Once a player, always a player. Ellie fumed as she rang up two pumpkin pies and one mincemeat for Kora Steiglitz, the mayor’s wife. It’s always the same with him. A tiny voice in her head told her Tyler couldn’t help it if females found him attractive. She shushed it immediately. She had more important concerns than Tyler O’Neil’s sex appeal.
Around two o’clock that afternoon she took advantage of a lull in business to down a cup of coffee, along with a bowl of yesterday’s blackberry cobbler, re-heated and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. Fortified, she gave Clare a quick call to fill her in on the meeting with Tyler. By six she could barely keep herself upright. She dragged her aching back and feet home and straight into a hot bubble bath, knowing full well she had to be back at Pearl’s Perfect Pies in less than twelve hours. Her chief assistant baker would be in the kitchen by four, and Ellie usually joined her at six.
It was still pitch black when she arrived at the pie shop the next morning, but several trucks were already parked in front of the building next door. Portable lights shone through the broken windows, and the sounds of saws and nail guns filled the early morning air. The crew must be hard at work. Tyler might be a self-involved womanizer, but no one could accuse him of being lazy.
Around mid-morning a gap-toothed, red-headed boy of about eleven strode through the door with a stack of papers under one arm. He waited while she rung up a candy apple pie for Elmer McPherson, then stepped up to the counter. He pulled off his hat and one glove and thrust his hand forward. Ellie smothered a smile as she shook his hand. He’d obviously been coached on how to present himself.
“Hello, I’m with the Pumpkinseed Lake Penguins, and we wanted to ask if you’d put one of our posters in your store.” He peeled one off his stack and held it out.
She took the poster and read:
Penguin Pick-Up Food Drive
For the benefit of the Pumpkinseed Lake Food Bank
We need the following items:
Canned Green Beans
Members of the Penguins will stop by your home or business
to pick up donations after 1:00 p.m. on December 23rd.
Thank you for your support!
She pressed her lips together. Not a bad plan for a meathead hockey player. By enlisting the help of the whole community, they would be able to stock the food shelf in a single afternoon.
She returned her attention to the boy, who waited for her answer with a serious expression on his freckled face. “I’ll be happy to help. Why don’t you give me two—one for the front window and one to put here by the cash register?”
“Sure. Thanks!” The boy grinned, handed her another poster, and hustled out the front door toward the next stop on his route.
The days leading up to Christmas were always the busiest of the year at Pearl’s. The bakers cranked out pies like a well-oiled machine, and Pearl put in extra hours behind the counter filling orders. This year Ellie spent every minute up to her elbows in pumpkin puree and cinnamon. Clare sent over several volunteers from the church to help, and together they filled the cooler with forty extra pies.
Ellie was almost too busy to notice the non-stop construction work going on next door. Almost. Tyler’s truck was hard to miss, parked at the curb each morning when she arrived at the shop well before dawn. And she told herself she was only being civic-minded when she sent a couple of the volunteers over with hot coffee and three whole pies every morning around eleven; she had no right to be disappointed when Tyler failed to appear for the follow-up meeting he’d proposed. After all, it wasn’t as if they’d made firm plans.
At nine o’clock on the morning of the twenty-fourth, Ellie left Pearl in charge of the store and rounded up three of the church volunteers to help transport the pumpkin pies next door. Although a small army of Penguins had swarmed through town gathering donations the day before, she’d kept the pies in the large commercial refrigerator at Pearl’s until an hour before the food bank planned to open for business.
When she stepped through the door with the first batch of pies, she froze and sucked in a breath. She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was impossible. Tyler and his crew had performed a Christmas miracle.
The charred, water-stained ceiling and walls had disappeared—replaced by fresh wood and newly-painted drywall. New glass sparkled in the old window frames, and rows of custom-made shelves and cubbies filled the back wall. Even the scarred wooden floor had received a fresh coat of varnish. And they’d done it in less than a week. Her heart swelled, and she had to blink away a sudden sheen of moisture.
Across the room, Tyler and a flock of Penguins were busy organizing the food donations and packing them into boxes that each contained the fixings for a complete family meal. Ellie had taken no more than three steps into the room when one of the boys dropped a package of stuffing mix and zoomed toward her, hands outstretched.
“Let me take those for you, ma’am.”
She cringed. Ma’am. When did I become a ma’am? But she smiled and let him take the pies. Then Tyler glanced up and met her gaze. Her cheeks flushed at the warmth in his eyes. Get a grip. He probably looks at every female like that.
She stood unmoving while he finished the box he was packing and walked toward her with a smile. The temperature in the room shot up ten degrees, and she unzipped her parka. No wonder all the women melt at his feet.
“I want to thank you for the coffee and pie the last few days,” he said. “My guys really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, too.”
Butterflies fluttered in Ellie’s stomach. “Pearl always said the fastest way to a man’s heart was a perfect piece of pie.” She regretted the words the second they slipped out.
Tyler grinned. “Pearl was right.”
The butterfly ballet became a flamenco. Unsure how to respond, she glanced around the room. “Your crew did a wonderful job with the place. I can’t believe how much you accomplished in such a short time.”
“Not too bad for a bunch of meathead hockey players, huh?”
Ellie’s face flamed and her jaw dropped. She closed her eyes and prayed for oblivion. Surely she’d never said that in front of him.
His grin widened. “Clare told me that’s what you used to call us in high school.”
“I…” What could she say?
“It’s okay. We probably were meatheads then.”
She dropped her gaze to the floor. “My judgement might have been clouded at the time. I was only fourteen.” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “And I had a huge crush on you.”
Shoot. He’d heard her. Why had she let that slip? She shot a nervous glance toward the door. “Um, I have to get back to the store. I’ll see you around, I guess.”
When she turned to make her escape, he grabbed her hand. “Hey, you can’t drop a bombshell like that and run away. We’ve got things to discuss.” She shook her head, but he tugged her hand. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”
She scanned the room. Activity had halted. All eyes focused on them. The scrutiny of eight fascinated eleven-year-old boys sent chills down her spine. Time to beat a hasty retreat. “Okay.”
With a firm grip, Tyler led her to a storeroom in the back. It held the piney scent of new plywood but not much else.
He pulled her loosely into his arms, and his lips curved into an amused smile. “So you used to have a crush on me.”
She refused to meet his gaze. “Maybe. It was a long time ago.”
He nodded and drew her closer. “We’ve both changed since then.”
“Maybe.” He’d certainly changed, or at least her opinion of him had. She used to think he was a self-centered show-off. A gorgeous, self-centered show-off, but a self-centered show-off, all the same. The past week had shown her a new Tyler O’Neil—a thoughtful, generous, hard-working Tyler O’Neil.
“You used to be cute. Now you’re beautiful.”
She huffed in disbelief. Beautiful? What a bunch of… “I don’t—”
He touched a finger to her lips. “You are. I may have been a jerk in high school, but I’m trying to do better. And you may have been too young for me then, but you’re not too young now.”
Her insides began to melt. What was happening? She was quickly getting in over her head. Time for a distraction before the situation got out of hand. She glanced around the room. “You said you had something to show me. What is it?”
“This.” He lowered his head and planted a soft kiss on her surprised mouth.
When he released her, she tried to focus on his features, but the whole world seemed askew.
“So, are you willing to give me a chance?” he asked before he kissed her again, sealing her fate.
Her head was still spinning. “Mmm” was the only response she could muster.
His lips slid down to nuzzle her neck. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Ellie leaned against his sturdy chest and allowed herself to kiss him back. It was so much better than anything she had imagined as a star-struck fourteen-year-old.
The sounds of whistles and applause entered her consciousness. Her eyes flew open, and Tyler’s arms tightened. Grinning Penguins and amused church ladies filled the doorway.In the middle of them all stood Pearl. She pinned Ellie with a sharp glance, then winked. “Didn’t I always tell you? Never underestimate the power of pie.”
This story appears in the collection Small Town Christmas Tales.