A Small Town Christmas

by

Nan Reinhardt

Winemaker and single father Conor Flaherty is determined to make this Christmas holiday special for his daughter even though his family’s winery, Four Irish Brothers, is facing some challenges.

High-octane Chicago attorney Samantha Hayes is looking forward to some delicious food, fine wine, small town charm, and a break from her hectic big city life when she agrees to do a favor for her boss and help his younger brother with a lawsuit that’s been slapped on his family’s historic winery in River’s Edge. She’s not expecting that her sexy new client will have a smile that will melt her heart and remind her that there’s more to life than work.

Sam falls hard for Conor, his daughter and the small, friendly town, but can she trust her instincts and risk her heart? Sam hasn’t seen a lot of happy-ever-afters in her life, but Conor and the magic of Christmas make her want to believe.

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It was all Millie’s fault. The roadside sign—Millie’s Pie Emporium—had enticed Samantha Hayes off the interstate and onto the country road where she was now stranded. In spite of the flat tire and the pouring rain, she smiled, remembering the delicious slice of pecan pie she’d had at Millie’s, along with amazing chicken and dumplings, fresh peas, and biscuits that were pure poetry.

Her mother would scoff at taking a detour for something as mundane as pie, but then she’d never been a foodie like Sam. Mother ate for fuel, nothing more, while Sam ate purely for pleasure. Her friend Suz hated the fact Sam could eat like a trucker and remain slim and had warned her since eighth grade that one day her hummingbird metabolism would give out.

Just last week at their monthly lunch, Suz shook her head as Sam scarfed down a double-fudge chocolate sundae while Suz primly spooned up a single scoop of low-fat vanilla. “Just you wait ’til menopause. It’s gonna getcha, girl, and all that sugar and fat will land right on your tiny behind.”

Sam wasn’t worried. She came from a long line of hardy Hayes women, who ate whatever they wanted and lived to be lean, wiry senior citizens. Just look at Aunt Bette. Besides, menopause was years away. She gave a quick glance in the rearview mirror. Worried dark brown eyes under a thick fringe of auburn hair looked back at her. Thirty-two didn’t seem bad at all; her skin was smooth and soft. High cheekbones emphasized the fact that, somewhere in the distant past, one of her Irish ancestors had taken a Shawnee bride.

However, none of that changed the fact she was stuck on the side of a two-lane highway in the hills of southern Indiana. Rain pounded on the roof and drizzled down the windshield while the swipe, swish, swipe, swish of the wipers gave her brief views of the late fall landscape. Trees had dropped most of their leaves, creating a colorful red, orange, and yellow border in the grass along the shoulder. The air smelled crisp, yet a little musty, and the chill, creeping in since she’d turned off her heater, made her shiver. She glanced behind her, but there was nothing to see except more bare trees and a long empty road. Flicking on the hazard lights, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel and moaned.

The sun had been shining across the Chicago River when she’d left the city late that Sunday morning. The mechanic at the dealership had assured her the car was in great shape when she’d had the routine service done on it only last week. Oil changed, tires rotated, fluid levels checked, and a complementary detailing to celebrate her fifth year of BMW ownership.

It had been her first brand-new car—a gift from her aunt Bette when Sam had passed the bar—and she’d secretly named the sports coupe Gigi because of the cutesy voice that gave her directions when she turned on the navigation. For nearly five years, she’d treated it as lovingly as a mother treated a child. And how did the silly thing repay all her years of careful maintenance? By getting a flat in the middle of some dismal road, less than thirty minutes away from her destination.

And in the rain.

A semi sped by, splashing water all over the side of the car and drawing Sam’s attention back to her situation. Time to focus and figure out what she was going to do. The rain pelting down showed no sign of letting up any time soon and even though it was only early afternoon, she longed to be warm and snug in the B&B her assistant had booked her into in River’s Edge—the photos on the web showed rooms with cozy fireplaces and colorful quilts. She found her umbrella in the console and got out, sending up an arrow prayer that the tire might be drivable.

Apparently, the angels were busy elsewhere because the right front tire wasn’t just flat, it was shredded.

How did that happen?

With a sigh, Sam climbed back in, took up her cell phone, and gazed at the screen. At least she had a couple of bars of service and the 4G seemed to be working. Great news if she had even a clue whom to call. She certainly wasn’t going to call the winery where she was headed to do business—how unprofessional would that be? The attorney who was supposed to be saving this family business stranded on a back road? No, especially not when this was her first big non-divorce case. Her chance to show her boss she could do other kinds of lawyering. A touch of the screen brought the GPS to life and showed her exactly where she was, only fifteen miles from River’s Edge, so she asked the phone to find her a garage or gas station nearby.

Gus’s Service Station was in Cedar Hill, the next town south. She dialed the number and was greeted with a gruff, “Garage.”

When Sam explained her dilemma, the man on the other end of the line guffawed. “Lady, I got four calls ahead of you and only two tow trucks. I can get there in mebbe two, three hours. You’re gonna have to sit tight.”

“Is there anyone else I can call?” She chewed her lower lip. Fog on the windows told her the temperature was dropping. She shouldn’t have let the emergency roadside service that came with her car lapse, but she hardly ever drove out of Chicago, so she hadn’t bothered with renewing. Dammit.

“Nope. Even if you got Triple A, I’m the one they call around here.”

“But I’ve got to get to River’s Edge and—”

“Lady, we all gotta get somewhere. Now, my tale of woe is that my nephew took off last night with the mayor’s daughter and my sister’s brand-new Land Rover. The only other guys I got to drive tow trucks for me are a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t know one end of a wrench from the other and my worthless brother-in-law, who ain’t no mechanic either, but he can probably change a tire.” He gave a disgusted snort of laughter. “He’s out on a call west o’ town and the kid’s down to McHenryville pulling a tractor outta the mud.”

“I’m really sorry, but I’m all alone out here and I’ve got a really important meeting tomorrow morning at nine.” Sam didn’t play defenseless well, but it was worth a shot; maybe she could elicit some sympathy from Gus. A cheap tactic, but one she wasn’t above using at this point.

“An important meeting, huh? Well, now that’s an entirely different story.” Gus’s sarcasm came through loud and clear, even with only two bars. It was looking very likely she was going to be changing her own tire in the rain.

She swallowed a sharp retort. Responding in kind to the man’s rudeness was not going to get her tire changed. “I’d truly appreciate some help, sir.”

“Look, just tell me again where you are and I’ll get someone out there soon as I can.”

Sam went ahead and gave him the information from her GPS, managing to be halfway polite when once again he ordered her to “sit tight.” It was a wretched day weather-wise and that wasn’t his fault. Neither was her flat tire. Gus sounded as overwhelmed as she felt. She clicked off and dialed the B&B to let them know she was going to be a late check-in, but got no answer, so she left a message. She debated for about three minutes before reaching into the back seat for her raincoat, figuring she might as well get out and fix the darn tire. She’d been changing tires since she’d gotten her license at sixteen, so she had no excuse except her own unwillingness to get wet.

Conor Flaherty squinted through the rain-blurred windshield, slowed to a crawl, and muttered a curse. Some idiot had pulled over to the side of the road, but not far enough. The back end of a sporty little vehicle stuck out over the edge of the pavement and he had to veer into the opposite lane to avoid it. He crept past and did a double-take at the scene before him.

The car’s hazard lights were blinking, and a drenched woman bent over the open trunk, clearly struggling with the spare tire. He pulled his SUV off the highway in front of the cockeyed sports car. He could see the shredded right front tire when he glanced in the rearview mirror.

“Guess we’d better see if we can lend a hand. Hold down the fort, Ali,” he said as he zipped up his jacket and grabbed the cap from the seat beside him. “I’m going to see if I can help this lady, okay?”

Alannah’s dark eyes widened, but Conor gave her a reassuring smile before reaching back to check the safety harness on his daughter’s car seat. “It’ll be okay, honey. I’m just going to be right back there, helping this lady fix her tire.” When the little girl’s lip quivered, Conor stroked her hair and ran a finger down her chubby cheek. “It’s all good, baby. Here’s Mabel”—he handed Alannah a tattered stuffed rabbit—“and here’s your book.” He opened Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day, Ali’s current favorite. “Find all the firefighters and when I come back, you can show me, okay?”

“Da . . .” Ali gave the slightest nod, but fear shadowed her eyes, so he started the car, checked the traffic in his side mirror, and pulled away. A couple hundred feet up the road, he checked traffic again and did a one-eighty, heading back to the woman in distress. When he pulled over this time and shut off the engine, he faced the front of her car. “Look, see that car up there?”

Ali nodded, craning her neck to peer out the front window from her spot in the center of the back seat. She got motion sick in the car, but Conor had figured out that if the car seat was in the middle and she could see out the front window, the kid was less likely to be nauseated. Plus, he always kept a supply of airsick bags handy. He got out, pocketed the car keys, and opened the back door to lean in and pick up the book Ali had dropped during the U-turn.

“See her tire? It’s flat and she can’t drive, so I’m going to see if I can help.” He turned some pages. “You can watch and you’ll see me almost the whole time. I’ll only disappear when I go to get her tire out, but count to twenty when you don’t see me and I’ll be right back in view.”

Alannah nodded, her expression now more curious than fearful. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “I won’t be long, love.”

She nodded again and, with that, Conor trudged through the rain, which had now subsided to a chilly drizzle. As he drew closer to the car, the air was fairly blue with the woman’s frustration and he couldn’t help grinning as he approached the back of the vehicle. “Can I help you?”

“Oh, crap.” When she released the handle of the cable holding the tire, her foot slid on the wet gravel and her arms wheeled as she tried to keep herself upright.

He bolted around the rear fender and caught her just before she hit the ground. He kept an arm around her waist to steady her. “You okay?”

She was tall, really tall. Her high-heeled boots were completely inappropriate for the wet gravel, let alone for changing a tire, and they made her seem even taller—their eyes were nearly level.

“I’m fine, you just startled me,” she grumbled and stepped away from him to plop down on the bumper with a grimace. “Oh . . . and thanks.” The hood of her raincoat had fallen back, revealing a mass of dark auburn curls. When she shoved her fingers through them and he finally saw her face, her cheeks were rosy, either from the cold or embarrassment, and her eyes signaled that she was beyond frustrated. “I can’t get the damn . . . er, darn tire to drop. It’s stuck.”

He gave her a smile. “Want me to give it a try?”

She moved aside with a sweeping gesture. “Be my guest.”

Conor tugged on the cable handle—the tire didn’t move an inch—it was stuck under the storage compartment. He allowed the tiniest moment of self-flagellation for assuming the problem was that a woman couldn’t get a spare out from under the trunk of a car while he examined the small compartment, trying to remember what he knew about this particular vehicle. “A-ha,” he exclaimed. “There’s another nut, see? Here under the cable. Let’s try that.” He sent a thankful prayer heavenward for his brother, Aidan’s, expensive taste in cars as he loosened the nut, pinched the lock clip, and held the cable while the tire carrier eased to the ground below the trunk.

“I watched the video twice before I even opened the trunk. How’d I miss that step?” The woman rolled her eyes, the deepest chocolate brown Conor had ever seen. Even darker than Ali’s. If he’d been born a poet he might have been able to come up with a more lyrical analogy, but he wasn’t a poet, and the thought of chocolate reminded him Ali was probably hungry. Besides, he hadn’t waxed poetic about a woman in over two years—not since Emmy died.

Best to just get this done, so they could get home to supper.

“Changing tires on these European models is trickier than on American cars.” He pulled the tire from its carrier and rolled it around the side of the car.

“Why did you come back?” she asked suddenly as she followed him.

“What?”

“You left and then you came back.” She handed him the tire iron and he inserted it in the jack she had placed perfectly under the frame near the front tire. “Why?”

“Oh, I didn’t leave.” The question was unexpected. He would’ve guessed she hadn’t even noticed him drive up; she was so involved in struggling with her tire. “I just turned my car around so my daughter could watch me. She . . . um, she needs to see me.” He pointed with the tire iron. He wasn’t exactly sure why he felt the need to explain, but something about her frank inquisitive gaze invited that small confidence.

She peered through the drizzle and then offered Ali a hesitant wave, before giving Conor a nod and a small frown. “Is she okay? Should I maybe go sit with her or something?” She pulled her hood back up over her hair with a quick snap of fabric that sent an unexpected wash of regret through him.

“Thanks, but she’ll be fine as long as she can see me.” He blinked, shook his head, and focused on changing the tire, loosening lug nuts that were so tight they’d obviously been put on with air tools. The woman wasn’t frail, but she certainly would’ve had trouble getting them off by herself, although he respected the fact she’d been willing to try.

She leaned on the front fender as he worked on the tire, quietly staying out of the way. Nevertheless, he was very aware of her. When he took off the old shredded tire, she hauled it to the rear of the car and had it secured in the carrier and back up under the trunk when he got there with the jack and the rest of the tools. They reloaded the car together and after she slammed the trunk lid down, she stepped away from behind the vehicle.

Conor came around, too, surprised she’d made a point to move to a place where Ali could see them, but grateful at the same time. How nice she was aware enough of children to understand the shred of information he’d revealed about his daughter. Surreptitiously, he checked the contents of her vehicle but didn’t see anything that might’ve belonged to a child and she was clearly way too young to have adult kids. He’d set a small suitcase back into the trunk, and the expensive-looking leather satchel on the back seat might hold a laptop and important papers, while a suit covered in dry-cleaner’s plastic hung on the hook by the window. Obviously, she was traveling.

But to where? And from where?

Why was he even wondering? It wasn’t like he was ever going to see her again and asking would just mean a delaying conversation. She hadn’t been terribly forthcoming anyway.

She stuck out her hand. “Thank you. I appreciate this more than you know. May I . . . may I pay you for your trouble?”

Conor glanced over at Ali, who had lost interest in her dad and was busy scanning the pages in her book. He shook the woman’s hand briskly because, for some unknown reason, what he wanted to do was hug her. What the heck was going on with him? “It was no problem.” When she didn’t reply, but simply regarded him with those big brown eyes, his discomfiture increased, so he turned toward his own car. “Be safe driving to . . . well, be safe,” he called over his shoulder.

A frisson of disappointment fluttered through Sam as the man walked away, and she nearly called out “River’s Edge!” before she remembered that, but for this small kindness, he was a complete stranger. He hadn’t offered his name and she hadn’t asked for it. Then again, he hadn’t asked hers, either. It had been an oddly formal encounter given the situation. Not that it mattered. She’d never see him again anyway.

But she stood by her car door, gazing, as he leaned into the backseat to check on his daughter. It warmed Sam’s heart to see how solicitous he was—as far as she was concerned, nothing was more attractive than a good father. As an attorney who dealt primarily with family law, she’d seen too many who weren’t. From this distance, she couldn’t tell how old the child was, but she was still in a car seat, so probably younger than eight.

When the guy stayed in the backseat for longer than seemed necessary, Sam wondered if the little girl was okay. She squinted through the misty rain, not sure if she should step up and check on them. However, it appeared the two were merely sitting there paging through a book, so she unzipped her now thoroughly soaked Burberry raincoat, slipped it off, gave it a quick shake, and tossed it into the backseat. Eyeing the pair in the SUV, she climbed into her car and started the engine, letting the defroster clear the windows that had clouded over.

While she waited, she dialed Gus to let him know she no longer needed his services and chose to smile rather than be offended by his “Good for you, little lady” response. This was small-town life and she’d do well to come in with a smile and good attitude. After all, her new client lived in a very small town—River’s Edge, Indiana—named appropriately enough because it sat smack on the Ohio River.

By the time the windshield had cleared, the man who’d helped her was in the driver’s seat of his SUV and steam emanated from the tailpipe, but he was still sitting on the side of the road. Suddenly it occurred to her he was probably waiting for her to take off—that would be the gentlemanly thing to do and, unquestionably, he was a gentleman. She put the car in gear, checked her mirrors for traffic, and pulled out. As she passed him, she gave him a wave and a smile and he tapped his horn, a quick beep of acknowledgement.

End of Excerpt