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September 29, 2020

Happily This Christmas

Happily Inc, Book No. 6

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid, and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…

Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.

As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants: his heart?

Chapter One

Annoying other people was one thing. Wynn Beauchene could completely get behind that idea, mostly because more often than not, people deserved to be annoyed. But annoying herself? What was up with that? Not only was it a total waste of time, it made no sense. The only solution was to stop acting like a sixteen-year-old girl with a crush on the quarterback. She was a mature adult, a single mother with a successful business and a life she really liked. If she was attracted to her handsome neighbor, then she needed to stop hanging out by the front window of her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. She should march over to his place, knock on his front door and say… And say…

“I’m an idiot,” she muttered out loud, not for the first time. No matter how she envisioned the “march over there” scenario, she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to say when he opened the door.

Hi, Garrick. I was wondering if maybe we could, um, well, you know, go out sometime.

Really? That was how she was going to start the conversation? Shouldn’t she lead into it? Maybe mention she’d enjoyed having him as her neighbor for the past year and tell him how nice it was that he was a police officer and the whole street liked the fact that he parked his patrol car in the driveway. Not that crime was a problem in Happily Inc, because it wasn’t, but still, having a cop as a neighbor was great. Although her interest was more personal, what with how he’d looked over the summer, mowing his lawn…shirtless. Not that she hadn’t noticed him before—she had. Until the lawn mowing season, she’d managed to ignore him, but now she couldn’t and it was already November and she’d done absolutely nothing to take their nonrelationship past the waving and hi-ing stage, and here she was, hanging out by her front window and she was ready to slap herself upside the head.

It was the dating thing. She wasn’t good at it because she didn’t do it very often. There were a lot of reasons, very few of them interesting, but in the past five or six months, she’d been thinking that maybe it was time to let the no-dating rule go and have a personal life. But while she’d spent a lot of time thinking, she hadn’t done much on the doing front.

“I’m better than this,” she muttered, ignoring the little voice in her head whispering that she obviously wasn’t.

It was just that in every other area of her life, she was capable. Hunter, her fourteen-year-old, acting out in school? She could deal with that five ways to Sunday. A printing order gone awry at work? Easy-peasy. A friend with an emotional crisis? She was all about the hugging and straight talk. But when it came to dating, or wanting to date, or thinking Garrick was sexy and supersweet with her son and lately she’d been wanting them to get to know each other better, she was a mess. Worse than a mess—she was pathetic.

As proof, she was standing in her living room, looking out the picture window, staring at his house, waiting for him to get home. It was Saturday afternoon. She had a lot of things she should be doing, and none of them included staring at some guy’s empty driveway.

If only there weren’t something about him. But there was. Not just the whole tall with broad shoulders thing, although that was very nice, as were his gray eyes and dark hair, but that wasn’t really what got her attention. It was more the fact that while Garrick was always friendly and pleasant, there was a hint of something a little dark and dangerous lurking beneath the surface. Ridiculous, but true, and like most reasonably intelligent women who knew better, she couldn’t help responding to the possibility of a great guy who just might have a whisper of a dangerous streak.

She turned away from the window just in time to hear a dinging sound. After walking into the kitchen, she pulled two cookie sheets out of the oven. Because she’d made chocolate chip cookies, if you could believe it. Things were that bad.

Oh, not the baking—she baked all the time for Hunter, and most likely she would pretend she’d made these for her son, as well. Only she hadn’t. She’d baked them thinking she would take them over to Garrick, in a neighborly kind of gesture that—hopefully—would lead to some witty conversation, lots of laughter and him confessing that he’d spent the past few months wanting to ask her out.

It was a lot of pressure to put on chocolate chip cookies.

She slid in two more cookie sheets, reset the timer and had nearly moved all the baked cookies to a cooling rack when the doorbell rang.

Wynn walked through the living room and pulled open the front door only to find Garrick on her front porch.

He wasn’t in uniform—instead, he had on jeans and a T-shirt. As usual, his mouth was curved up in a smile that left her a little breathless.

“Hi, Wynn,” he said, his voice low and sexy—although that could have been wishful thinking on her part. “Do you have a second?”

“Sure.”

She stepped back to let him in, wondering what on earth was happening. She’d just been thinking about him, and here he was. Weirder still, even though they’d been neighbors for a year, they’d never exchanged much more than a few passing comments, greeting each other and mentioning the weather. They’d certainly never been in each other’s houses.

“I’m baking cookies and I need to get them on a cooling rack,” she said, leading the way into the kitchen. “What’s up?”

“I need your advice.”

“Sure. I’m good at giving advice.” She glanced at him as he slid onto one of the stools at the island in the center of her kitchen. “People are less good about taking it.”

“Tell me about it.” He eyed the cookies. “May I?”

“Help yourself, but be careful. They’re hot.”

He took one and blew on it before taking a bite. His eyes half closed as he chewed.

“Perfect,” he told her, looking at her. “You’re a great cook.”

“Thanks.”

Despite the relatively ordinary conversation, everything about the moment was surreal. Him sitting in her kitchen, them talking, all of it. Not that she minded his presence. Her kitchen didn’t host many men, not counting service guys doing things like fixing her dishwasher and unclogging her sink, and the change was nice. Plus she couldn’t help feeling she was being given the perfect opportunity to try one of the conversational threads she’d been practicing, where she mentioned them maybe, possibly, going out sometime.

“Joylyn’s going to be moving in with me,” he said, taking a second cookie. “It’s going to be a new experience for me.” He glanced at her. “We’ve never lived together before—not full time. There have been plenty of weekends and vacations, but this will be different. I want to make sure the house is comfortable for her.”

Joylyn? Who was Joylyn and why was she moving in?

Even as the questions formed, the obvious answer popped into her rattled brain. He had a girlfriend. Of course he did. She’d been telling herself that two years after her last relationship ended she was ready to find someone new, and Garrick was about to have Joylyn move in. How perfect.

“I think I have the right furniture,” he said. “It’s the other stuff I need help with. Making the house seem…” He paused, as if searching for the right word. “Cozy.”

Her mind went blank. Totally and completely blank.

“Cozy?”

Had he really just said that word? It didn’t seem very Garrick-like, but then what did she know about anything? She’d never suspected there was a Joylyn, which pretty much confirmed the whole her being an idiot thing.

“I want the house nice when she arrives,” he continued. “She’s having a rough time of it, what with being pregnant and all. If she was older, it might be easier, but she’s only twenty-one and—”

“Joylyn is twenty-one and pregnant?” Wynn asked, her voice a little more shrill than she would like.

Because him having a girlfriend wasn’t enough of a hit, she thought grimly. Sure, make her a toddler and pregnant.

“What were you thinking? She’s way too young to be your girlfriend. How did you even meet? Were you hanging out at the high school, hoping to get lucky?”

So much for her Garrick daydreams, she thought, wishing she hadn’t been stupid enough to believe he was crush-worthy. Yuck and double yuck. To think she’d wasted all that time thinking about him. No more sexy, possibly dangerous neighbors for her. That was for sure. She was going to go find a nonsexy, undangerous guy to fall for. She glared at Garrick, wishing she were physically strong enough to drag him to the door and throw him out. He was—

“My girlfriend?” Garrick’s voice was nearly a yelp. “She’s my daughter.”

They stared at each other. Wynn had a feeling she looked as shocked as he did. On the heels of that revelation came the admission that she really had to start thinking before she spoke and maybe not be so hasty about assuming the worst.

“Oh,” she managed to say, just as the timer dinged.

She busied herself removing the cookie sheets from the oven and setting them on the stove, then turned off the oven. She put down the hot pads, then drew in a breath and looked at Garrick.

“We should probably start over,” she murmured.

“You thought I had a pregnant, twenty-one-year-old girlfriend? Wouldn’t that make me a jerk?”

While she wanted to say that it would, she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. “I’ll admit to some disappointment,” she said instead.

“I would hope so. I’m thirty-eight. I don’t want to date someone in their twenties. What would we talk about?”

“Some guys aren’t interested in conversation.”

“That’s not me.”

They stared at each other. Despite her embarrassment and a sizable dose of chagrin, she found herself noticing that he had really attractive eyes. Not just the unusual gray coloring but the shape. They suited his face and, well, the rest of him. Without wanting to, she remembered the interesting scars on his torso. Not that she’d been looking—he was the one who had chosen to mow his lawn shirtless the previous summer.

She had no idea where the scars had come from. If she had to guess, she would say he’d been in more than one knife fight, but that wasn’t possible. The man was a police officer in Happily Inc. Guys who did that didn’t fight with knives.

She put the rest of the cookies onto cooling racks, poured two glasses of milk, took the stool on the other end of the island and then reached for a cookie.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Wynn Beauchene, your neighbor. We don’t usually say much more than hi and talk about the weather.”

Garrick smiled. “Hey, Wynn. I’m Garrick McCabe. I grew up here in Happily Inc and had my daughter when I was seventeen. I moved to Phoenix when I started college, mostly because Joylyn and her mom were there. I got on the Phoenix police force. When Joylyn went off to college a few years back, I returned to Happily Inc. Last year I bought the house next door.”

“We all appreciate having your patrol car parked in the driveway.”

“I’m glad.” He grabbed another cookie. “My adult daughter is married to a deployed Marine. Her mom has three boys at home, and it’s getting to be a bit much for Joylyn, who’s due in about eight weeks, so right around Christmas. Alisha, Joylyn’s mother, thought it would be a good idea for Joylyn to stay with me until Christmas or until Chandler, Joylyn’s husband, comes home, whichever happens first.”

“I’m glad she’s going to be with family during the holidays.”

“Me, too.” The smile faded. “Joylyn and I went through a rough patch when she was about fifteen. We used to be close, and then one day she didn’t want her dad around. I’m hoping to use her time with me to reconnect.” One shoulder rose and lowered. “To that end, I want the house to be comfortable for her.”

“Cozy?” she asked, her voice teasing.

His smile returned, which made her unexpectedly happy. “That would be it. I don’t know anything about decorating or, you know, plants, and I don’t cook. Her being pregnant adds stakes to the game for sure. That’s why I want your help. I’ve seen your graphic work around town, and it’s always exactly right for whatever business it is. The colors, the tone, all of it. You’re a real professional. You have excellent taste and style, and I was hoping to get your advice about what I should have around.” He waved his hand. “Maybe some more dishes and throw pillows and stuff.”

That was a lot of information to process, she thought, slightly off-balance from the unexpected compliment. She always worked hard to please her clients, and she was happy to know her work was appreciated, but it was strange to consider that Garrick would look at a sign in a window and think of her. Did he think of her in other ways or was that her hoping a little too much?

Regardless, she liked that he cared about his kid and that he wanted to make his house nice for her. She also felt bad about assuming the worst about him, so even if she hadn’t been inclined to help—which she was—that would have pushed her over the edge.

“I’ll give you whatever advice you’d like,” she told him. “But my style might not be hers. That could be a problem.”

“No, you and Joylyn have a lot in common design-wise. You have a good eye for space and color, and she would like what you do.”

His words made her feel a little floaty, which was silly. She was in some serious trouble here—she hadn’t been this flaky even in high school. If she wasn’t careful, she was going to start flipping her hair and saying “like” in every sentence.

“If you’re all right with me adding fringe to every surface in your house, then I’m in,” she told him.

He chuckled. “Fringe would be a look.”

“But not a good one?” she teased.

“I’m not a fringe kind of guy.”

“Good to know. Tell me about Joylyn.”

Something sad flashed through his eyes. “I don’t see her much anymore. In fact I haven’t seen her since the wedding. Like I said, we used to be tight.” One corner of his mouth turned up. “She was my best girl.”

“I’m sorry that changed.”

“Me, too.” He was silent for a second, then drew in a breath. “As I said, she’s married to Chandler, who is currently deployed. Alisha says he’ll be back before the baby’s born because first babies are always late.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe my little girl is going to be a mother. It all happened so fast.”

“Children grow up even when we don’t want them to. I’m figuring that out with Hunter.”

“He’s a good kid.”

“Thanks. I like to think so.” She wrapped her hands around her glass of milk. “I’m happy to help with whatever you need, and I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

“Thank you for the offer. As for the rest of it, I can see why you’d think what you did. In my own defense, I’ll admit it never occurred to me you wouldn’t know about my daughter, what with Happily Inc being a small town and all.”

“This might shock you, Garrick, but we don’t spend a lot of time talking about you.”

He stared at her in mock surprise. “Now you’re just being mean.”

She laughed. “We have our own lives we discuss.”

“But hey, it’s me.”

They smiled at each other. Wynn wondered if there was a way to ask about any other women that might be in his life, but figured she shouldn’t press her luck. She was going to help her neighbor, and in the helping, she might get a chance to probe into his personal life. If he was single, she would try to find a way to suggest they go out to dinner and get to know each other. Of course the more likely scenario was that they spent some time together, and then she discovered he was annoying. Because that seemed to happen a lot. Her friends said she was too picky, while she thought of herself as careful.

“When is she going to move in with you?” she asked.

“Next Saturday.”

“Then we should probably take a look at your house and make a plan.”

“When’s a good time?” he asked.

“I’m free now.”

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