All I Want For Christmas

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“Laria? Fergus?” Hamish glanced back at his twin six-year-old niece and nephew as they clamored into the space between the driver and passenger seat, their bright red hair and brilliant green eyes going wide as they stared out the windshield of his truck. “What do you see out there?”

He knew what he saw on the other side of the metal gate to the family acreage. A gingerbread house. Dark brown panels, white trim, and large Clearly there had been too much holiday spirit in his eggnog last night.

“It’s a house,” Fergus said in his typical analytical tone.

“It’s a candy house!” Laria corrected after she smacked her brother on the arm. “Like in Hansel and Gretel only there’s no witch. At least I hope there isn’t. Uncle Hamish, do you think we can eat it?”

“I’m going to guess no.” Hamish couldn’t stop the smile. Laria and her fairy tales. If she wasn’t reading about princesses and castles she was dancing around the house in the too-small costume her mother had sent from London for their birthday last month.           

Hamish sighed. At least he wasn’t imagining things. Not that that explained what a gingerbread house was doing plowed into the snow bank on the narrow shoulder of Turnpike Road. They didn't get many visitors up this way in the foothills of Northern California, which was just the way Hamish liked it. Nice and isolated; uneventful. At least until today.

He powered down his window as the tell tale click of an engine refusing to turn over cracked through the air.

“It’s cold out there.” Fergus sank back in his seat.

“Yes, it is.” Hamish peeked into the rear view mirror in time to see his sullen nephew shove his gloved hands deep into the pocket of his winter jacket. “And I bet whoever is stuck out there needs our help.”

“Can I come?” Laria tried to shove open her door Hamish had secured with the child lock.

“You may not.” He dug out his cell phone and handed it to her. “But you can call Gramps and have him get the shovels out. I think we’re going to have digging out to do.”

“Cool.” Laria turned wide eyes on his smart phone, something she’d been asking Santa for the last two months. “Then can I play Pop Candy?”

“Until I come back, yes.” Hamish pushed out of the truck and dropped into the ankle deep slush. Winter had not been particularly kind this year having bore down on the Northern California foothills in spurts and fits unworthy of Jack Frost. The storm building up now, however, was being hailed as one of the worst in the last decade. As thick flakes drifted down and the air crackled with icy promise, he picked up the pace and pushed open the gate before he ducked around the snowdrift.

Grimy windows and the setting sun prevented him from seeing whoever was behind the wheel of the candy cane striped truck, but he could see and hear movement inside. The large retro-trailer it towed had surrendered its typical silver shine to the browns and frosting tinted décor that would have made Santa proud. Complete with dripping icicles lining the edge of the roof to the striped and dotted candies sitting atop thick lollipop sticks, elegant cursive writing stretched from front to back noting Gingerbread Dreams had arrived.

Thankfully the trailer wasn’t listing into the narrow ditch beside the fence line, but it had definitely wedged far enough into the snow bank and confirmed it would take more than one vehicle to remedy the situation. He knocked a gloved hand against the window of the truck. “Hello?”

He was rewarded with a started female yelp, continued rustling, and…was that a cat howling?

“Are you okay in there? Anything I can do to help?” He moved back so she could be sure to see him and held up his hands to show he meant no harm.

“I’m fine.” Came the muffled response. The engine clicked again, only this time, a loud bang exploded under the hood. Followed by a thin stream of steam. “Oh, sugar!”

The door popped open and out she dropped looking like one of Santa’s elves if he wasn’t mistaken. With a tousle of curly blonde hair secured with a small wooden spoon, flushed cheeks, and the brightest, clearest blue eyes he’d ever seen, Hamish had to step back to get a full view of her as she was a good six inches shorter than he was. Her lack of a substantial jacket had him shivering in sympathy as his own cheeks went numb against the cold.

 The hiss coming from her engine had him wincing. “I think it’s your radiator.”

“I think you’re right.” She planted hands on her hips and stared at her truck as if it had insulted her. “Hard to tell for sure since my thermostat went out a few days ago. I’d planned on having it checked down in Sacramento, but I got distracted, then had to reprogram the GPS, which went all catty-wompas on me a few miles back—” She pointed behind her down the deserted road before she reached into her truck and unlatched the lever to pop the hood. More steam billowed. “Guess asking about side roads wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. Either that or the directional satellites up there have been taken over by the Grinch. Darn thing’s had me going in circles for the last few hours.”

Hamish blinked. It was as if he’d set her on fast forward. “Where are you headed?”          

“Tahoe. I have a Christmas delivery to make.” She didn’t give any indication she felt the cold as she gripped the side of the car and hauled herself up on the floorboard to look into the engine.

Hamish’s eyebrows crunched when he raised them. With the way that engine sounded and the storm on the way, she’d be lucky to get there by New Year’s. “Careful, that engine’s bound to be hot.”

“Yeah.” She turned amused eyes on him when he grabbed hold of her arm. “I figured. Thanks.” His warning didn’t seem to matter as she pulled a rag out of her back pocket, reached over, stretched out and twisted the cap off the reservoir. “Well that just sucks. Coolant’s almost gone. And I just filled it a couple hundred miles ago.”

He couldn’t seem to stop looking at her. She was curvy, nice and rounded in places a man preferred, especially in places a man preferred. The way her hair corkscrewed and twisted around her head, stray strands dropping down between her shoulders…her bare arms were prickled with goose bumps. Hamish caught sight of a jacket in the car and yanked it out. He draped it over her shoulders as she dropped down to the ground.

“Aren’t you sweet?” She stuck her arms through, tugged it closed, then held out her hand. “I’m Essie Goodman.”

“Hamish MacFadden.” He felt the cold of her hands through his gloves. “I’ve got a tow rope in my truck. We can—”

She shook her head and sent all those curls bouncing around her cheeks. “I appreciate the offer, but I can see you were on your way out. Shouldn’t take but a batch of antifreeze to get us over the hills. Besides, I’ve been sitting in that truck for the last two days and wouldn’t mind a bit of a walk.” She pulled out a garish knitted cap and tugged it on. The oversized neon green pompom left it sagging over one ear while uneven, frayed ties dangled on either side of her face. “How far to the nearest service station?”

“Twenty miles. Give or take,” Hamish added when her shoulders drooped. “But I’m afraid Buzz has been closing around noon every day since Thanksgiving.” Part of that small town charm he’d grown up with. “Be happy to drive you down tomorrow morning if the storm lets up in time.”

“Storm?” She blinked, shielded her eyes as she looked up. “Oh. Well. How did I miss that?”

How indeed?