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“You didn’t tell me the Bar V5 held the Guinness World Record for the longest driveway.” Rachel Murphy stared out the windshield of her brother Tyler’s 4×4 pickup. Against Montana’s big sky—a gorgeous, cloudless, cornflower blue this December morning—the snow covering tree branches and mountaintops looked white enough to eat, like whipped cream or better yet meringue. “Guess you need to make sure guests can’t run away from the ranch and hitch a ride back to town.”
Ty tapped his thumb against the leather-steering wheel in time with the Christmas carol playing. “People come to the Bar V5 to escape the daily grind. But some folks can’t survive without being connected 24×7 and are gone by the second day.”
Rachel checked her mobile phone. Zero bars. Plenty of snow, but no cellular service. She couldn’t decide who was crazier—her brother for choosing to live year round in the middle-of-nowhere or her for agreeing to spend December with him.
“Truth is, most guests hate to leave the Bar V5.” Ty’s satisfied smile and pride in his voice reaffirmed how much he loved his job at the working dude ranch, his life as a cowboy.
She couldn’t be happier for him, even if she missed him. After their parents’ deaths when she was ten, he’d put his life on hold, staying in Arizona and raising her. He’d waited until she was settled into culinary school before moving to Marietta, Montana seven years ago.
“We have repeat visitors each summer,” he added.
“Summer being the operative word. I should have come then.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“You’re oblivious to the elements.” She wiggled her freezing gloved fingers in front of the heater vent. The warm air helped a little. She hadn’t been warm since she flew into Bozeman four days ago. Boy, did she miss Phoenix. She’d never complain about the heat again. “Montana’s lovely, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think there’s been a temperature in the double digits since I arrived. I finally understand why people flock to Arizona in the winter. This is brutal.”
“You get used to the cold and snow.”
“I suppose, but this is nothing like home.” Rachel needed this breather, a winter adventure in the northwest with her brother, but she’d been born in Arizona and lived there her entire life. Her mom and dad were buried there. She had no plans to move away from the desert. Ever. “Sunny and dry. Saguaros and Sun-Devils.”
“Home is wherever the people you love are.”
The affection in his voice chased away the cold. Tyler Murphy was over-protective and treated Rachel like she was twelve, not twenty-six, but she couldn’t imagine Christmas—or life—without him. “Guess I’m home for the next three weeks.”
“Damn straight. We’ll make the most of the time and the holidays like we do every year.”
“Except we’ll be having our first white Christmas.”
“It’s going to be special.”
Rachel nodded, but she couldn’t get too excited. She kept thinking about the Phoenix bakery that no longer belonged to her. Last December, she’d worked crazy hours at two jobs to save money and loved every minute. This year felt… different. She swallowed a sigh.
Her brother reached across the bench seat and squeezed her hand. “Thanks for coming to Montana, kiddo.”
Ty had always come to her for the holidays. Some years when he had extra money he flew, other times when he was low on cash he drove, but they had a great Christmas no matter the balance in their checking accounts. Decorating her tree, hanging lights on her apartment’s balcony, counting down the days to December twenty-fifth with a chocolate-filled Advent calendar, hiking South Mountain on Christmas day…
But Ty had asked her to visit him in Montana this year. After her life fell apart—okay, exploded in an icky mess of sugar, spice and everything-not-so-nice, she’d jumped at the chance to escape and try to forget about being played a fool by so-called friends.
A hundred-pound ball of regret and hurt crushed her chest. Rachel forced a breath, then pasted on a smile. “How could I turn down an invitation to spend Christmas in a winter wonderland with my favorite brother?”
“I’m your only brother.”
Ty followed up the old joke between them with a silly face, one that used to make her laugh when she felt like crying. So far during her stay, she’d cried only twice. Progress. “Then it’s good thing I didn’t go to Wyoming.”
He stuck out his tongue.
She did the same.
Getting away from Arizona and spending time with Ty was helping. She enjoyed seeing his life in Montana, rather than imagining it from phone calls, texts, and Skype chats. He had a room at the Bar V5 and also leased an apartment in the small town of Marietta. A refuge for times he wanted to get away from the ranch, he claimed. More likely, knowing her brother, when he wanted to get drunk at Grey’s Saloon and not drive. Getting a ride to the ranch late at night must be impossible.
The truck’s studded tires crunched against the snow. “All I Want For Christmas” played in the background, the jolly melody a counterpoint to her meh mood.
All Rachel wanted for Christmas was to get a do-over for the last six months ago. Not even Santa could manage that.
She’d been on her own, dealing with the betrayal and loss of her dream these past weeks, wishing there’d been someone special in her life, someone who lived closer than Montana, who she could have leaned on for support and who would have made her smile when all she wanted to do was cry. She hadn’t dated much, but in hindsight none of those guys had treated her better than the Darbys. She’d picked the same kind of boyfriends as she did business partners. Sad, but true.
Up ahead, the road curved toward a two-story log house decorated with white Christmas lights. Garland tied with red ribbon hung from the railing of a wide porch. Light glowed from inside wood pane windows, reminding her of a painting she’d seen on display in a Scottsdale gallery. She leaned forward, the seatbelt strap pressing into her shoulder. “Wow.”
Ty parked. “That’s what I said my first time here.”
She’d visited the Bar V5’s website to check out where her brother worked, but the photographs didn’t capture the beauty and grand scale of the ranch house. The architecture made her think of a mountain lodge—high-end, luxurious accommodations—not a place where cowboys and guests in hats and spurs drank beer and ate at plank tables after a long day on the trail. “I get the appeal. Christmas card perfect.”
“Wait until you see the inside. You’ll love the kitchen.”
She’d been struggling for three days trying to bake and construct gingerbread houses in Ty’s tiny kitchen with a narrow oven and less than three feet of counter space. “Thanks for asking your boss if I could use his.”
“Nate’s a good guy. Knew he wouldn’t mind.”
Nate Vaughn owned the dude ranch. She’d never met him, but Ty had only good words to say about his boss. “I’ll bake him something special as a thank you.”
“He’ll appreciate that.”
Rachel opened the truck’s door; eager to get to work and rid herself of the restlessness she’d felt being unemployed. The cold hit hard and fast, seeping into her bones in spite of her heavy parka, jeans, boots and wool beanie. With a shiver, she grabbed the box full of baking supplies from behind the seat. “Brrrr. It’s colder than yesterday.”
“This is nothing. Wait until February.”
By then, she’d be back home, enjoying the nice weather and, if things worked out as planned this time, baking in her own shop. Maybe she would find a guy to date, a nice guy with manners who treated her well and met with her brother’s approval.
Ty carried two bags full of groceries. “I can’t believe you’re working during your vacation. I wanted you to relax.”
“Baking relaxes me.”
“Starting a brand new business less than forty-eight hours after you arrived is not relaxing. It’s insanity.”
Rachel’s boots sank into the snow, but her feet remained dry. The sales person at the sporting goods store had been honest when he’d sold her cold weather gear. That surprised her. Few people told the truth these days. “Maybe, but the gingerbread houses are selling faster than I can make them, thanks to your friends.”
“You’re working as much as I am.”
“I might as well do something productive. If I can earn some money…”
“I’ve got money you can have.”
“Thanks, but I’m capable of earning my own.” She didn’t need or want anyone’s help, not even her brother’s. She wanted Ty to treat her like an adult. If she took more of his money, whether a gift or a loan, he would keep thinking of her as his kid sister. “If I sell enough gingerbread to cover a lease deposit, I’ll be one step closer to opening a bakery.”
Of course she needed to revise her business plan and create new products, ones she wouldn’t share with a soul this time.
“There are vacancies on Main Street. Front Avenue, too.” Ty bypassed the porch, walking to the right side of the house toward a Dutch door with a window on top. A hanging electric lantern illuminated the area. “Forget about Phoenix. Open a place in Marietta.”
“There are guest ranches in Arizona.” They’d had this discussion for the past seven years, but seeing this place, she didn’t blame him for staying in Montana. But still she played her part. “You should move back. Better weather. Longer tourist season.”
Ty unlocked then opened the door. “Get inside where it’s warm and see your new kitchen.”
Rachel entered a small room. Benches with cubbies underneath, some empty, some filled with shoes, lined the wall on each side of her. Tall cabinets covered the wall behind her. A few cowboy hats, wool beanies, jackets, insulated pants and jeans hung from rows of hooks on the far wall.
She removed her boots and tucked them into a cubby. “Socks okay?”
“Fine.” Ty motioned to a basket of lined moccasin-type shoes. “Unless you want slippers.”
Rachel shrugged off her coat, thankful for the forced air heating set at a comfy temperature. “I’ll stick with socks.”
Carrying the box, she followed Ty through a doorway. The tile floor gave way to gorgeous wide-plank hardwood.
She looked up. Stopped. Gasped.
The most beautiful, most clean, most perfect kitchen she’d ever seen was on display in front of her.
Her brother laughed. “Knew you’d like it.”
“Ty knows best, except I don’t like it. I love it.” She’d baked in a variety of commercial workspaces—culinary school, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and a television studio. None came close to what was now at her disposal. The hickory cabinets, butcher-block counter, wood floors and log walls and high ceiling gave the space a homey feel in spite of the top-of-the-line professional appliances and industrial stainless steel countertops. Her heart danced a jig. “I’m practically drooling.”
He removed items from the grocery sacks. “As opposed to the crying in my kitchen.”
“That crying wasn’t about your apartment, and this will definitely cheer me up.” Rachel set her box on the island’s stainless steel top. Not one, but two professional ranges with so many burners she might have to try out a few fudge recipes. Maybe play with sugar. Warming drawers, two dishwashers, a wall-sized refrigerator, more than enough counter space to assemble the gingerbread houses and make do-it-yourself kits. She spun, giddy with excitement like a kid on Christmas morning. “This is a dream kitchen.”
Ty’s lopsided grin transported her back to sunny days of tubing on the Salt River, spring training baseball games, and late night swims in the apartment complex pool with the temperature still over a hundred. “Then you’d better put on your apron and get busy making your dream come true.”
Talk about a nightmare. Nate Vaughn cursed under his breath. The brisk morning air cleared his head, but did nothing to soothe his frustrations. He removed his duffel bag and a Christmas wreath from the back of his pickup. Yes, he should be over what happened twelve hours ago.
But he wasn’t.
He slammed the shell’s hatch against the back gate.
Last night had been a total waste of time. His date, a twenty-nine year old lawyer named Addison from Helena, was pretty, smart, and fit. Her profile seemed ideal, except she’d left off one critical piece of information—her addiction to texting.
Five minutes after being seated at the finest steak house in town, he wanted to toss her mobile phone off the top of Copper Mountain. The date spiraled downhill from there. If he’d wanted to eat dinner by himself, he could have stayed home and saved the money he’d spent on gas and a motel in Helena. If he hadn’t drunk one beer too many at a dive bar after saying goodbye to Addison, he would have driven home last night.
No more online dating. No more high-priced matchmaking services. No more blind dates.
He trudged to the front porch.
This cowboy was going back to finding a woman the old-fashioned way. He wasn’t talking mail order brides like his great grandfather, either.
Nate would find a date in person.
Somewhere in the state of Montana there had to be a woman he wanted to date more than once. Hell, he might propose on the second date if things ever got that far. All he had to do was find her…
Preferably before New Year’s Eve.
He’d like someone special to kiss when the clock struck midnight and start the year off right.
Nate glanced at the house brightly lit. He’d left more lights on than he realized. At least the interior wouldn’t be dark when he went inside. Empty and quiet though.
The off-season sucked. He’d take summer anytime, when the Bar V5 was full of staff and guests. No time to be bored… or lonely. He’d thought about staying open in the winter, running the ranch like a B&B, but Ty liked giving the horses time to rest. Maybe once the upgrades and remodeling projects were completed they should reconsider.
Nate set the wreath on the front porch, making a mental note to find the hanger, and headed to the mudroom. A silver pickup with an American flag decal in the back window caught his eye.
Ty Murphy—his best friend and partner, though Ty preferred to call himself the foreman—was here. Not surprising. Ty was the hardest worker Nate knew, the one person he could always count on.
He kicked the snow from his ostrich dress boots and opened the mudroom door.
The smell of ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon slammed into him like a stampeding steer. Only this didn’t hurt.
Well, his stomach did. Hunger pains.
His mouth watered with anticipation. He had no idea what was baking or which of his employees had started the morning off in the kitchen, but he wanted a taste.
The scent of Christmas circled his head, tantalizing his nose and taste buds. If he could bottle and sell the scent, he would make a fortune. He glanced around to make sure he hadn’t entered the wrong house.
Nope, this was the Bar V5, the place he’d grown up and, God willing, where he’d die and be buried when his time came.
He hoped that wasn’t in the next five minutes, but if the Grim Reaper was on his way, Nate had better get into the kitchen so he could get a bite of whatever was cooking first. He placed the duffel bag strap on his shoulder then stepped through the doorway.
Silver mixing bowls, spoons and pans stacked haphazardly on top of each other in the sink like a culinary edition of Jenga. Pull one thing out and the entire pile would tumble down.
Cereal bowls, full of different colors of icing, sat in a cluster on the island. Pastry bags twisted like licorice between plastic containers full of sprinkles and candies.
He took a closer look.
Not cookies. Gingerbread.
Like his mom used to make.
That explained the smell.
He rubbed his chin. Stubble pricked his fingers.
Someone had made themselves at home, but who? Ty grilled. He could smoke a mean brisket. But bake? Not likely. The other wranglers usually stuck to the bunkhouse. Maybe elves had decided to pay a visit.
Nate circled the island for a closer look.
White icing held together rectangular and square pieces of gingerbread in various stages of construction. Houses, cottages, even a barn.
On the far counter, miniature white lights illuminated the insides and hung along the eaves of three houses. Christmas trees made from star shaped cookies were strung with lights, too.
Charming and creative.
He wanted a taste.
A small piece of gingerbread, the size of a window cutout, and a few others sat on a paper towel. Scraps to be tossed? No one would miss one. He popped a square into his mouth.
Flavors exploded with just the right mixture of spices and sweetness. Oh, yeah. Whoever baked this knew what they were doing. Wanting more, he reached for another piece. His hand froze. He did a double take.
One of the gingerbread houses looked like the Crawford House. Same Victorian architecture. Similar gables and bay windows. A hint of the whimsical.
Mrs. Annabeth Collier, formerly Crawford, one of Marietta’s First Families, would pay top dollar for a custom gingerbread house. Rather her daughter Chelsea’s billionaire boyfriend Jasper Flint would. And not only them.
Nate wanted one of the Bar V5.
People around here went all out for the holidays. These houses would go over big. He didn’t know how much one cost to make or the profit margin, but with the right marketing…
“Hello.” The feminine voice wrapped around him, warm and welcoming as the scent of gingerbread baking. “Can I help you?”
He turned toward the sweet-as-molasses sound.
A twenty-something woman stood in the laundry room doorway. Blonde hair piled haphazardly on top of her head. Strands stuck out of the messy bun. A puzzled expression complete with two little creases above her nose made him want to see a smile on her pretty face. Clear complexion, straight nose, full lips and warm hazel eyes.
His pulse rate kicked up a notch, maybe two. Okay, five.
Nate recognized, but he couldn’t quite place the color of her eyes. But the way the color changed from light brown to green to a golden hue captivated him.
She wore a simple purple long-sleeved turtleneck, but streaks of white across her chest—flour perhaps?—distracted him, made him want to volunteer for cleanup duty. Faded jeans hugged her hips and thighs until flaring slightly at her calves. Long legs and curvy in all the right places.
Cute candy cane striped sock-covered toes peeked out the bottom. The pattern amused and intrigued him. Part of an elf’s costume or holiday attire?
Either way, Christmas had come early.
He’d been good this year and deserved a reward from Santa. Hot gingerbread baked by a hot woman was making him hot. The only improvement to his wonderful gift would be if she was naked and wearing a red ribbon. Though he could live without the ribbon.
His heart raced, as if trying to catch his horse Arrow when the stallion had escaped from the pasture. Sweat dampened the back of his neck. Had someone turned up the heat?
Her mouth twitched. She looked like she was waiting for something.
Oh, yeah. Him. “Hi.”
Clever, Vaughn. Impressive show of eloquence with a two-letter word. He would try again. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m good. I don’t need any help.”
His mouth twisted. He felt tongue-tied like a teenager talking to his first crush.
“Are you a ranch hand?” She studied him. “Or Nate?”
“Nate.” She knew his name, but he didn’t have a clue who she was or why she was walking around like she owned the place. He should probably care more than he did. But she was pretty and her cooking smelled delicious and most importantly, she wasn’t holding a cell phone or pointing a gun or, he double-checked her left hand, wearing a wedding ring. “And you’re…”
“I was rinsing out my apron in the laundry room,” she said at the same time. A charming pink spread across her face. “Sorry, I’m Rachel.”
“Rachel.” A lovely name to go with a beautiful woman. A woman he wanted to get to know better. Intimately. Before New Year’s Eve. “Nice to meet you.”
“You, too.” She walked toward him, a subtle sway to her hips he found mesmerizing. “Ty’s told me so much about you.”
She nodded. “Thanks for letting me use your kitchen.”
Yesterday’s forgotten conversation rushed back, bunching Nate’s muscles. He rubbed the back of his neck. He knew exactly why her hazel eyes looked familiar.
“You’re Ty’s sister.” So much for an early Christmas present. Nate should have known finding a beautiful blonde cooking in his kitchen was too good to be true. “You’re older than I thought you’d be.”
The corners of Rachel’s mouth curved upward in an almost smile. “Ty thinks I’m still a kid with ponytails crushing on boy bands.”
I don’t. But Nate couldn’t say about his friend’s sister when said friend was as protective of her as a new foal’s momma. “Ty’s a good guy.”
Nate’s gaze held hers a moment too long. He looked away so she wouldn’t think he might be interested in her.
Not going to cross that line, even if he were tempted. He was, but Ty meant too much to Nate for him to do something stupid like put a move on Rachel.
He motioned to the gingerbread houses. “Nice work.”
She stood on the opposite side of the island. “Thanks.”
“Are they gifts?”
The lines above her nose deepened. She picked up a bag full of white icing. “No.”
“Planning to sell them?”
“Does it matter?”
A little defensive. He wondered why. “Just curious.”
About the gingerbread, he reminded himself.
“I made a house for Ty. A friend of his saw it. She ordered one. Then another friend ordered another, and well, here I am.”
“Nice way to earn extra cash.”
Another nod. “We’ll see how many more orders I get.”
“I want one.”
“Yours is on me. A thank you.”
Not only pretty, but sweet. “Thanks.”
“I’m the one who should thank you for letting me use this awesome kitchen.”
“No worries. You’re Ty’s sister. That makes you family.”
Family didn’t date or lust after each other or imagine if she had a beauty mark like the one to the right of her mouth anywhere else on her body.
She adjusted the silver tip on the pastry bag. “That’s nice of you to say.”
“It’s the truth. Your brother is a big reason the Bar V5 has been so successful.” Ty’s dedication over the years made Nate want to help Rachel. “Do you have a marketing plan yet?”
She held the icing bag in front of her, tip pointed at him like a weapon. “Why do you want to know?”
Her suspicious tone matched her stiff posture. Nate had no idea what was wrong, but time for damage control. “I was a venture capitalist before I came home and took over the ranch. I still invest if I see an opportunity.”
She pressed her lips together. “No opportunity here.”
“If you decide you want help—”
“I’m good. But thanks again for letting me use your kitchen. I’ll be sure to clean up my mess before I leave with Ty this afternoon.” She angled her shoulders away from Nate. “I’d better get back to work and leave you to yours.”
Rachel didn’t want his expertise. Fine. But Nate didn’t like being dismissed in his own kitchen when he would rather stay and find out why she acted like he was a villain in a black hat when all he did was offer his help. She was off-limits by virtue of being Ty’s sister, but that didn’t mean Nate couldn’t find out more about her.
Sticking around and getting to know her any better would be a bad idea. He didn’t want to piss off Ty. Might as well get to work. “Have fun baking.”
Though having another taste of her gingerbread couldn’t hurt. Not much anyway. Nate wondered if she would be willing to share…
End of Excerpt