A tiny thrill rippled through Callie’s chest. Tommy Blackstone was taking her home with him! Too bad Susan was out of town. A sudden childish urge to stick her tongue out at her sister popped into her head before she quashed it. How ridiculous. She and Susan were both grown women. Susan was happily married and had two children, for Pete’s sake.
Tom held the door, and she stepped out of the cell. “Where’s my purse?”
He opened a battered brown file cabinet, removed her bag, and handed it to her.
“I’ll need some fresh clothes and my toiletries too.” She glanced down at her rumpled green sweater and grimaced. “I might have gotten a little sweaty loading the U-Haul. All I could think about was getting away from St. Louis as fast as possible and coming home.”
“Your car and the trailer are in the lot out back. You can pick up some things on the way.”
On the way to…? Unease slithered into her mind. Wild Man Tommy Blackstone might have morphed into Respectable Hard-ass Chief Tom Blackstone, but in truth she barely knew him. What had she gotten herself into?
As if he could read her thoughts, his dark blue eyes crinkled at the corners, and a smile teased his lips. “I’m taking you to my mom’s house.”
Callie remembered Helen Blackstone as a harried single mother who’d struggled to raise her son on the income from her small beauty shop after her husband abandoned them. They used to live in a rundown trailer park on the edge of town.
“I moved her into a nice little house on Myrtle Street when I left the Marines.”
Triple Damn. On top of everything else, the man appeared to be a world-class mind reader.
Their footsteps echoed through the empty police station as Tom ushered her to his cruiser parked out back, next to her sporty blue hatchback. She bit the inside of her cheek. She loved her car, but without a job it was another luxury she could no longer afford.
He opened the cruiser door. “Get in and give me your keys. I’ll put your suitcase in the trunk.”
She complied, and in a couple of minutes they were on their way to Myrtle Street. Tom pulled to a stop in front of a modest white ranch house with a string of twinkling lights outlining the porch and a festive holly wreath on the front door. After retrieving her suitcase, he led the way up the walk and opened the door. A comforting, spicy aroma embraced her as she stepped into the front hall.
“Mom, I’ve brought you an unexpected holiday guest,” he called.
Helen Blackstone walked through the arched opening to the dining room, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. When she saw Callie, her lined face brightened. “Callie Rayburn, what a surprise!”
Nerves fluttered in Callie’s stomach. Despite the fact that everyone in Hawthorne Springs knew everyone else, at least by sight, she and Tom’s mother were virtual strangers. “Hi, Mrs. Blackstone.”
Tom set her suitcase on the braided rug and unzipped his jacket. “Callie’s folks are out of town, and she forgot her key.”
She held her breath. If he mentions the arrest, I’ll die on the spot. He turned his head away from his mom and gave her a slow wink that sent her pulse skipping.
Helen smiled. “Then you must stay here, dear. Tom, take her bag to the guest room. The chili’s ready, so we’ll eat as soon as you both wash up.” She turned and headed in the direction of the kitchen.
Callie followed Tom down the hall to a small, neat room with blue-and white striped wallpaper and an old cherry wood bedroom set. “I can’t stay here,” she whispered.
He raised one dark brow. “You’d rather spend the holiday in jail?”
“Your mother doesn’t even know me.”
His teasing smile did nothing to calm her jitters. “Then you’re in luck—she doesn’t know what a pain in the butt you can be. And if you manage to behave yourself for a couple of days, she might never find out.”
“Dinner’s on the table!” Helen’s muffled voice called from the dining room.
After Tom ladled the steaming chili into bright blue bowls, Helen passed a basket of soda crackers. “I hope this isn’t too spicy for you,” she said. “Chili is a Christmas Eve tradition at our house.”
Callie smiled and gave her bowl an appreciative sniff. “I love chili, and it smells great.”
Helen reached for a bowl of shredded cheese. “How long will you be in town, dear?”
Good question. “Um, my plans are kind of up in the air at the moment.”
“You mustn’t think I was trying to get rid of you. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. I just figured you’d have to get back to work. Your mom will be so disappointed she missed you. She talks about you every time she comes in to get her hair done.”
Callie’s stomach sank. She’d been too upset about losing her job to consider her parents’ reaction to the disintegration of her career.
“Callie’s looking for a new employment opportunity, Mom.” Tom sent her another wink, causing her to fidget in her chair. That must be how he’d charmed the pants off half the girls in high school. The man was a menace.
Helen’s spoon clattered into her bowl. “Here in Hawthorne Springs? Oh, that’s wonderful! Your mother will be thrilled!”
“I don’t know.”
Helen reached for Callie’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Trust me, she’ll run through the streets shouting the news. She’s proud of your success in the city, but she’s said many times how much she misses you and wishes she could see more of you.”
Callie hoped Tom’s mother was right.
Helen monopolized the rest of the dinner conversation offering ideas about local businesses that could use help with marketing. By the time Callie and Tom finished drying the dishes, her tired brain was dizzy with possibilities. A huge yawn slipped out before she could stifle it.
Tom glanced at his watch. “I should go. Walk me to the door.”
When he reached for her hand, she was too surprised to resist. He stopped just inside the foyer, took her other hand, and turned her to face him. A single masculine dimple appeared in one cheek. “So, are you going to stay?”
She tilted her head. “I’d thought I would just come home until I got my bearings. I hadn’t considered staying in Hawthorne Springs for good.”
He tugged on her hands until she stepped closer, and his arms slid around her. “Maybe I can help you make up your mind.” He glanced above their heads to a bundle of mistletoe dangling from the light fixture. With a slow, sexy smile, he lowered his head until their lips met in a kiss filled with promise.When he drew back, Callie smiled. “I have to admit the idea is growing on me.”