Harmony Hero by Mindy Klasky

Harmony Hero

Age-gap flames kindle between a small-town woman afraid to launch and the firefighter who is her unrequited crush.

Anne Barton has a secret: as a child, she started a fire that scarred her best friend. Now twenty-six, the owner of the Orchard Diner is terrified of grown-up responsibility.

Forty-four-year-old firefighter Will O’Hara should compete for the job of Harmony Springs Fire Chief—but he’s overwhelmed by his blinding fear of public speaking.

Soon a charity stunt pits Anne against Will in their small town’s Mayor for a Day election. Anne must confront her unrequited crush on Will. And Will knows May/December romances only work in romance novels.

How long can Anne and Will play with fire before they get burned?

Previously released as The Way You Look Tonight.

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Chapter One

Anne Barton’s Friday mornings were sacred. No alarm set for 4:30. No icy wake-up shower before hurrying through the dark streets of Harmony Springs. No measuring out yeast by the precise spoonful to make the day’s bread before she opened the Orchard Diner for breakfast business.

On Fridays, Anne could curl up in her twin-size bed, forming a ball tighter than her Honey Semolina boule. She could cover her head with a pillow and hide from the narrowest finger of sunlight that slipped past her Hello Kitty window shades. She could pull Mr. Bluejeans close to her chest and tickle her cheek with the soft grey fuzz inside his floppy bunny ears as she counted to a thousand by sevens, drifting back to sleep somewhere around one hundred forty-seven.

She could pretend she was six years old, instead of twenty-six. At least that’s how Friday mornings were supposed to be.

Instead, this Friday morning, she was forced awake by a young boy howling from the foot of the stairs: “I can’t find them, Grandma! I looked everywhere!”

Anne’s mother hissed a stage whisper. “Hush, Noah! Aunt Anne is sleeping.”

Noah responded predictably, pounding up the stairs to pipe his message directly to his grandmother. “I can’t find my mittens, Grandma!”

Before the missing mittens could be located—Anne’s bet was on the sleeves of Noah’s coat, which was almost definitely tangled on the floor by the house’s front door—said front door opened. “Hello!” came a cheerful cry. “Anybody home?”

“Aunt Emily!” Noah shrieked from the top of the stairs. “Be quiet! We’re letting Aunt Anne sleep!”

Anne groaned and kicked her covers to the foot of her bed. Her spine cracked as she climbed to her feet, and she took the time to stretch, rotating slowly from her hips, her arms reaching far overhead. She stumbled over to the low student desk in the corner of her room. She’d never used the furniture much for homework, but it made a great storage rack for clothes.

As Noah greeted his favorite aunt with puppy-like exuberance, Anne sniffed at the pits of a rumpled sweatshirt. The fleece was clean enough for family wear. She tugged it over her faded sleep shirt, adding a wrinkled pair of yoga pants for good measure. Running her fingers through her hair, she shambled down the stairs, automatically stepping to the far right on the squeaky bottom step.

“Princess Anne descends!” Emily cried from the dining room, making a mock bow. Her lacy knit scarf set off the golden highlights in her laughing eyes.

Anne’s grumbled reply was lost in Noah’s correction: “She’s not a princess! That’s Aunt Anne!” Noah turned to her with a proud grin. “I was extra quiet this morning, wasn’t I, Aunt Anne? I was really good!”

Anne bit her tongue as she shuffled into the kitchen. At least her favorite mug was in its proper place on the bottom shelf of the cupboard above the sink. The chipped mug boasted a rainbow-maned unicorn. A birthday gift from the year she’d turned twelve, it had gone through the dishwasher so many times the design was barely a ghost. Anne remembered, though, when the hooves and horn had been picked out in bright magenta, and she could still make out the graceful script that wrapped around the animal’s head: Believe in Yourself.

Mercy of mercies, her mother was waiting by the coffee maker, holding an almost-empty glass carafe. “Good morning, sweetheart. The last cup is yours.”

The coffee was good, too, the same Blue Mountain dark roast Anne served at the diner. As her mother filled her mug, Anne tugged on the refrigerator door and fished out a ragged carton of vanilla-flavored creamer. There should be just enough left for a single cup of coffee. She knew, because no one else in the house would be caught dead drinking the chemical-laden stuff.

“Thanks, Mommy,” Anne said as her mother passed her the mug of caffeinated fuel.

Like clockwork, Emily rolled her eyes. Five years older than Anne, Emily hadn’t called their mother anything but “Mom” for decades. In fact, Emily regularly accused Anne of acting like a baby, taunting her to be more like their oldest sister Charlie (who’d called their mother “Maria” ever since she was a precocious toddler) or Bran, the only boy (who used a cheeky “Ma.”)

Anne wasn’t manipulating. She was merely being distinctive in a field crowded by her siblings. It wasn’t her fault she was the youngest in a noisy clan.

Next up, Anne thought. A complaint about my creamer.

Like clockwork, Emily asked, “How can you drink that stuff and call yourself a chef?”

“I don’t.” Anne bristled. “I call myself a cook.”

“Do you realize how many chemicals—”

“Come on, Noah,” her mother said in a surprisingly loud sing-song. “Time for us to head out to the grocery store. On the way there, we’ll talk to each other out there like civil human beings.”

“What are civil human beings?” Noah asked reasonably, as he was led out the front door.

Anne shrugged and helped herself to a tangerine from the bowl on the counter before she shuffled into the dining room. Taking the seat where she’d eaten meals for twenty-six years, she carefully severed the fruit’s dimpled skin with the edge of her thumbnail. “I hate it when you call me Princess,” she said, automatically stripping the peel in a single continuous curl.

“If the shoe fits,” Emily said. “Or should I say glass slipper?”

“There’s no Prince Charming around here,” Anne said reasonably.

“I don’t get it,” Emily said. She gestured at the beige walls around them, at the faded prints from the Santa Fe Folk Art Museum and the wobbly Lazy Susan on the scarred dining room table. “It’s not like you get the benefit of living in some mansion. You can’t take a shower here when the washing machine is on. The radiators sound like a factory every time the heat kicks in. The stairs creak like something out of a bad horror movie.”

Anne shrugged. “It’s comfortable.” As comfortable as this argument—the same one she’d had with each of her siblings dozens of times over the years. “It’s home.”

“But don’t you want your own place? Something you can decorate? Somewhere you can call your own?”

“For what? The six hours a day I’d be there? At least four of which I spend sleeping?” Anne took her first sip of coffee, savoring the creamer’s smooth, sweet chemicals as her big sister geared up for the next round of their battle.

Maybe this time Emily would lead with logic: Sure, Anne spent most of her time at the diner, but that was all the more reason to find a private refuge of her own. Or she’d push disdain: How did Anne ever expect to build a social life if she insisted on living like a teenager beneath her mother’s roof? Or the argument that always brought Anne to tears, the one built on sympathy: Yes, it was scary out there, but everyone had to take that first step, had to learn to fly, and Anne was so strong, so funny, so whatever-the-adjective-of-the-day was, she had to take the chance, or she’d never be true to herself.

Anne had heard it all a thousand times before. And she knew every single word was true. Well, maybe not the “strong, funny, whatever” part. But she should learn to live like a grown-up—in her own apartment, at least, if not her own house.

Like always, though, the mere thought of moving kicked her heart into hyperdrive. She tried to swallow the coffee in her mouth, but she couldn’t make her throat work. Her ears clogged with a roaring sound, like a helicopter buzzing close to her skull.

Find a place. Pack. Move. Cook for herself, do her own laundry, complete a hundred and one tasks that she routinely shared with Mommy.

Mommy, who’d been cast off by their father, set aside like a scuffed and stained baby doll in favor of some sleek new Barbie. Emily had already been off at college when everything fell apart, when Daddy lied and cheated and left with his first of many girlfriends.

Anne had made herself the reason Mommy held it together. She’d asked for help on English essays so Mommy would have something to think about other than Daddy’s affairs. She’d come up with bake sale emergencies to distract Mommy from vicious gossip. She’d pretended to need help with a hundred and one things, all so Mommy understood she was valued, loved, cherished.

And somewhere along the way, Anne’s charade had become set in stone. Anne truly did need Mommy—needed the pattern and comfort and familiarity of her childhood home—a million times more than Mommy had ever needed Anne’s intervention.

Now, struggling against the swell of panic pressing on her breastbone, Anne caught her breath. She tried to ignore the whiff from her sweatshirt, the cold sweat pooling in her armpits. Carefully, precisely, she ordered herself to set her coffee mug on the table. She folded in the knuckles of her right hand, cracking each one with precision. She shifted to her left, popping her joints like a butcher breaking down a carcass. Only then was she calm enough to look directly at her sister.

“What do you really want, Emily?”

“I—” Emily’s eyes got squinty, and she glanced out the window.

Anne could tell she was about to lie. She shook her head, cutting her sister off at the pass. Tell the truth and take the consequences, was it really that hard? Annoyance burned off the last of her panic about moving. “You didn’t come over just to roust me out of bed. You have to be at Harmony Skeins in—” Anne glanced at the tall-case clock in the foyer. “Twenty minutes. So what do you want from me?”

Emily had never been on time for anything in her life. She certainly didn’t seem to be in a hurry now, as her lips twisted into a rueful smile. “I’m that transparent, huh?”

Anne nodded. Now it was easy to make her voice firm. “What’s up?”

Emily took a deep breath. “I’m planning a spring event for Save Our Stores.”

Save Our Stores was the organization Emily had founded six months earlier, a grassroots campaign to keep encroaching chain stores from destroying downtown Harmony Springs. Anne heard the pride in her sister’s voice. She also heard a quaver that told her this was going to be a really big ask.

Anne said, “Let me guess. You need me to cater an event.”

“Nope.” Emily shook her head vigorously.

“You want to rent out the diner?”

Another shake. And Emily still wasn’t volunteering the real reason. This was going to be bad.

“You want me to teach a class? Breadmaking 101 or something?”

“That’s a great idea, maybe we could use it for some future project.” Emily wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Apprehension peaking, Anne let some of her aggravation slip into her tone. “Okay, then. I give up.”

“I want you to run for mayor.”

“What?” Harmony Springs didn’t have a mayor. Harmony Springs had never needed a mayor. The Town Council handled major decisions, sitting four times a year, the way they had ever since the town was founded, thirty years before the Civil War. Emily was clearly nuts.

But as Anne continued to splutter a protest, Emily held up her hand in the universal sign for stop. “It’s a fundraising idea,” she said. “Mayor for a Day. I read about it online. This little town on the Canadian border had two animals run against each other, a dog and a cat. Everyone could vote, as early and as often as they wanted to, but they had to pay a dollar for each ballot. All the money went to build a playground in the center of town.”

“Am I the dog or the cat?” Anne asked.

“Neither!” In Emily’s frustration to get her words out, she wove her hands in the air, as if she were knitting a garment out of fine-spun yarn. Anne usually laughed at her sister’s unconscious habit. Now she felt her own surge of annoyance. “Harmony Springs won’t run animals. We’ll run people. We’ll run you.”

“Why me?”

“Because everyone likes you!”

Anne snorted in amusement, “Yeah, right.”

“Everyone does like you. But you’re also my baby sister, and you know you’ll say yes when I beg you enough, so let’s skip to that stage of this conversation.”

Warily, Anne asked, “What would I have to do?”

Emily’s voice was light, carefree. Anne had learned a lifetime ago never to trust that tone. It usually ended with Anne taking the fall for something all her older siblings had done. “We haven’t planned that part yet. Maybe a few campaign appearances where you shake hands with voters. Nothing major. Nothing hard.”

Wheels turning inside her head, Anne asked, “Does Harmony Springs even need a new playground?”

Emily sighed in frustration. “No, we don’t need a new playground. We need people to visit Harmony Springs. Save Our Stores’s goal is to build a mailing list. We’ll ask everyone to put their email addresses on their ballots so we can tell them about future events in town. If you agree to run, though, you can choose a charity for the ballots, anything you want. Just make it something that will inspire people to vote early and often.”

Anne grinned. “How about the Anne Barton European Vacation Fund?”

“Don’t be such a baby!”

Wow. Emily usually had a better sense of humor than that. She must really be into this project. Grudgingly, Anne asked, “How much time will this take? When’s the election?”

“It won’t be bad, I promise. People can start casting ballots right away. We’ll announce the mayor in six weeks, at the May first Council meeting.” When Anne still hesitated, Emily sweetened the pot. “The diner can be one of the polling places,” she wheedled. “You’ll get more customers than usual—maybe enough to fund your own summer vacation.”

A trip to Paris, to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant… Or, to be more realistic, an overnight in DC, eating at some new ethnic place.

But… “I don’t know,” Anne said. “Yesterday, I came up with a new idea for the diner—Pie-Day Friday. All the specials will be pies—chicken pot pie, taco pie, shepherd’s pie. And all the desserts, too. It’s going to take a lot to set up, but I think it’ll really build my Friday business.”

Emily crooned, “You can make the charity Food for Thought…”

Holy cats! Emily wasn’t playing fair.

The after-school Food for Thought club had been the only thing Anne cared about when she attended Harmony High. It had been a refuge when life at home was a mess, for the three hard years before Daddy finally moved out to live with his grad student. Food for Thought had given Anne a reason to struggle through the boredom of her classes, to raise her failing grades in English and History and Spanish, because her parents had flat out refused to let her participate in extracurriculars if she wasn’t doing her regular coursework.

At the time, she hadn’t realized how close she was to dropping out of high school. Now, at the diner, she applied the lessons she’d learned in Food for Thought every single day. She kept close enough to advise the club, too—helping students learn about organic gardening, about traditional Shenandoah Valley crops, about their heritage as a farming town.

And she wasn’t the only kid the club had saved. Every year, two or three students seemed to have a special need for the group’s solace, the chance to get their hands dirty as they worked through anger or depression or countless other challenges. There was something about the physical activity, combined with the intellectual challenges of managing active farmland…

For the past ten years, Zeke Cooper had let the club use his southern field for their gardening—two whole acres, on the edge of town. Right now, Food for Thought was farming only a tenth of that. But with enough money to buy trees and some basic equipment, pruning gear and rigs to spray emulsified oil to protect the crops organically from insect invaders…

“Okay,” Anne said. “I’ll do it.”

Emily’s eyes gleamed, the same way they always had when she put a hotel on Boardwalk or knocked Anne’s game piece back to the start in Sorry. “Perfect,” she said.

“But wait,” Anne said, realizing she hadn’t asked the most important question of all. “Who am I running against?”

“Oh, we haven’t settled that yet,” Emily said, and once again her words were dangerously breezy. Twenty-six years of sibling rivalry made the back of Anne’s neck prickle. “But don’t worry. You’ll win, and all the donations will go to Food for Thought.”

“You can’t know that!”

“Would I ever lie to my little sister? You’ll be Mayor for a Day—even if I have to stuff the ballot box myself!”

Despite her misgivings, Anne laughed as she drained the last of her coffee. A chance to help out Food for Thought. The prospect of bringing more customers into the Orchard Diner. An opportunity to raise the profile of Save Our Stores. What could possibly go wrong?

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