Interior designer Hannah Wheeler is a long way from the high-powered clients of her old Atlanta firm. Despite the fact that she's currently spending her days waiting tables, she's discovered she really enjoys the small-town life she found with her sister. This Christmas season, she's finally ready to introduce Wishful to her true capabilities by using her skills to spread some holiday spirit. But with Ryan and Percy, she's definitely got her work cut out for her.
Will Hannah's evergreen cheer thaw their frosty hearts and remind these two that the most important part of the holidays is family?
Release date: December 1, 2018
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 162
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A Lot Like Christmas: A Small Town Southern Romance
“Sugar, are you tying utensils on that Christmas tree?”
Undeterred by the Girl, you crazy tone, Hannah Wheeler finished attaching the dessert fork to a branch with a short piece of jute and glanced over her shoulder at Omar Buckley, official master of the kitchens at Dinner Belles Diner. Taking advantage of the mid-afternoon lull, he leaned against the counter and watched her with undisguised bafflement.
“You can’t judge until I’m done. Trust me.” By the time she finished with the tree, the whole thing would be cute, kitchy, and scream “diner.” It was just the first phase in her holiday plan to introduce Wishful to the skills she had besides carting trays and taking orders. The phase that would hopefully prove to them—and to herself—that she had the chops to pursue the rest of her revised dream.
Janelle Duncan, the other waitress on duty, who was a lot more interested in checking out Omar and his former running back’s body than in Hannah’s efforts at decorating, sidled over to him with a conspiratorial head shake. “If we ever run out of flypaper, we can always use that tree. It’s at least twice as tacky. Bless her heart.”
The lack of cheerleading didn’t concern Hannah overmuch. In her previous life, she’d had far more difficult clients to please, and she’d always come through in the end. People usually didn’t have any vision until someone showed it to them. And that was fine. She had enough vision for all of them.
Grabbing a spoon and more jute, she turned back to the tree and jolted. A man stood on the other side of the window, peering inside. Hannah could hardly see his eyes past the scruff of a beard and the oily, matted hair. His shoulders hunched against the unseasonably cold weather, and no wonder. The thin denim jacket—worn and stained—was hardly sufficient for the early December temperatures. Seeing the Army green duffle over his shoulder, her heart softened. She had a particular weakness for down-on-their-luck veterans. Offering a friendly smile, she waved for him to come inside.
He blinked at her, expression unchanging, still standing there with a totally unnatural stillness that said he’d been a soldier. Hannah pointed at him and mimed drinking from a cup of coffee. She hoped he took it for the invitation it was and not as some kind of pity. Amping up the smile, she waited. She’d yet to meet the man who could turn away from that smile. Certainly, it had worked to keep her daddy wrapped around her little finger from the time she was knee high.
The stranger was no exception. He strode to the door and came inside, stopping just inside the threshold and scanning the room. She was pretty sure in a matter of seconds he’d cataloged all the exits; had noted her, Omar, and Janelle, as well as the two other patrons; and probably knew where any weapons were likely to be. Or maybe she’d just watched the Bourne movies too many times.
Hannah rose from her crouch beside the tree and held out a hand in welcome. “Please, have a seat. Warm up.” Taking a few steps closer to gesture toward the corner booth that had the best visibility in the place, she noted the powerful smell of unwashed body.
He must be homeless. Bless his heart. Hannah had seen that often enough when she’d lived in Atlanta, but here in Wishful, it was all but unheard of. Keeping the smile firmly in place as he sat, back to the wall, she asked, “What can I get you?”
“Just coffee,” he rasped in a voice that sounded rusty with disuse.
“Coming right up.” With practiced efficiency, Hannah retrieved the coffee pot and turned over the waiting ceramic mug at the table, filling it just high enough that there was room to doctor it, though guy like him would probably drink it black.
He grunted something that sounded like “Thanks” and wrapped his hands around the mug. The skin of his knuckles was chapped with cold.
“Can I interest you in some pie? Mama Pearl makes the best pie in six counties. The pecan in particular is to die for.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “But, really, the coconut cream is my favorite.”
His gaze slid over to the pie rack on the counter before he shook his head.
She didn’t let the smile slip. “Okay then. You just let me know if you need anything.”
Replacing the coffee pot, she circled around the counter and into the kitchen, where Omar had resumed his post at the grill. “Be a doll and dish up one of the specials.”
“Didn’t hear him order the special.”
“He didn’t. I’m giving it to him anyway. It can come out of my tips.”
He gave her an indulgent smile. “Whatever you say, Marshmallow.”
Janelle peered through the kitchen window toward his table and kept her voice low. “You sure you want to do anything to encourage him to stay? What if he’s not right in the head?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hannah snapped, gesturing toward Omar. “That’s like making the assumption that Omar is a thug because he wears a do rag and likes rap music. It’s not only rude, it shows an exceptional lack of compassion.” She snatched up the bowl of loaded potato soup so fast the garlic bread stick flew off the plate and onto the stainless-steel counter. Blowing out a breath, Hannah carefully replaced the bread and pushed back out front, working to readjust her expression as she went. Sometimes people just killed her with their ignorance.
The stranger’s brows drew together as she slid the bowl in front of him. “I didn’t order this.”
She just smiled. “I know. But you look frozen through, so I figured you could use it. On me. And thank you for your service.”
The frown was just about the only part of his expression visible as he stared at her. Her smile faltered. Was he offended? She ran through possible apologies in her head, but before she could speak, he nodded in thanks and picked up a spoon.
She left him to his meal, making a quick circuit to check on the other two customers before returning to her decorating. He’d dug into his soup with gusto by then. As she continued tying silverware to the pre-lit tree, she wondered what his story was. He definitely had Don’t Pry blinking in neon above his head. Was he passing through? Wishful wasn’t exactly on the way to anywhere.
She made a fresh pass to top off his coffee, pleased to note the bowl of soup had all but been licked clean.
The stranger pinned her with serious, dark eyes. “Is there a garage around here?”
Caught by…something in his gaze, Hannah took a moment to process the question. She didn’t drive, so she wasn’t as familiar with those details as she otherwise would be. “We have two that I know of.” Which one would be more likely hiring? “Lou Perkins is over on Grantham Street, about three blocks that way.” She pointed toward the north end of the town green. “His nephew just got his second DUI and was shipped off to rehab a couple weeks ago, so he’s a little short-handed. And then there’s Benny Wills’s place on the west side of town.” She offered up some quick directions there as well. “There’s a gorgeous restored Chevelle sitting out front. You can’t miss it.”
He watched her for another long moment with that inscrutable gaze before finally muttering, “Thanks.”
She gestured to the empty bowl. “Can I get that out of your way?”
The stranger nodded, so she scooped up the dishes with her free hand.
“Sure I can’t talk you into some pie?”
“Not right now. Thanks.”
She flashed another smile. “Endless refills on coffee. You stay as long as you like.”
* * *
Though he really needed to get moving, Sergeant Ryan Malone lingered over his coffee and surreptitiously watched the waitress as she continued to decorate the diner’s Christmas tree, both because he was wondering how the hell it would turn out, all loaded with forks and spoons, and because he kept expecting to catch a glimpse of elf ears through that fall of dark hair. She’d make a good elf with that fine-boned face and fair skin. She hummed while she worked, the edge of a smile just waiting to bow up those full lips. How could anybody over the age of ten be that unrelentingly cheerful and innocent? She made him feel ancient at twenty-seven, though she was probably close to his age.
He strained to hear the tune and finally recognized “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” Certainly the rest of what he’d seen of Wishful fit the bill. As he’d come into the downtown area, he’d noted the holiday decorations mounted on all the light poles and the twinkle lights wrapped around the denuded trees lining Main Street. People bustled along the sidewalk, toting shopping bags and pretty, wrapped packages. It was about as far as he could get from the war zone he’d been walking in mere days ago, and the switch had him feeling more off balance than the jet lag.
Across the room, Elf Girl plugged in the lights and the tree lit up.
Well, I’ll be damned.
The glow of the white twinkle lights bounced off the silverware and gave the tree a warm, inviting glow. He’d never imagined utensils would make good ornaments for a Christmas tree.
Elf Girl stepped back, crossing her arms and beaming in satisfaction. That smile did something to a man. Certainly it had done something to him. He’d had no intention of stopping in the diner. None at all. Then she’d flashed those dimples at him, and he’d been pulled inside as if she were a kerosene heater that could thaw his frozen hands and feet.
She’d thought he was homeless. After traveling for three days straight to get from Bumfuck, Afghanistan to here, he sure as hell looked it. God knew when he’d last shaved. They had relaxed grooming standards where he’d landed this deployment. Exhaustion had carved lines around his eyes. He’d been awake way too damned long even before he boarded the MAC flight back to Fort Polk, where he’d picked up the rust bucket of a truck he’d borrowed from a friend still overseas. Smitty had sworn the thing was ugly but sound and would get him the six hours to Wishful. Ryan had believed him—until the ancient Chevy began to sputter and wheeze when he was nearly to his destination. The truck had crapped out eight miles from town.
Ryan had left in such a hurry, he had little with him other than his duffle. Not even a coat to face the frigid December weather. And since when was it this freaking cold in Mississippi in December? He’d found an ancient and smelly jacket shoved behind the seat. It had all kinds of questionable stains, but it was another layer against the chill, so he’d put it on and started walking to town. No doubt that hadn’t helped with the impression of homelessness.
Too many people would’ve looked through him, pretending he wasn’t there, or gotten nervy, like the other waitress that’d been hiding in the kitchen since he walked in. But not the elf. Her instinct had been to bring him in out of the cold, warm him up, and feed him. She’d met his gaze head-on and hadn’t even balked at the stench of the jacket. Wasn’t that interesting? Nice to know there were people like her out there in the world, even if he himself wasn’t in need of her kindness.
Well, he was thawed out now, and he was losing daylight. If he was gonna get by one of the garages to see about getting a tow, he needed to get moving. Waiting until Elf Girl slipped through the door to the kitchen, Ryan pulled out a wad of cash and left a ridiculous tip—more than enough to cover the soup and coffee—then headed out into the cold.
As it had sounded closer, he took a chance on Lou Perkins’s place, trudging north along the town green until he located Grantham Street. The garage wasn’t hard to find, and the tow truck he desperately needed was parked right out front. The bay doors were closed, but the single door to the office part of the building was unlocked, so he ducked inside. The office was empty. Some kind of hard rock Christmas music blared from the garage. Following the music, he tugged open another door and stepped into the workspace. A pair of legs was visible beneath an older model Ford Escort. The work boots tapped in time with the music as their owner sang along with more enthusiasm than skill.
“Hello?” Ryan called.
The feet stopped twitching and the creeper shot out from beneath the car. A skinny, balding man with a graying goatee peered up at him. “What can I do ya for?”
“Was hoping you could hook me up with a tow and some repairs. My truck broke down about eight miles from here.”
The older man’s dark eyes skimmed him from head to toe as he sat up. “You walk all the way here?”
“Reckon you could use some coffee. Pot’s on in the office. I gotta finish up here in the next little bit, ’fore Betsy Maynard swings by to pick this puppy up.” He tapped the bumper of the Escort. “Then we’ll see what there is to see.”
Ryan considered calling his uncle Percy. But that’d blow the element of surprise, and given the family’s reports of his behavior lately, Ryan wasn’t quite ready to give up that advantage. Resigned to waiting, he just nodded. It’d take less time to do this than to hunt up the other garage. And he was really damned tired. Retreating back to the office, he set down his bag and took one of the thinly padded chairs.
Ryan tripped from sleep to wakefulness in an instant, his hand reaching for the combat knife he wasn’t actually wearing at the moment.
The mechanic stood a good three paces away, hands lifted in the universal sign for no threat. “Army?”
“Yes, sir.” Ryan forced his muscles to relax. He should’ve heard the mechanic’s approach. Damn, he must be more exhausted than he realized.
“Navy,” the man said. “Thirty years ago, now. You have the look aboutcha. Ready to go pick up that truck?”
The two of them loaded into the tow truck and Ryan directed the mechanic—who was, in fact, Lou himself—to where he’d left the Chevy on the little two-lane highway. Quick and efficient, Lou had the truck hooked up and towed back to the garage in less than an hour. Then he went the extra mile and dropped Ryan off at Percy’s on his way home. Apparently Elf Girl wasn’t the only person in town willing to go out of their way to help a stranger.
Shouldering his bag, Ryan strode up the walk toward the house. The porch was dark, but a light shone from somewhere in the back. He pressed the bell, listening to the tones of it ring and fade before a faint voice hollered, “I’m coming. I’m coming!”
He waited, wondering exactly what to say since he hadn’t called ahead. Before he could decide, a loud crash sounded from inside.
“Percy?” Ryan shouted. He banged on the door, tested the knob. Locked. He checked the immediate vicinity for a key. Finding none, and given the reports his mom had passed along about the state of Percy’s health, he dropped his bag, took a step back, and kicked in the front door.
The lock gave way with a snap, the door flying back to hit the interior wall. He charged through with all the speed and efficiency of his Delta Force training, clearing rooms until he found the old man on his knees, one hand braced on the arm of a sofa as he struggled to rise. A lamp lay on the floor, the cattywampus shade casting crazy shadows on the wall.
A quick flash of fear crossed Percy’s face before he firmed his expression. “Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?”
Ryan picked up the lamp and righted it before offering a hand. “Good to see you too, Uncle Percy.”
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