Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
But that hadn’t stopped her from worrying. That was all she’d been doing, waiting for Nate to talk to her about the barn decorations. So far, he hadn’t said a word. Maybe Ty wanted to deal with her.
Every muscle tightened. This could be bad if that was the case.
A part of her had wanted to let loose on him outside the woman’s bunkhouse, but setting a good example for Brooklyn, whether her daughter was around or not, had been more important.
Coal in his stocking? Not the best thing Meg could have said, but not worth losing her job over, either.
She tightened her grip on the spoon, then glanced over her shoulder. “Hey.”
Ty stood in the doorway, snow swirling around him. Dusty stood by his side. “Hi.”
“Come inside where it’s warm.” Being polite was the important thing, no matter why he was here. “Dusty, too.”
Brooklyn nodded. “We don’t want to let the heat out and waste electricity.”
Everything Meg said came back out of her daughter’s mouth. Not always in the proper context.
Ty wiped his boots, then stepped inside.
The dog followed and was greeted by a big hug from Brooklyn. “You’re wet and smell funny.”
“I hope she means the dog,” Ty teased.
“Wipe Dusty’s paws with a towel,” Meg said to her daughter, who ran to the bathroom and returned with two purple ones.
The cabin had high ceilings with an airy, open feel and was twice the size of their old apartment, but Ty’s six-foot plus height made the space seem smaller. The room temperature felt warmer. Weird.
Meg checked the sauce. Not bubbling too much. “You’re out on a wicked night.”
“It’s not that bad,” he said. “Rachel’s been baking. Thought you might like a few fresh-from-the-oven cookies.”
A peace offering, Meg wondered. Not that one was needed, so long as she kept her job, but she appreciated the gesture. “Thanks.”
Brooklyn rose on her tiptoes to get a closer look. “Yummy.”
“Here you go.” Ty handed her the plate, then removed his hat. “Now you’re set for dessert.”
His light brown hair was mussed. The damp ends curled, making him look carefree and oh-so-sexy.
Her pulse kicked up a notch. She looked away. Better be careful or the sauce wasn’t the only thing to get burned.
“Thank you for the cookies, Boss Man,” Brooklyn said.
Meg was pleased she didn’t need to remind her daughter to say the magic words.
“We can eat these for dinner if Mommy burns the sauce like last time,” Brooklyn added. “At least the fire alarm hasn’t gone off.”
Meg’s cheeks heated. She needed to teach her daughter that not every detail about their lives needed to be shared. “I’m hopeful the alarm will remain silent.”
She kept stirring, and her gaze strayed to Ty.
“Want some help?” he asked.
Meg dropped the spoon. Wood clanged against the pot. “You want to help me cook?”
He nodded. “I’m no chef, but we didn’t starve during the winters before Rachel arrived.”
“Oh, please help,” Brooklyn pleaded. “I don’t want to eat peanut butter sandwiches again.”
“That’s what we have if dinner doesn’t work out.” Meg didn’t want another peanut butter sandwich tonight, either. “I’d appreciate the help, if you don’t mind, and you’re welcome to stay and eat if it doesn’t burn.”
He shrugged off his jacket. “Sounds great. Dusty and I have nothing on our agendas tonight except dinner and TV.”
Brooklyn took his coat. “I’ll hang your coat up.”
“You’re a polite hostess,” he said.
“Mommy says manners are important.”
“Your mom’s correct.”
“Can I show Dusty my room?” Brooklyn asked.
Meg looked at Ty, who nodded. “That’s fine.”
The two ran toward the hallway.
Ty joined Meg at the stove. “Looks and smells good.”
She straightened, feeling a rush of pride. The compliment meant more than it should, considering the odds she could still ruin dinner. “The sauce is from a jar.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He adjusted the heat lower. “You might want to turn down the temperature. Takes longer to heat up, but this way you won’t scorch what’s at the bottom if you lose track of time or get distracted.”
The scent of his soap distracted her; so did his wide shoulders and the way his jeans fit.
The timer buzzed.
She jumped. “The noodles.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. Warmth seeped from his palms through her blouse to her skin. She fought the urge to lean against him.
“You stir the sauce,” he said. “I’ll take care of the noodles. Do you have a colander?”
“In the sink.”
“You know what you’re doing.”
If only . . . “Not really. Last time, I couldn’t find it. By the time I did, the noodles were overcooked. Learned my lesson.”
“Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen tonight.”
With skill and ease, he picked up two hot pads and carried the pot of noodles to the sink. She focused on the sauce, but could hear the water being poured into the colander.
“These noodles turned out perfect,” he said.
“Thank you.” Her voice sounded shaky, the way she felt inside.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cooked dinner with someone, let alone a man. She did everything on her own or with Brooklyn. Meg’s chest tightened, as if someone had wrapped a pretty bow around her and pulled on each end. She forced herself to breathe. If she weren’t careful, she might even cry. Pathetic. So much for being independent. Having him—anyone here to help—meant . . . a lot.
“Least I can do,” he said.
“Is this a
“If you combine an apology and a plate of cookies with a man hungry for spaghetti, then yes.”
She smiled. “You’re honest.”
“Try to be. Am I forgiven?”
“Yes. Holding a grudge isn’t good.”
“You should take a look at the barn.”
Meg stirred sauce. “No need.”
“There is. Noah was here yesterday examining a cow. He mentioned lighted stars and snowflakes. Caitlin had seen them a while back, but forgotten about them. I showed him the ones you’d hung. Those were them. You had done your research.”
She had no idea where this was going. “I thought you wanted a Montana Christmas.”
“Stars and snowflakes are definitely Montana,” Ty said. “It’s the glittery, tinsel things that aren’t. Keep stirring.”
Oops. She’d forgotten. Been distracted. She focused on the pot.
“I want to show you what a real Montana Christmas looks like. Are you and Brooklyn available Saturday night?”
They were always free, unless you counted watching
for the umpteenth time and singing their lungs out while enjoying popcorn and apple juice. “We don’t have any plans.”
“I’ll pick you up at three. Dress warm. We’ll be outside.”
“What do you have in mind?” Meg asked.
“You’ll see. I know Brooklyn will love it. You might, too.” He turned off the stove. “Dinner is ready and no fire alarm went off.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to us. Team effort.”
If only that were true. She hadn’t been part of a team in what felt like forever. Her choice, she reminded herself. She’d set her priorities and was sticking with them.
Though she had to admit, she liked having Ty help her cook tonight. She could get used to this fast.
Not that he was going to start showing up for dinner each night. But wouldn’t that be . . . nice.
“Not again.” Ty threw his handful of cards onto the coffee table, feigning disbelief. He loved the wide smile on Brooklyn’s face as she waved her empty hands and skipped around the cabin in victory. Dusty followed at her heels. “You’re either a UNO protégé or extremely lucky.”
“Maybe a combo of the two,” Meg said, gathering the cards into a pile.
She sat on an ottoman opposite his seat on the couch. No ponytail or braid or twist for her today. He liked seeing the long, shiny strands fall past her shoulders. She looked younger with her hair down, more carefree, especially in a pair of yoga pants, long sleeved T-shirt and fuzzy red slippers. The casual style looked good on her, showed off curves he hadn’t noticed before, not that he was paying too close attention. But looking never hurt.
“We may, however, need a lesson in being a gracious winner,” she added.
Brooklyn danced to the Christmas carol playing on a docking station. She had her index finger pointed and chanted number one. Dusty stuck close by her. Neither ventured close to the wood stove that kept the cabin warm and cozy on this cold, snowy night.
“She’s only six,” Ty said. “Winning is a big deal.”
Meg winked. “Brooklyn has beaten me from the time she was three. The kid is too smart.”
The little girl gave Meg a really-mom look. “A person can never be too smart, Mommy.”
“See.” Meg shook her head. The ends of her silky hair swayed, making him wonder if her hair was as soft as it looked. “I don’t stand a chance.”
Brooklyn ran to her room. Dusty chased after her.
“I’m not sure who has more energy tonight, her or the dog,” Ty said.
“I’d say it’s a toss-up, but she’s going to start fading fast. Almost bedtime. A good thing, because I have work to do.”
That was his cue to leave. Ty remained seated. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Tonight had been an unexpected, but fun break from hanging at the bunkhouse. Not that he didn’t like being with Zack, Dustin and Eli; Ty did, but different was good, too.
He glanced around the cabin. Meg had added pillows and throws to the lodge pole furniture that came with the cabin. The bookcase next to the television was new, as was the leather trunk full of games and toys sitting under the front window covered with paper snowflakes. The small touches gave the place a homey feel. The bunkhouse wasn’t a total man cave, but this cabin was comfortable and not in a frilly, feminine way.
“Looks like you’ve settled in nicely,” he said.
“Getting there.” A satisfied smile graced her mouth. No lip-gloss or make-up that he could see. “The next thing we’ll add is a Christmas tree in front of the window. I love when the lights reflect against the glass.”
Ty had never thought about the reflection when positioning a tree, but he liked that, too. “Go to Scott’s Tree Farm. You can cut down your own.”
“That’s the place Nate recommended.”
“He’s friends with Carson Scott.” Ty remembered thinking Brooklyn would enjoy the place, but he’d invited them to the stroll. No sense taking them to get a tree, too. He wouldn’t want Meg to think he was interested in her. “There’s more to do there than buying a Christmas tree, so make sure you have time to look around. And dress for snow. Like you’re going skiing.”
“I will. Thanks for the heads-up,” she said. “I’m in no rush for a tree. The one in the lodge is enough for Brooklyn right now. Maybe we’ll go the weekend before the wedding. I don’t want to have to clean up a ton of dried needles after the twenty-fifth.”
“Trying to save myself work. Goes with being a single mom.”
“Or parent.” Being practical had saved Ty when he was raising Rachel. “I remember those days.”
“I bet. Think how ready you’ll be when you have your own family.”
He raised his hands in front of him, as if to ward off her words. “That’s not something I want. It’s fine for others like Rachel and Nate. Caitlin and Noah. Hell, even Zack and Charlie. Once was enough for me.”
Ty waited for her to voice disappointment or condemnation or the list of reasons he should change his mind. That was what the women he dated did.
“I can understand that,” Meg said.
He drew back, surprised. “Really?”
She nodded. “You gave up your youth to be a stand-in dad for your sister. Why would you want to do that again when you have time for yourself and everything you want?”
Man, Meg was cool for getting that. “Exactly.”
“I’m not looking to remarry anytime soon. I’m not interested in dating, but I’ve learned to never say never. Something you might keep in mind, in case you do meet the right girl someday and want to have a family.”
He saw her point. “To be the right girl, she’d have to not want kids. No offense.”
“None taken.” Meg sounded sincere. “I would love to have more kids someday, so Brooklyn could have a brother or sister. I worry she’s lonely. But I don’t want the other stuff that would entail.”
“A guy. Relationship. Marriage.”
“You don’t always need a guy. Science can work wonders these days.”
“I’ve survived a pregnancy, delivery and newborn on my own. I’ve done everything for Brooklyn myself. No way am I doing that again, especially with another child to care for.”
“Never say never.”
She grinned. “There are exceptions to every rule.”
Talking with Meg was so comfortable. The only other women he felt so at ease around were Rachel and Charlie. Strange he felt this way about Meg, given his dating revolved around finding temporary companionship and fun, not conversation and friendship. But then again, Meg wasn’t some hook-up he’d met at Grey’s Saloon. She was a co-worker. And this wasn’t a date.
“Let me know if you need to borrow a pickup when you get your tree.” He wanted her to know and feel like she was part of the Bar V5 family. “We have a few around here you can use.”