Winning His Heart

by

Lara Van Hulzen

Michael St. Claire, a widower and single father, fears his heart could never make room for another. Between raising his young daughter Annalise and rebuilding his dreams as a race car driver, love isn’t on his mind… Until feisty Franchesca shows up and changes everything.

With her mom’s health failing, Franchesca needs extra income. An offer from Mike St. Claire to be his daughter’s nanny is an offer she can’t refuse. She has always dreamed of making it on Broadway and living in New York, but her immediate attraction to Mike challenges all she thought she wanted.

Mike can’t deny his feelings for Franchesca, even with the risk of losing his heart again. But he doesn’t want to stand in the way of Franchesca’s dreams. Will his past and what she wants in the future tear them apart?

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Michael St. Claire steered his black BMW M6 Grand Coupe south on Highway 89 from Bozeman to Marietta. He’d driven into the city to meet with a racing team owner who’d flown in for the day to see him, trying to woo Mike back to racing.

He shifted gears with the tap of a button on his steering wheel and took the next turn a bit faster than the last. It was a waste of a plane ticket, in his opinion, and he’d said as much. But the man had hopped a flight anyway. Over lunch, Mike told him yet again that it wasn’t about him needing to be wooed anywhere. Racing pumped through his veins. He couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t been behind the wheel of anything that moved, urging it to go just a bit faster, always pushing things to the limit.

His mother had told him countless times that every gray hair on her head was from him and his desire to go Mach 3. Although she’d never dared crush his dream of racing, she didn’t keep it a secret how much his chosen profession overworked her worrying mother’s heart.

Man, he missed her. His mother had been a pillar of strength in the St. Claire family, especially for him. Her death only a few years ago had been devastating, cancer ravaging her body until she shriveled up and all but blew away. His wife Anna’s death came not long after.

He took another turn, this time down shifting. It was almost summer, the temperatures rising to a much more pleasant degree, the sky a cobalt blue against the plush green hillsides. As much as Mike appreciated being able to drive the way he liked on roads not slick with ice and snow, the last thing he wanted to do was make his daughter an orphan. Annalise had already lost her mother, and to a car accident of all things.

The irony was damn near comical. Almost, but not quite.

There was nothing humorous about the past few years for Mike and Annalise. For the St. Claire family, as a matter of fact. Their mother’s death had rocked his father’s world. Enough for him to move from their home in New York to the house they’d built in Marietta when Mike was thirteen.

Mike’s brother, Wes, was his elder by two years. He too had decided not long ago to make Marietta home over New York. That had to do with a much happier reason. He’d met Noelle Olsen during a Bachelor Bake Off their father had volunteered Wes to be a part of. Wes had been livid with their father and terrified at having to bake in front of the entire town, but it was for charity, and he got Noelle out of the deal so it turned into a win/win.

Mike chuckled at the memory of his stoic big brother going out of his mind, not only from having to learn to bake and do it in front of a crowd, but because he’d fallen hard for Noelle. A beautiful ballet dancer who ran the dance studio in town.

Dance class was the one bright light in Annalise’s day. Always a happy child, part of her had dimmed when Anna died. She had nightmares of losing Mike and would cling to him for hours afterward. Some days she simply would not go to school. Many times he’d sat with her in her kindergarten class trying to get her to focus and engage. But she’d sit in his lap, not willing to leave his side.

Mike was grateful to Noelle. Since entering their lives, she’d been nothing but loving and kind to Annalise, always taking time out of her week to do something with her. Girly things. A “coffee” date then shopping, or out for ice cream, Annalise’s favorite thing in the world. Even sitting in the house’s playroom and having tea parties with Annalise and her dolls. Mike was willing to sit in tiny chairs and sip tea with his cherub faced daughter, but he owed Noelle for bringing a feminine presence back into Annalise’s life. His younger, and only sister, McKenna, adored Annalise but she floated in and out for visits. Annalise needed more than that. Mike was beginning to wonder if he did as well.

He hadn’t been able to even think of dating or having another woman in his life since Anna’s death. He loved Anna and mourned her, but even if he was interested in a woman, taking care of Annalise was his main priority. And that took up most of his time and energy.

His friends said it was time for him to move forward, but what the hell did that mean? Was there an expiration date on missing a loved one? Sure, he was only in his early thirties with a life ahead of him to share with a woman, but who wanted a guy with an emotionally fragile kid and no clue what he was going to do with life now that he wasn’t racing? The team owner he’d met with talked to Mike about coming in as a manager. It was tempting. He’d be around racing, but he wouldn’t be behind the wheel. The travel schedule was still an issue, though. It was almost summer, and Annalise would be home all day. Without school, Mike would need help during the day with her. Sure, their housekeeper, Glenna, was around but she was a busy woman. Running the St. Claire household was a full-time job and then some. His dad had been a big help since Mike and Annalise had moved to Marietta, but his father still had business to do and wasn’t exactly the right age to watch a spirited little girl for long periods.

His thoughts were derailed by the sight of a car pulled off to the side of the road. A woman with dark curls trailing down her back stood beside it, kicking the tire. The hood was propped open, steam rising to one side. Mike guided his car to the shoulder not far past her practical tan-colored Toyota, about ten years old if he had to guess.

Being sure of no cars passing on the road, he pushed open his door and got out. Still lost in her tirade that involved not only kicking the front left tire but also hollering colorful adjectives on how she was feeling at the moment, she didn’t notice him standing there.

Not wanting to startle her, or be on the receiving end of her anger, he stayed a few feet away as he spoke.

“Hey, Franchesca. Looks like you could use some help.”

History should have told her not to ask the universe if her day could get any worse. Just as she’d done so, her car started sputtering and blowing off steam. Literally. The universe had answered and yet again, not in her favor.

Franchesca took out her frustration on one of her tires—the yelling made her feel better—but the solid rubber against her toe was beginning to cause pain, even through the tip of her black boots. Lost in thoughts of how she should’ve dumped this car years ago and purchased a newer one but her mom wouldn’t let go of it for sentimental reasons, she’d not seen anyone walk up next to her.

She jumped about three feet at the sound of his voice. A voice she knew well, if only from her dreams, but not one she was expecting to hear on the side of Highway 89.

“Oh my…. You scared the crap out of me!” She held her hands to her chest, her heart pounding through her sweater.

“Sorry.” He put his hands up in front of him but didn’t try to hide the slight grin on his face.

Before her stood the almost six feet of dark hair, dark eyed sexiness that was Michael St. Claire. They’d met a few times through her friend Noelle who was dating his brother. Noelle ran the dance studio next door to Franchesca’s drama studio. Other than being in the same room at various get-togethers that involved the St. Claire family, Franchesca didn’t see him much.

Okay, fine. She’d admit to hanging out in Noelle’s studio more often than she needed to, if only to catch a glimpse of him as he dropped off or picked up his daughter from class, but she just couldn’t resist. The man was all-out eye candy. But none of that explained what he was doing on the side of the road. With her.

“What are you doing here?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her and looked from her to her car.

“Right. Sorry.”

“It looked like you could use some help, so I stopped.”

Man, she needed to get her act together. She dropped her hands from her chest and rested them on her hips. Her heart rate had slowed, but picked up for a whole other reason when he walked over to the open hood of her car and leaned in, his cologne floating her way on the breeze.

It was like one of her fantasies come true. In black jeans and a black Henley shirt, complete with black boots, the man oozed sexy. And now him sweeping in to save the day, the hot-mechanic thing going on to boot, she almost swooned.

“Breathe, girl. Breathe.” She took in a deep breath and let it out.

He looked around the hood. “What’d you say?”

“Nothing.” She moved to stand beside him. “Well? What’s your diagnosis?”

He fiddled with a few things and said words like “carburetor” and something “valve” but in all honesty, she was too focused on how his five o’clock shadow made his dark eyes stand out when he turned to look at her as he talked. A woman could get lost in those eyes for days and never find her way out. Not that she’d want to…

“Franchesca.”

Oh dear Lord, he was saying her name. “Huh? What? Yes. I’m listening.”

His chuckle, along with the humor in his eyes, said he was aware she hadn’t heard a word he’d said.

Damn it. She really needed to learn to focus more.

“I’m afraid I can’t fix this out here. You need a mechanic. I’ll call a tow for you.”

With that, he walked a few steps away, pulled his phone from his back pocket, and tapped in a number.

Franchesca stared at her car, the reality of her life hitting her, draining the remainder of her energy. She’d spent most of what she’d had left on kicking the tire. Lifting one hand to her neck, she worked a knot that had formed in the past hour or so. She tilted her head back toward the sky and blinked back tears. Under no circumstance would she let tears fall. Not right now. And most definitely not in front of Michael St. Claire.

“Hey. It will be okay.” His voice once again invaded her thoughts, but rather than startle her, it made her want to curl up in his arms and stay there for hours. He’d finished his phone call and had moved beside her, close enough for her to feel his body heat. He placed a hand on her arm for comfort. Her spine tingled at his touch.

“The tow will be here soon. I know the mechanic in town. He’s a good guy. He’ll take good care of you.”

She nodded, unsure of what else to do or say.

“Come on. I’ll give you a ride home.”

As much as she would love to spend the remaining miles into Marietta in a car with her gorgeous rescuer, her rational side took over. “That’s ok. I can wait here for the tow and ride back to town in the tow truck.”

“Franchesca. No. That’s not happening.”

Bossy and sexy. Not a combo she tended to enjoy, but it looked good on him. “Really, it’s ok.”

“No, it’s not. Besides, do you think Wes and Noelle wouldn’t read me the riot act if I left you stranded out here all alone?”

She laughed at that. Her friends would give him grief, for sure. Her too for being stubborn. Which she wasn’t. Just independent. There was a difference. But he was right. It was silly for her to wait all alone when he could have her home in no time.

“All right.” She nodded. “Let me get my stuff out of the car.”

He waited while she grabbed her purse. As they walked to his car she noticed he took the path closest to the road, his hand resting ever so lightly on her back. The protective gesture was not lost on her. He opened the passenger door for her and didn’t go around to his side until she was strapped in.

The car smelled new. And like him. She took a deep breath in. As he settled into the driver’s seat, she looked around. The console looked like a spaceship with all the buttons and lights. A far cry from her beat-up car she could see in the side-view mirror looking forlorn against the beauty that was Montana.

“You good?”

Franchesca looked into his eyes the color of her favorite milk chocolate and nodded.

“Good.”

He pushed a button and the engine roared to life. Roared being the operative word. Her seat rumbled beneath her. “This car is beautiful. Is it new?”

“I’ve had it for a few months.” He pulled back onto the road as they talked. The car took off and went from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye, smooth as silk. “It’s not exactly a car for snow.”

“It’s amazing.”

“That it is.” His smile lit up his face.

“You like to drive.”

It wasn’t a question. Noelle had told her that Mike had been a race car driver at one point, but he wasn’t racing now. She wondered why, but feared it too soon to start asking personal questions.

“I love to drive.” His smile fell a bit. Another thing Franchesca wanted to ask him about but held back. Which wasn’t her usual MO. Talking, along with getting others to talk was her specialty. But at that moment, the coziness of the small space, along with the rock music playing on low was enough.

Although her life was spiraling out of her control, she was smart enough to soak in a good moment when she found one. And driving along in a gorgeous sports car with the equally beautiful Michael St. Claire was not a moment she would squander

End of Excerpt

Winning His Heart is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

June 26, 2017