“What are you doing, Mom?” Zack leans over my shoulder to peer at my laptop screen.
“I’m looking at candy recipes for Christmas.” I point to the image in front of me. “This one looks amazing. Look at those swirls of color.”
“Don’t you have enough candy choices for Christmas?” he asks. “Why do you want to make your own when you can just order it from one of your suppliers?”
“Some of it is just so cheap and generic.” I shut the computer and move down the counter to the register. “People are so used to the same old thing every year. I could make some really good candy in seasonal shapes and colors to introduce something new into the market. I think people would appreciate that.”
He shakes his head and clucks his tongue. “Don’t you have enough to do without making your own candy? I swear, Mom. You’re a sucker for punishment.”
I laugh. “Maybe. I was just looking at some of the supplier catalogs for Christmas, and it’s all the same old candy canes and gingerbread men.”
“What’s wrong with that? I like candy canes and gingerbread men.”
“You’re twenty years old, sweetheart,” I tell him. “You’ve had twenty Christmases in your life. When you’ve had forty-five of them like I have, maybe you’ll be over candy canes and gingerbread men.”
“But your customers are younger,” he reminds me.
“I’ll get candy canes and gingerbread men, but I think I’ll try my hand at some new varieties, too. It will be fun!”
He bites back a grin and turns away. “You and your experiments, Mom. I can just see our kitchen now, with caramel dripping from the light fixtures and taffy splattered over the walls.”
I don’t laugh. I gaze off into space thinking things over. “That’s just the thing. If I’m going to sell candy I made myself, it has to be made in a commercial, certified kitchen. I wouldn’t be able to do it in our kitchen at home, and we don’t have a kitchen here in the store.”
“So much for that brilliant idea,” he remarks.
I don’t answer, but I’m not ready to let go of this idea yet. Why should Christmas come through the mail in a tin? Why shouldn’t I make my own candy to spice up the holidays?
An iron-grey sky covers West End and freezing wind blasts down Main Street. The town cowers in semi-darkness, inching through December to the distant light of Christmas.
Down Main Street, my fellow businesses sport their early decorations. A huge painted Santa’s sleigh with five reindeer decorates the front window of Maria Luis’s nail salon. Tinsel and lights highlight Horace Bentley’s used bookstore.
Zack takes off his apron. “I’m leaving now, Mom. I’m spending the night with Gilly so I won’t be home until tomorrow.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Have a good time.”
He gives me a peck on the cheek and leaves me with a sinking heart. Why do I get wistful every time he leaves to spend time with Gilly? Why should I begrudge them time together while they’re young?
I can’t stand around moping over someone else’s life. I have too much to do myself. I turn my mind to my own Christmas decorations. I’m the candy store, and I let a bookstore and a nail salon beat me to the punch. I better get on the bandwagon now.
I turn away to go get the decorations out of the storeroom when my doorbell jingles. I look over my shoulder to see Stacy Koontz from the Happy-Go-Lucky Café and Simone Peretti from the antique store come in.
Stacy glows as usual. “Margaret! Just the person we’re looking for.”
“You found me. What can I do for you two?”
“We’re getting ready for the Winter Carnival,” Simone tells me. “We want you to help us organize and pass out flyers to advertise.”
“What Winter Carnival?” I ask.
Stacy gasps out loud. “Do you mean you don’t know what the Winter Carnival is?”
“I never heard of it before.”
The two women exchange glances. “This is outrageous,” Simone huffs. “It’s only the biggest event in West End’s year. It takes place in the third week of December, and tourists come from all over the Eastern Seaboard to participate. All the stores on Main Street set up displays, and the Carnival ends with a huge Bonfire on the Beach on Christmas Eve. It’s a big deal.”
“Sounds like it,” I remark. “What do you want me to do?”
“Welp!” Stacy claps her hands. “I was thinking this year we should up the ante. In the past, all the stores on Main Street set up tables and displays along the sidewalks, kind of like we did with the street fair, but even bigger. I was thinking this year we should have decorations and angels and garlands strung over the street and a big tree with lights down there by the entrance to town from the highway.”
“That sounds great,” I agree.
“I don’t think it sounds great,” Simone counters. “I say we put the tree at the other end of the street near the Day Care Center.”
“What for?” Stacy argues. “We want people to see our best decorations when they first drive into town. Some of them won’t go anywhere near the Day Care Center. Besides, Elizabeth Bartholomew would hate to have the tree in front of her premises.”
“How do you know?” Simone asks. “Have you discussed it with her? Have you gone around and poisoned everyone in town against my idea?”
“How could I do that when I didn’t even know what your idea was?” Stacy asks. “You never told me you wanted the tree there.”
“Well, you never told me you wanted the tree near the entrance to town,” Simone returns. “If I had known that, I never would have agreed to help you organize the Carnival.”
I hold up both hands. “Hold it right there, you two. It’s the first week of December. We can’t start arguing over Christmas now or we’ll spoil the whole holiday season. I’m sure we can work out where to put the tree.”
“Yeah,” Simone grouses. “Near the Day Care Center.”
“No,” Stacy fires back. “Near the highway entrance.”
I move between them. “Did either of you ever think someone else in this town might have an idea about where they want the tree? The tree is a good idea, but we should talk to the other shopkeepers about where to put it before we make any definite decisions. In the meantime, you can put me down to help out in any way. Just let me know what you want me to do.”
“The first thing we need to do,” Stacy tells me, “is to design flyers to pass out.”
“The first thing we need to do,” Simone snarls, “is to decide where to put the tree.”
“It sounds to me like neither of you should be involved in deciding where to put the tree,” I interject. They both round on me with sour faces. I see the situation crumbling before my eyes, so I change the subject. “Maybe Zack can design the flyers. He’s getting into design these days. I’ll ask him.”
I take the two women by the elbows, one in each hand, and steer them to the door. “You two have a good day. We can talk more about the Carnival.”
I hustle them onto the sidewalk and let the door swing closed behind them. I retreat into the candy store with a relieved sigh. That was close.
The Winter Carnival sounds like a lot of fun. Now I definitely have more motivation to make some new, exciting, inventive candy to sell to the tourists. I go back to the storeroom and get down the boxes of decorations. I haul the first one to the front when Detective David Graham enters.
He smiles at the box in my hands. “I wondered when you would get into the holiday spirit. I wondered if we were going to have a grinch manning the candy store this year.”
“Grinch—me? Never! I love Christmas. Stacy and Simone were just in here telling me about the Winter Carnival. It sounds like a blast. By the way, they want to set up a big town Christmas tree and they’re already arguing about where to set it up. I think you should inform the Police there might be domestic unrest around the holiday preparations.”
He makes a face. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll alert the riot squad. Do you want a hand with that?”
He takes the box out of my hands. Before I can stop him, he dives in and kisses me. “Hey! What was that for?”
“Just because.” He manhandles the box onto the sidewalk outside the store and sets it on the concrete. “Do you have a step ladder to put these up?”
I duck back inside and throw on my heavy winter coat, along with my scarf. That wind is more bitter than I realized. When I get back from the storeroom retrieving the step ladder, I find David inside the store. “You don’t have to stick around. I know it’s cold out there, and I can put up the decorations on my own.”
“If you’re going up on a ladder, I am definitely sticking around,” he informs me. “You have a nasty habit of getting hit over the head at the worst possible time. Besides, I came over here to ask you out to dinner tonight.”
“You did?” I look around at him. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
“Because the idea of seeing you climb up a ladder to hang Christmas decorations was too entertaining to pass up.” The corners of his mouth twitch at the thought. “Well? Go on.”
“I don’t want to do it now with you hanging around watching. I didn’t think I would have an audience watching and waiting to see me make a fool of myself.”
He breaks into a full grin. “All right. I’ll leave you alone as long as you go out to dinner with me tonight.”
“Of course I’ll go out to dinner with you tonight,” I tell him. “What is it this time—the Happy-Go-Lucky again?”
“Heck, no, it’s not the Happy-Go-Lucky again,” he snaps. “I was planning to take you to the Overlook.”
My eyebrows fly up. “The Overlook Hotel—you mean the one on the beachfront?”
“That’s the one. They have a great restaurant, and you can look out over the channel with the lighthouse lighting up the ocean beyond. I used to go there with my wife. As a matter of fact, I took her there when I proposed to her.”
I freeze in my tracks. “You’re not going to propose to me, are you?”
He laughs out loud. That laugh fills the whole store and shakes the dust off the rafters. “That would be pretty foolish of me when we just had that conversation the other day about enjoying our independent lives and not wanting anything to interfere with that.”
I blush and look away. “That wasn’t the other day.”
I don’t say it out loud, but we’re both thinking it. We had that conversation before our disastrous breakup a few months ago. He’s trying to take it easy on me, now that we’re back together. He doesn’t want to rub my nose in how impulsively I dumped him over something that wasn’t even his fault.
“It doesn’t matter when it was,” he murmurs. “We said it and we both meant it. I’m not inviting you to the Overlook to propose to you. It’s the nicest restaurant around if you don’t want to drive to Peterborough. You’ve lived in West End almost nine months and you still haven’t been there, so why not?”
I straighten up to face him. “I would be honored to go out to dinner with you at the Overlook Hotel. I’m flattered that you would ask.”
He eases close to me, slides his hand around my back, and pulls me against him. “I wouldn’t go with anyone but you.” He kisses me again, slower this time. “I’ll pick you up at seven.” He turns around and walks away.