Life has been tough at Copper Mountain Ranch and widower Brock Sheenan’s kids have never had a proper Christmas. His new housekeeper, Harley Diekerhoff, is determined to change that–but she doesn’t count on falling in love with her taciturn boss. Come Home for Christmas, Cowboy by Megan Crane
Christina Grey Cooper has finally given up on her marriage and returned home to Marietta to lick her wounds. But Dare can’t let the love of his life go, even if what’s standing in the way of a true holiday miracle is himself… Can the magic of a White Christmas in Montana help him save what he’s nearly lost forever?
A Cowgirl’s Christmas by CJ Carmichael
Betrayed by her father, Callan Carrigan has to decide what matters most to her. Fighting Court McAllister to get back the family ranch, or giving Court what he really wants—her heart.
A Cowboy for Christmas by Katherine Garbera
Back in Marietta, disgraced, the last person Annie Pruhomme wants to see is hunky Carson Scott. Does he hold a grudge, and why does he still look so hot?
Mistletoe Wedding by Melissa McClone
An instant family isn’t on ranch foreman Tyler Murphy’s Christmas list, but event planner Meg Redstone’s kisses are. Getting her under the mistletoe, however, is going to take a miracle…or help from Santa.
A Sweet Montana Christmas by Roxanne Snopek
A marriage in jeopardy, a decrepit honey farm and an unexpected birth on a dark, snowy night. All they need to rediscover their love is a Christmas miracle.
Blame the Mistletoe by Dani Collins
Commiseration over being alone for the holidays turns to a holiday fling, making Liz Flowers think Blake Canon is giving her the Best Christmas Ever. But when family secrets are revealed and their children arrive home early, will they be able to keep the season bright?
Her Mistletoe Cowboy by Alissa Callen
Ivy Bishop plans to spend Christmas holed up on an isolated Montana ranch far from the city and her ex-fiancé. But the more time she spends with the workaholic cowboy next door the more she realizes her heart isn’t actually broken – yet.
SURPRISE!!! Excerpts below! Enjoy!
Excerpt for Christmas at Copper Mountain by Jane Porter
“You okay, Miss Diekerhoff?”
Turning quickly, potato skins still dripping, Harley blinked back tears as she spotted Brock Sheenan standing by the fireplace, warming his hands.
Brock was a big man. He was tall–six one or two—with broad shoulders, a wide muscular chest, and shaggy black hair.
Harley’s late husband, David, was Portuguese and darkly handsome, but David was always groomed and polished while the Montana rancher seemed disinclined to comb his hair, or bother with a morning shave.
The truth was, Brock Sheenan looked like a pirate, and never more so than now, with tiny snow flakes clinging to his wild hair and shadowed jaw.
“I’m fine,” she said breathlessly, embarrassed. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“The faucet was on.” He rubbed his hands together, the skin red and raw. “You’re not….crying…are you?”
She heard the uncomfortable note in his voice and cringed a little. “No,” she said quickly, straightening and squaring her shoulders as she dumped the potato peels into the garbage. “Everything’s wonderful.”
“So you’re not crying?”
“No,” she repeated crisply, drying her hands. “Just peeling potatoes for dinner.”
Her gaze swept his big frame, seeing the powdered snow still clinging to the hem of his wrangler jeans peeking beneath his leather chaps and white glitter dusting his black brows. His supple leather chaps weren’t for show. It was frigid outside and he’d spent the week in the saddle driving the last herds of cattle from the back country to the valley down below so the cows could take shelter beneath trees. “Can I get you something?”
“You don’t happen to have any coffee left from this morning that you could heat up?”
“I can make a fresh pot,” she said, grabbing the glass carafe to fill it with water. “Want regular or decaf?”
He glanced at the clock mounted on the wall above the door and then out the window where the snow flurries were thickening, making it almost impossible to see the tall pine trees marking one corner of the yard. “Leaded,” he said. “Make it strong, too. It’s going to be a late night for me.”
She added the coffee grounds, and then hit the brew button. “You’re heading back out?”
“I’m going to ride back up as soon as I get something warm in me. Thought I’d take some of the breakfast coffee cake with me. If there was anything left.”
“There is.” She’d already wrapped the remaining slices in foil. He wasn’t one to linger over meals, and he didn’t like asking for snacks between meals, either. If he wanted something now, it meant he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. But it was already after four. It’d be dark within the hour. “It’s snowing hard.”
“I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t do a last check. The boys said we’ve got them all but I keep thinking we’re missing one or two of the young ones. Have to be sure before I call it a night.”
Harley reached into a cupboard for one of the thermoses she sent with Brick on his early mornings. “What time will you want dinner?”
“Don’t know when I’ll be back. Could be fairly late, so just leave a plate in the oven for me. No need for you to stay up.” He bundled his big arms across his even bigger chest, a lock of thick black hair falling down over his forehead to shadow an equally dark eye.
There was nothing friendly or approachable about Brock when he stood like that. His wild black hair, square jaw, and dark piercing gaze that gave him a slightly threatening air, but Harley knew better. Men, even the most dangerous men, were still mortal. They had goals, dreams, needs. They tried, they failed. They made mistakes. Fatal mistakes.
“Any of the boys going with you?” she asked, trying to sound casual as she wrapped a generous wedge of cheddar cheese in foil, and a hunk of the summer sausage he liked, so he’d have something more substantial than coffee cake for his ride.
He shook his head, then dragged a large calloused hand through the glossy black strands in a half-hearted attempt to comb the tangled strands smooth. “No.”
She gave him a swift, troubled look.
He shrugged. “No point in putting the others in harm’s way.”
Her frown deepened. “What if you get into trouble?”
She arched her brows.
She ought to be intimidated by this shaggy beast of a man, but she wasn’t. She’d had a husband—a daring, risk taking husband of her own—and his lapse in judgment had cost them all. Dearly.
“It’s dangerous out there,” she said quietly. “You shouldn’t go alone.”
Excerpt for A COWBOY FOR CHRISTMAS by Katherine Garbera:
Marietta, Montana did Christmas in a big way with all the storefronts on Main Street draped in garland and twinkle lights. The Main Street Diner wasn’t any different with its rustic wreath made with layers of old ropes and decked with red poinsettia leaves and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree playing merrily on the jukebox as Carson Scott opened the door.
No one was exactly sure how the Wednesday night tradition had started, not even Carson, but he knew that his brothers had done it for him. It had been in the dark time right after Rainey had been killed in a head-on collision out on highway 89 on her way back from Livingston. He’d sat at home every night with baby Evan drinking too much Red Bull. His oldest brother Alec had insisted that they all meet in Marietta at the diner for dinner.
Alec had thick blond hair like their momma and piercing blue-gray eyes that Carson had heard more than one girl describe as colder than the glaciers in Glacier Park. But Sienna, Alec’s wife, had said that she knew how to warm him up. Which had led to a lot of ribbing by Carson and his other brothers. Alec needed to be taken down a peg or two at times.
But not on Wednesday nights. Carson showed up here after he dropped Evan off at his maternal grandparents’ house and ate chili and cornbread with his brothers. There were five of them all together and sometimes Flo, who ran the grill, gave them a hard time about being carbon copies of their dad, but that didn’t bother any of them. Their old man cast a long shadow and had a reputation for being honest and hard-working. There were worse things a man could be known for.
There were only five weeks left until Christmas and Evan was being cagey about what he wanted from Santa this year. He’d hinted he wanted a mommy that wasn’t in heaven. And the last thing that Carson was interested in was dating any woman, much less one to become Evan’s new mommy.
“Isn’t that Annie waiting tables?” Alec said as they entered the diner. The walls were heavy red brick and the floor solid wood. There was a counter with red leather-covered stools bolted to the floor in front of it, and for as long as Carson could remember beehive-haired Flo was standing at the grill cooking delicious food, trading gossip, and flirting with any man who entered.
“Annie who?” he asked. He was holding the door open for his younger brother Hudson who had a shopping bag from The Mercantile in one hand and his Stetson in the other.
“Prudhomme. Is there another Annie you’d care about?” Alec asked.
“I thought she’d left town for good,” Hudson said.
Annie. Here. Wow.
It didn’t make sense. He ate here every Wednesday with his brothers. She hadn’t been here last week. Why was she here now?
Carson craned his neck around his brothers’ shoulders to look at the waitress. Goddamn it. She hadn’t changed. She was still the same slim pretty girl he remembered. She wasn’t tall but had long legs and dark brown hair that hung to her shoulders and curled slightly at the ends. He stared at her until she turned and he met those pretty gray eyes that he had thought he’d never see again.
He hardened his heart. If there was one thing he knew without even talking to her it was that this was a temporary move. He doubted she was back to stay. That wasn’t her style and Marietta wasn’t her town.
At eighteen it had felt like he’d never love again when she’d left Marietta – and him – all in the same cloud of dust. But at thirty-three he knew that was a lie. He had loved again and married and had a chance for real happiness. But now he wondered –was that another lie he’d told himself to make Annie’s leaving him okay?
“Yup,” he said, answering his brothers as he turned back to the laminated menu, trying to be blasé when inside he wanted to go and talk to her. Go and find out why she was back and what it meant. Had life turned that ballsy, sassy girl he’d loved into a bitch or tamed her?
But he kept his head down studying the laminated menu like his sanity depended on it. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what he was going to order.
He always got the same thing when he and his brothers came into town to eat on Wednesday nights. His son was visiting his maternal grandparents at their home on the modest section of Bramble Lane. Rhett and Lily had moved out to Marietta after Rainey had died to be closer to Evan and they said having Carson around made it hard for them to bond with Evan.
The thing Carson was proudest of was his son and how well he and the six-year-old had grown up together after Rainey died.
“Yup?” Alec asked.
“That girl—” Hudson said.
“I know. I’m surprised she’s here too,” Carson said trying to play it cool. But the thing with brothers was they always knew when he was bullshitting them. “But let’s face it… everyone ends up back here eventually. You said Pop wanted some help with something?”
Alec’s brother nodded. “He’s determined we need to get that old red barn renovation finished by the New Year. I could use some extra help to finish the work.”
“I’ll send my hands over tomorrow. Is he still planning to sell it?”
“You know Pop, if you can’t ranch it then it’s a bad investment. And he bought it for Trey to live on with his wife but they aren’t interested in settling down here.”
“What’s his hurry then?”
“Lane has a friend who is looking for a place out this way.”
“You do?” Carson asked Lane. “I thought all your buddies were career military.”
“He’s retired,” Lane said. “Like me.”
“Is he like you?” Carson asked. Lane had lost the bottom half of his left leg in an IED explosion in Iraq and now had prosthetic leg.
“Why?” Lane asked.
“Just wanted to know if we should make the halls and bath a little bigger in the house,” Carson said. “Maybe we should anyway”
“Nah, he’s still got both his legs,” Lane said.
“How old is he?” Alec asked.
“Barely thirty but all that fighting has taken it out of him,” Lane said.
“We were lucky to get you back when we did,” Carson said.
“Thanks, boys. Good to know you care,” Lane said.
“Ah, they all care about youngest Scott boy,” Annie said coming over to their table.
She walked toward them wearing the traditional Main Street Diner white apron over her own clothing. There was something almost defiant in her manner. It had to stick in her craw that she’d left here to make it big and now she was waiting on all of Marietta.
Her brown hair swung around her high cheekbones with each step she took. A pair of faded denim jeans hugged her legs and the tips of her worn brown boots were scuffed. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes and she’d managed to chew off most of her lipstick.
Hellfire. It had been fifteen years and one look at Annie was all it took to get him hot and bothered. It wasn’t that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She had an attitude bigger than the Montana sky, but she’d always just had something that made him stand at attention.
“We care about all the Scott boys,” Alec said pointedly. “Even Carson here when he was dumb enough to fall in love with a girl intent on leaving.”
“Sorry,” she said.
There was something her eyes that made her seem… more than sorry, almost sad and he cautioned himself about feeling anything for her, even pity.
“Really?” Carson asked.
“More than you can know,” she admitted. “But you boys didn’t come here to hear about my mistakes. You want dinner, right?”
“We sure do. Did Flo make her jalapeno cornbread today?” Hudson asked.
“Yes she did,” Annie said, taking a pen from the pocket of her apron and holding up her notepad.
“Chili and cornbread for me and root beer,” Alec said.
“Same,” Hudson said.
“Same again,” Lane said.
She looked at Carson and for a moment he remembered the last time he’d held her in his arms, but he’d known then she was leaving. She was always on her way out of Marietta.
“I’ll have a Sprite instead, but otherwise the same,” Carson said.
“Still don’t like caffeine?” she asked.
“Nope,” he said.
She nodded and walked away and all he could do was watch her. And admire the way those faded jeans hugged her butt. Maybe it was just physical… his reaction to her had always been strong. He realized his brothers were watching him watch her and he cursed under his breath. The last thing he needed was Annie back in Marietta this close to Christmas. Christmas always made him wish for things that couldn’t be.
Annie Prudhomme was definitely something that wasn’t meant to be. She’d proven that the day she drove out of town and left him the dust.
“Wednesday dinners just got a little more interesting,” Hudson said.
He punched his brother in the arm, but he felt it as well. There was something about that woman that always made the world seem a little brighter when she’d been in the vicinity. And he knew he couldn’t be stupid again. Couldn’t let himself get involved with a woman who clearly wasn’t long for Montana.
The front door opened, bringing a burst of cold air and the jingling of the sleigh bell wreath on the door. They all smiled and waved as Paige Joffe walked in with her two little ones, six-year-old Addison and five-year-old Lewis. For a while the town matchmakers had tried pairing the two of them up but both Paige and Carson had resisted. She was nice enough and pretty, but just not the woman for him.
He didn’t know her story except she’d come to Marietta from somewhere in California and had the misfortune to move in during a bad snow storm last February. But she seemed to be adjusting to it. Addison was in the same class as Evan at school.
“Evening Scotts,” she said with a friendly wave. Her shoulder-length straight dark blonde hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. She had a strong chin and dimples when she smiled, which she didn’t do that often. He’d really only seen her smile when her kids made her laugh.
“How’s my new waitress treating you?” she asked.
“She’ll do,” Carson said, but he didn’t want to talk about Annie. And it was obvious she didn’t want to talk to him either. She’d pretty much avoided their table after she’d dropped off their food. “Don’t forget to come out to my place this weekend to pick out your tree. The best ones are going fast.”
“Can I come by Saturday morning, first thing?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “We’re going to have sleigh rides for the little ones too.”
“I spoke to Nate. He’s got his foreman’s sister staying with him for the holidays. She’s trying to get a baking operation off the ground. I hate to stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I wondered if she might come out to the tree lot. Maybe sell some gingerbread house kits?”
Carson was all for helping out a neighbor and he knew Ty Murphy and respected him. “Sure. Give her my number and we’ll get it all set up. I’ve asked Sage to send Rose Linn out to sell hot chocolate.”
“You just didn’t want to have to drive to town to get some for yourself,” Hudson said.
“You got me,” Carson said with a grin.
Paige’s phone vibrated and she glanced at it before smiling at their table. “Sounds delightful.”
Paige waved goodbye and moved toward her office at the back of the diner. The evening dinner crowd was thick but not too bad and a few times Carson glanced at Annie as she carried dishes to the tables. When she caught him looking she stood straight and gave him a cheery smile. But when she didn’t notice, he saw fatigue in her every move. Whatever she’d come to Marietta for, she hadn’t planned on waiting tables.
“Hard to believe Mama’s little tree farm has grown so big,” Hudson said, pulling his attention from Annie. “Remember when she used to make us water them?”
“Yes. She loved her trees,” Carson said. Their mother had been Montana born and bred but instead of ranching she’d always had her mind set on growing trees and preserving wildlife. Their father had given her all of his support and turned fifty acres into a forest where she started her no-cut Christmas tree program in the nineteen-seventies and it was still thriving forty years later. They had to move some of the trees by pallet truck and forklift now, but the families that owned them wouldn’t have it any other way.
Carson did a traditional cut-tree service for the town as well and he was happy to be the caretaker of his mother’s trees.
After they ate their dinner and his brothers left, Carson sat there nursing his Sprite and pretending he was waiting until it was time to pick up Evan. A smart man would be on his feet and down at Grey’s Saloon instead of sitting in a corner booth watching the one who got away.
Excerpt for Mistletoe Wedding by Melissa McClone
A bag of coal settled at the bottom of his stomach.
Talk about an over-the-top, Christmas-gone-wrong nightmare. Whoever did this had missed the memo about less was more when decorating. Ty scuffed the ball of his boot across the dirt floor. This was not how he wanted to start the day. At least he knew the first thing to write on his chore list today—redecorating.
“What do you think?” a female voice asked, her tone hopeful.
A-ha. He knew who was to blame for making a Las-Vegas-strip-worthy spectacle of his barn. Meg Redstone, the newest addition to the Bar V5 staff, in charge of guest services and event planning, a Montana native who’d spent the past five years working at hotels and inns in the Midwest. Nate must have added holiday decorator to her job description. This looked like something a city girl might do.
Ty would be careful with what he said. The last thing he wanted to do was upset a new employee. He faced the full-size elf, not surprised she wore a reindeer antler headband over her fleece hat.
Her gaze met his. The hope he’d heard in Meg’s voice matched the expression in her milk chocolate eyes.
His heart lurched. Not the reaction he expected or wanted, but she looked . . . good.
She wore a forest green parka with a Bar V5 emblem on the upper left side, insulated pants, gloves and boots. Dark blond strands of hair stuck out from her hat. Only the skin on her face was exposed. The cold temperature tinged her cheeks and nose pink. Pretty, if you liked soulful brown eyes and a generous mouth. He did.
She smiled tentatively, as if on display and awaiting approval. Not her, the decorations. “Good morning.”
“Hey.” He would be interested in getting to know her outside of work, except for one thing. A six-year-old girl named Brooklyn who was Meg’s daughter. A nice kid, but moms were to be avoided at all costs. Hell, women who wanted kids, too. Non-negotiable. “Up early.”
She nodded. “So . . . Christmassy enough for you?”
He looked around, not seeing anything specific except for a blur of colored lights. “You’ve been, uh, busy.”
She bounced from foot to foot, moving her hands. Excited or too much caffeine? He’d go with the first.
“I started as soon as Thanksgiving dinner finished.” Meg patted her stomach. “A good thing, because after your sister’s amazing meal, I needed to work off calories. And I wanted to surprise you.” She raised her gloved hands. “Surprise!”
So eager to please. A hard worker. And . . .
So what if Meg was attractive? Or she fit in with the staff as if she’d worked at the Bar V5 for years, not weeks? Three to be exact. She had a kid. A cute one, but a child in need of a father.
Not going to happen.
“You succeeded. Very . . . Christmassy.” Ty had won his fair share of poker games, but he wasn’t that good an actor. Best not to say too much. “Though glass balls and barn cats are never a good combination. I cleaned up the mess and took the others off before they broke.”
“I’ve never had a cat. Sorry.” She sounded contrite. “What about the rest of the decorations?”
“Never seen so many lights in a barn before.”
Meg’s forehead creased. “The lights were in the plastic bins sitting with the decorations.”
That explained why there were so many. “Those lights are for the entire ranch.”
Meg’s smile disappeared. “Oh.”
The one word said more than twenty could. He pressed his lips together, glimpsed the bottom of a ladder. She must have worked through the night putting up the lights and decorations herself. He might not like what she did, but he appreciated the effort.
“No worries.” He had none. Summer, their busiest season, had been a sellout. Reservations for next year looked solid. Livestock sales had been good, too. Finances and impending foreclosure were no longer concerns, unlike a few years ago when Ralph Vaughn, the late owner of the Bar V5 and Nate’s father, nearly lost the ranch. “We can buy more lights. Maybe some of the LED ones.”
She nodded, but the sparkle in her eyes had dimmed. She dragged her teeth over her lip.
Damn. Ty knew that look. Rachel’s initial failed cooking attempts had brought about the same expression. Granted she’d been a kid at the time, and he’d eaten the over-or-undercooked food so she would feel better. He didn’t want Meg to feel bad, even if her decorating was . . . well, not to his liking. Someone might find all the flash fun. She needed to smile.
“Look at Onyx.” He pointed to the black cat peeking through the Douglas fir’s branches. “He loves the Christmas tree. There’s another cat on the backside of the tree climbing around. Bet they forget about the upholstered cat tree in my office until after the holidays.”
As if on cue, a bell crashed to the ground.
“A good thing those are metal and don’t break,” he added.
She half-laughed. “You’re right, but I’m not sure what that means for the life expectancy of the tree.”
Good. Her sense of humor was intact. “That’s a barn cat for you. Decorations, unless edible or fun to play with, are lost on them.”
Meg raised her chin, a hint of challenge in her eyes. “What about wranglers?”
“I won’t speak for the others, but I love Christmas. Been looking forward to this one since last year. Having guests around will be different. This is usually a quiet, get-the-work-done kind of time.”
“You never know, having guests at the ranch could be better.”
Nate had been pushing for guests year round, and Rachel agreed. A feeling in Ty’s gut had made him the sole holdout. He’d finally relented, but he would withhold judgment on the decision for now.
He adjusted his gloves. “Hope so.”
“Well, I’m going to do my best to make this Christmas perfect for both the guests and the staff.”
Excerpt from A Cowgirl’s Christmas by C.J. Carmichael
All day long Callan had been growing more anxious and uptight. She had a really bad feeling about this meeting with the lawyer. And she felt even more nervous about meeting Court McAllister.
“We should put out some snacks. I have more chocolate in my car. I’ll grab a fresh box.” Her sister Sage reappeared a moment later with a large-sized, copper-colored box filled with her fruit and nut bark. After arranging the chocolate on a pretty plate, she placed the plate on the table in the family room, where they’d decided to hold their meeting.
Meanwhile, their other sisters, Mattie and Dani washed grapes and put them out with cubes of cheddar and Swiss cheese.
At four o’clock, precisely, Callan heard Ren Fletcher’s vehicle pull up in the gravelled driveway.
All four sisters gravitated to the foyer, but they let Callan open the door. She understood why. This home had belonged to all of them, but her sisters were acknowledging the fact that it was Callan who had stayed and made the ranch her life.
Two men emerged from the dusty SUV. Callan barely glanced at Ren Fletcher, whom she’d known most of her life. It was the other man who drew her eyes. Almost as tall as Ren, he had a lean build and a smoothly handsome face. She could see nothing of Hawksley in him. Despite his faded jeans and the worn leather of his boots, he looked like a man from the city to her. For one thing, his skin was too pale.
“My condolences, Callan.” Ren was the first up the porch steps. He didn’t hug her, just took her hand and squeezed her shoulder gently, before moving on to greet her sisters.
Callan was left to face Court. Up close she was struck by his beautiful blue eyes and disarming smile. Paradoxically she felt an immediate dislike. It felt wrong, having this man she’d never met before taking part of such a personal, family gathering.
“I’m Callan.” She offered him her hand, reluctantly.
He looked taken aback, as if he’d expected someone different. “Callan. Good to meet you, finally, though the circumstances could be better. Sorry for your loss.”
He looked like he wanted to say more, but she didn’t want to encourage further conversation. She stepped back, letting Mattie move forward into the void.
“Hi, Court, welcome to the Circle C. We’ve heard so much about you from our father. It feels strange that we’ve never met before.”
Yes, that was the right thing to say. But Callan didn’t care if she’d been rude. She just wanted this whole thing to be over, for these men to get out of her house, and leave her and her sisters alone.
It was Sage who ushered the guests to the family room, Mattie who offered coffee, and Dani who sat down with paper and a pen, prepared to take notes. Callan hung on the periphery, pouring herself some bourbon over a glass full of ice.
“That looks good. May I have a bourbon, too?” Court was watching her, from his seat by the fireplace.
Damn it, he was sitting in their father’s favorite leather chair. Reluctantly she dropped ice into a second glass, poured in the bourbon, then passed it to Mattie to give to Court. She dragged a chair from the kitchen so she could sit on the edge of the action.
Now she noticed Court taking in the view of the fields stretching out to the Gallatin Mountains in the west. Even that annoyed her. Then again, if he’d sat there staring at the tips of his boots, she’d probably find that aggravating as well.
“Okay, I’m going to get straight to the point, beginning with your father’s wishes regarding his end of life,” Ren said. “Callan was talking to me earlier about a funeral—”
“We covered that this afternoon,” Dani flipped back a page in her notebook. “We’ll bury dad next to mother’s marker in the family plot. Probably have a short service, with lunch to follow in the church basement.”
Ren frowned and glanced at Callan. Too late she remembered him advising her not to do any planning until he’d had a chance to talk to them. She’d forgotten to pass this on to her sisters.
“I’m afraid that isn’t what your father wanted, Dani,” Ren said, his tone gentle, but firm. “He said no service, no celebration of life, nothing like that. He just wanted—” Here Ren paused, taking a deep breath before going on. “—to be cremated and have his ashes scattered. He wanted Callan and—” Another pause. “And Court, to ride up to the foothills and scatter his ashes there.”
The room was quiet, for only a second. And then everyone was talking. Callan sank back against her chair, too stunned to do more than listen.
“But what about the rest of us?” This was Mattie, sounding affronted.
“That old bastard,” Dani said with disgust.
“This is too much. Even for Hawksley.” Sage, who was sitting next to Ren on the couch, put a hand on the lawyer’s arm. “Did Dad tell you why he wanted only Court and Callan to spread the ashes?”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it as a slight or an insult. He just didn’t want any fuss. You know your father.”
“Yeah,” Dani said. Her voice made it clear this wasn’t a good thing.
Callan’s gaze slid over to Court, and found him, likewise, looking at her. There was something of an apology in his eyes, as if acknowledging the inappropriateness of her father’s request. But there was something else, too. A challenge?
“Have you even been on a horse before?” She glanced from his smooth, even complexion, to his soft, white hands.
“I may not have grown up on a ranch. But I can ride.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “What is it you do again?”
“I’m an accountant.”
She raised her eyebrows and gave a slight shake of her head. Then she returned her focus to Ren. “Dad may not have wanted a funeral. But he can’t stop us from having one, if we want to.”
“That’s true,” the lawyer agreed. “I told Hawksley that, as well. But he just wanted to let you know what his wishes were.”
“I think we should respect them,” Sage said. “To a point. Callan and Court can spread half of his ashes up on the foothills. Let’s bury the rest by Mom, and have a small interment service, with just immediate family.
“Court isn’t immediate family,” Callan was quick to point out. “Will he be invited?”
“Yes,” said Sage, Mattie and Dani, speaking over one another is their haste to be polite.
But Court took no notice. He was still looking at Callan. “If you’d rather I wasn’t present, I won’t be offended.”
His polite words, for some reason, sent her temper flaring. “Really? But then you’d be missing the point.”
“Callan!” Mattie, appalled, was quick to reassure Court that he would naturally be welcome to attend, if he chose.
“That’s very kind,” Court replied, politely. “But perhaps you should suspend your invitation until you hear the rest of what Mr. Fletcher has to say.”
In a flash everyone turned to Ren Fletcher, who made a show of straightening the papers he’d earlier removed from his briefcase. Despite his efforts to remain calm and professional, a sheen of perspiration had appeared on his forehead. Callan knew then, that her earlier anxiety had been well founded and some awful surprise was in store for them this afternoon.
“Should I get on with the provisions of the will, then?” Ren asked.
“Yes.” Callan couldn’t take the tension and stress of waiting any longer.
Excerpt for Blame The Mistletoe by Dani Collins
“The air smells good out here,” Liz told him, straightening away from the warmed sheepskin against his back, so she could properly drink in the pure Montana air. It was cold enough to make her nostrils sting, but she’d never encountered anything like this. No pollution. No dumpsters or dank storm sewers or even the humid tang of the ocean.
“I’ve heard people say before that they could smell snow and I always thought they were joking, but I can smell it. It’s sweet. And it’s so quiet.”
She spoke in a hushed voice, listening to the brush of the horse’s legs through the snow and the squeak of his hooves with each step. The air was still, the world silent to the point of reverence. The saunter of the horse rocked her gently, like a mama with a cradle, lulling her.
As they moved into the trees, a chilled pine scent closed around her. Drifts of snow slid from branches with almost musical notes and percussive thumps. Powder poofed in clouds that sparked with rainbow colors in the weak sunlight.
“The other reason I bring the horse,” Blake said, “is to drag the tree. They’re heavy.”
She let herself cuddle against him again, just because she liked it. “I’ve been using the same fake one for years. This is definitely better than digging a box out of the attic.”
They wandered the grove of trees for a while, debating shapes, eyeing rabbit tracks and a deer path. All these years, Liz had thought the accouterments of Christmas a bit phony and clichéd, but today she saw the reality that inspired all of it. The holly tree with its bright red berries, the snow-frosted pine cones hanging like baubles. She could have stayed out here forever, drinking it in.
Christmas might come once a year, but this one—she realized like an epiphany—would never be here again. She had to savor every second and tuck the precious memories somewhere safe.
But the window of milder temperatures was short. Within the hour, clouds had gathered to hide the sun and a snap grew on the air. A few tiny flakes drifted around them.
“This one?” Blake said, circling the horse around a tree.
They agreed on its perfection and both dismounted. Liz stretched her legs while Blake chopped, axe ringing and releasing a pitchy, wood scent into the air.
“I’m warm,” he said as he wiped his brow and roped the tree.
Looking around the little clearing they occupied, she had a feeling both peaceful and awed, yet wistful and melancholy.
“You know how lucky you are to live here, don’t you? It’s genuinely a wonderland.”
“I do,” he said, taking a moment to gaze upward at the cathedral like treetops. “I hope I can keep it. Stay here forever. Might need a Christmas miracle, though,” he said with a wryness that wasn’t as light as it could be.
A few minutes later, he mounted Rocky and looked down at where she still stood on the ground.
She puzzled her brows. “No fence out here, partner. How do I get up there?”
“I’ve done this before you know.” He kicked his foot free of a stirrup and pointed at it. “Put your foot in there.”
“When you say you’ve done it before, do you mean you’ve brought other women out here?” she asked, not sure she liked that.
“I’ve doubled,” he clarified. “But yes, I’ve brought women out here to choose a tree. My mother and sister.”
“Okay then,” she said, sheepish under his amused grin, then making a face as he dragged her up from her high step into his stirrup. “Oof. That wasn’t nearly so graceful as from the fence,” she said after she’d gathered herself into position behind him.
But she was more comfortable up here now. She snuggled into him for warmth, not worried she’d take a tumble. She’d never felt so safe as she did with him.
“This has been fun. Thank you for bringing me. This is shaping up to be the best Christmas of my life,” she told him.
“Me, too.” His hand covered hers where she’d slid it under the fold of his coat into the heat against his stomach. “I talk a good game about not letting things worry me, but I’d be brooding if you weren’t here, keeping me thankful for what I’ve got.”
She inched a little closer to him, saying nothing. Just holding onto him and what they had.
Excerpt for Her Mistletoe Cowboy by Alissa Callen
She was only staying for one night.
It didn’t matter how much Rhett repeated the thought on the walk from the main ranch house to his log cabin, the tension constricting his ribs refused to ease. His self-preservation had already earmarked Ivy’s pretty face and strong spirit as a distraction. A distraction he simply couldn’t have. He had to remain focused on the end game. He had a new ranch to establish and a deathbed promise to honor.
It also didn’t seem to matter how casual he kept their banter as they collected Ivy’s bag from her car, the closer they walked to his house the more the spark in her eyes dimmed. She was running on empty. He needed to get her and Milly inside, get them warm and fed and ignore the voice that said to load them into his pickup and head to his family ranch where Peta and Kendall would take over.
After all, it was only one night.
But as he opened the side door to his cabin he couldn’t let go of the feeling he was opening the door into his life.
“Thanks,” Ivy said, her tone quiet as she entered the mudroom. He followed, set her bag on the floorboards and removed his boots. She bent to do the same.
“It’s okay. Leave yours on.” He hung his hat and coat on the hook to his left. “You’ll stay warmer if you take your boots and coat off in front of the fire.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to tramp snow inside.”
He looked at her city footwear and grinned. “You have as much snow on your boots as Milly would have on her paws.”
Canine nails clipped across the floorboards as Rusty, his faithful aged Australian Shepherd, left his dog bed in the far kitchen corner to join them. Milly popped her head out of Ivy’s coat and whined. Ivy placed the pup on the floor. The little Jack Russell launched herself at Rusty and engaged him in a doggy wrestle.
“I’d run now, Rusty, while you can,” Ivy said, laughing. “Once Milly starts playing she doesn’t have an ‘off’ button,”
Rhett concentrated on the two tussling dogs and not on the smiling woman an arm’s distance away. Ivy’s husky, musical laughter reached a place inside him he didn’t even know was lonely. A place he didn’t want to awaken. The path he’d plotted to achieve his goals was a single-track only.
He swung away to collect a small stool and moved it close to a sofa chair near the fire. “Here, take a seat and rest your feet on this to warm them while I rustle up some coffees.”
“I really don’t want to be a bother.” She pushed back the fur-trimmed hood. “I’d rather help than sit.”
“It’s fine, I’ll get the coffees,” he said, already at the kitchen door and in sudden need of air.
Wearing her hood, Ivy had been beautiful. Without it, she was pure distraction. Her fawn-brown hair was thick and glossy and longer than he thought. When not wearing her hooded-jacket it would reach halfway down her back.
He grabbed for the coffeepot. He wasn’t even going to think about her mouth. Even devoid of color, her full lips made a man wonder if they tasted as sweet as they looked.
He reentered the living room, coffees in hand. He had to focus on being neighborly and not on the fact that over near the fire Ivy shrugged off her jacket. Coffee slopped from a mug and burned his left hand as he side-stepped the playing dogs. He’d been too distracted by the perfection that lay beneath Ivy’s coat to notice where he walked.
Taking her and Milly to Bluebell Falls Ranch to be fussed over by his sisters had to be the best option. The alternative was to spend the next twelve hours in close proximity with a woman dressed in fitted jeans, knee-high black boots and some sort of tiny white fluffy cardigan that clung to her curves like a second skin. Small pearl buttons drew his gaze exactly where it shouldn’t go, the top button having worked itself free and giving him a glimpse of the smooth skin at her throat. As she bent to drape the jacket over the arm of the chair, her heavy hair slid over her shoulder. Again he caught the scent of vanilla mixed with something sweet. All Ivy needed was a pair of wings and she’d rival any beautiful Christmas tree angel.
Teeth clenched, he set the steaming coffees on a nearby table. He hadn’t even been around his unexpected houseguest for an hour and he’d become as sidetracked as a hormonal teenage boy.
Ivy sank into the huge chair, its size making her look almost … fragile. She closed her eyes and turned her face toward the fire’s heat. The bruises he’d noticed earlier beneath her eyes were now dark crescents. Again he had the impression the cold wasn’t the only reason for the weariness that seemed to weigh her down. Her saying she’d had a bad six months must have been an understatement.
“Here,” he said softly, as he passed her a coffee.
He wouldn’t be taking her anywhere. She was too exhausted. He might be many things, but he wasn’t a coward. He’d suck up his misgivings about having her stay and look out for her as any good neighbor would. He glanced at her chin that still retained its stubborn tilt even when she relaxed. Well, that was if she’d let him.
Her lashes swept open. The green flecks in her hazel eyes the only color in her wan face.
The corners of her mouth curled. “Perfect timing. Without caffeine I don’t think I could get out of this chair.”
She took a sip of coffee and placed the mug on the small table he positioned beside her. She then leaned forward to remove her boots.
Rhett moved away to scoop up Milly as she chewed Rusty’s tail. He didn’t need to see Ivy’s small and dainty feet. As it was, his dreams would be filled by angels with long, silken hair, curves in all the right places and a waist he could span with his hands.
He carried Milly into the kitchen and busied himself giving her and Rusty an early dinner and on heating the ham and split pea soup he had in the freezer.
When he returned to the living room carrying a laden tray, Ivy had settled on the stool she’d dragged closer to the fire.
“Whatever is in those mugs smells good,” she said, with a grin.
“Let’s hope it tastes good.” He sat the tray beside Ivy’s half-drunk coffee on the small table. In his peripheral vision he caught the flicker of firelight over her pink, varnished toenails. He passed her a mug of thick soup. “I’m the first to admit I don’t have time to be a gourmet chef.”
Her eyes smiled her thanks.
He collected his own soup mug and sat a safe distance away on the sofa. From in the kitchen doggy growls sounded as Rusty and Milly resumed their wrestling.
He took a swallow of too-hot soup and sought for something to say. His sudden awkwardness highlighted how long it’d been since he’d been on a date or talked to a woman he hadn’t grown up with. On the rodeo circuit, women hadn’t exactly been interested in his conversational skills.
“So … where are you from?” It was the best line he could think of.
But it was enough. The faint crease between her brows cleared.
“Atlanta. I’m a corporate analyst.” She hesitated. “Well, I was and will be again when I establish my own consultancy business.”
“To be honest, I haven’t decided, but I doubt it. I’m not sure there are many corporations needing financial advice in Marietta.”
He grinned. “We do have a rodeo committee who needs help balancing their budget.”
She matched his grin. “There you go. There’ll be plenty of work for me.”
All the reasons as to why he needed to go outside and fix the tin flapping on the barn emptied from his head. The hot soup had added color and shine to her curved lips and the fire’s heat had flushed her cheeks.
Her smile slipped. “After Christmas I’ll think about the future. Right now I just want my power on and time to … regroup.”
He nodded. He might know a little more about her, but it was what she didn’t say that spoke volumes. Her life was in turmoil and she’d come to her mountain holiday home a month before Christmas to lick her wounds. She’d removed her gloves, and even though her ring finger was bare, his gut told him the reason shadows lurked in her eyes had to do with a man.
Excerpt from Come Home for Christmas, Cowboy by Megan Crane
“You could smile,” she told him. “It won’t kill you.”
“You’re the one who wanted to pretend we were happy together,” she reminded him, and there was no particular accusation in her voice. It was simply a fact. “This was your idea. You could have been sitting at home in Denver all by yourself if you wanted. You probably shouldn’t have come all the way up here and agreed to lie about your feelings if it’s this hard for you to crack a single freaking smile.”
“It’s never just a smile, though. Is it?”
And the situation got out of hand, just like that.
But she was whispering, and she had no idea if she was warding him off or begging him to come closer.
“First it’s the smile,” he said, his voice a husky thing in the momentary privacy of the back hall. “Then all the things that come with it. You make me imagine I can be that man you smile at, Christina. You make me think that if I play him long enough, I’ll turn into him one day. But what happens if I don’t?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She also didn’t care. The hallway was dimly lit, his mouth was so close to hers as he stood there in front of her that it was the only thing she could think about. Then he flattened his palms on the wall on each side of her head and the world disappeared into that gaze of his, smoky and intent.
“You know where I come from,” he said, his voice like a dark throb along the surface of her skin, then deep beneath it. “You know what that makes me. Why do I have to keep reminding you?”
“You were a kid who deserved better and a man who overcame a deeply crappy start,” she said, not following him. But it was hard to follow anything just then that wasn’t his mouth. “You were also an awesome husband for a while, but then you went deep freeze on me. That’s on you, Dare.”
“I’m tipsy. Slightly tipsy. And what does that have to do with anything?”
He leaned closer and Christina trembled, thinking he would put his mouth to hers again. But he didn’t. He angled himself so his mouth was right next to her ear, so that when he spoke his voice shivered over her and into her as if his hands were running along her skin.
She wanted that more than she could bear.
“That’s too bad.”
“Why?” She hardly recognized her own voice. Tight and needy and breathless besides. “I thought you told me not to get drunk.”
“But if you were, I might tell you all the ways I want you, because you wouldn’t remember. You wouldn’t hold me to it in the light of day.” His breath fanned over her skin and she wanted. She’d wanted him forever. She thought she always would. God save her from the things she wanted. “You wouldn’t know.”
“I already know.” She didn’t mean to move, but then her hands were at his hips, touching him as if she’d never lost that right. As if he’d never shut her out. As if his body was as much hers as her own had always been. She’d forgotten how good that felt. How right. “But that doesn’t matter if you won’t do it, does it?”
“Christina.” Her name was like fire. It streaked through her, searing her to the bone. “I try so hard to keep you safe, especially from me, and yet all I seem to do is hurt you.”
She wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t thinking particularly clearly, either. And maybe that was a good thing. She wrapped her arms around that lean waist of his, luxuriating in the feel of those hard muscles she loved so much even through the long sleeved shirt he wore. The exquisite perfection of his finely-hewn back. He sucked in a breath and she tipped her head back, her face still caged between his hands on that wall on either side and her arms caging him in turn, and their gazes tangled. Held.
“Then stop it,” she suggested, and then she lifted herself up the remaining distance, high up on her toes in her favorite old boots, and kissed him.
Excerpt from A Sweet Montana Christmas by Roxanne Snopek
Austin set the aluminum tub on the butcher-block table in the kitchen.
“Come here,” he said.
Melinda looked at him with caution, but he could feel excitement, thrumming like a field, around her like a field.
Fear and temptation.
She stepped up to him and he handed her a towel.
He wanted to unzip that thick hoodie and pull it off. To lift up the shirt beneath, little by little, revealing her creamy torso by inches, until he could see the lower swelling of her breasts.
“Eyes up, big guy.”
He jumped. “Sorry.” He laughed shakily. “Habit.”
He gestured to the chair. “Sit. Put this around your neck. I’d ask you to take off your top, but…”
To his surprise, she slipped out of her hoodie. Underneath, she wore a tank top and it was fantastically obvious that she was braless.
Her breasts looked larger, the nipples pink and straining through the thin fabric.
He adjusted his pants. This was going to be harder than he thought, pun intended.
“Are you going to wash my hair, Austin?”
She asked it in a smoky voice that might have come straight out of an old western saloon. Low and slow and smooth as honey.
“I am.” He helped her lean back and draped her hair into the small tub. “Comfortable?”
He scooped a bowlful of water and poured it over her head, being careful not to get any in her eyes.
She groaned, deep in her throat, a sound that sent more blood rushing southward, a sound he’d only heard when she was in his arms, sweaty, sated and limp with pleasure.
He stroked her hair, lifting it and continuing to pour, getting every bit saturated.
Then he squirted a handful of shampoo and began massaging it into her head. He’d never done this before and water splashed onto the table.
A bit of foam dripped onto her throat, then slid slowly toward the neckline of her tank top. She lifted her hand and caught it, without looking. The sight of her fingers, caressing her skin, so close to those rosy nipples…
The towel beneath her neck slipped, allowing the sharp edge of the tub to bite into her skin.
“Damn, sorry, baby,” he said. He tried to tug it up but his soapy hands slipped. He bumped the tub with his elbow and suds splashed onto the table.
Way harder than he expected. In every way.
Suddenly he was aware of Mel, giggling. She put her hand to her mouth, trying to hide it, to let him carry on.
Then she grasped the back of her head and sat up, dragging the towel with it, laughing freely.
He felt like an idiot. Washing a woman’s hair was supposed to be a sensual thing, not a comedy show.
She leaned forward, laughing with her whole body now, and he felt the humor tickle him, too.
“That,” she said, between gasps, “was the single best shampoo… I’ve ever had.”
“Liar,” he said. But her joy unlocked something inside him and before he knew it, the two of them were bracing themselves against each other, bent over at the waist, howling, while water dripped onto the floor and Mel’s still-soapy hair sagged onto her shoulders.
“We’re going to have to heat more water,” said Mel, when she got her voice back. “I need a rinse.”
Her face was flushed and her now mostly-transparent tank top had slipped off one shoulder. Dark hair, red lips, those pink nipples. She looked like a strawberry sundae, with chocolate drizzle and whipped cream on top and yeah, he wanted to eat her up.
“There’s enough hot water,” he said, taking her hand, “to do this properly.”