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Whoever was responsible for the Christmas displays on Yellowstone Drive knew their stuff. From what Miles Decker had seen in the six months he’d been here, Grand, Montana, was as pretty as a picture any day of the year.
But decorated for Christmas?
Glittering lights trussed the underbelly of a black, star-speckled sky. They draped from every tree, shrub, and railing. Every storefront—every business—they all shouted, let the season begin.
The only thing missing was snow. They’d had a few skiffs since October, but none of it clung for more than a few days. Miles didn’t care much about a white Christmas one way or the other—growing up in Laredo, Texas, he’d seen snow maybe three times, and at Christmas, never—but judging by the conversations he kept overhearing around him, for some of Grand’s residents, snow at Christmas was a really big deal.
He’d come downtown intent on buying the perfect gifts for his nephew and niece at the annual midnight craft fair. They’d shut down the waterfront from the town hall to the library. No cars allowed. People flowed freely down the main street, then up the river boardwalk, checking out handcrafted merchandise at the numerous vending stalls.
“Mommy, what happened to that man’s face?”
The question, coming out of the blue and uttered in the type of loud whisper only a small child could pull off, dragged Miles’s soaring Christmas spirit back down to earth. His head, as if disengaged from his body, swiveled toward the source of that whisper.
His gaze settled on a young mother whose cheeks had gone bright red, likely from embarrassment as much as the wintery cold. A little boy, maybe four or five, clung to her leg. Wide, fearful eyes peered from the tightly laced hood of a navy-blue snowsuit.
“I’m so sorry,” the mother apologized. She rubbed the top of her son’s head with a gloved hand, whether to comfort or protect him, Miles couldn’t say. Either one punched the same blow to his gut.
He summoned an easy smile, the one that used to make women melt, hoping to ease her embarrassment, at least. “It’s a fair question.” He crouched down to the boy’s level, not to get closer to him, but in an attempt to look less… overwhelming. He’d go with that. He tapped his scarred cheek. “Not very pretty, is it?”
The boy’s hold on his mother’s leg tightened. He shook his head no.
“It was an accident. My own fault,” Miles added. “I’ve been a cowboy my whole life and I should have known better than to turn my back on a bull.”
“Did you shoot it?” the boy summoned the courage to ask.
A perfectly legitimate question. Rural kids knew what happened to animals that ranch hands couldn’t control. But rodeo bulls were bred for aggression and that was what Miles had gotten.
“No. The bull was just doing his job. He took offense at me not doing mine right and I got what I deserved.”
Miles straightened, tipped his hat to the mother, and went on his way, inhaling the spirit of the season, recapturing the mood, shaking off the encounter.
He meandered the entire square and counted four Christmas trees in all. A Douglas fir monolith, clad in enough twinkling lights to land a wide-body jet, brightened the exterior of Grand’s town hall. A balsam fir embraced the front steps of the library. Another Douglas lit up the waters of the Yellowstone River behind the hotel. And the fourth, a Fraser fir dressed in tiny, colorful, shimmering packets of coffee and tea, graced the patio that jutted over the river at the Wayside Café. Every shrub, every doorway, and every rail in the square had been trimmed with ornaments and lights. He loved looking at them.
He used to enjoy watching kids, too. Their excitement and wonder and pure, simple joy. That was the only thing he missed about being famous—the little ones who all wanted their pictures taken with him, then got so excited they couldn’t speak. He’d once been more popular than Santa.
Not anymore. Nowadays, kids took one look at his damaged face and reacted exactly like that poor little guy had—they either burst into tears or ducked behind their mothers’ legs for protection.
Strangers weren’t so bad. The first time Pax, his three-year-old nephew, hid from him though, he had to admit, it had stung. It might or might not have influenced his decision to stay in Grand for the holidays rather than head home to Laredo, Texas, to be with his family.
He reached the Wayside Café—the last stop on the circuit—and had paused at a stall to examine hand-carved wooden toys when he heard someone call out his name.
“Hey, Miles. Shopping local this Christmas?”
Dallas Tucker, one of the three owners of the Endeavour Ranch, and his fiancée, Hannah Brand, hailed him from across the boardwalk. The pair, without a doubt the cutest and nicest couple in Grand, were snuggled together on a wooden bench. Between them, they knew everyone in town. They were so popular he was slightly amazed to find them alone.
Dallas was a local doctor. He looked more like a recent college grad who should be backpacking around South America, not wintering in Grand. His black, curly hair was always a few inches too long, as if he couldn’t squeeze in the time to get it cut, and he never seemed to pay attention to what went on around him. Looks were definitely deceiving, however. Not much got past him.
Hannah owned the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom. She wore a hand-knit pink toque over long, honey-brown hair, possessed the warmest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen, and gave off an air of sweetness that could erode solid rock. She drew people to her—men, women, and children. More importantly, she’d never once looked at him with pity. Envy tickled low in Miles’s throat. Women like Hannah had enough sense to steer clear of bull riders.
He jogged across the boardwalk toward them. “I’m trying to find something special for a three-year-old and a five-year-old. My nephew and niece,” he explained, leaking puffs of white breath like a cracked chimney. “So far, no luck. I was about to make another trip around the square to see if there might be something I missed.”
“Maybe fidget putty?” Hannah suggested.
“The kids in my practice love that stuff,” Dallas added. “Their parents do, too. It keeps little hands busy, and it cleans up easily, so they can play with it in the car on long drives. Or bring it to their doctor’s appointments.”
“I understand the parental appeal. But my goal is to annoy their parents by setting the gift bar so high it’s out of their reach.” Maybe make them less scared of him, too. And he still had three weeks until Christmas to make good on his goal.
“Ah. You’re a big spender,” Dallas said, nodding wisely, as if he wasn’t one of Grand’s richest residents.
Miles had known Dallas for a little less than six months, but already suspected money was the one thing he knew little about and valued even less. He and Dan McKillop left that particular headache to the third Endeavour owner, Ryan O’Connell. Whereas Dallas, a doctor, and Dan, the county sheriff, were easygoing and friendly, Ryan, Miles’s boss, was neither. Miles could never understand why the other two men were so willing to trust him. He wasn’t shady, exactly. But he was a man who seemed like he had dark secrets.
Despite that, Miles liked Ryan. He liked working for him. He liked his ambition and drive. Well, he respected them. He only wished the guy would find a hobby that took his attention off the new circuit rodeo and left Miles alone to do the job he’d been hired for. One would think Ryan’s pretty, very pregnant, new wife might provide enough of a distraction, but so far, that wasn’t the case.
“How’s the exhibition coming along?” Dallas asked, tagging along on Miles’s train of thought.
The Grand Chamber of Commerce had no issues with a Christmas rodeo held at the Endeavour, rather than inside town limits. They especially had no issues with Ryan O’Connell.
Miles wished. “We didn’t get the permit for a parade through Grand that we asked for.” The parade was the throwaway he’d known the Endeavour would never get approved. Declining it gave the chamber of commerce the illusion of power. “But we’re going ahead with the fireworks and the dance. They can’t stop those. The ranch is private property.”
“I don’t understand why the town is so set against a circuit rodeo,” Hannah said.
“They aren’t against it,” Dallas explained, proving he really did pay more attention than anyone thought. “They’re against the Endeavour hosting it. They think it will eat into the annual horse sale profits and undercut local businesses.”
This Christmas rodeo was meant to be a dry run. The real rodeo—the one intended to set them up for the PRCA circuit next year—would happen in February, a few months shy of Grand’s annual bucking horse sale held every May. But by hosting a PRCA event at the Endeavour, the town would have little to no say in how it was run, which was what Ryan intended. The chamber of commerce didn’t like that.
Hannah rubbed the frost-nipped tip of her nose with a pink mitten. “Why can’t the rodeo be part of the horse sale?”
“Because then Ryan would be the one with no say,” Dallas replied, again echoing what Miles had been thinking and proving he was nobody’s fool.
After chatting for a few minutes, Miles said goodbye to the couple and set off to see if there was anything at the craft sale that he might have missed.
An hour later, he had to concede there was not.
Maybe he was being too picky, he mused as he left the square and its pretty lights behind him, but he wanted to get gifts that suited his niece and nephew. Sydney wasn’t a doll type of girl. And Pax? He definitely was not a doll type of boy.
It was going to be weird to celebrate Christmas without them. Kids made the whole season. He should quit being such a coward and go home for a few days. Sooner or later, they’d get used to his face.
If it wasn’t for the kids, he wouldn’t care so much. His famous face had been a pain in his ass even before it was damaged. For three years, he’d been the public spokesman for professional bull riding. He’d been world champion for the two seasons prior to that. The only person more readily recognized in most parts of the country was the president of the United States. Fame became tiresome pretty fast.
Then, during a photo shoot, he’d turned away from a bull for a fraction of a second, and he’d been hooked in the shoulder and the left side of his face. The angry, red, puckered scar on his cheek ran diagonally from his chin to his temple, narrowly missing his eye, so in that, he was lucky. The scar would fade, although he’d carry it for life.
Plastic surgery had repaired much of the muscle damage. His smile was only a little lopsided and his eye opened and closed normally. He’d been so relieved to discover his shoulder still worked that he’d given no more than a passing thought to his appearance. Still didn’t, most days.
But having kids hide when they saw him was unsettling, no question.
He tugged his wool hat over his ears, tucked his hands into his fleece-lined, oilskin coat pockets, and started the long, cold trek to his truck. He might as well have walked to the waterfront from his house because he’d had to park halfway to Billings, anyway.
He found his truck, hopped in, and cranked the heat to full blast. The midnight madness craft fair was misnamed in that it ended at midnight, it didn’t begin then. Right now, it was barely ten o’clock on a Saturday night.
Maybe he’d drop in at the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom on the way home and check out if Hannah had any new blondes on tap.
Getting sacked at Christmas was one more reason for Tate Shannahan to hate the whole holiday season—from the ridiculous store Santa with the fast hands, to the cheap decorations, to the overpriced merchandise.
She fidgeted with the faux-fur-lined hem of the uber-short skirt on her elf suit and tried to pay attention to what her supervisor was saying, mostly out of politeness, and not because she thought she’d hear anything truly constructive. Vanessa Hamilton had been an old lady when they were in high school together and she hadn’t grown any younger in the seven years since.
Vanessa leaned across the round, white, cafeteria-style table in the store lunchroom, which doubled as an office. Staff knew to abort if they walked in on a supervisor and an employee in a one-on-one conversation outside of break time.
“Maybe you weren’t cut out to be a Christmas elf,” Vanessa said kindly, as if the two women weren’t the same age, right down to the week, month, and year.
Tate couldn’t imagine a world in which someone woke up and decided, I want to be a Christmas elf for the rest of my life. Then again, she hadn’t planned on working as a cashier in a big-box store for more than a few months either, so anything could happen.
The worst part of it was, there weren’t many other employment opportunities available in Grand for a twenty-five-year-old high school dropout who’d spent seven years barrel racing on the rodeo circuit. A good grasp of customer service hadn’t been something she’d needed.
Knowing how to deal with men and their grabby hands was. A tsunami of indignation swelled, forcing her to restate her side of events. “Santa put his hand up my skirt.” Right after he’d badgered her into sitting on his lap to show the children how easy this is.
“I understand. But, um, ringing his… jingle bells… might not have been the appropriate response.”
There was a better response for being groped?
Tate folded her arms and crossed her legs, bumping her knee on the underside of the table. Her brothers, if they’d seen the battle light up in her eyes, would have advised Vanessa to run. “What was I supposed to do?” Enlighten me, please.
Vanessa carried on, blithely oblivious. “Report it to your immediate supervisor—which would be me—so that the incident can be documented. Then, we sit down with human resources to discuss what the next steps, if any, should be.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Vanessa was not. “I might have been able to overlook this if there weren’t at least thirty kids lined up, waiting to have their pictures taken with Santa, who saw the whole thing.”
“You think their parents want them sitting on that creepy old perv’s lap after he grabbed my ass? I did them a favor.”
Vanessa winced. “I think those poor little kids might have wanted to believe in the magic of Santa a little while longer. At least until after Christmas. Plus, Carl has been our store Santa for thirteen years and we’ve had zero complaints. Not a one.”
Tate found that equally hard to believe. “How many elves have quit on you in those same years?”
“This is Christmas, Tate. Show a little holiday spirit and get over it, for Pete’s sake. He’s a harmless old man from a different generation.”
“Just because he’s old doesn’t mean he can’t get a stiffy. If erectile dysfunction is what you meant by harmless,” Tate added. “Ask me how I know.”
“Tate.” Vanessa cupped round, flaming cheeks in her plump, beringed hands. “He says it was an accident. You overreacted. Let’s agree to disagree on this, shall we?”
Tate most heartily and emphatically did not agree. He’d had his hand under her skirt in front of a crowd of small children while she sat on the same lap they were about to. Why was she being painted the one in the wrong?
But she needed the job—as a cashier, not necessarily an elf—and she wasn’t helping her case, especially since some people might argue that Santa had suffered enough. She’d definitely given him reason to think twice about assaulting any elves in the future.
“Why don’t we agree that I’ll quit the job as an elf but keep the cashier position? In return, I won’t file a complaint with human resources and the Department of Labor.”
Vanessa was the type to want problems to disappear, not negotiate any terms, and from her perspective, Tate was the problem. Had always been the problem. From grade seven on.
“You made Santa cry. In front of small children. I can’t put you back on cash after that. What would people say?”
“You should be more curious as to what the Department of Labor will say.”
Vanessa finally accepted that the problem wasn’t going to go away, not quietly and certainly not to her satisfaction. She gave in without grace. “Fine. I’ll ask the manager if you can work in the warehouse for a few months until the scandal dies down.”
Tate pushed her luck. “Do I get the raise that goes with the change in position?”
“No. No raise. You’re to be on your best behavior for the next three months. If the manager approves it. And you’ll have to take customer service retraining. This incident will go on your employee record, too.”
“I would love to have this on my employee record,” Tate said, with feeling. “Make sure you spell jingle bells T-E-S-T-I-C-L-E-S.”
Vanessa’s double chin quivered. “Your shift is over. Go home.”
Tate decided to call this a win. On the positive side, she would no longer have to listen to seventeen different versions of “Santa Baby” piped through the store’s public speaker system. All. Day. Long. And there was always the chance she’d do such a great job in the warehouse that the store manager might move her there permanently.
She had a new problem, however. She’d counted on the extra money that being an elf would bring in to help pay for Christmas. Giving family and friends the perfect gifts had always brought her twin, Tanner, so much joy. This would be the second Christmas since his death, and she was determined to carry on the traditions he’d loved. Last year, wrapped in her own misery and heartache, she hadn’t been in a good enough mental place to understand how important it was to keep his memory alive.
Tanner’s last, brightly wrapped gift to his girlfriend, Dana Barrett, sat on the shelf in Tate’s bedroom closet, reminding her every time she opened the bifold doors that it had yet to be delivered. This year, she’d see to it.
She scurried into the women’s locker room—which smelled of deodorant, dust, and decades of despair—to change. She had to swing by the Grand Master Brewery and Taproom, where her older brother, Ford, was tending bar, and wait for a ride home. She wasn’t about to show up wearing a forest-green miniskirt and candy-striped tights. For starters, she’d freeze on the walk over.
She caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror next to the staff washroom and stopped in the middle of peeling out of the tights. Hannah, Ford’s boss, had said she could clear tables for tips whenever she had to wait for him, and this was a Saturday night. The brewery taproom didn’t serve food, meaning the tips were rarely extravagant, and the elf outfit might come in handy.
And with Ford keeping watch from behind the bar, no one would dare put a hand up her skirt.
Not even Santa.
End of Excerpt