Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
Caitlin shimmied her shoulders. “This is becoming more real by the second.”
Noah shook his head. “I’m glad you’re excited. I feel like I haven’t a clue what’s going on.”
“We’ve got this, honey.” Caitlin raised their linked hands. “All you have to do is show up on time, in a tux and with the rings.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“It will be,” Caitlin said. “Thanks to Meg and Charlie, everything will be perfect.”
Meg didn’t want the pretty preschool teacher to sell herself short. “You’ve put a lot of work into the planning, too, Caitlin.”
“Ideas, yes, but you and Charlie have been my boots on the ground these past few weeks, and I appreciate that.”
“So do I.” Noah looked at his fiancée, his gaze softening. “A happy bride makes me happy.”
Caitlin stared up at him. “I’m very happy.”
The love passing between the two brought a sigh to Meg’s heart. Someday she’d have this herself. Someday . . .
The door to the barn was open. Funny, Meg didn’t hear any Christmas carols playing on the speakers she’d installed. She motioned for Caitlin and Noah to go first. “After you.”
The two stepped inside. Caitlin gasped. “Oh my goodness.”
Meg followed. Her heart dropped to the ground. Splat like the glass ornaments that the cats had knocked off the tree. The bells had been replaced with . . .
She squinted. Were horseshoes hanging on the tree? The rest of her decorations had been removed, except the lights. She struggled to breathe.
Caitlin’s smile was as wide as the Yellowstone River. “Oh, Meg, the decorations are absolutely perfect.”
Noah nodded. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Meg’s throat clogged. She’d worked so hard, looked at Caitlin’s pins on Pinterest and magazine pages she’d marked. But Meg had been wrong what the couple would like. Ty . . . he’d known. And done this. Her chest squeezed tight, as if a strand of Christmas lights had been coiled around her.
“Everything is perfect,” he continued.
“I love the garland made of bandanas,” Caitlin added. “And the lights around the doors and rafters are so pretty.”
Meg had done that, but she swallowed her pride. This wasn’t about her. “I’m happy you like the decorations. I hope the photographs will capture the magic of Christmas and make your wedding even more special.”
Caitlin spun. Picturing her leading a class of preschoolers in fun and songs was easy. “I love every single thing.”
Ty approached. Dusty was on one side and the black cat on the other. “If it isn’t the soon-to-be-wedded happy couple.”
He shook Noah’s hand and hugged Caitlin.
Meg wouldn’t mind a hug like that. What was she thinking? The last person she wanted a hug from was Ty. He’d completely undermined her decorating efforts. She’d pulled an all-nighter in the cold for what? Nothing.
Caitlin and Noah might have liked Meg’s decorations if they’d had the opportunity to see them in place. She blew out a frustrated breath.
“The barn looks amazing.” Caitlin walked to the tree and touched one of the horseshoes. “Montana Christmas at its finest.”
Meg had no idea how a Montana Christmas was different from an Illinois one. She kept a smile plastered on her face and felt Ty’s gaze on her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her upset. She might want to stomp her feet, right on the tips of his cowboy boots, but she would remain professional.
Noah scratched under the black cat’s neck. “Can’t wait to hear what the photographer thinks.”
“Great job, Meg,” Caitlin said, staring around in wonder.
“Oh, this wasn’t just me,” Meg admitted. “Lots of hands were involved.”
Not a much of hers, either. She knew the main ones. Onyx might be the ringleader of the barn cats, but she knew who led the wranglers—Ty. She hoped the decorating mess wouldn’t affect her job. She was on a thirty-day probation period. If she got fired . . .
“The cowboys had a hand in this?” Caitlin asked.
“Group effort.” Ty’s far from apologetic response made Meg want to forget decorum and stick her tongue out at him. “That’s the best way to get things done around the Bar V5.”
Talk about a slam. She’d worked all night to save others time. No one had explained who normally put up decorations, or how that was accomplished. She’d been told to decorate, and she had. But she would never air her grievances in front of others.
“All the animals doing well?” Noah asked Ty.
“They are fine. No need to make a house call on your day off, Doc. Concentrate on your pretty fiancée and wedding plans.”
“You’re asking the impossible,” Caitlin said. “That’s why I’m wearing a Hello Kitty wedding gown, so I’ll be more appealing to my beloved vet.”
Noah’s eyes widened, as if in horror. “You are not.”
“Okay, I’m not,” Caitlin relented. “Charlie convinced me that would be a bad idea.”
“Good for Charlie,” Ty said.
Meg nodded. “That’s why a bride has a Maid of Honor.”
Noah blew out a puff of air. “Thank goodness for the cowgirl.”
“I’ll say.” Ty’s gaze met Meg’s. “If not for Charlie, the Bar V5 would have never hired you for guest services and event planning.”
Meg didn’t know what he meant by that. Whatever his problem was, she didn’t care. She didn’t appreciate his redecorating, nor did she like him much. The feeling seemed to be mutual.
utside the main house, Ty stood next to Meg, who waved at Caitlin sitting in the passenger seat of Noah’s truck. The couple was headed back to Marietta for a date night. Ty wished he could join them. Being the third wheel sounded more fun, than staying here. He’d screwed up big time, and he owed Meg an apology.
Maybe if he started talking now, things would go smoother. “Caitlin and Noah are excited about the wedding.”
Meg’s smile remained firmly in place, the same expression she’d worn for the last forty-five minutes. Super glue or extreme willpower? He guessed the latter. She nodded, the same thing she’d been doing since entering the barn, unless asked a direct question.
He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to dislodge the second spine worth of knots. They’d been tying him up since seeing the shock on Meg’s face when she stepped into the barn and saw her decorations had been replaced. She’d looked as if someone had punched her. That someone had been him.
He felt like an ass. Only mules weren’t as stupid as he’d been for letting her find out about the redecorating in front of their wedding couple. He should have been upfront and told her ahead of time, not sneaked behind her back, assuming she’d never find out.
As soon as Noah’s truck’s taillights disappeared, Ty had a feeling Meg would let loose on him. He didn’t blame her for being upset and hurt.
Noah’s and Caitlin’s compliments about the redecorating efforts had made Meg flinch and wince, mere flashes, but he’d noticed. Each one made him feel worse, like the lowest life form on this planet.
The truck’s red lights grew smaller.
Meg cleared her throat.
Ty readied himself.
Her gaze, steady and unwavering, met his. “You must be proud of yourself.”
She turned and walked away.
Ty stared at her retreating figure, stunned. He’d expected her to raise her voice. Curse him out. Try to deck him. Well, maybe not the latter.
He caught up to her. “That’s all you have to say?”
Anger flared. Gold flames flashed in her brown eyes. Meg’s bottom lip quivered, slightly, like a paper rustled by a breeze. “Nothing else I want to say would be productive. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get Brooklyn. She’s at the bunkhouse with Siena.”
Meg increased her pace. Ty had a feeling she was trying to get away from him as much as reach her daughter.
He couldn’t let her go without apologizing. “I’m sorry. I should have mentioned we’d switched up some of the decorations.”
His words earned him a glare, then she drew her lips into a narrow line.
“At least Caitlin and Noah liked them,” Ty added.
“What if they hadn’t?” Meg asked. “Did you ever consider I decorated the barn based on my discussions with Caitlin about what she wanted for her wedding?”
Crap. If he were a bug, Meg had just squashed him with her foot. “I hadn’t. That never entered my mind.”
Of course not. He’d wanted the kind of decorations he liked without kowtowing to anyone.
“You heard what she said about a Montana Christmas,” he countered. “That’s what we gave them. Not some big city glitzy and flashy holiday.”
“Christmas is Christmas no matter where you are. Lights, decorations, it’s the same.”
“Not the same at all,” he countered. “You’ll have to let me show you what a real Montana Christmas looks like.”
She shot him an over-my-dead-body glare.
He would try again. “I am sorry about this.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me.” She averted her gaze, looking everywhere but at him. “It’s your ranch.”
And that was when he realized why she hadn’t said anything. She wasn’t speaking up out of fear for her job. That bugged Ty. Charlie Randall had never thought twice telling him he was full of cow crap. None of the other wranglers, either, including Eli, the newest member of the crew.
But unlike other staff members, Meg had Brooklyn to consider. Ty had been there himself with Rachel years ago. He knew exactly how Meg must be feeling—wanting to tell him off, but afraid of the consequences if she did. That wasn’t the work environment he and Nate wanted at the Bar V5. Far from it.
“Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. You won’t be punished or fired for speaking your mind.”
Relief flashed on her face, followed by a myriad of angry expressions that made the Grumpy Cat look satisfied and happy.
Ty didn’t know if Meg would tell him to go to hell or that he was full of BS, either would work and make them both feel better. Nor could he deny how sexy she looked, her lips pursed and oh-so-kissable—and how inappropriate his thought was under the circumstances.
What the hell was wrong with him? She worked here. And she was a mom.
“Go on,” he encouraged. “Let me have it.”
She eyed him warily. “Really?”
Meg stopped on the front step of the women’s bunkhouse. She took a deep breath, then looked directly at him. “I hope you get nothing but coal in your stocking this year.”
She opened the door, stepped inside, then shut the door behind her.
Coal in his stocking? A smile twitched at his lips. A mom-answer if he ever heard one. She hadn’t slammed the door, either.
Meg Redstone reminded him of a wild mustang named Nevaeh—heaven spelled backwards—who only wore a saddle and behaved, in order to get a taste of freedom of running free in the lower meadow. He had a feeling Meg kept herself reined in tight. What was she like when she loosened up?
Ty wanted to know. He wanted to see her run free. And he wanted her to accept his apology. The first two seemed impossible, but he might be able to pull off the third.
hree nights later, a knock sounded at Meg’s door. She stood at the stove stirring pasta sauce, her apron splattered with splotches of red. The last time she tried making spaghetti she’d set off the smoke detector and burned the bottom of the pot. She didn’t need any distractions, though her only visitors had been ranch employees. Maybe somebody needed something.
“Answer the door, please,” she said to her daughter.
Brooklyn ran across the living room. “Okay.”
“Ask who’s there first.”
Meg checked the timer on the noodles. So far so good. Dinner might turn out tonight without having to resort to sandwiches again.
“Who’s there?” Brooklyn asked.
Meg inhaled sharply. All her concerns since Sunday night had arrived on her doorstep in a pair of wrangler jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. She couldn’t pretend not to be worried, even if Ty had reassured her that no matter what she’d said, her job would be safe. Okay, she hadn’t said much, but she should have ignored him. Gone straight into the bunkhouse. Not said a word.
Brooklyn opened the door. “Boss Man. You brought cookies. And Dusty. Yay, yay, yay.”
Meg’s stomach clenched. Ty had never stopped by before. She hadn’t seen him since Sunday night. She’d been so busy planning daytrips for guests and the upcoming wedding that she hadn’t been back to the barn. Nor planned to go there unless necessary.