In the Christmas-loving town of Harmony, electrician Winnie Anderson is determined to win the annual Christmas lights competition. With $10,000 prize money on the line, it’s Winnie’s ticket to saving her beloved father’s house. If she doesn’t win, she’ll lose the house, and have to move out of Harmony for good.
Winnie is sure she’s the best woman to win. There’s only one problem: Dan Parker, rival electrician.
All Dan wants is a place to call home, and after moving to town three years ago, he knows Harmony is everything he dreamed. He’s always hoped Winnie would be a part of his future, since she’s the only woman who has ever caught his eye. But first he must get past the strange tension between them.
When Winnie breaks her leg, Dan surprises her by stepping up to help complete the display. As they grow closer, Winnie begins to realize Dan isn’t the man she’d always believed. But with both her career as an electrician and her father’s house hanging in the balance, has her revelation come too late?
Cheapest or best?
Winnie Anderson weighed the two types of electrical tape in her hands, as if that would help her decide. She should get the cheapest. But given that this was the only hardware store in Harmony, everyone would know she’d bought the lesser tape, if they cared. And of course they would, since they apparently cared about everything.
And then they’d figure out her money troubles.
She sighed, well aware she was overthinking this. It was ridiculous, keeping the secret. The town would find out soon enough. But Winnie was determined to keep her pride as long as possible. During the miserable years after her mother’s too-early death, that was the way her father had taught her to deal. They kept their heads high, and didn’t let on how much they were hurting. She’d taken that to heart.
Maybe, if she held out long enough, and didn’t let anyone know that someone was stealing her business from right under her nose, something would change. People would hire her again, and she’d earn enough money to save her father’s house. Her house.
Or maybe they’d keep hiring Dan Parker, instead. She clenched her teeth at the sour thought. If only Dan hadn’t come to town, everything would be fine. Not perfect, since her father would still have passed away from a surprise heart attack eight months earlier. Winnie’s heart ached and her breath caught painfully as it did any time she thought about the loss.
But at least she could keep her father’s legacy going. His business, Anderson Electrical, had been running smoothly for twenty-five years with him at the helm. And, for the last ten years, with Winnie beside him. And yet the instant her father had passed away, everything had fallen apart.
And it was all Dan Parker’s fault.
“The fate of the world doesn’t rest on your decision, Anderson,” a familiar voice said from her left.
Winnie stiffened. It was like all her petty thoughts had conjured him at the worst possible moment. From the corner of her eye, she could see Dan with his elbow propped on the end shelves, relaxed as always. He wore a soft t-shirt and old jeans, comfortable and casual.
Dan was in his early thirties, with the tanned skin of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. His dark hair was thick and perpetually looked like he’d run his fingers through it.
He wasn’t wearing his usual tool belt, but, then, neither was she. He didn’t need it to look like the consummate tradesman.
Her heart fluttered, completely against her will. Darn it, why did he have to look so good? It made holding onto her resentment that much harder. But hold onto it she would.
She shoved the cheapest tape back on the rack and dropped the more expensive brand in her basket. Then, she turned her head and gave Dan a narrow-eyed smile. Now that she faced him, the dark smudges under his eyes became clear. An unwilling twist of sympathy caught her heart. He was working too hard.
She shook away the sympathy. Tired was his punishment for overworking himself so much that she didn’t have any jobs. He chose that, and she shouldn’t have any kind emotions for him.
It was then that she noticed the amused look in his green eyes, and she straightened her back defensively.
“Choosing the right tools is important,” she said primly.
“No argument from me.” The man was forever agreeable, which made Winnie grind her teeth.
“Am I in your way?” she asked, glancing at the aisle wide enough to fit two abreast.
Dan pushed away from the shelving to stand straight. “Not at all. I saw you here and thought I’d say hi.”
Winnie’s eyebrows tugged down, but she didn’t ask the obvious question. Why? It wasn’t like she and Dan were friends. In fact, they were rivals. So why would he go out of his way to give her a friendly greeting, and then stay to chat?
She eyed him suspiciously.
“Well, hi,” she said in return. She scrambled for something polite to say, but the obvious question was “How’s business?” and she wouldn’t ask that. Winnie had no desire to hear him wax lyrical about how great his business was going since he’d stolen all her clients. Particularly not when she now had to buy the more expensive electrical tape because of him.
“How’s business?” he asked.
Winnie forced a smile on her face and tried not to roll her eyes. She’d brought that question on herself. “Great,” she murmured through clenched teeth. As if he didn’t know what he was doing to her and her business. She wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of her publicly calling him on it. No way. He couldn’t know how close he was to destroying her.
“You?” she said, since it was expected.
“Yeah, good,” he told her. “I guess it’s no surprise, since your father…you know. Business was a little slower than I liked after I first arrived. Now the Anderson Electrical overflow must be coming my way, because I’m finally getting to a good place. If you’re as busy as me, we’ll need to find a third person to help us.”
She wasn’t. Not even close, but he had to know that. This little act was simply to rub it in her face that he was raking in the jobs. But why did he have to seem so earnest when he talked? It made her question everything she knew about him. Made her almost like him.
“Yeah, it’s great. Really great.” Could she be less convincing? Though Dan didn’t notice, either distracted or not mentioning her poor acting skills out of politeness.
“Listen,” Dan began, suddenly looking unexpectedly nervous. Winnie stared at him for a long moment while he struggled for words. Where was the arrogance she expected from the man destroying her business? Dan was an enigma, one she shouldn’t want to solve.
Winnie was about to prompt him into saying something when a movement over his shoulder caught her eye.
She shoved her basket at Dan as she pushed past him, leaving him confused in her wake. But she didn’t have time to explain. Not when the Harrison twins were seconds away from electrocuting themselves.
She reached the two boys in time to grab their collars and haul them away from the exposed wiring they’d revealed. Keeping a grip on their shirts, she turned the teens to face her.
They were identical, except for a light scar above Mike’s eyebrow. Winnie had been grateful the day Mike had cut himself while attempting a difficult stunt on his bicycle, since it meant the two boys could no longer play bait and switch with her and the rest of the townsfolk in Harmony.
Mike was the bad influence, always getting himself and his twin, Jesse, into trouble. She was sure he’d turn out to be behind this latest stunt, too.
“What were you two thinking, sticking your hands in there? You could have been killed.”
The boys scoffed. “As if,” said Mike.
“We wanted to help,” said Jesse.
Winnie sucked in a steadying breath, forcing her temper back. She wasn’t truly angry, anyway, only riding the adrenaline rush and fear from seeing these nice kids so close to serious injury.
They should have known better. They’d grown up in this hardware store, since their parents had owned it for as long as Winnie could remember. Surely they’d been around enough tradesmen to learn basic safety rules.
“Those are live wires in there. Do you know what would happen if you touched them?”
Jesse’s eyes widened, but Mike doubled down on his bravado. “I’m not afraid of a little shock.”
“No?” Winnie demanded. “Not even when it would stop your heart, killing you instantly?” Dramatic, maybe, but it was all she had to impress on them how serious this could be. She couldn’t bear if anything happened to them, particularly not on her watch. They were scoundrels, but loveable ones, and they were part of this town.
Besides, Penny and Sam, their parents, would never forgive her—or themselves—if anything happened to either boy.
Mike swallowed and finally fell silent. She let out a relieved breath, but didn’t relent yet.
Winnie turned to Jesse, figuring he’d be more likely to give her a sensible answer. “What were you two doing?”
Jesse let out a breath. “Mom keeps asking Dad to fix the lights in the store. Dad keeps saying he’ll get to it, but he doesn’t have time. We wanted them to stop fighting, so we thought we’d fix it for them.”
Winnie’s heart cracked and her remaining anger disappeared. “Okay, guys. Your heart was in the right place, but next time please call a professional. Even your dad shouldn’t be dealing with that mess of wirings. Electrical stuff is dangerous.”
The twins nodded solemnly.
“I’ll fix it for you,” she assured them. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do, since work was so slow. Besides, her father had taught her that she should always give back to the community she lived in. It was a point of pride to do so. The Anderson family had lived in Harmony for generations. While they weren’t quite the pillars of the community they used to be, they could still give time and effort where possible.
The boys brightened, and Winnie couldn’t help the swell in her chest at the knowledge she’d made their life even a little better. Her father had been right, as always.
Maybe the good karma would bounce back around to her. But if not giving back was still worth it.
“Jesse, you get my tool belt from my truck. Mike, you grab the ladder. Let’s see if we can get this fixed before your dad comes, alright?”
They ran off, and Winnie finally noticed a tingle on the back of her neck. She turned to find Dan watching her, and her cheeks heated at the look in his eye.
“What?” she asked, falling back on her usual defensiveness around him.
He shrugged, but couldn’t suppress a smile. “Nothing. You were good with them, that’s all.”
The blush on her cheeks deepened. “Thank you. I worried I was too harsh on them.” Again, Winnie felt off-kilter. Why was Dan being so nice to her? Didn’t he know she hated him?
Well, hate was a strong word. But they were still enemies. How could they not be when he was driving her out of business?
He shook his head. “You’re right. What we do can be deadly if you’re not careful. They needed to know that. There’s a reason we’re trained and licensed, isn’t there?”
He shifted, and his expression changed to that same nervous one from before, reminding her of the strange moment between them. Her stomach flipped. What was it about this man? Despite her avowed dislike of him, his presence simultaneously calmed her and made her…uneasy.
Before either of them could say anything else, the two boys returned with the requested items. Winnie refocused on the task at hand and tried to ignore Dan watching her. She half-expected him to insist on taking over, as he’d taken over her paid work, but he appeared content to sit back and let her do the hard labor.
She didn’t mind, since he didn’t seem to be doing it out of laziness. More that he believed her capable, and was happy to let her finish what she’d started. At least, that was what his expression told her.
And it was nice to be able to work again. Not that she didn’t have any work, but Winnie loved what she did, and always jumped at a chance to do it. A few jobs a week wasn’t enough to sustain her either financially, or personally.
And at least it told her Dan wasn’t stripping her of her business because he thought she was incompetent. That was something.
The question remained why he was doing it. He clearly had enough work—he’d said it himself. He was working long hours. So why couldn’t he scale back a little and let her have some of his scraps? Yes, it would grate on her pride to take his castoffs, but no one had to know that’s what was happening if Dan never told. And it would give her an opportunity to show what she could do. To prove she was as good, if not better, than he was.
Maybe then it would be a snowball effect, and she’d get enough jobs to live off. Though at the moment, that was looking more and more like a pipe dream.
The worst of it was, she and Dan were friendly, once. When he’d first moved to town, he’d taken pains to introduce himself to Winnie and her father. And Winnie’s father had taken to him, inviting him around for dinner, and having long conversations into the night on all kinds of topics. Winnie had often joined in the spirited debates. She’d even admitted to herself—privately—that she enjoyed having another presence in the house. A handsome man at that, even if he was her rival.
Winnie had still held herself back from Dan, though, which she was glad for now she knew his true character. Back then, she’d been wary of him encroaching on Anderson territory, though her father had never seen it that way. When jobs were good for her and her father, she hadn’t minded so much. But now? She and Dan could never be friends. Not like they had been.
When her father had died, and work had dried up for her, Winnie hadn’t been willing to maintain the almost-friendship she and Dan had built. Too much had changed.
And Dan acted as if it hadn’t. As if he hadn’t spent more than a year pretending to be her father’s friend before up and driving his business into the ground the second he’d passed away.
Anderson Electrical, and the Anderson home, were the two things she had left of her father. She had to do everything she could to keep them running. Problem was, the house was old—and therefore expensive—and her meager savings account had been steadily depleted in the last few months keeping herself fed and the house standing around her ears.
But if things didn’t pick up soon, she’d have to start making hard decisions. The kind of decisions she’d shied from for the last eight months, despite part of her knowing it was inevitable.
If it wasn’t for Dan, everything would be fine.
But she couldn’t ignore his role in all this. Couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t his fault she was losing the last monuments she had left of the man who had raised her.
She fixed the electrical issues on autopilot as her head churned through the problem in her mind yet again, refusing to accept the obvious solution. She could hold out a little longer, but soon it would be crunch time, and she’d have to give up at least one thing that meant the world to her. Possibly both things.
Twenty minutes later, she had the issue fixed and the wall panel back in place. If only all her other problems were as easy to solve.
The twins’ father, Sam, hurried over as Winnie collected her tools. He was a solid man in his early forties, with hair greying at the temples. He’d been a football star in high school, and was still popular in town all these years later.
“Boys! Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over.” He slung his arms around each of their necks.
The twins glanced at each other guiltily, and then Mike stepped forward. “We wanted to get the electrical stuff fixed so you and Mom would stop fighting.”
Sam deflated. “Oh, kids. I would have got to it, you know that. There was no reason for you two to worry. Your mom and I weren’t even really fighting about it.” He tightened his arms around them, bringing them closer.
“We know,” Mike said. “But it’s done now. So you don’t have to worry.”
Sam glanced up in surprise. “Done?”
He caught Winnie’s eye, and she beamed at him. He’d offer to pay her, of course, as was polite. Normally she’d refuse, but these days she was desperate enough to accept. She had done the work, after all. Guilt gnawed at her, but she took comfort in the knowledge that she had done it for altruistic reasons. If Sam hadn’t shown up, she wouldn’t have sought payment.
But Sam’s gaze swung past her and landed on Dan. He released his sons and held out his hand to Dan.
“I assume I have you to thank for this?”
Winnie was speechless in shock, her mouth hanging open. She’d known Sam her entire life, since she’d been coming into Harrison Hardware with her father as a little girl. Dan had only been in town for a few years. And he immediately assumed Dan was the one who’d fixed his lights?
Dan blinked as Sam snatched up his hand. “Actually—”
“How much do I owe you?”
Dan glanced at Winnie with a panicked expression. “Nothing,” Dan said. “It was all—”
“Oh, that’s kind of you. I appreciate it. Money’s a little tight now, given Christmas is around the corner. Very generous of you.”
Shock slammed into her like she’d been touched by a live wire. She wouldn’t be surprised to find all her hair standing on end. For Sam to ignore her like that, and for Dan to go along with it?
Tears sprang to her eyes.
This was exactly what had been happening lately, more and more. In the beginning, people had only hired Dan when Anderson Electrical wasn’t available. They’d trusted her father, and had been using him for years. They’d seen no reason to change.
But then her father had passed eight months ago. And immediately after, Winnie had begun to notice a shift, until people called Dan first, and she was the one getting his overflow. And then she wasn’t even getting that.
She couldn’t prove that he’d used her father’s passing to steal her business, but it was the only thing that made sense. And now the entire town of Harmony associated Dan Parker with electricians and not Winnie Anderson. This, despite Winnie running the longest-serving company, and responsible for solo jobs for most of the time she’d worked there.
She was tired. Tired of fighting for what should rightfully be hers. Tired of running out of money, of struggling to keep her family home functional. She’d worked herself to the bone to drum up more business, to please the few remaining people who would hire her, to prove she was capable.
But clearly none of that mattered. Not to the Sam Harrisons of this world.
She blinked back tears, but they wouldn’t be contained. She needed to get out of here before the dam burst, and she looked even more sensitive and incompetent in front of Sam. Or, worse, in front of Dan.
As her father had taught her—when pride was the last thing you had left, you had to hold onto it with everything you had.
Winnie clutched her tools to her chest and strode towards the door. She’d have to come back later for the electrical tape, when she wasn’t so raw. Maybe when Penny was at the desk, so she wouldn’t be tempted to call Sam out on his assumptions.
She thought she heard Dan call her name behind her, but she ignored the sound, unable to face him. Not now. Not today.
As she hurried out of the store, her eyes blurred with tears, she didn’t notice the person in front of her until she’d crashed into them.
Humiliation stole over her, since there was no way whoever it was could miss her crying. That was one of the problems of living in a small town—everyone knew you. Within five minutes, the whole place would know about her embarrassing meltdown.
“Winnie, I was just…Winnie?”
Winnie sighed in relief as she recognized her friend’s voice. “Jane,” she exhaled. “Thank goodness it’s you.”
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Who do I need to yell at?”
Winnie laughed, the ache in her chest clearing enough that the tears stopped falling.
“No one. Yet. It’s the usual.”
Jane was standing beside Winnie’s truck, wearing a puffy parka with a fur-trimmed hood, tight jeans, and mittens. Her dark skin was flawless, her hair sleek. She looked stylish as always, despite the fact that she was the one with three children. Winnie, on the other hand, had no children, but spent most of her time in flannel with her hair in a hasty ponytail.
It was a quality Winnie had always admired about her best friend.
Seeing Jane rugged up against the elements reminded Winnie that she’d left her jacket in Harrison’s, since she’d taken it off to work on their wiring. She shivered now, not immune to the cold winter chill. With Christmas only a month away, snow had been falling sporadically. And on the days it hadn’t snowed, it was still too cold to be without a jacket.
“Well,” Jane said, placing a sympathetic hand on Winnie’s arm. “TJ has the kids for a bit, so how about we get a hot chocolate. My treat. You look like you need it.”
Winnie almost refused, but she was vulnerable enough that she could use a friend. Even one she hadn’t told her secrets to. After all, soon pride would be the only thing she had left.
“Alright,” she agreed cautiously, figuring out how much to reveal to Jane.