Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
A cat screeched.
Tree branches jostled. A silver bell flew off and landed on the ground with a puff of dirt flying into the air.
The sounds and sights of Christmas compliments of a barn cat. Meg laughed. “You kitties win this point. But the fight has just begun.”
Except for the first time in over six years, she didn’t feel like she was in the battle alone. The staff at the ranch felt more like old friends or family, folks who would help her out when the going got tough or simply walk Brooklyn to the kitchen. Contentment—an unfamiliar feeling—settled over Meg.
This was going to be the best Christmas ever.
She could feel it in her bones . . . and in her heart.
aving chocolate chip pancakes with a talkative six-year-old was not how Ty expected to be spending Black Friday morning. But then again, her mother had taken the fun out of the decorating he’d planned to do. At least he could re-decorate.
In the breakfast room, a large area off the kitchen, he sat at the long wooden table where staff ate between shifts or when they weren’t eating with guests.
Brooklyn rose from her seat. “Deer!”
Ty’s gaze traveled from her awe-filled face to the row of windows across from them. A deer stood in the yard, oblivious to the stares or the child’s delight.
Another reason he loved Montana. Unexpected visitors.
He sipped his coffee and enjoyed the view. Snow laden trees and mountains provided the perfect backdrop for the deer. The light snowfall added atmosphere, though the landscape was enough.
Brooklyn leaned over the table as if to get a closer look. “So pretty.”
He set his empty cup on the table. “Very.”
“I’ve always wanted a Bambi. Can we keep it?” she asked.
Smiling, Ty motioned for her to sit. She did. He remembered when Rachel had wanted a lion cub after watching a documentary on television. “I wish we could, but a deer needs to be free to roam. They wouldn’t be happy penned up, and they’d get lonely without other deer around.”
“The deer would have us.”
“True, but that one could be a mama deer. She might have fawns to care for. We wouldn’t want to keep her from her babies.”
Brooklyn nodded. “Babies need their mommies.”
“Yes, they do.”
His mom had been gone for seventeen years, along with his dad. He’d been eighteen, not a baby, when they’d died, but he still needed them. What he wouldn’t give for five more minutes with his parents, enough time for a hug and to thank them for all they’d done for him and Rachel. Ty hadn’t realized what they’d sacrificed, the long hours they’d worked, to provide a home and pay bills. A stupid, selfish, ungrateful teenager, he’d been upset because he had to watch Rachel while his parents worked. Ty dipped a piece of pancake in the syrup on his plate.
“We didn’t see deer walking around in Chicago,” Brooklyn said. “Only dogs and cats unless we went to the zoo. We went there a lot. It was free. Do you like going to the zoo?
“Yes, but I haven’t been in years. No zoo in Marietta. You’ll still see different animals around here. Some tame, others wild, so never go up to any. Okay?”
“Okay.” Brooklyn’s gaze remained fixated on the deer. “She knows we’re here. Maybe this is her trip to the zoo, and she’s watching us.”
A smile tugged at his lips thinking of the deer peering through windows at the humans on display inside. Brooklyn was an interesting kid. “Maybe.”
She waved at the deer, then stuck her fork into a pancake. “These are way better than the ones my mommy makes. Hers are dry, even with lots of syrup.”
Out of the mouth of babes. Meg seemed the type of woman who liked to do things well. She probably wouldn’t like hearing what Brooklyn had to say about her pancakes. “I’ve never tried them, so I don’t know. But I wouldn’t tell your mom you don’t like them. Could hurt her feelings.”
“Oh, she knows she’s a bad cook.”
“Who’s a bad cook?” Meg asked from the entrance to the breakfast room.
“You.” Brooklyn looked up at her with a wide grin. “You said so yourself.”
Meg sighed. “I did. And it’s true. I’m not the best cook, but I try.”
Brooklyn nodded. “You try real good, Mommy.”
Interesting. Ty rubbed his chin, the stubble poking his fingertips. He hadn’t expected Meg to be so forthright about her lack of cooking skills. “Practice makes perfect.”
“For some, yes,” Meg said in a lighthearted tone. “That hasn’t been the case with me. But Brooklyn is a trooper, so I won’t give up.
He appreciated her honesty and willingness to make an effort.
“I love you, Mommy.”
The little girl’s words softened Meg’s smile and her eyes. “I love you, too, sweetie.”
Ty stared at the two. Their love was almost palpable. He’d loved his parents. He loved his sister. Yet, a part of him wanted what these two shared. His stomach tingled.
Not good. Being called Uncle Ty, whenever Rachel and Nate got around to having kids, was family enough. Ty didn’t want . . . more.
But women did. Every female he went out with said they were fine hanging out and having fun, then suddenly marriage, family and kids would come up, suffocating him. He could breathe just fine around Meg and Brooklyn, but those tingles had to stop.
He must be hungrier than he realized. That would explain his reaction. He stared at the half-eaten pancakes on his plate, fighting the urge to glance at Meg again.
“You have to try these pancakes, Mommy.” Brooklyn’s singsong voice belonged in a breakfast commercial. “So good. Much better than the frozen ones you heat up.”
Meg flushed, a charming shade of pink.
Damn, he was looking at her again. Mom. M-O-M. If he kept reminding himself she was a mother, maybe it would finally sink in.
“I’m sure they are,” she said. “They smell delicious.”
“Grab a plate,” he suggested. “Taste them for yourself.”
Brooklyn nodded. “The chocolate chips one are better than plain. Boss Man had me try both.”
“Good for your taste buds,” Meg and he spoke at the same time.
His gaze met hers, held as if connected by an invisible thread, then she looked away. He should be relieved, but a part of him wasn’t.
“Jinx, you owe me a Coke,” Meg joked.
Ty laughed, rubbed the back of his neck. He hadn’t played this game with Rachel in a long time and forgotten the rules, but he didn’t think he was supposed to talk until someone said his name.
“In my favorite movie
, they say
in a song.” Brooklyn’s nose crinkled. “But you don’t drink soda, Mommy. Why would Ty owe you one?”
He did a mini fist pump. Brooklyn had said his name.
“It’s a saying, sweetie,” Meg explained before he could. “A game I used to play when I was a kid.”
“I played, too,” Ty added.
“I’m only allowed to have soda on special occasions.”
“That’s working great,” Meg said. “You have no cavities.”
Brooklyn’s made a face. “I’d rather have soda.”
Meg smiled at him, then shook her head at her daughter. “Be right back.”
The little girl watched her mom walk away. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand grownups.”
Him, either. He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Enjoy being a kid. We don’t always understand ourselves.”
Chewing her pancake, she pointed to the window. No deer, only falling snow, larger flakes than before, coming down heavier.
The quiet—well, hers—surprised him. The little girl had been chatting non-stop since the walk to the house, but she must have given into her hungry tummy. Not that he minded listening to her.
Early mornings out with the herd meant talking with one of the other wranglers in between chores, but if Ty was working in his office, he had only Dusty, Onyx and the other barn cats for company. Oh, they talked back. Whether he understood them was another story. The animals, however, seemed to get the last word in, too. He wasn’t sure how that happened. Today was a nice change. Ty ate, finishing what remained on his plate.
The falling snowflakes grew bigger, dancing and spinning in the sky like ballerinas with white wings. He’d better find out when the boys wanted to put up a tree in the bunkhouse. A trip to the Scott’s tree farm would be in order soon.
Brooklyn eyed him, while she chewed. Guess he was the new view with the deer gone.
Bet she would have fun at the tree farm. Sleigh rides and food booths. Sage Carrigan sold her delicious hot chocolate, and Rachel hawked her gingerbread kits and cookies. Not that the items didn’t sell themselves.
With a gingerbread contest added to this year’s Marietta Stroll, Rachel could barely keep up with the demand. He hoped both Sage and Rachel would be back at Carson’s this year. They’d added to the tree farm’s festive atmosphere. One Brooklyn would enjoy and Meg . . .
Those brown eyes of her seemed to be branded on his brain. He downed what remained in the bottom of his coffee cup. Bitter. He cringed.
Better not mention a trip to Carson’s Tree Farm.
Meg returned with a full plate. “I decided to try both types of pancakes.”
Brooklyn pointed to the space across the table from them. “Sit there.”
Meg did. “I peeked into the great room. Rachel has been busy decorating.”
“She and Nate started last night after the guests turned in. She had to go into the shop early this morning for a Black Friday sale. The tree goes up this afternoon. The thing is huge. Somehow Nate finds a bigger one each year. Everyone will help decorate tonight.”
Brooklyn straightened, her eyes the size of quarters. “I’ve never decorated a big tree or a live one. That sounds fun.”
“Everyone is invited,” Ty said.
“You mean guests,” Meg corrected.
Her detention-hall-teacher tone bothered him. “I mean guests, friends, staff and family of all ages. We do this every year. The only differences this time are the ranch guests that will be attending and much better food. Us wranglers used to have to cook for ourselves from fall to spring, but no longer. We now have a full-time kitchen staff.”
“I’ve never decorated a tree with other people. Only Mommy.” Brooklyn nearly jumped out of her seat. She rubbed her hands together. “I can’t wait.”
Meg stabbed her fork into her pancakes. “Don’t get too excited. Let me confirm with Nate that it’s okay to attend.”
Ty co-owned the ranch with Nate, but she didn’t seem to realize that or care. “I said it’s fine.”
“You told me this year was going to be different.” Tight lines around her mouth replaced her smile. “I’ll feel better this way.”
“Different doesn’t mean long held traditions are going to disappear.” Her attitude annoyed him. Not only that, she was confusing Brooklyn, who wanted to join in the fun and hang ornaments on a tree with others.
Not his problem, he reminded himself.
He stood. “Thanks for keeping me company during breakfast, Brooklyn.”
The little girl’s face fell. “You have to go?”
The sad tone of her voice poked at him like a hoof pick, but he couldn’t stay. Hanging around would be a waste of time. He had work to do. “Yes. Remember, I’m the boss man.”
She nodded, but her eyes gleamed, as if on the verge of tears.
“Brooklyn . . . ” Meg’s voice held a warning.
Ty touched the girl’s shoulder. “I’ll see you later.”
Brooklyn perked up. Her gaze narrowed. “When?”
He nearly laughed at her serious expression. “After my chores are finished.”
“How long will that take?” she asked.
Meg shook her head.
“Depends on when I get started,” he answered.
“Go.” Brooklyn waved him off. “Now.”
“Brooklyn Redstone.” Meg’s voice sounded sharper this time. “That’s not nice.”
“If he goes right now, he’ll be back sooner,” Brooklyn explained.
“Can’t beat a six-year-old’s logic,” he said before Meg could speak. She needed to relax. Her kid was six and speaking her mind. He didn’t mind, so why should her mother be bothered. “Looks like I’ll have to start calling you, Boss Girl.”
Brooklyn beamed. “I like that, Boss Man.”
Meg cleared her throat. “Thanks again for bringing Brooklyn to breakfast.”
Her dismissive tone bristled. He’d done something to rub Meg the wrong way. Probably better for him to get out of here. He’d learned to cut his losses with women before things got out of hand or too serious. He tipped his head at the two females. “Enjoy your day, ladies.”
“You, too, Boss Man.” Brooklyn’s sweet voice was auditory sunshine and made him smile.
“Will you be out in the barn?” he asked Meg.
“Not until later,” she said. “I have to drop Brooklyn off at her babysitter’s first.”
The girl pouted. She crossed her arms over her chest, then harrumphed.
Someone wanted to stay at the ranch. Too bad he was busy. Not that he was up for watching a kid longer than a meal or a trail ride. Best to go now. “Have a nice day.”
He headed out, feeling two pairs of eyes on him.
Walk away, Murphy. Don’t look back.
Even if a part of him was . . . tempted.