Friends turn into something more when they work as Santa and his elf helper in this charming Christmas story from Melissa Cutler.
Paul Savage loves Christmas at Briscoe Ranch Resort, when he gets to take a break from being a back country guide to play Santa in the resort’s lobby and talk to kids about toys. The last thing he expects is his high school crush to come waltzing in as his new assistant photographer, wheeling a suitcase that's more naughty than nice.
Kelly Walker is a disaster. All she’d wanted was to spice up her life by saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity, which is when the universe started pelting her with ‘no's.' So when she comes across a job listing for a holiday photographer working with the sweet, scrawny boy whose advances she’d laughed off in high school, she jumps on the chance to turn her bad Karma around by giving Paul a second chance.
Trouble is, Paul’s anything but scrawny anymore, and his cowboy swagger throws her grand plans for a loop—especially when he tempts her with a red hot proposition of his own. Kelly’s in way over her head, but as she gets swept up in the magic of Briscoe Ranch’s holiday charms—and Paul’s—could Kelly’s year of ‘no’s' be leading up to the ‘yes’ of a lifetime?
About the Author
Melissa Cutler is the author of The Mistletoe Effect and the One and Only Texas series. She knows she has the best job in the world writing sexy contemporary romances and romantic suspense. She was struck at an early age by an unrelenting travel bug and is probably planning her next vacation as you read this. When she's not globetrotting, she's enjoying Southern California's flip-flop wearing weather and wrangling two rambunctious kids.
Read an Excerpt
If Santa Were a Cowboy
A One and Only Texas Novella
By Melissa Cutler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Melissa Cutler
All rights reserved.
Kelly Sawyer is single again, the text read.
Paul Savage stood center stage in the bridal-gown shop — a slash of red in a sea of white. Seamstresses bustled around him, making final alterations to his Santa Claus costume. He stared at his phone, as though he could will the words to rearrange into a new syntax that would make sense for his life in a way that Kelly Sawyer did not.
"Someone's been eating his Wheaties because I know for a fact these sleeves fit last year," said Carina Decker, the owner of the bridal shop at Briscoe Ranch Resort, where Paul also worked. She gave his biceps a squeeze of admiration, then helped him shrug the jacket on.
Nice to know the pull-ups he'd added to his morning workout were paying off. "I'm just glad you could fix it. Despite what you remember, the jacket barely fit last year. Every kid I lifted onto my lap, I was afraid the sleeves would rip open."
Rikki, Carina's young assistant, paused in her work of letting out a hem in the Santa pants Paul was wearing. She stared off into space, a dreamy look in her eyes. "You did kind of look like the Chippendales' version of Santa, from that routine in their winter show where Santa rips off his Velcro-seamed pants to reveal a red thong shaped like an upside down Santa hat and starts gyrating against a huge candy cane." She snapped out of her dream-state with a jolt, her cheeks pinking. "Not that I've ever seen anything like that."
Carina and the other two ladies filled the room with giggly, good-natured teasing about Rikki's flimsy denial and Paul's stripper qualities. Paul struck a pose and flexed gamely, letting the ladies have their fun. In the corner of the room, Paul's coonhound, Sadie, raised her head to see what all the fuss was about. Her tail nudged left, then right, with the beginning of a wag, but she stayed on her mat just as Paul had long-ago trained her to, even though he knew she'd rather be sitting right up against his leg on the alternations platform, especially with so much talk and fuss swirling around him, as it was at the moment.
Other than the fact that it made Sadie restless and needy, Paul didn't mind that he was easy to tease and harmless to flirt with thanks to the Mr. Nice Guy gene he was blessed with. It was the one thing about himself that he'd decided to hang onto in the years since high school graduation, even as he'd worked hard to shed every other scrap of the scrawny, pimply, awkward nerdboy who had wasted his time pining for the likes of Kelly Sawyer. That drastic transformation had paid off for him, big time. He had a great life, a great dog, and a great career as a backcountry guide for one of the premier luxury resorts in Texas. Plus, every year he got to play Santa Claus — the holiday season's number-one rock star. Life didn't get any sweeter.
When the teasing died down and Carina and her staff got quiet as they focused on his costume's final adjustments, Paul lifted his phone again and took another look at the text message from his friend Shawn.
Kelly Sawyer is single again.
Paul didn't care. He refused to care.
Shawn's wife was buddies with Kelly, and they all still lived in Cranston, the east Texas town they'd grown up in together. Shawn never passed up the chance to remind Paul how embarrassingly infatuated he'd been with the most popular girl in school. Paul couldn't even call Kelly the one who got away. More like the one who taught him the painful lesson that he was better off saving his heart for girls who could care about him more than their reputations.
"Is it just me or is our favorite Santa extra quiet today?" Carina mused.
"He's always quiet," said Peg, one of Carina's assistants, as though Paul wasn't right there in the room with them. "Maybe he and Mrs. Claus are on the fritz."
"Or his reindeer are rebelling," Carina said.
Rikki snapped her fingers. "I know. He's busy running through his naughty and nice lists, getting ready for the big night."
He let them talk around him for a bit, amused by their banter. But his mind kept boomeranging back to Kelly, so to prove how little he gave a shit about his past mistakes and embarrassments, he held out his phone. "Sorry for being so quiet. It's this text I just got."
Peg did the honor of reading it aloud. "According to somebody named Shawn, Kelly Sawyer is single again."
That had the ladies falling all over themselves and filling the room with giggles and twittering ideas about who Kelly was and why Paul would care. This time, Sadie sat up on her mat, her eyes trained on Matt for guidance on how to deal with the sudden explosion of feminine voices. With a snap of his fingers, Paul summoned her to his side then dropped his hand on her head for a reassuring scratch.
Carina took a seat near Paul's boots on the alterations platform and gave Sadie a chest rub before starting in with a needle and thread on the bottom button of Paul's jacket. "Who is this Kelly Sawyer? Your ex?"
Paul shook his head. "Girl I went to school with. My big crush."
Instead of more giggles and twittering, the air filled with wise, womanly hums of approval and intrigue. Carina gave the hem of his jacket a tug, capturing his attention. "We're going to need some more details, here, before we start making up details on our own."
He didn't doubt that. "Kelly and I were always close, growing up — alphabetically, that is. Sawyer and Savage. It was a small town, not too many kids, so every time they lined us up or seated us in order by last name, kindergarten through high school graduation, we were put next to one another. There was no way not to bond with each other after a while. And that's the story of how an awkward, video-game-obsessed late bloomer of an ugly duckling came to be friends with the most popular girl in school. And have the requisite crush on her, of course."
"You couldn't have been that bad of a prospect for her. I mean, look at you," Rikki said, her face pinking again.
Sweet, naïve Rikki ... if you only knew.
And then he decided, what the hell. He wasn't ashamed of who he'd been, even if he was beyond grateful that he'd had the wherewithal to leave Cranston in the dust and remake himself into a better, more confident man. He scrolled through his phone for the family Christmas card photo that his brother had posted on Instagram for Throwback Thursday.
In the photo, Paul was a gangly sixteen-year-old with a bowl haircut, braces, and wearing an ugly red Christmas sweater that his grandma had knitted for him. The ladies gathered around him, their eyes bugging out as they examined the photo.
"I'm the tall one," he said.
Carina looked like she was barely holding back a laugh. "Oh, my God."
"How can that be you? That's ..." Peg added.
He stuffed the phone into the pocket of his Santa pants. "Yeah, the ladies weren't exactly flocking to me back then."
"They flock to you now," Rikki muttered.
Yes, they did. A fact he found endlessly bemusing in a Revenge of the Nerds kind of way.
Carina got back to work reinforcing the stitching on his buttons. "Are you and this Kelly Sawyer still in touch?"
"Not really. Only through mutual friends like Shawn." Right after high school, he and Kelly had stayed friends in the loosest sense of the word, liking each other's posts on social media and making bullshit small talk when they'd run into each other at parties the first few times Paul was in town visiting his folks, before he'd figured out that distance was best. Best not to have to watch her twist herself into a pretzel for all the fuckboys who didn't deserve her attention. Best not to get so close that it highlighted the disparity between her worldliness and his seemingly impossible-to-shed virginity, between her polished looks and his gangly limbs and oily skin, between their divergent social statuses. It had been a lot of years since they'd last seen each other.
"Do you have any pictures of her on your phone?" Carina asked.
Not saved onto his phone, but he found a shot of her on Instagram easily enough. He handed the phone to Carina while he crouched and hugged Sadie to him, giving her a whole body rub while she nuzzled his beard. The beard was another point of pride to him. It had filled in nice and thick this fall, despite that he preferred it shorter than most Santas wore theirs. The only task to complete in advance of that weekend's holiday kickoff was to let the ladies in the resort's salon turn his whiskers silver.
This was why Paul was asked every year by the resort bosses to step out of his main job as a backcountry tour guide and into the role of Santa — because he didn't phone it in with a half-assed performance, but rather treated his job as Santa Clause with the reverence it deserved. There was no greater honor than helping bring magic to kids' lives.
Rikki crowded close to Carina for a look. "Oh wow. She's pretty. I can see why you were so into her."
Something snapped inside Paul at her words. He stood and took the phone back from Carina, then clicked the screen blank and stuffed it into his pocket. Kelly Sawyer might be single again, but all this talk about her and the past was giving him heartburn.
"I think I'm going to do a surprise run through the lobby when we're done here. What this day needs is a random Santa ambush." What better way to keep his mind focused on the present and the many riches of his totally fucking awesome, Kelly Sawyer–free life?
Carina and Rikki eyed each other with sage looks, which Paul pretended not to notice.
"That's a great idea," Carina said, finally. "I'm sure we can scrounge up some candy canes for you to hand out, too. I'll check with the front desk to see if they have any stashed back there. But first, let's have a look at you." She buttoned the Santa jacket, then stepped back so she, Peg, and Rikki could give him a once over. "Much better. Nice big sleeves for those bulging biceps when you pick those kids up to put on your lap, reinforced buttons on the jacket, and extra room in the pants for your —"
"For my what, Carina?" Paul teased in a deadpan voice. Carina was happily married and busy with a new baby, but he still couldn't pass up the opportunity to rib her about that choice of words.
The pink on Rikki's cheeks turned bright red. "I'm going to call the front desk about those candy canes."
Carina rolled her eyes good-naturedly at Paul. "For your boots, Santa Baby. What else would I be talking about?"
They shared a smile of camaraderie, then Paul smacked his abs. "If I'm going to do a Santa ambush, then let's add a bowl full of jelly to this suit. I'm not feeling nearly round enough to be spreading holiday cheer properly."
Carina helped him on with the padded vest he wore under the suit to give himself a Santa gut while Peg gave his face the St. Nick treatment, applying a thick white wig and temporary beard over his actual one, then ruddying up his cheeks and nose with rouge and adding a touch of tinted gloss to his lips. Lucky for him that day, he happened to be wearing cowboy boots and not his usual hiking boots. In this part of Texas, they liked their Santas with a touch of cowboy. As did Paul. With Sadie at his heels, he walked to the table against the wall and picked up his custom-made black felt cowboy hat with the red leather band and trio of jingle bells.
"All that's left now is for me to practice my 'Ho Hos Hos.' Blow the dust off my vocal cords."
Rikki cinched a black patent-leather belt around his waist and secured the shiny gold belt buckle embossed with the shape of Texas. "I always pictured you practicing the 'ho ho hos' in the mirror every night before you go to bed."
Carina said, "That's funny. I always imagined you practicing them out in the forest during one of your nature hikes, serenading the trees. Am I right?"
He arched a playful eyebrow at her. "Ha, ha, ha. Or should I say ..." He let rip with a mighty Ho ho ho, letting the deep vibrations roll up his diaphragm and throat to echo through the room. Yeah, he still had it, all right. Once a Santa, always a Santa.
Sadie yipped joyfully at the sound. She knew what it meant. This was her favorite time of year, too.
He slipped Sadie a dog biscuit from the jar of them on Carina's desk, then perched a pair of round spectacles on his nose, the final touch. He admired himself in the nearest full-length mirror. Every little bit of sex appeal he may have had before he'd walked into the bridal shop had been erased. Instead of a twenty-eight year old, physically fit wilderness guide, he was a jolly, fat, red-faced, bespectacled old man. Perfect.
Carina played the drums on his padded gut. "Eat your heart out, Kelly Sawyer."
Damn right. With some Christmas cheer to spread in the resort's crowded lobby, who had time to spare a thought for the pretty, sophisticated girl who'd always been out of his league? Not Paul. He could already see in his mind's eye the wide eyes and dropped jaws of the kids he was about to dazzle.
Brent, the resort's entertainment coordinator, skidded into the shop lugging a red-velvet bag, grinning broadly and smelling faintly of peppermint. "Candy cane delivery! This is perfect timing for a Santa ambush, by the way. Great idea. The lobby's packed. Another airport shuttle just pulled up, and there are three huge weddings this weekend."
Paul's pulse sped in joyful anticipation. "Let's do it."
He grabbed Sadie's leash from the table, then knelt again to get eye-to-eye with her. The entire hindquarters of her lean, sandy-colored, short-haired body wagged along with her tail as she whined her excitement. "You remember how this goes, Sadie girl?"
She barked, her body practically levitating off of the ground with the force of her excitement.
"Good girl. You stick close to me. This is gonna go fast." He snapped her leash on and rose. In actuality, she didn't need a leash because she was the best-trained and smartest dog he'd ever met, but for this first run-through of the season, and an unstructured one at that, he didn't want to take the chance of her getting so excited or catching a new scent that she decided to just take off on her own like coonhounds were apt to do.
With Sadie's leash in one hand and the red velvet bag of candy canes in the other, he waited for Brent to throw the bridal-shop door open. After a deep, fortifying breath, Paul burst into the lobby with a grand "HO HO HO" that boomed through the two-story lobby and made every face in the room turn his way. Joyful surprise and smiles were everywhere he looked.
Like Carina said, Eat your heart out, Kelly Sawyer.
Carina, Rikki, and Brent fanned out around him, creating a path through the crowd and handing out candy canes from Paul's bag, leaving him free to shake hands, ruffle kids' hair, wink at the moms and grandmas, and make sure Sadie stayed on her best behavior, not that he had any doubt.
The kids in the lobby couldn't seem to decide where to look, at him or at Sadie. Wait until they got a load of Sadie in her own custom-made costume at the holiday kickoff weekend the next day. One boy of about six or seven, holding a bag of Cheetos, with orange powder coating his lips and fingers seemed particularly awed by Santa's arrival.
Paul headed his way and crouched down to the kid's level. "Were you a good boy this year?"
All Paul got in return was a stunned nod of the head and wide eyes that didn't blink.
Paul rubbed the kid's short black hair then reached into his bag for a candy cane. "Good job. You and I will have to chat soon about what you want me to bring you for Christmas."
Another wide-eyed nod. The kid wiggled the hand that held his mom's. "Mommy!" he whispered. "It's Santa!"
Paul would never, ever get tired of this. He spun toward the next group, zeroing in on a family of four who'd just entered the lobby, looking bedraggled and pulling rolling suitcases behind them. He'd taken three steps toward them when someone else caught his eye.
A young woman was standing alone near the double sliding doors, flanked by two suitcases, and with an enormous black bag slung across her shoulders. Even on first glance, her build and hair looked familiar. He walked closer, taking a second look — then stopped dead in his tracks, his boots scuffing loudly on the Spanish tile. There was no way ...
His bag of candy canes fell from his hand, and he must have dropped Sadie's leash, too, because she scrambled over the tile toward the woman. Paul shook his head and blinked. There was simply no way. And yet ...
"Kelly? What are you doing here?"
Excerpted from If Santa Were a Cowboy by Melissa Cutler. Copyright © 2016 Melissa Cutler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.