Authors: Melissa McClone
Home For Christmas
© Copyright 2013
The Tule Publishing Group, LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
To Katherine Garbera and Jane Porter.
Thanks for inviting me to Copper Mountain this Christmas!
Special thanks to Lisa Hayden, Teresa Morgan and Terri Reed for their input and my family for their love and support.
I'm so excited to be a part of the Copper Mountain Christmas novellas. Nothing beats a holiday romance novel, especially one set in Montana with snow, pine trees, and cowboys!
As I brainstormed the story, I looked at how my family celebrates Christmas. Tradition is big around here. We light candles on the Advent wreath each night, count down the days in December with a chocolate-filled calendar, read Christmas stories aloud, place a Nativity scene underneath the tree, decorate a gingerbread house, bake goodies, and watch lots of Christmas movies.
After typing the end, I realized this story contains many of our Christmas traditions. Two in particular—gingerbread and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol—play big roles in the romance between baker Rachel Murphy and cowboy Nate Vaughn.
I hope you enjoy spending Christmas with Rachel and Nate at the Bar V5 ranch and in Marietta, Montana!
"You didn't tell me the Bar V5 held the Guinness World Record for the longest driveway." Rachel Murphy stared out the windshield of her brother Tyler's 4x4 pickup. Against Montana's big sky—a gorgeous, cloudless, cornflower blue this December morning—the snow covering tree branches and mountaintops looked white enough to eat, like whipped cream or better yet meringue. "Guess you need to make sure guests can't run away from the ranch and hitch a ride back to town."
Ty tapped his thumb against the leather-steering wheel in time with the Christmas carol playing. "People come to the Bar V5 to escape the daily grind. But some folks can't survive without being connected 24x7 and are gone by the second day."
Rachel checked her mobile phone. Zero bars. Plenty of snow, but no cellular service. She couldn't decide who was crazier—her brother for choosing to live year round in the middle-of-nowhere or her for agreeing to spend December with him.
"Truth is, most guests hate to leave the Bar V5." Ty's satisfied smile and pride in his voice reaffirmed how much he loved his job at the working dude ranch, his life as a cowboy.
She couldn't be happier for him, even if she missed him. After their parents' deaths when she was ten, he'd put his life on hold, staying in Arizona and raising her. He'd waited until she was settled into culinary school before moving to Marietta, Montana seven years ago.
"We have repeat visitors each summer," he added.
"Summer being the operative word. I should have come then."
"It's not that bad."
"You're oblivious to the elements." She wiggled her freezing gloved fingers in front of the heater vent. The warm air helped a little. She hadn't been warm since she flew into Bozeman four days ago. Boy, did she miss Phoenix. She'd never complain about the heat again. "Montana's lovely, don't get me wrong, but I don't think there's been a temperature in the double digits since I arrived. I finally understand why people flock to Arizona in the winter. This is brutal."
"You get used to the cold and snow."
"I suppose, but this is nothing like home." Rachel needed this breather, a winter adventure in the northwest with her brother, but she'd been born in Arizona and lived there her entire life. Her mom and dad were buried there. She had no plans to move away from the desert. Ever. "Sunny and dry. Saguaros and Sun-Devils."
"Home is wherever the people you love are."
The affection in his voice chased away the cold. Tyler Murphy was over-protective and treated Rachel like she was twelve, not twenty-six, but she couldn't imagine Christmas—or life—without him. "Guess I'm home for the next three weeks."
"Damn straight. We'll make the most of the time and the holidays like we do every year."
"Except we'll be having our first white Christmas."
"It's going to be special."
Rachel nodded, but she couldn't get too excited. She kept thinking about the Phoenix bakery that no longer belonged to her. Last December, she'd worked crazy hours at two jobs to save money and loved every minute. This year felt… different. She swallowed a sigh.
Her brother reached across the bench seat and squeezed her hand. "Thanks for coming to Montana, kiddo."
Ty had always come to her for the holidays. Some years when he had extra money he flew, other times when he was low on cash he drove, but they had a great Christmas no matter the balance in their checking accounts. Decorating her tree, hanging lights on her apartment's balcony, counting down the days to December twenty-fifth with a chocolate-filled Advent calendar, hiking South Mountain on Christmas day…
But Ty had asked her to visit him in Montana this year. After her life fell apart—okay, exploded in an icky mess of sugar, spice and everything-not-so-nice, she'd jumped at the chance to escape and try to forget about being played a fool by so-called friends.
A hundred-pound ball of regret and hurt crushed her chest. Rachel forced a breath, then pasted on a smile. "How could I turn down an invitation to spend Christmas in a winter wonderland with my favorite brother?"
"I'm your only brother."
Ty followed up the old joke between them with a silly face, one that used to make her laugh when she felt like crying. So far during her stay, she'd cried only twice. Progress. "Then it's good thing I didn't go to Wyoming."
He stuck out his tongue.
She did the same.
Getting away from Arizona and spending time with Ty was helping. She enjoyed seeing his life in Montana, rather than imagining it from phone calls, texts, and Skype chats. He had a room at the Bar V5 and also leased an apartment in the small town of Marietta. A refuge for
times he wanted to get away from the ranch, he claimed. More likely, knowing her brother, when he wanted to get drunk at Grey's Saloon and not drive. Getting a ride to the ranch late at night must be impossible.
The truck's studded tires crunched against the snow. “All I Want For Christmas” played in the background, the jolly melody a counterpoint to her
All Rachel wanted for Christmas was to get a do-over for the last six months ago. Not even Santa could manage that.
She'd been on her own, dealing with the betrayal and loss of her dream these past weeks, wishing there'd been someone special in her life, someone who lived closer than Montana, who she could have leaned on for support and who would have made her smile when all she wanted to do was cry. She hadn't dated much, but in hindsight none of those guys had treated her better than the Darbys. She'd picked the same kind of boyfriends as she did business partners. Sad, but true.
Up ahead, the road curved toward a two-story log house decorated with white Christmas lights. Garland tied with red ribbon hung from the railing of a wide porch. Light glowed from inside wood pane windows, reminding her of a painting she'd seen on display in a Scottsdale gallery. She leaned forward, the seatbelt strap pressing into her shoulder. "Wow."
Ty parked. "That's what I said my first time here."
She'd visited the Bar V5's website to check out where her brother worked, but the photographs didn't capture the beauty and grand scale of the ranch house. The architecture made her think of a mountain lodge—high-end, luxurious accommodations—not a place where cowboys and guests in hats and spurs drank beer and ate at plank tables after a long day on the trail. "I get the appeal. Christmas card perfect."
"Wait until you see the inside. You'll love the kitchen."
She'd been struggling for three days trying to bake and construct gingerbread houses in Ty's tiny kitchen with a narrow oven and less than three feet of counter space. "Thanks for asking your boss if I could use his."
"Nate's a good guy. Knew he wouldn't mind."
Nate Vaughn owned the dude ranch. She'd never met him, but Ty had only good words to say about his boss. "I'll bake him something special as a thank you."
"He'll appreciate that."
Rachel opened the truck's door; eager to get to work and rid herself of the restlessness she'd felt being unemployed. The cold hit hard and fast, seeping into her bones in spite of her heavy parka, jeans, boots and wool beanie. With a shiver, she grabbed the box full of baking supplies
from behind the seat. "Brrrr. It's colder than yesterday."
"This is nothing. Wait until February."
By then, she'd be back home, enjoying the nice weather and, if things worked out as planned this time, baking in her own shop. Maybe she would find a guy to date, a nice guy with manners who treated her well and met with her brother's approval.
Ty carried two bags full of groceries. "I can't believe you're working during your vacation. I wanted you to relax."
"Baking relaxes me."
"Starting a brand new business less than forty-eight hours after you arrived is not relaxing. It's insanity."
Rachel's boots sank into the snow, but her feet remained dry. The sales person at the sporting goods store had been honest when he'd sold her cold weather gear. That surprised her. Few people told the truth these days. "Maybe, but the gingerbread houses are selling faster than I can make them, thanks to your friends."
"You're working as much as I am."
"I might as well do something productive. If I can earn some money…"
"I've got money you can have."
"Thanks, but I'm capable of earning my own." She didn't need or want anyone's help, not even her brother's. She wanted Ty to treat her like an adult. If she took more of his money, whether a gift or a loan, he would keep thinking of her as his kid sister. "If I sell enough gingerbread to cover a lease deposit, I'll be one step closer to opening a bakery."
Of course she needed to revise her business plan and create new products, ones she wouldn't share with a soul this time.
"There are vacancies on Main Street. Front Avenue, too." Ty bypassed the porch, walking to the right side of the house toward a Dutch door with a window on top. A hanging electric lantern illuminated the area. "Forget about Phoenix. Open a place in Marietta."