Excerpt from THE CHRISTMAS PROPOSITION

Chapter One

One of Derek Rossi's earliest memories was throwing a wiffle ball to his dad. Since that day he'd pitched in more baseball games in his thirty-two years than he could count. Surprisingly, he'd never been hit. Until today.

He didn't even see the ball which dropped him to his knees. One minute he was talking with the coordinator of the Pitching and Catching workshop, watching the boys and girls leave the Jackson Hole Indoor Sports Facility. The next, his head was pounding like a son-of-a-gun. Derek blinked, trying to clear his suddenly blurred vision.

As if by magic a blonde-haired blue-eyed angel appeared and knelt before him, her brows furrowed in concern. She smelled like vanilla and the bright lights in the gym gave her an ethereal glow. It didn't seem right to be on his knees before such a creature. He tried to stand but she grabbed his arm and held on tight.

"Sit down." The warmth of her touch told him this was no apparition. "I need to make sure you're okay before you start moving around."

The beating of the bass drum in his head nearly drowned out her words. Derek struggled to focus. "Are you a doctor?"

"Emergency room nurse." She held up her left hand. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

He squinted and the hand came into focus. "Two."

Her gaze met his and for a second he found himself floating, drowning in the azure depths… Until he became conscious of the noise—and the people—moving closer, encircling him, suffocating him.

The woman must have sensed his sudden distress because her voice rang out above the conversational din. "Everyone back up."

"Come on folks, move along," a man's voice echoed. "He'll be fine."

The crowd dispersed and Derek's panic subsided. Chatter turned to a distant hum. Ron Evans, one of the event's coordinators, stepped in Derek's field of vision. But the older man's focus was on the nurse. "Do you think we should call an ambulance?"

"No ambulance," Derek answered for her. The last thing he needed was more publicity. Besides he felt okay. Or he would if his head would quit pounding.

"I don't think an ambulance is necessary, Ron. But an icepack and some Tylenol would be helpful." The nurse's lips lifted in a rueful smile. "I'm afraid I locked up the first-aide kit a little too quickly."

"Coming right up," Ron said, hurrying off.

Even as she reached into her purse and pulled out a penlight, the nurse's attention didn't waver from Derek's face.

A light flashed in his left eye. He jerked back.

"Hold steady," she said in a voice that was soothing yet brooked no argument.

He did as she asked and the light flashed again.

"Your pupils react well to the light," she said in a professional tone he found reassuring. "How's your vision?"

"Fuzzy but getting better." He rubbed the spot just above his left temple. "My head sure hurts."

"Ron should be back any second." Though the nurse's expression remained composed, her gaze lingered on his head, on the knot that he could feel growing larger by the second. "Can you tell me who you are?"

He may have only been in Jackson Hole a short time, but there'd been lots of buzz about the baseball workshop he was holding this first weekend in December.

"I'm Derek Rossi," he said, surprised she hadn't recognized him.

As if she'd read his mind, her lips quirked upward. "I know who you are. I just needed to make sure you did."

He wondered if she knew how lovely she looked when she smiled. Then he scoffed at the thought. Of course she did. She was a beautiful woman. They always knew stuff like that. Though she was married—he'd seen the plain gold band on her left hand—he found himself curious about his angel of mercy. "And who are you?"

"My name is Rachel Milligan." She brushed a wayward strand of blonde hair back from her face with a slender hand. "I'm an emergency room nurse at Jackson Hole Memorial. I was in charge of the first-aide station today. I'm afraid my little girl is the one who beaned you."

"I didn't mean to do it."

The small voice came from his left. Ignoring the pain, Derek slowly turned his head in that direction. Rachel's daughter stood off to the side, anxiously shifting from one foot to the other.

Rachel gave the girl a reassuring smile. "This is Mickie."

"I'm really sorry, Mr. Rossi," the child said, drawing closer.

Derek guessed the girl to be nine, maybe ten. She was thin but not undernourished. Her face was covered in freckles and her eyes, instead of being blue like her mother's, were a vivid green, framed by thick brown lashes. But what Derek noticed most was her hair. It hung in long cork-screw curls halfway down her back. It was a tan color, not blonde but not really brown either. She was cute, rather than pretty. He decided she must take after her father.

"I noticed a ball on the floor and I threw it to you." By now the child had tears in her eyes. "I didn't mean to hit you."

Before Derek could respond, the event coordinator returned juggling a cup of water and Tylenol in one hand and an icepack in the other.

"Thanks, Ron." Derek swallowed the pills and pressed the ice bag gingerly against the side of his head.

Once that was done, he reflected on what the child had said, wondering if he'd heard correctly. The ball that had hit him had packed a wallop. Had it really been thrown by a girl?

"Do you forgive me?" By now tears were slipping down the girl's cheeks.

"Mr. Rossi understands it was an accident." The woman stared into his eyes. Her expression reminded him of a tigress protecting its young. "He's not angry with you."

Derek shrugged off Rachel's hold and rose to his feet. She quickly followed, standing close as if worried he'd fall. For a second that seemed possible but thankfully the spinning room righted itself.

"I'm not angry," he said. "I'm impressed."

Mickie cocked her head, clearly puzzled.

Rachel's jaw dropped. She immediately snapped it shut. "Impressed?"

"Your kid has one mean throw." He shifted his attention to the child. "How long have you been playing ball?"

Mickie blinked. "Never. I just came here today to help Rachel."

"You call your mom, Rachel?" Living in California, Derek knew lots of kids who called their parents by their first names. In fact, most of those moms and dads insisted on it. He just hadn't expected that to be the case in Jackson Hole.

"Rachel is my foster mom." The girl ducked her head and stared at her feet. "I'm just staying with her temporarily."

An armful of bats hit the hardwood and Derek jumped. A knife-like pain sliced his head open. He inhaled sharply.

"You're hurting." Ron stepped closer, his eyes filled with concern. "I think we should get you to a doctor—"

"I'm fine." Derek pressed the icepack more firmly against his head and gestured to Rachel. "I have my own personal emergency room nurse."

"They don't come better than Rachel. She was on duty last year when they brought my son in." For a second the older man's eyes darkened, then he placed a fatherly hand on Derek's shoulders. "If you're still in pain next weekend, we can cancel your appointments."

"No way." Derek had made a commitment to do private lessons next Saturday and he honored his promises. Not to mention the proceeds were essential to Jackson Hole's fledgling Big Brother Big Sister program.

"At least promise you'll take care of yourself this week," Ron pressed.

Derek knew some guys might have been irritated by Ron's hovering. But the event coordinator had a big heart. Derek had seen that heart in the considerate way the grey-haired man had treated the kids and parents today.

"You got it," Derek said.

"Good." A look of relief crossed Ron's face. He removed his hand from Derek's shoulder and glanced at his watch.

"Go ahead and leave, Ron," Rachel urged. "I'll lock the doors."

"Closing up is my responsibility, not yours," Ron protested.

"Yes, but Amy Sue is expecting you to be at her piano recital. Your granddaughter will be disappointed if you don't show." Rachel's tone turned persuasive. "Besides it will give me more time to observe Mr. Rossi before I clear him to drive home."

"Don't worry about me," Derek interrupted, annoyed at being discussed as if he wasn't in the room. "A couple hours and I guarantee I'll be good as new."

"See, Ron," Rachel said. "Derek thinks you should go to the recital, too."

It wasn't exactly what he'd said but Derek wasn't about to argue. Ron didn't need to hang around because of him.

The older man thought for a moment then nodded. "You've convinced me."

Rachel breathed a sigh of relief. For a second she'd thought the older man might insist on staying. But family was important to Ron. After losing his son in a motorcycle accident last year, he'd made his loved ones even more of a priority. Still, instead of immediately hightailing it for the exit, the event coordinator turned back to Derek.

While the two men talked, Rachel stayed silent, listening, amazed at Derek's commitment to youth mentoring. It was a far cry from what she'd read and heard in the media recently. In fact the tabloids had her believing the only thing Derek Rossi cared about was himself.

"Rachel, I'm hungry," Mickie whined when Ron finally strolled off. "When are we going to eat?"

"I'm a little hungry myself," Derek said.

Rachel turned. His eyes were blue, like hers. But while hers were just average-run-of-the mill-blue, Derek's reminded her of the color of the ocean off a Caribbean island.

The eyes of a man who left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. Clean-shaven, with dark hair cut stylishly short, the former professional baseball player had a lean muscular build and a classic handsomeness that most women would find appealing.

She, on the other hand, preferred her men bigger, more rugged and bulky.

Like Tom.

Her heart gave a little ping.

"How about we all get something to eat?" Rachel said without thinking.

Derek's gaze turned speculative. "What about your husband? Will he join us?"

"I'm not married. Not anymore." Rachel spoke in the even tone she'd perfected the past three years. "My husband died."

Confusion clouded his eyes. "But you're wearing a wedding ring."

Rachel glanced down at the simple gold band. Should she try to explain? He wouldn't get it. Even her friends didn't understand. How could they? They'd never had a husband murdered. Never kissed their spouse good-bye and had a Sheriff show up less than an hour later with devastating news. They hadn't gone into early labor from the shock and been consumed by guilt because the baby, their long-awaited first child, had been too small to survive.

"Wearing it makes me feel like Tom is still with me, close by," she said unapologetically. "It probably sounds crazy to you—"

"Not at all," he said with such conviction she almost believed him. "My father passed away from cancer when I was a little younger than Mickie. My mother wore her wedding rings until I was out of high school."

The empathy in his voice took her by surprise. And oddly it made Rachel feel better to know another young widow had also sought comfort in the familiar…

"I think Rachel likes pizza," she heard Mickie say.

Rachel pulled her thoughts back to the present, wondering when the conversation had made the jump from wedding rings to food. "Pizza is good."

"Great. Let's meet at Perfect Pizza." Derek turned and headed toward the door.

"Wait." Rachel hurried across the shiny hardwood after him, Mickie trailing behind her. "You shouldn't drive. Not yet."

He paused and turned. The hand holding the icepack dropped to his side. "I told you, I'm fine. Once the Tylenol kicks in, I'll be ready to pitch a no-hitter."

Rachel couldn't keep her eyes off the large hematoma on the side of his head. This was her fault. She should have watched Mickie more closely, made sure the child didn't throw a ball to someone who wasn't looking.

"It's not your fault," he said softly as if he could read her mind. "Or anyone's fault. That's why they call ‘em accidents."

He seemed quite sincere. Gracious as well as handsome. It was a potent combination. Rachel could see why women liked him.

"Seriously," he said. "I'm more than capable of driving myself."

The easy thing would be for her to agree. After all, he'd probably be okay. But then again he'd taken a hard hit. He'd been confused and unsteady. No, she couldn't in good conscience let him get behind the wheel. Not yet, anyway.

"How about you humor me and ride with us over to the restaurant," she said. "Depending on how you're doing after we eat, you can either drive yourself home or I can drop you off."

Derek's quicksilver grin flashed. "You are bound and determined to get me in your car."

Though her heart skipped a beat, Rachel ignored the charm this guy seemed to have in abundance.

"I'm not going to let this drop." She resisted an unexpected urge to banter. "I don't want anything to happen to you on my watch."

His lips twitched. "Your watch?"

"Say yes," Mickie said, finally speaking up. "I want to eat."

Derek thought for a moment then nodded, shifting his gaze to Rachel. "Ms. Milligan, you've got yourself a date."

A date? All she'd done was offer to drive him for pizza. Because they were hungry. Not because she wanted to get to know him better like you would if you were…dating…someone.

Rachel opened her mouth then shut it. There was no point in getting hung up on semantics. They both knew it wasn't a date. After all, if the guy once voted ‘The Sexiest Player in the Major Leagues' was going to jump back into the dating game after his engagement scandal, it wouldn't be with her.

 

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Serving up a Slice of Small Town Life