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Janice Sullivan paused long enough under the mistletoe that Nate Pierson should have gotten the hint. He was as dense as a doorknob, sometimes. Nate had jammed himself into a corner with his arms folded, obviously annoyed. Janice knew this because he was awake. He also hated crowds and had to be dragged here, practically kicking and screaming, by his ranch hands. He squinted over at her from beneath his wide Stetson and scowled. He was a man of few words, but endless glares and snarls.
Merry Christmas to you, too.
Holding in an exasperated sigh, she moved toward Emma Corbyn who was handing out eggnog by a huge punch bowl.
“Please tell me this is spiked,” Janice said, gratefully accepting it.
“It wouldn’t be a tree trimming without it. Although, you missed the huge fight we had over what to spike it with.”
Janice took a sip and hummed in approval. “Rum.”
Emma raised her glass. “You’re welcome. Amelia wanted to use this snooty brandy and Delilah wanted whiskey. While they were arguing, I dumped in a bottle of Appleton’s.”
“Not all heroes wear capes,” Janice said and moved along so other people could get some. As she waited in line to talk with Lily Corbyn, Janice tried to find some Christmas cheer. The tree was enormous and sparkled with colored and white lights. Silver and gold tinsel accented the modern glass as well as the antique wooden ornaments. The annual Corbyns’ Christmas-tree-trimming party was in full swing. Half the town was already here and the other half was on their way. A little furl of excitement tickled her stomach and for a few moments, she was a kid again counting down the days to Santa’s visit.
And then it was a fast sleigh ride into the new year. A new year filled with happy events, like her two sisters’ weddings and new opportunities, like a wind farm and a wildlife safari on their land. Unfortunately, none of that was Janice’s doing. She was still struggling to get her women’s retreat center up and running. And the only man she had ever been interested in marrying was too caught up in working for her father to give her a chance.
As if Nate sensed her thoughts, he looked up from the stuffed date he had popped in his mouth and gave her a wink. Hot and cold. Feast or famine. She and Nate had been dancing around a mutual attraction that had started out as forbidden fruit and turned into a long-distance thing and then the fire was banked. Except when it wasn’t.
He confused and infuriated her, and Janice wasn’t sure what to do. Realizing that Lily was watching her watch Nate, Janice slurped her eggnog to cover her embarrassment. “The tree is gorgeous,” Janice said, wondering if she had a cream mustache.
“Thank you, dear. Are you here with Nate?”
“We all came together.” Janice nonchalantly dabbed at her upper lip. Her sister Kelly and Kelly’s fiancé Trent were chatting with Doctor McBride and his wife Bella over by the cookies. Trent and Kelly’s five-year-old daughter, Alissa, was munching on a gingerbread boy and looking to snitch a peanut butter blossom while the adults were talking. Janice pretended she didn’t see it and turned back to Lily.
“Thank you for inviting us. Coming here is like the official start of the Christmas season.”
Lily smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way. We think so too.”
Janice didn’t want to monopolize her hostess’s time, so she headed over to the next room where soft holiday music was playing. A few couples were swaying together. Her baby sister Emily and Emily’s fiancé Donovan were grinning up at each other, lost in each other’s eyes. Looking somewhere else, Janice tried to force down the pang of jealousy that took away from her budding holiday spirit. She wished her sisters all the happiness in the world. But when was it going to be her turn?
Searching around for Nate, she found him stocking up on shrimp cocktail and pigs in a blanket. As she was about to stalk over to him and demand that he dance with her to Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” her father stepped in and took her arm.
“Hey,” he said. “I’ve got good news.”
Janice forced down her annoyance at his timing and drained her eggnog in one gulp. “Glad to hear it.”
“I was just talking with Boomer Tucker’s cousin Phil and he said his wife’s friend’s brother is looking for riding lessons.”
Janice’s head swirled from too much rum too fast and trying to untangle the connections in that last sentence. “Okay,” she said.
“I thought you’d feel that way. He’s coming in tomorrow morning around eight. I told him you’d be happy to give him riding lessons.”
“I would?” Janice said.
“It’s not like you’re doing anything else.” Frank Sullivan patted her on the arm and went back into the crowd.
The depressing part was, he was right. She was going to have to face facts that the retreat center she’d dumped all her money into was a disaster. If she didn’t start diversifying with something else, she was going to default on her loan. And that terrified her because she had put her prized horses up as collateral. She had done it to help save the Three Sisters Ranch from bankruptcy. Her sisters had pitched in with their own projects, but so far, they had been more successful than Janice.
She had been in Kentucky enjoying assisting the veterinarian at a dressage farm, when she got the voice mail from her father.
Come home one last time. We’re selling the ranch. We can’t keep up with the bills.
Panicked, Janice had called her sisters and over several phone calls, they came up with ways they could pull the ranch out of the red. Emily was going to use a few empty pastures and build wind turbines on them. Kelly rented out space on the ranch for a portrait studio, while Janice took out a loan to lease land from her father to build her retreat center on. Her parents had rented out even more land to Trent Campbell and Donovan Link. All together, they were slowly making headway on the bills, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.
She couldn’t bear to think of them losing the ranch. It meant so much to her, so much to all of her family. If they were foreclosed on, Janice didn’t know anywhere else she could call home. Every little thing from gathering eggs to making sure the animals were fed and watered every day made her feel a part of something larger—like she had a place in this world. Her retreat center would help other women who needed that type of validation in their lives.
If she could get anyone to sign up for it.
“Janice, you look beautiful.”
Whirling around, she saw their veterinarian Pete Dickerson had come up behind her and offered her a glass of punch.
“Oh, I didn’t know you had one,” he said with a slight flush of embarrassment.
“I could always use another one.” She took the punch from him and sipped it, this time. No sense in getting tipsy this early in the evening. “You’re looking very spiffy yourself.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he drawled.
Pete had kind, brown eyes and laugh lines that creased the edges of them. He was a tall thin man, with rangy muscles and a wide grin. His sandy-blond hair was cut and styled professionally, unlike a lot of the ranch hands and farmers around them. His Italian suit stood out as well. Pete was a damned good vet, but he didn’t seem to belong here in Texas. He reminded her of the big city.
“How’s business?” she asked.
“You know how it is. I’m all over the place.”
Pete went from farm to farm in his van. He had said he liked not being tied down to an office. If she hadn’t hated being a large-animal vet, she would have asked him if he needed a helper. She could work a few hours and try to stay ahead of the bills. She didn’t really want to be working with the cattle or farm animals, though. Horses, she could deal with. They were usually loved and protected by their owners—around here anyway. Cattle, on the other hand, were viewed as a commodity. Sometimes people forgot that they were animals too, and not just marks on a ledger.
Janice hated the way cattlemen treated their stock. She knew that made her sound a little like Emily, but it was true. There was no need to be brutal to the cows, even if they were just going to the slaughterhouse in the spring.
They stared at each other in awkward silence. Pete rocked back and forth. Maybe she should ask him to dance? She liked him. He was kind. He loved animals. Maybe it was time to move on from her girlish crush? She bit her lip. She wished she wasn’t so awkward at this. How hard would it be to look him in the eye and ask him to dance?
Why didn’t he ask her?
“How is your retreat going?” he asked.
Not the question she was looking for. Janice tried to stop the grimace, but he caught it.
“That bad, huh?”
“I think I’m going to have to come up with something else.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, cupping her elbow. “I know how much this means to you.”
She took a bracing sip of her punch. “It does. It really does. I didn’t want to give up.”
“Then don’t. Something will come up. Something always does.”
Janice wondered if Miles Honeyman was looking to add to his staff. She didn’t want the tree-trimming party to turn into a networking event, but he was the only local veterinarian who concentrated on dogs and cats, and smaller animals. Janice wouldn’t mind working with them. But there wasn’t a lot of money in it and that wouldn’t help save her family’s ranch.
She needed to find some income that would keep the ranch ahead of the bills until Emily’s wind farm started giving them a return on their investment.
Pete was about to say more, but three ranchers came up and started talking about the problems they were having with their herds. This was a party and the last thing she wanted to do was talk shop. As soon as she could, Janice broke away from the group. She blew out a sigh of relief and headed toward the tree.
She couldn’t wait to put their tree up, but they always did it Christmas Eve. Maybe she could convince her family to put it up after the parade. They could all use a little more Christmas this year.
“What was all that about?” Nate asked, approaching her and standing way too close because personal space didn’t mean a damned thing to him.
Normally she liked that, liked the almost touch of his strong body and the aura of heat and protection he seemed to engulf her with. This close, when she was in a thin cocktail dress and he was dressed in rodeo formal, it felt different, shivery and delicious. It was hard to breathe when he was so close, but she couldn’t step away from him.
Janice forced down all the ridiculous butterflies in her stomach and was determined to stare into his gorgeous brown eyes and not make a fool out of herself.
“What?” she asked, cursing the wispy way she said it.
“Pete and your father. What did they want?”
“Pete just wanted to say hi, but my dad got me a client.”
“Frank found you a woman in need of a retreat?”
“A man in need of horseback-riding lessons, but close enough.” She took a deep breath and screwed up the courage to ask him to dance. Maybe if they did a few turns around the dance floor, tongues would start wagging and Nate would get a clue that they should be more than just friends. That she had fallen in love with him when they were kids and what had started as puppy love had grown into the real thing. At least, for her.
“You got punch all over your lip,” Nate wiped his napkin roughly over her face.
Because that was romantic as all get-out.
“Shit,” he said.
“Shit?” she repeated.
“I uh smeared your lipstick and now you look like the Joker.”
Janice smacked him in the chest with her empty punch glass and stormed off to the bathroom to repair the damages.
End of Excerpt