Christmas in Colorado…
The men in Marti Johanssen’s life seem determined to ruin her Christmas. Her teenage son wants to move in with his dad; her father wants her to reconcile with her ex so the Colorado family ranch will be in “capable” hands. And for some reason, Gil, her ex-husband, is being more attentive than he ever was during their marriage.
Fortunately, Rick Dennehy, the attractive widower next door, seems quite happy not to be involved in Marti’s life. He’s made it perfectly clear that he’s back in Colorado only for as long as it takes to sell his property.
Too bad. Marti’s beginning to wish she had a man like Rick under her Christmas tree.
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Marti Johansson lifted the last of the clean dishes from the dishwasher and stacked the plates in the cupboard. Behind her at the kitchen table, her son, Cameron, let out a heavy sigh. She could see him reflected in the window, the sour expression, the slumped shoulders, the blond hair hanging into his face. He’d been surly all through dinner, and her own temper had almost reached the boiling point.
“Give me one good reason why I can’t get a car,” Cameron demanded.
“One?” Marti glared at him over her shoulder. “I can give you half a dozen. For one thing, you’re only fifteen.”
Red blotches dotted Cameron’s pale cheeks, and a lock of long blond hair hung in his eyes. “I’ll be sixteen in three months.”
“For another, you’re still on probation.”
“Like that matters.” He stood a full head taller than Marti, and his voice had dropped low enough to match his father’s. Both things made him think of himself as an adult.
Marti just wished he’d begin acting like one. “It matters, Cameron.” She closed the cupboard and crossed the room to the table. “You’re the one who decided it would be cool to borrow a car and go joy-riding with your friends. You’re the one who didn’t think it was important to turn in your homework last semester. Now you’re the one who gets to pay the price.”
Cameron rolled his eyes and ticked his tongue in disgust. “It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had turned in my homework. I still would have gotten an F.”
“That’s not true,” Marti insisted. “You’re smart enough, you just don’t try.”
“I do try.”
“Maybe in woodshop and auto mechanics, but you don’t even bother in the rest of your classes.”
“I don’t know what that has to do with me getting a car,” he muttered.
“In that case,” Marti snapped, “I’ll spell it out for you. Until you can get your grades up and keep out of trouble, I’m not likely to shower you with rewards.”
Cameron planted his elbows on the table and propped up his chin with both hands. He looked so dejected, Marti felt herself weakening.
She sat where she could look into his eyes. Immediately, he averted his gaze. “You’re a smart kid, Cameron. You could get good grades if you’d only try.”
He flicked a contemptuous glance at her out of eyes so clear and blue they made her heart ache. “I’m not smart, I’m stupid. That’s what you always say. You and those dumb counselors you’re always dragging me to see.”
“I take you to counseling because I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately.”
Another glance, this one even more venomous. “Yes you do. I’ve told you a million times.”
For three years he’d complained about everything from the divorce, to moving to California, to the teachers he’d been assigned. She didn’t know which topped his list today. “Tell me again.”
He kicked his feet onto an empty chair and glared at his fingernails. “I hate this place, that’s what’s wrong with me. I want to go home.”
Of course. With the holidays approaching, she should have guessed he’d miss Colorado more than usual. But they didn’t live in Gunnison anymore, and after three years, she thought he should be able to accept that. “You are home,” she reminded him.
“No, I’m not. This isn’t home. It’ll never be home.”
“I know you miss Colorado—”
“It’s not just that,” Cameron interrupted. “I miss Dad. I never get to see him anymore.”
Marti knew he blamed her for the nonexistent visits with Gil. If she hadn’t decided to leave Gunnison after the divorce. . . If she wasn’t so mean to Gil. . . She’d heard the accusations so many times, she didn’t even bother to defend herself anymore. No matter what she said, Cameron steadfastly refused to believe that Gil was responsible for anything he didn’t like.
“Maybe he’ll let you visit when you’re off probation,” she suggested.
“Maybe I won’t ever be off probation.”
Another piece of her thinning patience evaporated. “Maybe you won’t. Especially if you keep hanging around Jared and Tim.”
“Oh, yeah,” Cameron snarled, “blame Jared and Tim. You divorced Dad, jerked me out of my school, and took me away from all of my family and friends. And now that I’ve finally made a few new friends here, you’re trying to take them away, too.”
“Only because Jared and Tim are always in trouble.”
His lips curved in an ugly sneer. “So?”
“So, I don’t want you doing the things they do. I don’t want you to screw up your life by making stupid choices.”
“I’m not making stupid choices,” he shouted. “And I’m not screwing up my life. You’re the one who’s doing that.”
“I’m not screwing up your life,” Marti insisted. She tried to keep her voice steady, but she could feel the heat of anger creeping up her neck into her face, and she knew she was in danger of losing the battle. Again. “Moving from Gunnison was the best thing I ever did for you.”
“You mean it was the best thing you ever did for yourself.”
Marti tucked a lock of hair behind one ear and pulled in a deep, steadying breath. No good came from arguing with Cameron. She knew that only too well. “I’m not going to talk about this now. I want you to go to your room until you’ve calmed down. When you can discuss this rationally, I’ll be glad to talk to you again.”
Swearing, Cameron jumped up to face her. He leaned both fists on the table in a pose she knew he meant to intimidate her. “I’m not going to my room.”
She stood to face him, forcing herself to hold his gaze, to meet the challenge in his eyes. “Yes, you are.”
“Go to hell.”
She started toward him, but Cameron spun on his heel and jack-rabbited out the back door before she could reach him. Cursing herself for letting the argument reach this point, she raced after him. But he jumped down the back steps and ran down the driveway before she could even make it out the door.
Gripping the door frame, she shouted after him, but she knew it was a waste of energy. He wouldn’t come back now. He’d hook up with Jared and Tim, and probably get himself into more trouble before the end of the night.
Somehow, she’d lost control of him, and she had no idea how to get it back. He’d been angry with her since the divorce and, despite her best efforts, their relationship seemed to get worse with every passing day. She’d tried everything to reach him. She’d talked to counselors, read books, and attended seminars, but he only grew more angry, bitter, and hateful. Lately, she’d begun to despair of him ever making a turn-around without a miracle.
Dragging in a deep breath, she stared at the night sky and remembered the days, long gone now, when Cameron had climbed into her lap, wrapped his arms around her neck, and pressed soft kisses to her cheek. He’d loved sitting in the rocking chair with her and curling his fingers through her hair while they watched television. He’d been her companion during Gil’s absences and her only solace during that horrible time after the stillborn birth of her second child. Gil certainly hadn’t been there for her. He’d been too busy drinking his nights away at the Lucky Jack and chasing around with other women.
But Cameron had been there. And Marti had done her best to put her grief over losing Chelsea behind her and get on with her life—for Cameron’s sake. Since the divorce, he’d changed so much those days might never have been.
Closing the door behind her, she walked back to the kitchen table and tried to keep her mind occupied. If she didn’t, she’d go crazy with worry. Almost mindlessly, she sorted through the day’s mail, scowling at the inevitable pile of bills, junk mail, and advertising flyers. Nothing interesting there. Maybe she could find something on TV. Or she could finish the novel she’d started reading last week.
As she tossed the mail back onto the table, an envelope fell out of a folded advertising circular. Hoping it wasn’t another letter from Cameron’s school, she picked up the envelope. When she recognized her father’s bold scrawl, she sighed with relief, ripped open the envelope, and scanned the single page.
Just like her dad, she thought with a smile. No mindless chat, just the basics. An invitation to bring Cameron home to Gunnison over the Christmas holidays and one terse sentence telling her that neither of her brothers nor her sister could make it this year.
She started to set the letter aside, then stopped and stared at it for several long seconds. True, her father hadn’t approved of her divorcing Gil. True, he hadn’t been exactly warm and loving since she moved away. But maybe he was ready to put all that behind them. He hadtaken time to write, which meant he must want to see her.
She lowered the letter to the table and gave her dad’s suggestion serious thought. Maybe—just maybe—taking Cameron back to the Lazy M Ranch for a few weeks would help their relationship.
Of course, she did have a magazine article due before the New Year, but with her laptop computer she could write anywhere. Besides, Cameron wasn’t the only one who could use a dose of crisp Colorado mountain air. She’d missed her childhood home more than she wanted to admit—even to herself.
Leaning back in her chair, she locked her arms behind her head and smiled up at the ceiling. Her dad had offered the perfect solution to her problems. She could separate Cameron from Jared and Tim. She and her dad could patch things up between them. And, with luck, she just might be able to start mending her relationship with her son, as well.
With a sigh of relief, Rick Dennehy closed the last file on his desk and raked his fingers through his hair. It had already been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the wide window behind him, making it feel more like late autumn in Denver than the first of December. From the street two floors below, the persistent sound of a bell ringing non-stop irritated his already frayed nerves. Outside his office door, Christmas music echoed through the marbled corridors of the courthouse.
Doing his best to ignore both, he forced a smile and handed the file to his assistant. “I guess that’s it, Noreen,” he said, rolling down his shirtsleeves and nodding toward the teetering stacks of files they’d created on the floor. “Think you can get case administration to close all those files before the end of the year?”
Noreen shrugged lightly and added the file to one precarious-looking stack beside her chair. “I can as long as we don’t run into computer problems while you’re gone. If the system goes down, I’m not making any promises.”
Rick scowled at her and tightened the knot in his tie. “If the system goes down or everyone suddenly develops a case of holiday fever.”
Noreen scowled back. He never had been able to intimidate her. “We might put up a few Christmas decorations and listen to music,” she said, “but we still get the work done.”
“Decorations and music aren’t the problem,” he reminded her. “It’s the long shopping lunches and leaving early and talking about Christmas presents and parties that slow everyone down.”
“Some of us happen to like Christmas.”
Not Rick. He’d never been overly fond of the holidays, and losing his wife a week before Christmas two years earlier hadn’t done anything to endear the season to him. He didn’t remind Noreen. She knew all about Jocelyn’s accident and, thankfully, she knew better than to discuss it with him.
She leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs, and studied him for a long moment. “So—? Are you going to leave me a number where I can reach you?”
He let out a soft laugh. “Not on your life. I’m spending a month away from this place.” In the Monterey beach condo of an old friend. Warm sunshine, sand, and all the free time a man could want. He didn’t intend to let anyone or anything interrupt his un-Christmas holiday.
“What do I do if your realtor calls?”
Rick’s smile faded as it always did when he thought of the cabins he and Jocelyn had built in the southern Colorado mountains outside of Gunnison. “I’ll call Bix before I leave this afternoon.”
Noreen shook her head slowly, but she didn’t look at him—a sure sign she was about to say something Rick wouldn’t like. “You’re really going to sell the cabins?”
“But you love those cabins.”
Rick had loved them. He didn’t now. In fact, he’d done his best to ignore their existence since he’d come back to Denver after Jocelyn’s death. Once he’d thought he might eventually go back. Now, he knew better. So, six months earlier, he’d listed the cabins and the land with a realtor based in Gunnison. Unfortunately, in spite of the grinning picture on his business card, Bix Mason hadn’t been able to pull in even one offer yet.
Rick pushed away from his desk and scowled at Noreen. “They’re just a bunch of boards sitting on a pile of dirt.”
She pursed her lips in disbelief. “Yeah. Right.”
“I’m selling,” he insisted. “And don’t worry about Bix. I’ll give him a number where he can reach me.” He used his sternest voice—the one he usually used only on recalcitrant debtors and troublesome attorneys.
It didn’t faze Noreen. But Rick didn’t let that bother him. She’d worked with him before he moved to Gunnison and again since he’d come back to the bankruptcy court after Jocelyn’s death. They’d grown comfortable with their professional friendship over the years. She knew his boundaries, and she knew better than to overstep them.
But for some reason, she seemed to forget today. She sent him a tight smile. “I still think you ought to change your mind. Give yourself more time to think about selling.”
“I don’t need more time,” Rick assured her.
“You haven’t been back there since Jocelyn’s accident—”
“I don’t need to go back,” he snapped. “I know what I’m doing.” He leaned both fists on his desktop and glared at her. “Now, if there’s nothing else, I’ve got a lot to do before I leave today.”
Noreen slowly uncrossed her legs and tucked her pen behind her ear. “I know you don’t want my opinion, but I’ll give it to you anyway. You’re running away, Rick. You’re afraid to go back and face the place where Jocelyn died.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Rick pushed up from his desk and clenched his fists until the stubs of his nails bit into the palms of his hands. “What did you do? Get a degree in psychoanalysis while I wasn’t looking?” Noreen’s brows knit, her mouth pursed, and anger flashed through her eyes. He knew he’d offended her, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t running away. He’d never run from anything in his life. He simply had no desire to go back to Gunnison. None. He wanted to unload the cabins and the land, and put the town and everything in it behind him, once and for all.
“Do me a favor,” he snapped, “use your magazine psychiatry on someone else. I have work to do.”
“Fine.” Noreen’s face turned an angry shade of red, but she had enough sense not to argue with him. “I’ll have a couple of clerks bring a cart to pick up these files.”
“And I hope you have a great time—wherever you’re going.”
“Thank you, I will.”
He waited until she’d closed the door behind her, then sank into his chair again. Only then did he realize how badly the conversation had shaken him. His knees wobbled, his hands shook, and he had trouble catching his breath. He took a minute to pull himself together, then found Bix Mason’s business card in his Rolodex, lifted the receiver and punched in the number. Might as well get this part over with now. Then he could forget about Gunnison and the cabins for the rest of the month.
The phone rang five times before Rick got an answer. Even then, he thought for a moment Bix’s familiar tenor voice announcing his name was the beginning of an answering machine message. He leaned back in his chair to wait for the beep.
“Mason Realty,” the voice prodded. “What can I do for you?”
Rick sat up quickly. “Bix? Rick Dennehy here. Just checking in before I leave town for a month.”
“Well, imagine that,” Bix said with a laugh. “I was just looking up your number when the telephone rang.”
“You were? Why? Have we finally got an offer?”
“No-o-o.” Bix dragged the word out for an eternity. “Matter of fact, I was fixing to tell you I don’t think you’re going to get one, the shape the property’s in right now. At least not one that’ll clear up your loan, much less give you a little profit.”
“I don’t need a profit,” Rick assured him. “I just want to come out even.”
“Well, see, that’s the thing. I don’t think you’re going to. Not unless you fix the cabins up some. Last winter was a harsh one, and you’ve got some damage to some of the cabins already. Even without improvements, you’re looking at a loss on your investment. If they sit through another winter, you might as well bulldoze ‘em.”
Rick swore under his breath and rubbed his forehead with one hand. Couldn’t Bix have waited to give him this news until after his vacation? “Fine,” he said, “let’s fix them up.”
“Are you going to come down here and do it?”
“No, I’ll hire someone.”
“I thought you might say that,” Bix said, rattling papers near the telephone, “so I asked a couple of local guys for estimates.”
Good thinking. Rick relaxed slightly. “How much?”
Bix quoted two bids, one far too high, the other astronomical.
Rick sat forward in his chair. “There’s no way it could possibly cost that much.”
“No way,” Rick interrupted. “They’re brand new.”
“They’ve been vacant for two years.”
“Well, what in the hell—”
“Two years of harsh weather,” Bix added. “You’re looking at a substantial amount in material plus labor to get those things habitable again.”
Rick couldn’t afford to do that unless he took out another loan. “What about another contractor?”
Bix snorted a soft laugh. “How many do you think we have around here? You want to bring somebody in, you’ll be looking at more than that. Trouble is, both these guys work other jobs, so you’re looking at spring before you’d be ready to sell.”
Rick didn’t want to wait until spring. He’d expected to sell the cabins off long before now. And he sure as hell didn’t want to end up owing more money after the cabins sold than he already did. He kneaded his forehead and tried to think.
“You could save yourself a bundle if you did the work yourself,” Bix said. “I mean, it’s not as if you can’t do it. And if you really punched it, you could probably get them done in a month. Six weeks, tops.”
The personal price Rick had paid for the cabins had already been too high. He’d lost his dream and his wife. Not for the first time, he wished he’d never talked Jocelyn into buying the land and building the cabins. He couldn’t even get rid of the stupid things without taking another month to six weeks off work.
Unbidden, the solution presented itself to him, but he shoved it away. He would not give up his vacation in Monterey. He’d worked almost non-stop since coming back to the court. He’d earned this time away and he looked forward to the month without work, without pressure. To the whole month of December walking the beaches, watching basketball on television, and pretending that Christmas didn’t exist.
Of course, he could ignore Christmas in a remote cabin in Gunnison as easily as he could in Monterey. He already had the time off work. He could catch up on his reading. And he could prove—if only to himself—just how off-base Noreen had been to suggest he was running away from his memories.
“Well—?” Bix prodded. “What do you want me to do? You want me to hire one of these guys?”
Rick hesitated another minute. After all, the snowy mountains of southern Colorado were a far cry from the rocky beaches of Monterey. “What about the main cabin? What kind of shape is it in?”
“Your house? It’s all right. I took a couple through it just last week. You must have built it sturdier than the guest cabins.”
Of course he had. He’d planned to live in it year-round, and he’d wanted it nice enough to keep Jocelyn happy. “Can you arrange to have the phone turned on for me? And the other utilities as well?”
“Consider it done.” Relief tinged Bix’s voice. “How soon do you need them?”
“How soon can you do it?”
“Is tomorrow soon enough?”
“Perfect.” He’d set off in the morning as planned, but instead of heading west, he’d take the highway south.
“You’re making the right choice,” Bix assured him.
Rick hoped so. It certainly wasn’t the easiest decision he’d ever made. But he didn’t voice his doubts aloud. He said only, “I’ll call you when I get there,” and disconnected before he could change his mind.
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