By Debbie Mason
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Mallory Maitland hummed along with the Christmas carols playing on the car’s radio as she took the long way from Atlanta to Highland Falls, North Carolina, the day after Thanksgiving. Despite her best friend living there, she wasn’t anxious to return to her hometown. For years, she’d done her best to avoid Highland Falls. Except now she no longer had just herself to think about.
She glanced in her rearview mirror at the sons of her late husband, Harry—Oliver and Brooks—who were no doubt silently plotting how to get back at her for ruining their lives. If they knew how difficult it had been for her to accept the job offer from Highland Falls’ mayor, they might take some pleasure in today’s move from the big city to the small mountain town.
Instead of blaming her and burning holes into the back of her skull with their resentful glares, they might want to take a good, long look at themselves in the rearview mirror. They were the reason she’d lost six of her seven clients at Aging Awesomely, her newly formed senior care company. They were also the reason her landlord had presented her with an eviction notice two weeks ago.
But did she tell them they were to blame? Remind them how often she’d warned them what could happen if she kept leaving her clients to meet with their overbearing principal? Or how often she’d told them that the next time they invited half the school to their apartment when she wasn’t home, the building’s manager would kick them out and good luck finding another one without a reference?
No. She didn’t blame them or give them an I-told-you-so lecture. She wanted to but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. And the reason she couldn’t was because, no matter how difficult they’d made her life these past two months, she understood why they hated her and acted out. They’d needed a scapegoat for the crummy hand life had dealt them, and she was it.
Their mother, Harry’s second wife, had given up her parental rights in exchange for half of Harry’s fortune when Brooks was born. Mallory hadn’t been around then. She’d been fifteen at the time. Harry wouldn’t make the fateful decision that forever cast Mallory in the role of stepmonster until the lead-up to their wedding. He’d sent his sons to boarding school a month before the big day.
Oliver and Brooks had no idea how hard she—a woman who hated conflict—had fought to change their father’s mind, and she’d never tell them. She wouldn’t do anything to diminish Harry in their eyes. She’d gladly shoulder the blame to protect them. She knew what it was like to grow up feeling unwanted and unloved.
Yet despite her understanding and empathy for her teenage stepsons and the many weeks she’d spent applying every piece of parenting advice she’d gathered from podcasts, books, and friends, she’d come to the depressing conclusion that establishing a loving relationship with Oliver and Brooks was a lost cause. They’d never be a family, no matter how hard she tried or how much she wanted them to be.
Abby Everhart, her best friend, had told her not to lose hope, that love was the answer. But Mallory knew better. Love wasn’t enough to guarantee a happily-ever-after. Her own experiences had proven that to her time and again. Except, deep down, beneath all the hurt and pain, beat the heart of an eternal optimist. She couldn’t seem to help herself. She always looked for the bright side of life, the light at the end of the tunnel, the good in the bad.
And thinking of finding the good in the bad, she forced a smile in the rearview mirror while trying to make eye contact with Oliver and Brooks in the backseat.
Her stepsons could pass for British royals William and Harry. Almost-sixteen-year-old Oliver, with his sandy blond hair providing a curtain for his eyes, looked like William. While Brooks, with his curly ginger hair and freckles, looked like Harry—the prince, not his father.
The boys also had British accents to go along with their royal good looks, which only served to make Oliver’s superior attitude sound even more superior. He had a way of making Mallory feel like a downstairs maid in an episode of Downton Abbey. Why on earth Harry had thought it a good idea to send the boys to boarding school in England, she’d never know.
When smiling and staring at Oliver and Brooks in the rearview mirror failed to get their attention, she cleared her throat. “Only ten minutes until we arrive in Highland Falls!” she said with fake cheer. She continued in the over-the-top upbeat voice despite the boys’ chilly blue stares. “Abby checked out the house on Reindeer Road, and she says we’ll love it.” She actually said the house needed some TLC but the backyard was a nature lover’s paradise. Since Oliver and Brooks weren’t exactly fans of the great outdoors, Mallory didn’t think that would help her cause.
The boys shared a mutinous glance, which made her nervous. Sometimes it felt like they could communicate telepathically, and whatever they mentally shared never boded well for her.
“Okay. I get that you guys are unhappy about the move. You’ve made your feelings perfectly clear. But let’s be honest: you haven’t exactly been happy in Atlanta either. It’ll probably be easier for you to make friends in Highland Falls.”
At the insulted expressions on their faces, she realized she shouldn’t have implied that they didn’t have friends. But it was true. They didn’t. Not real friends. “I mean better friends.”
They shared another look before Oliver said, “We need to use the loo.”
“We’re not far from…okay.” She folded like an accordion at Oliver’s pointed stare. “There’s a truck stop up the road.”
She reached for her Christmas-spiced latte and took a restorative sip as she continued on Highway 64 with Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the radio. All Mallory wanted for Christmas was for Oliver and Brooks to give her a chance. To give them a chance.
And right then, with the smell of Christmas in her nose, the taste on her tongue, and the sound in her ears, the answer came to her. She knew exactly how to solve her stepparenting dilemma.
Love wasn’t the answer; Christmas was.
She need look no further for evidence than two of her favorite childhood holiday reads: A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The holiday changed Ebenezer Scrooge into a kind and generous man, and the Grinch’s tiny heart grew three times its size that day.
But proof of the holiday’s power was found not only in fiction. During World War I, soldiers on the Western Front called a cease-fire to celebrate the holiday. Surely if Christmas could change the hearts and minds of sworn enemies, it could change her stepsons’ minds about her.
Her optimistic heart beat a little stronger as she turned off the highway and into the truck stop’s parking lot. “Do you need me to come in with you?” she asked as she parked the car.
Oliver rolled his eyes. “I think we know how to go on our own.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just thought—” He shut the passenger door on her explanation. Some days—okay, most—she wished Harry had had daughters instead of sons.
Brooks scrunched his nose as he watched his brother walk toward the red clapboard diner. “Me and Ollie are starved. Can you give us some money for crisps?” he asked, referring to potato chips.
“I gave you guys your allowance last week. Surely you haven’t spent it already.” The move had taken a chunk out of her nest egg, and she had to watch her pennies. But while she knew the value of a dollar and was fiscally responsible, her stepsons didn’t and weren’t.
“Ollie’s mates needed a loan.”
Needed a loan, my eye. It was probably a shakedown. As much as she wasn’t thrilled to be moving back to Highland Falls, she was relieved Oliver and Brooks would be away from the influence of the juvenile delinquents they called friends. Mates, she corrected herself.
“All right, but this has to last until next week.” She reached for her oversized brown leather satchel on the passenger seat and withdrew a ten-dollar bill for each of them from her wallet. “I’ll order pizza for dinner so just buy a bag of chips. Crisps.”
“Thanks.” Brooks pocketed the money and took off to join Oliver, who waited for him outside the diner. When he reached his brother’s side, Oliver opened the door, and both boys glanced her way. She lifted her hand to wave. Oliver shoved his brother inside.
With a sigh that came straight from her exhausted soul, Mallory picked up her latte and settled back in the driver’s seat to wait for the boys. As the minutes ticked by, she glanced around the packed parking lot and decided she had time to indulge in her guilty pleasure. Nothing relaxed her more than a good love story. She credited romance novels for getting her through the past few difficult years.
She pulled up the audiobooks app on her phone and connected it to her Bluetooth. She was already three-quarters of the way through the book. She’d left off at the part where the hero was trying to sweet-talk the heroine into his bed.
Mallory couldn’t believe the woman was playing hard to get. She wouldn’t have to be asked twice. She’d be dragging the handsome small-town sheriff into bed. Then again, the heroine wasn’t a twenty-nine-year-old widow who couldn’t remember the last time she’d had sex. Sadly, now that she’d inherited two teenage boys, she didn’t see any sexy times in her future. Unless she counted living vicariously through the heroines in her romance novels.
She leaned back and let the story take her away, smiling at the heroine’s attempts to deny that she’d fallen in love with the hero. Mallory knew it was only a matter of time before the woman realized he was perfect for her in every way. They were meant to be. She was silently cheering the hero on when she happened to glance at her phone and was shocked to discover that Oliver and Brooks had been gone for twenty minutes.
She glanced at the diner’s window but a giant blow-up Santa swaying in the breeze made it difficult to see inside. She powered down her window to stick her head out. The crisp mountain air smelled of wet leaves and wood smoke and brought back childhood memories of the holidays.
She didn’t let her mind take a trip down memory lane. Like her life, it never ended happily. Instead, she focused on her stepsons. They were either making her wait on purpose or had decided to have a burger and fries at the lunch counter. She figured it was the former. Still, she couldn’t see them being much longer and went to turn off her book.
All she’d need was for Oliver and Brooks to catch her unawares and overhear the story couple in the throes of passion. Besides, it wasn’t like she could get caught up in the fantasy while worrying the boys would suddenly appear.
A flash of white light in her side mirror caught her eye. Midafternoon sunshine glinted off the shiny chrome grille of an SUV pulling into the truck stop. She caught sight of the blue Highland Falls police logo on the side of the vehicle as it drove by, and her shoulders tensed.
Please don’t let it be him, she prayed and slid down in her seat. Only she forgot she had her latte in her hand as she did so, and her elbow hit the console, spilling Christmas-spiced coffee down the front of her white shirt.
“Son of a nutcracker!” She grimaced as the words came out of her mouth. It was a favorite made-up curse word of one of her clients. He said it so often to Mallory as she tried to help him age awesomely that she wasn’t surprised it stuck.
She returned the latte to the cup holder and then reached once more for her bag, pulling out a stack of neatly cut paper towels and a purse-sized stain remover. In her job, she could never be too prepared—aging wasn’t always awesome. As she dabbed at the stain with the paper towel, she looked to where the SUV had parked. This prayer, just like all the others, had gone unanswered.
The tall, dark-haired man coming around the front of the SUV wore a pair of aviators that hid the gray eyes that had mesmerized her, the hint of scruff on his chiseled jaw hiding the shallow dent in his chin that had fascinated her. But no matter the distance between them, it was obvious he filled out the navy uniform under his open brown leather jacket as magnificently as she remembered.
For one brief and shining moment last July, she’d thought the Highland Falls chief of police, Gabriel Buchanan, could be the man of her dreams. Until he became the man of her nightmares.
She pulled out her cell phone to text Brooks. He didn’t seem to hate her quite as much as his older brother did.
Hey, sweetie, what’s taking you guys so long?
Waiting for a response, she cast a nervous glance at the door. The last thing she wanted to do was go inside and risk Chief Buchanan seeing her. But as the minutes ticked by, she didn’t have a choice. Something could’ve happened to the boys. At the thought, every horrible thing she’d ever heard about truck-stop restrooms came to mind, and she practically leaped from the car.
Her heart fluttered against her rib cage like a trapped canary. As the past two months had proven, she wasn’t equipped to deal with teenage boys. Seniors, she could handle. Being married to a man decades older had left her well equipped to deal with golden-agers.
As she approached the diner’s door, she zipped up her burgundy leather jacket to hide her stained white shirt and then reached for the knob.
She stepped back when a barrel-chested man opened the door, offering him a smile when he stepped outside. “Do you know where the restrooms are?” she asked.
“To your right and down the hall on your left. Word to the wise: buy gas or some food else Dot, the owner, will tear a strip off you.”
“I will, thank you.”
He touched the brim of his ball cap and headed for a big silver rig.
The smells of hamburgers and fries, coffee and apple pie, greeted Mallory when she walked inside, and her stomach rumbled. She couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten. The air was warm and filled with the sounds of people talking and the clang of pots and pans. She did a quick scan of the diner, which was filled with seniors—not a teenager in sight. To her left, a man called hello to the chief.
“How’s it going, Walter?”
Gabriel Buchanan’s voice was even deeper and sexier than she remembered. It was also close, like he was sitting at the lunch counter. And she was standing there, mooning over his voice, drawing the curious attention of the customers lined up to pay at the cash register.
Afraid he would see her, she bent at the waist to brush a piece of imaginary lint off her jeans while following the truck driver’s directions down a wood-paneled corridor. To her left, she spotted a sign for the men’s restroom midway down the hall and hurried for the door.
She knocked. “Oliver, Brooks, we have to go.”
Thinking her stepsons might not have heard her over the gravelly-voiced waitress yelling out orders for hamburgers and fries, she tried again.
When there was no response to her second attempt, she said, “Guys, this isn’t funny anymore. Come on.” Pressing her ear to the door, she jiggled the knob. It was locked.
Someone cleared their throat. She looked down the hall to see an older man watching her with a bushy white eyebrow raised.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she said with an awkward laugh. “My stepsons are in there.”
Pressing her lips close to the door, she knocked again. “Do you hear that, boys? There’s a nice gentleman who’d like to use the restroom.”
The way the man was looking at her made her as nervous as the absolute silence coming from the other side of the door. “I’m really sorry,” she apologized while attempting to force the knob to turn. She used both hands. It wouldn’t budge. “I’m sure they won’t be…” She went to tell the older man they wouldn’t be much longer, but he wasn’t there.
She bent down to look under the door but couldn’t see anything from that vantage point. With a quick glance up and down the hall to ensure no one was around, she got down on her hands and knees. Her cheek touched the tile as she tried to get a look under the door. She grimaced at the gritty feel beneath her face, imagining how many pairs of boots and shoes had walked over the floor today.
“Oliver, Brooks, I’m not fooling around anymore. If you don’t get out here this second, I’m going to…” What? What was she going to do? “I’m going to break down the door?”
She sighed. She hadn’t meant for it to come out as a question.
“Or you could simply ask for the key,” a deep and familiar male voice suggested from behind her.
The blonde on her hands and knees looking under the men’s restroom door didn’t acknowledge Gabriel Buchanan’s presence or his suggestion about the key. Since it took a concerted effort to drag his admiring gaze from her heart-shaped backside to what he could see of her face through her hair, he decided it was probably a good thing she hadn’t looked up.
When his interest in the profile he could barely make out beneath the long, blond locks seemed equally intense, he wondered what was behind his odd reaction.
He frowned. There was something familiar about her. Even if his reaction to her was decidedly unfamiliar. Or so he thought until she lifted her cheek from the floor to offer him a weak smile over her shoulder.
Mallory Maitland. He should’ve known.
He’d had a similar reaction to her last summer. When his eyes had met hers in the crowded bar, everything had faded away until it was just the two of them. He’d stared at her with his heart racing and a smile he couldn’t wipe from his face. He hadn’t felt that instant attraction to a woman for more than a decade. It was how he’d felt when he first met Lauren, his late wife and the love of his life.
“I know it looks bad,” Mallory said, using the door handle to pull herself to her feet. “But my stepsons are in there and…they’re kind of mad at me. About moving. Here. To Highland Falls.”
Despite Mallory being a widow without children when they’d first met, he wasn’t surprised to learn of her recently acquired stepsons. For some reason he’d yet to discover, Abby Everhart, her best friend, had decided Gabe needed to be kept apprised of whatever was going on in Mallory’s life.
He probably would’ve attributed Abby’s need to keep him informed to her tendency to overshare—about anything and everything—but lately she wasn’t the only one who’d decided he needed regular updates on Mallory. So did Winter Johnson, the town’s mayor and his boss.
Which meant he already knew that Mallory had accepted the job to implement a new seniors program at the community center. Better her than him, he’d thought at the time. Except that wasn’t all he’d thought or felt upon learning she was moving to town, he reminded himself and nudged her carefully out of the way.
The last thing he needed living in tempting proximity was a woman who made him feel things he hadn’t felt in a very long time. His life was complicated enough.
“How long have they been in there?” he asked as he inserted the key into the lock while trying to ignore the warmth of her body so close to him and her spicy, sweet fragrance. She smelled like Christmas.
He glanced at her.
She averted her gaze, raising a hand to smooth strands of honey-colored hair away from her face. “I was on a call with a client. It took longer than expected.”
Her flushed cheeks and her unwillingness to meet his eyes told another story—she was lying.
As though she picked up on his silent suspicion, she looked him in the eyes and lifted her chin. “They’re teenagers. Oliver is almost sixteen, and Brooks is fourteen.”
She had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. They were mesmerizing, making it difficult to look away. He wanted to look away. No, he reminded himself, he had to. As he dragged his gaze from hers, he noticed a speck of dirt on her face.
“You, ah, have something on your cheek.” He touched his own face to keep from touching hers.
She made a face and rubbed her cheek. “Better?”
No, not better at all. “About an inch below your finger.”
Before he did something stupid like touch her, he turned to give the door another try. “Did you check the diner?” he asked when he couldn’t get the lock to budge.
“I looked around when I walked in. I didn’t see them.”
Neither had he. They weren’t among the many seniors who congregated at the diner on a daily basis. If Dot, the owner, didn’t make the best beef burgers in town, Gabe would’ve headed to Highland Brew. Housed in an old mill on the water, the pub-slash-coffeehouse had a younger clientele. It was where he’d met Mallory.
But besides the burgers, eating at the diner—as was the former chief of police’s habit—was part of Gabe’s plan to win over the seniors of Highland Falls. They’d been playing with him like cats with a cornered rat since he’d taken the job as chief of police five months before.
His officers assured him they were just putting him through his paces—Gabe being an outsider and all—and would soon tire of their fun and games. They’d better because, if he didn’t win them over soon, he’d most likely throw them all in jail and get fired. For his sons’ sakes, he had to keep this job no matter how much he didn’t want it.
Mallory searched his face. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“The boys aren’t in there.”
“How do you know? You haven’t even opened the door.”
“The door’s been jammed.” Plus, it was too quiet.
She clutched her leather jacket at her throat. “You don’t think someone took them, do you?”
“Relax, Mallory. We’ll find them.” As a father of three boys, he empathized with her fear but he knew better than to make her a promise like that. Still, he was ninety-nine-point-nine-percent certain of the outcome. He’d also say just about anything to wipe the fear from her eyes.
Apparently, his reassurance didn’t work. As though seeking comfort, she moved closer. He gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze and then asked her to give him some room.
“Of course. Sorry.” She backed away, wincing when his shoulder hit the door. The moment it burst open, the coins her stepsons had wrapped together to jam the door flew across the tiled floor. Beneath the window sat a garbage can.
The boys had gone AWOL.
As Gabe moved into the empty restroom, his adrenaline spiked at the opportunity to do some actual police work. It wasn’t as if he wanted any harm to come to Mallory’s stepsons but, other than the seniors of Highland Falls sending him on wild-goose chases, there were days when he thought he’d lose his mind from boredom.
He missed his old job as a homicide detective in New York. There’d been nothing he enjoyed more than tracking down the bad guys and putting them behind bars.
“Dadgummit, Chief, what are you doing busting down my bathroom door?”
He turned to the sturdy woman with the steel-gray spiked hair staring in at him with her hands on her hips. “Sorry about that, Dot. Couldn’t be helped. We’ve got a couple of missing boys.”
“If I’d gotten to you a few seconds sooner, might’ve saved my door,” she grumbled, surveying the damage before lifting her gaze to Gabe. “Jimmy just called. He found a couple stowaways in his rig. He’s bringing them on back here.”
“Two teenage boys?” he asked. Beside him Mallory held her breath.
Dot nodded, turning her hard gaze on Mallory. “They say their stepmother keeps them locked in their rooms and doesn’t feed them for weeks at a time.”
“No.” Mallory laughed, then pressed two clear-polished fingers to her lips, her gaze darting from Dot to him. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. The boys’ accusations aren’t funny. Far from it. But they’re also not true.” Her eyes were pleading as she held his gaze. “Please, you have to believe me. You have to know that I’d never harm a child or anyone else for that…”
Her shoulders slumped. “You don’t really know me though, do you? All you know are the lies—”
- "This touching but never schmaltzy holiday romance is very satisfying."—Publishers Weekly
- "Heartfelt and delightful."—RaeAnne Thayne, New York Times bestselling author
- "I've fallen in love with Debbie Mason's Harmony Harbor. She's created a group of interesting, realistic characters and woven them into a perfectly imperfect fabric of life in her small east-coast town."—The Romance Dish
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages