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Today was the first day of December, but January couldn’t arrive fast enough for Josiah Whittaker. He’d banned anything resembling the holidays from his jet during the flight to Montana. No Christmas carols, no red and green decorations, no holly jolly accessories for the flight crew.
“Bah, humbug” summed up how Josiah felt about Christmas and being back in his hometown of Marietta. That feeling wouldn’t change once he got out of Nate Vaughn’s pickup truck.
Nate pulled the key from the ignition. “Welcome to the Bar V5.”
Josiah stared out the passenger seat window. The setting sun created a watercolor of blues, pinks, yellows, and oranges in the sky. The two-story log structure looked more like a five-star, luxurious mountain lodge than a working dude ranch. Twinkling, white lights decorated the eaves. A single candle flickered inside each wood-pane window. Garland, tied with red ribbon, hung from the porch railing. A huge wreath, full of pinecones and holly berries, graced the front door.
Hallmark movie perfect. His idea of a living hell.
He shot Nate a sideways glance. “So this is my prison for the next thirty-one days?”
“If that’s how you want to play this, an orange jumpsuit and bars on the windows of your room can be arranged.”
This was the Nate who showed up at Whit Tech’s board of director meetings wearing a tailored suit and Italian leather shoes. Not the guy, who co-owned the dude ranch, dressed like a cowboy in faded jeans and scuffed boots, and was an excited, expectant father with an ultrasound photo of his yet-to-be-born baby in his pocket.
“Give me a laptop and I might not complain as much,” Josiah said.
“Behave, and you might earn yourself some screen time.”
Josiah swore. He’d paid a hospital orderly ten thousand dollars to buy him what he’d need to stay connected to the outside world and survive this exile. But Nate had found the satellite phones and tablets hidden in the suitcase lining.
“Staying here is for your own good.” This wasn’t the first time Nate had said those words using a big-brother tone. “So is not working for a month.”
“Yeah, right.” Josiah rolled his eyes. “Tell me that again when I’m paying a six-figure retainer to an overpriced lawyer to keep from getting screwed over by you and the rest of the board.”
“No one is screwing you over.” Nate got out of the truck. “Though that can be arranged.” He closed his door.
Josiah slid from the passenger seat. The icy air slapped his face. He pulled his wool beanie over his ears and walked to the back of the truck. Snow crunched beneath his feet. “Guess Montana never got the memo on global warming.”
Nate raised the lid of the truck’s bed cover. “It’s good to have you back. Been too long since you’ve been home.”
“Cut the crap. This isn’t an overdue homecoming.” Josiah’s voice hardened with each word. “I’m here for one reason. To get my job back.”
“You’re still Whit Tech’s CEO, but you need time to recover from the blood infection.” Nate lifted Josiah’s suitcase from the truck. “Can’t have you passing out each time you go into the office.”
“That happened one time.” Not the kind of publicity the company wanted. “I wasn’t supposed to go back to work so soon, but that doesn’t give you and the other board members the right to banish me from the company I founded.”
“We merely suggested you take an overdue vacation.”
Unbelievable. Josiah never should have taken Whit Tech public without retaining fifty-one percent of the shares. “Were you at the same meeting? I heard an ultimatum. The exact words were ‘Take a month off or you’re fired.’”
Josiah rocked back on his heels. “If you weren’t my friend, I’d punch you.”
“If you weren’t my friend, I’d have left you in Palo Alto and started a search for a new CEO.” Nate removed a duffle bag. “The board is looking out for your best interests. The shareholders’, too.”
“I took Whit Tech to the top of the Fortune 500. A three for one stock split is underway, and I should be there. I’m what’s best for everyone involved.”
“Not if you’re dead.”
Beeps, clicks, and alarms echoed through Josiah’s mind. He’d lost count of the monitors he’d been hooked up to in the hospital. Who could have imagined a cut he’d gotten while zip lining had almost killed him? The odds hadn’t been in his favor, but he’d survived. “I’m not sick anymore.”
To prove the point, he lifted his suitcase. Arm muscles tightened, strained, shook. Fingers trembled. Crap. He couldn’t hold on…
The handle slipped. The bag thudded against the snow.
Josiah wanted to curse, except he felt winded, as if he’d run a mile, rather than tried to lift a bag.
Nate grabbed the suitcase. “You’re a guest. No need to carry your own luggage.”
Humiliation burned. But there wasn’t a damn thing Josiah could do. Reality pressed down on his chest like the front hooves of the two-ton bull in the nearby snow-covered pasture. He had more money than a person needed, but no amount could put him back in charge of his company. Or make him one hundred percent healthy faster.
“Let’s get out of the cold.” Nate headed toward the front door.
Josiah hurried to keep up. Hard to believe he used to run and play in an Ultimate Frisbee league. Now, walking tired him. The porch stairs looked daunting, but he’d die before he took the wheelchair ramp off to the right.
“This is the main entrance.” Nate wiped his boots on a welcome mat. “If you want to go out to one of the barns, use the mudroom door.”
The only place Josiah wanted to go was to bed. He’d been trying not to yawn the entire drive from the airstrip. A quick nap and he’d be fine.
At least Nate hadn’t asked how Josiah was feeling. If he had a dollar each time someone asked him that question, he could add another billion to his net worth.
He wiped his boots and then walked through the front door onto a wide-plank hardwood floor. The entry way opened into a larger space with big leather couches, a wide coffee table, exposed beams, and log walls. Floor to ceiling windows gave postcard views of the mountains and river in the distance.
“This is the great room. The center of activity at the ranch.” Nate made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “There are cards, games, and a TV. Feel free to hang out. You can meet other guests and ranch hands.”
The sharp scent of pine filled the air. Carols played from hidden speakers. Christmas on steroids was the only way to describe the room. “You went all out with the decorations.”
“Damn straight.” Pride filled Nate’s voice. “Go big or go home.”
Josiah wanted to go home. “Don’t think you could have gone bigger.”
A wooden nativity set was positioned front and center under the branches of a fifteen-foot Christmas tree, decorated with shiny ornaments and a gold star on top. Multicolored lights blinked.
Nate’s shoulders went back and his chest out. “Captured the feel of a Montana Christmas, don’t you think?”
Josiah didn’t know what to say. Tall red candles and three silver letters that spelled “JOY” sat among pine boughs on the mantle. Personalized stockings hung from a rope strung across the front of a stone fireplace.
Lumps of black coal settled at the bottom of his gut. His name was embroidered on the last one. He rubbed his chin. The stubble pricked his fingertips. He hadn’t shaved in two days. Not because he couldn’t. He didn’t want to.
“This goes beyond a Montana Christmas.” Holiday-themed knick-knacks, including snow globes and moose, filled the shelves of a built-in wall unit and entertainment center. Knowing his luck, only Christmas movies played on the TV. “All that’s missing are elves, reindeer, and Santa.”
“Oh, they’re here. Mistletoe, too.” Nate pointed up to the dozen or so green bunches suspended by red ribbon from the vaulted ceiling. “My wife, Rachel, loves mistletoe so we go overboard. Be careful where you stand. Some guests get into the kissing.”
The Grinch had the right idea when he tried to stop Christmas from coming. Josiah hoped the holiday spirit wasn’t contagious. Better skip any offers of eggnog to be on the safe side. “Appreciate the warning.”
“I’ll show you to your room.”
He followed Nate down a long L-shaped hallway to Room 104.
Nate unlocked the door with a card. “This is one of the first floor suites.”
The room’s door seemed wider than normal. Maybe this was part of Nate’s “go big.”
Josiah stepped inside. A sofa sat in front of a fireplace. To the right was a wet bar with a table and two padded chairs nearby.
No red, green, silver, or gold. No tree, lights, or stockings. A Christmas-free zone. He fought the urge to pump his fist. “Nice room.”
Nate walked into the bedroom, set the suitcase on a luggage rack near a dresser, and placed the duffle bag on the floor.
Once again the doorway seemed wider than Josiah was used to, but the room was spacious. The king-sized bed had plenty of space on either side. And the bathroom…
He did a double take. Those were grab bars by the toilet and in the shower. He cursed. “I want a different room.”
“This is our biggest suite.”
“I’m not…” Josiah couldn’t say the word handicapped. “I don’t need an accessible room.”
“Stay here. Rest. Then you can move to another room or cabin.” Nate smiled. “This really is—”
“Don’t say it.”
Sweat beaded at the back of Josiah’s neck. His hands curled into balls. If he heard the phrase “for your own good” again, he was going to lose it. And if he did, he might destroy his friendship with Nate.
Nate, who’d been six years older, but understood how badly a teenaged Josiah wanted out of Marietta. Nate, who’d been both mentor and friend since Josiah was in college. Nate, who’d trusted Josiah enough to invest in Whit Tech when there hadn’t been much more than an idea and a few lines of code.
“Go.” Josiah ground out the word. “Leave me alone.”
Nate brushed his hand through his hair. “Dinner’s at seven. Dial zero if you need anything.”
Josiah didn’t—couldn’t—respond. He considered Nate to be one of his closest and trusted friends. But would a real friend put him through this kind of hell?
Ellie Smith stood in front of Room 104, holding a tray. Cookies and milk were typical of the welcome treats given on check-in day, but Nate had never asked her to “report back” on a guest after she finished her delivery.
Special treatment for Mr. Josiah Whittaker?
Most likely. And not surprising.
He was the Bar V5’s first billionaire guest. She couldn’t deny her curiosity. He’d been her late brother Buck’s high school classmate and friend. The two boys had been opposites. Josiah was brilliant, but struggled socially. Her brother was everyone’s best friend, but barely made passing grades. Somehow, they’d found common ground, even with Buck’s illness.
She knocked on the door.
“Go away, Nate.”
Only three words, but she recognized the pissed off tone.
“Not Nate.” She used her sunshine and daisies voice that had calmed riled guests in the past. “Ellie, with housekeeping, Mr. Whittaker.”
The ranch had a casual and laidback atmosphere compared to the fancy Graff Hotel in Marietta, but Meg Redstone Murphy, who was in charge of guest services at the Bar V5, had told Ellie to address guests with Mr., Mrs., or Ms. unless instructed otherwise.
“I’ve got enough towels and pillows,” he said.
Ellie blew out a frustrated breath. Why did everyone assume her only job was to deliver extra linens? No one noticed what she did unless something was missing or not working. But she hadn’t taken this job to receive compliments.
“I’m glad you have what you need.” She spoke through the door, trying to raise her cheery tone by a factor of ten. “I have something special for you.”
She stood there and waited. And waited. And waited.
Ellie knocked again. No response.
Stay or go? She ground the toe of her shoe against the floor. Hanging outside a guest’s door for more than a few minutes wasn’t first-class customer service. More like loitering or stalking.
Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. “Are you still here?”
We aim to please at the Bar V5. She repeated the ranch’s motto, and then smiled. “Yes.”
The deadbolt clicked. The door opened three inches, maybe four, enough to see a thin space between the doorjamb and the edge of the door. “Welcome to the Bar V5.”
“There are a million other places I’d rather be than here.” His deep, gruff voice was a hundred and eighty degrees away from the shy, quiet geek she remembered. Ellie used to spy on him and her brother during their study sessions.
The door opened wider.
Oh, baby. Her mouth watered. Heat climbed up her neck.
Talk about a hottie.
This couldn’t be…him.
Over six feet tall, he wore khakis and a forest green hoodie. His brown hair was messy as if he’d been sleeping. The ends curled, begging to be wrapped around a finger. Hers? She tightened her grip on the tray.
The frown on his face should have made him unattractive, but she wanted to make the hard lines go away. Bet he’d be model gorgeous if he grinned.
Definitely not how she remembered him. That begged a question. This had to be him? Better make sure. “Mr. Whittaker?”
“Call me, Josiah.”
Okay, she had the right guy, but how had he turned into this?
She tried to reconcile the handsome man with the teenager, who carried a beat-up laptop and never took the time to shower. Tried and failed. She’d been fourteen the last time she saw him so maybe she’d forgotten what he’d looked like.
Who was she kidding? A fourteen-year-old girl would have remembered a guy this attractive. He’d changed. And, boy, did she like the changes.
“What do you have for me?” The words came out sharp, like staccato notes.
Heat crept up her face. Oh, no. She was staring like a swooning teen.
Ellie raised the tray. “Fresh-from-the-oven cookies and cold milk.”
Her voice sounded hoarse, a little husky.
His frown deepened. “Christmas cookies?”
“Two gingerbread ones. The rest are chocolate chip and peanut butter.” The choices had surprised Ellie, given how many types Rachel had baked today, until Nate explained chocolate chip and peanut butter were their guest’s two favorites.
Josiah took a closer look at the tray.
The whiff of soap and musk and something else Ellie couldn’t define put the delicious scent of the cookies to shame. She imagined his brown hair wet from the shower, water dripping onto his shoulders and down his chest to a fluffy, white towel wrapped low around his hips.
She jerked back. The carafe of milk almost toppled, but Josiah caught it in time.
He eyed her curiously. “Careful.”
No kidding. His image scorched her brain. What was going on? She’d learned the hard way to not fall for a guest, but this one was setting fantasies into motion.
His expectant look told her he was waiting for an answer.
“Spider,” she blurted. “I thought I saw a spider, but it wasn’t. A spider.”
Pathetic answer, but saying the truth would embarrass her into hiding for the rest of his stay. Which was a month long. That would get her in trouble. Or fired.
“At least it wasn’t a mouse,” he said.
“The barn cats take care of those.”
His gaze zeroed in on the cookies.
She remembered his eyes being hazel, but they looked closer to green, more like a grass-covered meadow than a grove of pine trees. Razor stubble covered his chin and gave him a sexy edge.
Sexy was the wrong adjective to associate with a guest, even if she were only looking. She swallowed, ignored her sweaty palms.
Focus. They’d been talking about cookies.
“The peanut butter ones have the HERSHEY’S KISSES® pressed on the top.” Ellie feigned her best TV chef impression. “Nate’s wife, Rachel, made them.”
“My mom makes that kind.”
Leave it to her boss to know details about each guest, but then again, he and Josiah had been friends for years. Ellie respected Nate and wanted to make him proud of the job she did at the Bar V5. She would do everything in her power to make their new guest’s stay as perfect as possible. She didn’t want to mess up again.
“Let’s hope these live up to your mom’s recipe. They’ve got a chance. Rachel’s the best pastry chef east of the Continental Divide.” Ellie spoke fast, like water rushing down a mountain after a snowmelt. She needed to slow down, not let nerves get the best of her. “She owns the Copper Mountain Gingerbread and Dessert Factory on Main Street. Her sweets aren’t good for the waistline, at least mine, but you won’t be disappointed.”
“That’s high praise.”
Ellie lifted the tray more so he could smell the sugary sweetness. Too bad the only thing she smelled was Josiah. “Amazing is the only way to describe them.”
A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth, then a full-blown smile appeared. The result—dazzling.
Ellie forced herself to breathe.
“I wouldn’t want to miss out on something amazing.” He opened the door wider. “You’ve been standing out there long enough. Come in.”
As she entered his room, the silver bell she wore around her neck jingled. One small way she spread holiday cheer around the Bar V5. She set the tray on the wet bar and wiped her hands on her red apron. Arranging the milk and cookies on the counter, she felt his gaze on her.
“It’s good to see you again, Josiah.” Ellie removed a glass and napkins from the wet bar’s cabinet. She faced him. “You’ve done well for yourself. Everyone in Marietta is so proud.”
“Have we met?”
Typical. She bit back a sigh.
“A long time ago.” Truth was, most people forgot about her. She tried not to let that bother her. Sometimes she succeeded. “I’m Ellie Smith. You tutored my brother Buck in math.”
“Buck Smith. I remember him. Great guy. Loved cows as much as I loved computers.”
Josiah’s friendlier tone was how she remembered him. “The two of you were obsessed.”
“No kidding.” He stared at a painting of a cattle drive hanging on the wall. “I couldn’t believe Buck wanted to teach me how to rope in exchange for tutoring him in geometry. I figured I’d get a glimpse into how cowboys live. Never imagined I’d win the roping championship that year, and he’d bring his D up to a B plus.”
“Buck was excited about his grade, but thrilled you won the trophy.”
“That was your brother. Putting others first when he was sick. Telling me I was the best out there that day, even though I wouldn’t have won if he’d been able to compete.”
Buck’s rare immunodeficiency disease with a name she still couldn’t pronounce properly had worsened by that point. He’d attended the rodeo in a wheelchair. Five months later, he’d died. Josiah had attended the funeral dressed like a cowboy in Buck’s hand-me-downs and been a pallbearer. “You won for both of you.”
“That’s what Buck said. I’d forgotten. And you…” Josiah’s gaze narrowed, then recognition flashed, followed by surprise. “You’re little Eleanor.”
“Yes, but I go by Ellie now. I’m not so little anymore.”
Josiah’s gaze ran the length of her. “No, you’re not.”
The appreciation in his eyes sent a burst of feminine pride through her. That hadn’t happened in months. She wasn’t sure she wanted it happening now, but her heart was beating like a horse pulling a sleigh through freshly fallen snow.
His smile reached his eyes, crinkling the corners, making her mouth go dry. Looks weren’t everything, she reminded herself. A pretty face didn’t make a man. Neither did a few billion in the bank.
“I remember three things that little Eleanor was never without.” His playful tone seemed out of character for the man she’d just met, but not the teenager who would describe video games in detail. “Blue glasses, lollipops, and books.”
So much for thinking she’d been cute and charming.
Laughing, she stepped closer to him. “Exactly how a woman wants to be remembered. A four-eyed, candy-addicted bookworm. Of course, you’re right.”
She was thrilled he recalled her at all. Sometimes she felt invisible. Her brother’s friends called her Buck’s little sister, even though he’d died in high school. She had a feeling none remembered her name.
“Endearing for sure.” Josiah leaned against the sofa. “Your spying, however, was annoying. Buck got so mad.”
She hunched her shoulders, fighting the urge to step back. “You saw me?”
“Being ninja-like and stealthy were not your best skills.”
Bet her cheeks looked like red circle brand marks. “I thought I was being clever. My grades were only slightly better than my brother’s, so clever is a relative term.”
“You were clever for staying quiet. We made sure you didn’t hear anything too juicy. As for grades, they never tell the whole story beyond study habits. How’d you do at college?”
That was an unexpected question. She bit her lip. Might as well say it. “I didn’t go.”
“Your family’s die-hard University of Montana Grizzly fans. Weren’t you expected to attend college in Missoula?”
“That was the plan.” Each word tightened the imaginary steel band around her chest. The ache was familiar and strangely comforting. “But there wasn’t enough money for me to go away to school, so I took general classes at the community college.”
“A good way to get requirements out of the way.”
“Yes, but I…I dropped out.” This wasn’t something she liked talking about to anyone let alone a person she hadn’t seen in eleven years. “My parents needed help paying off medical bills that the insurance didn’t cover. Buck’s experimental treatments added up fast. But we did it.”
She’d put her life on hold, worked three jobs to help her parents get out of debt for her brother’s illness, and had zero regrets.
“And that’s how you ended up at the Bar V5.” Josiah wasn’t asking a question.
“Yes.” She didn’t want to go into the details.
Outside, a cow mooed.
Josiah touched her shoulder.
Ellie stared at his hand. Long fingers. No scars and cuts marred the skin like the wranglers who worked here. But his hands were strong, his touch tender.
The gesture was a sign of comfort, but meant more to her. She felt not so alone. Special. Two ways she wasn’t used to feeling.
“I’m not surprised you quit school to help your parents.” His tone soothed. “You’re so much like your brother. Buck would be proud.”
Joy overflowed at Josiah’s words. She hugged him.
End of Excerpt