Mitch Weston's back in Cowboy Creek, and self-proclaimed matchmaker Jed Garland has his single granddaughter Andi on his mind. Mitch is a lawman, good with the little ones and easy on the eyes. He and Andi were high school sweethearts, for heaven's sake! Why can't they see they're perfect for each other?
Because Andi already lost one husband to a dangerous job, and now she's all about playing it safe, for her sake and her children's. Being a cop is everything to Mitch. After discovering Jed's plan, Mitch and Andi come up with their own: they'll pretend to get engaged and then break up due to irreconcilable differences. Jed's got his work cut out for himbecause this match needs a Christmas miracle!
About the Author
Barbara writes home and family stories filled with quirky characters and determined matchmakers. She loves books, tea, chocolate and, most of all, her DH (Dear Hero).
Visit her at www.barbarawhitedaille.com and look for her on Facebook & Twitter!
Read an Excerpt
With the finesse of a well-trained pickpocket, Mitch Weston snagged a carrot from the vegetable tray his mother was preparing. Of course, a skilled pickpocket wouldn't have been dumb enough to flash the stolen goodsat least, not until he put them up for sale on some street corner.
Mitch, on the other hand, chomped down on the carrot in full view of his mom.
"You don't eat enough," Nancy said.
"I do," he countered. "But I'm betting while I'm here, you're going to do your best to fatten me up."
In the two days he'd been home again, this was the first chance they'd had to talk alone, and he instinctively knew the direction she would take any private conversation between them.
With a long oak table large enough to fit the family, the kitchen didn't offer much room to hide. With his four younger brothers and sisters living at home, there wasn't much privacy in the entire house. And with the way he had been feeling lately, he'd rather have solitary confinement.
"Your father mentioned he'll try to be home early tonight for a change," Nancy said. "But you know how hard it is to get him away from the office. About as difficult as it is to get you back here for a visit."
His mom hadn't intended it, he knew, but her gentle nudging only reminded him he shouldn't be here now. It wasn't that he didn't love his family. He just didn't enjoy coming back to his hometown. And this time, he didn't want to think about the circumstances that had brought about his return. The disaster that had left him lying on a cold concrete floor next to his partner's body.
"I hope you won't have to rush off too soon."
He had missed Thanksgiving by just a few days, and already both she and his dad had hinted they hoped he'd stick around for Christmas. He hadn't had the heart to disillusion them. Hell, he didn't have a reason. Yet.
This enforced time away from the job could end in an instant. Before the holidays, he had appointments scheduled with both the surgeon who had patched up his knee and the department shrink who thought his mind needed some patching, too. Good reports from them would put him right back where he belonged.
Bending down, he kissed her temple. "Let's not get into my visits again right now, Mom, okay?"
"Your lack of visits, you mean." She shot him a glance from eyes the same shade of blue he'd inherited from her. Since he'd gotten his height from his dad, she had to reach up to rest her hand on his shoulder. "I'm worried about you, sweetheart. We're all worried about you."
"Don't be." Unable to handle seeing her tears, he turned to grab a stalk of celery he had no taste for. "I'll be fine in no time, just as soon as the last of the stitches dissolve."
Yeah, he'd be all fixed up and ready to get back to work.
Nancy returned to chopping vegetables. "You had a call while you were out to SugarPie's for coffee."
He tensed. "From the department?"
She shook her head. "No, from Jed Garland. He heard you were back in town and wants you to get in touch."
He nodded. As with most of the guys from his high school, he had once worked as a wrangler on Garland Ranch. He hadn't seen his old boss for a while the same length of time he'd been away from his family. The look in Nancy's eyes said she'd just had a similar thought. That, and knowing why he'd returned now, added fresh layers of guilt.
"I'm surprised it took him this long to find out I'm back in town," he said. "He's usually right on top of everything that happens in Cowboy Creek. A regular old gossip, that's Jed."
To his relief, his mother laughed. "Gossip and more. He's in the matchmaking business now."
"They've restored the Hitching Post's banquet hall and reopened the honeymoon cabins. Tina and Cole were married from the chapel in June. They're planning to hold the first guest wedding there around Christmas."
"Jed, a matchmaker," he said with a laugh. "Who'd have believed it? Then again, he's always had a knack with people." His former boss had always been there for him, too, especially in those days right out of school when Mitch felt he couldn't talk to his dad. "I should stop by and check in with him."
"You certainly should. He's eager to see you." She set the vegetable platter in the refrigerator. "And when I saw Paz at the L-G Store yesterday, I promised her some of the surplus I'd canned from my garden last fall. Just give me a few minutes to box up a few jars, and you can take them along with you."
Fighting yet more guilt about his need for space from his family, he nodded. He knew how much they all loved him, but he had to have a break from seeing them tiptoeing through the house and talking in hushed voices, as if they were attending a wake.
Yet why wouldn't they act that way in his company?
Thanks to him, a damned good cop was dead.
Later that afternoon, a warm one even for the tail end of November in New Mexico, Mitch parked near the barn on Garland Ranch. He found Jed Garland standing in the sunshine near the corral. As he loped across the yard toward his former boss, Jed smiled.
Since he'd last seen him, the other man's face had developed a few more wrinkles, and his hair had turned completely white. But he still had the same piercing blue eyes and the firmest handshake around.
"Good to see you again, boy." Jed's fingers kept his trapped for another long beat before he let go.
Mitch nodded. "You're looking good yourself. So is the Hitching Post. I see you've made some changes around here."
"Yep. Got the signpost redone and the whole place painted."
"Yeah, my mom said you're in the wedding business again."
"That we are." Jed's guileless expression put Mitch on alert. "We'll be all set whenever you're ready for our services."
"For a wedding?" Laughing, he shook his head. "Thanks, but I'm not the type to settle down."
"That's not what you once said about staying in Cowboy Creek, though, is it? You'd always planned to follow in your dad and granddad's footsteps and join the sheriff's departmentyet you went and became a bigcity policeman."
"Yeah. I'm a big-time LA cop." Mitch said the words with a hint of bitterness backed by the knowledge of how drastically his plans had changed.
Jed nodded as if he'd read his mind, something he'd always been good at. Mitch found the trait much more disconcerting right this minute than he ever had years ago.
Probably because now he had things to hide.
"With your family's connection to the sheriff's department, I reckon it was a given you'd get involved in law enforcement even after you left town."
He nodded. "Upholding the family tradition." As he'd always known he would.
"Yep. Much as you liked horses and ranching, you never had a doubt about what you wanted to do."
"No." He still hadn't, but his decision now had repercussions he couldn't bring himself to confess to his parents or Jed. His long-held certainty, his downright arrogance that he could handle anything, had let him down when he'd needed it most. Clamping his jaws together, he hooked his biker boot on the lowest fence rung and stared across the corral.
"Let me say, son, I'm sorry about your troubles." Jed's clap on his shoulder hadn't lost any of its strength, either. "I can understand if you're finding your recuperation painful in more ways than one."
His vocal cords seized up, overpowered by the lump in his throat. Looked as though his former boss was still here for him.
Jed Garland was one mighty smart man, but he couldn't know about all his doubts. No one could.
Jed rested his forearms on the fence and linked his fingers together. "I'm sure you realize a man doesn't reach success without some failure along the way."
"Yeah," he said harshly, "but my failure resulted in someone dying."
"And in your line of work, you think that makes you stand out from the crowd?"
He shot a glance toward the other man. "You've been talking to my dad."
"'Course I have." Jed sighed. "I'm not saying what happened wasn't a tragedy. I'm not saying it's something you can ever shake off. But you're too good a coptoo good a mannot to get past this."
Looking away again, Mitch gripped the rail and squinted into the lowering sun. The bright light made his eyes water.
"Meanwhile," Jed said, "it's good you've come home."
"Temporarily." He hoped he sounded convincing. He lived and breathed law enforcement, had done ever since he was a kid watching his dad and grandpa pinning their badges to their uniforms. There was nothing else he wanted to do with his life. Nothing else he could do.
"You'll have to hang around till Pete and Cole get in from the northern pastures. And Paz will have my hide if I don't get you to stop in to see her. While you're here, you can say hello to the girls."
"The girls?" He gripped the rail even harder.
"Yeah. Tina started off handling the contractors for the upgrades to the Hitching Post, but Jane's been helping out since she moved in a few months ago. And now we've got a wedding booked, Andi's here to pitch in, too."
Jed's three granddaughters.
Tina had grown up on the ranch and become the bookkeeper for the hotel. Jane was a well-respected photo-journalist, originally based in New York. And Andi
Andi was the reason he'd left Cowboy Creek.
"If I have to look at one more fabric swatch today, I may scream."
At her cousin's pronouncement, Andi Price forced a laugh.
The hotel and its dude ranch activities had always been a big draw for the guests, but their grandfather had recently decided to reopen the banquet hall with a focus on catering wedding receptions.
So far, the one wedding they had scheduled a few months earlier had been canceled, and the business was getting off to a slow start.
"What have you got to scream about?" she said to Jane, only half teasing. "I'm the one dealing with the bride-to-be."
"Otherwise known as Bridezilla. Sorry, cuz."
"Don't be." She sighed. "It's the truth. I should have known better than to agree to cater a wedding for the friend of a woman I barely know."
"Yeah. Especially one who wants everything wrapped up in a bowwithin a month."
"I thought I was helping Grandpa and you and Tina."
"You are. In Grandpa's words, he's tickled we've got another wedding booked."
"I know." And she couldn't let him down.
The wedding receptions had always been their late grandmother's passion. They all knew Jed was determined to see that part of the business flourish again. As Jane had once said, it only made sense to capitalize on a hotel called the Hitching Post.
"Good thing Tina's around to help," Andi said. "But what would we both do without you?" Jane's career as a photojournalist gave her a good eye for envisioning just about anything. "You know you're the one with the talent for color and line."
"You're not doing badly with those yourself. And the designs you've come up with for the banquet hall are pure genius."
"Thanks. I've attended a lot of receptions and formal dinners since I got married." Thoughts of all the events she had attended once she'd become part of the affluent Price family now blended with other memories she tried not to dwell on. "Knowledge of fancy napkin folds comes with the territory," she attempted to say lightly.
"You're doing a lot more than arranging napkins." Jane tossed a sample book onto the pile with all the others. "But, though I hate to say this, there's an area where you're not doing such a great job."
"Really?" She frowned and looked at everything they had spread out on the tabletop. "What's that?"
"I wish I knew." Jane shook her head. "You've changed since you were here at the end of the summer. There's something bothering you. Don't ask me what, because I have no idea, but I think you ought to let me in on it. We didn't spend all those vacations and holidays together here for nothing, you know."
While their grandfather and cousin had always lived in Cowboy Creek, Jane and Andi had met up at the family ranch only on school breaks. Neither of them had ever stayed at Garland Ranch longer than a summer vacationuntil now. Jane had returned only a few months ago to live here permanently.
Andi had come back to help get the new venture off the ground with this Christmas weddingand for other reasons she tried to shove aside with her bittersweet memories. "Nothing's wrong. I just felt the kids and I needed a change of scenery. When Grandpa asked me to handle this wedding while you and Tina focused on the business end of things, it seemed like the perfect time for a visit."
Jane's gray eyes narrowed. "Sorry, but I'm not buying that. It might be hard to handle the heat in Fountain Hills, Arizona, but the scenery there is even better than it is here."
"I don't live in Fountain Hills anymore," she said quietly.
"Oh. When you'd told me the other day you and the kids had moved to an apartment, you didn't mention it was in another town." Jane touched her wrist. "Andi, if there's anything I can do, any way I can give you a hand with something, just say the word. I've got some savings built up. I know Grandpa and my dad would help you out in a heartbeat. You know that, too. And wouldn't your mother-in-law be willing to pitch in?"
"It's not money."
Truthfully, it was money that worried hernot enough money and not enough life insurance to pay the mortgage. Grant had insisted they could afford the too-big house in their upscale area not far from his mother. With his salary included, they had gotten by. Without it, she had been forced to sell the home where both her children had lived since they'd been born. But she couldn't tell her mother-in-law Grant hadn't provided for his family.
Just as she couldn't reveal to anyone what Grant's real job had been. How did you explain to a man's family that he worked undercover for the CIA?
But now she could tell Jane the truth. Or part of it. "It's not money so much as the need to get some space from Grant's family."
"Things have gotten that bad between you?"
"No." Andi's eyes misted. "They're great." They just didn't know he had told them the same cover story she had told her family, that he worked for a computer company with customers and suppliers all over the world. "Ginnie's always been a fabulous mother-in-law, and everyone else in his family is wonderful. Except he's been gone for over a year, and they all act as if he's just away on business and will walk in the door again any day now."