...I'm the one still in my jammies at one o'clock in the afternoon... (sigh)
Hey there, ya'all. Sorry to be late posting this morning. I have been virtually attending the 20Booksto50K Conference this week and after four days of drinking from a fire hose, I just dropped into bed last night with not an ounce of energy left to post a blog. LOL But the good news is that I'm moving again and thought I would share with you an excerpt from one of my Christmas stories.
Garland Creek Cowboy is the first story in the Legends of Garland Creek, which will eventually become a collection of holiday stories that focus on second-chance romances in the small mountain town of Garland Creek, Arizona.
Melayna Gaines and Devin Douglas dated all through high school. But when Devin
proposed to Melayna just after graduation, she panicked and fled like her tail
was on fire. Her dream had always been to travel internationally, and Devin’s
future was tethered to Garland Creek.
Sixteen years later, Melayna returns to her hometown to celebrate Christmas with her family, and comes face-to-face with the boy she’d loved in high school—who has become a key figure in the town, and now has a fifteen-year-old daughter.
Will the magic of Christmas in Garland Creek give these two star-crossed lovers a second chance at love? Or is Devin destined to pick up the pieces of another devastating rejection? After so many years, are their feelings still strong enough to even try?
Melayna steeled herself as she pulled into the valet line and put the truck in park. She’d experienced a feeling of ‘coming home’ as soon as she’d landed in Arizona, but the tension had ratcheted up fast with every mile she drove toward Garland Creek. It was good to be home, but her entire family would be here—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—anyone and everyone with the power to turn her life on its head.
She adjusted the sunglasses on her face and opened the door just as the valet approached.
The sandy-haired boy, who couldn’t be much older than eighteen, smiled as he scribbled on a ticket. “Good morning. May I park your car?”
Melayna returned the smile as she swiped a lock of dark auburn hair from her face. “Take good care of her. She’s my trusted steed.”
The boy grinned. “I’ll treat her as if she’d just won the triple crown.”
She laughed as she exchanged a five-dollar-bill for the ticket he offered, slipped her purse strap over her shoulder, took a deep breath, and headed into the fray.
As she approached the entry to the hotel, she could already hear the commotion inside. Her heart pounded as she picked out the voices of her favorite Aunt Mandy and her grandmother. Yep, her family was here…loud and proud.
She hesitated. It would be easy to turn and run. She glanced over her shoulder.
My truck’s still in the valet line. No one would ever know I was here.
The thought of the histrionics she would face from her grandmother if she didn’t show propelled her forward. Melayna’s family had a lot of Jewish heritage, which had only served to give her grandmother an excuse to hone her over-the-top theatrics. It had nothing to do with being Jewish, and everything to do with being in control.
She pulled in another deep breath and slowly exhaled.
Just do it.
Melayna stepped through the doorway of the hotel to find the lobby filled with familiar faces and booming voices. She didn’t get three feet inside the door before she was set upon by her cousin, Lane. “Hey, Mel, good to see you.” He hugged her. “You shoulda run.”
She chuckled. “You saw that?”
He nodded. “Yes, and they’re in fine form—especially your grandmother.”
Her stomach churned. “G-u-u-r-r-r-e-a-t.” She and Lane shared the same gramma on the Jewish side of her family tree, but they always assigned ownership to the other whenever she acted out.
Lane grinned as he pointed toward the front desk. “Oh, look, here she comes now.”
Melayna pasted a cheesy smile on her face, pulled her shoulders back, and turned to face the onslaught that was Colleen Gaines.
“Oh, Melayna, you’re late,” she announced to anyone within earshot. She waved her arms in the air as she approached, her dark silver bob brushing the tops of her shoulders. “I worried maybe you’d had an accident and were lying dead in a ditch somewhere and couldn’t use the phone. You shouldn’t scare your poor grandmother like that. Would it have hurt you to call? I’m not as young as I used to be, and you shaved ten years off what little life I have left.”
Melayna was surprised to find her grandmother had shrunk a bit. Colleen had always been rather tall—about five-foot-seven. But now she seemed much shorter, perhaps no more than five-five.
Melayna’s heart wrenched at the thought of the family matriarch aging. She’d always been so full of life.
“Look, everyone,” Colleen declared at the volume of a bullhorn, “it’s Melayna.”
Her vocal cords still work.
Her grandmother continued. “She’s okay. She’s not dead.” She immediately straightened the collar on Melayna’s coat before she threw her arms around her granddaughter.
Melayna heard Lane snicker behind her and she smiled, surprised to feel the tension drain from her the moment she hugged her gramma. It didn’t usually work this way. Colleen Gaines was the Grand Poobah of the women who filled her life with tension. She was not the woman who took it away.
She thought about reminding her grandmother it was eleven-twenty, and she’d promised to arrive by noon. By any reasonable standard, she was on time, early even. But it wouldn’t matter to Colleen Gaines. It wasn’t about what time she arrived, it was about having everyone’s undivided attention.
So, when she was finally released from the hug, Melayna nodded as she met her gramma’s crystal-clear blue gaze. “I’m fine, and I’m sorry you were worried.”
The older woman must have expected a fight because she narrowed her gaze and stared at Melayna. “Are you okay?” She put her hand to her granddaughter’s forehead. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”
Melayna waved her hand away. “No, I’m not sick.” Eager to change the subject, she asked, “Are my parents here yet?” Her mother had called a couple of days before to say they were visiting friends in Phoenix and might not be back home until the day of the party.
Her grandmother let out an over-the-top theatrical sigh as she put her hand to her forehead. “No. They are visiting strangers down in the valley and don’t have time for us. They won’t arrive until Friday afternoon. I’m just sick over it.”
Before Colleen could continue with her performance, the aunts mounted an intervention. Melayna’s family was large—lots of cousins, lots of aunts and uncles. At the moment, she counted six aunts crowding around her, all chattering at once, all vying for a hug.
“Where’s Aunt Cee?” she asked, of no one in particular, as she hugged each of her aunts, in succession.
Her Aunt Mandy shrugged. “She was here a minute ago. She probably had to pee.” Mandy rolled her dark brown eyes. “I swear, that woman has a bladder the size of a pea.” She scanned the crowd and raised her hands in the air. “What did I tell you? There she is now…” Mandy pointed across the crowded lobby at a woman hurrying in their direction, and lowered her voice as she added, “…with half a roll of toilet paper hanging out the back of her pants.”
Melayna looked in the direction her Aunt Mandy had pointed, to find her round Aunt Cee barreling toward them at the speed of sound, waving and calling out, “Oh, Melayna, there you are. I’m so happy you could make it.” Behind her trailed about five foot of toilet paper, flapping in her wake.
Melayna snorted, and immediately covered her mouth, as Aunt Cee made her way across the crowded lobby to a sea of laughter. The gaggle of aunts abandoned her to march to the aid of their clueless sister.
She smiled, unusually entertained by her family’s antics, which used to annoy the crap out of her, and grateful she’d cleared her calendar. She had decided if all went well, she would stay a few weeks. And if it didn’t, she’d return to Denver. For the next month, she had no commitments either way.
“I see some things never change.” The baritone voice over her shoulder made the hair stand up on the back of her neck as goose bumps skittered across her shoulders.
She turned to find Devin Douglas wearing the lopsided grin that had almost been her downfall in high school. She swallowed hard as a flutter started in her heart and dropped to the pit of her stomach.
Stop that. This isn’t high school.
“Well, hello, Devin.” She smiled, struggling to maintain control over the riot of impulses slamming through her body, and relieved her voice didn’t give her away. “It’s so good to see you again.”
He reached to hug her. “It’s been a long time, Mel.”
She slipped her arms around him and breathed deep, remembering the subtle smell of his cologne. Devin had put on size and stature since high school, and she thought perhaps he may even have grown another inch. At six-foot-two or three, he dwarfed her, but his hug was gentle—just as she remembered. She barely resisted the urge to snuggle in.
She and Devin Douglas had been in love back in their senior year of high school. But when he asked her to marry him the day after graduation, she panicked and broke it off, fleeing to an out-of-town university and the life of travel she’d always dreamed of.
Devin had been considered the best catch in town, so it wasn’t that he didn’t have a lot to offer, and she had been in love with him. But his dream had been to stay on the family ranch and continue to raise cattle, as four generations of Douglases had before him.
Her dream had been to graduate from college and travel the world, and she’d had a desperate need to get away from her smothering family. So the fear of having her dreams crushed by marrying Devin had driven her to run like a wild mustang from the future every other young woman in Garland Creek would have given her eye teeth for.
She’d seen her family at their enormous yearly reunions in Las Vegas. But this was the first time she had been home since she’d bolted, and the first time she’d seen Devin Douglas in sixteen years.
She stepped out of the hug with the sense he’d turned loose of her reluctantly. She squashed the little niggle of hope that squirmed through her gut when he trailed one hand down her arm.
She smiled. “It has been a long time.” She couldn’t resist a quick look up and down. He’d matured into one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen—a tall, sturdy, gorgeous hunk of cowboy wearing a black Stetson and a bearing that screamed confidence. “You are looking wonderful.”
She did a mental head-slap at the realization that she’d openly ogled her ex-boyfriend.
He probably has a wife and three kids by now, you idjit. Remember why you left—ran, actually.
Devin returned the ogle. “And you’re still the prettiest girl in Garland Creek.” He held her gaze and the crooked grin returned, bringing a twinkle to his dark green eyes, “This town hasn’t been the same since you left.”
His hair was shorter, dark, and he now wore a close-cut beard and moustache. But beneath the changes, he was still the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. She had to remind herself to breathe, and it annoyed her. How could a man have such a hold on her for so long—and from such a distance?
Devin cut his gaze toward the lobby and back again. “So, I see the Gaines family has turned out in force.”
She rolled her eyes. “And you expected something different? The Founders Ball is the perfect event for this tribe to show off their flair for drama. There isn’t a one of them who would miss it.”
He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly. “Yeah, what was I thinking?”
“I can’t imagine. You’ve known them almost as long as I have. You know how they are.”
A pretty young girl with dark auburn hair and brown eyes, who looked to be around fifteen or sixteen, stepped up behind Devin and tugged at the sleeve of his jacket.
He turned and wrapped an arm around the girl, pulling her into the little circle. “Mel, I want you to meet my daughter, Parker.”
“Daughter?” Melayna’s heart dropped to her feet and she gasped a silent breath as her heart hammered in her chest and her mind screamed nooo. From the apparent age of this girl, he hadn’t lost any time replacing her after high school.
Melayna extended her hand. “Hello, Parker. I’m Melayna Gaines.” She hoped the young girl couldn’t feel her shake, or that Devin couldn’t hear the screaming in her head.
Parker shook her hand and flashed a dazzling smile full of straight, white teeth, with the braces still on them. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Melayna struggled to regroup while Devin spoke to his daughter. “Mel is an old friend of mine. We went to high school together.”
She nodded and shifted her gaze back to Melayna. “So, did you move away?”
Melayna nodded. “Yes. I live in Denver now, but I’m hardly ever there.” She winced inwardly at the edge of disappointment in her voice as she added, “I travel a lot all over the world for my job.”
Parker’s face lit. “Oh, how exciting.”
Melayna knew all too well how glamorous international travel would sound to a young girl. It had certainly captured her attention as a teenager. Now she found a corner of her heart yearned for a little slice of home. She was happy she came.
“So, I heard you’re doing livestock appraisal these days. I didn’t think you were going to go into anything agricultural,” Devin said.
She shrugged. “I wasn’t. But I switched to something more in my wheelhouse when I realized how much a social worker didn’t make—even an international social worker. Decided I’d rather make enough to travel in mid-range accommodations, than work in a field that afforded me the kind of travel that came with a government-issued mosquito net.”
“Sounds like you chose right.”
“Yeah,” she replied, “I got lucky and fell into a job with a built-in world class mentor. His training and advice propelled me to the top of the industry.”
There it was…the open door to confirm the bad news. She shook her head. “No. I haven’t had time. Just me.” It sounded so pitiful that she tried to lighten things by adding, “My neighbor’s cat comes to visit when I’m home.” All she managed to do was sound even more pathetic, so she tried to turn the table. “You?” She shifted her gaze to Parker and back. “You must have a half-dozen by now.”
Devin stared at her for a moment before he pulled in a visible breath. “No, I’ve never married.” He reached out and stroked the dark brown hair sticking out from beneath Parker’s pink baseball cap. “This one was a very pleasant surprise.” Love for Parker was written all over his expression.
Relief flooded Melayna’s system with such force, she locked her knees to remain upright. The next emotion to slam into her was envy. Devin had once looked at her with such love. Her throat was so tight that she didn’t trust herself to speak right away, so she kept her gaze on Parker, who chewed on her lower lip, clearly uncomfortable to be the subject of discussion.Melayna didn’t regret the life she’d chosen sixteen years ago, but part of her wondered if she’d missed out on something far more important.
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