The Valentine Wager by Nan Reinhardt

Chapter One

Kitt Boynton scowled as the driver heading right for her veered off to his own lane before laying on his horn and making a terribly rude gesture. The second time it had happened in as many kilometers…er, miles on the road down to the center of town. “Eejit!” she shouted and returned the gesture. Closed up in the car as she was, there was no way he heard it; nonetheless, it felt good to release her frustration. Were the people in this town dense or just truly poor drivers? She really wasn’t fond of driving in Indiana.

Carefully, she maneuvered her cousin Bren’s Jeep around a curve and the little town of River’s Edge nestled on the banks of the Ohio River came into view. Thank the Lord, she was almost there. Who knew traveling the short distance from the Four Irish Brothers Winery on the ridge above town to their in-town tasting room would be so hazardous? Another mile and she’d turn on—she glanced at her phone propped up by the gearbox—Riverview Road. Then a few blocks to the tasting room. Dry frosty leaves blew across the road as she passed a rocky outcropping where a lovely little waterfall spilled into a shallow pool below. She wondered why it wasn’t frozen as cold as it gotten since Christmas.

Southern Indiana reminded her a bit of Ireland, which in turn made her homesick for County Wexford and Ma and Da and her brothers and sisters—all seven of them—and the horses. The time difference was six hours, so it would be nearly six p.m. on the horse farm where Kitt had grown up. Da would be feeding the livery horses—pouring grain and dropping flakes of hay. Her heart ached at the thought of Dewey, her Irish hunter gelding, nestled in his stall, probably wondering why she wasn’t there to ride him across the meadow and down to the sea. She hoped her little sister Nora was riding him as she’d promised.

A siren wailed briefly and when she glanced in the rearview mirror, red and blue lights flashed behind her. A police car needed to get around. Why didn’t he just swing into the opposite lane and go past? There was nothing coming. Whaaaa-wha-wha. The siren whooped again and now the guarda’s car was right on her bumper. Was he pulling her over? She checked her mirror again. He was!

Frustrated, Kitt scouted for a safe place to stop, finally ending up pulling into an empty lot next to the post office. Her speed had been perfectly within the legal limit posted, Bren had checked that all the lights and signals on his Jeep were working fine, and the tires were brand new. What could this guy possibly want? The officer pulled in crossways behind her, blocking her in the parking space, but he didn’t jump right out of his car. Instead, he sat there for a moment, staring at something in his lap.

Finally, he opened his door and got out. In her side-view mirror, she watched him approach the Jeep. He was big. Intimidatingly tall, and under his winter jacket, the buttons on his navy-blue uniform shirt strained a bit across his brawny chest. He wasn’t wearing a hat and his hair was all shades of blond and light brown with glints of gold, styled deliberately messy, more like an Aussie surfer dude than a small-town copper. The only thing missing was a pair of mirrored sunglasses, which she was certain were probably on the passenger seat of his police car. He looked like the type.

When he drew nearer, she could see he was what her sister Maeve would call a fine thing—clean-shaven and ruggedly handsome with full, sensual lips. He eyed her license plate as he tapped on an electronic device with a stylus. She took a deep breath and rolled down the window.

“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” His voice was deep and oh, dear God, poured over her like warm melted butter with just those few impersonal words. His gray eyes reminded her of the Irish Sea right before a storm.

Whew. She must be lonelier than she thought. Those were not the kinds of comparisons she ought to be making at this moment.

Digging around in the glove box, she produced the black pouch Brendan had told her was there and found the registration and insurance certificate. Then she reached toward her capacious handbag on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

“Hands on the wheel, please.” The officer’s clipped words stopped her mid-reach.

“D’ye want to see my driving license?” She looked over her shoulder at him bent over and peering into the car. “It’s in my bag”—she pointed—“down there.”

He nodded brusquely. “Bring out your wallet, slowly.”

She swallowed the chuckle that rose in her throat as she pulled her wallet out, opened it, and offered it to the policeman.

“Remove the license from your wallet, please,” he ordered.

She did and handed it to him. “Officer, what’s going on?”

He held up one finger as he examined it. “This is an Irish license.”

Handsome, but a bit thick?“Perhaps because I’m just arrived from Ireland?”

He raised one blond brow. “Well, Miss Boynton, do you know why I stopped you?”

She had no idea why he’d stopped her. She shrugged. “Not a clue, I’m sure.”

“Have you been drinking, ma’am?”

This time she laughed out loud. “Are ye quite mad, man? It’s not even noon.”

He eyed her, his gray eyes going from charcoal to silver in the late-morning light. “I ask because you were driving rather erratically and on the wrong side of the road.”

Kitt scoffed. “I was driving erratically? You should be chasing down the two eejits back there.” She pointed over her shoulder as she peered at his brass badge glinting in the noon sun. No name, just a badge number. “One of them nearly plowed me over.”

He sighed and straightened. “Miss Boynton, please step out of your vehicle.”

She tilted her head, trying to see his face. “Are you crazy? I’m not gettin’ out of this car. That’s how women get abducted or do ye no watch CSI?” Surreptitiously, she shoved the lock on the door with her thumb, fully aware that he could simply unlock it again by sticking his hand into her open window. Ridiculous, but she felt more secure anyway.

He crossed his arms over his chest, the tablet tucked under one elbow. “We got a call about you. Apparently, you’ve been driving on the wrong side of the road for several miles.”

Had she? She thought for minute. Sweet Lord, she had! She closed her eyes, then opened them, deciding to give humor a try.

She beamed up at him. “Officer, I prefer to think of it as this whole country drives on the wrong side of the road—I’m drivin’ on the right side of the road.”

He tapped one finger against the biceps of the opposite arm and sighed deeply again. “I realize this is probably nothing more than you not paying attention to the rules of the road here in Indiana…well, in the whole United States, for that matter. But I won’t be doing my official duty if I don’t verify your sobriety. Particularly since you have a backseat full of wine. That’s the reason I’m going to ask you to blow into a breathalyzer or walk a straight line for me.” He bent down again and peered at her. “Your choice.”

Kitt stared right back at him. “Am I allowed one phone call?”

*

Lieutenant Ryker Langecouldn’t remember when he’d enjoyed a traffic stop more, particularly since he hadn’t made one in a while. First of all, Kathleen Eleanor Boynton was undoubtedly one of the most strikingly beautiful women he’d ever seen. And he’d seen a lot of very pretty women in his thirty-three years on the planet. A lot. Dark brown hair with reddish glints that glistened in the late-morning sun, creamy white and peach skin, a pert little nose sprinkled with freckles, and the bluest eyes he’d ever stared into. Sapphire blue. Sea blue. Blue like an Indiana October sky. As blue as…he ran out of apt comparisons as he pulled his attention back to her question.

He blinked. “A phone call?”

She nodded. “Aye.”

When she said it, he didn’t smell any alcohol on her breath, so that left out that part of probable cause, but there was still the matter of the cases of wine in the backseat and the recorked bottle nestled next to her purse on the floor. Yes, he had recognized Bren Flaherty’s old Jeep Wrangler before he ever ran the plate or checked the registration. He was fairly certain she hadn’t stolen it; no doubt this was some relative of the Flahertys who had borrowed Bren’s car. However, this was getting fun. Besides, her clear Irish brogue charmed the heck out of him. “The phone call doesn’t happen until after I arrest you.”

She leaned one elbow on the bottom of the steering wheel and cupped the sweet but stubborn curve of her chin in her palm. “Are you planning on arresting me, then?”

“Only if you resist proving sobriety, Miss Boynton.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of all that’s holy. Move your arse.” As she reached down, Rye’s hand went automatically to the gun on his hip and he backed away. Kathleen snorted. “Don’t shoot! I’m just openin’ my door.” She slid out of the car, both hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “Now watch, ’cause I only intend to do this for ye one time. I’m late for a meeting and it’s bloody cold out here.”

When she rose from the seat, he nearly lost his breath. She was stunning—dressed in a pair of skinny jeans tucked into brown suede low-heeled ankle boots, a fleece-lined denim jacket over a tucked-in Four Irish Brothers Winery T-shirt, and a jaunty royal-blue knitted scarf around her neck. She was tall, five-foot-eight according to her driver’s license, and curvy in all the right places, with legs that went on forever.

She strode over to a yellow line that demarcated a parking spot a few feet away, extended her arms, and placed one booted foot in front of the other. “Ye watchin’, sir?”

He was watching all right. Those snug jeans displayed the cutest butt he’d seen in ages, and it swayed real nice as she balanced on the line like a tightrope walker. Gracefully, she took about fifteen steps, executed a perfect spin, and walked back toward him, her eyes locked with his.

When she got within a half-dozen feet of him, she stopped and crossed her arms over her high, full breasts and quirked one brow. “Satisfied?”

Hardly. He wanted to keep her here as long as possible, learn more about her. He tilted his head toward the Jeep. “Do you know what an open container law is, Miss Boynton?”

Her blue eyes widened. “No.”

Leisurely, he shoved the stylus back into the side of the e-ticket machine, taking his time reattaching it to his wide leather belt, while Miss Kathleen Eleanor Boynton fidgeted with her long ponytail.

“In Indiana, you cannot possess an open bottle of alcohol in the passenger area of a car.”

She frowned. “They’re all in boxes. Besides, this car has no boot. I’m just deliverin’ them to my cousin Sean down at the Four Irish Brothers Winery in town there.” Her eyes narrowed, but not before he thought he read a hint of uneasiness in their blue depths. “Surely ye know the Flahertys.”

He was making her nervous and although he rather enjoyed her discomfiture after her haughty display of temper, he didn’t want her to be afraid of him. He just wanted to her to linger. “What about the bottle on the floor next to your purse?”

Her expression switched back to the self-confident smile she’d worn earlier. “That’s not open. It’s been recorked.”

He leaned against the front fender of the Jeep. “Semantics.”

She took the few steps to the car, pushed the door closed with that gorgeous behind, and leaned against it. The chill breeze blew a few dark tendrils of hair into her face and she raked it back with her fingers. “What’s your name, officer? Do you have some ID?”

He laughed. “Do you mean other than the badge I’m wearing, the uniform, and the River’s Edge Police Department automobile sitting right there?”

She scraped a wisp of hair away from her lips again. “Your name?”

Now they were getting somewhere. “Lieutenant Ryker Lange, miss.” He held out the leather case that contained another badge and his official police department photo ID. He’d just made lieutenant a month ago and a swell of pride rose in his chest as he snapped open the new badge wallet.

Kathleen peered at it, tilting her head in an adorable manner. “And how often do you stop young women on the pretext of a traffic violation when, clearly, what you really want is to flirt with them?”

“I’m just maintaining law and order, miss.”

“Right.” She straightened. “Okay if I get back in?”

“Sure. Just keep your hands where I can see them.”

Releasing a huge, dramatic sigh, she yanked open the door and slipped into the driver’s seat. “I’m really running late. I’m sorry about driving in the wrong lane. ’Twas a mistake. In the future, I’ll make every attempt to remember I’m no longer in Ireland, where we drive on the correct side of the road.” She gave him a sunny smile. “What shall we do about the open container violation, then?” she asked, her tone conversational. “I’m going to reach down here and get it, aye?”

He nodded, too taken with her to wonder what she was up to until she held the dark-green bottle out to him.

“Here, you take it.” She shrugged. “I was going to have a glass with some cheese and biscuits while Sean and I had a meeting, but I don’t want to be breaking the law when I’ve only been two weeks in your charming town.”

“Are you offering me a bribe?”

She scoffed. “Hardly. I’m trying to get the damned thing out of my car.”

Rye found it increasingly difficult to maintain his stern visage as he gazed at the beautiful woman holding the bottle of Four Irish Brothers Winery pinot noir out her car window. For the moment, he ignored her offer. “Just out of curiosity, what brings you to the US, Miss Boynton? A vacation? Visiting the Flahertys?”

The hostility in her eyes cooled slightly. “I’m visiting, helping out at their winery a bit.”

She was thawing. Nice. He pursued his quest for information. “What are you doing for them?”

“I’m helping get some new marketing and events ideas going.” Her expression shuttered just as quickly as it had opened. “They’re no paying me if that’s what worries ye. I’ve not got a work visa…yet. Do ye want to take this so I can be on my way or shall I toss it in that bin over there?” She jerked head toward the dumpster behind the post office.

Somehow, he managed to contain the delighted smile inside him at the word yet. Could that mean she might be staying in River’s Edge? Instead, he walked the few paces from the front of her car, took the bottle from her, and went around to the back of the Jeep to open the window above the tailgate and spare tire. He tucked the wine down between two cases, making sure it was securely stowed and wouldn’t tip over. Pulling the window back down, he latched it and then sauntered back to the driver’s-side door.

Before he could speak, Kathleen chuckled and shook her head. “Well, that was kind of ye, sir. Tossin’ even a drop of that wine would’ve been a crying shame.” Then she looked up at him, her blue eyes sparkling. “Now what? May I be on my way?”

Taking a deep breath, he gave her the full force of the Ryker Lange smile. The one that had won hearts in River’s Edge and surrounding towns since he was fifteen. “Well, Miss Kathleen Boynton—”

“Kitt.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m called Kitt. Only my ma calls me Kathleen and then only if she’s unhappy with me.” She gave him a demure smile. “And you’re not unhappy with me anymore, are you, Lieutenant Lange?”

“I-I…” Ryker’s heart pounded as he stared into her eyes and got lost in the ocean-blue depths. With effort, he pulled his gaze away and looked out over the top of her car, swallowing hard to get his runaway thoughts into some semblance of order. She was doing to him exactly what he’d planned to do to her. Yikes!

Okay, Rye, get yourself together.

Thiswas a simple traffic stop. He was a respected lieutenant on the River’s Edge Police Department, not some high school freshman taken with the new girl in school. Although, truth be told, that was exactly how he felt, and it was a very unfamiliar sensation. He didn’t like it one bit.

He cleared his throat. “Miss Boynton. I’m going to let you go with a verbal warning. But in the future, please pay attention and remember that you’re driving in the United States now.” He tapped the edge of the door frame. “You can go.” Then he held up one hand. “Wait, if you plan on staying for a while, you might want to get an Indiana driver’s license.”

“I don’t know what my plans are, but I’ve applied for an H1B visa. If I don’t get the work visa, I shan’t be worrying you for long. Soon enough, I’m back to Ireland and driving on the correct side of the road.”

His joy at the news that her staying in River’s Edge was a possibility disconcerted him so much he simply gave her a brief nod as he stepped away from the car. “Have a nice day.”

She pulled her seat belt across her chest and the smile she gave him sent a zip of heat right through him. “You have a fine day, too, Lieutenant.”

Never let it be said that love at first sight wasn’t a real thing because, in that moment, Ryker Lange fell in love for the very first time in his life.