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“What does spirit of Christmas mean?” three-year-old Lane Maverick asked. The words were a bit garbled but clear enough as Braden Delaney held his nephew on his lap in the family room of the Delaney Ranch, the onetime hideaway of outlaws back when Texas was a republic and not a state. It had been Braden’s home for his entire life and as much as his brothers had wanted to get out of Last Stand—the Texas Hill Country town they’d been born and raised in—he’d never wanted to leave. The youngest of the brothers by a good five years, he’d been closest to Rose, their only sister and Lane’s mom, who’d been killed in a car accident back in April.
“It just means that you…ah, heck, kid, I’m not the right one to ask,” Braden said. Lane shifted on his lap, turning his face up toward him, and for a moment Braden had to wonder about a world that would take the parents from a kid like Lane. He’d never had much Christmas spirit but this year he was finding it even harder not to be super-Grinchy all the time.
“Why not?” Lane asked.
“I don’t like Christmas,” he said, then immediately realized this wasn’t a conversation he could have with a three-year-old, so he softened it with a smile. “I guess that’s because I wasn’t as good as I could be this year. Santa probably won’t have anything but a lump of coal for me.”
Lane shifted around and hugged him then scrunched his face up, which was something new he’d started doing lately. It reminded him a lot of Rose. “Maybe you need to stop using bad words.”
Braden chuckled at that. Amelia had put a swear jar in the kitchen when she’d moved in with Cal and so far, it had been filled up and given to the local animal shelter fourteen times. “You’re right about that.”
“Right about what?” Lancey Maverick asked as she came into the room.
He was still getting used to the fact that his best friend was now engaged to his brother Finn. Finn had his own house on the Delaney Ranch and Lancey had the old Maverick family home in town. This afternoon, she was dressed in her uniform—she worked the desk at the Last Stand jail. She’d been a MP in the Marines before she retired to help raise Lane after both of his parents had been killed in a car crash earlier in the year.
TJ—Lane’s father—had been Lancey’s only sibling. Rose—Lane’s mother—had been Braden’s only sister. The fact that this would be Lane’s first Christmas without his parents was the only reason why Braden hadn’t taken the month of December off and headed for a private resort in the Caribbean. He hated Christmas. His feelings weren’t ever going to change on that account. He knew he could be a bit of an ass during the holidays and had always been fine with just checking out. Cal and Finn—who’d usually been away from home during the year—were back. In the past they’d enjoyed spending time with the little sister they hadn’t seen enough of during those months they were away.
After his mother’s death, Braden had struggled to get through the holidays and though everyone in town thought he was the most easygoing Delaney, at home where he was most comfortable, he had a short fuse.
Rose hadn’t really liked that he would go away during the holidays, but she hadn’t argued either. She’d understood that sometimes a person just had to get away from family and commitments. Once Lane was born he’d started staying home at the holidays but it had been a struggle.
God, he missed her.
Being the two youngest siblings, they’d been close—really close. There were times when he walked into the big house and still expected to see her.
“Bray?” Lancey asked.
He shook his head. He really didn’t think he was going to be able to do this. He stood up and handed Lane to Lancey. “Changing my attitude to receiving presents at Christmas. I’ve got to go get ready for the Corbyn Christmas open house. You got him?”
“Yeah,” Lancey said, taking Lane and hugging him close. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, ruffling Lane’s hair before he walked out of the family room. He had a house in town that he had been living in before Rose’s death, but he’d moved back home afterward. He and Cal had been here alone with Lane for the first six weeks or so while Lancey had been in the process of leaving the Marines, and Finn had been on the NASCAR circuit, racing.
Those first weeks had been trying, but he and Cal had gotten through them. And then Cal had reconnected with Amelia. Before long, he’d fallen in love with her and she’d moved in. That had made the big old house start to feel like a home again.
Then Finn had been diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis and had retired from racing back in July. Now he was home too. Everyone was settling down and finding a way to create a normal family for Lane.
He was happy for them, he thought, as he thundered up the stairs, the heels of his Kelly Boots making a loud echoing sound with each step he took. But he also was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable in this place.
He hated this house. He had ever since his mom had gotten sick. That’s why he had his own place. And now that Lane had his aunt and Amelia living at the ranch, there was no reason he couldn’t move back there.
He entered his bedroom and stood there for a long moment. He always felt his ghosts around him, but Christmas brought them closer. And they weren’t the sweet matchmaking kind of spirits, like the rumored ghost of Harwood House over in Whiskey River. His ghosts were more like the ones from A Christmas Carol—reminders of everything he’d never really dealt with. He saw his mom who’d died when he’d been ten and Rose had been three. His father, who’d lived on another ten years, bitter and angry at the world. And now Rose. His sweet little sister who’d barely had a chance to live before she’d been taken from him too.
Damn. He needed to shake this mood before he went to the party. Or maybe he should just skip it. Except he knew Red was going—he’d asked him to be his wingman. Red was determined to make his move tonight and ask Emma Corbyn out.
Hell. He really should try to be a bit more in the Christmas spirit this year, for Lane’s sake if not for his own. But Christmas had always been the worst time of year for him. And honestly, he didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“Thanks for inviting me,” Carissa Montgomery said for at least the fifteenth time.
Braden Delaney was beginning to regret that he had. He’d needed a date, that much had been clear. With his brothers all coupling up, there was no way he wanted to go stag to the Corbyn Christmas open house. So he’d thrown the invitation out last week to a girl from Whiskey River who’d been drinking with him at the saloon.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous and an interesting partner for the evening. It was just that he wanted to be with someone else: Lea Dunwoody. He’d had the hots for the petite brunette for more months than he could remember. Sometimes it felt like years, but he knew that the keen longing he felt for her had sharpened into an obsession round about July 29, when she’d been caught in the rain and had taken shelter in the Outlaw Tequila retail shop. He’d been in his office looking out as she came in, soaked to the skin, with her usual quick smile. And he’d felt a jolt of pure lust.
He hadn’t been able to look at her and not see that curvy body she usually hid beneath baggy khaki utility pants and T-shirts. Tonight, she was helping out Santa and looked like Santa’s cutest elf in her red skirt and jacket. She wore an adorable hat perched on her brunette head and a pair of red tights on her slim legs. Instead of elf shoes, she wore a pair of Kelly Boots’s Christmas release and she looked cute as hell.
“You’re welcome,” he said to Carissa finally. “I’m really being the worst date.”
“You are,” she said, picking two cocktail glasses off the tray of a passing waiter and handing one to him. “But I’ll forgive you since it’s clear there is something between you and that elf.”
Braden took a sip of the Corbyns’ signature holiday cocktail: apple pie on the rocks. It had Fireball whiskey and hard cider in it, and was totally addictive.
“There’s nothing between us,” he said.
“Did she shoot you down?” Carissa asked.
Carissa was a pretty redhead who was almost as tall as he was. She wore a black velvet sheath that hugged her curves and a diamond and pearl choker. She was elegant and sophisticated, way too good for her date to be ignoring her.
“No. Not exactly,” he said.
“Then what exactly is the problem, Bray? Because on paper, you and I should be Christmas’s hottest couple but you’re treating me like you do Lancey, so I know you’re not feeling it.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to stag it at this party, and when you mentioned you had never been, I thought it was a good idea to invite you. My brothers are all coupled up and I really didn’t want to stand out. We do look good together.”
“We do,” she admitted. “So, do you like the elf?”
“Carissa, that’s not cool,” he said, taking another swallow of his drink. “But yes. Unfortunately, she’s put me permanently in the friend zone.” And she’d been one of Rose’s best friends, despite being older than Rose.
“Hmm…why did she do that?”
“I don’t know, Nancy Drew; I didn’t bother asking. It’s embarrassing, so can we please drop it?”
“I will drop it if you do me a favor,” she said.
“Anything.” He really didn’t want to be having this conversation. Ever.
“I need to make my ex jealous. Will you take a photo with me under the mistletoe?” she asked. “That makes me sound horrible, but he keeps tagging me in photos with his new girlfriend.”
“No problem. You deserve a better date than me.”
“We both do,” she said. They worked their way from the front room toward one of the many places where mistletoe was hanging in boughs from the ceiling. “This house is like the most perfect Christmas dream. I can’t imagine what it was like to grow up here.”
“Not too bad,” Emma Corbyn said, putting down the book she was reading and coming over to them. Emma was the middle Corbyn girl and had earned the nickname ‘the brain.’ She was very smart, very funny and ran the local library.
“Emma, this is Carissa Montgomery. Carissa, Emma Corbyn,” Braden said, introducing the women. “Emma, would you mind taking a photo of us?”
“Not at all,” Emma said, holding her hand out for the camera phone Carissa held.
He pulled Carissa into his arms and looked down at her. “Do you want something like this or more dramatic?”
She put her hands on his face and leaned up. “This will do.”
Her lips brushed his and he put his hands on her waist. As his head lifted, his eyes met those of Lea Dunwoody. She was staring just over his shoulder and he wondered what she was thinking. But Carissa saw her staring and kissed him on the cheek.
“Hey, there, Santa’s helper. This guy could use some Christmas cheer. Want to help him out?” Carissa asked.
Lea blushed and tipped her head to the side as she took a step closer. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’m not the expert on Christmas. I’m just a girl trying to get a little break-up revenge on social media,” Carissa said with a laugh. “I’ll leave you two to figure it out.”
Carissa walked away after taking her phone from Emma. Emma just shrugged and turned as one of the kids from her weekly story group came over to grab her hand and drag her back into the library where she’d been reading The Night Before Christmas to them.
“You need help with your holiday cheer?” Lea asked.
“I do,” he admitted.
“I’ve heard through the grapevine that you’re a bit of a Scrooge,” she said.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Who ratted me out?”
“I can’t reveal my sources, but they did say you forbid holiday decorations at Outlaw Tequila until December 24.”
“I did and they are just lucky I didn’t say all season,” he said. After all, he was the COO of Outlaw Tequila. “Someone was wearing jingle bells in the store today. Do you have any idea…” he asked, then trailed off, realizing he was about to go on a tear about annoying noises when he should be enticing Lea under the mistletoe. Then he’d have an excuse to kiss her.
“That can be annoying for some people, but then again, a lot of my clients are jingly,” she said.
She took a step closer to him and he waited to see if she’d come any closer. But he knew he couldn’t just steal a kiss. This was the twenty-first century and kissing anyone without their permission wasn’t a good idea. But he wanted a kiss from her. He’d been thinking about Lea Dunwoody for months, but he’d always been afraid to take the risk. The Delaney curse was never far from his mind.
“Are you just going to stare at me?”
“I was wondering how you’d feel about joining me under the mistletoe. Maybe a kiss could change my mood,” he said.
End of Excerpt