I love my grandma. I really do. Honest. But sometimes that woman just drives me nuts! She’s obsessed with finding me a husband since she seems to think I’m getting too old to find one on my own. Having her come for Christmas was something I’d grown used to. I wasn’t prepared to have her there and Josiah and a gaggle of little boys. Sometimes Mom’s sense of neighborly love gets a little out of control. This Christmas, that was definitely the case. The house got louder and more crowded with each passing hour. Around suppertime Mom somehow got the Lesters in the dining room and when we’d all finished our meal, we went to the living room for caroling. “Scarlett, would you mind getting my guitar for me?” Blizzard asked.
“Sure.” I walked upstairs to her room. It struck me as odd that her door was partially ajar since I knew she had closed it prior to the Lesters’ arrival. I pushed the door open and suddenly a bucketful of icy water poured over me as something hit me in the head. I couldn’t stop the scream that escaped my mouth. Freezing and furious, I went into the room and grabbed Blizzard’s guitar, tempted to beat her over the head with it. Everyone was working their way up the stairs when I came out of her room. “Think you’re funny, huh?”
Blizzard was falling all over herself trying to apologize. “I’m so sorry, I set that up for the boys. Not you.”
“Do I look like a boy?”
“Nope. Definitely not a boy,” Josiah replied.
I caught him staring at me and realized with my shirt wet, I was revealing more than usual. I slapped him across the face. A gentleman would know better than to just stare like that. “Excuse me while I go change.” I turned on my heel and went to my own room, peeling the soaked shirt from my body and tossing it angrily in the laundry basket. I kept thinking about Blizzard’s surprised expression. A smile tugged at my lips and then I had to laugh. The boys had gotten into her room earlier, as evidenced by the boy who’d run into the kitchen with her neon pink sports bra on his head. She probably had set up that little trap as a way of teaching them a lesson. Unfortunately for me, I was the one taught.
Once I’d gotten into fresh clothes and warmed up a little, I hastily removed all trace of humor from my face. I didn’t want Blizzard thinking I’d forgiven her that easily. I glanced around my own room. The boys hadn’t gotten around to exploring in here. I stopped by the herd of model horses traipsing across Mom’s model of Tara. The most recent model from Josiah stood to the side of the group. He’d named her Misty Oasis and asked for forgiveness. I should forgive him. I knew that. But it was hard to want to. Allowing him the chance to try again hadn’t been an easy decision. I needed to know that when things went awry, he wouldn’t shut me out. Of course, I guess if I was honest, I needed to be willing to stop closing off my heart to him every time he got prickly. I picked up the dainty Arabian and placed her amongst the herd. Like it or not, Josiah was bound to be a part of my life unless I could find somewhere to go.
Closing the door on my thoughts, I went downstairs where everyone was enjoying a rousing rendition of Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas. I joined with a smile and suddenly a strong pair of arms surrounded me. I turned with a glare to see Josiah behind me. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting you warmed up, Lettie. Wouldn’t want you to get hypothermia. Just keep singing and enjoy the moment.”
His breath tickled my ear and a shiver ran through me.
I wasn’t about to admit to him that my shiver had nothing to do with being cold. If anything I felt overly warm. We finished the song and continued to another. When we started Here Comes Santa Claus, Josiah disappeared. I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Then a loud, “Ho, ho, ho!” interrupted the song.
Leslie’s eyes filled with tears as her boys shouted with glee, “Santa!”
Tears of my own pricked my eyes as I watched Josiah play the role of Santa to perfection. He took each boy lovingly onto his knee, giving them the presents Mom and I had carefully selected and wrapped over the previous week. He laughed merrily and posed for my grandmother as she circled around him like a vulture with a camera. Then as Mom passed out mugs of cocoa, he began reading from the Bible. The deep tones of his voice enriched the familiar story and I watched as the boys dozed. Even Blizzard succumbed to the soothing quality of Josiah’s voice. When he finished, the boys hugged him eagerly before following Mom to the kitchen to retrieve their treat bags. I stayed behind, glad for an opportunity to talk to him alone.
“Ready for your turn to sit on Santa’s lap?” Josiah teased as I stood in front of him.
“Ha! You wish.”
Grabbing me before I could move away, he pulled me into his lap. “Not a wish, anymore,” he grinned.
“Really, Josiah? You’ve got to learn to ask before just grabbing people or you’re going to get yourself hit.”
“Whoa, cowgirl, I’ve already reached my slap quota for the day.”
“Well, you earned it.”
“No man could have resisted that view, darlin’,” he retorted.
Not willing to argue about it, I shrugged. “So, how did Mom rope you into the costume? I haven’t seen that since Blizzard was a child.”
“The usual bribe, cookies and milk.”
I laughed. Then I leaned against him. “For the record, I think what you did here was better than anything else we’ve done for these kids. You gave them a real taste of Christmas magic. Thank you.”
“It was worth it to see you smile at me again,” he said, his voice low and husky. “Is it safe to say I’ve been forgiven, finally?”
“Hmm, maybe. Or maybe not!” I jumped up from his lap and he followed after, hugging me close as I giggled. As he turned me around to face him, I happened to look up. Somehow he’d managed to find the one piece of mistletoe Grandma had insisted on putting up. Can’t let Grandma’s efforts go to waste, I thought as I placed a quick kiss on Josiah’s mouth.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“Mistletoe. Wouldn’t want to ignore tradition. Might be bad luck.”
“Wouldn’t want that,” Josiah drawled, leaning closer.
“No,” I agreed breathlessly. The scratchy Santa beard tickled my chin as Josiah closed the distance between us.
I giggled and he pulled the beard down. “Lettie,” he whispered before claiming my mouth again. I don’t know how long we stood there under the mistletoe. The world seemed to disappear until all that existed was Josiah and how much I loved him. Maybe I didn’t have to go away after all.
Everything changed when Grandma’s shriek killed the moment. “Merciful heavens! I hope you have a shotgun handy, because that’s the kind of wedding you’ll be planning if this keeps up.”
Startled, I couldn’t get away from Josiah fast enough. Heat burned my face as he replied with perfect serenity, “You’re the one who advocated mistletoe, Mrs. Samuels. I’m just making sure it goes to good use.”
I glared at him. Arguing with my grandmother was like talking to a brick wall. It doesn’t do you a bit of good. I saw Blizzard standing by the boys, a look of amusement on her face. I glowered at her. Couldn’t she have warned me that Grandma was coming? And how long had she and the boys just been standing there? The Lesters left and Mom pulled Grandma away from Josiah. “I should check the horses,” I said, taking the opportunity to escape the confines of the house. I thought of the email I had received earlier in the week. I was told to reply within thirty days. The only problem was, I didn’t know what my reply would be.
I’d never felt so helpless in my life as Mom wheeled me out to our truck. The doctor had said I wouldn’t be able to ride again for months. I knew the rodeo would be a bad idea. Although, Teddy’s guilty expression and heart-felt apology all but made up for my lackluster performance. Actually, lackluster is the wrong word. Disastrous is closer to the truth. Zander’s feet had slid under him. I was anxious to see my gelding. I vaguely remembered Blizzard saying something about him looking all right when we are the way to the hospital, but I’m pretty sure they’d drugged me up and I couldn’t remember clearly. And as if things couldn’t get worse, Mom had agreed to let Josiah come to the ranch and help out for a while. No one listened to me arguing and then the jerk picked me up and put me in the truck like I was an infant. Okay, so maybe that isn’t the way you’d hold an infant, but I’m certainly not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing I was impressed by his strength. He picked me up and got me in my seat like I didn’t weigh anything at all, and I’m not exactly small.
I glared at him and tried not to laugh as his dad got after him for nearly calling me a name. His pathetic fill-in of, “Angel,” wasn’t lost on me. I knew exactly what it is he wanted to say and maybe I was being a bit stubborn. But it was nice to have someone else getting after Josiah for his potty-mouth.
Over the next few weeks, Josiah came each morning to work on Starwood. He never complained, though we argued pretty regularly about how things got done. Mostly I did it to annoy him, and it worked every time. But I have to admit, he was a great hand to have around. He took care of the chores I gave him plus extras. He even charmed Mom with new rosebushes out by the ranch sign. I was trying not to let this newfound thoughtfulness get to me. I knew he didn’t have to be at Starwood and was losing valuable time at his own ranch. I also knew he was trying his best to earn my respect and trust. After a while, I started to think maybe we could make a new go of it. What had happened was years ago and he did seem to genuinely care about my well-being and happiness. One day he came to the ranch in a sedan and I knew what that meant. “Taking me to my physical therapy, huh?” I asked, trying to sound less excited than I felt.
“Yep.” He led me to the car and opened my door for me before setting my crutches in the backseat.
We drove silently into town. Josiah left the radio off, and I honestly didn’t mind. Blizzard is sweet, but she’s also almost constantly talking. Occasionally it’s nice to have a few moments of quiet. When we arrived at the clinic, he asked, “Do you want me to go in with you?”
“Nah, I can make it on my own.”
“What time should I come pick you up?”
“Um…” I had no idea. I’d never done physical therapy before and had no clue what to expect.
Josiah chuckled and got out of the car. He opened my door and steadied me as I got my crutches situated. Then he led me into the building, holding each door we passed.
“If you lay that chivalry on any thicker, your armor will start showing,” I teased.
“Who says this knight wears armor?” he countered with a grin.
I couldn’t help but laugh as we walked into the office. Josiah asked the receptionist how long the appointment would last and then came back to the chair I was waiting in. “Going to stick around?”
He shook his head. “You’re in for a long day, Lettie. I’ll be back in time to take you to lunch.”
When he came back, I hurt everywhere. Muscles I didn’t know I had screamed at me and I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and die. He helped me as I gingerly walked to the car, not even willing to attempt teasing him for babying me. I felt like a baby. As he started the car he asked, “Hungry?”
“Miserable,” I replied.
“Well, a full stomach might help.” He drove down the road to a small burger joint and helped me out of the car. I was suddenly glad my physical therapy sessions weren’t in Pine Springs. I couldn’t bear the idea of Amelia and the rest of the local gossips seeing Josiah and I together. They’d have a field day.
“So, Miss Scarlett,” Josiah drawled as we sat in a vibrant orange booth, “where do we start this conversation?”
“The one where you admit that maybe we have a chance after all.”
I looked away from him. “Do we have to talk about this now? I feel like my bones are on fire and we won’t even discuss the rest of me.”
“Why not? The rest of you is pretty cute.”
I glared at him, or at least tried to. It came out more like a smirk though.
“I see. Well, in that case, maybe something to sweeten the deal a bit.” He pulled a wrapped box from I don’t even know where. I swear it hadn’t been in the car. But then, Josiah was the master of hiding things he didn’t want seen.
“What is this?”
I rolled my eyes and pulled at the paper. Soon a bay model horse was on the table with a card. I quirked an eyebrow at Josiah before opening the card and beginning to read.
Dear Lettie, My name is Bear. I’m stubborn, sometimes stupid, but mostly charming. I’m gorgeous and I know it, so sometimes I come off as cocky. But I’m a real hard worker and I’m as good a friend as anyone could ask for. Would you let me into your heart?
I looked up at Josiah. “Bear?”
He shrugged. “Seemed fitting. Remind you of anyone?”
“Just a cowboy I know,” I replied. “I think I know the perfect place for Bear.”
“Not telling,” I said with a grin.
Soon we were too busy eating to talk. After finishing our meal, Josiah ordered ice cream for us. At first he suggested walking around with it and I glared at him, this time in earnest. “Oh, I guess it would be hard to eat your ice cream and hold your crutches at the same time.”
“If you promise not to dribble ice cream on the seats, we can eat in the car.”
“Or, there’s a park bench over there,” I said, pointing. “We can eat there and then you don’t have to worry about making a mess in your rental.” He carried the ice cream as we walked to the bench. It was a hot day, but not overly so. A gentle breeze tickled the trees around us. We sat with our ice cream, just talking and laughing like friends do. You know, as irritating as it can be, Josiah’s pretty persistent.
“What are you thinking about?”
“How stubborn you are.”
He laughed. “Really? This coming from you?”
I shrugged. “Mm-hmm.”
We were quiet for a long while, lost in our thoughts. “Well, I guess we should probably head home before your mother thinks I kidnapped you.”
“With how she’s behaved recently, I don’t think she’d mind.”
“What makes you say that?” Josiah asked, turning to look at me.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t about to admit to him that I knew more about my mother’s schemes than she thought. Partially, she wasn’t exactly being subtle about it. But mostly, Blizzard had talked to me a couple times about things Mom had told her and wanting to know why I had never told her. I guess it hadn’t been fair of me to block her out, but she had been so young at the time and so hurt already, I didn’t feel like I could shoulder her with my heartbreak. In smoothing her ruffled feathers, I realized she wasn’t as young anymore. My baby sister was becoming a young lady. What did that make me? “Shall we go?” I asked when Josiah continued to look at me.
“Yeah, guess so.” He helped me to my feet and held on to my arms for a moment. “You’ve got a little ice cream just here,” he said, pointing near his own mouth.
I stuck my tongue out to get it. “Did I get it?”
He shook his head and then without warning kissed the corner of my mouth. Heat seared my lips and rushed into my cheeks from the brief contact. “Got it,” he said, his voice low.
Before I could rethink what I was doing, I leaned forward and kissed him. I’d forgotten how right it felt to be in Josiah’s arms, how safe he made me feel. When he pulled back and looked at me, I smiled. “Thanks.”
It had been a successful day at the county fair. I knew Blizzard was disappointed about how Skipperdeen and Winter’s Folly had placed, but third was nothing to sneeze at. Much as she might want to claim being non-competitive, it’s not entirely true. She is competitive, but more than that she loves her animals. Having Winter’s Folly slighted for being on the small side, even if true, had riled her. I didn’t mind though. It had been wonderful helping her with this project and I looked forward to seeing what she and Folly would do in the years to come. I was glad she found such joy working with the horses. It gave us something in common.
We arrived at the diner on Main a little after six. Blizzard would be performing in the amateur night and I couldn’t wait. She was so talented and had been working on a secret project in her “studio” since our trip to Jackson. And by studio, I mean the old, abandoned barn in the south pasture. As we drove into the parking lot, I could tell she was nervous. Her blue eyes darted around and she kept fiddling with one of her purple-streaked curls. “Hey, you’ll do great,” I said as Mom parked the truck.
“What if I mess up?”
“You’ve been practicing for weeks, you’ll do fine,” Mom said.
“Besides, if you do mess up no one will notice. It’s your song and no one has heard it before,” I added.
She nodded and clutched her guitar case like a lifeline. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder as we walked into the diner. My heart lurched as I saw Teddy and Josiah sitting at our favorite booth. I couldn’t help but wonder how they’d gotten here first since just moments before we left Blizzard and I had overheard part of an argument between Josiah and some guy we didn’t know. He looked over at me with that infuriatingly smug grin of his. I tried to find somewhere else to sit before Teddy noticed us, but it didn’t work.
“Hey, come on over, there’s plenty of room here,” Teddy called.
Mom accepted, much to my chagrin and of course sat next to Teddy. I knew there was nothing romantic between them, they were just really good friends. Mom was always telling me that strong friendships were important. But those were hard to find in a small town where everyone was head-over-heels for the world’s biggest jerk. I waited for Blizzard to slide in but she just looked at me expectantly. I nodded towards the booth and she said, “I can’t sit in the middle, Scarlett. I’ve got to be able to get up for my turn or I’ll miss it.”
I glared at her. I knew she was right, but that didn’t make things any easier. I slid in and stayed as far from Josiah as it was possible to be. He was still looking overly pleased with himself and I had to fight the urge to slap that grin right off his face.
He shifted so he was closer to me, knowing that with Blizzard’s guitar case right next to me I didn’t have any escape. I caught a spicy note of his cologne. Unbidden memories flooded my mind of a Valentine’s Day years before. That was the cologne I’d given him and, until our breakup just a couple weeks later, it had been one of my favorite scents. I tried to focus on what Teddy was saying and pushed my memories away.
“The first is for Scarlett. You and Zander need to be ready for the barrel racing competition tomorrow. I took the liberty of entering for you.”
The water I’d been sipping went down the wrong tube as I spluttered, “What? But, I can’t compete! Zander and I haven’t been practicing at a competitive level in years. He could get hurt and he’s not as young as he pretends to be.”
“He’ll be fine and so will you,” Mom said. “Teddy talked to me about the idea months ago. Shorty’s been working Zander and I know you’ve been doing more with him than you let on.”
I was furious. As a former rodeo rider herself, Mom knew there was more to competing than simply working your horse. How could she go behind my back with something like this? “What about me? Don’t I have any say at all?”
“No, you listen…”
“Let’s give a big hand to that wonderful performance. Next up is Blizzard Jannsen.”
Blizzard glanced nervously at us before grabbing her guitar and heading up to the stage.
Some joker shouted, “Watch out, it’s the ice queen!” He’s lucky I couldn’t see exactly where he was or I would have knocked his block off.
I saw Blizzard glance over at us again as she sat on the chair. I pushed aside all the frustration I felt with Mom and gave her the biggest smile I could and a thumb’s up. You’ve got this, girl, I thought as she tuned up the guitar. She began strumming out familiar chords and I saw Mom’s eyes mist over. “Paul’s song,” she whispered.
The familiar notes soothed my heart. It was the tune Daddy had always hummed when working the ranch. I’d asked him once what it was and he simply said, “I don’t know yet, Scarlett. Must just be the soul of Starwood.” Now Blizzard had given it words and as she continued her song, I couldn’t think of a time I’d been more proud of her.
“Seems a shame to waste a good song,” Teddy said. “Someone ought to go out there and dance.”
“That’s a good idea,” Josiah agreed. “What do you say, Scarlett?”
I could have killed him. He knew I didn’t really have any choice with his dad sitting right there. “Sure,” I said, sliding out of the booth. He took me over to the open floor where other dancers had already gathered. “I suppose you’re pretty pleased with yourself.”
“Would it kill you to just leave me alone?” I growled.
He pretended to look thoughtful. “Hmmm, I dunno. Been too scared to try. Might be fatal you know.”
Do you know how hard it is to glare at someone when they’re being completely charming? I tried to at least not smile, but it wasn’t working well.
“Admit it, Scarlett, you’ve missed me.”
“Ha! Kind of stuck on yourself, aren’t you?”
“No, just telling it like I see it. But don’t you think you’re being a little immature?”
“You are telling me about immaturity. Really, Josiah? When the first thing out of your mouth was a joke so old and stale it stopped being funny before you ever told it?”
He scowled at me, some of the warmth leaving his eyes. “There’s this new thing, Scarlett. They call it forgiveness. You might want to try it out sometime.”
Before I could respond, Blizzard stopped playing and the room erupted in cheering. I kicked myself. I’d been so busy arguing with Josiah I’d missed most of the song. Blizzard was bound to ask me how I liked it and all I’d be able to tell her was I’d spent her song with a man I’d sworn never to see again. A man who was still holding my hand. I started to pull away, but Josiah kept a firm hold and pulled me closer.
“I know you think I’m worse than horse manure on your boots, but I care about you, Scarlett. Don’t you think we could try again?”
His expression was so tender and his touch so warm. His brown eyes begged me to say yes and my heart wanted to. Maybe we could. Then another memory came back. A memory of him holding a different girl, closer than he was holding me now. As much as it hurt, the words came out anyway, “No, I don’t think so.”
He let go of my hand, his eyes boring straight to my soul. “You know, you might want to quit lying to yourself while you’re learning about forgiveness, Lettie. But if that’s really what you want, I guess that’s all I deserve. Tell Blizzard she wrote a beautiful song.” Then he walked away, leaving me shattered all over again.