Must Love Christmas


Kelly Hunter

She wants to create the perfect family Christmas…

Heiress Madeline Love has one last chance to impress her father and organize the perfect Christmas—their last one as a family before her father weds a younger woman and forgets about his only daughter. Madeline wants to create some much-needed family memories in their historic Montana ranch that she’s always loved. All she needs is the help of one man, Seth Casey, ranch builder to the rich and famous, to give the neglected ranch a quick holiday facelift.

Contractor and architect Seth Casey has dreamed about buying the dilapidated Love property and restoring it to its former glory since he was old enough to swing a hammer. But when he finally gets the long-awaited call, it’s not what he hoped for. The ranch is not for sale and the design the pampered, poor little rich girl requests is all wrong for the historic property.

Can they put their differences aside in order to make this a Christmas to remember?

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“Morning, Lila.” Madeline Love, only offspring of Wall Street moneymaker Jonas Love, tried to glide rather than rush toward the skyscraper’s bank of private elevators. “Is it midday yet?”

“Two minutes to go.” The elevator doors opened, and Lila put out her arm to keep them that way until Madeline got in. “Great outfit. Love those colors on you.”

“You think so? I try.” She always tried to look her best when meeting her father. Today she wore suede boots and a matching skirt in the exact same caramel color as her eyes. She’d added an ivory silk shirt with an off-center bow at the neck and topped it with a lightweight cashmere coat in Persian blue. Her coat ended just above her skirt and the slender cut made the most of her slight curves. “My father’s taking me out to lunch, fingers crossed.”

The doors closed on Lila’s, “Good luck.”

Knees and heels together, Madeline leaned forward to check her appearance in the mirrored wall. She tidied her silky auburn waves as best she could before leaning closer and checking her teeth for lipstick. By the time the lift doors opened she was a picture of hopeful serenity.

She wasn’t late. She was right on time.

The lift opened into her father’s outer reception area and the first person she saw was her father’s loyal executive secretary. “Good morning, Symonds.”

“Happy birthday, Miss Madeline.” He gestured to an enormous bouquet of peonies peppered with whimsical greenery. “Don’t forget to pick up your flowers on the way out.”

“You never forget. And you always remember the flowers I like best. Is he free?”

“He’s free.” But she hadn’t taken more than two steps toward the door of her father’s inner sanctum before Symonds stopped her with a word. “Coat.”

Symonds had already emerged from his side of the reception desk to help her wriggle her way out of it. Which meant she then had to smooth everything down and tidy her hair all over again. “How do I look?”

“Pretty as a picture, as always.”

She didn’t believe him, but he was a dear sweet man who always made her feel welcome, even when she wasn’t. She raised her hand and knocked on the door and waited. Her father wouldn’t open the door for her, he never did, but Symonds moved into position, grasping the door handle, ready to proceed on cue.

“Come in.”

And… enter the billionaire’s daughter, on time, on task, and manicured to perfection.

“Madeline.” He didn’t rise from his seat behind the glossy executive desk to greet her. He never did, her silver fox of a father with his rangy physique, piercing blue eyes, and air of ruthless command.

“Dad.” She offered what she hoped was a sunny smile.

“Happy birthday.”

“Thank you. It feels good to be twenty-five.” Not that she’d done all that much with her life to date but her interior design career was steadily progressing, and she was learning a lot and had proper friends for what felt like the first time in her life.

He nodded. “Good, good. Do you remember the ranch in Montana?”

“Yes.” Did he seriously think she was likely to forget it?

“It’s yours.”

“I’m sorry? I don’t understand. I didn’t even know you still had it.”

“It passed to you when your mother died, and by the terms of her will, it’s been held in trust until you turned twenty-five.”

“But…” There were still all kinds of gaps in her comprehension. “You’ve never mentioned any kind of inheritance from my mother.”

“You were a child at the time.”

“Yes.” At the time. “But children grow up. Why didn’t you ever mention it?”

His blue eyes narrowed as if she’d somehow disappointed him, but that was nothing new. She’d realized years ago that her father found parenting a challenge. He’d supported her financially, no question. But he’d pretty much outsourced any other kind of parental role.

He pushed a bulging folder across the desk. “The Serenity Valley ranch is yours free and clear with no taxes owing. The grazing land has been leased to neighboring ranchers over the years and that lease is due for renewal this January. The same neighbors also periodically offer to purchase the place for above market price. I suggest you accept. The house needs maintenance. Ask Symonds to put you in touch with my solicitors if you need more information.”

“I… thought we were going for lunch?”

“Something’s come up.”

“Oh.” It usually did. She hid her disappointment with well-practiced ease. Her father was a very busy man. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you?”

For holding onto her legacy even if he’d kept her in the dark all these years?

For not once saying, Hey, remember the ranch? It’s going to be yours one day so keep that in mind as you plan out your life and continue to exist far, far away from me.

She folded her arms across her middle and then just as quickly dropped them, knowing her pose would come across as defensive. “I mean, yes, of course, thank you for caring for it all this time. I’m a little overwhelmed. But thrilled,” she added. “Definitely thrilled.”

“I’d have sold it years ago and built you a far more profitable asset portfolio, but you have to understand that my hands were tied by the terms of the will.”

“But money isn’t everything.” Possibly not the smartest thing to say to a man who had dedicated his life to conquering the money market and thoroughly succeeded. She reached for the folder. Her mother’s gift from beyond the grave. “I have such good memories of the ranch.”

“I didn’t think you would.” How cool he sounded, but for the small catch in his throat at the very end.

“Well.” Traumatic memories threatened to overwhelm her as she dropped her gaze to the table and tried to take an invisible breath. “Some of them I’d rather forget, but not all. Maybe I’ll spend Christmas there this year and make better memories. Do you remember all the snow? And sledding down the hill behind the house? And the round sunken lounge and the fireplace and the little town nearby? What was its name again? Marietta?” She hurried on, words tumbling because his attention never failed to make her nervous. “You’re welcome to join me there for Christmas if you can find the time?” Not that he would. He was a very important, very busy man, but she never stopped asking. Hope was her friend.

“Let’s do it.”

Shock left her speechless.

Her father sat back in his wingback leather power chair, every inch the successful stock-market tycoon that he was. “Did you not just invite me to spend Christmas with you at the ranch?”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Probably not the time to remind him that he hadn’t spent Christmas with her in years. With her father unavailable, and a family unit that consisted of just the two of them, she’d taken to riding out the delights of the season first at boarding school and then at the midtown loft her father had gifted her on her twenty-first birthday. But she’d always wanted to spend it with him. She hadn’t given up hope. “It’ll be so much fun.”

“I’d like to bring some guests.”

“Okay.” She nodded, widened her eyes, and figured why not? Christmas was a time of giving. She didn’t need all her father’s attention. Just some of it. “Sounds good. Business associates?”

“My son.”

Madeline blinked.

“He’s seven. You’ll need to get a tree in with all the trimmings.”

“Your… son.” Across all her expensive therapy and brutal self-examination when it came to why her father had all but abandoned her after her mother’s death, him having another family to be with had never once crossed her mind. In the end, she’d been encouraged to think that far from him being neglectful, she was simply asking too much of a very busy man. “You have a son?”


“Who is seven.” Saying it aloud did not increase her understanding. “Who you’ve never mentioned?”

“And my fiancée will be joining us as well.”

“You have a fiancée?” Her fingers clenched over the back of a nearby chair. “Do you mind if I sit?”

“I have another meeting in five minutes.”

She sat anyway, clasped her hands on top of the folder he’d just given her and squared her shoulders, legs crossed below the knee and knees together just so. This was what expensive finishing schools in Switzerland were good for, she realized suddenly. These moments when everything she thought she knew about her world had just been proven false… and there she sat, demurely attentive. Not one single scrap of her inner turmoil evident.

Or maybe she was dreaming, and her father could see full well that she was weeping existential angst all over the Aubusson.

“Your fiancée… is the… your son’s mother?” Maybe her father had been with this woman briefly eight or so years ago and then something had happened to part them, and… “And you’ve probably only just found out you have a son and…”


“Oh.” She had no other words to put toward this situation.

“I was there at Cade’s birth.”

“Oh.” Her half-brother had a name.

“I usually spend Christmas with Cade and his mother.”

A mother who apparently did not have a name.

“Irene married a financier earlier this year and is choosing to holiday with her new husband this festive season so it’s my turn to have Cade for Christmas.”

Irene. Cade. Irene had a husband now. He probably had a name too.

Her father’s lips twisted in a bitter little grimace and Madeline stared, fascinated. Who was this man in her father’s office, wearing his face and using his voice to say all these words she didn’t understand? “Rebecca, my fiancée, has expressed interest in meeting my children and I’ve been telling her about passing the ranch over to you. She’s never been to Montana and said she’d like to go there one day if she can clear her patient schedule. Many birds, one stone.”

No kidding. “Patient schedule, you said. So, she’s a…?”

“Cardiac surgeon.”

Of course she was. Her father would never be satisfied with someone mediocre.

“I trust you can make provisions for us all?” Her father was standing, dismissing her, ready or not, as he strode to the door. “We’ll fly in on Christmas Eve and leave on the twenty-eighth.”

“Of course.” Concentrate on the little things like walking without stumbling off the floor rug. Wasn’t as if it was a cliff. Hey, look, she did it, shoulders back and standing tall at just under six foot in chunky-heeled boots. But as she got to the door he held open for her, brutally polite as always, she paused and met him directly eye to eye. “I have a seven-year-old half-brother and you never thought to mention him until now?”

“It seemed prudent not to.”

“Prudent.” Granted she wasn’t always the most rational Barbie doll in the toy chest—she’d needed therapy after her mother had died, but that was going back over a dozen years ago now. She’d been eleven at the time and fragile after witnessing her mother’s passing, but so what? She wasn’t fragile now, and she had a big heart. “Prudent how?”


“I know what the words mean. Wise. Careful. Discreet. I just don’t know how to apply them to you not telling me you have another family. Did you think I wouldn’t fit in? Wouldn’t accept a new sibling? Wouldn’t want to be part of your new family unit?” Don’t you know me at all? “I would have loved to be part of all that.” Sure as shit beat going through life alone.

“Now, Madeline. Don’t be like that.”

Like that? Like what exactly? Needy? Dependent? His daughter? Entitled to think he might share such information with her? “How long have you been engaged?”

He had the grace to look uncomfortable. “I met Rebecca two months ago. We got engaged last week.”

Whirlwind romance. Not that she judged him, but… okay, yes. Hefty, judgy judgment in progress.

“I am entitled to lead my own life, Madeline.”

Yes, yes he was. And his relationship with her had been dysfunctional for years. Wasn’t as if this was news.

“We can go elsewhere this Christmas if you no longer care to play host,” her father was saying.

“No!” Dammit, what did it matter if he’d withheld important information from her for years? He was sharing it now and that was what counted. Look forward, not back. She could do that. “No, I can do it. I’d love to do it. I love Christmas, do you remember all the fun we used to have at the ranch?” That place had been such an entertainer’s delight and could be again. “The more the merrier, right?”

He smiled and just for a moment she thought she saw the father she’d had when she was a little girl. The loving, laughing face of him before her mother had died, and he’d shut down completely.

“There is one more thing I want to ask of you, Maddie.”

Maddie. The name he used to call her all those years ago. She beamed; she couldn’t help herself. Always would when he reminded her of the love her world had once been so very full of.

“Any possessions of your mother’s, any pictures, family photos. I want them gone.”

End of Excerpt

Must Love Christmas is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-48-3

November 17, 2021

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