The Cowboy Christmas Charm
A Sweet Western Romance
~ Part One ~
Church bells rang, echoing the announcement of Saige McKinnie and Thomas MacLaine’s upcoming nuptials as if angels sang the news to the world. Angels like her mother.
The chimes nudged Saige’s pulse into an anxious pitter-pat. She took a deep breath, smoothed the satin layers, and eyed herself in the long bridal suite mirror.
The tiara’s diamonds sparkled in the light as if highlighting her already noticeable fire-red hair. Hair like her mother’s. “Mama, I wish you were here.”
A tear pooled in the corner of her eye, but she stuck to her vow never to cry again since she’d left her hometown a decade ago.
She cleared her throat and swished left then right, admiring the Italian lace–lined decolletage and the tiny pearls shimmering in the light. White material fitted in the mermaid style piled into a shiny silk pool at her feet.
The potpourri on the table smelled of cinnamon and spice. The familiar aroma brought a rush of memories galloping in from her childhood. A childhood full of laughter and riding horses and feeling loved, but the absence of her mother had stolen her youth along with her father’s heart.
A knock on the door drew her from her reflection to discover Thomas—her future—standing inside the door holding a folder.
She tried to duck behind the mirror, but the tule veil caught on the edge of the couch, so she backstepped. “What’re you doing? It’s bad luck to see your bride before the wedding.”
He quirked a blond brow at her. “Since when do you subscribe to nonsense and superstitions?”
“It’s my wedding day. I’m a girl.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t think you were the sentimental type.”
She fluffed her dress and fluttered her lashes. “What do you think?
He plopped the folder down on the mahogany wood coffee table. “You look nice.”
“Nice?” she screeched more than asked.
He looked at her, confusion in his eyes. “What would you like me to say?”
“I don’t know, but more than nice.” Her wedding day high drifted below the clouds, and she eyed the folder. “I think business can wait a few days.”
The distant sound of cars buzzing by outside reminded her there were people waiting for them to walk down the aisle.
“You, the woman who ordered a phone and a laptop twenty minutes after you woke from an emergency appendectomy? The woman who flew to Dubai to close a business deal instead of attending her cousin’s wedding? The woman who hasn’t taken a day off since I met her?”
She shrank from the conversation, not wanting to hear more. “Enough. I get it.”
He squeezed her hand. “That’s what I like about you.”
“That I’m a workaholic with no heart? Thanks.”
He opened his mouth, but she decided to change the subject. “What’s in the folder?”
“Prenup. Need to sign it before we seal this deal.”
The three-inch Jimmy Choo’s wabbled under her. “Prenup?”
“Of course. We need to finalize the details of our arrangement.” He slipped a pen from his jacket.
“Arrangement?” Her voice cracked, but she opened the folder as if to make sure this wasn’t some joke. “That’s how you see our marriage?”
“Don’t you? We’ve dated four years, have been engaged for two. We’ll remain newlyweds for three and then have two children one year apart, hire a nanny to raise them until they attend boarding school—”
“Boarding school?” She sucked in a quick, stinging breath. Visions of her father sending his secretary to watch her in the school play, packages sent for Christmas in lieu of going home. She stood there and looked at the man she’d thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, but when his words flashed her next fifty years in front of her, doubt covered her like a dark cloud on a rugged mountaintop.
She asked the one thing she needed to know before she could sign. “Do you love me?”
“What?” he asked, his voice dipping to his corporate tone.
“It’s a simple question.” She picked up the paper and eyed the legal jargon. “Do you love me?”
“Yes. I said those words to you yesterday before you insisted on staying in the hotel suite instead of my apartment.”
His apartment, not theirs. “I’m not talking about words. I’m talking about how you feel. Do you look at me standing here in this wedding dress and feel an excitement in your gut? Are you ready to rush down the aisle so that we can spend the rest of our lives together? Are you counting the moments until we make love, sealing our vows tonight?”
“What’s gotten into you? Where’s my Sensible Saige?” He eyed the terms and then chuckled. “Are you not happy with the details?” He pulled the pen top off and scratched through a line. “It’s a standard prenup, but we can change it.”
“Terms, documents, agreements. Do you hear yourself? We’re not signing a corporate contract. We’re starting our lives together. What if I don’t want to send our kids to boarding school?”
His face was more blank than his heart. He unbuttoned his tuxedo, swiped the tails back, and rested his hands on his hips. “Then we’ll keep the nanny, but our children will need to be educated with the right people. They need to attend elite boarding schools if we’re to continue growing our empire.”
Empire? “That’s all this is to you. A business deal.” Her insides swished and swirled with thoughts she didn’t want to face. “Marriage should be about love and building something. I want what my parents had all those years ago. I can’t sign that.” Her words slipped from her mouth as easily as the paper slipped through her fingers and floated to the floor.
“This is nonnegotiable. Every arrangement needs a contract. It’s smart business.” His voice boomed in the small space.
The same reason she’d dated Thomas was the same reason she couldn’t accept his terms now. He was strong, dependable, a good man, but with a distant heart. She took both his hands in hers and willed him to listen. “Thomas, marriage should be more than a contract.”
He blinked at her and then stepped back, his hands wilting from her grasp. She twisted her engagement ring, pulled it off, and held it out to him.
A car horn blew outside, wind whipped through the screens with a whistle, and the heater cut on and blew warm air over her cold heart.
He cleared his throat but took the ring. “I thought we were in sync. Had everything planned out.”
Saige’s heart thumped at a slow but pounding pace. “That’s the problem. I need more than a plan. I need…”
“What your parents had?” he asked, his gaze traveling to the floor then back to her face.
“I don’t know, but I know it isn’t this.”
He eyed the door and then her, his face tightened with emotion. “So that’s it? We have all these guests here waiting for us to walk down the aisle, and you’re walking away?”
“Unless you can tell me you love me so much it hurts, that you want to be my husband more than anything else in the world. That even if we didn’t have kids, or corporations, or contracts, you still wanted me.” A bridal bouquet–sized lump lodge in her throat. Her breath caught between willing him to sweep her off her feet or walking out of her life.
He slipped the ring and his pen into his pocket and walked out of her life.
Out of her life.
She faced the mirror once more to see herself in her wedding dress designed by the best and brightest. The dress no one would ever see—No, not a dress. A costume. A real dress would be her mother’s gown, which probably still sat tucked away under her bed at the ranch.
The door creaked open, and her father peered inside. “Sounds like the wedding’s off.”
Saige spun in a white whirl, ready to be berated by her father’s disappointment. “I couldn’t do it. He brought a prenup on the morning of our wedding. This was never more than a business arrangement. No love, no passion, no…I don’t know. Something. Something more than a business deal and a handshake.” The emotions of it all bubbled and brewed and battled its way up from her chest and out of her mouth.
He entered the room with his normal take-charge presence but with a hint of softness she hadn’t seen in years. Not since her mother had died. “You’ll come through this. You’re more bull than bunny.”
His words sucker-slapped her across her perfectly painted face. Saige bent over, grasping the marble countertop of the vanity, dusted with pale-pink blush residue. Her lungs tightened with shock and sadness. “You’re right. And I got myself into this. They always say daughters go for men like their fathers,” she mumbled under her breath.
“You’ve got an amazing career. Why do you need a man?” He stepped into the room, took a peppermint from the crystal dish, and popped it into his mouth. “Love can be a distraction.”
The Christmas tree–colored walls closed in around her. “Do you miss her at all?” Her bitterness tasted sour on her tongue.
His blank affect twitched with warning. “Your mother has been gone for years. It’s time to let her go. She was weak.” His voice cracked under a decade of pain he’d never faced. They’d fled her family ranch, never to return. He’d shut his heart off, and she’d buried herself in work to make him happy. Somewhere, at some point, she’d buried herself so deep she couldn’t see the light.
Saige walked up behind him and dared to touch a hand to his shoulder. “She didn’t leave us. Cancer took her.”
“She should’ve fought harder.” He straightened and adjusted his tie in the mirror, reflecting the man he’d become the day after his wife had died. The loss had destroyed him.
“Your decision not to go through with the wedding will cause some bad publicity, but you’ll handle it. You’re more like me. I think it’s time to talk about making you partner. Of course, you’ll need to change your last name back to Blakely. No matter how much you try, you’re not like her. And that’s a good thing. You’re stronger and would never fall to sickness or let love get in your way.”
“I changed my name to Mom’s maiden name so that I wouldn’t be known as your daughter. I fought hard for my position, and no one can say I got there because I carried the Blakely last name.”
He lifted his chin. “You’ve proven yourself, so you can change it back,” he said in a tone that told her to back off for now and pick up the fight later.
Her father waltzed over to the mirror and ran his finger over his brow as if to order each hair into proper position like he ordered everyone around him.
That was Thomas. She’d fallen into the cliché of marrying a man like her father. Cold, distant, all deals and work but no passion. They weren’t bad men. They donated to charities, paid their employees well, but they kept their hearts closed off from possibilities. “I’ve taken care of the attendees and explained how you realized that you had more to do in your life before you settled down. No one was surprised. Like me, they didn’t understand this farce.”
“Farce? I loved him until…” She eyed the paper she couldn’t sign. Not because she cared about the idea of not taking money from him if they ever divorced, but because it was just another contract between them. She wanted more out of marriage than a business arrangement.
He cupped her cheek and looked into her eyes as if to say the most profound words to soothe her pain. “Did you?” Her father squeezed her shoulders. “You’re not a little girl anymore. Those childhood fantasies of happily ever after don’t exist in real life.”
Saige saw it, the truth in his words. Somewhere, she’d gone down a different path than she’d vowed as a little girl. Where had things gone wrong? “I miss her.”
He went to the window, looked out, and spoke in a distant tone. “She’s gone, and she’ll never come back. She’ll never have the life you have now.” He spun on his heels and strutted from the bridal room, leaving Saige alone.
When was the last time she’d laughed or found real joy in life? She wrapped her arms around herself and sighed. The MH ranch. Maybe it was time to go home and face what her father never could, reconnect with her mother and the McKinnie family. The stories and legends she’d grown up on about the seven sisters and their great adventures. She could ride horses instead of taxis, smell fresh air instead of pollution, snuggle by a roaring wood fire instead of a gas-lit flame.
She removed her dress and tossed it on the velvet couch, grabbed her keys, the envelope with the two thousand dollars of tip money she’d planned to give to the staff after the wedding, and snuck out the back door.
Bitter wind beat at her thin sweater–covered arms. Pipe organ Christmas music sounded from inside the church. Gray skies made her feel like nothing waited for her beyond business and lonely nights. She knew she couldn’t disappear without a word, so she texted her father.
You’re right. I’m nothing like mother, but unlike you, I want to be. I’m going far from here to figure out who I am. I love you, but I want more out of my life than a contract.
He responded by the time she reached the parking lot and spotted her lone car.
Take a few days. I’ll see you at the office on Monday.
No, he wouldn’t, but she needed distance before she would tell him she had no plans of returning until she reconnected with her mother and figured out what she wanted out of life beyond work.
Inside her car, she cranked up the heat and eyed the workmen installing Christmas lights at the street corner. Despite the fact that it was the first day of December, they were working like the holiday was fast approaching instead of looming ahead, taunting her with the truth. The truth that she had no one to celebrate the holidays with.
Since she had no desire to fly off to the tropics alone. She gripped the leather steering wheel and rested her head against it.
She wanted to feel closer to her mother, to remember the happier times of her life. The last time she felt alive and happy. To channel the woman she wanted to be, not this person she’d become. When had everything turned so wrong in her life?
The MH ranch. It had been a decade since Saige had gone all the way out to her mother’s family home. She’d hired her cousin to run it as a rental for the last five years.
The place had been her refuge as a child. Beautiful scenery and the only place her parents ever went that they didn’t fight. Probably because it was in the middle of nowhere and since there was no cell service and the snow took out the phone lines, often her father couldn’t work. They’d all be happy if only for a week or two at a time.
Saige hadn’t been back since her mother died. The night of her funeral, her father had packed Saige up and they left, never to return. Not that she’d argued, since there was nothing left for her in that town after her mother’s death, and Trevor… She hadn’t thought of that name since that day, and she wouldn’t think of him now. An insignificant memory from her past.
She texted her cousin to let him know she’d be heading out there and started her car. She needed to get a move on if she wanted to make it before she got caught in a winter storm. A common occurrence this time of year.
The idea of seeing the beautiful ranch her great-great-great-great-grandmother and grandfather had built in the 1870s warmed her insides, despite the coldness of rejection still taking up residence. If she had to be alone for the holidays, at least she’d feel close to her mother again. And hopefully figure out why she’d turned to money and success instead of family and friends.
* * *
The Hummer limo hung a right onto a snowy path, jostling the members of the Billionaire Boys Club into each other. Crystal glasses clinked along with Colt’s ridiculous cowboy boots and hat the men made him wear as an initiation into their elite group.
He almost felt as ridiculous as the time his father dressed him in a tuxedo at the age of six to stand by his side as he made some big announcement at the Whitmore Company Christmas party. He couldn’t remember the details, but if they were like all the others, his father had taken over some other smaller company to add to his empire. Colt often pictured his old man with a battle axe and had nicknamed him King Whitmore, Conqueror of Businesses.
The Hummer slowed. Colt eyed the snow oasis of tall pines and rugged mountains in the distance. He wasn’t in Los Angeles or Chicago anymore. He’d traded in big city for big adventure. A place far from boardrooms and boredom.
The men held up their lowballs with a grunt then knocked their whiskey back. He should’ve known by the title of the group that this adventure would be more frat party and less escapism.
Lucas, one of the BBC minions, cleared his voice and pounded on his chest. “Hear ye, hear ye. Billionaire Bad Boy Colt Whitmore cares more about partying and womanizing than running his father’s global empire. A man born with a silver Mercedes in his mouth is caught with sheik’s wife in his arms.”
Colt snatched the paper, balled it up, and tossed it on the ground but then couldn’t handle the mess and picked it up, tucking it into the corner. “Enough. I’m here to get away from all that.”
Colt scanned the inviting scenery once more. White light streaked through parted, puffy clouds dancing in a crystal sky, casting a shadow from the large two-story home onto the shimmering white ground. Weather had beat down the home the way Colt had been worn down by his life choices. Choices he didn’t regret yet paid the price for anyway.
“Don’t think anyone will think to look for you here,” president of the minions announced.
Lucas turned and eyed the world outside. “What a dump.”
He wasn’t wrong. The house stood at the foreground with weathered posts, broken front porch railing, and brittle roof Colt feared might cave in from the weight of the snow. But he could imagine the charm of living in such a place, with flower boxes dotting the railing of the wraparound porch during the spring, a large Christmas tree in the front window during the winter, and fresh lemonade on a summer afternoon while watching little ones playing in the front pasture. A great change from the hustle of the big city he’d left behind. The big life he’d left behind. But he didn’t belong here either.
“It’s a night to blow off steam and party. A roof and some drinks are all we need,” the president of this rich and ridiculous group said.
“As long as we don’t get bitten by a rat or something,” a minion mumbled.
What was Colt thinking, joining a pompous group filled with rich playboys who had no focus? Sure, he’d had fun on the slopes earlier, but the distraction hadn’t lasted any longer than a minute after he removed his skies. Deep down he knew why. He was tired of fighting everyone’s opinion of him, so he tried to embrace it. The lazy, partying, useless son.
How could anyone be happy when they had no purpose in life? And Colt had no purpose. Not unless he was ready to take his inherited right to stand at the feet of his mighty father on the corporate throne.
Colt unfurled his long legs and found the fresh air welcoming. A chill tapped at the end of his nose, but the quiet of the mountains warmed his insides. “Not so bad.”
Joe smacked him on the back. “Anything’s better than facing dear ol’ dad, Worthless Whitmore.”
Colt tensed at the nickname he’d never live down. At least here, he only had seven other guys to remind him of his epic, public embarrassment and the label of a useless, lazy, and disappointing son. Seven men who’d sworn brotherly love and pounded on their chests all day, yet he only remembered two names. One, Lucas, because he spent most of the day talking about his conquests with the ladies yet found rejection every time he made a pass at one.
And Joe, the man who burped and announced how great he was and how much he was worth anytime he could fit it into conversation. “I should’ve booked us. I know all the right people.”
To keep himself from opening his bitter trap to remind Joe he only knew the people his parents knew and could only afford what his allowance allowed, Colt took a few steps to peek around the edge of the house at the amazing view. He enjoyed the sound of crushing snow under his boots, despite the others griping about it being cold and damp.
The driver unloaded and took their bags into the house, where they would be spending the next few days. Maybe there were horses to ride or something around here. The idea of sitting inside the house with these men for seventy-two hours didn’t appeal to Colt. He’d spent the last decade in a fog with no purpose but pleasing his father, an unattainable goal.
“Should be fully stocked,” the president announced and hoofed it up the rickety steps into the house, where a warm and cozy parlor welcomed them.
“Did you rent this place on the site I told you to, or is this from DesperateandDesolate.com?” Joe groaned and stomped on the antique wood floors.
The smell of musty grandma furniture mixed with a hint of mold wasn’t a welcoming odor, but the old house had charm. Colt followed the others down the main hall but paused at a table covered in old photos. He picked up a picture housed in an antique gold frame, wiped the thick dust from the glass, and studied the family who appeared happy. A little girl and her parents rode horses through an open field covered in dandelions. The woman and girl had striking red hair he’d only seen in the movies. They all looked happy. A family—a real family. Maybe this place housed the elusive miracle, unlike his parents and their lost, loveless marriage.
“We’re the brothers, we’re the way. We’ll never turn our back or sway. We vow to honor one another. Because we are now and forever brothers.”
The chanting from the end of the hall spoke of the next round of drinks. Colt returned the picture and joined the others, figuring this was what the weekend was about, forgetting his troubles for a while and embracing what everyone thought of him. A lazy drunken fool with no appreciation for the gifts he’d been given in life. Just because he preferred dating over any faux commitment didn’t make him a bad person. It made him smart.
“Hey, check out that view,” the man with the oversized cowboy hat called out and flung open the back doors and took a step, falling face first into the snow.
Colt strutted to the door to discover the back deck only had two boards near the house and four corner posts sticking up out of the ground. If he had his tools, he could build a new deck. He missed working with his hands.
The man popped up without his ridiculous hat. “I’m done. Call the limo back.” He shuffled waist deep to the door, and Colt gave him a hand up.
“Already used that old-fashioned corded contraption on the wall to call since there’s no cell service. No flight out until morning, and the company says it’s not safe to drive the roads after dark due to the abundance of wildlife in the area and the snow,” the president of the group said.
Lucas unloaded a black duffel of hard liquor. “Guess we better party the night away, then. We’ll head back to civilization tomorrow.”
Colt remained at the door another minute. Civilization? Nope, not ready for that. “I think I’ll stick around. Just arrange for the car to come back in a couple days.”
Joe downed a shot and hammered his glass against the tile countertop. “You insane? You actually want to stay here?” He squealed like a trapped pig.
The twin brothers gawked at each other. “He’s hiding out. No better place to disappear than here.”
They weren’t wrong. “Listen, I could use a few days of quiet after all the media coverage. Don’t worry about me. I don’t mind roughing it a little.”
“A little? I think I saw an outhouse.” Lucas poured another round.
This time, The guy—Colt thought maybe his name was Craig—joined in and raised his glass. “To the BBC,” he said in hopes of changing the subject. At least they’d be gone in the morning, and he wouldn’t have to look at another person who judged him for his epic, public disaster.
He slammed back a strong, chest-warming shot. And for the next ten hours, he indulged. Indulged until he couldn’t stand up and passed out. When he woke up, he pulled the straw from his hair and sat up to a spinning room. His head pounded and the odor of the horse or cow or whatever animal made his stomach give him a one-two punch for poisoning himself all night.
He pulled himself up and managed to stumble from a big red barn in time to see the men loading up the limo.
“There he is. Last chance, bro.”
Not only did the idea of leaving this place far from civilization not sit well with him, but neither did the copious amounts of alcohol he’d consumed. Maybe it was time to rethink his lifestyle after all. “All good. Staying put.”
“Best you did. You don’t look like a guy who needs to be in a closed-in space on rough roads right now.” Craig tossed a blanket off his shoulders and swung it over the front porch railing before he disappeared into the limo.
Colt waved them off and stumbled up to the front porch, where he collapsed onto the swing, cuddled under the oversized furry blanket, and decided to sleep it off for a while enjoying his peace and quiet.
He zonked out and didn’t move until something cold and wet splashed into his face. “Wh-What?” He fell off the swing onto the hard floor with a loud thud before another foul-smelling bit of water hit his face. “What the…?”
He scurried to his feet with fists up, ready to pound one of the men, but spotted a small, red-haired girl with big green eyes and even bigger attitude. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing squatting at my house?”
Saige dropped the bucket and grabbed her granny’s old rifle. Her gut clenched tight, but she was less scared and more angry after seeing the inside of her beloved childhood ranch. Good thing the gun wasn’t loaded, or she might actually shoot him.
The intruder with a dark hat and flannel button-up cursed and carried on as if she’d thrown cow dung on him instead of water. She wished she would’ve thought of that.
Oh, he wouldn’t go there. No way she was backing down from a man who called her crazy, as if she was some hysterical female. Been in too many boardrooms with Neanderthals to take that attitude anymore. Women were crazy. Men were strong. And this man standing at over six feet, broad shouldered and thin waist accentuated by his ridiculous belt buckle, told her he thought of himself as king of the Neanderthals.
He had no right to be mad. She had every right to wake up the scoundrel who had wrecked her place. “What did you do to my house?”
He spit water from his mouth and swiped his sleeve over his lips. “Your house?” The man removed his black cowboy hat and brushed his short hair back. Not that there was too much, since he was a short-and-tight type. Yet he stunk of booze and day-old barn.
“Yes, my house.” She pointed the gun to his broad chest.
He took a step forward, large hands splayed out in front of him. “Wooah. Lower that thing. Someone could get hurt, sweetheart.”
Oh no he didn’t, belittling a woman with unsolicited terms of endearment. Thinking that sexy swagger of his would get anywhere near her libido. “I’m not your sweetheart.” She’d met enough bull riders to know this man was all good looks with empty space in his head. Something she’d learned back in high school when she’d been dumped for a buckle bunny by her own sweetheart.
He exhaled a puff of white air, letting her know she’d made her point, and the guy would catch pneumonia standing out here drenched. Fine. She’d get him inside to work. That would warm him up. “Before you go, you’re cleaning up that mess. I’m over men like you running off and leaving your messes behind for others to clean up.”
A flash of something in his eyes told her she’d hit a nerve. “Listen, some of my friends rented this place.”
“Doesn’t give you the right to destroy it. I revoke your privilege of being on my property. Now fix my house and get out of here.”
The man grinned, a lopsided, I-know-I’m-sexy kind of smile. “Where am I supposed to go?” He scooted closer, calling her bluff.
“Don’t care. Not my problem.”
He pressed two fingers to the barrel and nudged it out of the way.
She jolted it back at his face. He grabbed the barrel with one hand, yanked it out, pulled her to his chest, and then tossed the gun over the railing. “Someone should teach you some manners. You could’ve killed me.”
His arms locked strong around her. A man. A stranger. She pushed at his chest. “Let go.”
“Not until you promise not to shoot me.”
She fought and squirmed and would’ve clocked him a good one to show him who was boss, but her arms were trapped between them. This man was strong. Too strong. Yet, he only held her tight enough to keep her from escaping to grab her weapon. Something told her he held back a real show of strength.
Which ticked her off even more. She was the one in charge. “I said let me go. This is assault.”
“No, self-defense. You pointing a gun at a paying guest is the real crime here. Not going to look good on my review.” He snickered.
Did he think this was some sort of game? She wiggled to try to free one arm. That was all she needed, and he’d be on his butt. “You probably didn’t even chip in for the rental.”
He didn’t answer her accusation, which confirmed her suspicion that this man was a washed-up rodeo rider with nowhere to go. She’d seen it one too many times.
“Calm yourself. I’ll let you go when you relax and promise not to shoot me.”
She stilled but wanted to show him brute force was no longer the only way to be the superior species. “The sheriff is a personal friend of the family. I suggest you let go of me, or you’ll find yourself in a cell.”
He didn’t loosen his grip. “One of those types, huh?”
His arms loosened a little but not enough.
“The type that has to call in favors to win the fight.”
Oh, his words irked her. Especially knowing the sheriff was no friend of hers. “I can fight my own battles.” She knew they were getting nowhere except pressed together in a way she hadn’t experienced in years. Sure, she’d been intimate with her now ex, but it was never passionate. It had always been safe, though. That’s what she’d wanted—stability, not all passion and fire. Had she made a grave mistake not marrying Thomas? She’d had and “all the feelings” kind of relationship once. A long time ago. Once was enough for one lifetime. There had to be something in between. Safe but exciting. “Fine. I won’t shoot you. For now.”
He released her, but before he could take a step away, she pressed her hands to his chest and shoved him away before she decided the warmth was welcome in this bitter cold.
Control. She needed to regain it.
She pointed to the snowy front yard where he’d thrown her rifle. “Why’d you do that? That was my granny’s gun.”
“So? That gives you the right to shoot one of your guests?”
“Guest implies you were invited. I didn’t invite you.” Saige huffed and traipsed down the steps, shuffled through the snow, and dove in to find the gun. “I bet you weren’t the one paying anyway. Looks like you’ve been sleeping in the barn.”
“You’re not wearing any gloves. You’ll end up with frostbite.”
“Better than being bitten by you.”
He leaned over the railing, and his brow went from tight concern to playful rise. “Interesting.”
“What’s that?” She shuffled through the snow until her boot made contact with something hard.
“You thinking about me biting you.”
She dove her hands into the icy snow, welcoming the cooling effect on her flushed body. This man riled her up. Not acceptable. “Wouldn’t think anything except that I might catch something. Guessing you’re full of nothing but ego and STDs.” She found the gun and yanked it from the snow, flung it over her shoulder, and marched up the porch.
He turned at an angle as if ready to do battle.
Not wanting to end up back in his arms again for more reasons than she cared to face at the moment, she rested the gun against the porch. “Relax. It’s not loaded.”
A playful smirk arched at the corners of his mouth, revealing dimples. Ugh, not those. She’d been a sucker once for a man with dimples but had avoided them ever since. The man in front of her was ridiculous and wrong in every way, from his black hat to his impractical boots.
“They were a bet,” he grumbled. “My buddies, the ones who apparently trashed your place, had me wear these. Didn’t think I’d be seeing anyone.”
“Where’s the rest of your Neandermen?”
“Neandermen?” He leaned his butt against the railing, crossed his arms over his chest, and swung his foot to rest the toe of his boot against the floor. That go-to Stetson commercial kind of pose.
“A man who’s still stuck halfway in his ancestral Neanderthal roots.”
He laughed, a big, hearty, echo through the vastness of the beautiful mountains kind of belly chuckle.
“Back to the point. Where’s the rest of you?”
He shrugged. “Gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” she asked, scanning the place for a vehicle but only spotting her own.
“They left early this morning.”
“Ditched you, huh?” She snickered. “Not much loyalty with that gang. Come on. I’ll make some coffee while you clean up this place, and then you can call a ride.”
“Great. I could go for a cup.”
“Didn’t offer you one. Coffee’s for me.” She sashayed into the house that had once brought her so much joy, but even now it felt haunted with the memories of what could’ve been.
The woman with the swaying hips and beautiful full lips drew him in like the flicker of a candle, mesmerizing but if not handled with care it could start a fire. “You own this place?” he asked.
“Thought we already established that.” She looked over her shoulder, her long red hair with a hint of curl at the bottom swaying across her thin back. “Get kicked in the head one too many times by a bull?”
“What makes you think I’m a bull rider?” Not that he minded. The idea of being someone else for the moment sounded perfect.
“Ex-bull rider. Ridiculous outfit, horrible friends who leave you stranded, and that stupid I-own-all-women-with-one-sexy-grin attitude.”
“You think I have a sexy grin?” He liked that idea. This woman was bold and beautiful and bossy. Nothing like the bred to bend at his every whim type he’d been introduced to a hundred times by his stepmother.
“Kind of missed the point. Yep, definitely a washed-up bull rider. Only hear the compliments; never facing the truth.”
She shimmied out of her coat and hung it on a hook then went to work making coffee. The woman had curves in all the right places, held her head high, and moved like a ballet dancer with an ax ready to strike him down. She was an enigma. And he liked figuring out puzzles. “Maybe us ex-bull riders are really sensitive underneath the bravado.”
“Sure, so sensitive you can’t face the mess you make and run out without cleaning it up.”
“What do you mean?”
She filled the coffee pot full of water with one hand and pointed to the room behind him with the other. “Get to work.”
Something told him that she wasn’t talking about the physical mess. There was a crumb to a bigger story and he wanted to follow it, but when he turned to find the room with a busted lamp, stains on the rug, and empty bottles of booze scattered around the room, conviction took hold. He couldn’t stand disorder, and the sight of it all compelled him to take action. He needed to make this right.
When they’d rented this place, they hadn’t thought of it as someone’s home. Maybe the papers were right about him. Maybe he was spoiled and unfeeling. Maybe this was an opportunity to rehab from playboy to purpose.
“Not going to clean itself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, showing respect instead of sounding arrogant. At least he hoped.
She didn’t criticize his word choice, so he guessed it was fine. He went to work, and boy was it a job. He liked his now ex-friends even less after an hour of bending and picking things up with a sour belly, a headache, and having to smell that delicious eye-opening coffee aroma without a sip to give him some much-needed energy.
He righted the lamp and made a mental note to order a new one and have it shipped when he returned home. Not that he had any intention on returning home, but despite the payoff in his account to get out of town, he had no idea where he wanted to go. Not to mention he didn’t want to take a dime of his father’s money. He’d been living off his own savings, but with the extravagant lifestyle of the Billionaire Boys Club, he guessed his savings was near depleted after only a week. What would it be like to live without a constant flow of cash at his disposal? To be a man without means and have to work to earn his way in the world.
“Here.” A perfectly manicured hand held out something red and stomach-churning, and then another cup followed, filled to the brim with coffee. “Hangover relief ranch-style and a cup of joe for energy.”
“Thanks.” He collapsed into the recliner that tipped back too far, and he spilled a drop of the tomatoey liquid onto his shirt. Great. This day kept improving.
“Don’t think about it. Just down it.”
He held his breath and chugged the lowball glass of something rich, spicy, and gag-inducing. After he gulped it down, he retched then recovered. “Sorry.”
“No reason to apologize. That’s what it does. Makes you almost get sick, and then everything gets coated with whatever magic powers it possesses. My granny taught me how to make it.” She smiled at the mention of her grandmother, and it warmed his insides. Or was that the concoction? After all, he was an unfeeling womanizer.
“Back in your party days, huh?”
“Nope. Granny had a certain way about her. She was old-school and said a woman needed to know how to woo and control a man without him even knowing she’s doing it.”
“You trying to woo me?” He winked, but based on her tight-lipped expression, he retreated from his normal flirtations. “Right. Thanks.”
“No need to thank me. Figured if I want this entire house cleaned, I needed to give you some energy. Looks like you can’t handle your liquor any more than the rest of the bull riders I’ve known.”
“Dated them, huh?”
“I’m no buckle bunny,” she hissed in warning.
He held up his hands, because for once in his life, he didn’t know the right thing to say to a woman. Instead, he followed her pointer finger to the dining room, where he discovered his friends were Neanderthals like she’d accused them of, because no gentleman would ever leave a bra hanging from a buckhorn chandelier—he had no desire to know where that bra came from, considering there were only men here last night. Then he realized what she thought. “We didn’t have some bachelor party or escorts here.”
She tapped her foot, and the way her head tilted to the side, he knew she didn’t believe him. Why should she? The circumstantial evidence sealed his fate by the judge and jury watching him work.
By the time he cleaned up the puke, removed the bra, and cleaned the dishes, throwing out the ones that were broken, he thought he’d get a reprieve.
“There. All done.”
He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched out the kinks with a pop or two and then spotted her at the stairs.
“Just getting started.”
A part of him wanted to throw in the towel and tell her he’d hire someone to clean the place, but since she already had a poor view of his work ethic and making messes he didn’t clean up, he decided to see this through. Maybe he’d build some character through this process. Lord knew he needed some help in that department. He either needed to be stone cold for his father’s respect or devote and doting like his mother. Unfortunately, he was neither. Never did fit in with either parent. His brother, on the other hand, was born to be his father’s minion. All work and no questions or defiance. And his baby sister, well, she was the most loveable creature on earth. One would think she was from his parents, but no, she was the product of his family wrecking stepmother.
Colt climbed the stairs and didn’t even make it to one of the bedrooms before seeing evidence of another overindulgence on the carpet runner. Shame filled him. This house really was trashed.
To his surprise, she came up with her own bucket full of supplies. “I’ll get to work in the master.”
“You don’t have to do that. My boys made the mess. I’ll clean it up.” He dropped to his knees, dipped the brush in water, and tended to the stain.
She eyed him with a disapproving swish of her lips. “No, not like that.” She knelt by him, grabbed his hand holding the brush, dipped it in the bucket, and scrubbed the carpet. Her tiny fingers were strong but soft. “You need more water to get that stain out.”
Her touch sent a heat wave up his arm he hadn’t anticipated, or was that his hangover? His pulse ta-tapped faster, and his breath came shorter. The touch of a woman always stirred him up inside, but this was different. Maybe it was because he knew this woman had no interest in him other than manual labor. Most women would’ve forgone the judgement and raced him into their bed.
Maybe his father hadn’t been entirely wrong. He’d been entertaining the wrong type of women. His father never cared but had warned him not to get caught. A philosophy he guessed served both his marriages well over the years. Colt wanted more than the one-night stands, but marriage was a farse. He wanted to know more about this woman in front of him down on her hands and knees working, but he figured if he tried anything, she’d throw him out or shoot him.
The sun set before the work was done, and Saige realized the fatal error in her anger. No way he’d be able to get a ride out of here at this hour. Never a good idea to traverse those winding, cliffside roads at night during winter, not to mention the rogue animal running out in front of the vehicle.
She had to give this man credit. Most bucking bronco types would’ve walked out with a backhand wave, leaving her with the mess to clean up. One rodeo star in particular had a gift for that. A man she had refused to think of since the last time she’d been at this house.
But now that she stood in the master bedroom, where she’d cried on more than one occasion in her mother’s arms, haunting memories of that time in her life came flooding in. Not just of her mother, but of her old life with her ex. Probably because a more handsome version of him stood nearby. That wasn’t what she was here for, though. She’d come back to reconnect with the McKinnie women, not some loser ex. “You’re kind of tall for a bull rider. You still riding?”
He pulled the sheet from the bed and tossed it in the wash pile. That dark eyebrow rose, drawing her attention to his sapphire eyes. She was a sucker for baby blues and dark hair. Some might say it had been her type. Yet, Thomas, her ex-fiancé, had light hair and brown eyes.
“Bull riding?” She nudged him, realizing that hangover and exhaustion were fogging his brain.
“I can safely say I’m not riding any bulls now or in my future.” He chuckled as if there was more to that story. Of course there would be. All his kind had stories of conquests, bulls, and booze.
“What’s next for you, then? Plan to drink your troubles away?” She grabbed the other side of the fitted sheet he wrestled with and helped him strip the bedding.
“Sounds like a solid plan,” he said with a wink, “or maybe it’s time for me to grow up and give a care.”
“Really?” Her turn to raise a brow and point her lie radar at him.
He balled up the sheet and rounded the bed to stand a foot from her, only the bedding between them. His eyelids lowered and his mouth went slack. “I guess you’re right. I’m not the hardworking type, or so I’ve been told.”
This man had to be six to eight inches taller than her, his shoulders mountain sized yet not overly bulky. Sweat dotted his temple, probably excreting out the alcohol. Yet, standing alone in this bedroom with him, she didn’t feel threatened or judged or dismissed.
She shook off the feeling, took the sheets, and tossed them in the pile they’d started, to put some distance between them. Her breath stuttered but then came more natural, making her realize space would be a good idea. A woman who’d just failed to make it to the altar meant dangerous and wayward emotions. Things popped into her head like one-night stands and fling-forgetting kind of vacations. She scooped up the sheets and headed to the laundry room. “You can sleep in the downstairs room off the kitchen.”
“Wait, what?” He followed her, close enough to cause her feet and pulse to quicken. “Not a good idea.” His voice came deep and disturbed, causing a shiver to run up her spine.
Saige dropped the bedding into the laundry room, not daring to enter the small space with him. Too close. Too small for a broken heart. A heart that hadn’t beat like this in years. Not when she dated reliable and dependable Thomas. Not since—oh dear Lord, she couldn’t be that girl anymore. Not the one who went for bad boys. Bad boys who broke hearts and didn’t care. She sucked in a quick breath and straightened, pointing her finger down the hall. “Not done. Two more rooms. Not to mention the kitchen needs to be scrubbed from top to bottom.”
He ran a hand through his short hair, and she could imagine it a touch longer, wilder, untamed. She swallowed hard.
“I’ll keep working and then call a car.” Heat erupted in his eyes, but he turned away and headed for the stairs.
She passed a photo of her mother hanging on the wall as if she stood by in judgement. The McKinnies would’ve never turned out a man down on his luck. Not in the snow, not anytime. They were good people. The kind of people she wanted to be.
“No one’s going to come out here at night. Besides, you can put that cell phone away. Part of the charm of this place is no service. No internet, no cell, no people.” Saige headed down the stairs, putting more space between her and the beautiful cowboy. Anger didn’t begin to describe how she felt at this moment. She’d spent all those years molding the life she wanted, only to have it implode around her. Where had she gone wrong?
Steps sounded behind her like a trotting horse. She quickened her pace to the kitchen. “Guess we need to eat something and then head to bed.” Her voice pitched higher on the word bed. She cleared her throat and refused to look at him. “So we can start early and get you out of here and on with your life.”
“On with my life, right.” He collapsed into a seat on the other side of the island.
She relaxed a little with a barrier between them. “Not excited to get back to it?”
“Not even a bit.” He dropped his head into his hands as if unable to face the world any longer.
A part of her was drawn to comfort him. Another part screamed for her to run into the snow and spend the night in the ice. Frostbite would be safer than sexy and sensitive.
Eggs. Maybe she could make eggs. She’d seen it done by her cook before or at a restaurant. Not that cooking had ever been on her agenda. She opened the refrigerator that housed the few items she’d picked up from the grocery in town, along with the rest that she guessed had been fully stocked by her cousin before these guests had arrived. Guests being a strong word. “How do you like your eggs?”
“You’re offering to make me dinner?” He looked up at her as if she’d offered him a five-course meal.
“Girl’s gotta eat. And not dinner. Just eggs.” She set the Styrofoam case down on the counter and grabbed her granny’s old skillet. The one she had used to make sizzling meats and eggs and potatoes and anything else delicious. Saige could almost smell Grandma McKinnie’s food that reminded her of happy times. Times before her mother passed, before Traitor Trevor broke her heart, before she’d left this place with plans never to return.
Shoving away the memories, she cracked an egg and dropped it into the pan. Along with a few eggshells. She should’ve learned to cook when Granny had asked, but she’d always been too busy tending the horses or riding or working the land.
“Need some help?” Colt approached. “I kind of prefer non-crunchy eggs. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll whip us up something.” His hand covered hers on the spatula, causing more heat than the open flame of the stove. He recoiled as if her hand seared him.
She set the utensil down and gave him space. “Cooking isn’t really in my skill set.”
“What is your skill set?” The man moved with the grace and power of one of those Cirque du Soleil acrobats around the kitchen.
She averted her gaze to the serene mountains barely visible in the diminishing light. “Conquering and alienating.” The words weighed so heavy Circ de Solei she couldn’t stand another second. The stool squeaked with her turn to face him, only to discover his mouth open.
He recovered with a wicked grin, complete with distracting dimples. “I doubt that.”
“Don’t let my size fool you. I’m ruthless. Trust me. I have been for a long time.”
The way his grin moved from weak to wicked shot warnings through her.
“What?” He returned his attention to cooking.
“I know that look. A guy likes a challenge, and I’m not interested in being anyone’s game.”
He turned off the burner and scooped the eggs onto plates, handed one to her along with a fork, and leaned over the counter, over her. “I’m direct. Don’t have to play games.”
His deep voice echoed through the room to her heart, but she closed it off and countered, “Everyone plays games.”
To be continued...
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