Jessica Jeffries hates Christmas. With all the commercialism, stress and chaos, there are a lot of people who feel the same way. But Jessie has more reason than most for hating it. She’s been robbed, dumped, caught pneumonia, broken her leg, and this year she ran over Santa Claus with her truck.

Tom Dunham’s holiday is turning out to be pretty awful. Not only is he suddenly responsible for a six-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen since infancy, but Amy holds him personally responsible for uprooting her, making it impossible for Santa to find her on Christmas morning.

Things go from bad to worse when Tom’s car breaks down on a freezing mountain road, but he gets a reprieve when a young woman who looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than a tow truck driver comes to his rescue. Suddenly things are looking up—until she runs over an old man with an eerie resemblance to St. Nick.

Tom Dunham looked at the useless mobile phone in his lap. He’d tried twice more, unsuccessfully, to reconnect to the tow agency but now he couldn’t even get a signal. He hoped the woman at the office had gotten enough information before their call was cut off.

Outside the wind howled fiercely, buffeting the car and sending the falling snow whipping sideways. The storm had seized the vehicle the minute the engine died, robbing it of its heat. If the tow truck didn’t come, they were doomed.

He glanced at the little girl sitting next to him in the front seat. His daughter, but a virtual stranger nonetheless. She stared out the window, dwarfed under his leather coat. He didn’t even have a blanket to offer her if, God forbid, they were stuck here all night.

“You warm enough, pumpkin?”

She glanced at him, her wide, sad eyes possessing the intelligence of a child twice her age. “Don’t call me that.” Her voice revealed the fatigue she was too grown up to admit. Six years old, going on sixteen.

“Sorry.” Tom cringed. He couldn’t win. “I’ve got a candy bar in my pocket. Are you hungry?”

She turned her attention back out the passenger window. “Uh-uh.”

A long, uncomfortable silence stretched. Amy was smart, but still too young to understand her mother’s years of drug use had finally caught up with her. All she knew was she had been taken from her home and spent two months with her grandmother before being shifted yet again to him. Now, two days before Christmas, she was being shuffled to a new home by a father she had never met until today.

He gave up trying to be casual as he stared at the little girl’s profile. She’d inherited her gleaming strawberry blond hair from her mother, but her pixie’s profile was the spitting image of his sister when she was that age. God, Hannah. How could you do this to your child? Tom shook his head. Our child. He was as much, if not more so, to blame. Legally he would still have to pay child support to Amy’s grandmother for her care, but Hannah had not wanted him to know she’d been arrested for fear he’d sue for custody.

Damn right, he vowed silently. He looked at the small person in the seat next to him trying so hard to be a big girl. He knew absolutely nothing about his own daughter. What was her favorite color? Did she have a favorite toy? Was she allergic to any foods or medicines?

“You looking for Santa Claus?” he finally asked.

She leaned her head back against the seat without looking at him. “Mmm-hmm.”

Headlights appeared in the rear-view mirror. Thank Saint Nick. He poised his hand on the door handle, prepared to jump out and flag down the car. He sighed with relief when the vehicle veered onto the shoulder behind him, slowed, then pulled around in front of his dead car.

Bright gold, old fashioned letters spelled out “Elmer’s Tow and Cradle” on the side of the gigantic red truck. Thank goodness that sweet dispatcher had gotten his location before the phone cut out. They weren’t going to freeze to death, after all.

“Look, the tow truck is here. We’ll be home in time for Christmas.” He tried to sound cheerful, but failed miserably.

“It doesn’t matter. Santa won’t know where to find me.”

Amy’s sad expression turned worse. She’s just tired, he told himself. After a good night’s sleep, when she wakes up on Christmas morning to find Santa had indeed found her, she’ll be a new kid. He made a mental note to thank his secretary for the last minute shopping.

“Stay here, okay sweetie?” He jumped out quickly and slammed the door as the frigid air rushed in. He’d dressed professionally for the custody hearing in San Francisco, and in slacks and loafers, he was unprepared for the biting cold that immediately seized him. His sweater vest hadn’t been enough in San Francisco—out here it was laughable.

The fogged tow truck’s driver’s window slowly rolled down.

“I tried to pull off when the engine died, and we slid into the bank,” Tom yelled over the howling winds. He stopped, stunned, when he saw a pretty face framed by red curls peering back from the hood of a fur-lined polar jacket.

“Um, it’s stuck pretty good. Do you think you can get it out?”

She frowned as though he’d insulted her. “No problem. I’m going to need you up here. Are you alone?”

“I’ve got my daughter with me,” he told her.

“Well I hope she’s smart enough to wear her coat.”

Tom ran back to the car to get Amy. As he came to the passenger door he slipped and went down, planting both knees and his right hand in the snow.

By now his face was so frozen he could hardly form words. “Come on Amy. We’ve got to ride up front in the truck,” he said through chattering teeth. He tasted blood, having bitten his tongue on “ride.”

He gathered Amy up and made another mad dash to the gigantic tow truck. It was the kind used to pull big rigs, and he could hardly believe that dewy-faced girl could drive it, let alone hook up a broken-down car and drag it out of a snow bank.

“Do you need any help?” he asked the figure coming towards him. She looked like an abominable monster in her red foul-weather suit. He’d seen enough catalogs to know her fur-topped boots were referred to as “negative degrees” protection. He wished he had known well enough to buy himself a pair.

“Yeah,” she shouted above the wind. “I need you to get in my cab and get yourself warm. Pour the kid some hot chocolate from my thermos.”

Even through the howling storm the sarcasm in her voice carried across, loud and clear.

The gigantic cab was warm and toasty, its heater blowing full force. He held his frozen hands in front of a blower and rubbed them together. Delicious, prickly heat flowed over them.

“This is better, isn’t it?” As usual, he got no answer. “Do you want some hot chocolate? That sounds great, doesn’t it?”

He lifted a thermal picnic sac from the passenger side floor and unzipped it. Before he could stop himself, he’d digested the note taped on the front of the thermos: “I know you’re tired of my saying this, so I’ll write it. I won’t let you stay home alone on Christmas again. The invitation to dinner still stands. –Hazel.”

A hydraulic motor whirred to life on the back of the truck. He thought of the pretty young woman out there in the cold. Most people were on their way to visit relatives for the holidays, and this woman wasn’t out here because someone else called in sick. Before he could convince himself it was smarter not to wonder, he was thinking about why she would rather be alone during the happiest time of the year.

Tom poured the hot chocolate into the plastic top and replaced the thermos’s stopper. He offered it to Amy. She took a small sip before handing it back.

“That’s better, hmm?” He took a mouthful himself. The little girl barely nodded, but he knew the sweet, chocolaty warmth felt as good in her stomach as his.

The rig shuddered as it took the weight of his car. Something clanged, and the whirring sound grew louder. Tom glanced out the back window to see the hood of his Cutlass slowly rising. Even wearing all that gear, she had to be cold.

The hydraulic motor shut off and a moment later the door to the cab opened, letting in a chilling rush of snowy air. The girl hopped in and slammed the door. “You really planted that front end.”

She pulled off her hood, revealing an unruly mop of gorgeous red hair. It was like molten copper, and it made him warmer just looking at it. Vivid green eyes the color of Douglas fir twinkled as she smiled. Maybe she had forgiven his chauvinistic comment.

“The power to the brakes and the steering went out when the engine quit. I wasn’t ready for it.”

“That must have been some ride.” She glanced past him at Amy. “I’ll bet it rattled your teeth.”

The little girl regarded her with those haunted eyes. Thankfully it was late; he could blame her silence on the hour.

“I’m just grateful you came along. I don’t want to think what would have happened otherwise.”

She pulled off a thick glove and offered her hand. “I’m Jessica Jeffries. You can call me Jessie.” She shook his with a capable grip. “You wouldn’t have been out here long. The highway patrol is going to shut down the road in about a half hour. They always clear it with the plow, just to make sure they don’t leave anyone stranded.”

Her warm hand helped the life crawl back through him. “I’m Tom Dunham, this is my daughter, Amy.”

She put the mighty truck in gear and slowly pulled away. “Dunham, as in Dunham Law in Chester?”

“Yeah, you’ve heard of me?”

“Nope. Just driven past your building. I love Victorian houses and that one is hard to miss.”

For some reason he felt disappointed by that explanation and he didn’t volunteer he only rented the place. She kept her eyes on the road and her conversation sounded like she was only half talking to him.

“This is some night,” he said, struggling for small talk. Why did the presence of a beautiful woman always leave him tongue-tied? He could handle himself with the ruthlessness and precision of an attacking general in the courtroom, but put him alone in a confined space with a beautiful woman and he turned into a clown. And not one of those witty, cute clowns that could make balloon animals, but one of those clumsy, funny looking ones that were always the butt-end of the joke.

“Caught you unaware, did it?” she asked.

He watched her profile as she stared at the road ahead. She was a tall girl, yet delicate at the same time. With full lips, flawless skin and the well-defined bone structure of a Victoria’s Secret model, she was the last person he expected to find driving a tow truck.

“What has you out so late in a snowstorm?” Her words faltered near the end of her question, as though she decided too late it was a personal question.

“We’re on our way home from San Francisco. There was an accident on I-5 and I thought cutting off the main highway would save some time.”

“Ah well, don’t worry. This weather can surprise the best of us.”

“The ‘best of us’ are smart enough to buy this stuff.” He fingered a wrinkle in her heavy polar jacket. “Right after Christmas, I’m going to buy a suit of armor like this for us both.”

Apparently Amy didn’t know he was talking about her, or simply didn’t care.

Jessie skillfully steered the massive truck around a hairpin turn. The wind pounded them, making the truck shudder. The dark night was consuming, murky. “How long have you been driving a tow truck?” he asked.

What a stupid question. Do you come here often? Dhur.

“Six years.” She didn’t take her eyes from the road to answer.

“Wow, I’m impressed.”

“Oh yeah?” Jessie glanced at him. The smile was gone, her expression hard. “Why?”

Note to self: open mouth only to insert foot.

“I...it just seems like a big job.” Criminy.

The sardonic smile returned. She patted his hand. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.”

Touché.

Now he felt like a real idiot, but Jessie laughed at her own jibe, cutting his tension in half, and he chuckled along with her.

She picked up her radio and called in, to Hazel no doubt, telling her she’d picked up “the ducks.” The radio crackled in response, but Tom couldn’t make out any of the words. Jessie dropped the microphone back in its holder and looked past him at Amy again. “That hot chocolate getting you warmed up?”

Amy nodded. “Uh huh.”

Glory be, a response. Followed by another uncomfortable silence. Jessie slowed the truck for a tight s-turn.

“How’d you get stuck working through the holidays?” Even before he finished asking the question, he knew it was a mistake, but he’d lost control of his mouth. He was intrigued by this delightful contradiction of beauty and strength like he hadn’t ever been by a woman before.

“Don’t celebrate Christmas,” she answered simply.

“Are you Jewish?” Shut up, Dunham.

She glanced at him. All the sarcasm was gone, as was the glimmer in those vivid green eyes. Now they were cool, like the ocean under a stormy sky. “No, I just hate Christmas.”

Amy shot her a surprised look. “How can you hate Christmas?” Her already shrill voice hit a high-note, as though it were the most outrageous thing she’d ever heard.

For a moment Jessie’s hardness faltered. Her eyes were almost sad. No, hurt was a better way to describe them. “I’ve just had a lot of bad luck at Christmas, that’s all.”

As she looked at the road again, her face suddenly registered shock. “Oh my God!” She hit the brakes, sending the truck sliding to a stop, but not fast enough. Whatever was in the road, it made a sickening thud as it impacted the front grille.

 

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