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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
“Hot Whisper” appeared in the anthology
Signet Eclipse edition / November 2010
InterMix eBook edition / December 2013
Copyright © 2010 by LuAnn McLane.
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laire paused and put a hand to her chest before picking up an exquisitely carved statue of Santa Claus. She ran her French-tipped fingernail over the smooth wood surface and sighed. The attention to detail made the jolly old elf appear so lifelike that she could almost hear him give her a deep
Ho, ho, ho!
“Oh, this is perfect!” Claire said with a happy sigh. Her mother collected Santa figurines from all over the world, so Claire had seen countless Clauses over the years, yet none had captivated her quite like this one.Who would have thought she would have found a Christmas gift for her impossible-to-buy-for mother at a tiny train depot in . . . Where was she? After glancing up, Claire spotted an artfully painted sign behind the register and nodded slowly. “Whisper, Colorado.”
What a soothing name, she thought as she clutched the Santa to her chest. A little bit of her earlier tension eased from her neck and shoulders. The weeklong convention in Denver had been exhausting, and she longed to get home for the holidays. Flying back to Atlanta would have been quicker, but after a terrifyingly turbulent flight a few years ago, Claire now had a cold-sweat-inducing fear of ever boarding another airplane. Truthfully, the train ride had turned out to be a quiet, laid-back alternative that Claire had thoroughly enjoyed. Her demanding job as a senior stylist at a high-end Atlanta salon left Claire little downtime, so the cross-country trek had been a welcome excursion. And for a girl born and raised in the city, seeing miles upon miles of farmland sprinkled with small towns here and there had been quite an eye-opener.
“Hand carved by Jesse Marshall,” Claire read from a glossy brochure lying next to the display. A self-confessed shopaholic, Claire had managed to find a fun little trinket in each and every train station, but these Santa statues were an unexpected delight and a bargain at thirty-five dollars. “Hm, local artist,” she murmured.
“Um, miss, we’re closing.”
“Oh!” Claire glanced over at the young clerk and smiled in apology while wondering why he appeared so skittish. “Sorry, I was having a difficult time choosing, but I think I’ll take this one.” She held up the Santa and started walking toward the front of the store. “Wow!” Claire looked out the window in surprise. “When did it start snowing?” Fat flakes twirled in a gusty wind and were coming down hard.
“A few minutes ago, and the weatherman said we’re in for quite a winter storm. I don’t mean to rush you, but I’d like to close up and get home.”
“I don’t blame you. I’m from Atlanta, so we don’t deal with this much down there, but I’ve seen enough snow to know that I’m scared to drive in it.”
“Me, too, when it’s coming down like this. Whiteouts are the worst,” he confessed, but then angled his head while giving her business suit an odd once-over. Claire had boarded the train after an early-morning workshop and didn’t have time to change into more casual clothes. “Wait!” he said slowly. “Were you on the train?”
“Yes.” Claire jammed her thumb over her shoulder. “I’m heading back to Atlanta.”
The clerk’s eyes widened. “Lady, the train left the station, like, ten minutes ago.”
Claire felt the color drain from her face, and she clutched the Santa in a death grip. “Wh-what?” She swallowed hard and then slowly turned around, hoping to see the sleek silver train sitting on the tracks. “Oh. My.
” She whipped her head back around so fast that her long auburn hair fanned out like helicopter blades and then settled back down.“They left without me?”
“When they blow the whistle, that means you have to board. I was in the back room doing inventory with my iPod cranked up or I would have said something to you,” he admitted with a wince.
“W-well, it’s not fair, because I didn’t hear it,” she protested, but then frowned in thought. Okay, maybe she
hear it, but she became distracted by the Santa display.“Well, they’ve got to come back! Call them or something! Surely they haven’t gone far, right? They could just back up. Or maybe I could catch up to the train.” Claire pictured herself running and then jumping on board like a scene from a Harrison Ford flick. “I could totally do it. I work out three times a week,” she continued in a fast-paced, high-pitched, panicked tone that made her sound a lot like Miss Piggy. She knew she was babbling ridiculous nonsense but could not even begin to stop herself.
“It doesn’t work that way,” the clerk answered slowly, as if addressing a two-year-old. “You’ll have to wait for another train to come through Whisper.”
In an effort to calm down, Claire inhaled a deep breath. It didn’t help. She looked at the clerk’s name tag and tried to stop channeling Miss Piggy. “Okay, Danny, when might that be?” Her smile trembled. “In a few hours, perhaps?”
Danny shook his head slowly from side to side instead of the hoped-for up and down.
“Tomorrow?” she asked in a tiny, tearful tone.
“Next Saturday,” Danny answered in a hesitant voice, as if realizing he had a nearly hysterical female on his hands.
?” Miss Piggy came back full force. “But . . . but . . . Christmas is Thursday!”
He responded with a wide-eyed, silent shrug.
“Could I rent a car?” It would be a long drive, but she could make it home in time for Christmas Eve. Well, if she didn’t get lost, which she was prone to do.
After another anxious glance at the swiftly falling snow he said, “Sorry, but there’s no car rental in Whisper.”
“Oh . . . maybe I could hitch a ride with someone,” she murmured, but then remembered she was in the middle of nowhere and pictured herself in a big rig, sitting in the bed of a truck with bales of hay and animals, or in an RV with strangers. . . .“A hotel?” she asked brightly, even though her heart was beating like a jackhammer.
“There are a couple of bed-and-breakfasts over on Main Street, but both had No Vacancy signs out this morning. The closest hotel is a good twenty miles away, and with the snow coming down like this, you’d be hard-pressed to get there.”
“Especially without a car,” Claire responded glumly, and then looked down at her red dress shoes and wished they were boots.
“Look, I really have to close up. Is there someone you can call?”
Claire raised her head slowly. “Danny, I’m hundreds of miles from my home with no place to stay. All I have is the clothes on my back and my purse.”
“And a snowstorm is swiftly approaching,” he reminded her with a sympathetic but pointed look.
“What am I going to do?” she asked more to herself than to him, and then thought with sudden dark Christmas humor:
While Claire stood there silently trying to wrap her brain around her predicament, a jingle of bells was followed by a sudden blast of cold air that blew her hair from her shoulders. She shivered, dearly wishing she had her parka, which was on the train. At the time, shrugging into her big coat had seemed pointless, since it was only a short walk to the gift shop. Oh, how wrong she had been....
She and Danny both turned to see who had entered, but the soft tinkle was in sharp contrast to the large man who stepped into the shop.
While looking down, he stamped on the welcome mat, shaking snow off his boots before brushing a layer of white off his impossibly wide shoulders. A navy sock hat trimmed in yellow covered his head, but dark wavy hair curled from beneath the edge and rubbed against the collar of his blue coat. A heavy growth of dark stubble obscured the bottom half of his face, but as a cosmetologist Claire had studied bone structure enough to know that beneath the beard was a handsome man.
“Hello, Jesse,” Danny said, clearly happy to see an adult who might be able to take control of the situation.
“Hey, Danny,” Jesse answered in a deep, tired tone as he straightened.Then his gaze landed on Claire and remained.
“Are you here to pick up the rest of your inventory?”
While Jesse nodded absently, Claire felt the full impact of his attention. She had to look up, which was unusual since in heels she exceeded six feet tall. Having grown up all knees and elbows with a mop of unruly red hair, freckles, and crooked teeth, Claire still couldn’t get used to male approval even though she was pushing thirty. Her shyness was most often mistaken for aloofness and in fact had become her armor when she felt ill at ease. So when Jesse assessed her with his intense blue eyes, Claire lifted her chin a challenging notch and added the arch of one eyebrow for good measure. She might have pulled it off, but she shivered in her suit and her lips might have trembled just a tiny bit.