Snow looked great in pictures but as a Montana transplant there were a lot of things about winter that had taken Lucy DeMarco by surprise. Her pipes had frozen in her newly built home, her own fault not anyone else’s, and she had to rely on the kindness of strangers… Normally she didn’t identify too strongly with Blanche Dubois but today she was feeling it.
Her business neighbor Lane Scott – US Marine Corps (Retired) – had offered to let her use his temporarily empty ranch house part-way up Paradise Valley, until she got her pipes fixed. Lane himself and the entire rest of the Scott family were at the main Scott ranch getting ready for the double wedding of two of his brothers, Hudson and Carson.
Lucy thought it was sweet and could think of nothing better than a candle light Christmas Eve ceremony – as long as both marriages lasted. Otherwise no one was going to like Christmas much.
She closed her eyes as she rinsed the conditioner out of her hair and then opened them to find that the whole house was dark. Great.
That was what she got for being cynical. Bad juju as her mom used to say. She felt a pang in her stomach as she remembered that Lydia wasn’t her mom. Not really. Not biologically. At twenty-eight Lucy had thought she would be hitting her stride and really coming to a full understanding of who she was as an adult, but instead last year her father had told her on his deathbed that she was adopted.
Her entire life no one had said anything, even though these days most families seemed to go for honesty about where their kids came from, and suddenly everything she’d ever believed about herself seemed like a lie.
She shook her head. She needed to deal with the electricity problem now.
Actually that was the way she’d been handling everything since her father—Tony’s—funeral. She’d just kept moving forward. Not stopping, not thinking. But it was Christmas and for the first time all the traditions she’d always claimed as her own somehow didn’t seem to belong to her anymore.
Which was why she’d been dodging phone calls from her cousins in Cherry Lake and why she’d settled here in Marietta, five hours from them, instead of choosing somewhere closer. She needed distance to come to terms with the news of her parentage.
But birth mom or not, Lydia had been right about karma.
Lucy apologized to the universe, hoping to reverse her energy for the day. She grabbed the towel from where she’d slung it over the rod and towelled off before wrapping it around her body. She’d left her cell phone on the bathroom counter beside her clothes, and fumbled for it.
She hit the iPhone flashlight, almost blinding herself when the bright light reflected off the mirror. She saw her hair hanging in thick wet ribbons around her neck and her face, which looked… well… tense.
Moving from California to the outskirts of Marietta had been necessary, but the stress of starting a new café, literally from the foundations up, and settling in to such a remote place had weighed on her.
Still thinking about that physical and emotional journey, she opened the bathroom door and stepped out in the hallway, slamming into a solid masculine chest. She yelped. Almost screamed.
The man grabbed her as she stumbled and she found herself wrapped in a pair of very warm, very strong arms. She looked up, but her phone had fallen flashlight side down so he was all shadows. She was close enough to see the faint stubble of beard on his jaw. He smelled of snow and pine, and if there was danger, he didn’t smell of that.
She wedged her arm between them. She wanted to believe that the good thought she’d just put out in the universe had netted her this cowboy but she knew that probably wasn’t the case.
“Well, hello, gorgeous.” The deep male voice was all laconic Old West. For a minute she thought maybe she’d conjured him up from the images of Nineteenth Century Marietta that she’d seen hanging on the walls of the guest bedroom Lane had offered to let her use.
But no, he looked real and solid, standing in the hallway as she exited the bathroom. She had left her robe in the guest room since she’d thought she was alone, and only had a towel wrapped around her naked body.
“Hello. Who are you?” she asked. Her voice sounded a bit squeakier than usual.
“Trey Scott. And I thought this was my brother’s house,” he said in a deep baritone that sent the right kind of shivers down her spine. Even his breath smelled nice. Minty and warm as it brushed across her cheek.
Trey Scott? He did look vaguely like Lane, who’d offered to let her stay here until the plumbing in her newly built home on the edge of town was fixed.
“Lane thought you were delayed in Chicago until Thursday…he’s across at your brother Alec’s place,” Lucy said.
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re naked in his house.”
“I’m just borrowing the shower, and a bed for the night,” she said. “My pipes froze. I’m Lucy DeMarco. Why aren’t you at the main ranch with everyone else?”
“I wasn’t sure I could make it that far. The snow is falling fast and heavy and I decided it was safer to stop at Lane’s than continue on. I knew he’d be at Alec’s. I didn’t think I’d be disturbing anyone, here.”
She stepped a few feet back from him and bent to retrieve her phone, carefully holding on to her towel. She’d been a competitive swimmer in high school so she knew the mechanics of towels, and usually once she wrapped one around her body it stayed put. No sense chancing it around this particular member of the Scott family, however. Lane and Hudson were friendly and treated her like a kid sister so she’d sort of treated them the same way. But there were no brotherly feelings toward Trey, she discovered. He had been all hot, American male from the moment she’d noticed him.
She wasn’t sure what was in the water here in Montana but they grew their men tall, solid, and without an ounce of fat anywhere on their frames. She flicked the light up and caught her breath as she took in the strong jaw, the crooked ridge of nose and the intense look in his dark chocolate brown eyes. Lane’s were grey she thought vaguely.
And where Lane had an affable look about him, Trey seemed intense. Given to brooding?
Normally that was her kind of guy. The depths contrasted with her own sunny nature. But the past year had changed her. She wasn’t the happy-go-lucky-gal she’d been before her father had gotten sick.
Trey’s shoulders were broad and his chest all muscly under a thermal t-shirt. His torso tapered down to a lean waist. His jeans were faded, his thighs solid and his cowboy boots looked worn not new. She wondered what his butt looked like.
She doubted he’d stand still while she checked him out from the back.
He cleared his throat and she glanced up to meet his gaze. He arched one eyebrow at her and she blushed but shrugged. He was a good-looking man, he must be used to women checking him out. “What?” she said.
“Enjoying the view?”
“I am,” she admitted, then pulled her gaze away. That shouldn’t have been difficult, but somehow was. “So do you know where the fuse box is?”
“I do. I’ve already checked it out. It’s not a blown fuse, I think the power is off at the transformer. I have no idea if Lane has a generator at this place, and my cell has zero bars. Yours?” he asked.
She glanced at the left corner of her phone and saw she had the no service message. “None.”
“I’ve made a fire downstairs but heard the water running so came to investigate. I had no idea I’d find you,” he said.
“But I’m happy I have.”
“I should get dressed,” she said, taking a step back.
“Not on my account,” he said with a wink.
She shook her head.
“I’ll meet you downstairs in a little while.”
He disappeared and she smiled to herself thinking he was just the distraction she needed to get through the holiday season.
* * *
Trey fiddled around with the fire trying to get it just right. A woman. Of course the one time he needed to be alone he was trapped in a snowstorm with a woman. The flames jumped, mirroring the fire that had been started deep inside of him.
He wasn’t on the rebound it was just…he’d been fighting this for too long. An unsettling feeling he had to call jealousy, because his brothers had found their women and their place and he was still drifting. Riding the wind wherever it took him. Tonight it had taken him to her. To Lucy. With her thick honey-brown hair and her innate sensuality.
Sure he was well paid and had seen the world but still there was something empty inside of him. This year, this Christmas he’d made a vow to feel something again. But since his mom had died he really hadn’t. Nothing strong. Nothing that felt like enough. The rest of the year he could ignore it, but the holidays always brought into sharp focus the fact that he was still looking for something.
He’d seen the snowstorm as a last minute reprieve to get over his orneriness before he was back in the bosom of his family, but instead he was here with Lucy.
He heard her footsteps on the hardwood floor in the hallway before she appeared in the doorway. She had on a cream-colored thermal shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans that fit like a second skin. On her feet were a pair of thick purple wool socks that looked to him like the ones they made in Scotland. But he couldn’t be sure.
The light from the fireplace played over the bones of her face, her small, delicate blade of a nose, those high cheekbones. And her mouth – there was something about it that drew his gaze back again and again. Finally he realized that her lower lip was fuller than her top lip and it made her mouth seem—kissable.
He noticed she was watching him watch her. And he arched one eyebrow at her. Sometimes he automatically framed people as if he was looking down his lens at them, even though he wasn’t holding a camera.
He knew that he was doing it right now because somehow it was easier to catalog Lucy’s individual features and treat her as the model for a photo than to admit even to himself that he was attracted to her.
“You looked good in your clothes.”
She shook her head. “So do you.”
“I’ve built up the fire but there isn’t much I know how to make on an open fire but coffee. I’ve got some water going because I wasn’t sure if you’d like tea.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I actually brought some food with me.”
“Yes. Lane offered me the run of the house for the night, but he said there wouldn’t be much food here. Let me grab my bag.”
She left the room and he wondered if there was anything between his brother and Lucy. After all Lane had been through the last few years fighting in Afghanistan and losing the bottom half of both of his legs, he deserved a shot at happiness.
Trey thought this despite the fact that he didn’t exactly believe in forever. He hadn’t since he’d seen their dad break down when their mom had died. Forever was too hard, even when it happened, and especially when it didn’t. He’d had that lesson reinforced over the years as hapless friends fell for women and then ended up alone again. Even Alec’s marriage was on rocky ground, he knew.
Lucy returned a few minutes later with a cooler bag. “Um…just so you know, there isn’t anything between me and Lane. We’re friends.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “It’d be awkward to have to tell my brother I held his girlfriend and all she was wearing was a towel.”
“I can see how that would be a bit odd,” she said.
“So how do you know Lane?” he asked as Lucy settled down next to him on the blankets and started rummaging through her bag.
“We’re neighbors, where we work. I own a breakfast-only café in the same strip mall as their martial arts gym. He and Hudson are frequent customers at my place,” Lucy said. “They’re in the middle of buying out the gym’s previous owner, Gerry.”
She took a thermos of soup and divided it up between them and then took a loaf of fresh baked bread and tore it half, putting a chunk on the edge of his plate. “Chicken tortilla soup. Want some queso fresco on top?”
He nodded. “So you’re a cook or chef?”
“Chef,” she said. “I went to the Culinary Institute of America. Also known as the CIA.” She grinned. “Licensed to thrill your palate.”
“How does a chef end up in Marietta?”
“Remember the CIA? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” she said.
“Wow. Must be pretty top secret.”
He took a spoonful of the soup and almost moaned. It was that good. Of course he’d been living on prepackaged food and airport meals for the last four days as he’d been trying to get home. But her cooking was good. Really good. And it wasn’t just the fact that he was attracted to her that made him think so.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Travel the world,” he said. “I’m a photo journalist.”
“What was your last assignment?” she asked as they ate.
“I could tell you, but then…”
She laughed at the way he’d riffed on her own humor, and he realized for the first time that her other, previous smiles hadn’t been genuine. Because when she smiled for real and it turned into a laugh, everything lit up. Her eyes sparkled and she forgot whatever it was that had been weighing on her shoulders.
She’s a stranger.
But that didn’t matter. He was hooked. He’d always been a sucker for a sad smile and hers was sadder than most. He wanted—no needed—to make her laugh again. So he told her about his latest adventures and a misunderstanding at a hotel desk that led to some confusion over his room, which meant he was accidentally assumed to be the boy friend of a minor celebrity.
Each time she laughed he felt lighter, and as much as he’d been dreading coming home because he wasn’t sure he had a place here any more, she was making him very glad he had.
He knew she was a stranger. That they were trapped together because of a snowstorm and there wasn’t anything real between them, but none of that mattered at this moment.
When they were done eating, he took the dishes to the kitchen and when he returned she had opened a Tupperware container with cookies in it.
He had something much sweeter in mind, but for now he’d settle for her cookies. “What are they?”
“Toffee chocolate hazelnut. Are you allergic? I should have asked earlier.”
He shook his head. “No food allergies.”
“Me neither,” she said.
* * *
The fire crackled and provided both warmth and light as they sat in front of it. The living room was decorated for Christmas with a large pine tree and multi-colored sparkling lights. Trey leaned back against the cushions he’d arranged on the floor.
“There is a hell of a lot of Christmas in this house. Lane must really love the season,” Lucy said.
She felt awkward and unsure. Not at all like herself. Part of it was that Trey had sort of seen her naked, the other part was the lingering body blow that stemmed from not really knowing who she was any more. She wanted him but lust at first sight wasn’t her normal thing. Of course she usually was too busy at the restaurant to pursue a long term affair as well.
“We all do,” he said. “Our mama loved Christmas. I take it you’re not so keen?”
She shrugged. She didn’t know any more if she was keen or what. Her parents had always made the holiday season special in all sorts of ways. Even after her mother had died, Lucy and her dad had still honored those traditions. But now…knowing she hadn’t really been their daughter sort of… confused all of that. Did she have another heritage she knew nothing about?
“It just seems so overblown and commercial,” she said. Bitter much? But it wasn’t bitterness, it was a soul deep sadness that made her want to cry. She should probably close her little café and go somewhere warm and tropical until Christmas was over. Come back in January with a better attitude.
He sat up and reached over to lift her hair up off her shoulder, then came even closer, looking at the skin of her neck. She felt the feather light touch of his finger down the side of her neck and gasped as a shiver of feeling went through her. She turned to face him and he was so close she could see the green flecks in his pretty brown eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking to see if your skin is green…like the Grinch.”
She swatted his hand away and rolled her eyes. “Even you have to agree that the season is a little much, getting more and more over the top. You’ve traveled around the world, right?”
“Yes. And no. Somehow when you are surrounded by those you love the commercialism…doesn’t seem so crass. It doesn’t seem empty,” he said, leaning back on his elbows. His long legs stretched out on the blanket. She tried not to stare at him but it was hard.
He had the kind of masculine beauty that had always attracted. His face was strong, his nose looked as if it had been broken more than once and his jaw was square. He had an honest face, she thought. And right now honesty was what she needed more than anything else.
“I don’t know about that, but I’ll take your word for it. After all, you’ve got four brothers and lots of sisters-in-laws. The numbers are on your side.”
“What about you? You don’t have any siblings?”
She wrapped her arms around her waist. “Not that I know of. I grew up as an only child.”
“I’m sensing there is a lot more to that story,” Trey said.
She wanted to talk about it. To this handsome man who was a stranger. Someone with nothing vested in her past. But at the same time, sharing was a gateway to becoming more than strangers. And already she liked too much about him. He had made her feel at ease.
Perhaps she’d had too much whiskey in her coffee or maybe it was the fire and the Christmas tree making her want to drop her guard.
“There is,” she said wrinkling her nose. “But it’s not a story for tonight. Tell me how a boy from Marietta leaves to travel the world.”
He scrubbed his hand over his face. “Naw…you don’t want to know that.”
“I don’t?” She wasn’t going to push, but she very much did want to know more about him. Focusing on Trey would give her a way to get through the holidays. Maybe… Hm. It seemed crazy, but she thought maybe an affair and that headlong rush into emotions that always gripped her at the beginning of a new relationship might be just what she needed.
He shook his head. “It’s a boring story full of bull-headed stubbornness and small town clichés.”
She laughed as she suspected he’d intended her to. And she shoved aside Elvis singing Blue Christmas in her head, and embraced the flirty woman she’d used to be. “I like bull-headed stubbornness. Tell me.”
“I’m not sure, Lucy,” he said.
It was the first time he called her by her name and she realized she liked the way he drew it out. “Why not, Trey?”
He winked at her. “Because we were talking about Christmas and family.”
“Do they always have to go together?” she asked. “They do, don’t they? It’s my first Christmas without my—on my own. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling so cranky.”
“That’s a good reason. The year my mom died I was nineteen. When Christmas came around it was really horrible. Hudson wouldn’t come home and dad was quieter than usual and then Alec and Carson had to open the Christmas Tree lot that mom had always run. Out there surrounded by her trees…I sort of just felt her there. It was like we had this part of her with us.”
That was sweet. Trey Scott was a very nice man. But Lucy knew that she would never experience what he had. She had left San Francisco behind, distancing herself from the past and everything that went with it. “That’s really – ”
“Sweet,” she said.
He shifted on the blanket again. “Guys don’t like to be called sweet.”
“Why not?” she asked. To be honest this was the first time she’d called a man that.
“Because it’s not macho. I am a tough guy, Grinchy-girl. Not sweet. The opposite of sweet.”
“Well you could be like a good dark chocolate. Strong, dark with just a hint of sweetness.”
“Not me,” he said.
“You might want to pretend you’re a bad ass but I’ve been around a lot of tough characters. There’s something solid about you, Trey. Like you know your place in the world and are content with it.”
“Maybe I do.”
“Do you come for Christmas every year?” she asked.
“I spent one Christmas away from Montana because of a job. That was different. But I didn’t hate it,” he said.
“Where were you?” she asked. There was something about his voice that she could listen to all night. The crackle of the fire was making her a little sleepy and she wanted to let go of the ice that she’d used to encase her heart when she’d learned the truth.
But it would take a lot more than the heat of the fire or even the heat in his gaze to make her start caring again. A part of her had died that day when she’d learned the truth, and Christmas seemed to make her keenly aware that she was sort of drifting through life without a big chunk of her soul.
“I was in the land of your ancestors, DeMarco. Italy.”
“I only know the Italian-American traditions, not what do they do in Italy,” she answered. She’d always sort of wondered what they were missing, in that regard. She and her dad had talked for years about going for a visit to their ancestral home, but the restaurant had always been too busy, and then’d he’d gotten sick, and then it had turned out not to be her ancestral home at all.
“Well, the little village I stayed in had this lovely church ceremony on Christmas eve,” Trey was saying. “I sat on a pew in the back of the church and listened to hymns that were foreign yet familiar. I saw families together and even strangers like me who’d share a smile. That’s what feels universal to me about Christmas.”
“I agree,” she said. “But you can’t buy that in a big box store or at the mall, and it seems like there is too much emphasis on the buying part, at times.”
“So true. It takes someone special to make the holidays really sparkle,” he said.
“I’m alone this year.”
“Not any more,” he said.
“How do you mean?”
“I’m here,” he said. “And I think I can change your mind about Christmas.”
“That’s a lot of confidence for someone I barely know.”
“Oh, I intend that we get to know each other much better,” he said, pulling her into his arms and lowering his head to kiss her.
End of Excerpt