The fourth book in the popular The Christmas Tree Ranch Series, Santa’s Sweetheart is a delightful and entertaining new holiday novel by legendary romance author Janet Dailey. This Christmas, visit the small town of Branding Iron, Texas, where it’s time for the Cowboy Christmas Ball and one irritable sheriff is about to get in the spirit of the season…and find love along the way.
“Well, Maggie?” Grace took her seat again, lowering herself to eye level with the little girl. “Do you have something to say to us?”
Maggie gazed down at her red canvas sneakers. “I’m sorry, Miss Chapman. I promise not to go on strike again. But please—” She looked up again with eyes that would melt a heart of granite. “Please don’t make me play sports. I feel so clumsy and stupid out there. I’ll do extra work, clean up the classroom, anything.”
Grace sensed Sam Delaney’s eyes watching her. Hot. Wynette’s description came back to her, and it fit. The sheriff was tall and broad-shouldered, with a square chin and gentle gray eyes. She could understand what the women of Branding Iron saw in him. But to her he was just a parent. And her only concern was his daughter’s problem.
“Let me tell you a secret, Maggie,” she said. “When I was your age, I was a lot like you. I loved to read, and I was a good student. But I was awful at sports, always missing the ball, or dropping it, or tripping over my own feet. I hated being laughed at and being the last one chosen for teams. But I couldn’t quit because my teachers wouldn’t let me. And you know what? I’m glad now. I never did get to be an athlete, but I learned a lot—things like being part of a team and being a good sport. I learned to laugh at myself when I made a mistake—and that still comes in handy sometimes. You can learn those things, too. That’s why I’m going to insist that you keep on going to phys ed with your class. I’m sure your father will back me up on this.” She glanced at the sheriff. He nodded.
“So it’s decided. No more strikes. Are we straight, Maggie?” Grace asked.
“Straight,” Maggie said. “No more strikes.”
“High five?” Grace held up her hand.
“High five!” Maggie’s small, open palm smacked her teacher’s. Then the little girl turned to her father. “Okay, Daddy, can we go get our Christmas tree now?”
The sheriff shifted uneasily in his chair. Now what? Grace wondered. The man didn’t look happy. Had she said or done something to upset him? Or was he struggling with his daughter’s request for a tree? He’d already mentioned that this holiday would be difficult for him.
“We can talk about the tree after we leave, Maggie,” he said. “But first, I have something else to discuss with your teacher.”
Sam cleared his throat. He saw Maggie’s face light up. The little matchmaker probably thought he was going to ask her teacher out on a date. But she was about to be disappointed.
Even if he’d planned to ask the woman out—which he most certainly hadn’t—once Grace Chapman saw what he’d done to her car, she’d be livid. She’d probably never speak to him again, except to make sure he paid for the damage.
“Is there a problem? Can I help?” Miss Chapman’s eyes were dark pools of concern. Sam felt lower than a snake’s belly, but there was no way to make this any easier.
“I’m afraid the problem is with your car,” he said. “I swerved into it in the parking lot when a boy ran in front of me.”
Maggie gasped, her eyes wide with horror. “Daddy! You’re the sheriff! What will people say?”
“Well, at least you didn’t hit the boy.” Miss Chapman was making an effort to stay calm, but Sam could see the strain in her face and hear it in her voice. “Is the car drivable?” she asked.
“It should be. But it won’t be pretty. You’re going to need a new right rear fender. Don’t worry, I’ve got insurance to pay for it—I’ll use my own policy, not the county’s, since I was off duty. And I know the owner of a good body shop in Cottonwood Springs. He’ll have it fixed as soon as he can get the part. Meanwhile, my insurance will cover the cost of a rental car for you, and . . .” Sam let the words trail off as he realized he was saying too much too fast. She probably thought he sounded like an idiot.
Well, blast it, he felt like an idiot.
With a weary sigh, she rose from her chair, slipped on the coat she’d draped over the back, and took her purse out of a desk drawer. “Let’s go. I might as well see the worst of it.”
Grace locked the classroom door behind her and led the way outside. Sam Delaney walked beside her. His size and masculine presence made her tingle with awareness. But never mind that. The big lug had crashed into her precious Honda, the car she’d scrimped to buy and kept in tip-top condition over the years. It was her baby and, for all she knew, it could be totaled. If it was, his insurance probably wouldn’t pay enough to replace it. Merry Christmas, Grace.
With Maggie scampering ahead of them, they crossed the parking lot. Grace couldn’t see her car. It was hidden behind the sheriff’s Jeep, which looked as big and tough as a Sherman tank. She’d bet money that it had survived the collision without so much as a scratch. While her poor, innocent little Honda . . .
She groaned as they rounded the sheriff’s vehicle, and she saw the damage. The right rear fender of her car, which dangled from the chassis by a couple of bolts, was crumpled like a scrap of tinfoil.
Poor baby. Grace felt like crying.
“I’m sorry,” the sheriff said.
“‘Sorry’ doesn’t fix it. How can I even drive it home with the fender hanging like that?”
“I’ve got a wrench,” he said. “I can take it off for you. Or better yet, I could just call for a tow now. The tow truck can drop off your car at the body shop in Cottonwood Springs. Meanwhile, I can drive you home, and we can get you a rental car tomorrow. There’s no rental agency here in Branding Iron, but I can drive you to Cottonwood Springs on my lunch hour.”
“I teach school. I have to be here,” she said. “One of my roommates can drive me to work, but after that, I’ll need my own transportation. I want that rental sitting right here when I come out at the end of the school day.” She wasn’t going easy on him, but Grace didn’t care. The sheriff had damaged her car, and it was up to him to make things right.
“I know this was an accident,” she added when he didn’t reply right away. “But it wasn’t my fault, and I don’t deserve to be stranded because of it. You’re the sheriff. I know you have connections. Make it happen.”
She studied his reaction—a silent frown. Big Sam Delaney was a hunk, with his chiseled features and superhero physique. But that was beside the point. Right now what she needed was her car fixed and something to drive in the meantime. And she had to let him know she meant business.
“Give me till tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “There’s a chance I can have the towing company pick up the rental and bring it from Cottonwood Springs when they come to pick up your car. I’ll have to clear it with my insurance, but if that isn’t an option, I’ll find another way.”
“Fine.” Grace squelched the impulse to thank him. If he hadn’t hit her car she wouldn’t be needing his help.
Suddenly she felt exhausted. A few years ago a doctor had warned her that she was borderline hypoglycemic. Ifshe felt extra tired, it could be a sign that her blood sugar was low and she needed to eat. Or maybe it was just the emotional stress of seeing her wrecked car.
The sheriff was all business now. “Clean everything you need out of your car, including the trunk. I’ve got some trash bags in the Jeep. I’ll get you a couple of those and give you a hand. After that, you can give me the key, and I’ll drive you home. All right?”
She nodded, found the key in her purse, and unlocked the car door.
“Daddy, I’m really hungry,” Maggie piped up. “Can we stop at Buckaroo’s when we go to Miss Chapman’s house? It’s right on the way.”
“How about it?” The sheriff caught Grace’s gaze. “It’s too early for dinner, but if you could do with coffee and the best pie in three counties, we’d be glad to have you as our guest.”
“Well . . .” Scooping odds and ends out of the glove box, Grace weighed the invitation. She didn’t want to be obligated to the sheriff, and she didn’t usually socialize with students outside of school. But Maggie and her father meant well. Turning them down would be churlish. And she did need to eat. “All right,” she said. “Just pie and coffee. Thanks.”
They climbed into the big vehicle. The sheriff boosted Maggie into the high backseat, then offered Grace his hand. “Watch that step, it’s a long one.”
“Thanks.” She clasped his hand for balance as she found the foothold and hoisted her weight upward. The contact with his fingers was electric. Grace willed herself to ignore the tingle that surged through her body before pulling away to settle into the leather seat.
“Buckle up, both of you.” He closed the passenger door.
“Daddy always reminds me to buckle up,” Maggie said. “He’s really careful that way. You can tell how much he cares about people. He’s a great dad, too, and a great sheriff. Everybody likes him. You will, too, ’specially once you get to know him.”
Grace fastened her seat belt. Maggie’s praise of her father seemed a bit much, especially the last bit about getting to know him. What was the child up to? Heavens to Betsy, was she matchmaking? Had her so-called strike been a ploy to get her handsome dad to come to school and meet her teacher?
If that was true, Grace couldn’t help feeling a bit flattered. But Maggie’s scheme—if that’s what it amounted to—was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. Grace needed to nip it in the bud before things got awkward.
From the backseat, Maggie could see no more than the tops of their heads—her father’s dark brown, her teacher’s a few shades lighter. Did they like each other? It was too soon to tell. But at least her dad had invited Miss Chapman to go to Buckaroo’s with them. And at least Miss Chapman had said yes. That was a good sign.
Maggie couldn’t have planned better than the accident that had banged up her teacher’s car. At first, she’d feared it would ruin everything. But then she’d realized it might be helpful. The two them would have to stay in touch, at least until the car was fixed. That would allow them more time to get acquainted—and more time for the magic to happen.
They wouldn’t have to fall in love; just liking each other enough to ease Big Sam’s loneliness would be enough for now. Was that too much to ask?
Santa’s Sweetheart by Janet Dailey is available now in fine book stores everywhere. Click here to find an online retailer near you.