Excerpt from MERRY CHRISTMAS, COWBOY!

“Are you asking me to move in with you?”

Lauren Van Meveren placed the cup on her kitchen counter and stared at the handsome rancher.

Seth Anderssen, known in Sweet River, Montana for his quick wit, didn’t miss a beat. “I guess I am. ‘Cept we’ll have separate rooms and you’ll be there to tend to Dani’s needs, not mine.”

Only when he chuckled did Lauren realize how her off-the-cuff response had been construed. She swallowed a groan. For an intelligent woman on the verge of earning her PhD in psychology, she could be amazingly inept.

“I knew that.” She met his gaze and shrugged, the cool response at odds with her rapidly beating heart. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. We’ve never even kissed.”

“That could easily be remedied.” His eyes took on an impish gleam and she caught a glimpse of the boy who’d once dropped a frog down the front of his sister’s dress.

“True.” Lauren kept her tone deliberately light. “Pressing lips together isn’t that difficult.”

“Is that all you think kissing is?”

Lauren thought of the few men she’d kissed. Ones with brilliant minds who appealed to her intellectual side. Ones with a sexual magnetism who appealed to her physical side. “It can be more or less, depending on the man.”

She had the feeling with Seth it would be more. Since she’d moved to Sweet River five months ago the way Lauren viewed him had changed dramatically. He was no longer simply the trustworthy older brother of her good friend Anna, the guy she’d met her freshman year in college when he’d driven to Denver to move his sister into the dorm.

At thirty-two, the widower and doting father of one was a well-respected rancher and head of the local Cattleman’s Association. He was a man who--despite his own obligations--had gone out of his way to help her find subjects for her dissertation research. And with dark blonde hair, scintillating blue eyes and super buff body he was hands down the hottest guy in Yellowstone County.

However, unlike other single women in Sweet River, Lauren didn’t have happily-ever-after designs on him. Seth’s roots in this ranching community ran deep. And no matter how much she’d enjoyed her stay, it didn’t take an IQ of one hundred sixty to know she’d never be able to realize her dreams here.

No, as much as she liked Seth and thought he was a great guy, it wasn’t his heart that interested her, it was his body.

For the past month she’d been having x-rated dreams, all starring the rancher standing in front of her. The drama played out every time she crawled into bed. Once her lids drifted shut it was as if someone had dropped the flag and said, “let the fantasy begin.”

Of course instead of being dressed in layers of clothes like he was now, he’d worn nothing at all. Her pulse quickened as her body remembered the man she’d visualized. The muscular arms. Rock hard abs. Big--

“Forget about kissing for a minute,” Seth said. “Will you do it, Lauren?”

Do it? She let her imagination soar, each possible way to “do it” more sensuous than the last. But when her fingers touched the buttons on her shirt, she jolted back to reality. The only problem was her pleasure-me-meter seemed stuck in the open position.

Mind over matter, Lauren repeated to herself. She dropped her hands to her sides, pressed her legs tightly together and lifted her gaze from just below his belt buckle to his face.

“Will you move in and help me take care of Dani?” His tone was low, persuasive and sexy as hell.

The air between them thickened. Beams of light spilled through the lace curtains, turning Seth’s hair to spun gold. The dark blue depths of his eyes beckoned, tempting Lauren to step off the firm shore of complete control to a place where she could be over her head in seconds. His cologne teased her nostrils; the woodsy scent making her feel even more warm and tingly inside…if that was even possible.

The feelings washing over her were familiar, yet at the same time…new. Lauren embraced the sensations. It had been so long since she’d kissed a man. Even longer since she’d had one in her bed.

Seth had such a masculine presence. She couldn’t recall ever being so aware of a man. Of course, most of the men she’d known had been scholarly academic types like her father.

Her father.

The thought of the brilliant professor was like a splash of cold water. Though he might be willing to overlook a brief assignation with a rancher, Dr. Edmund Van Meveren would be horrified his daughter would consider becoming anyone’s live-in babysitter.

Her mother, the prominent physicist, Dr. Margaret King-Van Meveren, would find the whole situation unworthy of discussion.

But what they thought was a moot point. Her father didn’t run her life and her mother’s opinion wouldn’t sway her either.

“Lauren?”

She blinked away the disapproving images of her parents and focused on the man in front of her. The uncertainty in his eyes surprised her. Seth Anderssen was the most confident man she knew.

“I understand the predicament you’re in, what with your housekeeper being too old to care for an injured child and all.” Lauren instinctively slipped into the calm rational tone she used when counseling patients. “However, watching a seven-year-old for six weeks is a huge responsibility.”

Disappointment skittered across Seth’s face and the hopeful light in his eyes vanished.

Lauren stifled a groan. Instead of reassuring him, her words had caused him to jump to the wrong conclusion. “I’m not saying that I won’t—”

“You don’t have to beat around the bush. If you don’t want to watch her, just say so.” He rocked back on his heels and blew out a harsh breath. “I know she can be a handful, even when she’s well—”

“This isn’t about Dani.” For a woman who prided herself on her communication skills, she was doing an abysmal job with this conversation.

“Is it about your counseling practice?”

Her practice had grown consistently since she’d begun seeing clients several months earlier. Helping everyday people with their concerns was one of her greatest joys. “I see most of my clients in the evenings and on weekends. Caring for Dani shouldn’t impact those appointments.”

“I don’t understand.” Seth’s intense blue eyes pinned her. “Is it me? Have I offended you in some way?”

“You’ve been wonderful.”

The lines furrowing his brow eased and a look of relief crossed his face. “Then what’s the problem?”

“I know you said I can do my work while I’m at your house, but I need to be certain I’ll have enough time to devote to Dani.” The little girl deserved better than a half-hearted caregiver. If Lauren committed, it would be with the knowledge that she could give the child the attention she deserved. “I was hoping I could give you my answer right after Christmas.”

Since Seth didn’t need someone to start until after the first of January, it seemed a reasonable request. With Christmas being the day after tomorrow, if she said no, that would give him a week to find someone else. But Lauren hoped she’d be able to help him out. Dani was a precious little girl and Seth was a decent, hard working man in a tough spot.

“After the holiday will work,” Seth said, surprisingly agreeable. “I wouldn’t be contacting anyone else before then anyway.”

“I’m really not trying to put you off,” Lauren said.

“I know you’re not. You have valid concerns. My daughter isn’t going to be an easy one to watch.” Seth’s lips quirked upward. “Especially once she starts feeling better. She’s going to find those activity limitations hard to bear.”

“Keeping her occupied and stimulated will be a challenge.” Still, Lauren appreciated the child’s headstrong nature. In many ways Dani reminded Lauren of herself at that age. Perhaps that’s why she felt a special affinity for the little girl. She remembered the shock she’d felt when Anna had called and told her about the accident.

“Dani was incredibly lucky,” Lauren continued. “To end up with just a couple broken bones is nothing short of a miracle.”

“I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost her.” Seth’s voice thickened and his fingers tightened on the brim of the cowboy hat he clutched in one hand. “I should have made sure John Redmond knew I didn’t want her on an ATV.”

Seth didn’t need to elaborate. Everyone in town had heard the story. How Dani was playing at her friend Emily’s house. How Emily’s older brother Kyle had decided to give the girls rides on his ATV.

Though hitting a rock in a pasture could happen to anyone, it was rumored Kyle had been going too fast. While the boy had been uninjured when the ATV had flipped, Dani had been thrown a full fifty feet. When the volunteer rescue squad had arrived, she’d been unconscious. The paramedics feared she’d injured her spine. Thankfully she’d only sustained a broken arm and leg and a mild concussion.

“Kids play. They get hurt.” Lauren’s childhood hadn’t been that way, but from the stories her friends told, it was amazing some of them had lived to adulthood. “The accident wasn’t your fault.”

“It was my fault.” Seth’s eyes flashed. “I’m her father. I promised Jan I’d keep our daughter safe.”

Lauren tried to hide her surprise. Seth rarely talked about the hometown girl he’d married in college who’d died from cancer three years ago.

“I understand you feel guilty,” Lauren said in a soothing tone. “But some things are out of your control.”

He lifted his chin in a stubborn tilt. “If I’d made it clear Dani wasn’t to ride the three-wheeler, she’d never have gotten hurt.”

It was becoming increasingly apparent to Lauren that nothing would be gained from pursuing this topic further. Seth was responding from emotion instead of logic. She heard the guilt in his voice and saw the pain in his eyes. Though she doubted he’d ever admit it, the rugged Montana cowboy looked like a man in desperate need of a hug.

Impulsively Lauren stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, just like she always did with Anna and Stacie when they needed comforting. Surprisingly, he let her pull him close. “You’re a good dad, Seth,” she whispered against the smooth fabric of the coat he hadn’t bothered to take off. “Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

For a brief moment in time, they stood wrapped in each others’ arms. Lauren wasn’t sure when the simple hug became more complicated. All she knew was having this handsome cowboy in her arms was very different than hugging a girlfriend. They fit together perfectly, just like in her dreams. As she breathed in the clean fresh scent of him, she experienced an overwhelming urge to nuzzle his neck. But Lauren kept her lips to herself. Something told her this wasn’t a man who’d be satisfied with a brief fling.

Stepping back, Lauren let her hands drop to her sides. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? I just brewed a pot. I’ve also got sour cream cake donuts Stacie brought by last night. She’s trying out some new recipes and wanted me to check them out. I also have a couple of blueberry ones and some--.”

She stopped mid-sentence and clamped her mouth shut. Sexual frustration was no excuse. Babbling—under any circumstances--was an unattractive quality.

“I’m not hungry but coffee sounds good.” Seth’s smile was easy, but there was awareness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before the embrace.

“Cream and sugar?”

“Black works for me.”

Lauren grabbed a mug from the cupboard. She was pleased, but perplexed. When Seth first arrived, he’d mentioned that Connie Swenson, his foreman’s wife, was watching Dani so he could run errands. Lauren had thought he’d be eager to get home. After all, he’d barely left Dani’s side since the accident. Yet, he shrugged out of his heavy coat and draped it over one of the kitchen chairs as if he had all day.

Lauren couldn’t pull her gaze from him. The colors in his flannel shirt made his eyes look like sapphires. For a second she thought about telling him so. She smiled, imagining his reaction.

“What’s so funny?” Seth settled into the closest chair and placed his work-hardened hands on the table.

“I like that shirt,” Lauren said. “It’s a good color for you.”

“Thanks.” He glanced down as if he’d forgotten what he wore. “Anna gave it to me for my birthday.”

“Figures. Your sister has excellent taste.” Lauren poured coffee into a mug, placed it before him then took a seat across from him. “I can’t believe she and Stacie are both married.”

Stacie had wed rancher, Josh Collins in October. Anna had married Mitch Donavan, a boyfriend from her high school days, just last week, only two days before Dani’s accident.

“Leaving you to fend for yourself.” Seth glanced around the spacious kitchen which still retained much of its turn-of-the-century charm. “Do you ever get lonely?”

The old Victorian where Lauren resided had originally belonged to Seth’s grandmother. His sister had inherited it when Grandma Borghild had passed on several years earlier. Now Anna lived with Mitch in the log home he’d built at the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. And Lauren had this big house all to herself.

“Not really. I’ve never minded being by myself.” Lauren added a lump of sugar to her coffee and slowly stirred. “I’m an only child. When I was growing up my parents were always busy. I’m good at keeping myself occupied.”

His blue eyes filled with understanding as his hands wrapped around the warm mug. “Dani is like that, too. She can play by herself for hours. Which is a good and a bad thing.”

Lauren raised a brow.

“I worry about her being alone so much,” he explained. “That’s why I make sure to spend quality time with her every evening. And to invite friends over to play so she can learn to share and have an opportunity to socialize. I’m sure your parents did the same for you.”

Lauren wondered what he’d say if she told him she seriously doubted they’d ever given her needs that much thought. She’d been an unplanned late-in-life baby. Both had been determined not to let her arrival impact their careers.

“They did their best.” Lauren kept her answer simple. When it came to discussing her parents, the less said the better.

“I can’t believe Christmas is this weekend.” Seth took a sip of coffee and changed the subject. “Are you going home for the holidays?”

“My parents like to spend Christmas in Paris.” Lauren found herself strangely embarrassed by the admission. “Going to France has become a holiday tradition for them. Since they live on separate coasts it’s a good way for them to reconnect.”

Seth’s brows pulled together. “They don’t live together?”

“They do,” Lauren said. “About ten percent of the time.”

Confusion blanketed Seth’s face. “Are they separated?”

“Only by distance. My father teaches at Stanford,” Lauren kept her tone light. “My mother is at Cornell.”

Seth’s eyes widened but he immediately brought his expression under control. “Yet they’re married.”

“Thirty-five years next month.” Lauren added another lump of sugar to her coffee. “They have a modern ‘commuter marriage.’”

It wasn’t the kind of union she would choose, but it worked for them. She took a sip of coffee and grimaced at the sweetness.

“Hmmm,” Seth hesitated, obviously subscribing to the tenet if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. “It must be hard, having them both far away.”

“I’m used to it.” After all, even when she was with them, she felt in the way. “What’s difficult is being without Stacie and Anna.”

Unexpected tears stung the back of Lauren’s lids. Though Christmas was only a few days away, she’d avoided thinking about the new reality as much as possible. It was too easy to get into ‘pity party’ mode and that wasn’t fair to anyone. She was happy for both her friends. Happy they’d found someone they loved. Happy they’d found their bliss in Montana…but not happy to be the odd one out.

“I’m surprised they didn’t invite you to spend Christmas with them.” A look of disappointment skittered across Seth’s face. “That sure doesn’t sound like Anna. Or Stacie either.”

“They did invite me,” Lauren reassured him. “But they’re both newlyweds. I’m not going to crash their first holiday with their new husbands.”

“I suppose,” Seth reluctantly agreed.

“There’s no supposing about it,” Lauren said firmly. “They shouldn’t have to worry about entertaining me.”

“You’re being an awfully good sport,” Seth said.

Lauren couldn’t understand the admiration in his tone. “Anyone would feel the same.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Seth paused for a moment. “I’ve got an idea. How ‘bout you join Dani and me? The food won’t be anything special but it’ll be edible. It’d be great to have another adult around on Christmas Eve. I know my daughter would enjoy having a different face to look at besides mine.”

Before she could politely refuse the offer, Seth reached across the table and took her hand. “I’d really like you to spend Christmas Eve at the ranch.”

Lauren was sure he’d meant it only as a kind gesture, an innocent show of friendship. But there was nothing innocent about the jolt of desire that shot though her. Her first reaction was to snatch her hand away, but that would make her look like a fool. Besides, she really liked the way his warm, strong hand felt beneath hers.

She reminded herself that he was merely showing his support. And his offer was probably no more than any person in this small town would make.

“I make a great prime rib,” he added in a persuasive tone. “And I promise the brussel sprouts will stay in the freezer.”

Just say no. She could hear her father’s stern voice in her head. Concentrate on your dissertation. Your career must be your priority.

Still, Lauren’s entire being rebelled against the prospect of eating a frozen dinner in front of a computer screen on Christmas day. And really, what would be the harm with accepting Seth’s offer? It was just dinner. And she had to eat…

“C’mon, Lauren, say yes.” His fingers tightened around hers. “Aside from pleasing Dani, it’ll be a great way for us to get to know each other better.”

Lauren’s heart skipped a beat. When he put it that way, how could she refuse?

 

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