Christmas with the Firefighter

by

Clare Connelly

Christmas is a time for family…

A mystery brings Ally Monroe to the idyllic seaside town of Cape Hope, North Carolina. On the quest to find out more about the father who abandoned her, Ally has no intention of getting too involved in the community. Only Cape Hope has a way of drawing people in and, before Ally knows it, she’s falling hard and fast in love with the whole town and its old-fashioned, charming ways – and particularly local single-dad Luke Miller and his adorable daughter Stella.

Volunteer firefighter Luke has been single since his wife died in childbirth six years earlier, making Stella his sole priority. But there’s something compelling about the beautiful out-of-towner and, before long, both Luke and his daughter are welcoming Ally into their home.

She came to Cape Hope looking for family and instead Ally found her way to Luke and Stella – but will they still want her when they realize she’s been lying to them about who she really is and what she’s doing in town?

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Prologue

Christmas, twenty years ago.

“Stop yelling!” The whispered words fell from Ally’s lips as she held her slender frame hard against the door of her room.

The incantation didn’t help.

Their voices exploded through the house, first her mother’s—a shriek, just like when Molly’s paw had gotten caught under the car tire. It had been the most awful noise Ally had ever heard, and her mother’s voice was like it now, rent with pain, bordering on hysterical.

Then came her father’s—slurred and angry, loud, aggressive. Ally huddled, her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and burying herself as best she could within her own fragile embrace.

She murmured “stop yelling” over and over, a prayer she hoped would be answered.

Their words weren’t discernible, but the fighting dragged. Every time there was a lull, she lifted her head a little, only for it to begin again a moment later. There was the slamming of a door, then more yelling. The breaking of glass. She squeezed her eyes shut, her heart hammering against her ribs, her face paler than the snow that was drifting down outside the window.

Ally stayed where she was, rocking against the door, her bedroom freezing—they’d forgotten to turn the heat on, they’d seemingly forgotten she existed, which happened when they fought—and she waited.

She waited until her mother’s fury morphed into tears and, eventually, there was silence. The kind of silence six-year-old Ally knew would bleed into the next day, as her parents used silence to continue their fight.

Her eyes lifted to the other wall—she’d made a nativity scene in class, and she scrambled across the floor and pulled the baby Jesus from its center, cuddling it in the palm of her hand and hoping it would add weight to her incantation.

Ally crawled into bed, holding Jesus, telling herself it would be okay. That the morning would clear out the night, the fight would pass, and everything would be fine.

It wasn’t fine.

Sometime between the awful, hours-long argument and the new day’s break, in the middle of the night, when the snow was falling thickest, Jack Monroe grabbed his jacket and car keys and left home, apparently without a backward glance.

It would be twenty years before Ally saw him again—and she suspected she’d never be able to forgive him.

Chapter One

It was a saving grace for Stella that she was so much like her mom when she was cross. Whenever Luke Miller felt his patience wearing thin at yet another temper tantrum, he’d look at his six-year-old daughter and see Jen—wavy blond hair, huge green eyes, a nose that lifted at its tip—and his anger would dissipate, just like that.

Okay, not quite “just like that,” and it didn’t completely disappear, but it took the edge off a little, just enough for him to remember that he was the adult, and Stella the kid, and the fact he felt like screaming or throwing something was a childish impulse he definitely shouldn’t indulge.

“Just have a few bites,” he cajoled.

Stella made no effort to pick up her fork. “I. Don’t. Like. It.”

Luke didn’t visibly react even as his temper ratcheted up a couple of notches. “You did a week ago.”

“No. I. Didn’t.”

He lifted his own fork to his mouth, shoveling some of the pasta in. It wasn’t great. He’d followed the recipe—at least, he thought he had—but it hadn’t turned out anything like the picture. Still, it was food—edible as a baseline, and damn it, he was getting fed up with Stella’s bursts of attitude. “It’s tomatoes, onion, basil, cheese. Nothing suspicious there. See?” He lifted another scoop to his mouth, his eyes hooked to Stella’s the whole time.

Her lower lip pouted belligerently, and again he thought of Jen. Not because of their physical similarities but because of Jen’s ability to cope, to smile, to know how to handle just about everything.

Jen would have known what to do. Jen would have a joke or a story, a promise, something that would have worked.

Or maybe she would have taken Stella’s side and insisted the pasta really was a complete flop, and she’d have laughed at him for his lack of culinary skills and suggested they go down the street to Tucker’s and grab burgers instead. This close to Christmas, she’d have probably made them sing carols the whole way—Jen had loved Christmas in a way Luke had always teased her for but found himself longing for every year now.

It had been over six years since Jen had passed, and he didn’t grieve for her in the same way now as he had then. The stick of dynamite that had blown into his life the night she’d died, spreading everything into disarray, was more of a slow burn these days.

Memory was a funny beast, intangible, yet ever present. He’d be walking down Main Street, and he’d see her in his mind as clear as anything—library books in hand, a grin on her face, those beautiful floral dresses she’d seemed to have an endless supply of. He’d later discovered she made them out of thrift shop fabrics. The way she’d smelled like violets and summer all year round. The way she’d cried when he’d enlisted, begging him not to go away again. The way she’d cried—different tears this time—when he’d proposed.

The words she’d used when she’d written him and told him about the baby.

His gut clenched at that particular memory—how in the desert of Iraq, among the tents of Camp Freedom, he’d learned that he was going to be a dad, and all the dust and the dirt and the heat and the sweat, the death and the certainty that you would be next had paused, everything had fallen silent, and for a second he’d been back in Cape Hope, under the shade of the huge Sycamore tree they’d loved forever, Jen’s head against his chest, her heart beating with his.

Jen’s ghost was everywhere, and he was grateful for that. Grateful she was still somehow alive in this town, and so much of her was in the daughter she’d died bringing into the world.

Stella pushed her plate away and sat back in her chair.

This part of their daughter, though, was all him. Stubborn as a mule, she’d go to bed hungry before she’d admit defeat and try the pasta.

He had another mouthful, his temper rising. “You know what, Stella? If you don’t want it, that’s fine. Go have a bath.”

She opened her mouth to say something and then snapped it shut. “Whatever.” She scraped her chair back in a way he was darned sure was intentionally noisy, shot him a filthy look, then turned around and stomped from the room.

He sat there a moment, staring at her empty chair.

Silence filled the old house.

And it was old, the plumbing mostly left over from when the place had been built at the turn of the last century. It sang every time it was pushed into service, just for a moment or two.

And it wasn’t singing now. Whatever Stella was doing, it wasn’t what she’d been told.

Expelling a breath, he stood up, moving out of the big old kitchen and down the hallway.

He found his daughter sitting on the floor of her room, her shirt off but still in her jeans and shoes, playing with the doll’s house. If she hadn’t already goaded him senseless this afternoon, he might have laughed. She was so easily distracted—like a goldfish, he often thought, wishing Jen were here to laugh about it with him. Wishing there was someone to laugh about it with, to smile lovingly at this beautiful, complex, exhausting little girl.

“Stella Jennifer Miller. Bath. Now.”

She lifted her face to his, something like hurt in her eyes, and his gut churned. He propped his hip against the doorjamb and rolled his head on his neck for a minute. It had been a long day; he was tired. He wanted Stella in bed so he could crack a beer and sit out on the deck a moment, staring at the fields and the stars and not thinking of anything. “I’m tired.”

“Yeah, so am I. So have your bath and you can go to bed.”

“Can’t I just skip it tonight?”

He pulled a face. “You’ve been playing down by the creek with the Watkins kids, right? Do you really want to get in your sheets with leeches and gunk all over you?”

A smile tickled the corner of her lips, but she swallowed it, glaring at him determinedly. “I don’t have leeches.”

“How do you know? They could be behind your knees. You know they love it there.”

“I didn’t get wet, Daddy. It’s, like, minus a hundred today.”

He shifted his gaze to the window. It was already dark out, but with just a tiny lick of purple still lighting the sky. “It’s not that bad. Bath. Come on.”

“Fine,” she huffed, and he knew that it was the thought of leeches that had done it.

He watched her disappear down the corridor, into the bathroom, and a minute later the water started to run, and the ancient pipes burst into a grudging baritone. He moved back to the kitchen, picked up their dinner bowls, and carried them to the garbage can.

He’d make a sandwich for himself later.

He stacked the plates in the sink and braced his palms on the counter, staring out at the darkness beyond the kitchen window, breathing in, breathing out, trying to calm down, trying not to take any of Stella’s mood personally.

Stella’s teacher was always full of praise for the little girl. She’s one of the sweet ones, Luke. Try not to worry so much. But he did worry.

He worried all the time.

He worried that Stella was growing up and away from him, that the smiling little girl she’d been even a year ago was morphing into some kind of adolescent already. And it was too early, wasn’t it? It seemed way too early, but how the heck did he know?

He had no experience; he was flying blind. He’d been doing okay for a long time. The baby years had been tough, but tough in a way he was kind of weirdly used to. Two tours in Iraq and his training in the Marines had prepared him for mental and physical exhaustion, as had his call-outs here in Cape Hope as a volunteer firefighter. He hadn’t minded the sleepless nights and the erratic hours Stella had kept to.

Toddlerhood hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park, but he’d muddled his way through—learning more than he thought possible about My Little Pony.

But this was something else. He was living with a first-grader tyrant.

The water cut off, and he moved to the ancient fridge, pulled out a beer, unscrewed the top, and slung the lid in the garbage, all the while listening for Stella’s splishing and splashing. Soon after, the sound of the water draining filled the house.

He stayed where he was, butt pressed against the countertop. Stella appeared a moment later, her skin pink from the bath, her pajamas fluffy, with unicorns all over them.

“You done?” He leaned forward, ruffling her shiny blond hair.

She nodded, standing still, looking up at him with Jen’s eyes, and his gut tightened. “Yep.”

“Right. Bed for you, butterfly.”

A smile flickered at the corners of her lips and all of the frustration over dinners not eaten washed away. He wished she’d smile more. “I’m not tired anymore.”

“You were a minute ago.”

She lifted her shoulders. “I’m not now.”

“Then you can read a bit. Come on.” He lifted her up then, wondering how much longer he’d be able to do that for before she started complaining about it as well. He carried her into her room and deposited her beside the bed. “You’ve got your library book?”

She nodded. “But it’s boring.”

“Seriously?”

She nodded once more, more emphatically. “Yes, Daddy. Seriously.”

“So take it and exchange it tomorrow. Get a better one.”

She bit down on her lip, like she was going to say something but didn’t want to. He hovered by the door, waiting.

“Stella? Tomorrow?”

She expelled a dramatic sigh. “Yeah, sure.”

He watched as she climbed into bed, grabbing her book off the nightstand and pulling out the bookmark she’d made from a feather and some cardboard.

“’Night, Daddy.”

His heart stuttered. “’Night, baby.”

She fixed him with a cool gaze over the top of her book. “I’m not a baby.”

Luke let out a short laugh. “No, you’re definitely not. Lights out in twenty minutes.”

End of Excerpt