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At six a.m. on the dot, Maggie Watson’s alarm blared loudly. So many people had those devices that woke them up with gentle tones or their favorite song. Not Maggie. She preferred the good old-fashioned buzzing. If she had one of those fancy devices, she’d roll over, go back to sleep, and spend the rest of the day catching up.
Reaching over, she shut off the offending sound and threw the covers back. Today was the first of December. One of her favorite dates of the year, after her birthday, of course.
She picked up Chester, her French bulldog and twirled around the room. “Good morning, Chester. Do you know what day it is? It’s Christmas bow tie day for you and Christmas skirt day for me.”
The dog woofed and his little tail wagged excitedly. Maggie hugged him close and padded out to her kitchen, opening the back door she let Chester out to do his business.
She looked around her house and sighed, the whole place looked sad and unhappy. Normally, there were Christmas decorations everywhere. A tree in the living room. One in the family room and a small one in her bedroom. The front yard of her house usually resembled Santa’s village.
Spending the last two weeks looking after her sick aunt had put a significant crimp in Maggie’s normal Christmas activities. But that was about to change. She would get her house set up after work today even if she had to stay up all night.
She could’ve done it last night, but she’d wanted to work on her Christmas display in the post office window. She always did that one first each year because there wasn’t a lot of room and it was the easiest display to do. The whole town would be peering in that window this morning when she dropped Chester off at doggie day care. Decorating the windows was something she loved doing and hoped it could lead to more work throughout the year There was Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day—so many opportunities to create memorable displays.
This year it was even more imperative that she make a big splash with her Christmas displays. Gossip around the school was that possible budget cuts were looming in the new year and as she was considered support staff, she had a feeling her hours could be cut. And with that came less income. Creating a second career doing something else she loved seemed like the perfect solution. This year’s displays were so important to her, it could be the kick start she needed.
Chester barked and she let him back in. “We’ve got a busy day, Chester. I hope you’re ready.”
He sat on his butt and looked up at her, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. “You want food, don’t you, sweetie?”
His tailed wagged and she grabbed his bowl and can of dog food. “You eat up, I’m going to shower and pick out our Christmas outfits.”
One day she’d have a houseful of kids she could deck out in matching outfits, she just needed to meet the right man. He would have to love Christmas as much as her. Anything else wasn’t worth thinking about.
Of course, he’d have to love pets too, and if Chester didn’t like him, well, then he’d be out the door quicker than Chester swallowing a treat.
Her pup had saved her a few times from loser boyfriends.
Giving herself one last look in the mirror she smiled big. Her Christmas skirt was one of her favorites. The happy Christmas tree with a silver star at a jaunty angle applique was on point and the perfect start to the season. Chester needed his snazzy green bow tie with Christmas trees printed on it so they matched. Her long-sleeved red sweater, nude tights and knee-high black boots completed the outfit.
She was ready kick this season off with a bang.
She’d even used the glitter eyeliner her mom had given her as a gag gift. As a librarian at the local high school, she didn’t enjoy it when the art students came in for study hall after they’d been working with glitter. That stuff got everywhere and was a pain to get out of the carpet. Its only redeeming feature was that it reminded her of the sparkle of the sun glinting on snow. Not that Sweet Ridge had snow all the time, but occasionally everything aligned with a cold snap and snow happened.
Maggie had to admit the silvery glitter eyeliner looked really good. She liked the extra sparkle it gave. Maybe she’d add the eyeliner to her Christmas outfits from now on. She’d look online to see if there were other colors she could get. Maybe gold and green. Traditional Christmas colors.
Scooping up Chester’s collar she headed back out to the kitchen and found him snoozing on the floor. “Come on, sweetie, bow tie time.” His little ears perked up and he trotted over to her.
A few minutes later they were out the door and heading toward Chester’s doggie day care, with a stop at Betty Lou’s Diner, then the post office to see what everyone thought of her display. Maggie had missed Betty Lou’s donuts while she’d been away. She would bet a month’s salary that today’s special donut would have peppermint in it. Anything to celebrate the change of season.
She turned the corner and came to an abrupt halt. A crowd of people stood in front of Mrs. Smith’s Bluebonnet Used Books bookstore. Everyone seemed to be chatting excitedly.
“Hey, what’s going on?” The chatter stopped and everyone turned to look at her.
“Hi, Maggie. I didn’t know you were back in town,” Laurel from the Loose Curl said.
She was relatively new to town, but, boy, did she know how to cut, color, and style hair. Maggie’s had never looked better.
“Yeah, I got back late yesterday.” She canted her head to the crowd. “So is everything all right here?”
“Maggie’s here, let her through,” someone in the crowd shouted and a path was made for her. Two dozen sets of eyes were watching her, waiting for her to move. Apprehension crawled across her shoulders. She tightened her hold on Chester’s lead.
What on earth was happening here?
There seemed to be an air of anticipation surrounding the group. Suddenly, she didn’t want to see what all the fuss was about.
Maggie Watson was never one to back down from anything, though, and she wasn’t going to start now. She might have been the wallflower in high school, hiding behind big baggy sweaters and loose pants to cover the way her body had changed overnight, wearing glasses she didn’t need. But that wasn’t her now. College had given her a confidence Sweet Ridge High hadn’t. She’d accepted the person she’d become and didn’t blend into the crowd anymore.
Squaring her shoulders she marched through the gap everyone had created, Chester trotting beside her. Her jaw dropped and she blinked twice, sure she’d imagined the scene in front of her. The most amazing window display greeted her.
It looked like a Swiss village had been transplanted in the window. The buildings were quaint and had snow on the roof. The trees were also sprinkled with glittery snow. A Santa sat in a giant chair and was surrounded by children. But the thing that set it apart was the train circling the display and the tunnel created from books it traveled through.
It was the type of display that belonged in a Christmas movie. Or in a big city. A display created by a genius.
This couldn’t be happening to her.
Around Sweet Ridge, she was known for her Christmas displays. This time of year everyone stopped calling her Maggie and started calling her Miss Christmas. This was her gig. She started planning her displays in summer when she had time to trawl the internet for inspiration. And now someone else had taken over.
No, she couldn’t let that happen at all. She wouldn’t let that happen.
“Who did this?” She turned her back on the beautiful scene.
The crowd, which seemed to have doubled in size—which meant no one was looking at her display in the post office window—shrugged. They didn’t know? Somehow, she doubted that very much. She knew for a fact that Mrs. Smith didn’t have Christmas decorations like the ones now sitting in her window.
“Looks like you might have some competition for your Christmas decorating title.” This came from Dottie Baxter, one of the older residents in town.
Maggie had never quite connected with the older woman, she never seemed happy. Dottie had been up in Dallas for the last six months, and had returned just before Maggie had left to go look after her aunt. She hadn’t missed her constant negativity all that much.
“I don’t think so, Dottie. There’s no competition.”
“Competition? What’s this I hear about competition?” A deep baritone sounded behind her and she turned.
What the ever living…
Trey Prentice, baseball star, town sports hero, stood in the doorway, looking more handsome than he had when she’d been helping with his paper on Romeo and Juliet. He’d been a senior and she’d been a sophomore. Worlds apart on the social scale then and even more so now.
When had he come back into town?
Why had he come back? Sweet Ridge was nothing compared to living in New York. Oh, she loved living in the small Texas town, but Trey Prentice so didn’t. The second he’d graduated from high school, he’d driven off in a cloud of dust, rarely returning for anything. Or anyone.
“Where’s Mrs. Smith? What are you doing in her store?” she demanded, well aware she wasn’t being very polite. It wasn’t like she was Mrs. Smith’s business advisor and needed to be kept abreast of everything.
“Mrs. Smith’s living with her son in Florida. And it’s my store now.”
“Your store?” she parroted back.
“How is that even possible? When I left town just before Thanksgiving, Mrs. Smith was happy puttering around with her books. I know this because I picked up a couple for my aunt. How can a store change ownership in just over two weeks?”
Maggie was really going to miss Mrs. Smith. She loved wandering among the old books and chatting with her about their favorite characters. What the heck would a baseball star know about Jane Austen? After all, she had to help him in high school with an English assignment.
She had to have walked into an alternate reality. A reality where everything she thought was normal wasn’t. A reality where her secret crush had returned. She pinched herself on the arm and flinched slightly at the pain. Nope, it wasn’t an alternate reality. It was real and had all the hallmarks of turning into a nightmare.
Trey shrugged his impressive shoulders and sipped his coffee. She couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a Christmas sweater. A dancing snowman adorned his chest, with little snowflakes appearing all around him. It really should’ve looked ridiculous on the athlete. Unfortunately, it looked rather sexy. The sweater was probably cashmere, unlike the cotton-wool blend she currently wore.
“It is possible, because here I am.”
Maggie narrowed her eyes at him and placed her hands on her hips. “And the display, I suppose you did that?”
He smiled, a hint of mischief entering his bright blue eyes, and Maggie’s heart skipped a beat before flittering along at its normal pace. She wasn’t going to fall for his charm.
How she wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. “You’re being deliberately obtuse. I hope you paid Mrs. Smith a fair sum and didn’t try to cheat her by offering an obscenely low amount.”
Oh, God, why the heck did she say that? Again—not her business.
This time his eyes narrowed and he stepped closer to her. “I didn’t cheat her. I paid over market value if you must know.”
A wave of contrition swept over her. She’d gone too far. Had known it the second she’d spoken the words. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for.”
“Yes, it was, and thank you.”
“So, Trey, are you going to take over from Maggie and start decorating all the windows around town?”
Damn Dottie and her interfering questions. No way was Trey taking anything from her. She wouldn’t let him. Maggie whirled around again. God, if she kept that up she’d give herself whiplash. “No, Dottie, Trey will not be taking over the displays. That’s my job. And if you must know I decorated the post office’s window last night.”
The other woman sniffed. “Well, you have to admit, his display is pretty impressive.”
No way was she admitting anything to anyone, especially not how much she loved the scene he’d created. That would definitely mean that the town’s shop owners would look to Trey to take over decorating their windows from her.
A sense of desolation built up inside, hollowing out the joy she’d felt when she’d awakened. Decorating windows was her thing. She needed this year to be successful. There was so much riding on it now. Trey couldn’t be asked to do what she always did. No one loved this time of year as much as she did.
Maggie tightened her grip on Chester’s lead and stood a little straighter. “I have to get Chester to doggie day care. Don’t you worry, Dottie. Just wait until you see my displays. They’re going to be so amazing you won’t believe it.”
Dammit, why had she said that? Yes, the other designs she had planned were beautiful, but now she had her doubts because the post office display was not as elaborate as this one.
Why had she let her anger get the better of her? Now that it was out there, she had to live up to her declaration. Find something extra special to add to her already planned out designs.
Trey reached out and tapped her nose, his eyes crinkling. “I can’t wait to see what you come up with, Maggie Watson. Bring. It. On.”
End of Excerpt