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A Very Merry Christmas

Cathy Lamb

  Books by Cathy Lamb











  Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

  a very merry christmas




  All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

  Table of Contents

  Books by Cathy Lamb

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11


  Teaser chapter

  Teaser chapter

  Teaser chapter

  ZEBRA BOOKS are published by

  Kensington Publishing Corp.

  119 West 40th Street

  New York, NY 10018

  Copyright © 2010 by Cathy Lamb

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

  To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

  Zebra and the Z logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

  First Edition: November 2016

  ISBN: 978-1-4201-4442-0

  Published in the United States of America

  To Cindy, Todd, Mitchell, and Cara Everts. Thanks for the drift boat rides down the Missouri River, the opportunity to tease the fish, and the water gun fights. Most of all, thanks for the laughs.

  Chapter 1

  “It’s the holiday season so I don’t want to have to shoot you.” I drummed my red fingernails against the long, polished bar, hooked my cowboy boot on the rail, and eyed the drunken fool who had crawled up on the stool next to mine like an inebriated sea urchin. “But you’re pushing it, buddy.”

  Through the dim light of Barry Lynn’s bar, a bar that has been around for over a hundred years and has the bullet holes to prove it, I could tell that he had gotten all dressed up in his fancy-pants fly fishing gear to head out to one of Montana’s world class rivers and pretend he was a “real man” out in the wilds. He had probably flown in on a private jet, and was looking for a little hee-haw before going home to his mansion and his pampered life.

  “Honey,” he said, pushing a hand through his blond wave, while I studied his buffed fingernails, “you’ve got a face that could cause Jesus himself to sin.”

  I refrained from smashing my unbuffed fist into his nose for that rude comment. “Jesus himself created this face. I can assure you he’s not going to sin. You, however, may cause me to sin when I knock you off your stool. Now back off.”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Three Wise Women, as they had dubbed themselves about ten years ago, waiting for me in our usual corner, near the Christmas tree, past the pool tables, by a window we opened up to the moonlight when the heat from many bodies became too suffocating. The discussion topic tonight: “Would marriage be easier if the couple lived next door to each other and not with each other?” Plus Vicki was bringing all of us Gracious Journals to write in, whatever that was.

  The inebriated sea urchin sighed heavily, shook his head, then leaned toward me, his whiskey breath encircling my head. “Okay, honey, but I gotta get your name.” His three other middle-aged, fleshy buddies were now laughing at him from a nearby table. “Your name, then I’ll leave you alone.” More whiskey breath. “Your naaammme.”

  “My name’s Mary Magdalene.” I could feel my temper triggering. It did not take much. I knew it was because of my past.

  “Your name’s Mary Magdalene?” His eyes opened wide, then his face got contemplative. He was trying hard to think. Think, brain, think! “I’ve heard that name before.” His brow furrowed. “Are you famous?”

  I stared at a bullet hole in the ceiling and wondered who shot off her gun. Hey! Maybe it was a woman who was being hit on by a whiskey-breathing idiot.

  “You look famous.” He shook his head, baffled. “You got that, I dunno. Charisma. Something about you. Special-like. Original. You’re a thoroughbred. You know what I mean?”

  “So I’m a horse to you?”

  The mirror above a row of liquor bottles behind the bar gave me a brief look at myself. Full mouth, “a mouth that looks botoxed but it’s not,” Hannah, one of the Three Wise Women told me. High cheekbones. Brown eyes that seemed abnormally large to me. Long hair that is straight and black with a white streak running from a widow’s peak down the full length. My father said it was a birthmark blessed upon me from my ancestors, who about “swam over here from Italy, they were so desperate to come to America.”

  My mother, the rebel daughter of a proper, titled, English family, who fell head over heels in love with my father when he was on leave from serving in the U.S. Army, and ran off with him when she was twenty, called it my Wisdom Mark. “It would be wise if you were not quite so tough, dear. When we English say to keep a stiff upper lip, we do not mean ‘give someone else a stiff upper lip.’”

  The sea urchin slouching next to me said, “Nah. You’re not a horse, but that white streak is sexier than hell. I would like to bite it.”

  “If you attempt to bite my hair, I will knock your teeth into your beer.”

  I said this politely. My mother would have been proud of my restraint. (“If you feel your temper rising, Meredith Jean, make yourself some tea.”)

  The sea urchin laughed, obviously not taking me seriously. “I love a tough woman, and you Montana gals, man, you rock in that department. You gals can take down a bear.”

  He must think we “gals” are stupid. No woman I know would try to take down a bear unless she wanted to be eaten. “I need a beer and a sledgehammer Barry Lynn, please,” I told the owner of the bar.

  “One beer and a sledgehammer coming right up,” she called. “How ’bout a staple gun, too? Sometimes those are handy.”

  “Bring ’em. This one is going to need more than usual.”

  “Now, Miss Mary Magdalene,” the drunken sea urchin said, oblivious to our conversation, “How ’bout if you join me and my buddies? Why I have never seen a woman wearing a red cowboy hat with rhinestones before. Never. And you got eyes like a cat. Lemme buy you a beer.”

  “No. Leave. Your breath is enough to set fire to this building.”

  “Come on, sugar . . .”

  “I’m not interested and my name is not sugar.” I picked up my cowgirl hat and put it on my head. It was well worn, and fit perfectly, the way I liked them. “Last time I’m gonna warn you. Go back to your hole and your rich men friends with the snarky smiles who are pretending to be fly fishermen, with your bottle of whiskey, and drink yourself into a stupor. I have no interest in drunken men who are so weak they can’t approach a woman, sober, make intelligent conversation, and then invite her to a dinner in a fancy restaurant to show her respect.”

  The door opened to the bar and a burst of cold, snowy Montana air swirled around. I idly glanced around wondering which neighbor was coming on i
n. My breath caught in my throat.

  There he was.

  I could almost hear the sleigh bells ringing and jingle bells jingling. Following that I heard an echoing gong, my own brain warning me that he was trouble.

  Total trouble.

  Logan Taylor. Born in Copper, Montana, about three hours from Telena, a self-made millionaire, various businesses in five states in highway development, electrical something ’er other, real estate, ranching, et cetera. Hard scrabble childhood. He was about eight years older than me, but even as a kid growing up on a farm outside of town, I’d heard about him because every athletic team he was on won some state championship or other. He’d had a tough reputation, too, a fight or two or three or more, all reported in the newspaper because of who he was.

  The man was a Montanan through and through and had recently built a log cabin outside of Telena. He was huge at about six feet five inches tall, with blondish hair, shoulders a thousand Christmas angels could dance on, and sharp eyes that didn’t miss a whit.

  Every time I’d seen him in town the last weeks, I’d ducked into a store, a church, one time a government building, and I steer clear of government buildings like I steer clear of the black plague.

  My attention was re-caught by the drunken sea urchin.

  “I’ll take you to a fancy restaurant,” he slurred. “I got enough money to buy every fancy restaurant here in this town and the yachts here, too. Let’s go right down; you turn me on . . .”

  And that’s when the drunken sea urchin made a herculean mistake.

  He reached out a hand and tried to stroke my white streak, knocking off my cowgirl hat. I caught his wrist, leaned in, and said, quite calmly, “Don’t touch me, you overgrown leech.”

  He laughed in a slimy way. “But I wanna touch you, you look so soft and tender and I want to—” He said something disgusting in my ear, lifted up his other hand to stroke me again, and we were, at that very moment, finished. All done.

  I heard Howard and Norm, brothers, generational ranchers, Ivy League educated, World War II vets, sitting next to me at the bar, suck in their breaths. Howard said, quite slowly, “Son, that was a poor choice.”

  Norm said, “If I were you, I’d start running. That would be right now. Run. Run fast, run long, but run.”

  The Three Wise Women cackled. Hannah yelled, “Okay, everybody, prepare for the show. It’s going to be almost better than my speech on mathematical derivates.”

  I heard scattered applause as I seethed. My past has given me a lot of anger.

  “Why do men think saying disgusting things is a turn on?” I asked him. “Why do men try to touch women without our permission? Why do men think they’re sexy when they’re drunk? Why do men continually tick me off?”

  I didn’t contemplate these questions for very long as I squared my red cowboy boots and brought a fist up into the sea urchin’s jaw. He went flying off the stool and onto the floor, flat on his back.

  I heard one of the Wise Women, Katie, a mother of four yell, “That was impressive, Merry Meredith. Even better than last month’s hit.”

  Another Wise Woman, Vicki, who owns one of the largest ranches for miles around, said, “Hormones, hormones, don’t mess with the hormones. Why don’t men get that?”

  After a second’s shocked hesitation, the sea urchin scrambled right back up to his feet. He said something else nasty to me, called me a bad word, then yelled, “What the hell was that for?”

  “What was it for?” Barry Lynn drawled, slamming a sledgehammer and a staple gun on the bar, she’s so funny. “She told you to back off many times. She’s not interested. Did you need that in eight languages? Did you need a banner? You’re not that good-looking; why would a woman like her want to be with you?”

  “Now that’s a little unkind, Barry Lynn,” Norm said. “He’s soft looking, pasty, a city folk with a snake for a spine but . . .”

  “It’s not unkind, it’s accurate,” Barry Lynn snapped, thunking the sledgehammer. “He’s got a gut, a weak jaw, sloping shoulders. . . .”

  They began to argue about the man’s looks.

  “By cannons and guns, Barry Lynn is correct,” Howard intervened. He likes to use expressions with weapons in them from his former military days. “The man is a numbskull, and a lady shouldn’t have to hit a man to get him to back off. Do you have no brains?” he asked the sea urchin, not insultingly.

  “What . . . what the heck? I’ve got brains!” the sea urchin said, red and flustered.

  “Show me,” I told him. “I’d like to see your brains.”

  The drunken man’s friends had gotten up from their table, hopefully to restrain the sea urchin, and not to come after me, but that part was unclear. I would take them on, too, if I had to. I would enjoy it. I’d had a tough week with my bed and breakfast business, with Jacob who was playing piano obsessively, and with Sarah who had been brought home by the police again. A bar scuffle, skinned knuckles, and a broken hand from fighting might do me well. Let out some of my flaming hormones.

  The drunken sea urchin then made mistake number two. He charged toward me, all heated up, and I had to swing my fist once again, right into that weak jaw of his, and there he went, flying onto his back, rattling his disputed brains.

  The drunken sea urchin swore, and his friends came to a dead halt. Why they had simply wanted a roll in the sack, a little hee-haw! Some warmth in their beds! They’d spent a fortune coming up to fish, and they wanted dessert to go with their fish dinners! Why couldn’t these Montana women understand that!

  “Norm, that rich boy does have a weak jaw and sloping shoulders . . .” Barry Lynn said.

  “His jaw is slack because he’s scared; his shoulders slope because he’s drunk and frightened; his gut is large because of general laziness. . . .” And there they went, arguing again.

  That’s when I heard a voice right beside me. It was low and deep and gravelly and yummy. “Get out,” the voice said to the sea urchin and company.

  Logan Taylor, huge and rather menacing, grabbed the man’s shirt and yanked him straight up, up, up, I am not kidding, up until that man’s toes were off the ground. “Get out,” he said again, teeth clenched.

  The drunken sea urchin struggled and wiggled like a worm dancing on a fish hook. “Put me down.” He stared into Logan’s eyes then swallowed hard and whispered, “Please. Please put me down. Please.”

  “Uh, could you, uh, put him down?” one of the pasty-colored men friends said to Logan, nervous-like.

  “Yeah, he’s uh . . . We’ll take him out,” another one said, also nervous.

  “How come you don’t know how to treat a lady?” Logan asked him, jaw hard, giving him a shake. “Why is that?”

  I suddenly envisioned Logan in the doorway of a humongous, iced, decorated gingerbread house, waving at me. I conjure up humorous images with food which, in this instance, made me super mad. “You know, I didn’t need help,” I snapped to Logan.

  Logan turned to me, the sea urchin’s toes dangling, clearly confused. “I’m sorry?”

  “What am I to you? A damsel in distress? Do I look weak? Do I look helpless?” I could feel my temper getting hotter. He was playing right into a very sore, sensitive spot for me. I could handle this myself, and I did not need help.

  He eyed me, from the tip of my white streak down to my red cowboy boots. “No, you don’t look helpless, but I wasn’t going to stand by and let this jerk come at you.”

  “Why not? I’d hit him twice. I was getting ready to do it again and then you had to jump on in and interfere.” I glared up at him.

  “I jumped in,” he said, still holding the sea urchin, who had a stunned, petrified expression on his face, “because I can’t tolerate men treating ladies badly and that’s what I saw. I apologize for not getting here sooner.” He glared at the man. “You’re not a gentleman, are you?”

  The sea urchin nodded. “I am,” he whispered.

  Logan shook him. “You’re not a gentleman, are you? Be honest.”r />
  The sea urchin squeaked out, in sure, sea urchin fashion, “No. I’m not.”

  “I’m handling this situation,” I said. “I could have taken on him and his friends with the fancy schmancy fishing outfits and pale, fleshy faces by myself. I didn’t need you to take over here.”

  “I was trying to help you.”

  Man, up close Logan’s eyes were green with flecks of gold. His photo periodically in the newspaper had not picked up that goldenness. Black lashes, lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes. He was hot.

  “Help me? I don’t need help.” I was steamin’ mad.

  “Ya gotta understand, Logan,” Barry Lynn called out, playing with the sledgehammer. “Men hit on Meredith all the time. She handles the situation, and we move on. It’s our entertainment. Second only to my annual toy drive. Reminder to everyone: Christmas is less than six weeks away. Start buying new toys. Bad economy, and we got a lotta kids who need a Christmas this year. I need bikes, especially. Now a bunch of you got a lotta money, and I want to see you carrying in armloads of toys and bikes. Put ’em right under the Christmas tree in the corner. Don’t forget, if you don’t give toys, you get suspended from my bar for one year.”

  Out of the corner of my eye I saw beer mugs being raised. That was our way of agreeing. No one wanted to get suspended from the bar; that’d be a tragedy.

  Logan shook his head. “No, we don’t move on. First this guy”—he shook the sea urchin, who was now gray with fear, and Barry Lynn was right, the shoulders sloped—“is going to apologize, and then they’re all going to leave, then we’ll move on.”