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Lucas St. Claire looked at the ceiling and blew out a breath. He’d been reclining on the sofa in his suite all morning, going over and over in his head how to tell his family he was getting married.
He was a grown man. It wasn’t like he was too young or it was bad news. But his family almost prided themselves on knowing what was happening in each other’s lives and this curve ball he was about to throw was going to knock them off their game for sure.
His boot-clad feet were crossed at the ankles, propped up on the coffee table in front of him. If one could call it that. More the size of a dining room table, it was long enough for him to lay his six-foot-one frame down on it and still have room.
His parents had built the St. Claire mansion in Marietta, Montana, when he was about ten years old. Wings, or suites, had been built for each St. Claire child over the years. His older brothers, Wes and Mike, had theirs on one side of the center of the house while he and his little sister, McKenna—the only girl and youngest St. Claire—had theirs on the other side.
While Wes and Mike had gone more modern with their design, Lucas had chosen a country cowboy look, complete with chandeliers made from wagon wheels, massive wood beamed ceilings, and a stone fireplace where a fire crackled and warmed the room. Brown leather sofas he could sink his whole body into rounded out the cozy western feel he wanted when he came to Montana.
Sure, he loved living in the “home base” property, as the family called it, in New York, but for certain reasons he’d only admit to himself, Montana had always fit him best.
He’d been there for a week already and planning to stay through Thanksgiving and Christmas, but still batted around in his head how to tell his family there would be a wedding Christmas Eve. It was what Vanessa wanted and he wasn’t about to argue with that.
The fact that he’d met Vanessa a mere few months ago, was now engaged to her, and was planning on making things official rather quickly didn’t worry him too much. Sure, it would be a lot to plan in a short amount of time, but it was possible. As the CEO of her father’s marketing company in New York, Vanessa was a woman who got things done. He didn’t have any doubts she could pull it off.
And his family would understand. They’d be on board as soon as they met Vanessa and saw that Lucas was happy. Besides, as the youngest boy and sort-of middle child, he’d always been good with going with the flow. He shrugged as if someone were in the room with him and could hear his thoughts. He was laidback. Chill. Good with what Vanessa wanted.
Of course, he’d been telling himself all of this since he’d arrived in Marietta days before and still hadn’t found the “right” opportunity to tell his news. He looked at his watch. Time was running out. Vanessa was flying in that afternoon. He sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees. It was now or never.
A Christmas wedding was in the cards whether his family liked it or not.
Wes’s voice echoed in the massive kitchen.
Lucas was hoping to talk to his brothers and dad alone without any spouses around just yet, but based on the way Wes’s demeanor softened when his wife, Noelle, placed a hand on his arm, Lucas thought it might be in his favor to have his new sisters-in-law there.
“That’s great, Lucas! Congratulations.” Franchesca’s dark curls bounced as she hopped off her barstool and gave him a hug. God bless Mike’s wife. She’d cut through the tension a bit with her response. She climbed back up in her chair and smiled. “When do we get to meet the lucky lady?”
Yes. Definitely a good thing to have his sisters-in-law in the room.
Oblivious to the steely looks his brothers and father were giving him, Franchesca’s enthusiasm made Lucas want to stand next to her and bask in her positive aura for a bit.
“She’s flying in this afternoon. I’m going to go get her.”
“Is she on the family plane?”
Lucas was aware Wes would already know the answer to that question, being the head of the family company, as well as in the know about the comings and goings of each St. Claire, but he decided to humor his brother and answer anyway.
“No. I’m headed to Billings to get her soon.”
“You should’ve used the family plane.”
Lucas turned to his father. “Well, Vanessa wanted to surprise everyone so…”
His father shook his head. “I’m so sorry. Congratulations, son.” He stepped toward Lucas and shook his hand then pulled him into a hug.
Now it was Lucas’s turn to be surprised. He could count on one hand the times his father had embraced him that way. Wes had said his father had softened since their mother’s death. Evidently, Wes was right.
“Yeah. Congrats, bro.” Mike shook Lucas’s hand as well and gave him a hug. “I think you just caught us all off guard. That’s a quick turnaround from meeting to marrying. You sure you want to go through all that during the holidays? You guys could always wait a few more months.”
“That’s true,” Wes agreed.
He still stood beside Noelle. Lucas didn’t expect hugs from him anytime soon. Not that his brother was a jerk or anything. Just stoic. Hell, Lucas was surprised the man even caught the eye of, and married, a woman like Noelle, being all work and no play. But she was good for Wes, Lucas could see.
And he found it ironic that both his brothers were encouraging him to wait. Wes and Noelle had eloped on a weekend away in New York and Mike and Franchesca married only months after getting together. Who were they to judge?
That small voice in the back of Lucas’s head needled at him. The one with all the little comments he’d heard his whole life about being the “less serious” St. Claire. How he didn’t have as much focus as his brothers, was more apt to do things on a whim. That was one of the things that drew him to Vanessa. She wasn’t unlike Wes in that she ran her family’s successful business and balanced out the relaxed side of Lucas.
“Vanessa wants to get married at Christmas so that’s what we’ll do.”
“I think it sounds lovely, Lucas.” Noelle left her barstool and came to hug him. A former ballet dancer, she all but floated when she walked. Wes had found an angel right there on earth. “Christmas is the perfect time for a wedding.”
“Says the woman named Noelle with a sister named Holly.” Franchesca teased.
They all laughed.
“A wedding for Christmas it is!” Daniel clapped his hands together. “As soon as we meet Vanessa, we’ll get going on plans.”
Lucas took a big breath in and let it out. Done. He’d told them.
Erin Tanner pulled her 1985 Toyota truck into the driveway and cut the engine. Even with three layers on, a shiver ran through her. The heater in the old truck wasn’t quite what it used to be, but what was? She dropped the keys in her purse, which sat beside her on the seat.
It wasn’t her truck, per se. It was her dad’s. But since his accident, anything that had to do with running the family ranch was deemed hers. All the equipment, animals, and responsibility fell on her shoulders. Sure, her twin brother could step up, but she didn’t have the energy to let her mind wander there. It had been a long day of battling bankers, wrestling feed bags into the truck from the feed store, and doing all of it in cold Montana temperatures.
It was a clear day, which was a blessing, but still butt-freezing cold. Although she’d been born and raised in Marietta, the bite in the air never ceased to amaze her.
She hopped from the truck, her purse slung over her shoulder. It wasn’t due to snow that night so she left the feed bags in the truck. Tucker would be by early in the morning and he could take them to the barn. A teenager looking to make a buck or two before and after school, he was a good kid and didn’t charge her much, so she kept him. Not that she could afford it, even at a meager hourly wage he seemed more than happy with, but the little extra help was worth her pinching a penny here and there for him to stay.
Wendall Emmerson was their ranch hand, a friend of her dad’s from his rodeo days. His salary was about all she could still handle. She’d be lost without his help. Even with the few helping hands they had, they managed. For now, it was enough.
The warmth of the house enveloped her as she stepped in the front door and closed it behind her.
“Hey, Dad! I’m home!”
“In here, Girl Child.”
Erin smiled. Her dad had called her that since she and her twin brother were little. It was “Boy Child” and “Girl Child” rather than Erin and Eric.
She dropped her purse on the entryway table and moved into the kitchen to find her dad at the sink, rinsing and snapping green beans then putting them in a pot of water. Gauge, their eight-year-old black Labrador retriever sat beside Clayton Tanner’s wheelchair, ever faithful to his owner, as well as smart enough to know that food would be dropped and it would be his for the taking.
“You don’t need to do that, Dad.”
“Hey, I can still prep dinner.”
Erin’s stomach did the little flip it always did when she thought of her dad’s accident. He didn’t tiptoe around it, but rather had grabbed the bull with both hands and became as mobile as possible in his wheelchair, put there by a car accident, and damned if anything was going to slow him down. A former rodeo champ, his will had overpowered many an angry bull in his time. He didn’t see his current situation any different.
It had been almost five years now. Erin had returned home from college not long before, ready to be a part of the family ranching business. But as a team with her father and brother. Instead, her brother had spiraled down a destructive path and moved to Bozeman then her father ended up not able to physically care for the ranch anymore. Her mother had left when she and Eric were little so that left Erin to try to pick up the pieces.
Not that her father expected that of her. He’d offered many times to sell the ranch and live a quiet life in a small farmhouse somewhere, but the ranch was as much her dream as it was his. And she could be as stubborn as he was when necessary. The apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree on that one.
They were behind on some payments and things had been tight, but it was still manageable. They would make it. And if she kept telling herself that, maybe it would be true.
“Tucker took me into town earlier. I saw Lucas St. Claire.”
The hair on the back of Erin’s neck stood up. She gave her dad a kiss on the forehead and turned to wash her hands at the sink. Masking her reaction when anyone brought up that name had become a pastime of hers. She was getting quite good at it.
“Oh yeah?” Of course she’d heard he was back visiting Montana.
Marietta was a small town. News traveled fast. She’d even caught a glimpse of him once, but turned and got in her truck before he saw her.
“I hear he’s staying through the holidays.”
Her father’s comments were innocent. There was no way he had any idea of what had happened between her and Lucas. No way of knowing her feelings for him when she was younger, how she still harbored those feelings all these years later.
“We should invite him over to go riding, like when you two were kids.”
Erin scrubbed at her hands as if the memories themselves could be scraped away and washed down the drain with the soap and water.
Lord help her, if her father invited him over…
“I only saw him from a distance. Wasn’t able to speak with him. But maybe we should go and visit. Say hello.”
Erin swallowed hard. Not only had masking her reaction to Lucas St. Claire become an art form for her, but avoiding him when he was in town had as well.
“I’m sure he’s busy, Dad.” She turned off the water and dried her hands. “Let’s get dinner going.”
She grabbed the marinated roast from the fridge and began prepping it in a pan. Making a comment about how well the truck was running had the desired effect. Her dad switched topics without blinking and the two of them fell into their evening rhythm of moving around the kitchen and chatting. The truck was her father’s second love, Erin and her brother being his first, so bringing it up was always a great fallback when she needed to change the subject.
As her father spoke of getting the truck painted again, even though he’d had it painted only a few years before and it was in mint condition considering its age, she tried to move her thoughts to the present instead of a certain strawberry blond, New York cowboy with blue eyes that reminded her of Montana summer skies.
As much as she’d love to say she was over her crush on Lucas St. Claire, Erin had to admit he was still the only man who held her full attention, not to mention her heart.
But he didn’t even recall her existence.
End of Excerpt