The next seconds passed in a blur. Shorty dropped his cup, sending porcelain shards everywhere. All three men jumped up, knocking over their chairs in their haste to reach the door. Charley picked up the closest weapon she could find—a broom—and chased them down the slippery steps as they raced toward the truck, yelling all the way.
As they neared the truck, Joe cranked the engine and slammed it into Reverse. The men jumped back, and Charley plowed into Shorty, knocking them both to the ground. Tires squealing, the truck shot backward about twenty feet then lurched to a stop as a hulking black Escalade blocked its path. When Joe tried to pull forward, Big Sammy’s men boxed him in.
Charley halted, broom in hand. She needed to call the sheriff, but her phone was still in the cottage. What were the chances she could slip away unnoticed? She took one step backward, then another. Just when she was about to make a run for it, the doors of the Escalade flew open and two men jumped out. The driver was short, stout, and middle aged, and his passenger was the exact opposite. The gangly young man sprinted to the truck and yanked open the passenger side door.
Vinnie ran to meet the driver. “Boss, what are you doing here?”
“What I should have done last week, instead of sending you three jokers.”
“But we found the girl, just like you told us. We were bringing her back.” Vinnie’s voice held a pleading note.
Charley clenched her teeth and tightened her grip on the broom. There was no time for the sheriff. She would have to handle the situation herself. This was her inn, and she was not going to have a mob hit in her back yard on Christmas morning. End of story.
She shoved Shorty aside and marched toward Big Sammy. “You there, what are you doing here?”
Big Sammy furrowed his brow. “Who are you?”
“I own this inn, and you and your associates are not welcome. I’ll thank you to leave immediately.”
“Look, lady. We got no beef with you. We’ll leave as soon as we have what we came for.”
Joe had climbed from the truck and approached the group with a small sledge hammer clutched in one fist.
Big Sammy jerked his chin in his direction. “Tell the big guy to drop the hammer. We don’t want to make trouble. We’re just here to pick up—”
Just then the tall, skinny young man appeared from the other side of the truck with one arm wrapped around Maria’s shoulders and a worried look on his face. Tears leaked from her non-mascara’ed eyes. “Pop, I told you not to send Vinnie and the boys. They’ve scared her half to death.”
Big Sammy strode over to the young couple and reached for Maria’s hand. She hesitated then proffered it reluctantly before snuggling back into the safety of Little Sammy’s embrace.
He leaned toward her. “Young lady, you are one slippery customer. The boys have been looking for you for three days.”
“I know,” she acknowledged in a small voice. “That’s why I ran.”
“I bet you don’t know I sent them to bring you to the house to spend Christmas with the family.”
“B-but you hate me.”
“Nah. At first, maybe I wasn’t too pleased when Little Sammy told me he was gonna be father. But eventually, the missus, she. . .uh. . .helped me see the error of my ways.”
Little Sammy grinned. “Mom chased him around the kitchen with a rolling pin, yelling at the top of her lungs that nobody was gonna deprive her of her first grandbaby.”
His father grimaced. “So, Maria, are you willing to let bygones be bygones and become a member of the Spitelli family?”
She glanced up at Little Sammy’s adoring face. “Sammy’s gotta ask me himself.”
The young man promptly dropped to one knee on the crunchy grass and took both her hands. “Maria Bartoli, will you marry me?”
She smiled and nodded. “I guess.”
Big Sammy smiled and rubbed his hands together. “Good. That’s settled. Let’s get going. Mama’s got Christmas dinner in the oven, and if we’re late she’ll make minestrone out of me.”
Joe stepped forward. “Maria, are you sure you want to go with them? You don’t have to, you know.” He slapped the hammer against his palm.
The girl pulled away from her fiancé’s arms and went to Joe. Standing on tiptoe, she planted a swift kiss on his cheek. “I want to. Don’t worry. And thanks for taking care of me.”
Two minutes later, Charley stood in the yard staring at receding taillights. “What just happened here? I feel like I’ve been part of some ridiculous reality TV show.”
“That makes two of us.”
“It was kind of sweet, though.”
Out of habit she glanced at her watch. Eight o’clock had come and gone.
She tamped down the rising panic and turned to face him. “I’m sorry to run, but I’ve got to serve breakfast for twelve in half an hour.” She stuck out her hand. “It was nice to meet you, even under such bizarre circumstances. Have a safe trip home, and Merry Christmas.”
Instead of the quick, friendly shake she’d intended, he took her hand and didn’t release it. “I just had a thought,” he said. “How would you like to come home with me for New Year’s?”
Her mouth fell open. Had she heard him correctly? She liked Joe and he was certainly attractive, but they hadn’t even known each other twenty-four hours.
His dark eyes sparkled with seductive mischief. “When I called home I didn’t give my mom any specifics about Maria—I didn’t want to worry her—but when I told her I was bringing a girl home for the holidays she was pleased. . .and more than a little relieved, I think. She’s been after me for years about the state of my social life. I’m sure she’d be happier to see you than a pregnant, Goth teenager.”
Hearing the love in his voice when he talked about his mother brought an ache to her heart and a lump to her throat. “It’s not that I don’t want to make your mom happy, but—”
His expression sobered. “It would make me happy. I could stay and help out here until your guests leave. Then we could drive to Roanoke together. A few days of R & R would do you good. You look tired.”
Ouch. Not exactly what a girl wants to hear from a good-looking guy. “Gee, thanks.”
“Tired, but beautiful. I’m just saying you could use a little spoiling.”
Was he trying to melt her like last week’s snowman? Nobody had spoiled her, or even suggested it, in years, and if they had she would have rebuffed them. She’d made her own way and forged her own life since her parents’ deaths. She had the inn. She had Henry for help. She was in control. It was a safe, if lonely, way to live.
“You’d love it,” he continued. “One of my sisters and her husband host the annual family New Year’s Eve party, and my mom makes killer black eyed peas the next day.”
Family, a party, and the opportunity to eat someone else’s cooking. Her walls began to crumble. He seemed to know just how to hit her soft spots.
“Come on,” he urged, tugging her toward him. “Take a chance.”
Should she? Could she?
She allowed him to pull her closer until only a breath separated them. She hadn’t had a reason to celebrate the beginning of a new year in ages. Maybe it was time.
“I think I’d like that,” she murmured.
His arms tightened around her back, and his lips settled on hers in a kiss filled with the promise of good things to come.
Check out my full-length story, By Reservation Only
By Reservation Only (Deerbourne Inn)
by Barbara Edwards
It's the grand opening of The Deerbourne Inn! Award-winning Chef Nathan Harte has worked long and hard to restore this historic property in Willow Spring, Vermont. He’s ready to greet his guests with fine cuisine, comfortable rooms, and maybe even a ghost or two.
He's escaping the rat-race of the city for a slower more rewarding life, but is he ready to deal with a broken arm, a quirky arsonist, and a long-ago mystery? And what might he find up in the three hundred year old attics?
Victoria Harte, his sister, has claimed the two cottages for her patients: wounded military suffering from PTSD who need the peace and quiet of the Vermont countryside.