Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
he tree decorating party was in full swing. Meg felt as if the date were December 24
, not still November, with so much holiday cheer filling the lodge’s great room. Christmas carols played. Jingle bells rang each time a door opened. Laughter and giggles, particularly from Brooklyn, warmed Meg’s heart.
The smells of vanilla and cinnamon tantalized. No doubt, another one of Rachel’s magnificent desserts. The baker-chef had outdone herself tonight and provided a hint of the dream-come-true cake she planned to bake for Caitlin Butler and Noah Sullivan’s upcoming wedding.
Only three weeks away.
Ellie, a young woman on the ranch’s housekeeping staff, handed a glass to Meg. “Rachel wants you to try her eggnog. It’s her special recipe.”
“Thanks.” Meg took a sip. She tasted nutmeg, cinnamon, a hint of cloves, and a hefty dose of rum. “Delicious, though I have a feeling, potent.”
Ellie grinned. “Wait until you try her gingerbread cookies. Less potent, unless you plan on weighing yourself the next morning.”
Meg doubted there was nothing Rachel couldn’t make given the amazing spread of food in the dining room. If tonight was a sign of what was to come food-wise at the Bar V5 during the holidays, her New Year’s resolutions would be about dieting and exercise. Not that she had any complaints—she loved to eat—but her waistbands might not be too happy with the outcome.
Glass in hand, she moved toward the tree, at least sixteen feet tall, centered between two floor-to-ceiling windows. The scent of fresh pine lingered in the air. She passed the stone fireplace where blue, orange and yellow flames danced, ready for the chestnuts Rachel suggested they roast. Meg wiggled her toes in anticipation. The closest she’d come to roasting chestnuts was singing a song lyric.
Festive greenery, a mix of pine boughs and holly tied with red gingham ribbon, covered the wood mantle and surrounded candles in glass holders and three silver letters spelling the word JOY. A white rope entwined with the red gingham ribbon used on the holly hung below the mantle with wooden clothes pins used to hold stockings, one for each staff member, Rachel and Brooklyn, too.
So thoughtful to include her daughter. Meg didn’t know whom to thank, but assumed Rachel had a hand since she’d been new to the ranch last December. Brooklyn had touched the stocking with reverence and wonder. Christmas magic was at work at the Bar V5, making everyone from employee to guest, feel like family. A warm and fuzzy feeling flowed through Meg.
Returning to Montana had been the right decision. She couldn’t make up for past mistakes, but she felt no regret or remorse, only hope for her and Brooklyn’s future. They could make a life for themselves and be part of a community in Paradise Valley and Marietta, Montana. She sipped the eggnog.
“Ho, ho, ho.” Nate wore a Santa hat. “I see you’ve discovered my wife’s eggnog.”
Meg raised her glass. “Very tasty.”
A sprig of mistletoe stuck out of Nate’s blue button-down shirt pocket. No doubt waiting for Rachel, though Meg knew mistletoe wasn’t necessary. The married-since-summer-newlyweds couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Happy couples abounded at the Bar V5—wranglers Zack Harris and his girlfriend Charlotte, aka Charlie Randall, who left the ranch in September to work for a horse farm, summer program director Caitlin Butler and vet Noah Sullivan. Not to mention, the handholding twosomes walking along Marietta’s Main Street Meg saw when she went to town. A sigh welled inside.
Maybe, when Brooklyn went off to college? Meg worried about the emotional fallout of dating men for her daughter. Meg dating would bring men in and out of their lives. That could add to Brooklyn feeling her father’s absence.
“What do you think of our little tree trimming party?” Nate asked.
“Wonderful.” Meg glanced at the magnificent pine surrounded by partygoers hanging ornaments. Mass chaos holiday style, described the scene perfectly. “But ‘little’ isn’t the adjective I’d use for such a tall tree, or this wonderful party.”
“Go big or go home is my motto.”
Nate’s warm smile made her feel welcome, as if she belonged at the Bar V5 and always would. She hadn’t felt that she was home since she’d left Bozeman at eighteen to follow Brooklyn’s father, a dirt bag climber who’d come to town to compete in an ice climbing competition. Her parents had warned her, but she’d been young and stupid and in love. Not one rational or logical thought about the consequences of what she was doing had entered her brain, but lesson learned.
“You’re succeeding in a big way,” Meg said in all sincerity. She’d applied for the job on a lark. Okay, a wing and a prayer. “Santa better watch out. Thanks to you, I already got what I wanted for Christmas.”
He waved at Paddy Killarney, a white-haired, wiry gentleman who owned the High Country Mustang Ranch where Charlie had accepted a position this fall. “What’s that?”
“A job at the Bar V5.”
“We’re happy to have you and Brooklyn here.” Nate’s smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “She seems to be having fun.”
“She is.” Meg looked at Brooklyn. Dustin, one of the wranglers and a former rodeo champion, lifted her so she could reach the higher branches. Zack and Eli stood by with ornaments to hand her. “Especially with three cowboys treating her like a princess.”
“I thought I saw Ty over there earlier.”
“I haven’t seen him tonight.”
“Hmmm. Bet he’s helping Rachel in the kitchen.”
“A helpful big brother.”
“The best.” One of the ranch guests, a man and his wife from Twin Falls, Idaho, called Nate over. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Caitlin came up to Meg. “Charlie and I have a question.”
Maid of Honor Charlie, standing next to the bride-to-be, nodded. “Two actually.”
Meg smiled. The two friends were so serious about the wedding plans. “I’m happy to answer any questions you have.”
“Do you think putting the wedding presents under the tree will be okay?” Caitlin asked. “Just seems the perfect place without taking up a lot of room. Except I realized there might be presents already under there.”
“The wedding gifts will go under the tree. I spoke with Rachel and Nate. Their presents will be put in boxes and stored, until after the wedding. The staff stockings on the fireplace will be taken down.”
“But they look so cute.”
“Don’t worry.” Meg had three special stockings embroidered with the names Caitlin, Noah and Mistletoe to hang on the wedding day, but that was one surprise for the bride and groom. A personalized tree skirt with their wedding date would be another. “I have something else in mind that will look great.”
Caitlin sounded nervous. Bride jitters? Meg could only imagine. Her “I do” had been in Las Vegas at a tiny wedding chapel that offered a drive-thru ceremony.
“What was the other question?” she asked.
“The chairs for the ceremony,” Charlie answered. She took her role as maid of honor seriously, arriving at meetings with a list of questions and the items on her To Do list checked off. “Dinner will be served in the dining room, but the great room is going to be full of chairs from the ceremony. Who’s going to move them so we can dance?”
“I hired four boys from the high school to move the chairs during dinner. Kevin Taylor, Jason Biggs, Rafe Foster and Cody Grainger. Robbie and Josh—I can’t remember their last names—are on stand-by, if one of the others can’t make it.”
“I’ve heard too much of Rachel’s eggnog will cause memory lapses,” Caitlin teased.
“You may be right,” Meg agreed. “A good thing I have the boys’ names written down at my desk.”
“You’d mentioned small tables and chairs in here for those people who don’t want to dance,” Charlie said. “Are you still planning to do that?”
Meg wished every bride had a friend like Charlie to help with wedding planning. “Yes. The boys will have a map on where things need to go, and I’ll be supervising them.”
“Great, because my parents are going to want to sit,” Caitlin said without missing a beat. “I don’t think they’ve danced since their wedding day.”
“They may surprise you,” Charlie said.
Caitlin gave her friend a look. “My parents?”
“Okay, maybe not.”
Both women laughed, most likely the way they’d done since high school. Meg enjoyed working with them. “Anything else?”
“That’s it,” Caitlin said.
Meg smiled at the two. “Then, forget about the wedding and enjoy trimming the tree.”
“Not thinking about the wedding is impossible. It’s only three weeks away.” Caitlin sighed. “I want everything to be . . . ”
“Perfect,” Charlie finished for her friend.
“Everything will be fine,” Meg reassured. “You and Noah should step under the mistletoe. That’ll take your mind off the wedding.”
“I wish I could.” Caitlin sighed. “He’s over at Blake Canon’s place checking on a horse named Rocky. A bad cut or something.”
Meg didn’t know Blake, but remembered something about a ranch off Timberline Road. She felt bad for his animal. “Poor horse. I hope Noah doesn’t have to work too late.”
“Me, too,” Caitlin said, her voice worried. “He won’t leave if Rocky isn’t doing better. I’m sure Blake will offer him a bed, but Noah will stay in the stall with the horse. I’d rather him sleep there, than be on the roads in the middle of the night.”
“You’ve been through this before,” Meg said, not realizing small town vets made house calls.
Charlie nodded, but said nothing.
“Noah’s dedicated.” Respect filled Caitlin’s voice. “A virtue that saved Mistletoe. I love that cat.”
“You are so in love with the guy, too,” Charlie teased.
“A good thing with a wedding coming up,” Meg said.
“Yes, you’re both right,” Caitlin said cheerfully. “Come on, Charlie, I want one last cookie. After tonight, I’m cutting out sugar from my diet until the wedding.”
Charlie shook her head. “I’m so glad I’m not the bride. I’d never survive December without chocolate.”
“Just wait until it’s your turn,” Meg said.
“That will be awhile. Zack and I have only been dating three months.
“Length of time doesn’t matter.” Caitlin whistled, “Here Comes the Bride,” and Charlie’s cheeks turned fire engine red.
“I’m going to need a dozen cookies now,” Charlie muttered.
The two women wove around people and furniture on their way out of the great room. Meg sipped her eggnog, watching the two until they disappeared into the dining room.
She hadn’t had a girlfriend like that since high school. Once she met Trace, everyone in her life, including her family, had no longer been important to her. She’d lost track of everyone, even those who’d tried to keep in touch. Yet, she had no one to blame, but herself.
“Be careful,” Ty warned from behind her. “Strong stuff.”
Her heart stuttered at the sight of him. He’d shaved. The stubble this morning had made him look sexy hot. Tonight, he was simply gorgeous. His green plaid long sleeved shirt made his hazel eyes look like a forest where she could easily lose her way.
No. No. No.
She recognized this feeling. This . . . awareness.
So not good.
Meg tightened her grip around her glass. She was a mom. No distractions or attractions allowed. “Thanks, but one taste told me to drink slowly and leave half the glass.”
“I didn’t think I’d see you and Brooklyn here tonight.”
“I spoke to Nate.” She kept her gaze on Ty. “Sorry, I didn’t believe you.”
“That’s okay.” He sounded sincere. “You’re new here, and Nate’s your boss, not me.”
She nodded, and though Ty didn’t seem to care, she did. But she couldn’t explain why. She raised her glass, then thought better of taking another sip with him around. “Fun party.”
“Always is.” He glanced at the tree. “Looks like Brooklyn found herself a few wranglers to help her out.”
“All of you are spoiling her.”
“We usually only have kids around during the summer.”
“So, she’s a novelty?” Meg asked, not liking the implication.
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I wasn’t implying anything, either.” Ty studied her. “You don’t like me much.”
Her mouth gaped at his bluntness. “Why would you say that? I hardly know you.”
“You’re quick to assume the worst.”
“I . . . ” Realization smacked into her like the box of snowflake lights that had fallen on her this morning. “You’re right. I am. I’m sorry. My caution has turned into paranoia.”
His gaze narrowed. “I make you paranoid.”
“No. It’s just . . .” Meg took a sip. False courage? Perhaps. She needed to explain, but the entire story was messy and one she didn’t share often. She glanced at her daughter, who was laughing and singing along to the song playing. “Brooklyn wants her dad to come for Christmas. That’s bringing up all sorts of . . . things.”
“Sore subject between you and her father?”
“You could say that.”
“He doesn’t want to come out here.”
Meg’s chest tightened. If only it were that simple. “I have no idea where my ex-husband is. I’m assuming Patagonia, given the time of year.”
She nodded. “That’s where we spent Christmas and much of winter each year, climbing until I got pregnant.”
“What happened then?” Ty asked in a low voice.
Brooklyn soaked up the attention from the three wranglers. No matter what had happened in the past, her daughter was the best thing that ever happened to Meg, and she thanked her ex for their child every morning and night. She didn’t blame her daughter for latching onto Ty this morning, or these other wranglers now. She wanted her father, and these men were ready substitutes.
“Mommy!” Brooklyn waved. “Look at me. I can reach the high branches.”
Just like her father. Meg rubbed the back of her neck.
“I see.” She looked at Ty. “This isn’t the place.”
Lines creased his forehead. His concerned gaze locked on Meg’s. “Let’s go someplace where it’s quieter. Just for a few minutes.”
That didn’t sound like a good idea, but she had the perfect excuse. “Brooklyn.”
“Zack,” Ty called to one of the wranglers. “Watch her until Meg comes back.”