Christmas at First Creek Farm

by

Joss Wood

Closing in on thirty, Fia Price craves a new and more meaningful direction for her life. Walking away from her successful modeling career, she heads to Texas for the Christmas holidays to inspect a small ranch she and her brother’s have recently inherited. Sorting through her great aunt’s bulging cottage gives Fia the time and space to consider a new career, but since her brothers want to sell the property, her time in Texas is limited. But when she meets Gib Donovan and his adorable young son, living in Texas suddenly becomes so much more attractive. And as they spend time together in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Fia discovers her new career but also finds herself wanting to say yes to so much more than a land sale—if she can find the courage to start a new, completely different life.

Sexy cowboy and rancher Gib Donovan wants to focus on his son and his ranch. Fia Price with her beauty, sparkle and sense of fun is making that near impossible. She’s waking up parts of him that he hoped would stay asleep forever. He doesn’t want to hope again. Or lust. Or trust. And he definitely thinks love is off the table, but with Fia, everything seems possible—a magical Christmas for his son, and a new future for them both.

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“Tonight, we are saying goodbye to an old friend, a very good friend, someone who has graced this fantastic show with her energy, her grace, and her wit. This fashion show is one of the rarest gigs in the world and this model has been at every show for the past twelve years.”

Fia Shaw-Price stood at the back of the room and looked at Mel Hammond, the creative director of this famous lingerie show and her mentor. Fia’s eyes skimmed over her colleagues’ faces and saw their confusion. You’re at the top of your game, you’re one of the most popular models in the world, you can name your price. Why the hell are you giving it all up?

This was her world, the one she knew inside out. And, after twelve years, she was stepping away. Panic closed her throat and squeezed her lungs. Who would she be without her work, what would she do?

For starters, she wouldn’t be tired, stressed, unhappy, and burned out.

Fia lifted her head and straightened her spine. She would not second-guess her decision. It was time to go, time to do something else, anything else, and no matter how much she loved Mel and the rest of the crew, modeling was no longer right for her. It hadn’t been for a long time, for two years at least.

“Ladies, help me bid a fond and loving farewell to our very own Sofia!”

Fia pushed back tears when she heard the cheers and pushed back more when feminine arms encircled her. This world, filled with cameras and clothes, girls and brutal workouts, and early mornings and late nights had been her life since she was sixteen. She hugged her friends, and many members of the crew, before stepping into Mel’s arms.

Holding on tight, she spoke so only Mel could hear her low-pitched voice. “Oh, God, what the hell am I doing?”

Mel’s arms tightened before she stepped back. At five two, the powerhouse creative director of this live show, with her graying, thick curls and skinny frame, dressed entirely in black, was a force to be reckoned with. Her reading glasses were pushed onto her forehead and her dark, intelligent eyes flashed with concern. Grabbing Fia by the wrist, Mel pulled her to a quiet corner, had Fia place her back to the room, and Mel slapped her hands on her hips. “Now, what is this about?”

Fia shrugged, her satin dressing gown falling off one shoulder. “This is what I know, what I’m good at.”

“Nonsense! You’ve never done anything else, so how would you know?” Mel demanded, her tone tart. That was what Fia loved about Mel, she called a spade a spade. Placing her tablet on the small table next to her, she placed her hands on Fia’s biceps and rubbed her arms from elbow to shoulder. “Honey, you’re just scared of the unknown, scared of what comes next.”

“My retirement has caused shock waves, Mel. I can’t step out of my front door without being mobbed. Jon is wringing his hands and Lilla is furious that I am retiring now. I’ve fielded calls from all the creative directors at all the lux fashion houses, demanding to know if I’m ill or dying or depressed.” She pulled a face. “They also went to great pains to tell me that if I was going into rehab, then I’d be welcomed back with open arms.”

“Idiots.” Mel waved the idea away. “Jon is your business manager and of course he’s going to be pissed, he’s losing a valuable client. Ditto for Lilla. But she has many other models and, although you are special, darling, you are not indispensable.”

Fia winced. Tough talk and exactly what she needed.

“Of course, people are going to be upset, Fia. You’re at the height of your career. You have a face and body to die for and because you’re also a sweetheart and so damn professional, everybody wants to work with you. Nobody wants to see you go,” Mel stated.

“But I need to,” Fia whispered.

She’d needed to since she woke up, fully dressed in that inn in Katesbridge, her head pounding and her stomach roiling. That morning, her pillow smeared with drool, her eyes gritty from the contacts and her head sweaty from sleeping in that wig—and, God, a headache from hell—she’d taken a hard look at her life and admitted she needed to do something different. It had taken her eighteen months to fulfill all her contracts, to honor her commitments. This show—a spectacle of fashion and jewels and music was watched by millions worldwide—would be her last professional engagement.

Mel reached up to touch her cheek. “You need to move on, darling.”

Any other creative director would be on her knees begging Fia to stay but Mel always, always put her models’ emotional well-being at the top of her priority list. “Fia, you are miserable. You have been miserable for a long time. Since your mom died, since you broke up with Galen, and stopped talking to Cait.”

“I miss my mom more than I miss them,” Fia insisted.

“You can’t just brush off the fact that you came home from Cape Town and your mom’s funeral to find your best friend in bed with Galen, drugs, and people having sex everywhere.”

Yeah, it had been the very crappy ending to a horrible, devastating two weeks.

Losing Cait had hurt more than losing Galen. But what scared Fia most was the thought she’d had, standing in the doorway of her bedroom, looking at her bed and the tangle of arms and legs. She’d glanced at her side table and saw the lines of coke, the bottle of oxy. The group sex had been repellent but for an instant, just for a moment, she was tempted to take a hit of coke, to suck down a bottle of whiskey. To forget, just for five minutes, how alone and sad and miserable she felt.

Mel stood on her toes to kiss Fia on her cheek. “I don’t want to see you go, darling, but I do believe you need to. You need to find whatever it is you are looking for, another place to shine. This doesn’t make you happy anymore and, more than anything, I want you to be happy.”

Fia smiled. “Thank you. Thank you for being here, for me, every step of the way.”

Mel shrugged. “You’re not too much a pain in my ass.” She looked at her watch, released a harried sigh. “Now, shoo! You have makeup and hair because, right now, you look like a hag.”

Fia smiled at Mel’s teasing comment and watched her walk away. Knowing she had another five minutes before she needed to report for hair and makeup, Fia leaned her shoulder into the wall and watched the craziness that happened behind the scenes. It was all controlled madness—a collective hive committed to staging the greatest fashion show of the year—and to an outsider, it looked like the place was on fire but, by the time the curtains parted, and the opening act belted out the first notes, it would run as smooth as clockwork.

But, for the next five minutes, she could stand here and take it all in.

Twelve years, twelve shows. Where had the time gone? She’d burst onto the modeling scene as a fresh sixteen-year-old, protected by a pit-bull mother who wouldn’t let Fia out of her sight. She’d been embarrassed to be trailed by Belle but, in hindsight, Fia was grateful she’d had a solid, stable presence to guide her through this strange world. She’d seen many younger girls go off the rails, get caught up in the glamour and the parties and the craziness they were exposed to. Belle kept Fia’s feet on the ground, constantly reminding her that her looks were just genetics; it was whether she was pretty on the inside that was important. Belle had been tough, but she was also the reason why Fia managed to have a long career without messing up.

Her mom retired when Fia was twenty-one, telling her she was old enough to look after herself. However, nothing much changed between them. Her mom had been as much her sounding board via phone and Skype as she’d been while she was at Fia’s side. They’d been in constant communication until the minute she died. And Fia meant that literally. She’d been on the phone to her mom when she’d heard her pained cry, then a low gurgle. Her mom died from a brain aneurysm with her phone in her hand, talking to her daughter halfway across the world.

The weeks that followed had been horrible and confusing. She’d flown home immediately, helped her brothers organize the funeral and she’d been touched when many of her colleagues, photographers, and designers made the trip to Cape Town to celebrate her mom’s life. Her three brothers and her uncle had been pallbearers and, along with her brothers, Fia had planned to speak at Belle’s funeral. She’d stood on the stage and sobbed, and Dec read her speech on her behalf. A few days later, she’d attended the reading of Belle’s will and, as expected, her estate had been split evenly between her children, with Fia inheriting her spectacular engagement ring and some other key pieces of her jewelry collection. It made no sense to Fia that the world kept turning despite her mom’s death. The family business—run by Dec with Keegan with Dash’s help—would continue, the farms would continue to produce grapes and citrus, breed award-winning cattle and horses and their tourism-based lodges would still be a favorite haunt of international guests.

The one thing that surprised her, that punched through her grief, was the news that she and her siblings had inherited a small ranch in Connor County, Texas, just outside the town of Katesbridge. It was, as they were told, a piece of water-rich land landlocked by a spread owned by a famous Texas ranching family—the Donovans—but was, as the financial statements showed, ridiculously valuable. And lucrative. It was theirs to sell and the Donovans were willing to buy.

Her mom’s death rocked Fia to her core and she felt like she’d lost her compass, her true north, her guiding light. Her mom had been her best friend, her pre-Jon manager, her wise counsel and, after Belle returned to Cape Town, she’d been Fia’s link to her brothers, her home, and her roots. Her brothers, nine, eight, and seven years older than her, were involved in Shaw-Price Holdings and while she’d inherited her fair financial share of her father’s empire, she’d never been encouraged to join the family business. Dec was the managing partner, Keegan the CFO, and Dash was their sales director. They had all areas of the business covered. They didn’t need her. So, she’d returned to New York to find a drug and booze-filled orgy happening at her house.

Wanting some connection to her mom, to something that was hers, she’d caught a cab to the airport and, still dressed in her paparazzi deceiving red wig and contacts, booked the first flight she could to Texas. Visiting First Creek Farm, a small piece of land her brothers wanted to sell, was a spur of the moment decision. Sure, she’d run from NYC but she also believed that, before they sold the property unseen, someone should show some interest in the land they’d inherited.

Arriving late in Katesbridge, she’d booked into a room at the local inn, thinking she’d visit the property in the morning. She’d take that evening to relax and steadily drank her way through the courtesy liquor in the fridge, had a bottle of wine over her solitary supper, and then went looking for a bar.

She’d found one. And the note on the dresser the next morning, the words burned into her brain, indicated she’d found more than she’d bargained for. And nothing she could remember.

Firstly, nothing happened between you and me. But you had a seriously close call. You got lucky, Red. For future reference, I suggest a little less liquor and a lot more caution.

The last statement burned into her brain. What did he mean, she’d had a close call? What happened? What had she done? Had she hurt someone, embarrassed herself, run into some sort of trouble? Her memories of that night were fog-covered. She remembered a country bar, a jukebox, a strong, strong arm around her waist, the smell of new leather car seats and sexy male.

Could she believe the note’s writer when he said nothing happened between them? She’d woken up with a pounding headache but fully clothed, but he could’ve, God, redressed her. She didn’t think she’d had sex with a stranger, but it worried her she couldn’t be a hundred percent sure. Because of that minuscule chance, she’d had a barrage of tests which had come back negative but…God. She shuddered. Who? Why? What happened?

She never made it to the property and because her mom’s estate turned out to be linked to her late, very wealthy father’s estate, it had taken nearly eighteen months to work its way through both the South African and the US legal systems. The property was now, officially, her and her siblings’. Her brothers were still of the opinion they should unload it as soon as possible and they’d negotiated a price from the neighboring rancher. The documents were drawn up, the buyer had the cash on hand, and they were all waiting for her signature for the deal to go ahead.

She had three brothers and, she presumed, a rancher exceedingly annoyed with her for delaying the process but Fia felt compelled to see the property before they sold it. Why did she feel this compulsion to return to Katesbridge? Was it because she really felt the need to see the property or was it because she wanted an excuse to return to that town to try and work out what happened on that summer’s night eighteen months ago?

Either way, as soon as this show was done, she was heading back to Katesbridge. And, after that, she’d return to New York and decide what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

But first, makeup and hair. It was time to be a supermodel for one last time.

End of Excerpt