Christmas Lights and Cowboy Nights

by

Shelli Stevens

Rosa Mercado is looking for something more serious with her love life, which is why she hits the brakes on the sexy cowboy who walks into her dad’s restaurant and hits on her.

Calvin Marshall had Rosa lined up in his sights to be his next conquest. Until she makes it clear she’s looking for Mr. Right, not Mr. Right Now. Commitment isn’t exactly his favorite word.

But when they’re forced to stay at Misty Meadows Ranch together over Christmas, it becomes clear that there’s more at stake than just one of them inheriting the ranch by New Year’s Eve. The magic of the season will blur the line between love and hate, and challenge everything they both thought they wanted.

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“I don’t want your drugs.”

Holding back a sigh of frustration, Cal Marshall flexed his jaw and stared at the plastic bottle Hank had just knocked off the side table. The container rolled across the hardwood floor of the ranch house, mimicking the sound of a maraca as the pills bounced around inside.

Adjusting his Stetson on his head, Cal gave a casual shrug. “No shame in taking a couple Tylenol, Hank. Figured it’d help with the pain.”

Hank’s scowl deepened and he raised his iced tea to his lips, hand trembling. “Whiskey helps. That’s about it.”

There was probably a good amount of whiskey in that drink right there, Cal figured silently.

Hank hadn’t hired him to be a nurse or babysitter, though. He’d hired him to be the foreman on his ranch when arthritis had robbed him of the ability to do it himself.

One thing clear about Hank was that the man was steeped in pride. The fact that he’d brought in a foreman was about as much help as Cal reckoned he’d ask for. Though the last month or so, Hank’s health seemed to have deteriorated more and as of two days ago, he now used an oxygen tank.

Hank set his drink down on the coffee table beside his rocking chair. “You done for the day?”

“Yeah. Cattle were moved to the south pasture earlier. Willy’s fixing up the broken stall in the barn.” Cal paused. “We were going to grab some grub in town. Want to come along?”

“No.” Hank harrumphed and moved to stand, wincing as he eased his body from the chair.

Cal moved forward to offer assistance. The older man brushed it aside and started to say something, but then bent over as a racking cough shook his body.

The older man had been coughing that deep wet cough for several days now. Cal’s mouth tightened as he reached to grab the glass of water off the side of the table and hand it to Hank.

Hank shook his head and turned away.

Stubborn as a mule. Cal shook his head and moved to leave. He’d nearly made it out the door when Hank’s unsteady voice stopped him.

“Hey, Marshall.”

Cal glanced over his shoulder.

“Bring me some carne asada, okay?”

“Carne asada,” he repeated flatly.

“Yeah. The new place that opened up in Marietta.”

Cal had heard of the restaurant but hadn’t been there yet. It’d been open nearly a year now. The original plan for tonight had been to go for burgers, not Mexican.

Pressing his lips together, Cal finally gave a short nod. “Sure, boss.”

“And extra refried beans. None of that healthy whole beans stuff, either. I want refried, all right?”

“Yup.” And, really, he couldn’t blame the older man. The whole beans just weren’t the same.

“Good.” Another harrumph, before Hank turned his attention back to the television that was playing quietly.

Cal left the ranch house and stepped out into the frigid air. Thanksgiving was in a couple of days, and he figured snow would be fast on its tail as they officially moved into the holiday season.

He crossed the property, making the five-minute walk in the dark to the bunkhouse that had been his living quarters since he’d taken this job almost two years ago. The bunkhouse had four full-sized beds, one bathroom, and a rugged kitchen. And for now, and the foreseeable future, it was all his.

Well, his and Willy’s. Willy being the only other ranch hand who lived on the ranch. The other two drove in each day.

Just for a moment, Marshall Ranch slid through his mind, and his chest pinched slightly. With practiced ease, he shifted that thought right to the back of his head, grabbed his keys and wallet off his dresser, and went back outside to find Willy.

“You ready to head into town for food?”

The ranch hand grimaced. “Ah, I’m going to have to skip this one. My ma called and told me if I didn’t get over to her house for supper soon she’d disown me.”

Cal’s lips twitched at the visual, because Willy couldn’t be a day under forty. “No problem. Plan’s changed a bit anyway. Hank wants me to bring him Mexican food.”

Willy’s brows drew together and he shook his head. “Maybe a good thing I can’t go. Beans give me gas something fierce.”

“I know.” Cal grinned and slapped him on the back, then made his way to his truck. “See you early in the morning.”

A few minutes later his truck bounced down the dirt road and away from the ranch. From what he’d heard, Rosita’s Mexican Grill was growing in popularity with the Marietta folks.

It took him a few minutes, but he finally found a spot not too far away.

Cal pursed his lips and shook his head, thinking about the empty dive bar and the burger he’d originally planned on. Ah well.

He opened the door to the restaurant, to the smell of spices and warm tortilla chips. Despite his hankering for a burger, his stomach growled in anticipation. As he moved past the tiny bar, the smell of tequila from the margaritas hit him.

Maybe this was exactly what he was craving after all.

“How many, señor?” A teenage girl greeted him with a menu in hand.

“Just myself.”

The girl nodded and led him to a small table in the middle of the restaurant. “Would you like a drink? A Marietta Mule or maybe a Margarita Vaquero?”

Cowboy margarita. He knew enough Spanish to figure that one out. What a great name. Damn, but he was tempted.

“Water for now, thanks.”

A water was poured and a basket overflowing with tortilla chips set before him. “Your waitress will be with you shortly.”

“Thank you.” Cal gave a quick smile, already reaching for a chip.

He devoured it in a second, hungrier than he’d realized.

Delicious. Maybe he should make it a point to drop by here more often. These were probably the best chips he’d had. And the salsa? Incredible.

“Well look who it is. Calvin Marshall.”

Ah hell.

The high-pitched voice, dripping with disdain, had Cal’s gut clenching and his fight or flight reflexes kicking in.

He gave an uneasy laugh, before pushing back his hat to glance at the woman standing in front of his table. “Lisa. How you doing, darlin’?”

“Don’t you darlin’ me, you dirty rotten—”

The rest of her sentence was drowned out by the crunching of chips that she upended over his head.

“I don’t know why we’ve got Christmas music playing, when it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet.”

Rosa shrugged and reached past Lynda—the other waitress—for a plate. “Thanksgiving is in two days—that’s basically the go-ahead for all things Christmas. And the colored lights outside are so pretty. It really brings in more business.”

Not that the restaurant needed it. Rosita’s did pretty well any time of the year and had since they’d opened.

“Oh no. Don’t look now, but we’ve got epic drama happening at table seven.”

At the hushed whisper from Lynda, Rosa set another steaming dish of food on her serving tray and glanced over her shoulder into the dining room. She heard the drama before she spotted it though.

“You told me you were in bed with the flu,” a woman hollered at a man sitting alone at a table.

“Oh no, is the flu hitting already? It seems awfully early,” Lynda mused.

“I haven’t paid much attention.” Rosa grabbed the second plate to complete her order.

“I think that’s Calvin Marshall. El es muy guapo.”

She’d heard that name. Or more so the reputation that went with the name. One of Marietta’s sexiest bachelors, and a major lady’s man.

“This guy better not cause any trouble.” Rosa shook her head. “We close in an hour and I just don’t have the energy to deal with it.”

Lynda gasped. “Dios mío, now she’s thrown a beer on him.”

“Okay, apparently I will deal with it.” Rosa sighed and handed her tray off to Lynda. “Take this to table twelve. I’ll take care of him.”

Muttering under her breath, Rosa wiped her hands on her apron and strode briskly across the restaurant. The man at the table stood, eyes flashing as he wiped the beer off his face.

“Basta. Enough.”

The vehemence in Rosa’s tone had the pair pausing and swinging their attention her way.

Rosa glanced at the woman first. “If you can’t show respect to this restaurant and the people in it, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Blue eyes went wide, before the heavily made-up blonde with big hair glared the several inches down at Rosa. “Ask me to leave? Obviously, you’re new here, honey. You should be treating me like royalty. I’ve been a regular since y’all opened.”

Rosa flashed a patient smile. “That’s unfortunate.”

The man gave a low laugh, which Rosa almost missed over the blonde’s stunned gasp. The sound of his laugh sent something fluttering in her belly, and she swept a quick glance over at him.

He was tall, his face chiseled and with a dark five-o’clock shadow. A cowboy hat rested just above blue eyes. Eyes that watched her with enough interest that the fluttering doubled down. Oh, yeah, she could see why the women liked him.

Irritated with her unwelcome reaction, she lifted her chin and clenched her jaw. “And if you’re here to stir up trouble, señor, I’ll ask that you leave too.”

“No trouble, ma’am,” he drawled. “Just here to grab some dinner and a to-go order.”

Maybe he should’ve skipped right to the to-go part. Swallowing the biting response, she turned her attention back to the woman.

“You can go sit down in the bar again if you want,” Rosa offered, “but you’ll need to walk away from this man.”

The other woman’s cheeks turned red. “Let me guess. You’re sleeping with him too?” Her gaze swung around the restaurant, where everyone was staring. “Hell, I bet he’s slept with half the women in here.”

“And that’s strike three.” Rosa turned her head and called out a sharp, “Arturo.”

The bartender was at the table in an instant, his focus on the woman causing trouble. “Time to settle your bill and go, señorita.”

He escorted the cursing woman across the restaurant to cash her out. The blonde snagged a beer from a table and chugged before Arturo pulled her toward the front.

“My apologies, ma’am.”

The slow, apologetic drawl had Rosa turning back to the man still standing beside her. Cowboy. He embodied the term with his hat, dusty jeans and worn-out plaid, cuffed shirt.

She might’ve appreciated his apology more, if there hadn’t been a hint of amusement in his tone.

“You seem like trouble, cowboy.”

“It’s Cal. And no, ma’am, I’m not trouble.”

A disbelieving laugh threatened, but she swallowed it. “I hope not, or you’ll be escorted out of here just as quickly as your girlfriend.”

The man took his seat again. “Actually, not a girlfriend. We—”

“I’m sure I can figure it out. No need to explain.” Men like him were entirely too easy to read. She pulled her notepad and pen out of her pocket. “What can I get you?”

His lips twisted. Clearly, he was having fun with all this. Irritation had her clenching her teeth. Maybe she should’ve had him kicked out.

“I’ll take the steak fajitas for here, no green peppers, and a to-go order of carne asada.”

“Corn or flour tortillas?”

“Flour. No, wait, corn.”

She scribbled the order on the pad, not trusting herself to remember orders yet. “Anything to drink?”

He paused, clearly weighing the idea, then shook his head. “Better stick with water.”

“Good idea. I’ll send some extra napkins too so you can clean yourself up.” After flipping the notebook closed, she tucked it back in the pocket of her apron and nodded.

Conversation in the restaurant had resumed as the moment of entertainment had passed. Though Rosa knew small towns well enough to know it’d be a juicy topic for a while.

“Your order will be out shortly and I’ll bring a new basket of chips.” She deliberately glanced at a fragment of chip still clinging to his flannel.

“Thank you, ma’am. What was your name?”

“I didn’t say.” She wasn’t even a true waitress here, but just working tonight as a guilt-driven favor for her dad.

He arched a brow.

Realizing she was bordering on rude, she sighed. “My name is Rosa.”

“Rosa.” He seemed to test the name on his tongue.

She’d only worked the restaurant a handful of times in the last year, but she would’ve remembered this guy.

“I’m just helping out tonight.” Before he could reply, she turned and made her way to drop her order off with the kitchen.

Carlos Mercado, the man behind the grill, glanced up and smiled warmly as he took the slip of paper. “Everything okay out there, Rosita?”

Any lingering tension in her muscles disappeared as affection swept through her. “Sí, Papá. Everything is fine now.”

She glanced through the window between the kitchen and the restaurant and found the cowboy’s gaze had followed her. He’d said his name was Cal. Their eyes met and held briefly and the area low in her belly grew warm.

No. Absolutely not.

Jerking her gaze away, she went to scoop up another basket of chips for him.

“He’s cute.” Lynda nodded in his direction.

“He’s trouble.” Rosa knew it, despite his declaration otherwise. She had no time for men like him. “And I’ve been there, done that. No need to rinse and repeat.”

End of Excerpt