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"Comin' in to Hahliday Hahbah!"
The driver's announcement cut through her sound-canceling headphones, and Bree Farrell glanced up from the movie playing on her tablet computer. Outside the grimy window she saw a whole lot of nothing. Then the bus lumbered over a hill, and on the other side was a town.
Surrounded by endless miles of ocean, Holiday Harbor looked like it was barely clinging to the rugged Maine coastline. Off in the distance a rotating beacon drew her eye to a lighthouse that looked as if it had sprouted from the rocky cliff it was perched on.
All very nice poetic descriptions, she thought, opening her notes file to capture her observations before they vanished. A born and bred city girl, she wasn't crazy about this edge-of-the-world assignment her prospective editor had given her. But a long string of missteps and bad choices had drained her savings account and left her with a less than stellar reputation.
And no options. If she couldn't wrangle a permanent byline at Kaleidoscope, she'd have to dust off her waitressing skills and move back in with her mom. Determined to avoid such drastic measures, she knew she had to make this article shine.
When the bus pulled into the center of town, she stayed in her seat, waiting for the other passengers to collect small bags from the overhead bins. While they gathered their things, she took the opportunity to jot down descriptions of them. Since it was just after noon on a Thursday, she assumed they were all here for the Fourth of July weekend. There were three Italian suit types, a few in jeans and sneakers and a dreamy young couple wearing bride and groom T-shirts.
Glancing out the window again, she decided that while it wouldn't be her first choice for a honeymoon destination, Holiday Harbor did have a certain quiet charm about it. Far from the crowded streets of Richmond, Virginia, she'd probably feel like the cliched fish out of water. A jolt of nerves shot up her back, and she took a deep breath to regain her composure.
She'd made some careless mistakes in her past, but she was a pro. This was her chance to prove it to everyone who'd written her off as flaky and difficult to work with.
And to herself.
Stepping onto the cracked sidewalk, she caught the unmistakable scent of salt water and fish, laced with the pungent diesel that powered the small fleet of fishing boats chugging to and from a busy set of docks. Another interesting tidbit, and she scribbled it down with her stylus.
"You must be Bree Farrell."
The mellow voice startled her, and she clutched her tablet close to her chest. Her parents had stopped fighting long enough to buy it for her as a birthday gift, and nobody was taking her prized possession from her without a serious fight. In her next breath she realized how stupid her reaction was. Even in the worst places she'd visited, thieves didn't stroll over and address you by name.
Looking up, she found herself staring at the collar of a dark blue polo shirt. When her eyes moved up a little farther, she got the surprise of her life.
Someone had planted a movie star in her path. With eyes the color of a clear sky and an easygoing smile, the stranger who'd come to greet her would weaken the knees of any female over ten and still breathing. He had broad shoulders and a lean, athletic physique to die for. Dressed in nicely pressed chinos and deck shoes, he looked like he was headed out for a sail.
When she realized he was waiting for her to respond, she jerked herself back to the moment. "Must I?"
Chuckling, he offered a hand. "Cooper Landry. Welcome to Holiday Harbor."
"Landry." They'd never met, she was certain of that. But the name rang a bell, and she asked, "Are you related to Mayor George Landry?"
His eyes darkened, and his welcoming smile faltered before righting itself. "Actually, I'm the mayor now."
Bree was usually pretty good at gauging someone's age, but with his windblown good looks, this guy could be anywhere from twenty-five to forty. While she mulled that over, she noted that the logo on his shirt wasn't a name brand but a sketch of a sailboat, with the words Holiday Harbor floating like waves beneath it. Promoting the village on that solid chest of his, she thought with a grin. Nice touch.
"Aren't you a little young to be a mayor?"
"I'm thirty, but thanks for the compliment."
Only a couple of years older than her, she thought with a frown. "Isn't that a lot of responsibility for someone your age?"
"I guess it is." He shrugged as if it hadn't occurred to him until she brought it up. "Granddad passed away a few months ago, and the town asked me to complete the rest of his term."
"I'm so sorry," she stammered. Again she'd waded into deep water before thinking things through. "My research must be a little out of date."
"Not your fault, but thanks."
After a moment he added another, more personal smile. It was the kind of gesture that lit up his eyes and made her feel like he was honestly glad to see her. Lately she hadn't gotten that kind of reaction from too many people, and it made her feel slightly more at ease.
Trying to make conversation, she said, "I'm not used to being met by the mayor when I'm on assignment somewhere. That was nice of you."
"It only seemed right. I'm the one who asked Kaleidoscope to send someone to do a story here."
His comment piqued her curiosity. "Really? The magazine is pretty new, and online besides. What made you think of it?"
"Your editor, Nick McHenry, grew up here, and we go way back. He thought we'd make a great addition to the Americana series he's running this summer." The driver set Bree's two bags in front of her, and her host handed him five dollars. "Thanks, Ed. Are you and your wife gonna make it up here for the Fourth?"
The older man's face broke into a delighted grin. "We wouldn't miss it. We've got the grandkids right now, and they can't wait."
"If you've got time, stop by my place for some barbecue. After you eat, you can get ringside seats for the fireworks. Red Granger's in charge of them again, and he promised they'd be even better than last year's."
Respect flooded Ed's expression, and Bree figured he didn't often get invitations to visit a town leader at his home. "We'll do that. Thanks."
"Great! We'll see you then."
They shook hands to seal the deal, and Ed closed the cargo doors before climbing aboard.
As the bus chugged away, Cooper eyed Bree's scant luggage in disbelief. "Is this it?"
"Yeah." She slung her beat-up messenger bag across her chest. "Reporters travel light." She didn't add that the pilot's case and small duffel held the extent of her wardrobe.
"We keep traffic out of the center of town to leave room to walk for pedestrians, so I had to park down the street." Without asking, he shouldered her duffel and lifted her suitcase. "I apologize for the hike."
Bree almost told him she could manage her own bags, but something stopped her. It might come across as rude, and she didn't want to insult him by refusing his hospitality. Her last termination notice flashed into her mind like a recurring nightmare.
Talented but headstrong. Impossible to work with.
Not this time, she vowed. This time she'd choke down her instincts and be a team player. Even if it killed her.
"No problem," she said lightly. "It'll give me a feel for the town."
They started walking, and he asked, "Have you eaten, Miss Farrell?"
Knowing this could be her last chance at her dream career, she'd only managed to choke down half a ham and cheese sandwich while waiting for the bus. Unwilling to admit how nervous she was about this assignment, she replied, "I had lunch at the airport in Rockland while I was waiting for the bus, so I'm fine. And it's Bree."
"Then I'm Cooper. I'm sort of named after the founder of this place. He was from a long line of barrel makers."
"Interesting." That sounded lame, so she added what she hoped was a pleasant smile and started checking out her surroundings.
Main Street was lined with old buildings, some made of brick, others of the weathered clapboards Maine was famous for. The shops' front doors and display windows were shaded by identical light blue awnings, and flowers of every color overflowed from window boxes and hanging pots. In the center of town was a gazebo surrounded by a small park where several kids were kicking a soccer ball around.
Everywhere she looked she saw American flags and bunting, obviously set out for Monday's Fourth of July festivities. She could have thrown a rock the length of the business district, but it did occupy both sides of the street. It included a diner, a small cafe and something she'd assumed had all but gone extinct.
"A real bookstore," she commented. "I can't remember the last time I saw one of those."
"They carry lots of things, even some antique books. My mother owns it, and she has a huge collection. If you want, I can set up a tour for you."
"That would be awesome," she blurted, then realized she sounded like a teenager with a crush. Acting unpro-fessionally had caused her more trouble than even her vivid imagination could have invented. Getting a firmer grip on her dignity, she amended, "If I have time."
Across the street was a store called There's No Place Like Gnome, which apparently sold nothing but garden statues so ugly they were cute. It was totally unexpected, and Bree made a quick note of it. Unique features like that would be great for her story. An award-winning reporter himself, Nick McHenry was notoriously tough to impress, and she was desperate to earn his confidence. To do that, she'd have to knock this article out of the park.
"I see six vacant storefronts." She paused in the middle of the sidewalk for a better look. Their display windows were clean but dark, and while the For Rent signs were subtly posted in lower corners, you couldn't miss them. "Is the economy especially bad here?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Fish and seafood stocks are declining, taking the towns that rely on that industry right along with them. That's why you're here. We need to bring in more tourists, to help fill the gap."
It sounded like a solid plan, but she knew better than anyone that things didn't always work out the way you wanted them to. "And if they don't come?"
Worry clouded his expression, and he grimaced. "There's another option, but I don't like to think about it."
"But you have," she pressed. "I can tell."
"We all have," he admitted with a sigh. "There's a developer who wants to come in and build a golf community outside of town. We just can't agree whether to say yes or no."
This would be news to Nick, she was certain of it. If she did some digging and asked the right questions around town, maybe she could parlay the development issue into another article. Or even a series of them. Having scraped her savings account down to the bone, the influx of cash would be a refreshing change.
For now she put aside her own interests and went the sympathetic route. It wasn't hard, since to even mention it to a stranger, the potential construction project must be weighing heavily on his mind. "That must make mayoring kind of hard, especially since you didn't run for the office."
Cooper eyed her with something she hadn't seen much of the past year: respect. "Off the record?"
Bree held up her hands to show him she wasn't recording or taking notes of any kind. "Of course."
"You're very perceptive, and you're right. I didn't want the job, and it's turning out to be a lot tougher than I thought it'd be. But I love this place, and I'm doing my best to keep things on track until we elect someone else in the fall. My personal situation has nothing to do with why you're here, so let's just focus on the town. Okay?"
He was so upbeat, even in the face of what must be a huge problem, she couldn't help smiling. Some people honestly believed that positive thinking led to positive outcomes, and she wasn't going to be the one to burst this handsome optimist's bubble. "Okay."
His assessment couldn't have been more wrong, but she opted to keep that opinion to herself. The state of Holiday Harbor's town government had everything to do with its problemsand the potential solutions to them. If she'd learned anything during her varied assignments, it was that there were several facets to every story. Her job was to uncover as many of them as possible and give her readers all the angles.
They continued walking, and beyond the modest business district, Victorian-style homes rose up behind white picket fences. Their porch roofs were accented in crisp white gingerbread, their yards filled with neatly trimmed hedges and flower gardens. It was like stepping into a living, breathing Norman Rockwell painting. Even though she was seeing it for herself, Bree couldn't quite believe a place like this still existed.
In front of one hung a brass sign that read Landry House1820. During her research, she'd learned that was the year Maine had attained statehood, which meant the Landrys had been here a very long time. The yellow house had a cheerful presence, with tall windows and a wing on either side to balance out the porch running along the front. Well-tended flower beds led to two rows of petunias that bordered the wide walkway leading to the porch.
Large and inviting, it was nothing like the apartments Bree had grown up in. Always seeking new experiences, her restless parents had moved from one city to the next, so she'd never been in one place more than a year. Being so deeply rooted didn't appeal to her, but obviously it worked for Cooper's family.
"On the record now?" she asked.
There was that grin again. This time she caught a faint dimple in one cheek that gave him a little boy look she hadn't noticed before. "Sure."
"Tell me about Holiday Harbor." She discreetly hit the record button on her phone. The video would be of the inside of her pocket, but the sound should be good enough for her to take notes from later.
"Back in 1816, my ancestor William Landry" He paused for a proud grin, and she smiled. "The cooper."
"That's the one. Anyway, he started up the coast with four wagons and a hand-drawn map from a blacksmith in Concord, Massachusetts. He claimed there was untouched land up here, sitting right on the ocean, where a man could farm or fish, or both. His brother and new wife joined them, along with a few other families. On Christmas Day, they ended up here."
"Literally the end of the road."
Bree wondered how those long-ago travelers had felt when they saw this place for the first time. Relieved that their long journey was over? Or regretting that they'd left civilization so far behind?
"Back then it was nothing but wilderness, but he liked it right away. So he got down off his wagon, looked around and said to his wife, 'This is it, Addie. We'll call it Holiday Harbor, in honor of our Lord's birth.' My family's been here ever since."
This was the kind of story people adored, and while Bree recognized she'd have to confirm every last detail except the name of the town, the yarn had a nice ring to it. In keeping with the village's old-fashioned appearance, she'd call the article "Mayberry on the Sea."
"Nick told me you celebrate some unusual holidays up here."
"Yeah, we do. Most months there's a traditional holiday. When there's not, we find something and make our own festival out of it."
"So this month it's the Fourth of July. What's in August?"
"The seventh is always National Lighthouse Day. We'll have a picnic in the square, bring in kiddie rides, carnival games, stuff like that. It'll also be the fourth round of the Holiday Harbor Costume Regatta, which runs from May to September every year."