Authors: Melissa McClone
Tags: #romance, #western, #christmas, #american romance, #cowboys, #montana, #wedding
“Thanks, but I have a hatchback. I’ll be fine.”
He had no doubt about that. Meg didn’t need anyone. She was practical and self-reliant.
Except for cooking dinner.
Okay, not really. Meg could have been stirring a can of paint as uncomfortable as she’d looked standing at the stove. Her tomato sauce splattered apron sure had been cute. He hadn’t known how sexy and appealing an apron could be. The cooking skills of the woman wearing one didn’t matter.
Except he’d pitched in and done dishes, too. No complaints. He hadn’t planned on staying, but offering to help was the least he could do. It worked out. He ended up getting a meal out of the deal and making up for what happened on Sunday. They were even now.
Still Ty was looking forward to taking her to the Marietta Stroll on Saturday afternoon. She would finally understand what he meant by a Montana Christmas and maybe he could learn more about her.
Brooklyn peered around the corner. Something glimmered on her head—a tiara. She raised her hand to her mouth as if blowing a horn. “Da-ta-da-dah. Meet Princess Dusty.”
She stepped out, motioning to something hidden, most likely the dog. “Come on, princess. It’s show time.”
Dusty trudged out, head low and tail dragging, dressed like a pink princess. He stared at Ty with a help-me-please look.
“Oh, wow.” Meg covered her mouth with her hand. No doubt to keep from laughing. “Never knew a dog could wear a tu-tu like that.”
Ty nodded, biting back his own laughter. Poor dog. He couldn’t believe Dusty had remained still long enough to dress up. “Or so many necklaces and a feather boa.”
Brooklyn beamed at her creation. “Doesn’t the princess look pretty?”
“Yes, but Dusty is a boy dog. He’d probably prefer to be called handsome,” Meg said.
Brooklyn’s lower lip thrust forward in an epic pout. “Princesses can’t be handsome.”
“You made Dusty into a mighty fine princess pup.” Ty would get the dog a treat when the returned to the bunkhouse. Maybe a bone for being such a good sport and playing dress-up. This went beyond being man’s best friend.
Brooklyn tapped the side of her face. “Maybe I should paint his nails.”
“No,” Meg and Ty said at the same time.
He looked at her. “We’re getting good at that.”
“Jinx.” An easy smile spread to her eyes, brightening her entire face.
Beautiful. His temperature shot up. He tugged at his collar.
Must be the wood stove. Yeah, that had to be it. He glanced at the clock on the DVD player. Probably time to go.
He wiped his hands on his jeans, then stood. “I have a few chores to do. Why don’t you transform Dusty back into a plain old cattle dog, so we can get out of your way?”
Meg mouthed a “thank you” that made him stand taller.
Brooklyn stared at her mother. “But—”
“Don’t forget it’s a school night,” Meg said quietly. “You need to stick with your bedtime or you’ll be cranky in the morning.”
Brooklyn’s narrow shoulders sagged. “O-kay. Come on, Princess Dusty.”
The dog went ahead, running around the corner as if his tail was on fire. No doubt, he was finished playing pretty princess.
Meg chucked. “I’m so sorry about Dusty.”
“No worries. He’s a good dog. A couple treats and he’ll forget all about this. Though I hate to think of the mess in Brooklyn’s room.”
“That’s her problem, not yours or mine.”
Ty liked Meg and her matter-of-fact style, whether with her job or parenting. But, like the other night, he felt there was more to Meg than her being a hardworking employee and a practical mom. She was a puzzle he wanted to solve. Too bad he didn’t have all the pieces yet.
Soon, he hoped.
“Thanks again for coming over, helping in the kitchen and bringing cookies,” she said.
“Anytime.” Funny thing was, he meant the words. This had been fun, entertaining, enjoyable. The list of adjectives went on.
Ty’s gaze met Meg’s pretty brown eyes, dropped to her soft lips, wondered what her kiss tasted like.
His pulse accelerated. He really wanted to know.
“Mommy. I need your help with Dusty.”
The moment ended abruptly. What was he thinking?
Meg was not only a mom; she wanted more kids. Why would she want someone like him who wanted the exact opposite of what she did? She wasn’t looking for a guy right now, but he doubted she’d be interested in anything casual, especially with a coworker.
Being friends, however, made perfect sense. Everybody needed a friend, especially someone new in town at Christmastime. “I’m looking forward to Saturday.”
“Me, too. Whatever it is we’re doing.”
“Trust me.” Ty couldn’t wait to see her reaction. “You’re going to love it.”
On Saturday afternoon, Meg stared in awe. A banner for the 30
Anniversary of the Marietta Christmas Stroll hung across Main Street of the historic downtown. Holiday cheer along with songs performed by Christmas carolers filled the air. The scene reminded her of a holiday movie. She’d completely forgotten about the Christmas strolls that towns all over Montana put on. Given the people crowding the street and sidewalks jockeying for a place for the lighting ceremony, no one else had forgotten.
“Where does the ceremony take place?” she asked.
“Crawford Park. But the lights are all over town.” Ty carried Brooklyn on his shoulders so she had a clear view and, more importantly, wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. “The lighting procession starts at the Rodeo Fair Grounds, travels down Front Avenue to 5
Street, then along Main Street to the Courthouse. We should have a great view from here.”
“Will we see Santa?” Brooklyn asked.
“Yes. Later you’ll be able to talk to him and have your picture taken at the Graff Hotel.”
“Santa’s going high end,” Meg teased.
“Well, he is Santa Claus,” Ty joked back. “Would you rather he took the photos at Grey’s Saloon?”
“Nope. I’ve wanted to get a closer look at Graff’s anyway.”
“You haven’t been there?” Ty asked.
“Not exactly in my budget, or a place Brooklyn would want to eat. The diner’s more my style. Macaroni and cheese is hers.”
Meg fingered the Marietta Stroll button pinned to her jacket. The button allowed admission to the various events, including a wagon ride and petting zoo. Ty had purchased them ahead of time. She couldn’t wait to see the gingerbread houses in the competition Rachel had judged. The winner, Jen Patterson, had made her first house last year using one of Rachel’s kits. Now the mom of two—a friend of Caitlin’s and the wife of Noah’s best man Jay—was hooked on decorating gingerbread.
“This is such a great idea.” Meg touched Ty’s arm. “Thank you for inviting us. I’m not sure we would have attended if you hadn’t. I mentioned the Stroll to a few guests after Nate talked it up, but I had no idea how special this is.”
Ty grinned. “Told you so.”
She laughed. “You did.”
“Stand here.” He positioned her in front of him and Brooklyn. “You’ll be able to see better.”
She nodded, unable to speak with her backside pressed against his front. She couldn’t move forward due to the crowds, and he didn’t seem to mind. Neither did she.
Warmth emanated from him. So strong and solid. Awareness thrummed through Meg’s body. She felt each beat of his heart and every one of his breaths.
He placed his hand on her shoulder, as if that were the most natural thing to do. Meg stiffened, feeling strange and more than a little turned on. Weird given the gesture was friendly, not intimate, well, except the way they stood. Their positions with Brooklyn on Ty’s shoulder made Meg think of a family, a husband and wife and child.
The image appealed to her at a deep level. Emotion clogged her throat. This was something she told herself she didn’t want and could wait for, but the fantasy in her mind felt oh-so-right. She could almost believe the three of them were a family, and she and Ty a couple. She swallowed around the lump in her throat.
He squeezed her shoulder, and a part of her wanted to pretend they were together. “The hay wagon is coming. That’s Mayor Gleeson waving to the crowd.”
People cheered. A few chanted “Maynard! Maynard!”
Meg assumed that was the mayor’s first name.
Brooklyn was more interested in the other guest of honor. She pointed. “I see Santa! I see Santa!”
Children squealed. Several jumped up and down. A baby cried.
The procession stopped in front of the library. The mayor climbed the steps to a microphone on a stand. He read a proclamation celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Marietta Stroll. Santa joined the mayor, waved at the crowd, then stepped up to the microphone.
“Are you ready for a little Christmas magic?” Santa asked.
The crowd shouted yes!
“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa bellowed. “Let the Christmas season in Marietta begin.”
Meg held her breath, along with everyone around her.
Lights illuminated. The library, City Hall, Crawford Park, Main Street.
People oohed and awed in delight.
“So pretty,” Brooklyn said with wonder.
“Magical.” That was the only word Meg could use to describe the lights shining like beacons of joy, hope and peace. The sense of belonging—something she hadn’t felt until moving to the Bar V5 last month—intensified, consuming every fiber of her being. In this little town, shadowed by Copper Mountain, she’d discovered the one place she thought she’d never find . . . home.
Her breath caught in her throat. Her heart pounded in her ears.
Who would have thought?
People headed toward the line for hay wagon rides. Others walked to the petting zoo. More went to the rows of food booths donating their proceeds to local charities.
Meg looked at Ty. “A Montana Christmas.”
Glittery, sparkly and over the top decorations weren’t required. A snow-capped peak provided enough shimmer when the sun hit right. “I do.”
“Thought you might.” His hand remained on her shoulder. He gave another squeeze, sending her pulse skyrocketing. “This is only the beginning. The evening will only get better.”
Meg didn’t know how much more she could take. The start had been perfect.
“What do you want to do first?” Ty asked Brooklyn.
“See Santa,” Brooklyn shouted.
He smiled at Meg. “Looks like our first stop is the Graff Hotel.”
A line for Santa had formed by the time they reached the hotel. Meg didn’t mind waiting. She took in the beauty and grandeur of the hotel’s decor, an unexpected gem of a place in such a small town. “So elegant.”
Ty played keep away with Brooklyn. “The hotel was purchased and refurbished by Troy Sheehan and celebrated its 100
anniversary earlier this year.”
She stared in awe. “Hard to believe Caitlin and Noah want to get married at the Bar V5 and not here.”
“They put on impressive weddings here, but Caitlin lived at the Bar V5 this past summer and Noah works there a lot. It’s like a second home to them. And Christmas at the Graff is a world away from Christmas at the Bar V5.”
“True,” Meg agreed. “Caitlin did say what she wanted and didn’t want for her wedding.”
“Speaking of wants.” Ty kneeled so he was eye level with Brooklyn. “Do you know what you want from Santa?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “My daddy.”
Meg placed her hand over her heart. Her one regret was Brooklyn’s father wanted nothing to do with his sweet daughter. “That’s a nice thing to ask for, but that’s not something Santa can bring you, sweetie.”
“You don’t know that for sure, Mommy.”
Except Meg did know. After years of not wanting to know, she’d relented because of Brooklyn’s questions about her father and performed an Internet search on her ex-husband’s name. He was exactly where she thought he would be—Patagonia. He and his long-time climbing partner had won a grant to attempt connecting routes they’d climbed separately over past seasons. The link up had never been accomplished before. Not even Santa and all the Christmas magic in the world could pull Trace Redstone from the mountains with a grant-funded climb.
She smoothed her daughter’s hair. “There has to be something else you want.”
Brooklyn tilted her head. A mischievous smiled formed. “A horse.”
Great. Meg rubbed her face. Shopping this Christmas was not going to be easy.
“Santa may have a hard time getting a horse on his sleigh,” Ty said, coming to her rescue. “They take up a lot of room.”
“Oh, yeah, I didn’t think about their size.” Brooklyn’s mouth twisted as if in deep thought. “I know. A set of twin baby dolls with a stroller. A boy and girl with brown hair and brown eyes.”
Thank goodness. Meg had seen Brooklyn paging through a doll catalog and ordered the entire set from the website when they’d had a free shipping sale. At least her little girl would get one thing off her list. “Brown eyes, huh? Like you.”
“And you.” Two lines crinkled above Brooklyn’s nose. “Does my daddy have brown eyes, too?”
“No.” But Brooklyn looked very much like her father. Meg wanted to change the subject. “Santa is giving out candy canes.”