A Christmas Romance

by

Nancy Holland

Just when he thought he knew everything, love taught him the ultimate lesson

J.T. Guzman still blames Meredith Hart and her father for his brother’s death. Bitter and grieving, he left the beloved ranch vowing never to return. Now a successful NYC attorney, he’s forced to return home to protect his mother’s financial interests when his step-father dies and divides the ranch between J.T.’s mother and Meredith in trust for her son. Seeing Meredith again hurts more than he imagined.

Meredith has loved J.T. for as long as she can remember. As teens, he barely noticed her clumsy, youthful attempts to get his attention, except to wrongly condemn her on flimsy evidence. Now that her father is dead, she’s willing to do anything including work alongside him, if it means she can hold on to her son’s heritage. Finding forgiveness is a dream she’s also not quite willing to abandon.

Drawn back into an emotional entanglement he thought he’d left behind, J.T. discovers that, far from being the enemy, Meredith may become the woman he loves.

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J.T. Guzman had sworn he’d never set foot on Will Hart’s ranch again. Since today was old man Hart’s funeral, it wasn’t his ranch anymore, so J.T. figured he’d kept his word. Still, the faster he could get away from here again the better.

When he got out of the rental car, a gasp drew his attention to the low porch of the adobe ranch house.

Meredith Hart stood on the top step, staring at him wide-eyed, as if faced with a ghost. His brother Frank’s ghost, no doubt. The bitterness in J.T.’s gut burned deeper.

He hadn’t seen Meredith since Frank’s funeral seven years ago. She’d been sixteen then; a skinny kid with long, dark hair flying in the wind at the cemetery. The black dress had only made the bump in her belly more obvious, as if she’d swallowed a basketball whole.

Dressed in black again today, an elegant suit this time, she was still thin, but her hair was short and curled around her face, a face that had matured from pretty to beautiful.

He made a token effort to dredge up some sympathy for her, but his well of sympathy for Meredith Hart had dried up the day his brother died.

Meredith turned to speak to someone behind her just as J.T.’s mother spotted him.

Peg Guzman’s sky blue eyes glowed with relief. “You made it.” She threw her arms around him in a hug that might have pushed the breath out of a lesser man. “I’m so glad.”

Most people wouldn’t have noticed the slight hiccup of swallowed tears, but J.T. took his mother’s too slender body into his arms and held her tightly. No matter what he thought of Will Hart, she’d loved the man.

J.T. should have come sooner. Any of his associates could have handled the Markham appeal, but it had been a convenient excuse. He’d let his hatred of old man Hart override his mother’s need to have him here during Hart’s last illness.

His mother pulled free of J.T.’s hug and dabbed at her eyes with a fancy white handkerchief she’d probably bought when Hart took her to Denmark last year.

“Sorry for the waterworks. That should be the last of them, now you’re here.”

She didn’t mean them to, but her words cut. And J.T. deserved it. She’d needed him and he hadn’t been here.

Afraid anything he said would only make her feel worse, he held the rental car door while she got into the passenger seat.

He walked around to the driver’s seat resisting the urge to loosen his tie. He’d forgotten how warm it could get in early November on the central California coast.

“You should be in the limo with Meredith.” He couldn’t stop himself from grumbling to his mother once he was in the car. “She doesn’t need a whole car to herself.”

“She isn’t by herself.”

“I suppose that dragon of an aunt of hers came all the way up from LA for the big event. I’d bet she’s as glad to see the last of Hart as I am.”

“Joaquin…” His mother’s tone, more than the use of his first name, warned him he’d said too much.

Before he could backtrack, a young man in a black suit tapped on the car’s windshield. J.T. turned on the engine and lowered the window.

“Sir, Ms. Hart says you should be the second car in line.”

J.T. put the car in gear and drove past the small group of the shirttail relatives Will Hart never had much time or respect for, all of them eager for a share of the old man’s money. Money that, by right, should go to the grieving woman beside him.

Damn the Harts, anyway. He couldn’t wait until he could get his mother out of this place and moved into his condo on Central Park, where she could have the kind of life she deserved.

He wasn’t a mama’s boy, far from it, but he wasn’t stupid, either. Without his mother’s faith, love, and encouragement, he’d never have made it from working on old man Hart’s ranch to being one of the most successful criminal defense lawyers in New York City. He owed her everything.

Meredith’s bowed head in the car in front of him brought an unwelcome pang of sympathy. He shook it off and reminded himself that he owed the Harts considerably less than nothing.

Joaquin! Meredith had told herself he wouldn’t come, but here he was, big as life. She’d need to remember he called himself J.T. now.

He’d filled out since she’d last seen him, and gotten himself a hand-tailored suit. Probably dozens of them, if his mother’s accounts of his success were true, which, of course, they would be. As proud as she was of her older son, Peg wouldn’t lie about his accomplishments. She’d have been just as proud if he was still a hand on the ranch.

Leave it to Joaquin to show up now. For seven years, he’d refused to set foot on the ranch, despite his mother’s pleas. On his rare visits to California, Peg had been forced to drive all the way down to Santa Barbara if she wanted to see her son. Most of the time, she’d had to fly to New York to see him, something she hadn’t been able to do once she’d become the primary nurse and caretaker.

Another shockwave of grief swept over Meredith. The anguish would ease with time, but her father’s death was still an open wound, bleeding anger along with the pain.

In a way, she’d lost her father a long time ago, lost his love and respect. Ever since she’d told him she was pregnant at sixteen, she’d lived with a cold, demanding stranger. Now she was free from the constant reminder she’d failed him. Now she could never win back his love.

“Mommy, did you hear what I said?” a small, tearful voice beside her said.

Pulled back to the present, she managed a thin smile. “No, darling. What was it?”

Her six-year-old son Tommy turned his face away. “Will Grandpa and my dad be friends, now they’re both up in heaven? Will God make them like each other?”

Meredith searched her mind for the right words. “Remember what Father Diego said when he talked to you about Grandpa dying? In heaven, people are different. God won’t have to make them like each other. They just will.”

If only forgiveness was that easy in real life.

Tommy nodded and began to kick his feet against the car seat. “When are we gonna leave for the church?”

“Soon, I hope.”

“Old man Hart left the ranch to Meredith’s kid?” J.T. shook his head in disbelief.

The whole situation was unbelievable. For years, Will Hart had allowed him in this house only for Peg’s sake. Now, J.T. was comfortably settled with his mother in the leather armchairs by the fireplace in the home office Meredith had reluctantly told his mother he could use, a glass of Hart’s best whiskey in his hand.

“Yes, he left everything to Tommy,” his mother replied.

At least the shirttail relatives hadn’t gotten any of it.

J.T. had known Meredith had a kid, of course, but the idea still took some getting used to. He always pictured her the way she’d been at Frank’s funeral—four months pregnant, scared, and so terribly alone.

He’d hardly noticed the boy by her side today. Not much of Frank in that kid. Will Hart must have been happy about that.

“You should have gotten half,” he told his mother.

“Half of everything else, maybe, but the ranch should be Meredith’s. She loves this place. She’s devoted herself to keeping it going ever since Will first got sick. Before that, even.”

J.T. wouldn’t waste any sympathy on the likes of Meredith Hart, but his mother was clearly upset. He set down his glass on the low table between them and took her hand in his.

“You should have seen the look on her face when the lawyer told us,” his mother went on. “It was as if Will had slapped her.”

The image his mother conjured up struck a chord in J.T.’s heart, maybe because it reminded him of how Meredith had reacted when Frank died. She’d walked around in a state of shock for days. His mother had worried she might lose the baby.

“Mom, let’s focus on how to protect your rights here.”

“I have no rights.” Again the quaver in her voice no one else would notice. “Will and I weren’t married.”

“You should have been.”

She stiffened and pulled her hand free.

The shadows cast by the flickering fire made her look young and beautiful, then old and worn by turn. At fifty-five she was still a good-looking woman. He hoped someday she’d find herself another man, one who treated her the way she deserved to be treated.

“What went on between Will and me isn’t any of your business,” she reminded him, as she always did.

He picked up his glass and took a sip of the whiskey. “What exactly did his lawyer say?”

“Everything Will owned was in a trust set up for Tommy. Meredith and I are co-trustees until he turns twenty-five, then we each get an annuity for the rest of our lives.”

“How much?”

She sniffed and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Does it really matter?”

“Yes, it matters.” He quickly tamped down his anger. As she’d pointed out, this wasn’t about him. “How much did old man Hart think fifteen years of your life was worth?”

She looked straight at him the way she used to when he was in trouble as a boy. “Twice as much as he thinks the twenty-five years his daughter will spend raising Tommy is worth.”

J.T. managed not to react. “He probably assumed she’ll get married.”

“He knew better. How’s she going to meet anyone when she’s got Tommy to raise and this ranch to run? I loved Will, but I hated the way he treated Meredith. It was almost the only thing we ever argued about.”

Because you never stood up to him. But that wasn’t true. His mother and Hart had had a good relationship, or as good as the old man was capable of. But what he’d done to Meredith proved he hadn’t been a good enough man for Peg.

As if she’d read his thoughts, his mother said, “Will wasn’t a bad man. He just loved Meredith too much to forgive her.”

J.T. took another sip. “That’s a pretty sick kind of love.”

“It’s the love of a proud man, a man who can’t accept any weakness in himself or anyone else. Your father was like that. You are, too, you know.”

He shook her words away. “I like to think I’d love my own daughter enough to forgive her for getting pregnant at sixteen, even if the father was one of my stable hands.”

“It was more than that. It took him years to get used to the idea that he’d never have a son. He’d just started to see Meredith as someone who could take over the ranch someday. He knew she’d need college for that.”

“But she got her degree, even with a baby in tow.”

J.T. had to admit to a grudging admiration for what that must have cost Meredith. Too many of his clients had had single mothers who hadn’t been able to cope with daily life, much less graduate from college with honors.

Of course, none of his clients’ mothers had had the kind of money Meredith had, or someone like J.T.’s mother in their corner.

“By then Will was too convinced she’d ruined her life to be able to appreciate what she’d accomplished. He always had a hard time admitting he was wrong.” She sniffled and looked away. “And sometimes his temper got the best of him.”

Which was why Frank was dead. J.T. didn’t allow himself to say the words. His mother always defended the Harts, father and daughter. He’d learned not to vent his bitterness with her. Besides, she’d had enough grief for one day.

Maybe she didn’t think the Harts were to blame for Frank’s death, or maybe she was able to forgive them. J.T. didn’t know, or care, which. All he knew was that if it hadn’t been for Will and Meredith Hart, his brother would still be alive.

End of Excerpt