Tyler Murphy’s countdown to Christmas began on December twenty-sixth after spending his first and best holiday ever at the Bar V5 dude ranch in Montana. Spring, summer, autumn . . . each passing month brought him closer to winter.
He relished the first snowfall, didn’t mind breaking through ice so his cattle could drink and bundled up when the temperature dropped below freezing. On the day before Thanksgiving, Ty and the other wranglers brought out plastic bins filled with the ranch’s supply of decorations, including lights and a worn-only-once Santa suit.
Ty woke before his alarm on the morning of Black Friday. This was the day Christmas decorations went up, the start of the holiday season at the Bar V5.
Outside, snow flurries fell from the sky. He placed his gloved hands in his pockets on the walk to the barn. The tiny flakes disappeared as they touched his jacket. Perfect weather for stringing lights and hanging garland.
The cold air nipped at his face, but the temperature was more refreshing than uncomfortable. Winter weather didn’t bother him. Coming from Phoenix, he’d realized there could be such a thing as too much sun. You got used to the cold and learned to adapt and make the most of what God gave you.
This morning that was a scruff of whiskers. Nate Vaughn—Ty’s business partner, best friend and brother-in-law—preferred a clean-shaven, no-beard crew around the guests, but today Ty had showered and skipped shaving. That was as close to a day off as he’d get this Thanksgiving weekend.
He didn’t mind. Work at the Bar V5 felt more like a vacation, because he loved what he did. Hard to believe he’d gone from ranch hand to Nate’s co-owner. Dreams did come true. At least his had. His sister Rachel moving to the Bar V5 and opening a bakery in Marietta, the closest town to the ranch, was the proverbial icing—buttercream, his favorite—on the cake. With December three days away, things would only get better.
Ty couldn’t wait to open the first door on his Advent calendar and eat the piece of chocolate inside, something he’d done since he was a kid. Chances of topping Rachel’s engagement on Christmas morning last year were slim, but he was hopeful they’d have a wonderful holiday season, given the Bar V5 would not only have overnight guests, but also host a wedding. A busy month ahead during what was normally a get-the-work-done-then-relax time at the ranch.
Twinkling white lights strung around the barn door glowed in the early morning light. The Christmas card worthy sight warmed his insides better than a cup of steaming coffee. Someone must have stayed up late to decorate. Ty didn’t know whom, but he appreciated the effort. The only thing missing was a wreath. Most doors around the Bar V5 would have one, or a pine swag, by mid-December. A few might have a wreath hanging later today.
Music played from inside the barn, a rousing version of “Sleigh Ride.” Thank goodness for the distance to the lodge, cabins and bunkhouses or the volume would wake people.
Someone had too much holiday spirit this early in the morning. The wranglers had been awake in the bunkhouse, smiling, not hungover, so a late night drinking at Grey’s Saloon or the Wolf’s Den in town wasn’t to blame for the racket, but Ty knew one thing. The barn cats and horses weren’t going to be happy with the noise. Best to turn down the volume right away.
Ty entered the barn. Froze. What the . . .
Multi-colored lights blinked. Music blared.
A whip cracked.
The song, he realized a second later, but his tight muscles didn’t relax. Not when disbelief and confusion twisted his insides like one of Rachel’s braided bread loaves.
Strands of lights had been strung around each doorway and rafter. Sparkly stars and shimmering snowflakes hung from what looked like fishing string. Talk about a wasted effort. The glitzy decorations made the barn seem more like a shopping mall than the oldest building at the ranch.
He’d seen barns decorated for weddings, dinners, dances, and other events. Sure, they looked nice, elegant in some cases, but this . . .
Ty scratched his chin. He wasn’t sure what this was supposed to be given the place was for animals and ranch business, not where they would be holding the wedding reception or entertaining guests. A wrangler never would have decorated the barn to look so . . . glittery. The lights, sure. The ranch was decked out in lights every year, but the rest?
Ty smelled something. Fresh. Sharp. Pine.
He looked around until his gaze found a Christmas tree that hadn’t been there when he’d gone to bed. Miniature white lights glowed against the green branches. A gold star sat on top. Two frisky felines—one was Onyx, a sweet, black cat who believed the litter box to be his kryptonite, so he lived in the barn—knocked off metallic bells and shiny colorful ball ornaments. The balls didn’t fair so well against the dirt floor. Glass shards littered the space around the bottom of the tree.
Damn. A cat could cut a paw or get glass stuck on them. He’d better clean up the mess before more wanted to climb the tree. Ty covered the broken glass with a tarp, grabbed the Shop-Vac® from the storage closet, vacuumed up the mess, then removed the balls from the branches to keep more from breaking.
Dogs barking “Jingle Bells” played from the strategically placed speakers. The volume seemed loud outside, but bordered on the obnoxious level in here. Someone must be wearing earplugs or be hard of hearing. Ty looked for an off switch or volume control on the speakers. He couldn’t find either.
Great. He hoped his office door muted the sound until he figured out a way to turn off the noise without shutting off the electricity in the barn. The cats didn’t seem to mind much, but the loud music and bright lights would get old fast.
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 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 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. He 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 things 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 and 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.”
“Big task with Noah and Caitlin’s wedding to plan.”
During rodeo weekend in September, Noah Sullivan, a vet at the Cooper Mountain Animal Hospital, had proposed to Caitlin Butler, a preschool teacher during the school year and the coordinator of the ranch’s kids’ program in the summer. The two wanted to get married at the Bar V5 and would in a couple of weeks.
“How is planning going so far?” Ty ask.
“They are the easiest couple in the world to deal with. Unless Caitlin turns into Bridezilla, which I highly doubt, planning is going to be a breeze. Though figuring out Mistletoe’s role could be tricky.”
“Hang sprigs from the ceiling and doorways with red ribbon and string. That’s what Nate did last year for Rachel. Simple, but nice looking.”
Meg laughed. “Great idea except Mistletoe is Caitlin’s cat. Not sure the kitty would be up for hanging.”
“Oops. I forgot.” Ty had enough barn cats to worry about, but the felines earned their keep with their hunting skills and those who were tame provided well-appreciated company. “Are you going to decorate the lodge next?”
“No,” Meg said to his surprise. “Rachel’s taking care of the main house, so Nate said I could go all out in the barns.”
Barns, as in plural. Ty’s stomach fell. “You decorated the horse barn, too?”
She nodded. “Lights and wreaths on each of the stalls.”
Okay. That didn’t sound too bad. “Sounds festive.”
Another nod. “You should see Blackbeard’s wreath. It’s pirate-themed.”
Pirates for Christmas? He opened his mouth, then thought better of saying anything.
Not his problem. He handled the wranglers, livestock and ranch operations. Nate dealt with everything else, including staff. That meant Meg.
“Would have never thought of doing that,” Ty said, thinking those words sounded . . . neutral and uncritical. But curiosity got the best of him. “What did you do with Arrow’s door?”
“A Native American theme.”
That was better than a Cupid theme with a naked cherub, bow and arrows. Yes, Nate could deal with her. Meg usually stayed away from the barn. She would never know if he and the boys fixed the horse’s wreaths to be more traditional and the rest of the decorations, too. Shouldn’t take them more than a couple hours. Time they’d planned on using to decorate anyway.
Onyx nibbled on a red and white candy cane inspired tinsel garland. That decoration would be the next to go. He liked Noah, but vet bills were expensive enough without letting a cat make himself sick on purpose.
“I’ll put away the vacuum and get rid of the broken glass,” she said.
“Finished in here?” he asked.
Nope. He wasn’t going to ask what decorating remained. Ty hoped not his office. Better check on that. He tipped his hat. “Time for me to work.”
He escaped to his office. A fake pine garland with multi-colored lights lined the doorway. Okay, he could live with that. He took one step inside the doorway and swore under his breath.
A gray cat slept on the top ledge of the cat tree in the corner. Two smaller ones rested on the space beneath. This was more the barn cats’ office than his, but the creature on the lowest level, curled in a tight ball, was something he hadn’t seen before. This one had no fur, two legs and wore pink zebra-stripped footies. A pair of pink snow boots lay on the floor beneath the cat tree.
A cute little girl. Smart, too. No dad had ever been mentioned. Meg didn’t wear a ring, only earrings.
None of his business. He knew better than to get involved. His days of playing daddy were over. He wasn’t repeating that experience. No way, no how.
Ty had raised his sister from the time she was ten. He’d been eighteen when his parents were killed—ready to start his life, not put his dreams and relationship on hold to become the guardian and surrogate dad to a girl, who desperately wanted and needed her mom and dad, not a big brother. But what else could he do? Put Rachel in foster care? No way. He’d done the best he could, postponing what he wanted to do for eight long years.
Things had worked out. Just not as soon as he’d planned.
Even now, he felt like the wranglers’ dad, though he wasn’t much older than them, but that was part of his job as foreman. He had zero interest in parenting someone else’s kid or his own.
Life as a bachelor suited him fine. He didn’t intend to change his marital status unless he found a woman who didn’t want kids. Even then, being single seemed like the way to go after seeing what his parents struggled through during their marriage.
Yeah, Ty corrected, single and carefree was the only way to go. Kids only tied you down. Best to get rid of this one ASAP.
And her mother, too.
Don’t look back.
Meg picked up the bell ornament from the floor. She blew off the dirt. Fixing tree decorations would keep her from staring at Ty’s retreating backside. She didn’t have to glance over her shoulder to know how nicely his jeans hugged his butt and thighs. The image had been burned into her brain like a Bar V5 brand the first time she’d met him three weeks ago.
The man was attractive, but Meg didn’t dare let him know. The cowboy-wrangler-foreman whatever you wanted to call him spelled trouble.
All capital letters with an exclamation point on the end.
At least for her.
Best to stop thinking about him and concentrate on the job at hand. Brooklyn, her six-year-old daughter, would be awake soon. Ellie and Siena, co-workers, would have things under control at the women’s bunkhouse, but the sooner Meg finished, the more time she would have to see to guests’ needs, as well as her daughter.
Montana had been a good place to grow up when Meg had been a kid. She wanted to give Brooklyn more than a shabby, one bedroom apartment near the L. The only thing holding her to Chicago had been her job at a luxurious boutique hotel downtown. She crossed her fingers hoping this job at the Bar V5 turned out to be long lasting, and as good as it seemed to be after three weeks. She adjusted the ribbon on the top of the ornament.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” played. Meg sang along. This Christmas would be different and better than last year. She had no doubt.
The scent of pine filled the air. Her boss, Nate Vaughn, co-owner of the Bar V5 and the man who’d hired her for this dream job, had cut down the tree somewhere on the ranch.
In another week or two, she and Brooklyn would go to a local tree farm and cut down their own. No more artificial ones. Meg couldn’t wait. She wanted to make this the best Christmas ever for Brooklyn.
Meg looped the red ribbon ornament holder around one of the branches, but farther back this time. That should deter the cats from knocking off the bell again.
Immediately, a black cat pawed at the ornament, ringing the bell, but the ornament stayed in place. A pair of green eyes challenged her with a how-dare-you stare.
She laughed. “You won the first round, kitty. This one is mine.”
She’d show the barn cats she was in charge. Ty might be another story.
He hadn’t like the decorations. Oh, he’d been too polite say so, but the way his eye color changed from hazel brown to a sharp green gave him away, as did the muscle flicking at his jaw.
Meg chewed on the inside of her mouth. Not her problem, she realized.
Nate wanted the Christmassy feel of the main lodge to extend throughout the ranch. She’d done that, turning the red barn into a winter wonderland suitable for guests and wedding photographs. There was more she could do, too. If Ty had complaints, he could address them with his partner.
Too many lights? That was a non-issue, given how bright and festive everything looked, since this was the oldest building at the ranch.
“Meg,” Ty called for her.
“Right here.” She turned to see him standing outside his office. “Need something?”
Her heart bumped. A stupid reaction.
So what if she knew from watching his interactions with guests, staff and animals that Ty was dedicated, hardworking and caring? Brooklyn was her priority, not some cowboy who’s killer smile, warm eyes and chiseled features made Meg’s tummy tingle.
She gave herself a mental shake. The word honorable defined Ty. Why did she think he was coming onto her? He wouldn’t flirt, especially at work. “What’s going on?”
“See for yourself.”
Moving closer, a nice whiff of his freshly showered, soap scent surrounded her. No citrusy or flower undertones like the soap she and Brooklyn used. Manly. Meg hadn’t dated in so long she’d forgotten what being around men entailed, other than answering questions behind a hotel Concierge desk.
The guys at the Bar V5 weren’t businessmen in tailored designer suits and Italian leather shoes. These were cowboys. Men’s men. No matter what the elements threw at them, they worked outside to care for the livestock and the ranch—outbuildings, fence posts, driveway and walkways. Nothing stopped them from getting the job done. That was not only sexy, but also appealed to her at a deep level.
Would they take care of their family the same way?
Stupid question. She shook her head.
A relationship, even a casual one, would be too much of a distraction. Moving back to her home state of Montana from Chicago was adjustment enough. Brooklyn needed Meg’s full attention. Well, when she wasn’t working.
Meg stopped next to Ty. She wasn’t short, but the top of her head only came to his nose. His six-foot height and wide shoulders seemed to take up the entire doorway. Had he always had such a physical presence?
“Did one of the cats drag an ornament into your office?” she asked.
He stepped out of the doorway, then motioned inside the office. “No, but something of yours is in there.”
She looked inside. A pile of papers sat on a wooden desk with scratched sides. A white board with yesterday’s date and a list of items crossed off hung on the wall. In one corner was a multi-level cat tree. The Bar V5 took in unadoptable, as well as spayed and neutered feral cats. They lived in the two barns, outbuildings and if they were domesticated enough, occasionally the bunkhouses.
A gray cat slept on the top level of a cat tree. A tortoise colored cat stretched against a white one on the second level. And a . . .
That wasn’t another cat, but a child curled up in a ball on the lowest level. Meg did a double-take, recognized the pink zebra striped footie pajamas and the pink down jacket. Her heart dropped. She struggled for a breath. “Brooklyn?”
End of Excerpt