book Reviews). She also writes historical paranormals as Debbie Mazzuca. Her MacLeod series has received several nominations for best paranormal as well as a Holt Medallion Award of Merit. When she isn’t writing or reading, Debbie enjoys spending time with her very own real-life hero, three wonderful children and son-in-law, two adorable grandbabies, and a yappy Yorkie named Bella.