Mallory Trudeau couldn’t help but giggle at her friend Amber’s awestruck expression. Around them, guests sipped from fancy glasses and waiters carried trays of goodies, but Amber seemed to notice none of that.
Mallory followed Amber’s gaze to the glittering white lights glowing from the floor-to-twenty-foot-ceiling fir that her brother Cash had had hauled in to the ranch house’s ballroom two weeks ago. She’d spent six hours decorating that thing and almost broke her leg falling off the ladder. Not that she’d admitted that to Cash.
“How many years has your family hosted the Christmas ball?” Amber asked, her gaze tracking around the room that had evergreen boughs and gold accents dripping from almost every surface. Amber was a transplant, had only arrived in Sawyer Creek eighteen months ago.
“My grandma threw the first Cattlemen’s Association Christmas Ball forty years ago. We’ve held it here almost every year since.”
The Double Cross was the only nearby property with an elegant ballroom built into the huge house—thanks to Grandma. It hosted few parties apart from the Christmas ball. Mallory and Cash had roller-skated across the parquet floor when they were kids.
The only Christmas they hadn’t hosted the ball had been last year.
Mallory’s gaze glanced off the ballroom windows. Outside, the landscape was turning into a winter wonderland. The weatherman had predicted a light dusting, but snow was falling in heavy, feathery flakes that were piling up higher than any dust she’d ever seen.
A waiter jostled Mallory’s elbow, and she wobbled on the four-inch heels that were already killing her feet.
It wasn’t fair, not really. The men crowding the room were dressed in tuxedos and dress boots, their necks adorned with bolo ties—the rancher’s version of a bow tie. While the women had been glammed up in dresses like the slinky, silver-and-white evening gown she’d donned for the occasion. Big hair, bright lipstick, pinchy shoes.
She’d give anything to be wearing her old jeans and barn boots, out in the barn getting a breath of cold, sweet-smelling hay. She’d spent her whole life on the Double Cross. Glamorous wasn’t in her repertoire.
It was going to be tonight.
She inhaled a deep breath of overpowering cologne—a mix of every man in the vicinity—and a hint of the evergreens.
Jingle bells. She was nervous. She couldn’t be nervous tonight. She needed to be confident. In control. Cool.
She was the boss of the Double Cross. One of them, anyway. Between her and Cash, they’d single-handedly brought the ranch back from near-failure. Well, they were almost back to the black. She’d driven big rigs of cattle to the sale barn. Balanced books and managed the supply orders for the ten-thousand-acre propriety. Managed the food for a bunkhouse full of cowhands during branding.
All of it had been necessary over the last twelve months.
She could handle the ranch.
Surely she could handle one cowboy for one night.
She intended to dazzle one Maverick Dunlop—Cash’s best friend—so that he wouldn’t be able to deny the chemistry between them.
He’d been in denial since she was fifteen. He’d been nineteen at the time, and maybe a bit too old for her. But eight years had been long enough for him to find someone else if he’d wanted to, right? And the years between them no longer mattered now that they were both adults. The time for distractions and denial was over.
He was only in town for the night, attending the party at Cash’s request. She had maybe four hours to get him to admit there was something between them.
This Christmas, there was only one gift she wanted.
And she intended to treat herself.
Amber jumped when a mellow voice greeted them from behind. It wasn’t the right voice, so Mallory was able to marshal herself into a slow turn.
Jace Cantrell, the man Amber worked for, stood tall and handsome in a tuxedo jacket—no tie—and boots.
Amber immediately went pink.
Jace didn’t seem to notice. His gaze flicked over Amber and Mallory with the same casual interest before he offered them both glasses of champagne he held in one big hand.
“You look nice tonight.” His words seemed to encompass them both. As a friend of Cash’s and someone Mallory had gotten to know at the cattle association meetings, his casual greeting was appropriate, and Mallory accepted it with a nod of thanks.
But Amber barely hid a wince of disappointment. Mallory knew her girlfriend had spent a pretty penny—nannies didn’t have exorbitant salaries—on the red sheath she wore, hoping to catch Jace’s attention. Amber held the champagne flute awkwardly and wrapped her other arm around her middle, cupping her elbow.
“Thanks for giving me the night off,” Amber said softly. “Did Bo have any trouble with the sitter?”
Jace’s whole demeanor softened at the mention of his son. He stopped scanning the room and looked directly at Amber for the first time. “Other than complaining for the seven-hundredth time that you are ‘way more fun’ than Mrs. Ritter, he was fine.”
“Good.” Amber nodded, the pair wearing matching looks of adoration over the five-year-old they both loved.
And then she didn’t say anything else.
“The music just started,” Mallory said into the silence that was rapidly becoming awkward. “You two should catch a dance.”
It was a little early in the evening for dancing. Only two elderly couples had taken to the parquet dance floor as the quartet of musicians played instrumentals of Christmas favorites.
Jace blinked, not seeming to notice the way Amber’s expression had lit. “I don’t think so.”
He raised his champagne class to salute them and excused himself.
Crestfallen, Amber turned her back to the ballroom. The tip of her nose had gone red, and tears sparkled in her eyes. “I have to give up, don’t I?”
Mallory winced. “He’s either really oblivious, or…” Not interested. But she didn’t say the words. Amber had arrived in town late one night. Skittish as a wild animal. She’d shared a little with Mallory, but most of her past was a locked up tight. She’d pinned all her hopes on tonight. Sort of like Mallory had.
Mallory waved hello to an older couple who entered the ballroom. Still no sign of Maverick.
Amber sniffled mightily and blinked at the tears. “I’ve been waiting for him to notice my existence, but if he can’t see me in this dress…?” Amber shook her head. “Maybe he’s just too polite to tell me I’m not his type.”
Mallory h’mmd She knew how her friend felt—and knew how that rejection must have stung. She’d lived it herself often enough.
She felt a prickle of awareness at the back of her neck, the fine hairs there standing to attention.
Maverick was here.
She turned slightly on her heel, sending a cool, confident glance across the room. There he was, standing next to Cash, one hand loosely in his pants pocket. At ease with the world. Faking it. She saw his covert glance around the room, the finger he stuck in his collar. How had he snuck past her watchful eye?
Her stomach dipped when his eyes met hers from across the crowded room. The tips of her ears went hot, her pulse raced.
She didn’t look away.
Instead, she let her lips spread in an inviting smile.
His eyes flicked away. His conversation with Cash continued as if nothing had happened. As if her smile had bored him.
There’s no way she was giving up.
He wanted to pretend denial?
This was going to be a magical night, if she had to make the magic herself.
Magic was in the air. Which meant Sam “Maverick” Dunlop was on high alert.
He’d spent half his twenty-six years waiting for magic to happen.
The old goats from the Cattlemen’s Association seemed oblivious. They moseyed around wearing their expensive suits, fancy wives on their arms.
There were a few single women trolling for something short-term. He’d done those kind of relationships before—if you could call them that. Wake up the next morning with a boatload of regrets.
Magic existed. Just not for him.
His stomach grumbled. He’d scarfed down a sandwich on his flight earlier, but that had been hours ago. Cash had asked him to come, so he had. Cash was grieving. So was Mallory.
Without his permission, Maverick’s gaze flew to Mallory. Cash’s little sister.
Not so little anymore.
She was talking to some citified guy—it wasn’t difficult to tell a real cowboy from a fake. She wasn’t just talking, though, she was laughing. Her hand rested on the wannabe’s arm, and Maverick’s gut turned into a ball of solid lead.
As if she could sense his gaze, her long lashes lifted, and her blue eyes met his. Just one look packed a punch.
He looked away.
He didn’t have to look at Mallory to know where she was in the room. Never had, not since she’d been a little kid and he a mature second grader.
Mallory didn’t need Christmas magic. She made her own.
And he’d always known she wasn’t for him. Cash had never had to warn him off. It was just understood between them. Mallory was off-limits.
Maverick shifted his boots, his left knee shooting red-hot flares of pain.
“That bad?” Cash asked.
He never could hide anything from his best friend. Not that first black eye his dad had given him. Not this.
He shrugged. The pain had been constant in the last month.
“You skipped your pain meds today, didn’t you?” his friend asked.
Maverick just grinned. Maybe it was a little more like a feral baring of his teeth than a grin. So what?
“They lay me out,” he said simply. And on a night like tonight—a night when Mallory sent him a come ‘n get me smile like she had earlier—he couldn’t afford to be off his game.
Cash stared at him, and Maverick held his gaze. The truth was, he’d laid off the meds after the first day. He was too afraid to end up like his old man. He could live with pain.
He couldn’t live in a drugged-out fog.
Cash got it without Maverick having to say a word. Of course, he’d been there on those nights when Maverick had run away from home, run straight to the Double Cross.
Maverick kept one eye on the falling snow. He had a plane to catch early in the morning. He had to report back to base on the twenty-sixth. Go back to his real life.
He gestured to the party crowd with his empty glass. “You got sucked in, huh? No turning back now.”
Cash had always chafed at the small-town life. It’d always been his dream to get out. After college, he’d landed in Austin, ninety minutes away. He’d held a good job in the tech sector until last year when his parents had passed.
Cash rolled his shoulders under his monkey-suit jacket. “Things are settling down. Mallory and I have been talking about making a change.”
Maverick nodded, his gut pitching.
The ranch was huge. A full-time job. More, even. An around-the-clock job.
He wasn’t like Cash. Hadn’t wanted to leave their hometown, just his home. His adolescent dreams had been made up of his old man dying and the Trudeaus adopting him.
Even after high school when he’d joined the Marines, he’d always had the Double Cross to call home.
If Cash decided to sell, Maverick would have no link to Sawyer Creek. No home.
It was crazy to feel that way. The Double Cross wasn’t his home and never had been. It was Cash’s home. And Mallory’s. And if they wanted to sell the massive ranch, good for them.
Cash’s head jerked to the side, and Maverick followed the other man’s gaze to a bombshell in a black knee-length dress. Wowsa.
“Do you know who that is?” Those legs seemed to have captivated Cash, because he couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away.
“I’m going to…” Cash’s voice was already fading away as he shouldered into the crowd, on the hunt.
“You sure he doesn’t need a wingman?” Mallory’s voice came from behind him, a hit to his solar plexus. He followed his training and forced the rest of the air of his lungs.
Took a deep breath. Mistake, because all he could smell was her sweet scent. No perfume. Something flowery. Her shampoo.
Seeing her up close was like touching a warhead. Dangerous. If he moved wrong, he’d get blown to smithereens.
That didn’t stop his slow perusal of her. She had her ebony hair swept up behind her head, held with some kind of combs. Probably real diamonds on those. The faintest smattering of freckles was visible beneath a soft layer of makeup—not too much to detract from her natural beauty. The bow of her lips made him desperately want to taste her.
And that dress…
It fell from her shoulders in a ripple of fabric that was both white and silver and neither. A knee-high slit gave a tantalizing glimpse of shapely calf and heels that put her at the perfect height for…
He abruptly ended that train of thought, taking a slug of the too-sweet punch.
“Where’s my kiss hello?” she asked.
He choked, coughing.
She was grinning up at him, the monster. She patted his bicep. “Right. Better wait until later. In private. Don’t worry. I know where all the mistletoe is.”
His mouth went dry. His eyes dropped to her lips. They parted slightly, and fire shot through his veins. Just one taste…
A raucous laugh from nearby broke the moment.
What was he doing?
Losing his mind, maybe.
“I thought I saw your boyfriend.” He let his gaze roam over the people in their corner of the ballroom, pretending to look for the guy. “Where is good old Howie, anyway?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Howard Powers and I are friends. Nothing more. Where’d you hear about that anyway?”
He didn’t answer, and she nodded because she already knew. Cash. His best friend kept him in the loop on the homefront, wasn’t shy about sharing details on Mallory’s life, though he couldn’t know how Maverick waited with his stomach twisted in knots every time.
One of these times, Cash was going to call and say she was engaged.
“You sure he knows that?” he asked, tracking back to the current conversation.
“Very.” The word was firm, with a tinge of… bitterness? Something. Enough that his instincts sat up and took notice. Had something happened with Howie?
“What about you? No girlfriend?” she asked before he could follow up.
“No.” Not for a long time.
“Cash said you’re only in town for the night. I’m sure he’d love it if you could stay longer. We’ve got plenty of bedrooms here. You could bunk down, stay through Christmas.”
Imagining Mallory pulling a pile of gifts from beneath the enormous tree, hair tousled and eyes warm and sleepy, was almost enough to make him say yes.
Only the barest grasp of sanity intervened. Cash and Mallory might be selling the place.
Which meant he’d better find a new home.
“Can’t,” he said. “My leave is up.”
And when an older man he recognized from a neighboring ranch came looking for her, Maverick slipped away through the crowd, keeping one careful eye out for that mistletoe.
You couldn’t be too careful when it came to Mallory.