RUST CREEK RAMBLINGS
There's no place like home for the holidays. But Trey Strickland's house is about to become a bit more crowded than he anticipated. Merry Christmas, Baby Daddy! The sexy Thunder Canyon rancher has no idea he will soon be a father.
But just who is carrying Trey's baby? Dear readers, the answer may shock you! Let's just say that it is someone well-known to this reporter. Our mystery mama can't figure out how to tell Trey she is in the family way after their one night together. What will happen when the truth comes out? Will her cowboy crush race off for parts unknown, or will he deliver the perfect Christmas proposal in a tiny velvet box?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Kayla walked out of the specialty bath shop with another bag to add to the half dozen she already carried and a feeling of satisfaction. It was only the first of December, and she was almost finished with her Christmas shopping. She'd definitely earned a hot chocolate.
Making her way toward the center court of the mall, she passed a long line of children and toddlers impatiently tugging on the hands of parents and grandparents, along with babies sleeping in carriers or snuggled in loving arms. At the end of the line was their destination: Santa.
She paused to watch as a new mom and dad approached the jolly man in the red suit, sitting on opposite sides of him after gently setting their sleeping baby girlprobably not more than a few months oldin his arms. Then the baby opened her eyes, took one look at the stranger and let out an earsplitting scream of disapproval.
While the parents fussed, trying to calm their infant daughter so the impatient photographer could snap a "First Christmas with Santa" picture, Kayla was suddenly struck by the realization that she might be doing the same thing next Christmas.
Except that there wouldn't be a daddy in her picture, an extra set of hands to help console their unhappy baby. Kayla was on her own. Unmarried. Alone. A soon-to-be single mother who was absolutely terrified about that fact.
She'd always been logical and levelheaded, not the type of woman who acted impulsively or recklessly. Not until the Fourth of July, when she'd accepted Trey's invitation to go back to his room. One cup of wedding punch had helped rekindle her schoolgirl fantasies about the man who had been her brother's best friend. Then one dance had led to one kissand one impulsive decision to one unplanned pregnancy.
She owed it to Trey to tell him that their night together had resulted in a baby, but she didn't know how to break the news when he apparently didn't even remember that they'd been together. Even now, five months later, that humiliation made her cheeks burn.
She wasn't at all promiscuous. In fact, Trey was the first man she'd had sex with in three years and only the second in all of her twenty-five years. But Trey had also been drinking the wedding punch that was later rumored to have been spiked with something, and his memory of events after they got back to his room at the boarding house was a little hazy. Kayla had been relievedand just a little insultedwhen he left Rust Creek Falls to return to Thunder Canyon a few weeks later without another word to her about what had happened between them.
But she knew that he would be back again. Trey no longer lived in Rust Creek Falls but his grandparentsGene and Melba Stricklandstill did, and he returned two or three times every year to visit them. It was inevitable that their paths would cross when he came back, and she'd have to tell him about their baby when he did.
Until then, she was grateful that she'd managed to keep her pregnancy a secret from almost everyone else. Even now, only her sister, Kristen, knew the truth. Thankfully, she'd only just started to show, and the cold Montana weather gave her the perfect excuse to don big flannel shirts or bulky sweaters that easily covered the slight curve of her belly.
Regardless of the circumstances of conception, she was happy about the baby and excited about impending motherhood. It was only the "single" part that scared her. And although her family would likely disapprove of the situation, she was confident they would ultimately support her and love her child as much as she did.
The tiny life stirred inside her, making her smile. She loved her baby so much already, so much more than she would have imagined possible, but she had no illusions that Trey would be as happy about the situation. Especially considering that he didn't even remember getting naked and tangling up the sheets with her.
She pushed those worries aside for another day and entered the line in the café. After perusing the menu for several minutes, she decided on a peppermint hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, chocolate drizzle and candy-cane sprinkles. She'd been careful not to overindulge, conscious of having to disguise every pound she put on, but she couldn't hide her pregnancy foreverprobably not even for much longer.
Which, of course, introduced another dilemmahow could she tell anyone else about the baby when she hadn't even told the baby's father? And what if he denied that it was his?
The sweet beverage she'd sipped suddenly left a bad taste in her mouth as she considered the possibility.
A denial from Trey would devastate her, but she knew that she had to be prepared for it. If he didn't remember sleeping with her, why would he believe he was the father of her child?
"It really is a small world, isn't it?"
Kayla started at the question that interrupted her thoughts, her face flaming as she glanced up to see Trey's grandmother standing beside her table with a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. Not that Melba Strickland could possibly know what she'd been thinking, but Kayla couldn't help but feel unnerved by the other woman's unexpected presence.
She forced a smile. "Yes, it is," she agreed.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
"Of course not." There weren't many empty chairs in the café, and it seemed silly for each of them to sit alone as if they were strangers. Especially considering that Kayla had known the Stricklands for as long as she could remember.
Melba and Gene were good people, if a little old-fashioned. Or maybe it was just that they were oldprobably in their late seventies or early eighties, she guessed, because no one seemed to know for sure. Regardless, their boarding house was a popular place for people looking for long-term accommodations in Rust Creek Fallsso long as they didn't mind abiding by Melba's strict rules, which included a ban on overnight visitors. An explicit prohibition that Kayla and Trey had ignored on the Fourth of July.
"Goodness, this place is bustling." Melba pulled back the empty chair and settled into it. "The whole mall, I mean. It's only the first of December, and the stores are packed. It's as if everyone in Kalispell has decided to go shopping today."
"Everyone in Kalispell and half of Rust Creek Falls," Kayla agreed.
The older woman chuckled. "Looks like you got an early start," she noted, glancing at the shopping bags beneath the table.
"Very early," Kayla agreed, scooping up some whipped cream and licking it off the spoon.
"I love everything about Christmas," Melba confided. "The shopping and wrapping, decorating and baking. But mostly I love the time we spend with family and friends."
"Are you going to have a full house over the holidays this year?" Kayla asked.
"I hope so," the older woman said. "We've had Claire, Levi and Bekka with us since August, and Claire's sisters have hinted that they might head this way for Christmas, which would be great. I so love having the kids around."
Kayla smiled because she knew the kids referred to Bekka excludedwere all adults.
They chatted some more about holiday traditions and family plans, then Melba glanced at the clock on the wall. "Goodness" her eyes grew wide "is that the time? I've only got three hours until I'm meeting Gene for dinner, and all I've bought is a cup of coffee."
"Mr. Strickland came into the city with you?"
The older woman nodded. "We've got tickets to see A Christmas Carol tonight."
"I'm sure you'll enjoy it," Kayla said. "The whole castespecially Belleis fabulous."
Melba smiled at her mention of the character played on the stage by Kayla's sister. "Not that you're biased at all," she said with a wink.
"Well, maybe a little." Her sister had always loved the theater, but she'd been away from it for a lot of years before deciding to audition for the holiday production in Kalispell. The part of Scrooge's former fiancée wasn't a major role, but it was an opportunity for Kristen to get back on stage, and she was loving every minute of it.
In support of her sister, Kayla had signed on to help behind the scenes. She'd been surprised to discover how much she enjoyed the workand grateful that keeping busy allowed her to pretend her whole life wasn't about to change.
"Lissa and Gage saw it last week and said the costumes were spectacular."
"I had fun working on them," she acknowledged. "But you have no desire to wear them onstage?"
"None at all."
"You know, Kristen's ease at playing different roles has some people wondering if she might be the Rust Creek Rambler."
Kayla frowned. "You're kidding."
"Of course, I wouldn't expect you to betray your sister if she is the author of the gossip column."
"She's not," Kayla said firmly.
"I'm sure you would knowthey say twins have no secrets from one another," Melba said. "Besides, she's been so busy with the playand now with her new fiancéwhen would she have time to write it?"
"I'm a little surprised there's been so much recent interest in uncovering the identity of the anonymous author, when the column has been around for almost three years now."
"Three and a half," Melba corrected, proving Kayla's point. "I suspect interest has piqued because some people think the Rambler is responsible for spiking the punch at the wedding."
Kayla gasped. "Why would they think that?"
"The events of that night have certainly provided a lot of fodder for the column over the past few months," the older woman pointed out. "It almost makes sense that whoever is writing it might want to help generate some juicy stories."
"That's a scary thought."
"Isn't it?" Melba finished her coffee and set her cup down. "The Rambler also noted that you were up close and personal with my grandson, Trey, on the dance floor at Braden and Jennifer's wedding."
Kayla had long ago accepted that in order to ensure no one ever suspected she was the Rambler, it was necessary to drop her own name into the column every once in a while. Since her turn on the dance floor with Trey hadn't gone unnoticed, the Rambler would be expected to comment on it. As for up close and personalthat hadn't come until later, and she had no intention of confiding that truth to Trey's grandmother.
Instead, she lifted her cup to her lipsonly to discover that it was empty. She set it down again. "We danced," she admitted.
"That's all?" Melba sounded almost disappointed.
"That's all," Kayla echoed, her cheeks flushing. She'd never been a very good liar, and lying to Trey's grandmotherher own baby's great-grandmotherwasn't easy, even if it was necessary.
The older woman sighed. "I've been hoping for a long time that Trey would find a special someone to settle down with. If I had my choice, that special someone would live in Rust Creek Falls, so that he'd want to come back home hereor at least visit more often."
"Maybe he already has someone special in Thunder Canyon," she suggested, aiming for a casual tone.
"I'm sure he would have told me if he did," Melba said. "I know he sees girls, but he's never been serious about any of them. No one except Lana."
"Lana?" she echoed.
Melba's brow furrowed. "Maybe you don't know about Lana. I guess Jerry and Barbara had already moved away from Rust Creek Falls before Trey met her."
Kayla hadn't considered that the father of her baby might be involved with someone elseor that he might even have been in a relationship when he was visiting in the summer. Thinking about the possibility now made her feel sick. She honestly didn't think Trey was that kind of guybut the reality was that neither of them had been thinking very clearly the night of the wedding.
"Anyway, he met Lana at some small local rodeo, where she won the division championship for barrel racing," the other woman continued. "I think it was actually her horse that caught his eye before she did, but it wasn't too long after that they were inseparable.
"They were together for almost two years, and apparently Trey had even started looking at engagement rings. And then" Melba shook her head "Lana was out on her horse, just enjoying a leisurely trail ride, when the animal got spooked by something and threw her."
Kayla winced, already anticipating how the story would end.
"She sustained some pretty serious injuries, and died five days later. She was only twenty-three years old."
"Trey must have been devastated," Kayla said softly, her heart aching for his loss.
"He was," Melba agreed. "We were all saddened by her deathand so worried about him. But then, when I heard that he was dancing with you at the wedding, well, I have to admit, I let myself hope it was a sign that his heart was healed."
"It was just a dance," she said again.
"Maybe it was," Melba acknowledged, as she pushed her chair away from the table. "And maybe there will be something more when you see him again."
"Did you leave any presents in the mall for anyone else to buy?" Kristen teased, as she helped her sister cart her parcels and packages into the sprawling log house they'd grown up in.
The Circle D Ranch, located on the north side of town, was still home to Kayla, but her twin had moved out a few weeks earlier, into a century-old Victorian home that their brother Jonah had bought after the flood for the purposes of rehabbing and reselling. Since Kristen had started working at the theater in Kalispell, this house, on the south edge of town and close to the highway, had significantly cut down her commuting timeand given her a taste of the independence she'd been craving.
"Only a few," Kayla warned her, dumping her armload of packages onto her bed.
"That one looks interesting," her sister said, reaching for the bag from the bath shop.
Kayla slapped her hand away. "No snooping."
"Then it is for me," Kristen deduced.
"You'll find out at Christmasunless you try to peek again, in which case it's going back to the store."
"I won't peek," her sister promised. "But speaking of shopping, I was thinking that you should plan a trip to Thunder Canyon to check out the stores there."
Kayla gestured to the assortment of bags. "Does it look like I need to check out any more stores?"
Kristen rolled her eyes. "You and I know that your shopping is doneor very nearly, but no one else needs to know that. And shopping is only a cover story, anywayyour real purpose would be to see Trey and finally tell him about the secret you've been keeping for far too long."
Just the idea of seeing Trey again made Kayla's tummy tighten in knots of apprehension and her heart pound with anticipation. Thoughts of Trey had always had that effect on her; his actual presence was even more potent.
She really liked himin fact, she'd had a major crush on him for a lot of years when she was younger. Then his family had moved away, and her infatuated heart had moved on. Until the next time he came back to Rust Creek Falls, and all it would take was a smile or a wave and she would be swooning again.
But still, her infatuation had been nothing more than a harmless fantasyuntil the night of the wedding. Being with Trey had stirred all those old feelings up again and even now there was, admittedly, a part of her that hoped he'd be thrilled by the news of a baby, sweep her into his arms, declare that he'd always loved her and wanted to marry her so they could raise their child together.
Unfortunately, the reality was that five months had passed since the night they'd spent together, and she hadn't heard a single word from him after he'd gone back to Thunder Canyon.