Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
“You’ve got it, Boss Man,” Zack said.
Brooklyn giggled. “That’s what I call Ty.”
“A good name,” Dustin said.
Eli nodded. “Oh, yeah.”
“Well, he is the boss man,” Zack added.
Very funny. The Three Mesquiteers had turned into the Three Stooges. Ty shook his head, then looked at Meg. “I’m never going to live this down.”
“Nope, Boss Man,” she said playfully.
“That’s what I figured.” Ty placed his hand at the small of Meg’s back. “Let’s go.”
She stiffened at his touch. The last man who’d touched her other than a friendly half-hug or a touch on the upper arm or shoulder had been her ex-husband. She’d forgotten what that felt like. Warmth pooled beneath her shirt at the point of contact. Every nerve ending tingled. Pleasurable sensations up and down her spine.
So not good. Ty wasn’t some random guy she wouldn’t see again. They worked and lived on the ranch. Not that a touch meant anything, but her body didn’t seem to understand that. “I . . . ”
“Won’t take long.”
Easy for him to say. Her palms sweated. Ty made her feel nervous like a schoolgirl alone with a boy for the first time.
Not that she was crushing on him.
Okay, maybe a little.
She was only human, looking never hurt and he would never know. At least, she hoped not. Maybe she was just overreacting, but her concern, as always, centered on Brooklyn and what was best for her daughter.
He led Meg to the study, a welcoming room with wooden beams on the ceiling and bookcases lining the walls. The lodge pole furniture fit the western theme. Photographs of animals, local to the area, covered the walls. Her favorite decoration, however, was a wooden carved bear that sat next to a desk with a computer and printer on top.
“This better?” he asked.
Not really. Meg sat, feeling as if she were on stage performing a one-woman show. Being center of attention had never been her thing. She wiped her palms on her black pants. “Yes, thanks.”
He took a seat across from her. “You don’t have to tell me what’s going on. But you looked stressed out in the great room. You still do. Relax for a few minutes, then we can go back to the party.”
She eyed him warily, wondering what his agenda was here. “You trying to beat Nate for the Best Boss of the Year award?”
Ty winked, catching her off-guard. “I
the boss man.”
His comment took the edge off her case of nerves. “I think you just moved ahead in the points.”
He rewarded her with a grin. She ignored the rush of her pulse.
The room was surprisingly quiet, only a light din from the partygoers could be heard. Insulated walls where guests could escape? She would have to ask Nate. Okay, Ty would probably know, too, but she thought of him as the ranch guy—cattle, horses, the barns—not the lodge and guests. Okay, she was procrastinating.
The silence between them wasn’t awkward, but she felt . . . uncomfortable. He deserved an explanation for her rudeness this morning, as well as why she appeared stressed now.
She took a breath, then another. “When I found out I was pregnant with Brooklyn, my then husband filed for divorce and took off for South America without me.”
Ty’s eyes widened. His jaw tensed, hard as granite. “He left you alone, pregnant?”
The disbelief and anger in his voice touched her heart, made her remember not all men were so self-centered like Trace Redstone. “My ex never wanted kids. He forgot to mention that when we were dating, or after we married.”
“Did he come back?”
“Only to finalize the divorce proceedings and relinquish parental rights.” She was long over Trace, but her heart ached for Brooklyn, who wanted her dad. At some point her daughter would hear the truth about the sperm donor she called father, but not until she was older. “He specifically requested she not be brought to the courthouse, because he didn’t want to see her. Brooklyn has no idea that she’s never met her father.”
The compassion in Ty’s eyes made Meg’s sting. “She won’t hear the words from me. I promise you that.”
“Thanks.” She swallowed around the lump burning like a glowing charcoal briquette. “Needless to say, I’ve got some baggage where men are concerned. I shouldn’t take it out on decent, hardworking guys like yourself. So, I apologize. Again.”
“It’s weird. Brooklyn rarely mentioned her dad in Chicago, but she doesn’t stop talking about him here. Whatever the reason, her fixation on her father could be why she likes getting attention from you and the other wranglers.”
“It could,” Ty agreed. “Or she could just know we’re good guys and like hanging around us.”
A smile tugged at Meg’s lips. “That, too. You seem like good guys.”
He rewarded her with a charming grin. “Kids are observant. Brooklyn’s the age where fairness is a big deal. Her focus on her dad could be as simple as a kid at school having multiple dads, a father and stepfathers. That’s hard to understand and accept when you don’t have one.”
He seemed to know so much about children. “Do you have kids?”
He hesitated. “No, but my parents died when Rachel was ten. I was eighteen and became her guardian. I read a lot of parenting books.”
“You raised your sister.”
He half-shrugged-nodded. “As best as I could, not knowing what in the world I was doing. Hence, the book reading. Though that didn’t always help and sometimes made things more confusing.”
“That’s how parenting feels no matter how old you are. At least, that’s been my experience. But you did great. Rachel is a lovely, thoughtful, talented woman.”
“I’m proud of my little sis,” he admitted. “But there were some tough times. She missed our parents horribly. I couldn’t leave her alone with a babysitter, because she worried I would be in a car accident like our mom and dad.”
“That must have been hard on your social life.”
“I didn’t have one,” he admitted. “My girlfriend dumped me, since I couldn’t go out unless I brought Rachel along. But she eventually grew out of that phase.”
“That must have been a relief.”
“Yes, but more than that she was healing. I never thought she’d leave Phoenix because that’s where our parents are buried, but after she fell for Nate . . . ”
“She moved here.”
Ty nodded. “And now that they’re married, she won’t be going anywhere.”
Meg heard what sounded like relief in his voice. “That makes you happy.”
“Very,” he admitted. “Arizona was too far away. I like being closer to her.”
She appreciated how he cared for Rachel. “Can’t get much closer than this.”
“I know, but she doesn’t seem to mind too much. Just hope that doesn’t change once the honeymoon period ends.”
Meg hoped so, too, for Ty’s sake. There was more to this cowboy than met the eyes. Not that she was interested, she reminded herself. “I should get back.”
He rose. “I’ll have a talk with the boys. I won’t tell them everything, but let them know Brooklyn needs some stand-in uncles.”
“Thanks.” Meg stood, adjusted the hem of her blouse to keep herself from reaching for Ty and giving him a big hug. “That’s kind of you.”
“I know how hard being a single parent can be. When Rachel was a teenager, I ended up going out with a woman ten years older than me, because my sister needed a mother figure, someone to answer those puberty questions that terrified me.”
Ty Murphy was a special guy. “Rachel’s lucky to have you.”
“We do what we have to do.”
For our kids.
The words were unspoken, but implied and sent a rush of heat through Meg. She felt an unexpected connection to Ty, one that had to do as much with being a single parent, as being a single woman. She blew out a puff of air. “Thanks again.”
“No worries.” He motioned to the door, and she headed that way. “The Bar V5 is a family. You and Brooklyn are part of that now.”
“Appreciate that.” And, she appreciated him.
Things were looking up at the Bar V5. She couldn’t imagine working or living anywhere else.
unday afternoon, Meg walked from the lodge to the old red barn with Caitlin and her fiancé, Noah Sullivan. Exhaled breaths hung on the air and steps crunched against a hard layer of snow.
“Looks like the place is all set for Christmas,” Caitlin said. “I love the white lights on the red barn.”
“Me, too,” Noah agreed, making Meg feel good about her decorating efforts. “I love the barn. So much history there.”
“And lots of cats,” Caitlin joked.
The couple held hands, gazing into each other’s eyes, the way two happy, content people in love do. Meg knew that not everyone hit the jackpot when they said “I do,” but she hoped these two would.
“The cats made decorating interesting.” Meg adjusted her gloves. She’d put them on in such a hurry the fingers were crooked. “I had no idea they liked trees so much.”
Noah laughed. “Bet Onyx is in heaven.”
“If he’s the black cat with the bushy tail, you’re right,” Meg said. “I think he’s the ring leader.”
“He’s been at the Bar V5 a long time according to Ty,” Noah said. “Nate’s mom was into animal rescue. Cats were her favorite. Nate’s followed in her footsteps by offering feral and unadoptable cats a home in the barn. All the cats, whether friendly or timid, are loved and spoiled. Not a bad life for cats nobody wanted.”
Nobody, but Nate and his cowboys.
“When I arrived and went on a tour of the ranch, I saw a couple wranglers with the barn cats.” Meg couldn’t believe that had only been a couple weeks ago. She smiled. “Made me think of that commercial where the cowboys herd cats.”
“I remember that one.” Caitlin’s smile disappeared. She looked at Meg. “Do you think it’s odd we want Mistletoe to be in our wedding?”
Noah kissed the top of his bride-to-be’s hand. “It’s our wedding. We can do what we want, and that includes having our cat there.”
“Noah’s right,” Meg agreed. “Having Mistletoe involved is a unique, personal touch. If she’s too nervous at the ceremony, we’ll have a nicely decorated crate for her right next to you where you exchange vows. She won’t miss a thing. But I’m hoping she’ll be able to be out. I blinged-out a white harness and leash for her to wear.”
Noah touched Caitlin’s face. “See?”
The tight lines around her mouth relaxed into a smile. “Thanks. I’m second guessing everything.”
He nodded and wisely didn’t say a word.
“No worries. Happens to many brides.” Meg touched Caitlin’s shoulder to reassure her. “A wedding is a big deal. By the time the day rolls around, we’ll be up to fourth, fifth and sixth guesses. Totally normal.”
“See, sweetheart,” Noah said. “Listen to Meg. Everything is fine.”
Caitlin stared up at him with love and adoration. “Okay.”
Meg’s heart panged like the triangle the serving staff clanged at dinnertime. Must be nice to be so in love with a great guy. Someone to stand by her side. Someone to reassure her with a few words would be nice. Someone to cuddle with on these cold winter days and nights.
Not any time in the near future.
Meg had survived nearly seven years on her own. She would continue to do so here. What didn’t kill a person made them stronger, and she felt immortal after what she’d been through.
Waiting made sense. Not only for Brooklyn, but for Meg. She didn’t have room in her life or her heart for anyone new. She had her hands full with her daughter and her new job. Meg could barely keep up with her To Do list. This would be her first time back at the barn since decorating on Black Friday.
An image of the Bar V5’s handsome foreman flashed in her mind. Something that had been happening for the past two days, even though she hadn’t seen Ty Murphy since the party on Friday night.
She pushed thoughts of him from her mind. “We’ve been decorating the barn for the holidays. I think the place will make a great backdrop for wedding photographs.”
Caitlin had a bounce to her step. “I haven’t been out here since the last session of family camp in late August. That seems like forever ago. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done.”
The bride’s enthusiasm made Meg’s excitement grow. “We’re missing a few decorations, so let me know if you’d like anything added.”
“There was a wreath on the barn door last year,” Noah said.
Meg nodded. “That’s on the To Do list.”
“If the weather’s halfway decent, I’d love outdoor shots taken.” Caitlin looked around. “Maybe by one of the pastures. The fencing might make for an interesting background.”
“And the horses,” Noah added.
Caitlin shook her head with a smile. “I’m sure you’ll want the barn cats in at least one pic, too.”
Noah kissed her forehead. “You know me well.”
These two were on the high end of the cuteness scale.
“Your photographer is driving over from Livingston to scout out locations,” Meg said. “I’ll mention the pasture and fence. I also spoke with the florist from Sweetpea Flowers . . . ”
“Risa,” Caitlin offered.
“Yes, thanks. I’ve been meeting so many new people it’s hard to keep the names straight,” Meg admitted. “I touched base with Risa on Wednesday to see if she had any questions. As of now, she has all she needs from you. Everything you requested will be ready on the twentieth.”