She smoothed her hand across the cloth. She loved her shop, loved what it signified. Home. Her home. Hers and her daughter Lala’s. A fresh start, a new holiday in her new home.
She looked into the open door of her office, where her daughter was sitting at the desk doing her homework, her blonde head bent over the notebook, her pencil gripped in her little hand. Willow would check it in a minute. Just knowing her daughter was within arm’s reach as she worked gave her a warm feeling...which was good for a Minnesota winter.
Even though they had yet to see one snowflake. As she listened to the women in the quilting room, she understood that this was one of the warmest winters on record. It figured, her first winter on her own, when she looked forward to building a snowman, going sledding, having snowball fights, all the things she had never experienced growing up in Texas.
She’d been assured the snow would come, and she’d have all those experiences, but she wanted them for Christmas.
She was going to take a snow day the first chance she got.
“Oh my goodness, look at the time!” exclaimed Sharon Marcel, accompanied by the sound of her chair scooting back from the quilting table. “I need to get home and get dinner started.”
Other murmurs of assent followed, and more chairs scraped along the floor. Willow peeked around the corner to see women stretching their backs, tucking glasses away, folding up sewing kits. They’d leave the quilt stretched on the frame until they could get back to it—usually the same women, though some alternated. They’d return every day until the quilt was finished, since they’d be raffling it at the Bluestone Christmas Festival.
Good for the town, good for her fledgling business.
The women retrieved their coats from the hooks near the door and bundled up. It may not have snowed, but it was still cold. They all called their goodbyes to her and Lala before they headed out into the evening.
Something else she had to get used to in Minnesota—it got dark really early.
The shop was so quiet after the women left. Willow spent a few more minutes restocking the store before she walked into her office and dropped her hands to her daughter’s shoulders and bent to kiss her head.
“How’s the homework?”
“Hard. I don’t get fractions.”
“Oh, well, you’re in the world’s best place to learn fractions.” Willow crouched beside her daughter and looked at the paper. “What are we looking at?”
“Comparing fractions. How am I supposed to know if three-fourths is bigger than two-thirds?”
“Come here, and I’ll show you.” She led the way to her cutting table, which had the fractions etched into the metal ruler, along with the inches. “Two-thirds of a yard is twenty-four inches. See? Three-fourths of a yard is twenty-seven inches.” She put her fingers on the points of the ruler. “If I sold Mrs. Marcel three-fourths of a yard, and Mrs. Givens two-thirds of a yard, who would get more fabric?”
She didn’t think Lala was listening, only stretching to peer at the ruler. “Can I take this ruler to school?” she asked as she transferred answers from the ruler onto her paper.
“Um, no, but you can take the concept of it with you. Pretty soon it will all be in your memory and you won’t have to think about it.”
“Done!” Lala announced, straightening. “Can we go home now? I’m starving.”
So was Willow. She had dinner in her new slow-cooker, and just the thought of the warm meal waiting for her made her stomach growl. Her store hours stated she would be here until six, but she didn’t think anyone would be coming in the last forty minutes or so. And a lost sale or two wouldn’t break the bank.
“Pack up your stuff and we’ll get going. I’ll just make one more round and then we’ll head home.”
Home was a little Craftsman-style house three blocks away, newly renovated and cozy. She took Lala’s mittened hand in hers and they swung arms as they walked home. Walking home in this weather was probably ridiculous, but she loved her new town and driving just seemed like a waste. She’d be driving plenty when the snow started.
She opened the door to the house, anticipating the smell of cooking roast and…nothing. Rats. Had she forgotten to turn on the slow-cooker? She flipped the light switch to investigate and…nothing.
“Mom, it’s cold in here.”
Willow rubbed her nose. “The power’s out.”
“What are we going to do?”
She pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight app. “Wait here. I’m going to see if maybe it’s a circuit breaker.”
“Erm.” The questions were getting harder, and Lala wasn't even a preteen yet. “The builders put in different electrical circuits in the house so not everything is drawing power from the same thing at the same time. So it doesn't overload the system, see? And if it does overload the system, it automatically shuts that area off.”
“So why is the whole house dark?”
Good question. “Let me just check. Wait here.” Using the phone, she found her way to the breaker box in the kitchen pantry and opened it. No, everything looked set. Maybe the fuse box, then, but she didn’t know how to change a fuse.
She needed to call someone, but she didn’t know who. She considered going to the neighbors, who still had lights, but hated to intrude at dinner time.
“Let’s get in the car and head to town for some dinner.” She’d have to dispose of the no-doubt ruined meal, but she’d do that when she had more than the light from her phone.
Lala groaned, dropped her backpack to the floor by the door and turned toward the garage.
Quinn’s Bar and Grill was busy, the gravel parking lot filled. Willow waited for Lala to get out of the car and they walked up the stairs from the parking lot to the bar that resembled a two-story log cabin. From what she understood, it used to be just a bar, frequented by the fishermen and hunters that had come to town. But as the town had changed and tried to draw people back to it after the recession had kept people home and away from the lake, the bar had started to serve a pretty decent menu, and had become pretty popular in the small town.
They walked into the large open room, lit along the walls with neon beer signs, with green garland draped from one to the other in an attempt at Christmas cheer. She scanned the rough-hewn pine tables for an empty spot. She steered Lala toward an available one and sat down, a little disappointed as she thought of the meal she’d taken the trouble to make. Nothing on the menu was going to satisfy her. But she’d needed to come somewhere where she could ask for help with their power. They couldn’t go the night without it.
She recognized the waitress who came to their table with menus, but couldn’t remember her name, and she wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Hey, Willow, Lala,” the waitress said brightly. “What can I get you to drink?”
They placed their orders, but before the waitress could walk away, Willow leaned her arms on the table. “Hey, I’m sorry, but our power’s out. Do you know of anyone who can come take a look?”
“I’ll ask Quinn.” She motioned to the man behind the bar, the owner of the place, who was leaning on the bar playing with the feet of a baby in a carrier.
Willow followed her gaze. “I don't want to take him away from his family. Is there someone I can hire?”
“Let me ask Quinn,” the waitress said again, and hurried off.
“Why didn’t you let me get a Coke?” Lala asked.
“Because the last thing I need is a hopped-up sugar monkey running around a dark house.”
Lala giggled and Willow stopped herself from grabbing her daughter’s hands and holding onto them. Lala was getting to an age where she wouldn't want to be seen holding her mother’s hands…and probably was going to be tired of being called Lala before long. The nickname came from her inability as a toddler to pronounce her real name, Lorelei.
“Do you think the power will be back on by the time Rudolph comes on?”
“Oh. Hm. I guess it depends on what’s wrong with it. If not, we’ll buy it and make a special night of watching Christmas shows.”
“Well, what do you think could be wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.” Willow sat back, unwrapping the silverware from the tightly wound napkin, then flashed her daughter a smile. “We reached the extent of my expertise with the circuit breakers.”
“What if they can’t fix it tonight?”
“Then we might have to sleep in the quilt shop. Cover up with lots of fabric.”
“We could make a fort,” Lala said with a bounce in her seat.
Willow grimaced. “Yeah, probably not that. It won’t come to that, though.” She hoped. “It’s probably just a fuse or something.”
She was saved from another electrical explanation when Quinn Alden approached the table.
“Hey, Willow, Jess said you’re having some trouble at home? No power?”
She folded her arms on the table with a sigh. “Yes, the whole house is dark. I checked the breaker box, but it seemed to be okay.”
“I have a friend who could come take a look for you.”
Hope surged, which surprised her because she’d thought she’d been pretty sure they could fix it today. “Would he be able to come by tonight? Or she?”
Quinn grinned. “He. Yeah, let me give him a call.”
“Oh. Well. Should we get our food to go?”
“Nah, I’ll tell him to meet you here, that okay?”
“That would be perfect.” She relaxed a bit, not all that comfortable with meeting a strange man alone at her home.
Quinn hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll take care of that, then. You all good here?”
“We’re great, thanks.”
“Do you know him?” Lala asked when he walked away.
“Everyone pretty much knows everybody. He’s married to that pretty lady there.” She motioned to the bar, where a tall blonde was wrangling a dark-haired toddler while balancing a baby carrier on the bar. “She owns The Landing, where people rent boats and ice fishing huts, and he owns this place, so they’re probably the most well-known people in town.”
“Are we really going to live here forever?” Lala’s tone held the slightest of whines. “I miss Texas. I miss my friends. I miss having places to go.”
“Come on, Lala.” This time she didn’t stop herself from taking her daughter’s hands. “This is our adventure. It’s going to be good for us.” She hoped. All she wanted was a new start, making it on her own with her daughter. She was determined to be an independent woman, to show Lala how to be one.
Their food arrived at the table and she didn’t even admonish Lala for her overuse of ketchup.
The door opened and a cold draft swept into the room, accompanied by a guy in a knit hat and shearling coat. He didn’t take off his coat before he approached the bar, as most people did. Willow couldn’t say why she watched as he braced both hands against the bar and leaned in, calling to Quinn. Quinn didn’t respond, just pointed in her direction. The man turned and looked right at her with eyes the color of the leaves outside.
Was this her electrician? The question was erased as the man approached her table.
“Hey, you’re Willow Branson? Quinn said you don't have any power?”
“Right. We walked into the house and it was dark. Not the circuit breakers,” she added quickly, to show him she wasn’t completely helpless.
“Yeah, no, the whole house wouldn't be out if it was. I’m Chase Granzer, by the way.” He stretched out a gloved hand to her.
She dropped her burger into the basket, wiped her hands hastily on her napkin and took his hand, strong and warm beneath the leather glove. Whoa. She hadn't had a reaction to a man since—since, well, watching Aidan Turner in Poldark. Hm.
“I’ll just get Jess to bring us some to-go boxes,” she said, turning her attention to practical matters.
“No hurry.” He pulled out a chair and sat. “You can finish eating. Not like another fifteen minutes is going to make a difference.” He turned to her daughter. “Hey. I’m Chase.”
“I’m Lorelei,” she said, sitting straighter.
Willow lifted her eyebrows at the formality in her daughter’s voice.
“Lorelei. I’ve always loved that name. How old are you?”
“Nine. What’s that, a freshman in high school?”
Lorelei giggled. “Fourth grade.”
“Fourth grade.” He bounced Lorelei’s still-wrapped silverware on its end before unwrapping it and handing her a napkin, then touching the corner of his own mouth to show her she had some ketchup there. “I don't suppose Mrs. Finch is still teaching that?”
Lala’s eyes widened as she dabbed at her mouth. “She is! She was your teacher?”
He leaned on the table, suddenly seeming very large in his heavy coat. Willow was torn between protectiveness toward her daughter and, well, appreciation.
“Did you like her? I mean, she’s kind of scary.”
He shook his head, a smile tilting up one corner of his mouth. “Best teacher I ever had, not even kidding. I still remember her reading to us after recess.”
“She still does that!”
“I bet she doesn't still read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, with the voices.”
Lala’s eyes were huge and bright. “She does!”
“‘Funny funny funny Fudgie,’” they both said together, in oddly guttural voices, and both cracked up laughing.
Willow knew enough of Mrs. Finch and the book to smile. “So you’ve lived here all your life?”
He leaned back in his chair. “I have. I live right over on the lake there.”
“On the lake?” Lala asked.
“Near the lake, but I can walk out my back yard and sink a line, if I want.”
“Do you? Fish from your back yard?” Willow asked.
“Not much good fishing from the shore. I prefer taking my boat out.”
“You have a boat?” Lala asked, meal forgotten. “What kind?”
He waved a hand. “Ah, not very big, a fishing boat with a motor. It’s in dry dock now, for the winter. I’m waiting for the lake to ice over so I can take my ice house out there.”
“Can we see your ice house when it’s on the lake?” Lala asked.
“Lala,” Willow chided gently. “We don't invite ourselves, and we barely know Mr. Granzer.”
“What did she call you?” Chase asked Lala.
Lala blushed to the roots of her hair. “My nickname. Lala. I couldn't say Lorelei when I was little, so my parents started calling me that.”
“It’s cute. I like it. And of course you can come to see my ice house. It’s got a TV and a heater and I’ll take a cot out there sometimes.”
Willow smiled. “I don’t know if any of that makes sense to me.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
She liked his easy tone, his kindness to Lala. She liked the look of him, light brown hair curling from beneath his knit hat, golden stubble dusting his chin, broad shoulders beneath the bulky coat, those autumn-colored eyes.
Girl, get a grip. You don't need another man in your life telling you what to do.
“Texas,” she said.
“Texas.” He repeated the word on a laugh. “This is going to be a change for you, for sure.”
“That’s what we wanted.”
He gave her a considering look, but if he had a question, she cut it off by motioning for Lala to finish her burger.
“So are you a fisherman, or an electrician, or what is it exactly that you do?” Willow asked as they walked down the steps to the parking lot a few minutes later.
“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades. A handyman, I guess.”
Something in the way his lips thinned made her think there was more to his story, but she didn’t ask. “This is my car. We live on the same street as the school, so if you want to follow us…”
“I know where you live,” he said.
“What?” The statement alarmed her. “How?”
He shrugged. “Newest residents in town. Not many places for you to move into. You’re in the old Hughes place.”
“I had heard that.”
“And you run the quilt store.”
She straightened. “I own it, yes.”
The corners of his lips twitched at her distinction, and he opened her car door for her. “You lead the way, then.”
Her fingers were shaking a little when she slipped the key into the ignition.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“Sure.” She smiled at her daughter in the rearview mirror. “Why?”
“Because you’re just sitting there and Chase is in his truck waiting to follow.”
“Oh!” She put the car in reverse with a little spray of gravel and pulled out of the parking lot, onto the main road that ran along the lake, and back to her house.
“You probably should get snow tires on that car before long,” he said when they reached her house, closing the door of his truck on the street.
“Do you know something the weatherman doesn’t?” she asked as she walked up the sidewalk from her driveway.
“I know this is Minnesota and we don't go the month of December without snow. By first snowfall, it’s too late, and it’s cold enough at night that those tires aren't going to do you good much longer. I can do it for you, if you’d like. Have you bought them yet?”
“I guess I’ll go to Beaudin and get some this weekend. They can put them on there, can’t they?” She was determined not to give that control to another man.
“Yup,” he said easily, and flicked on his flashlight as she tried to find the lock in the dark.
She swung the door open, and started to go in first, but he gently pulled her back so he could precede her with the flashlight.
“You don't have a dog, do you?”
“No, but Lala’s been wanting one,” she said before she understood he was asking so he didn’t get bitten. “No, no dog.”
“Where’s your fuse box?”
“In the garage.” Then, again thinking, “This way. Lala, stay put.”
She led him through the living room, into the kitchen, the mud room, and opened the door to the garage.
“I see why you don’t park in here.” His flashlight beam bounced off the boxes that filled the space.
“I still have some unpacking to do, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”
“You’ve been here almost a year?”
“Not quite. We got here in May.”
“I’d say whatever’s in those boxes isn't important enough to unpack. You should get a storage unit, and save them for the big rummage sale we have in the spring.”
Just the thought of getting rid of her belongings made her stomach flutter. She’d made enough changes in the past year. She couldn’t let go of her belongings, not even if she couldn’t exactly remember what was in each of the boxes.
“At the very least, put them somewhere else so you can park your car in here. You don’t want to get outside more than you have to this time of year.”
She didn’t need him to tell her that. “I have a spare room. I’ll start moving them in there.”
“Have you got an engine heater?”
“No. What’s that?”
“Once the temperature gets below ten, you’re going to have to plug your engine in so it doesn't freeze up. You have a couple of weeks to get one of those, I'd say.”
He popped open the cover of the fuse box, flashed his beam up and down, grunted. “Most of these fuses are blown. You must have had a power surge or something. Go make sure everything is turned off. I don’t know how many fuses I actually have on hand, but I’ll replace what’s important. We need to get the utility company out here to find out what happened, though. We don't want it to happen again.” He looked up at her. “You need a flashlight?”
“No, I have my phone.” She pulled it out and tapped the screen to show him. He gave her a nod of approval and she went back into the house. She turned off light switches and the slow-cooker, the heater, unplugged her television and computer, and Lala’s tablet. She heard Chase come in the front door, heard the rattle of something that was probably his toolbox.
She realized, as she rejoined Lala in the living room, that she wouldn't know if the power was back on with everything turned off.
And then light flooded the kitchen. Chase grinned at her. “Check the heater.”
She did, and breathed a sigh of relief when it clicked on and started to roar.
“Mom, the TV isn’t coming on,” Lala announced from the living room.
“Check your computer, too,” Chase said. “If it was a surge, it might have fried your electronics.”
“Oh no! Is there any way you can tell?”
He grunted and crouched behind the TV stand. “Yeah, looks like it wiped it out.” He straightened and looked at Lala. “Sorry about that, sweetheart.” He turned to Willow. “Your computer okay?”
She sat and pulled it onto her lap, tried to boot it up. Nothing. “Oh, no. Lala, your tablet?”
Lala checked, and almost started crying. “Nothing. Mom, it’s broken.”
“Okay, well, don’t panic.” She tried to take her own advice as she looked at the black screen of her laptop. Thank God she stored everything on the cloud, so her work wasn't lost, and she had another computer at the shop. “We’ll figure something out. The most important thing is we find out what made this happen in the first place. We’ll get the utility company to come out to see what caused it, and we’ll replace the television and the tablet, okay? Why don't you get ready for your bath?”
Lala glanced at Chase, then nodded, wiping her eyes, and headed to the bathroom. A few moments later, Willow heard the bathroom heater come on. She turned to Chase and reached for her purse.
“What do I owe you?”
He named a figure, and she froze with her hand in her purse. “You have to be kidding.”
He frowned, like he hadn’t expected her to argue. “Well, that’s just to cover the cost of the fuses.”
“Chase, that’s not enough. You took time out of your evening to come help.” She pulled a couple more bills out of her purse, and he stepped back as if she’d pulled a snake out.
“I’m not going to take that.”
“I have money. I don't need charity.” She didn’t intend for her voice to sound so sharp, but the shift in Chase’s eyes told her she’d hurt his feelings. “I pay my way.” She didn’t know how to tell him she didn’t want to depend on someone ever again, even if it was something as simple as changing fuses or snow tires. Okay, she’d get someone to do it for her, but not for free, or for an insultingly low price that probably wouldn't cover the little bit of gas he’d used to get here. “I don't want to take advantage,” she said, softening her tone.
“In Bluestone, we do the neighborly thing.”
Great, a stubborn gentleman. He was becoming less cute by the minute. “Please, can we not do the noble thing? Can you just take the money?”
He hesitated. “I’ll take half.”
Well, that was progress. She could work with that. She tucked one bill back into her purse and handed him the rest. “Thank you so much.”
“Make sure you call the utility company tonight. They might get out here tonight, which I doubt, but they’ll get here as soon as they can. Tell them it’s just the two of you living here and they might get here sooner.” He rested his hand on the door, then reached into his pocket. “If you need anything else, give me a call. Try not to overload the power tonight. And let me know what happens.” He stepped forward and handed her a business card.
She glanced down at it and read Chase Granzer, Construction. “Thanks. I really do appreciate you coming out tonight.”
“I’ll see you around,” he said, and walked out. As she locked up behind him, she hoped it was sooner rather than later.
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