It's a Christmas affair to remember as a Hollywood mogul discovers his inner cowboyand the woman of his dreamsamid the rugged beauty of Wyoming.
Raine McCall would take snow-covered mountains over a star-studded premiere any day. But when hotshot movie executive Mick Branson arranges dinner on Christmas Eve to discuss a work opportunity, she's intriguedby the offer and the man. She's a no-makeup, no-frills single mom, who's happy with her quiet life. Sharing chili cheeseburgers and sizzling kisses with Mick is sure heating up her holiday, but country girl and power player don't mix
It's not just work that's brought Mick back to Mustang Creek. Since he first visited to oversee a documentary, free-spirited graphic designer Raine has been in his head. Her approach to life is as unconventional as her quirky holiday ornaments. Their attraction is undeniableand so are their differences. Putting down roots in the Wild West wasn't in the script. But there are some Christmas gifts you can't walk away from, even when they turn your whole world upside down
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 10, 1949
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RAINE McCALL FIRST frowned at the screen and then stared at the clock.
Her computer was right. Two in the morning? No way.
Oh, she'd be the first to admit that when she was working she lost track of time, but she was always there to put her daughter on the school bus and make sure Daisy had done her homework and had a healthy breakfast.
She'd always suffered from what she called WSS. Whimsical Sleep Schedule.
Awake at all hours, losing track of time if the muse was in the mood, and she'd been guilty of falling asleep in the chair at her desk. Daisy had told her more than once, with a maturity beyond her years, she thought she worked too hard, but then Raine didn't really think of it as work. Spinning dream images into reality was a unique joy and she felt sorry for every person in the world that had a job they disliked.
She wasn't the only one awake, either. Taking a break, she checked her email and was startled. Mick Branson? The Mick Branson had sent her a message? Hotshot Hollywood executive, way too focused, and no sense of humor — though come to think of it, he did smile now and then. He was good-looking, but she couldn't get beyond the sophisticated polish. She was a Wyoming girl through and through and thousand dollar suits weren't her preference. Give her a hat, jeans, and some worn boots.
Of course she'd met the man quite a few times at the ranch because he was the driving force behind the documentaries that Slater Carson, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her child, made, but getting an email from him was a definite first. Sent five minutes ago? She was too intrigued not to open it.
I'm going to be in Mustang Creek for the holidays. Can we have a business meeting? Maybe over dinner?
That was interesting, but currently she was up to her ears in deadlines trying to produce artwork for the labels for Mountain Vineyards wines. Her graphic design business had really taken off, and she wasn't sure she could handle another project.
From what she knew of Mick Branson, it wouldn't be a small one, either.
She typed back. When did you have in mind?
Tomorrow night? If you don't already have plans, that is.
On Christmas Eve?
Well, Daisy did usually spend that evening with her father's family and Raine spent it alone with a nice glass of wine and a movie. They always invited her, but she went the next day instead for the big dinner celebration and skipped the night before in favor of solitude. It was never that they made her feel like an outsider; quite the opposite, but Slater needed some time with his daughter to make memories without Raine always in the background. So while she appreciated the invitation, she'd always declined. It had been difficult when Daisy was little to spend such a magical evening away from her, but he was entitled. He was a wonderful father.
She typed: On the 24th of December, I assure you no place is open in Mustang Creek. This isn't California. You'd have to come to my place and I usually just eat a hamburger and drink wine.
He wrote back: That sounds fine. I like burgers and I enjoy wine. Let me bring the beverages. Please excuse me if I'm inviting myself.
She couldn't decide if he had, or if she'd done it. She really did need to get more sleep now and then. She typed: Mountain Vineyards for the wine.
You got it.
Have a safe flight.
Thank you, but I'm already here. See you tomorrow. Don't mention to anyone, especially Slater, that I'm in town please.
Raine sat back and let out a breath. She hadn't ever anticipated spending an evening with someone like Mick Branson, much less Christmas Eve.
Luckily, she thought, she'd thoroughly cleaned the house the day before when she realized that sound she abstractly heard in the background was the vacuum. Daisy was voluntarily doing a chore she usually argued over? Raine decided then and there — once she recovered from her shock — that maybe she had been spending too much time in her office. Sure enough, the house needed dusting, the kitchen floor had crumbs on it and the laundry room was in dire need of a workout.
Not that someone like Mr. Hollywood Executive Mick Branson, who probably lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills, would be impressed with her small and eclectic house anyway, no matter how tidy. Wait until he got a look at her Christmas tree. There was no theme to the ornaments; if something caught her eye, she bought and it put it up. There were owls, glittery reindeer, a glass shrimp with wings wearing a boa, all right alongside her grandmother's collection of English traditional antique glass orbs in brilliant colors. Those heirlooms were hung up high thanks to Mr. Bojangles, her enormous Maine coon cat. He was somewhat of a reclusive character, but he became positively playful when the Christmas tree went up. Walking past it usually meant an unexpected guerilla attack on your ankles because he considered it his covert hiding place every December. Therefore the ornaments on the bottom were soft stuffed squirrels and bunnies with a few fake pine cones he could bat around. Add in Daisy's giant dog, Samson, who accidentally knocked an ornament off every time he walked by, and her tree had no hope.
"Definitely not a designer tree, unless a deranged leprechaun arranged it" was how Daisy described it.
Raine loved it.
It was exactly her style. There was nothing wrong with being quirky. She went and switched off the lights and headed off to bed, wondering how she'd gotten roped into this situation.
Hollywood Hotshot Mick Branson eating hamburgers at her house on Christmas Eve?
Slater Carson was going to laugh himself into a fit.
The plane had touched down on a snowy runway and Mick had said a small prayer of thanks for an experienced pilot and maybe some luck of the season as the snow continued to pile up. It had been a bumpy ride and he wasn't at all a nervous flyer, but coming over the mountains he'd had a moment or two.
He'd been everywhere. Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, Europe ... he lived in Los Angeles, but he liked Wyoming. It felt like being on vacation and he could really, really use a vacation.
It wouldn't be a hardship to see Raine McCall again, either.
The thought surprised him because she was so not his type. Frothy skirts, and as far as he could tell she thought makeup was optional, or maybe forgot it altogether, and if she owned a pair of heels he'd be surprised. Her artistic temperament was the antithesis of his rigidly corporate lifestyle, but he somehow found it intriguing. She was naturally beautiful without trying. Maybe that was it. There was no artifice to Raine — what you saw was what you got. Not to mention he had a feeling she could care less how much money he made. Material things, he guessed, to her, were little more than a necessity now and then.
Anyway, he had planned this trip with a dual purpose.
He wanted to surprise Slater, who was not just a colleague but a friend, with the television premier of the documentary of Wild West ... Still Wild — and he wanted to see Raine. Two separate goals but also intertwined, since Slater and Raine had a past and shared a daughter. Slater was now happily married to someone else, but through a few very casual questions, Mick knew Raine wasn't seeing anyone.
This might get complicated and he hated complications. Business deals were a dance back and forth but he kept his personal life as simple as possible.
Raine was far from simple. Her art was exemplary and over the top, and the vivid mermaid label she'd created for the Carson winery's sparkling wine had resulted in more bottles sold in one day upon release than were sold of all their other wines combined, and they had been doing quite well before. Somehow he doubted Raine even registered the triumph.
But he wasn't interested in her for her talent — well, he was impressed, but that wasn't first and foremost in his mind. Maybe opposites did attract, though if you'd told him that before he'd met her through the Carson family, he'd have laughed it off.
He wasn't laughing now. It wasn't that he didn't have a good reason to be in Wyoming at the moment anyway, but he was essentially there because of a certain woman he couldn't seem to get off his mind.
Grace Carson met him in the dining room of the Bliss River Resort and Spa, her eyes sparkling, and gave him a welcoming hug. Slater really did have good taste in women because his wife was a stunning redhead with a confident air. She also apparently had a good memory, because almost immediately a waiter came over with coffee and a rack of rye toast, which was his favorite.
She joined him, pouring coffee for them both. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to not tell Slater about Christmas Day?"
"I've actually struggled with it myself, so maybe I do." He admired the view of the snow-capped mountains out the huge windows as he sipped his coffee and thought about all the strings he'd pulled. Considerable was the answer. He looked back at Grace, which was also a pleasure. "The time slot was the hardest part. But everyone is pretty much home, and hopefully by then Christmas dinner will be over and there will be a worldwide desire to watch something other than the old classics."
She added cream to her coffee. "I think it's a brilliant idea. You do realize you just usurped my gift to him, which was a new saddle. He'll probably kiss you under the mistletoe instead of me."
Mick chuckled. "I doubt it, but if it happens, let's not catch that on film." Not knowing remote cameras were taking footage, Slater's younger brother Drake had gotten caught in a romantic moment with his now wife, Luce, and was none too happy about it being used in the film, but had grudgingly signed the release.
"Maybe Raine will kiss you instead." Grace took a sip from her silver-rimmed cup, a knowing look in her eyes.
He'd never understood how women had magical powers when it came to sensing a possible romance. Men just blundered on, unaware, and females were like wolves sniffing the air. He was a man who played angles, so he admitted noncommittally, "I can't imagine any man minding that. How is the resort business these days?"
She caught on to that just as easily. "Subject changed. I can take a hint. It's going well. Ski season is in full swing. We're packed. The spa is booked out two months. The owner is pleased and it keeps me busy and, well, I'm expecting again. Luce is also in baby mode. We're just waiting for the same kind of announcement from Mace and Kelly. Then all the cousins can grow up together."
Mick pictured a bunch of toddlers running wild around the sprawling Carson ranch. To his surprise, the image was immensely appealing. He hadn't had much exposure to babies; his only brother was childless by choice even though he'd been married a long time. He and his wife tended to spend the winter in France or at their house in the Caribbean, and as an investment banker, Ran could work from anywhere, so their attitude reflected their sophisticated lifestyle.
Prior to his business association with Slater, he hadn't thought about it much, but Mick had to acknowledge that his upbringing had left a hole in his life. Warm family gatherings had just never happened. His parents traveled widely when his father was alive and now it was tradition to meet his mother at the country club for Christmas dinner.
Elegant, but not exactly cozy. He'd been to celebrations at the Carson ranch before and they were usually quite the boisterous experience. He said, "Congratulations. Slater is a lucky man all the way around."
"He'll certainly be one tomorrow," Grace replied with a smile. "I haven't said a word to anyone — although Blythe knows, which means Harry knows."
"Raine knows I'm in town." He gave what he hoped was a casual shrug. "We have a business meeting tonight and she said no restaurants would be open, so she invited me over."
Arched brows rose higher. "Did she now? She's breaking her burger and glass of wine tradition?"
"No. I was informed that's the menu."
Grace gave a laugh of real merriment. "Only Raine would serve Mick Branson a burger. I love Raine but she is on the eclectic side. That's why I was surprised the two of you hit it off so well. She's right about Christmas Eve, by the way — we even close the restaurants here at the resort and the spa. Guests can pre-order special bags with gourmet sandwiches and salads that will be delivered via room service, but quite frankly, I just don't believe in making anyone work who would rather be with their family on Christmas. A few staff members would rather work for holiday pay, so the resort is open, but not the dining choices. In town everything is closed."
Vaguely he registered her words about the holiday, but his mind was caught on what she'd said about Raine. Hit it off? He chose not to comment. He could negotiate deals involving millions of dollars, but personal discussions were not his strong suit. "Los Angeles is a little different."
"Oh, I bet." Grace was definitely amused. Her phone beeped and she rose. "Excuse me, but that sound means something needs my attention. I'll see you tomorrow."
After she left he finished his toast and coffee, checked his email via his phone, and headed out to his rental car.
It was lightly snowing and briskly cold, the car dusted over in white, and he wished he'd thought about bringing some gloves. It wasn't something that occurred to him back in L.A. when he packed for the trip.
The wine shop was on the main street and someone had done an artistic job of decorating the windows with snowflakes. The bells on the huge wreath on the door jingled as Mick walked in. There were several other customers and he noted Kelly Carson, Slater's sister-in-law, was the one sitting behind the old polished counter. She looked cute wearing an elf hat and a surprised expression.
Good, his lucky day.
Or so he hoped, but it was yet another person to swear to secrecy. Her eyes had widened as she recognized him.
There was just no such thing as a secret in Mustang Creek. He'd heard that the last time he'd been in town and really hadn't believed it, but was now starting to feel like living proof.
"Merry Christmas, Mick," Kelly called as he approached.
"Merry Christmas," he said. "Let me make an educated guess and assume you're working because you wouldn't ask any of the employees to so they could be with their families."
She nodded and the fuzzy tassel on her hat bobbed. "You're right. Absolutely. We're only open until noon today anyway, holiday hours ... I guess I didn't realize you were in town. No one mentioned it."
"No one knows." Well, not true. Grace, Blythe, Harry and Raine knew, and now Kelly. He smiled wryly. "Let me rephrase. I'd prefer if Slater didn't find out I'm here. It's about both business and friendship, so if you can keep it to yourself until tomorrow, I'd appreciate it."
She sent him a wink. "My lips are sealed."
"I knew I could count on you. Now, tell me, best wine to go with a burger would be ... what?"
"I hate to disappoint you, but Bad Billy's won't be open."
The biker bar was legendary for its burgers. "I'm not actually getting my burger from Billy's."
She blinked. "Oh ... oh! Raine?"
It was tempting to deny it, but ... well, why bother? Clearly her Christmas Eve burgers tradition was well-known. "We have a business meeting tonight. What kind of wine does she usually buy?"
"The Wildfire Merlot." Kelly said it promptly, her expression alight with humor. "She also likes Soaring Eagle Chardonnay. Either one would be fine. At the end of the day, Mace always tells me to drink a wine you like with food you like. Don't worry about the rest of it. He thinks snobbish pairing is overrated."
"People all over California just fainted dead away because you said that."
"People all over California buy our wines," she countered with a mischievous elfin grin that matched her festive hat. "So he seems to know what he's doing."
Tough to argue with that. "I'll take a few bottles of each, plus some for the Christmas gathering tomorrow, including the new sparkling wine. Just give me a case."
Excerpted from "A Snow Country Christmas"
Copyright © 2017 Hometown Girl Makes Good, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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