Blame the Mistletoe
BOOK 2 in the Love in Montana Series
Family is complicated, especially around the holidays…
Liz Flowers has never enjoyed Christmas, but this one is shaping up to be the worst by far. She let her ex take her daughter to Mexico while she stays behind in a strange town, sitting her former mother-in-law’s high strung little dog. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, but this California girl doesn’t have much in common with the ranchers in small town Marietta.
Blake Canon perks up with male interest when he sees a new face at his friend’s Christmas cocktail party. His son is away and a light affair would take his mind off his financial troubles. Then he realizes he knows Liz. She was once married to the brother of his ex-wife.
Their children might be cousins, but Blake and Liz do the kissing–under the mistletoe. It’s the beginning of a new view of Christmas for Liz, but when their children arrive home unexpectedly, and family secrets are revealed, Liz isn’t sure she’ll stay in Marietta for Christmas after all.
Blame the Mistletoe
is BOOK 2 in the Love in Montana Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
"Santa's gonna put us on his naughty list."
— Blake, Blame The Mistletoe
My family laughed when I told them I was writing a Christmas book. I tend to be one of those people who freaks out and gets high-strung (even more high-strung than I usually am). The hyperventilating starts in October as people begin asking my plans and I pretty much walk around like a cat with a static charge until it’s all over.
Part of this built up when I was working at a day job while writing. Who enjoys adding more errands, shopping and baking to a schedule that is already bursting at the seams? Christmas was not been my favorite time of year and, quite frankly, for some years my main goal was to get through it without ruining it for everyone else.
In an effort to exorcise my angst, I gave Liz a similar Grinch-y view. She doesn’t hate Christmas, but she’s never had a great one. Her expectations are rock bottom until Blake shows her how great that time of year can be. Like life, you only get one shot at Christmas. It’s never going to be one-hundred percent perfect, but it can be pretty darned good if you focus on the best bits.
That made this a very therapeutic book for me. I hope you enjoy it.
share this excerpt!
Blame the Mistletoe
Liz Flowers busied herself arranging her bruschetta-topped baguette slices into a wreath shape, trying to act comfortable, when she was out of her element arriving at a party in full swing like this.
Welcome new people into your life, she chided herself, as she took extra care placing little toothpick bunches of cherry tomatoes and green olives in strategic spots to look like berries. The ‘ribbon’ was made up of strips of lox threaded into a rippling pattern onto skewers. The arrangement looked fantastic, if she said so herself, and spoke of how much time she had on her hands these days.
A pang of loneliness struck, but she ignored it. That emotion was precisely the reason why, despite a mild attack of anxiety at being a stranger in a strange land, she had come here this evening and would stick it out for at least an hour.
Cocktail parties had never been her thing. Her hostess, Skye Wolcott, had assured her this would be more of a potluck get together with neighbors and friends. Skye and her fiancé have a lot of friends, Liz thought ruefully, moving her dish into a more central position on the cluttered table. The gorgeous, high-ceilinged, open-plan house was packed.
To give herself an excuse to scan the crowd, she took in the tasteful extravagance of the Christmas decor. The tree was the focus, as it should be. And real, of course. The one thing she’d begun to learn about this little town was that Marietta was authentic. For some reason, she hadn’t noticed that before, on the few quick visits she’d made over the years.
So, she suspected that the tree might have come from a farm, but was more likely from someone’s ranch. The tree’s base of white lights and tiny silver baubles was layered with colorful ornaments, obviously homemade by children.
Giant poinsettias splashed red and white throughout the room between the shift of bodies as people crossed with drinks and plates in their hands. Their pleasure at seeing familiar faces was genuine. Vases full of frosted sticks vied with bunches of holly encircling candles on end tables and across the mantle.
Whether it was the candles or something in the oven, Liz noted a waft of nutmeg and cinnamon under the heavier aroma of meatballs and lasagna, roasted garlic and ham. This was the kind of home, the kind of Christmas, she’d envied all her life.
So, even though she was having a moment of nerves, she pushed it aside, determined to at least drink in what she’d always yearned for, even if it was second hand.
The table fairly buckled under the mix of finger foods, crock pots, platters of cheese, baskets of buns and bowls of salad. Laughing, joking voices created a lively din over the Christmas music, as people jostled and reached. They all seemed friendly enough, but she didn’t know them and they all seemed to know each other. Their circles looked too intimidating to crack.
Being in an unfamiliar town for the holidays, making new friends, would put butterflies in anyone’s middle, she reasoned. The sense of being an outsider would only get worse if she didn’t take chances like this.
Which was basically what she’d been telling herself about dating for the last couple of years.
She was definitely not looking for Mr. Right while she was here. Not at this party or even this month. No, she refused to put that sort of pressure on herself when she was already feeling vulnerable. The specter of her thirty-eighth birthday could loom all it wanted, along with the false deadlines she’d set for herself to meet the right man, remarry and have another baby before she turned forty. No. She had come to the realization that trying to force things was only making for disappointment as things failed to pan out.
As a Christmas present to herself, she was letting go of all of that and keeping her expectations simple: get out of the house and meet new people. That, at least, she could do successfully.
She suppressed a sigh, not wanting anyone to see how hard she was finding this. Come on, Liz. You talk to strangers all the time.
It was way easier to strike up conversations with a nail file in her hand and when people came to her, but—Wait, was that guy staring at her?
Heart skipping, she reflexively shied away, taking her plastic tub back to the kitchen counter along with an impossible-to-shake impression of a good-looking cowboy in a blue plaid shirt. He’d been clean-shaven, rugged. Familiar? No. Everyone she knew in Marietta had climbed onto a plane for Mexico six days ago.
Oh, quit being such a chicken, she cajoled herself, surprised by how much electricity was running through her limbs. Chatting to a man for five minutes was not a lifetime commitment, she reminded herself. If he wanted to approach her, she shouldn’t act like a nineteenth century school marm about it.
Gathering her courage, she forced herself back to the table where she picked up a plate and began loading it for herself, trying to act like she was open to chat.
“Auntie Liz,” a male voice said in a tone of discovery.
Startled, she looked up.
It was him. The guy who’d been staring. He’d moved to stand across the table from her. Perhaps they’d met somewhere with her niece or nephews, who lived here in Marietta. He looked familiar, but he wasn’t a long-lost nephew to her.
Like most of the men here tonight, he’d left off his cowboy hat for the party. He had thick dark hair with a hint of curl, a smart shirt. Cowboy boots, she surmised, even though she couldn’t see his feet. He had the stance. And he was trim in a natural way. A lot of the men here were ranchers, which was demanding work. She’d always had a thing for nice shoulders so she let herself admire his. Briefly. Very briefly. She couldn’t help it. He was very good looking with his strong jaw and direct blue eyes that gave her a girlish swoop in her middle.
Had she just caught him glancing up from a male assessment of the glittery top she’d purchased the day after she’d been invited to this party? It was a T-shirt style, but clingy with a cowl neckline in midnight blue with streaks of silver and shiny black. She’d been working out lately, trying to build her dating confidence, but hadn’t felt like men had noticed until now. Trickles of flattery and attraction worked through her.
“I’ve been trying to place you since you walked in. Blake Canon,” he said. “Ethan’s dad.” He offered his hand.
She gathered the neglected female hormones that had scattered in a teenaged fit of giddiness. Reaching across to shake his callused hand, she saw him in her mind’s eye wearing a tuxedo, very young to be at the altar . . .
“Uncle Blake,” she countered, laughing softly to cover her mixture of relief at knowing someone after all and shock at how he’d only grown more good looking with the passage of some fifteen years.
Oh, that realization caused a wistfulness in her. Her hand lingered in his a bit too long before she pulled it away, vaguely aware that he hung on loosely, making her fingers slide from his grip. Making her imagine he wanted to maintain the connection longer, too.
Lucky Crystal, she had thought about her sister-in-law back then. Doesn’t have a clue what she has . . .
And probably still didn’t know what she’d lost, but Liz shook off those sorts of thoughts. Blake was still too young for her. She probably had four or five years on him, which wasn’t a huge issue, but more importantly, he’d married a Flower, just like she had. The association put him totally beyond her reach.
Nevertheless, in the way of soldiers who’d done similar combat tours, she experienced a surge of camaraderie and warmth toward him, probably making her smile too big, but he was smiling at her in a way that made her warm all over. If she blushed, she’d die. The air was way too sexually charged for merely bumping into an old acquaintance.
“Have you two introduced yourselves?” Skye asked, appearing next to Blake with a hostess’s eye for matchmaking. “Liz, this is Blake Canon. His ranch is next to my family’s place out on Timberline. Blake, Liz is house-sitting for the Flowers at the bottom of the road—”
“Seriously?” He sent her a look that Liz ducked by switching her attention to Skye.
“We actually know each other.” His judgment shouldn’t matter, but she didn’t like him thinking she’d let the Flowers turn her into a doormat. She had, for years, but that was in the past. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. “Blake’s ex-wife and my ex-husband are brother and sister,” she explained to Skye, something she might have expanded on when first chatting to Skye, but it hadn’t seemed important then.
Or maybe she’d feared judgment from a stranger, too.
“Oh. When you said your last name was Flowers, I assumed you were a niece or something,” Skye said with a breezy smile, then reassessed them with speculative lift of her brows. “Well, you two have plenty to catch up on, I’m sure. I’ll leave you to it.” She walked away.
“I didn’t put it together that you lived here,” Liz said. “Or that I’d run into you. Or that you’d remember me,” she added with an echo of surprise. “Did we even see each other after your wedding? All I ever heard at the family gatherings was that you couldn’t leave the ranch.”
That’s why most of her ex-husband’s family had moved from California to Montana. Blake’s wife—ex-wife—had begged her parents and siblings to join her in Marietta, only to divorce Blake as soon as everyone settled here. Liz had been separating from Dean at that point and hadn’t even considered the move.
Maybe that had been closed-minded of her.
She could say with fresh eyes and emotional distance that Marietta wasn’t a bad place, but at the time she’d only seen that her family was in California. If Dean had wanted to move to be with his, that was his business. Fortunately, he hadn’t and they’d had plenty of fuel for their fights without bringing geography into it. From what Liz had heard of Blake and Crystal’s break up, it had been even more contentious and bloody than hers.
Blake took a pull off his beer, eyelids lowered circumspectly, not saying anything about being tied to his ranch.
“That wasn’t meant to sound like I was taking their side,” Liz said. “I know ranching isn’t something you just take a week off from because you want to.” She bit into a tangy olive, enjoying the way it burst with flavor in her mouth. “For what it’s worth, Dean never understood the demands of the salons either. That’s one of the reasons he made me quit doing nails.” That and how it had looked when his wife gave manicures to the wives of his colleagues.
Blake’s dark eyes sharpened as they flashed to connect with hers. It almost looked like he took umbrage at Dean’s heavy-handed control—as she had. Maybe it was just another thing they had in common: letting the Flowers talk them into things they didn’t really want to do.
Then his gaze warmed with amusement. “Are you saying your clients demand attention every day? I just envisioned a herd of women with broken nails bawling in a meadow.”
She chuckled, realigning her vision of Blake from an overwhelmed young man wiping his brow as he spoke his vows to this mature, confident man with a wry sense of humor.
“They’re not much better this time of year,” she said ruefully, “Habitual nail-chewers suddenly stampede to look pretty for Christmas.”
“And yet you’re here rather than polishing.”
She heard the question in his tone and shrugged. “I’m in management now. I fill in sometimes if I have to. It’s flu season, so techs call in sick and the phones never stop, so I often man those, but . . . ” She shrugged, debating how much to tell him about why she was staying here. They were strangers really, having only met the once. But their kids had remained connected as cousins. She heard things. Their shared sister-in-law, Stella, was very talkative when she had a glass of wine in her. Blake might not be entirely comfortable with how much Liz knew of his personal business, actually.
For the first time in nearly a week of being in Marietta, however, she felt like she had a friend. She nibbled the tip of a gherkin, edging around revealing her motives by asking, “What do you think of the big family wedding and tropical Christmas?”
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said with a small flicker of surprise that she hadn’t really answered his question. He motioned for her to come into a corner with him as people crowded near the table, squeezing them out. “Ethan’s coming home early since it’s my year to have him. Is Petra staying the whole time?”
“She is.” A pinch near her heart made her face his lingering curiosity and the decision she’d made with all its cloudy facets. It was okay that it hurt, she reminded herself. Generosity was something that might sting when it was extended, but it had to be exercised or it would stiffen up and atrophy. “I was upset when they first started planning it, but it’s her Dad’s wedding. And she genuinely loves being around her cousins. I couldn’t fight it. It’s the sort of thing they’ll remember forever.”
“Which is why I said Ethan could go for two weeks, but not all of December.”
Liz still privately agonized at allowing Petra to be gone so long. She’d been furious and aggrieved, dreading the whole thing from the time it was proposed, and then she’d arrived here to a fresh pie in the face. She tried to smile past the tightness straining her expression.
“I’ve been bitter for a long time,” she confessed. “Always gearing up for a battle. I knew it wasn’t healthy and I’m sure it looks from the outside like I’m the biggest dupe in America. I mean, who gets suckered into watching their ex-mother-in-law’s chirpy little dog, alone through Christmas, while her ex-husband’s family has a month in the sun? Right? But it is Christmas. When I got here and they told me Nola’s dog sitter had fallen through and Nola just assumed I had nothing else to do and could take him . . . ” She shook her head, hating how the ball of mistreated energy had come to life with a vengeance, throbbing and pulsing and threatening to tear up her insides.
“I’m tired of giving them the power to make me unhappy,” she said. “I asked myself if I would do it for a neighbor in a pinch, or a client, and I would. The only reason I would refuse Nola was animosity and I’m tired of it. So, I decided to embrace the spirit of the season. I don’t care if Dean appreciates the gesture, or whether the Flowers think kindly of me, or even if karma repays me. I’m not trying to be bigger than them, I just don’t want to be angry anymore. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
Her mother and sister had certainly thought so when she’d called to tell them she was staying here while Petra was gone. Her sister had said it was a recipe for a fresh batch of resentment. But even though Liz was facing a lonely Christmas, even though this ‘favor’ was actually putting her out and taking her away from her family in California, she felt like she was doing the right thing. Christmas had always been a bit of a let down for her anyway. Her family wasn’t the warmest and half the time her father had missed it altogether. This way her expectations were rock bottom, so she couldn’t be disappointed.
“I say no to Crystal all the time,” Blake said reflectively, mouth going flat.
“Your situation is completely different from mine,” she assured him with an instinctive touch on his arm.
He glanced at her hand and she pulled it away, curling her fingers into her palm and licking her lips in a sudden attack of nerves that had nothing to do with social anxiety. That had felt—he had felt good. Muscly hard. Masculine. And there’d been a little zing of sexual something that she would completely ignore, because it was silly to even imagine it had been there.
She cleared her throat.
“I know what you’re up against with Crystal. If you give her an inch, you’ll never see your son again, so you’re better to stick hard and fast to your custody agreement. I wasn’t trying to sound pious or tell you what to do.”
He absorbed that with a cant of his head. “You are setting a precedent, though. They’ll expect things from you going forward,” he warned.
She shrugged, trying to be philosophical. “Maybe. I’ll deal with that as it comes, but I didn’t want to go home indignant that they’d had the nerve to ask. I didn’t want to carry guilt if I said no. Instead, I took control, decided I wanted to do this, and I feel okay about it.”
He stared at her.
He thinks I’m nuts, she thought.
“Are you still bitter?” she asked.
“As snake venom,” he replied conversationally, making a surprised laugh burst out of her.
He had a right to be, she supposed, thinking of what she knew about his marriage and divorce, then letting her lashes sweep down so he wouldn’t know she knew.
Did he even know?
Blake watched a pensive look come over her face and wondered if he’d over-shared. He was sorry if he had. Her laugh had been charming. Clear and warm and natural. And she was nice. Nicer than he’d realized the first time he’d met her and way nicer than she ought to be.
Way too nice for the kinds of thoughts he was thinking, but he could barely take his eyes off her.
From the second she’d walked in, he’d been captivated, not even realizing at first that he knew her. Fresh faces in small towns caught any man’s attention. Liz had a polished, expensive look that he normally veered from out of self-preservation. But even though her make-up was stylish as a movie star’s, and her dark brunette hair was glossy and cut in sculpted waves around her face, she had a softness about her. Vulnerability, maybe?
Not weak. She had smiled and joked with their hostess as she entered, moving to set out her dish with great care. Her trim figure filled her dark jeans and snug top in a way that had had him trying out a few rusty lines in his head. It had been a while since he’d been with a woman and even longer since he’d felt such a strong pull toward a specific one. His kid was out of the house for a while . . .
Then, he’d been struck by déjà vu. Fate was something he filed with Crystal’s New Age crack-pottery, so he dismissed soul mate bullshit, but he’d felt like he knew her. Not just that she was familiar, but he knew her.
When she’d glanced around the room, bit the corner of her lip and heaved a small sigh, he’d remembered. Suddenly, he’d been back at the head table as Crystal’s brother had given a speech. The guy’s wife had looked, well, like it was a struggle to hold up her spirits.
As someone who’d had his share of wondering how the hell he could carry on, he’d felt an odd mixture of empathy and an uncharacteristic sense of premonition. When the Flower Family Grapevine had revealed Liz and Dean were having marital troubles a year later, Blake hadn’t been surprised. In fact, when his own marriage began to crumble, he hadn’t been terribly surprised by that either and tended to trace it back to that moment. Like he’d seen the potential for disaster in Liz’s weariness with her marriage.
Not that he’d thought of Liz personally at the time. He’d just recollected that glimpse of happily ever afters that weren’t.
“How did you wind up here tonight?” he asked, wondering if there was something in the stars after all, because he’d dithered over whether to make the drive. Free food had won over cooking for himself, but he was nursing a single beer and planning to leave before he finished it.
“Skye came by. Introduced herself.” Her irises were an enigmatic dark blue in this light, her skin tinted just enough to tell him she lived with a hint of winter sun. As she talked, he found himself staring at her lips. Not a wide mouth. Kind of set in a permanent almost-invitation to kiss. She had a dot of a birthmark on her bottom lip, slightly off center. “I thought it would be good for me—Do I have something on my mouth? Sometimes people think I do, but it’s just a freckle . . . ”
“What? No, you’re fine,” he rushed to assure her, wits dulled by a sucker-punch of thinking about running his tongue over that little dot. Which was okay. They weren’t related. It was just maybe unwise and yeah, possibly fueled by irony and a desire to mow down the Flowers.
And desire for Liz. She was classy and pretty and intriguing. He would love to tear up the sheets with her.
Which would start to show if he wasn’t careful. He made himself catch up to the conversation. “What do you mean that coming here is good for you?”
“You know. I thought I should mingle with the natives.”
“You’re eating your social vegetables?”
“Kind of,” she agreed, flashing straight white teeth. “Yes, I suppose that’s exactly what I’m doing. Chewing community kale to stave off a bad case of isolation rickets.”
He nodded, liking that she could be playful.
“And you said you brought Petra? Dean didn’t bring her?”
“He and the woman he’s marrying already have twin sons. His van was pretty full and I wanted to visit Stella before they all left. That’s when his mother pounced.”
“Of course she did. Are you sure you weren’t coerced, Liz? Do you need a sling for that arm that was obviously twisted?”
“I’ll admit I’m not great at sticking up for myself. I’m a middle child who grew up following Major Bloom’s orders so I tend to—”
“What now? Major . . . ?” he interrupted.
“Bloom. My dad. He was in the military so he was a major. And yes, my maiden name is Bloom and my married name is Flower. Ha ha. Yes, it’s hysterical.”
He laughed. Openly and with great enjoyment. Major Bloom. “Poor bastard never lived that one down, did he?”
“He really didn’t. It’s probably why he’s a grouch to this day.”
Their laughing gazes tangled and he knew he was grinning like a fool, but he was enjoying getting to know her. As his marriage had deteriorated, he’d distanced himself more and more from anything to do with Crystal’s family. Auntie Liz had just become a name on a card to Ethan at Christmas and his birthday.
But she was so much more than that.
“Tell me about your salons. Why can you walk away from running them this time of year?” he asked.
“I have two jobs, actually. I write corporate communications—withhold your awe, please. And yes, sadly, I can do that from anywhere, including Nola’s sofa. The other I do with my mother and sister. We have a dozen salons across California. So, I’m working long distance a lot of the time anyway, visiting each one a couple of times a year so . . . ” She shrugged. “That’s why the Flowers are drinking margaritas in the sun, while I’m waking up to prizes on the carpet left by a cranky little dog.” She pointed at an empty martini glass left on a table nearby. A miniature candy cane hung off the rim. “What do you suppose that is? It looks like it was yummy.”
“Eggnog martini. I had a sip of one when I got here. Lethal. If you’re driving, you might want to take one home and drink it when you get there.”
“No, I walked up, but—”
“Who’s giving you a lift home?” Amazing how that came out of him so fast. And with such a possessive need to know.
“It’s not far. Maybe half a mile? I’ll just walk back in a bit.”
“Oh, you city folk are so cute,” he said, fairly sure Chase would have caught her before she actually tried walking down in the dark, but still glad he was the one who could do it. “It’s snowing hard out there.” He pointed to the view through the glass wall where full dark had fallen. The deck was coated with a deep couple of inches that had accumulated since he’d arrived. The colored lights outside turned the floating flakes into a powdered rainbow, making it look deceptively pretty and safe, but he knew better. “It’s dangerous out there.”
“Really?” she asked skeptically, wrinkling her nose at a scene she probably thought had been lifted off a Christmas card.
“The bears are hibernating, but the cougars and timber wolves aren’t. It’s really easy to get turned around in that, especially without streetlights. I’m not playing Prank the Tourist. Life and death is a fine line on a night like this.” He knew. His birth parents had died in conditions like this. “I’m not trying to scare the pretty lady into my car, either. I just want you to get home safe. I’ll take you,” he promised.
She swept her lashes down in the shy way a woman did when a man unexpectedly called her pretty and she liked it. The male interest stirring in him solidified into something far more serious.
“Come on. Let’s find you a drink,” he said, urging her along with a gentlemanly hand against her lower back. Yes, it was a bit of a branding iron. Don’t even think about it, stallions. He’d cut this one from the herd for himself.
Crossing a room was hardly a date, but Blake’s light hand on her felt surprisingly significant. Which told her she was desperately in need of male attention, if she was turning to feminine pudding just because this cowboy had dominance traits.
And maybe she was being uber-sensitive, but she thought she intercepted a look from one of the men standing near the food table that silently asked Blake, How the hell did that happen?
“Has everyone met Liz Bloom?” Blake asked, introducing her around once she had a drink in her hand.
“Flowers,” she corrected. “I kept my married name so it matches my daughter’s.”
“Ah. Well, everyone will remember that I was once married to a Flower?” Blake said to the group. “Liz and I are collaborating on a country and western song about our dealings with them.”
She threw back her head in a laugh, loving the idea. “Can you imagine how tragic that song would be? It would go platinum immediately!” Their gazes caught again, both of them brimming with amused solidarity.
Oh I wish, she thought, but didn’t let herself finish the thought. Right now, this was enough. It was perfect.
A lot of names and faces flew by and everyone was very easy to talk to, thanks to Blake. He seemed very well liked, bantering easily, keeping her up to speed if the conversation started to close her out as names were brought up that she didn’t know. And he fed her, reaching across to bring a plate of cream cheese pinwheels and little crackers with pepper jelly and roasted garlic and pine nuts on them.
The evening turned out far more fun than she’d dared to anticipate, considering it had begun with such painful shyness on her part. She laughed so much her cheeks ached and a poignant feeling accosted her as the hour grew late, making her almost wish this were her life. She had friends and a home and everything she needed back in California, but she could see—for once—that maybe the Flowers were onto something. Marietta was a really wonderful place to live.
As she readied to leave, she went searching for the plastic tub she’d used to bring up her bruschetta and found Skye stocking it with Ziploc bags filled with leftovers.
“I’ll never eat all that,” Liz protested.
“Neither will we. We’re heading to Texas for a few days next week, so I can’t keep all of this. One of Chase’s friends is turning thirty and having party. He wants to go,” Skye said with a shrug and a shake of her head. “I still feel so pretentious flying halfway across the country for what amounts to one evening.”
Skye’s fiancé was a local who was now a ballplayer in the majors, but from what Liz had seen, he remained down to earth. “Have you set a date for the wedding?”
“Not until after next season. We only started seeing each other a couple of months ago.” Skye expertly packaged egg rolls with a flick and a fold. “He’s giving me time to get used to this back and forth whirlwind life of his, but we both wanted to be committed enough to give it a serious try, so—” She gave her wrist a twist, making the gorgeous stone in her ring flash as she showed it off. “This feels surreal.”
But she was happy. Glowing with joy.
Liz sighed inwardly, envious and trying not to be.
But Chase was such a gentleman, fetching her coat and holding it for her while Skye opened the door to let Blake back in from warming up his truck. Of course, Blake was quite a catch himself, stepping into the foyer so tall with snow dusting the shoulders of his worn sheepskin coat, wearing a cowboy hat now. His gaze clashed into hers like he’d been looking for her before the door had opened.
Such a lovely, fanciful thought.
“Uh oh, Liz. You have a decision to make,” Skye said, pointing above Liz’s head.
Liz looked up. Mistletoe.
“The girls made me hang it,” Chase said from behind her, referring to Skye’s nieces who’d been running around with the rest of the children this evening.
Her gaze caught Blake’s on the way down from the little sprig and her heart skipped at the light in his eyes. Her brain grasped for a smart remark, but nothing came.
Blake stepped into her space. “I think we owe it to ourselves,” he said. “Don’t you?”
Swaying, she set her hands on the cold, brushed texture of his coat, feeling ridiculously small and girlish all of a sudden. “Because of our mutual experience with the Flowers?” she asked.
“Actually . . . ” His gaze narrowed as he stared at her mouth and started to lower his head. “Let’s not think of them at all.”
His mouth touched hers and wiped her brain clean. All she knew was the brush of cold lips that warmed against hers, pressing firmly enough to open her lips so the kiss was not nearly so chaste as it should or could have been. He lingered, waiting until temptation got the better of her and she kissed him back, letting her mouth cling to his, then he slowly drew back. Something satisfied flickered in his eyes.
That had been bad. Good in a way that was very, very bad. Liz could barely breathe or muster a smile.
Skye and Chase smirked at each other. Someone from the lounge whistled. Liz rolled her eyes, feeling herself blush.
And Blake didn’t bother to hide the male smugness in his gaze as he took the leftovers from Skye and opened the door for Liz.
“You need better boots,” he told her, gripping her elbow as she tiptoed across the drive to the battered truck that was swept of snow and sending out a cloud of white exhaust. “You never would have made it home in those.”
They weren’t going to talk about that kiss then? Good.
“I saw some in town. I’m just being cheap. It seems silly to buy boots I’ll only wear for a few weeks.” There. That had been a nice opportunity to remind him there could be nothing between them. Subtext was her major, thanks to the tension Major Bloom had brought into the house every time he came home.
“You’ll need them at the ranch,” he said, bracing the truck door with his elbow so he could use his free hand to help her up and in.
Jerking her head to look at him as she seated herself, she found herself eye to eye with him in the shadowy glow of the houselights. Snow sprinkled his hat and shoulders. He wasn’t smiling. He was serious.
Apparently, they were talking about that kiss.
“Blake . . . ” she began.
“For coffee,” he said. “I’ll make you dinner, if you like. Or lunch, if you don’t want to drive in the dark.” He set the boxes of leftovers on her lap. “No obligation. Just come see the place.”
He closed the door and she watched him come around and climb behind the wheel, lifting to pull his jacket from under his butt before he settled his big body into the space.
He smelled good. And looked sexy as the dash lights lit his somber expression while he picked his way up the snow-covered drive.
The road hadn’t been plowed and she realized how right he was about her walking home. She’d have been shin deep and slipping all over the place. It took him almost as long to work his way down the hill in the truck as she’d taken to walk up at dusk.
“How far is it to your ranch?” she asked.
“’bout thirty miles,” he said.
“You’ll be driving all night at this rate! I feel like—” Shut up, Liz. But he’d told her it was life or death in these conditions. “I feel like I should ask you stay at Nola’s with me.”
His teeth flashed in a grin. “I have animals to look after in the morning. And this is just your average crappy night, not anything too worrisome if you’re prepared, which I am. I’ve got blankets and shovels and salt. Good tires and four-wheel drive. I’ll keep my speed down and get home fine. But I’d stay if you were really asking.” He turned his head to let their gazes click in the dark for one breath. “And it would have nothing to do with the Flowers.”
Her pulse skittered and slid like the tires on the road, making her feel adolescent and hot.
“I’m too old for you,” she blurted.
He slowed as they reached Nola and Vern’s place, fishtailing and catching it back as he turned into the drive. He braked hard, making her rock in her seat.
“Are you serious?”
“I’m almost thirty-eight—”
“I’m thirty-five.” He shifted so his arm was along the back of the seat and he faced her in the eerie glow. “If you were thirty-five and I was thirty-eight would it matter?”
“But we’re not, so I’d feel like a cougar,” she murmured.
He snorted. “Well, get over it. The only thing that matters is whether we’re attracted to each other. I think you’re funny and pretty and a little bit too nice for me.” He slid a finger along her cheek, tucking her hair back behind her ear. “But I’d like to get to know you better. If you’re not into that, say so.”
“It’s not that I’m not interested,” she said, unable to believe she was revealing that much. “But be serious, Blake. Where could this possibly go? With the history we have and our completely different lives?”
He didn’t immediately have a come back for that one. His jaw hardened and he stared off through the window a few seconds, dismayed.
“I’d love to say I’m up for a holiday affair,” she said, almost wishing she were. “But I’m kind of old for messing around for the sake of it.”
“And look where my last vacation fling got me,” he said flatly, running a gloved hand down his face. He was referring to Crystal. Liz knew that his first wife had come here to visit a girlfriend from high school after graduation. A few months later, she had driven back here with her father Vern and his shotgun. The wedding had happened a few weeks later.
Blake pushed out of the truck, closing his door with enough force to make Liz flinch.
“You don’t have to walk me in,” she insisted as she shifted the leftovers to the floor and swung her legs out the open door.
“All part of the service, ma’am.” He steadied her as she slid to her feet in front of him then started to reach past her for the leftovers.
“Wait, I won’t eat all of that. You should take some.” She started rearranging the contents of both boxes. They dithered over the different items while the snow fell and the door crowded them into the tiny space next to the truck. “Coconut?” she asked.
“Hate the stuff,” he said.
“Good, I love it, so I’ll take yours, but here, you have the mushrooms—”
“Ah to hell with it,” he muttered, stealing the container from her hands and dropping it on the seat as he swung her to face him. “Come out to the ranch tomorrow and I’ll give you whatever you want.”
He kissed her. Pulled her into the wall of his hard body and kissed the hell out of her and she locked her arms around his neck and kissed him back like it was the only kiss they would ever have. They kissed until she didn’t feel the cold, until she sensed by the way he locked his hand on her butt and pressed her into him that he was very aroused behind their layers of clothes. She was. God, he tasted good. They French kissed and breathed heavily and finally came up for air.
Little clouds puffed around them as they panted and stared at each other.
“I don’t know how to get to the ranch,” she said.
He grinned, kind of triumphant, while she mentally shook her head at herself. Just say no, Liz, but for once she didn’t have the sick feeling in her stomach as she searched for the word and couldn’t find it. She felt melty and yearning and like she’d been smiling for so long her face would stay that way.
“I’ll call you in the morning, get your email and send you a map. What are you driving?”
“Stella left me her all-wheel.”
He nodded. “Bring the son of Satan. He gets along really well with Blue.”
She drew back to fold her arms, feeling the cold now that she was away from the press of his body. “You dog sit for Nola?” she asked, feeling really suckered if Nola had conscripted her when there was a perfectly good alternative here in Marietta.
“Ethan does. But he’s away.”
“You’re the reason I’m here,” she accused, poking the thick skin of his coat with a sharp finger. “You could have offered.”
He shrugged. “I’m hopeful that your being here will work out well for both of us.” He winked and drew her toward him, so he could slam the truck door. As he walked her to the door at the side of the garage, his familiarity with the house was obvious.
She fumbled to get the key in the lock in the dark, aware of him looming beside her. If she couldn’t hear the running engine growling around the corner on the drive, she would have dragged him inside with her.
“We’re really just going to ignore everything we said in the truck?” she asked, too shy to look up at him. Kind of afraid they’d kiss again and that’d be that. She’d wake up with him beside her.
“I vote yes,” he said. “You?”
Nola’s dog came scampering to the interior door where he barked like a demon and scratched, killing the mood.
“Coffee,” Liz said. “I’ll come for coffee and because I’m such a scatterbrain that I accidentally left Nola’s prized heirloom Tupperware in your truck.”
“I’ll make sure it’s fresh and hot,” he promised.
She bet he would.