A thin layer of ice covered the narrowing road and Link Whitman tapped the brakes and slowed his pickup. The Langhorne police were famous for being generous with speeding tickets, and Link already had two on his record that were killing his insurance bill.
Running his fingers through unruly curls that could stand a good cut, he leaned to check his reflection in the truck’s rearview mirror. His sisters would have given him a hard time if they’d seen.
Who you primping for, Linkie? Must be a girl!
He grinned to himself, hearing their voices as clearly as if they were in the cab of his truck with him. They could be so childish.
He loved his sisters, but they could annoy the tar out of him too. And ever since Bree had gotten engaged, the Whitman women had upped the ante big-time. He was the last Whitman standing, and the pressure was on. Everyone else was married, all his siblings had kids. He was a slacker and his sisters would remind him at every opportunity. Mom would do worse. She’d already tried to set him up with some great-niece of a friend of a friend of a friend.
No thank you. He could find his own woman. And he’d do it when he was darn good and ready. He gave a little snort. Who was he kidding? He’d been ready for a long time.
But he wasn’t going to settle for the first pretty thing that came along. He had standards. Too high of standards, according to his sisters. And they’d certainly made their point with the assortment of “ladies” they’d tried to set him up with over the years.
His phone chirped from his pocket and he fished it out. Mom. He tapped the brakes again and clicked Answer. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
“Have you already left the bakery?”
“No. I just got into town.”
“Oh, good.” She breathed a relieved sigh into the phone. “Could you see if they have any cinnamon rolls? Or a coffee cake? Anything that would feed four guests in the morning? We got a last-minute reservation and I’ve got too many other irons in the fire.”
“Sure. But don’t you feel guilty putting the Chicory Inn’s reputation on the line like that?” he teased.
“Not one bit. And don’t you try to change that.”
“I’ll bail you out. Don’t worry. It’ll cost you though.”
“Ha ha.” She sounded snarky, but Link knew she was smiling.
“I’m here now,” he said. “See you in about twenty minutes.”
“You’d better not show up here in twenty minutes. There is no way you can do all that and get back here in twenty minutes, and I happen to know you don’t need another speeding ticket.”
“What? How did you—”
Something—a dog? a coyote?—darted into the street in front of him, a blur of brown curly fur against the dirty snow paving the street.
He spat out a word his mom wouldn’t appreciate and slammed on the brakes.
“Link? What’s happening? Link?”
The pickup squealed and skidded, and he held his breath as two tons of steel careened directly toward the anim— Wait! That wasn’t a dog. It was a kid!
His brake pedal was already pressed to the floor, but he pushed harder, his heart beating in his ears. Please, God! No!
Somehow his cell phone had ended up in the passenger seat, and he could hear his mother’s frantic cries coming from it. But he had bigger things to worry about. The kid—a little girl, judging by the ribbon in her wild, curly, dog-colored hair—stood frozen in the middle of the street staring up at him through the windshield.
The pickup was still in a slow skid. He slammed the gearshift into Park, threw open his door, and dove toward the girl. In one smooth motion, he scooped her to his chest and rolled with her out of the path of the pickup’s front fender.
She didn’t weigh more than a feather, but now she was screaming like a banshee and kicking at his torso with her little brown boots. Sharp-toed boots. And she might be a featherweight, but she had the strength of a cornered doe.
“Ouch!” He grabbed her legs with his free hand and tried to hold them still while also remaining upright—no easy feat on the treacherous ice.
About that time, a woman came flying out of the bakery, wailing. Link watched, open-mouthed, as she stepped off the curb—and instantly bit the dust. But she rolled over and scrambled on all fours, looking frantically to where Link was still trying to stay on his feet on a thin sheet of ice. With a little spitfire flailing in his arms.
“Stay there!” he yelled at the woman, his breath forming puffs of steam in the cold November air. His truck was safely stopped against the curb, but the next vehicle to come by might not see the woman, and she definitely wasn’t taking time to look both ways before crossing the street.
“Portia! Baby? Are you okay?” The woman’s eyes didn’t leave the child in Link’s arms. She was in shirtsleeves with a bib apron bearing the bakery’s logo.
He shifted the little girl to face her outward so the woman could see that she was in one piece—as if she couldn’t tell by the blood-curdling screams pouring from the tiny creature. Tucking the girl under one arm like a football—or more like one of those crazy bouncy balls his nephews had—he skated across the street.
He helped the woman to her feet with his free hand and started to transfer the little girl to her arms, only to have the mother attack him.
She pounded on his chest with both fists, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Link held her little girl under one arm. “You could have killed her! You could have killed her!”
He stumbled backward, trying to fend off the mother bear’s blows while baby bear was still thrashing in his arms. “Hey! She’s okay. She’s going to be okay. Stop!”
The woman—and he recognized her now—wilted into a puddle at his feet. It was the cute girl from the bakery. Shayla, according to her nametag. She was the one he’d been primping in the rearview mirror for earlier. He’d seen her several times at Langhorne’s only bakery. Had gotten up the courage to flirt with her last time she waited on him. He didn’t know she had a kid. Did that change things?
Probably a moot point, judging by the way she’d been beating on him a few seconds ago. She was weeping now, gulping sobs that might have scared him a little if he hadn’t been raised with three drama queen sisters. Not that Shayla didn’t have reason to be upset.
He set the little girl down beside her—keeping a tight hold on the fur collar of the child’s brown coat—then knelt beside Shayla. “Hey? You okay?”
Without looking up, she waved him away, even as she pulled the little girl onto her lap.
“It’s cold out here,” Link said. “That sidewalk is a sheet of ice. Why don’t we get you inside.”
“I can get myself inside.” She looked at him now, topaz-colored eyes blazing, her creamy brown complexion rosy with rage—or embarrassment? Link wasn’t sure.
He held out a hand to help her up.
But again, she waved him off. “Go on about your business.” She pushed the little girl’s corkscrew curls off her forehead and inspected her for damage. The child’s hair was a paler shade of brown than Shayla’s—kind of a muddy blond—but the little girl was the spitting image of her. She whimpered pathetically, but she didn’t appear to be bleeding or otherwise injured. A miracle.
Link shuddered, suddenly feeling weak in the knees. “That was a close one.”
“Yeah, well… You might want to slow down next time. You could have killed her.”
He narrowed his eyes. “And you might want to watch your kid closer next time.” He turned toward the street, fuming, even as he wished he’d held his tongue. But seriously? She was going to blame him? He’d quite possibly saved the kid’s life. She should be thanking him.
He turned back at the strident sound of her voice, waiting to get chewed out again.
But she only said, “You’re the guy from the B&B? The Chicory Inn?”
“Yes.” Wanna make something of it?
“Your order’s ready.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “Inside.”
“Oh.” He curbed the urge to roll his eyes. “Thanks. My mother would’ve killed me if I forgot.” Nice choice of words, Whitman. Remind her that her daughter was nearly killed and that you’re running errands for your mommy. Bonus points if you’re trying to scare her off.
Shayla struggled to her feet, then lifted the girl into her arms. “Come on in. I’ll ring you up.”
“You’re sure I’m allowed in your store? After all, I did almost kill your daughter.” He couldn’t help it. The sarcasm came second nature.
She opened her mouth to say something, but instead, hitched her daughter up on one hip and opened the door to the bakery.
Shaking his head, Link followed her inside.
The heady scent of warm cinnamon rolls and almond icing wafted over them, and Link couldn’t keep from inhaling deeply. The mingling of aromas had a calming effect on him.
Shayla set the little girl down at a child’s table set with a stack of coloring books and buckets of crayons and markers.
Flecks of ice still nestled in her wild Afro. She looked gorgeous as ever, even if her complexion seemed more gray than the rich coffee-with-cream shade he remembered. Behind the counter, she consulted an order pad. “You had two dozen Parker House and a loaf of rye?”
“Yes. I guess… Whatever Mom ordered.” He didn’t have a clue, and couldn’t have remembered at this moment if his life had depended on it. No doubt, his mother— He took in a sharp breath. His mom! He’d left her thinking he’d been in an accident. She’d be frantic.
He reached into his pocket, then remembered his phone was on the passenger seat of his truck. At least he hoped it still was. “Hang on a sec, would you? My phone… I’ll be right back.”
She barely nodded and went on wrapping the bread.
He risked ruffling the little girl’s hair as he went by. She flinched at his touch, but at least she didn’t start screaming. Shoot, his ears were still ringing from the little squirt’s ruckus.
He jogged out to the pickup and did a quick walkaround, inspecting it much the way Shayla had inspected her daughter. The truck was caked with dirty slush and mud, but otherwise, no worse for the wear. After calling his mother and giving her a carefully edited version of the morning’s events, he tucked his phone back in his pocket and trotted back to the bakery.
A white bag with the bakery’s logo stamped on the side sat waiting on the counter, a receipt stapled to the side.
He looked at it. It seemed a little high, but he retrieved his wallet from his pocket and gave her a twenty dollar bill.
She made change and handed it to him without a word, seeming a little dazed. Well, he was too. He bent to peer into her eyes. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She wiped her hands on her apron and came around the counter to where her little girl was bent over a coloring book.
“Thanks.” He took the bag of rolls and left the store, deciding it would be best not to press the issue. Halfway to the truck, he remembered the extra baked goods his mom had requested before the near-accident. He hurried back inside. “Sorry… I almost forgot! My mom wanted—”
Behind the counter, Shayla stood with her face buried in the skirt of her flour-dusted apron, her shoulders heaving, tears blazing shiny trails on her cheeks.
Link’s heart stopped for the second time today. “What’s wrong?” He turned quickly to look for the little girl. She was still coloring, seeming perfectly fine, and oblivious to her mother’s tears.
Shayla turned away and quickly dabbed at her face with the hem of the apron. When she turned back to face Link, her dark forehead and cheeks were smudged with flour. “What do you need?”
“It’s fine. What do you need?”
Rattled by her weeping, he stuttered. “My mom…wanted something to serve for breakfast at the inn. She mentioned a coffee cake, I think.”
Shayla walked to the end of the pastry case and pointed to a ring-shaped confection with crumbly stuff on top. “We have this one.”
“Okay. I’ll take two of those.” He hesitated, watching her closely. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
She ignored his question and went to work boxing the coffee cakes. “That’ll be sixteen forty-seven.”
“Um…” He waited for her to look up from the register. He smiled and brushed his own cheek. “You have flour… On your face. From the apron, I think.”
She turned away, rubbing at her cheeks as if they were on fire.
He laughed. “At least you’ve got some color in your cheeks now.” Stupid thing to say. “You were looking pretty pale—earlier, I mean.” Stupider thing to say. “You got it.” He pointed to her face. “It’s all off now. I just thought you’d want to know. Before your next customer comes in.”
She glared at him. “That’ll be sixteen forty-seven,” she said again.
“Oh. Sorry…” He filed through his wallet. He only had a ten, plus the change she’d given him earlier. He handed her his credit card.
She ran it and slid the receipt across the counter for him to sign. He scribbled his name and handed it back.
“Thank you.” She couldn’t quite meet his eyes and seemed to. Nothing like last time when he’d flirted with her, and she’d flirted back, offering him a sample of a new sticky bun recipe she was testing.
Those warm, gold-flecked eyes flashed at him. Only today they flashed defiance, not the intense interest he remembered from before.
“The back door opened and a tall black man stepped through. He nodded in Link’s direction. “Mornin’.” He looked at Shayla, then back at Link. “Everything okay here, baby?” He came and put a protective arm on her back, his hand cradling her neck.
Great. He’d been flirting with a married woman. And now she’d probably tell her husband that Link had almost killed their daughter.
“Everything’s fine, Daddy.” She wriggled out from under the man’s embrace. Then crumpled in a heap in his arms.
“What’d you do?” the man growled, taking a step toward him, even with Shayla draped over him like a coat.
“Her little girl ran out into the street. I…almost hit her. With my truck.”
“That true?” He cut his glare toward the table where the little girl sat. His countenance visibly softened when his gaze landed on her. Then he tipped Shayla’s face upward as if he could read the truth in her expression.
She cast her eyes down, but nodded yes. “She’s okay. She wasn’t hurt.”
The man narrowed his gaze at Link. “What happened?”
Link swallowed hard. “Like I said, she ran out in front of me. I couldn’t get stopped on the ice… Truck skidded pretty good but it didn’t even graze her. She’s a lucky little girl.”
He wanted Shayla to come to his defense—to tell the guy that he’d bailed out of his truck and rolled to safety with the child in his arms. He was pretty sure Shayla had seen that part, despite her accusations. But he kept it to himself, suddenly more eager to get the heck out of Dodge than to stand here and paint himself as a hero.
The man looked to Shayla as if for confirmation. Link saw nothing in her eyes, but apparently the man was satisfied that Link hadn’t tried to kill anyone.
“I’ll be going now. If…if you have any other questions or”—he shrugged—“whatever… Shayla knows where to contact me.”
He gathered the cake boxes and strode to the front of the store, feeling foolish.
And confused. She’d called the guy “Daddy.” He didn’t look old enough to be her father, but a little too old to be her husband. Not that that meant anything these days. Of course even if the man was her father, she could still have a husband. She had a kid after all.
He climbed in the truck, jabbed the key in the ignition, and revved the engine. She probably was married. He sure hadn’t known that when he’d flirted with her. And in his defense, she hadn’t given off one single back-off-buddy-I’m-married signal either.
If she had, he would have run hard and fast in the opposite direction. He’d learned his lesson a long time ago.