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Aggie Harper didn’t know what she’d done. All she knew was that for such bad luck to have found her, a buzzard’s shadow must have crossed her path, she’d walked under a ladder, and she’d pointed at a Texas headstone.
Conscious that she stood on a very public street of a very curious town with her hands planted on her hips and her expression resembling a thundercloud, she took a deep breath. But even as air stole into her lungs and flicked her internal switch to calm and composed, the enormity of the disaster in front of her didn’t diminish.
The crack curving across the glass of the store window to the left of the doorway didn’t appear a big deal. Parts of the break weren’t any thicker than a strand of silk knitting yarn. The damage was immense.
She pressed her lips shut to stifle the frustration writhing inside. The timing couldn’t be worse. Beyond the broken window, the glimmer of the red, greens, and gold of Christmas didn’t bring their usual comfort. Her ugly Christmas sweater store would soon be on life support. Despite her steady income from selling yarn and online knitting patterns, and the amount of sweaters she sold during the holiday season, thanks to a tightening economy, every dollar counted. Replacing a window, let alone paying the insurance deductible, wasn’t in her already stretched budget.
A gust of winter air delved beneath the collar of her red coat, reminding her that the evening shadows would soon segue into night. Without looking away from the broken window, she tucked her moss green mohair scarf more firmly around her neck. An exhaustion that wasn’t only from staying up until late to perfect her latest knitting pattern pressed upon her shoulders.
She wasn’t aware that she had an audience from within the closed store until the movement of a hand waving at her dragged her focus away from the window crack. She erased all tension from her face. Janet couldn’t know how much financial pressure she was under.
The single mom had arrived in Last Stand at the beginning of spring needing a fresh start. Aggie hadn’t hesitated to employ her even if her accountant’s glower had conveyed that Janet’s wages would be coming out of Aggie’s own pocket. To Aggie, every cent was worth it to see the hope and happiness that now lit up Janet’s smile.
She returned the other woman’s wave and pushed open the white-trimmed double glass doors to enter the historic building. The scent of cinnamon and pine wrapped around her from a display of scented candles that adorned the wrought-iron shelves on the side wall.
“I’m so sorry.” Janet’s hands wrung together. “I only noticed the crack when I was vacuuming.”
Aggie gave her a hug. “These things happen. I’ll call my insurance company. Everything will soon be sorted.”
Janet’s forehead remained furrowed as she pulled away. “It could only have happened in the last hour? I didn’t hear a thing.”
“That doesn’t surprise me if you were vacuuming.” Aggie kept her voice light. The antiquated vacuum cleaner that made more noise than a Learjet wasn’t the only thing needing replacing. She turned to glance through the glass storefront that consisted of both small and large panels. “It could be worse. There could be a couple of panes broken.”
“Exactly. Maybe it was a bird?”
“Maybe?” Except the point of impact looked like something small and blunt had hit the surface. She could only hope the break was an accident and that if it was vandalism, then it was an isolated incident. She faced Janet. “It’s getting late. Time for you to head home.”
When Janet went to shake her head, Aggie touched her arm. “Doesn’t Kyle have a math test tomorrow he needs help with? I’ll finish cleaning up.”
Janet only stared at her.
Aggie gave her brightest smile. “I’m fine and no, I’m not working too hard. This is my favorite time of year, remember?”
Janet bent to collect the cumbersome vacuum cleaner. This was a familiar discussion. “I will go home, only because the vacuuming’s all done, Kyle does have a math test, and because Brynn’s waiting for you.”
Aggie groaned. “Please tell me she’s upstairs and not in the knitting room.”
Janet grinned. “Knitting room…for at least fifteen minutes.”
Without another word, Aggie headed past the circular racks of ugly Christmas sweaters toward where a kaleidoscope of yarn filled the back wall. Janet’s “Good luck,” followed her.
The short attention span of her childhood best friend was legendary. Aggie heard a soft thud from the room to her left. As too was the inaccuracy of her throwing arm.
“Brynn?” she called before walking through the doorway. Pure reflex enabled her to catch a purple ball of flying yarn that was meant to go into a basket in the center of the knitting room.
Brynn Croft sat on a wingback chair in corner of the cozy room that formed the heart of the store. Aggie’s business was so much more than a retail outlet; she also provided a social and healing community space. Many a town and personal problem had been solved to the sound of clicking knitting needles and the aroma of fresh-baked apple and cinnamon muffins. Except this time, the knitting room’s atmosphere was far from relaxed and peaceful.
Frustration tensed Brynn’s normally smiling mouth as she jabbed thick knitting needles into the oversize ball of pink and blue hued yarn wedged on her lap. The ball already had so many protruding knitting needles, it resembled a porcupine.
Aggie grinned as she approached and took the knitting needles from out of Brynn’s clenched fist. When they were growing up in the rolling hills outside of town, Brynn would be the first to adopt a stray kitten or to raise an orphaned calf. It was only knitting that sent her into a tailspin.
Brynn fixed weary brown eyes on Aggie. “If you tell me that today is be-kind-to-yarn day, I’m not stopping Clara Perkins from setting you up on a date with that new guy in the hardware store.”
“I’d never dream of saying such a thing.” Aggie bent to retrieve the pair of needles and ball of yellow yarn on the floor that had triggered Brynn’s disintegration. “Look…you’ve cast on five stitches… That’s two more than last time.”
Brynn scowled. “Why can’t I do it? Even Poppy, who hasn’t turned ten yet, can knit a scarf. To make matters worse…she’s offered to make me one.”
Aggie flashed Brynn a reassuring smile.
Brynn gave a deep sigh. “I am going to learn to knit, even if it is the death of me.”
“And I will help you…”
“Even if I am the death of you,” Brynn completed with a laugh, her sunny nature returning.
“Coffee?” Aggie moved over to the small kitchenette to flick on the electric kettle. “Then how about we look at how to cast on again?”
Brynn didn’t answer. Instead, her eyes narrowed. “Your brave face doesn’t fool me, Aggie Harper.” Brynn came to her feet. “We both know I’m not here to knit. Even before today’s broken window, we’ve been worried about you. So, tonight, it’s a girls’ night out at the Last Stand Saloon.”
“Thanks, but I—”
Brynn smiled her sweet smile that didn’t match the dogged light in her fixed gaze. There was a reason why when their music teacher wasn’t able to come to their one-room schoolhouse south of town, Brynn had directed their Christmas play. “My treat—and before you think of an excuse—Maisey’s already left and Eden will call in on her way back from Austin.”
Resistance would be futile. Brynn knew her too well, as did Eden Wright, the third member of the trio that had formed during their days at Elm Springs School out at Wildflower Hill. Maisey was a recent addition to their close-knit group and, as fate would have it, she was the new kindergarten teacher at their old school.
“It will be nice to see everyone. Thank you.”
As they left the knitting room, she sent Brynn a sideways glance. “Has Clara Perkins really tried to set me up with that new hardware guy?”
“No, but now I think about it, it’s a good idea. At least this time when you wear your ugly Christmas sweater, it won’t be the middle of summer.”
Aggie looked ceiling-ward as Brynn walked ahead to open the back door of the store. The first and last blind date her friends had set her up on had been a disaster. She had worn a Christmas sweater, but it had been a simple pattern she’d knitted out of red and white summer-weight cotton. It also hadn’t been her outfit that had been the problem.
“I know you’re rolling your eyes,” Brynn said with a laugh as she glanced over her shoulder.
Aggie pulled the collar of her red coat higher as she stepped outside. “For the hundredth time, it wasn’t my fault that the favorite topic of my date, which you approved of mind you, was the endangered Texas blind salamander.”
Brynn’s smile widened as Aggie turned to lock the door. “Blame Logan. He hadn’t included that little detail when he said he had a single college friend coming to town.”
Logan was Brynn’s older brother and when he was in his ranch workshop working on his spanner sculptures, there were quite a few things he missed.
“That’s the first and last time I’ll bow to matchmaking pressure,” Aggie said before burying her chin into her scarf as the wind barreled along Oak Street.
Brynn just sent her a grin.
They walked the short distance past the bookshop and the bank to the Last Stand Saloon. Every so often, Aggie would brave the cold and lift her head to gaze around. When talking to Janet earlier, she’d spoken the truth. Christmas was her favorite time of year.
Festive garlands graced lampposts and lights were strung across the street, their soft glow pushing back the oncoming darkness. Wood smoke drifted in the air. It wouldn’t be long until the midweek tranquility was replaced by the hustle and bustle of the Friday morning parade and the library tree lighting on that night. She had her fingers and toes crossed that when Main Street remained closed for the weekend, the Christmas markets would entice a further influx of tourists to town.
When they reached the saloon, she took in the simple wreaths that decorated the light stone of the building. As a child, she’d been fascinated by the stories about the battle for Last Stand fought here against Santa Anna’s troops. As an adult, she still found herself studying the battle-scarred walls. Beside the front door, bullet holes had almost gouged a hole in the limestone.
Today, the only battle waged was against the Texas winter weather. As she followed Brynn inside, the warmth of the saloon returned the feeling to her cheeks. With a nod to the snowy-haired bartender, Klaus, they made their way to their regular corner booth, which remained empty. Maisey hadn’t yet arrived.
After she’d removed her coat and scarf, Aggie headed to the bar. Money might be tight, but she wasn’t being a burden on her friends. Brynn had enough challenges of her own getting her new cut-flower farm operational.
Klaus greeted her with his trademark grin. He’d been a close family friend and, despite the years since she’d lost her father, Matthew, and then her mother, Emily, Klaus didn’t seem to age. He was officially retired, but whenever Slater Highwater needed an extra set of hands in the Last Stand Saloon around Christmas time or the rodeo, Klaus worked behind the bar. Now that Slater had also found his happily-ever-after with Joey Douglas, the assistant librarian, he was wanting more time off.
“The usual?” Klaus asked, his Texan drawl slow and deep. With his long white beard and twinkling eyes, if he’d been dressed in red and wearing round spectacles, he’d have made the most perfect Father Christmas.
“Yes, please, and also for Maisey.”
“I heard about your window.”
“News travels fast.”
“In this town it does. Any luck with the insurance company?”
“I’ll call first thing tomorrow.” She glanced over to where Brynn spoke on her phone. “A certain person was knitting.”
Klaus chuckled. “Enough said.” The amusement in his eyes sobered. “I have a little extra put aside…”
Aggie had already shaken her head before Klaus had finished. “Thank you, but I couldn’t. You’ve already done more than enough helping me get the upstairs rooms habitable.”
Over the fall, they’d sanded floorboards, painted walls, and renovated the bathroom in the apartment above the store. The more dust-covered they’d become, the more they’d laughed. The plan had been to rent out the empty space to generate extra money. But now, with the window expenses, the last items she needed to make the one-bedroom apartment livable would have to wait.
“We both know that was more fun than work,” Klaus said, words gentle before he busied himself making her drinks order.
When he placed three tall glasses of paloma cocktail in front of her, she thanked him with a smile. Glass clinked as she picked up the drinks and turned to walk over to where Maisey’s auburn hair now gleamed beside Brynn’s blonde head beneath the overhead light of the corner booth.
Aggie came to a stop as a man wearing cowboy boots jostled her elbow. She accepted his apology with a brief nod as the lime wedges in each glass bobbed. She waited until they’d settled and there was zero chance of any cocktail spilling before relaxing her tense shoulders and walking forward.
No harm done. Her steps quickened. Tomorrow also was a new day and she’d be staying away from buzzards, ladders, and cemeteries. She couldn’t afford for anything else to go wrong, however small. Her control depended upon it.
End of Excerpt