Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
he hundred and one questions swirling through Meg’s mind paralyzed her. She stood frozen in the foreman’s office doorway. Confusion, worry and disbelief threatened to overwhelm her, but adrenaline sent her into action. She ran to her daughter.
Dusty, the ranch’s Australian Cattle dog, lay in front of the cat tree where Brooklyn slept, as if keeping watch. He didn’t move, making Meg go around him and her daughter’s snow boots.
She touched Brooklyn’s arm and took a calming breath to make sure she didn’t startle her little girl. At least her daughter had used her fluffy pink parka as a blanket instead of a pillow. That was an added layer of warmth on this cold morning. “Wake up, sweetie.”
Her six-year-old blinked. Thick, long eyelashes fluttered like butterfly wings. Small pink fleece covered gloved hands flexed. A yawn followed, then a sleepy brown eyed gaze met Meg’s. “Mommy?”
The sweet sound of her daughter’s voice sent Meg’s heart beating in triple time, catching up to her sprinting pulse. She hadn’t rock climbed since before Brooklyn’s birth, but Megan recognized the sensation of her insides tied in one figure-eight knot after another, a being at the crux of a climb feeling, as if she were hanging off a single piece of protection, hundreds of feet off the ground, with no idea how to get over the hardest part of the route. She’d felt that way many times since Brooklyn’s birth.
Parenting was easy to screw up. Given she was the only parent Brooklyn had, the odds of Meg making a mistake were higher.
“Are you cold, baby?” Meg asked.
One-word answers didn’t tell her much about Brooklyn’s state of mind, though she didn’t sound confused. Meg removed her gloves to check her daughter’s temperature.
The air in the office was surprisingly warm, given Meg had been cold all night working in the barn. She rubbed her hands together, then touched Brooklyn’s forehead. A little on the cool side, but nothing extreme. Good. She felt the pajamas, particularly the legs for any damp spots from being out in the snow. She found none. No shivering, chattering teeth or goosebumps, either. All good signs, right?
Of course, they were.
She knew the signs of hypothermia. What should have been an easy climb on Mount Hood had taught her those. After that, she’d taken every available first aid and wilderness training. She knew the risks and precautions when out in the cold weather. No sense letting insecurities over doing right by her daughter make Meg doubt herself.
“The office is heated,” Ty said, as if reading her mind.
That explained the air temp. “I didn’t know that.”
“The senior cats don’t seem to like the cold much.”
“I don’t,” Brooklyn chimed in.
Ty smiled at her. “Either do the young ones or Dusty for that matter.”
The dog’s tail wagged, like a metronome on
Meg expected Dusty to trot over to Ty. Whenever she saw the foreman walking around the ranch, the dog followed him like a shadow. Instead, Dusty sat and rubbed his muzzle against Brooklyn, as if she were the sun in his world.
Not what Meg expected, but nothing this morning was.
Her daughter yawned, then stretched and placed a gloved hand on the dog. The gentle, nurturing gesture seemed so natural for her daughter to do, though they’d never had pets, not even a goldfish.
“Dusty kept me company,” Brooklyn said. “He’s a good doggy and my friend.”
Her voice sounded normal, more alert.
The tension bunching Meg’s muscles hadn’t loosened, but her concern dropped. She kept a hand on Brooklyn, as if her daughter might vanish. “I see that.”
“Dusty loves kids.” Ty sat on the edge of his desk. The casual pose made him look relaxed and calm. “Wait until you see him with the families during summertime. He keeps track of kids as if they were part of the herd.”
Brooklyn uncurled, then sat. “I can’t wait.”
Neither could Meg. She wanted to raise her daughter in Montana where she’d grown up. Accepting the position at the Bar V5 had been easy. Getting settled in a small town and making sure Brooklyn thrived, not so much.
Knowing her daughter had found her way to the barn this morning didn’t help. Insecurities continued to poke and prod Meg. This job was perfect for her, but living where she worked and not having babysitting nearby wasn’t ideal. All she wanted to be was a good mom, but parenting had been harder than she imagined and wasn’t getting easier.
Alone, without her ex-husband wanting to be involved, some days felt like climbing the Himalayas without a guide, oxygen tank or a map. She kept hoping to find her way or a how-to-be-a-perfect-mom instruction manual, scoured shelves at thrift stores and used bookstores to no avail. The optimist in her kept hoping a guidebook would be published one of these days and she’d learn all the answers, including the best moms’ secret handshake.
She brushed hair off Brooklyn’s smiling face. “What are you doing in the barn?”
“Catnapping,” her daughter answered, as if the one word needed no further explanation.
That might suffice for a six-year-old, but not for Meg. “You were supposed to stay in the bunkhouse with Ellie and Siena.”
“I woke up. They were asleep,” Brooklyn said, matter of fact. “I was hungry, so I decided to find you.”
Ty stood. “No one knows you came out here?”
“They were asleep,” Brooklyn repeated.
Meg’s hands trembled at the thought of anything happening to her little girl on the walk alone to the barn. So many things could have gone wrong. Brooklyn had never wandered off from their apartment in Chicago.
He pulled out his phone. “I’m going to send a text to let everyone know where Brooklyn is in case they wake up and find her missing. We don’t need the ranch to go on alert when she’s here with us.”
“Good idea.” Meg took a calming breath and another. Didn’t help. She tried to force troubling images from her mind. Overreacting would not solve anything. “That’s a long way to go by yourself.”
“You said I have a good sense of direction,” Brooklyn countered.
“You do, but not in the freezing cold, with the sun barely peeking above the horizon and alone.”
Brooklyn raised one shoulder in a half-shrug, the action more representative of a kid going through puberty, not a first grader. “You said we’re not in Chicago anymore.”
“That’s true, but no matter where you live, you have to be careful. The ranch is new to us.”
Meg wasn’t up for a morning debate with a six-year-old, especially one who took after her father and never let up without getting in the last word. Not when she’d been up all night fueled by coffee and chocolate. She smoothed her daughter’s dark brown hair, something else she inherited from her father.
“How did you end up in the foreman’s office?” Meg asked.
Brooklyn looked at Ty. Her brown eyes, the one visible trait she’d inherited from Meg, narrowed. “You’re older than four.”
“Much older, but the ‘fore’ in foreman isn’t a number,” Ty explained, as if he’d done this before. That didn’t surprise her, given the number of families she’d heard vacationed at the Bar V5. Caitlin Butler, the bride of the upcoming Christmas wedding, worked here during the summer and was in charge of the kids’ program. “It’s my job and the beginning part of the word is spelled f-o-r-e, not f-o-u-r.”
“What’s a foreman do?” Brooklyn asked.
“I’m in charge of the ranch. The land, the livestock, the buildings and the wranglers.”
Brooklyn got a pensive look. “You mean, cowboys.”
Meg appreciated Ty’s patience. Brooklyn woke up wanting to know this or that and went to bed with more questions on her mind.
Brooklyn rubbed her chin. “If you’re in charge, you should be called the boss man. You’re the boss, right?”
Uh-oh. The inquisitive floodgates had opened. Non-stop questioning would continue until someone told Brooklyn to stop or she got bored. Meg glanced at Ty, curious how he would respond. A grin lit up his face, catching her off-guard. Her pulse skittered.
“A few do call me boss man, but foreman is the official term for my job. I don’t know why that is,” he said, as if he knew what was coming and trying to head off more questions.
She didn’t blame him. That was a smart move with Brooklyn. And now it was Meg’s turn. “Asking more questions is not going to get you off the hook. You said you came to the barn to find me, but that doesn’t explain why you’re in here.”
“The music was so loud. I wanted to find some place quieter. A cat went through the doggy door so I followed.”
loud,” Ty agreed.
Meg shot him a look. She didn’t need him encouraging her daughter to misbehave or think what she did was right. “You could have asked me to turn down the volume.”
“I didn’t know where you were, and my ears hurt,” Brooklyn answered, even though Meg had been talking to Ty. “A light was on, and it was much quieter inside with the door closed. I saw the cats napping and wanted to see what that would be like.”
Brooklyn rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly, Mommy. Everyone knows what it’s like to sleep. But I wanted to see what sleeping like a cat would be like.”
“What’s the verdict?” Ty asked.
“The ledge isn’t big so I had to curl up tight into a ball, but the carpet’s soft.” She crinkled her nose. “A little smelly though.”
Ty grinned, as if he was enjoying this. Well, Meg wasn’t.
“Come on.” She motioned her daughter off the cat tree. “You must promise me not to walk around alone. You could have fallen or gotten lost or—”
“I’m fine, Mommy.” Brooklyn showed her hands and arms, then lifted her legs. “No scratches, or bruises, or broken bones.”
Meg shook her head. “Not this time, but you can’t wander off when no one knows where you are.”
“You said Montana was safer than Chicago.”
“A different kind of safe, but you’re only six.”
“I’ll be seven in March.”
“Still too young to be off in the snow on your own, no matter where we live. You remind me so much of your—”
“Daddy?” Brooklyn’s voice was full of so much hope Meg’s heart ached. “Do I remind you of him?”
Oh, no. Meg’s shoulders slumped. She couldn’t believe she’d said the words aloud. She opened her mouth, then pressed her lips together. What was she going to say?
Brooklyn panted like an eager puppy. “Am I like my daddy? Did you ask him if he’s going to come for Christmas?”
Oh, baby. Meg embraced her daughter. “You look just like him, sweetie. And you have the same sense of adventure. The same fearlessness. But he’s not coming for Christmas.”
“Could we spend Christmas with him?” Brooklyn asked. The anticipation in her eyes was heartbreaking. She had no idea her dad had never seen her or asked for a photograph or cared about them.
“No, we can’t.” Meg brushed her lips over Brooklyn’s hat. “But we’re going to have a wonderful Christmas here at the ranch.”
Brooklyn sighed loudly, as if her entire body had been involved in exhaling.
Meg didn’t understand Brooklyn’s sudden fascination with her father. They didn’t talk about him. Not much anyway in Chicago. But since arriving in Montana, he kept coming up in conversations. Weird.
“Hey,” Ty said. “You must be hungry after catnapping.”
Brooklyn nodded. “My tummy’s gargling.”
“How about we go to the kitchen and see what’s for breakfast?” he asked.
“I need to get her dressed,” the words rushed from Meg’s mouth.
“I’m hungry, Mommy.” Brooklyn tugged on Meg’s arm. “Can’t I eat first?”
“No one is going to mind her wearing her pajamas in the kitchen,” Ty said. “That’s where we eat when we’ve been out working.”
“I have a few things to do here,” Meg said.
Brooklyn tilted her head. “You stay. Boss Man can take me to breakfast.”
Ty seemed taken aback by the words. Meg was. Brooklyn was usually shyer around people she didn’t know. “Ty needs to work.”
“I can walk her to the kitchen.”
“Please, Mommy,” Brooklyn pleaded.
Meg glanced at Ty. “You sure?”
He nodded. “We have many families stay at the ranch during the summer. I’m used to kids.”
“I’m a kid,” Brooklyn announced.
Meg looked at Ty. He didn’t seem put out. “You said you had to work.”
“Walking her over won’t take long,” he said. “I could use a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll be good.” Brooklyn crossed her heart. Dusty plastered himself against her leg. “I promise.”
“Finish up here,” Ty said to Meg. “She’ll be fine. She has her own watchdog.”
“I’m not worried about her,” Meg admitted.
His lopsided grin sent a burst of heat rushing through her. He winked, which raised her temperature another ten degrees.
“Dusty’s good,” Ty said in a playful tone. “So am I.”
Oh-so-good, but he probably knew that. She also knew this wasn’t a battle worth fighting. Breakfast was a meal, nothing to get excited or worried about. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
“Come on, kiddo,” Ty said to Brooklyn. “Let’s get some food in your stomach.”
Her daughter put on her snow boots, then bounced her way from the cat tree. The pink zebra stripes seemed out of place with her jumping like a rabbit and Dusty at her heels. Brooklyn stared up at Ty with a serious expression in her eyes and a crinkle at the bridge of her nose. “Sounds good, Boss Man.”
Biting back a smile, Meg followed the two out of the office. She watched them leave the barn with Dusty tagging along.
Words poured from Brooklyn’s mouth like a broken fire hydrant on Michigan Avenue, but Ty didn’t seem deterred. He nodded and answered, keeping a hand ready to catch her if she slipped on the snow.
Meg’s heart warmed at the sight of the two. Brooklyn ate up the attention from Ty. Maybe having a male in her life, even on the periphery, would stop the girl from fixating on a father who didn’t want her. Not that Brooklyn knew that harsh truth. She was too young to understand they were better off without Trace Redstone in their lives.
“All I Want for Christmas” played on the speakers. Meg’s ears hurt. Okay, maybe the music was too loud. But she had been wearing a thick fleece hat pulled low over her ears to keep warm last night. That must have muffled the sound. She removed the remote control from her jacket pocket and lowered the volume. Better.