ThE PEppERmint TREE
A Contemporary Western Romance
Skye Mallory has always aspired to leave her family’s ranch, and she takes pride in having achieved her dream of becoming a lawyer. But when an unexpected inheritance draws her home for the Christmas holidays, she’s surprised by a longing to set down roots in the wide-open meadows and woodlands of southwestern Colorado. Only one thing stands in her way—a cowboy who broke her heart nine years ago.
In high school, Joe Carrigan admired Skye for her spirit and intellect, but he knew she was destined for a life beyond ranching. Turning down her romantic overture was the best course of action for them both. But now, he’s returned to their hometown, and it’s inevitable he’ll come face-to-face with his one regret in life—Skye Mallory. This time, however, he won’t be so chivalrous.
This novella was previously published in the anthology A CHRISTMAS COWBOY TO KEEP.
Heat Level: Steamy
Also available in print.
Read Chapter One
Skye Mallory squinted through her windshield as the wiper blades danced back and forth. The weather on this dark December night had turned awful with heavy snowflakes consuming the sky as if the heavens had released a deluge of white feathers. Before she’d left Denver and the haven of her condo, she had checked the forecast, and in her mind had decided it was navigable. But life hadn’t been going her way of late and this was no exception. No reason to be surprised that this had turned into a bit more than she’d bargained for.
She slowed her Prius. It wasn’t great in the snow, but as she now spent most of her time within city limits that included well-maintained winter roads, it hadn’t really been a problem. Usually she had more time to plan before driving south to visit her family and The Quarter-Circle, a sprawling five-thousand acre cattle ranch.
But then Mrs. Pendleton had died, naming Skye her sole heir. Skye had never been more stunned than when the will had arrived in the mail, stating that she now owned five hundred acres and the Pendleton Ranch.
Correction. It was a close second to the shock of Joe Carrigan telling her no in high school.
Why did that rejection still sting like it had happened yesterday?
She released a disgusted grunt, since she was alone in her car.
It had been nine years of silence from the one who’d gotten away.
He didn’t get away. He never wanted me in the first place.
She tried to avoid thinking about the fact that Joe Carrigan had returned to the area six months ago. Her mother had informed her one afternoon via a phone call, gushing that it was so great to have Joey and his mom back after the unfortunate death of his dad. Skye had been sorry to hear that Buck Carrigan had passed, because she’d always liked him. But the news had made her less than thrilled to come home for a visit. Joe Carrigan had purchased the Triple C Ranch, which coincidentally bordered not only on Mallory’s land but none other than the Pendleton Ranch.
Did the guy upstairs have it out for her?
In the last six months, she’d had a botched tooth extraction requiring endless visits to the dentist, her stock investments had dropped by half, and douche-bag Dave, a fellow attorney she was dating, had stolen her firm’s biggest client right out from under her.
She muttered a few swear words simply because it made her feel better. Dave hadn’t been a love connection by any stretch, but she’d been proud of herself for trying to be less work and more play, and all it had gotten her in the end was a place on her boss’s naughty list. She seriously doubted she’d be receiving a Christmas bonus after that debacle.
And then she’d gotten word of Mrs. Pendleton’s passing, filling her with a heavy grief, while also stunning her with the woman’s puzzling generosity. While Skye had spent a lot of time with the widow back in high school, she hadn’t seen her in over two years. What could it mean? Because some tiny part of her flared to life at the prospect of returning to the Durango area. To her home. To Joe.
Why in God’s name was he there? Why couldn’t he just have stayed away?
If she decided to set up house on the Pendleton property, she would be his neighbor. Despite several hundred acres separating the actual dwellings, it would still be too close for her.
She grumbled aloud again.
It had always been her problem. She was an analyzer. She picked things apart. It was why she was a good lawyer. Well, except for the recent client loss. She sighed. Maybe she should accept that broker’s offer to freelance for his land company.
First things first—she had a Monday morning meeting in Durango with Mrs. Pendleton’s attorney, Brian Fogle. She needed to learn the particulars of her inheritance.
Skye regretted that she hadn’t been able to get away from work for the funeral three days ago; she was determined to at least make the attorney meeting.
And honestly, aside from this nerve-wracking storm, she had been glad for the excuse to come home for the holidays early. It was two weeks until Christmas, but rather than rush back to Denver after the Pendleton business was taken care of, she planned to stay and sleep in her childhood bed, drink hot chocolate under a cozy blanket, and watch Christmas movies while her mom made pot roast or lasagna, or some other delectable treat that reminded Skye of simpler times. With her holiday shopping complete, she could kick back and pretend she was twelve again instead of a weathered and battered twenty-six.
Visibility was bad, her headlights shining into a white background that revealed little else. She was barely able to stay on the road by following the guideposts that were still peeking out of several inches of snow on the ground.
Skye gripped the steering wheel, a wave of anxiety pushing through her.
Maybe she should turn around and return to Durango, but the thought of making a U-turn in this made her nerves dance. She could simply stop, but someone might rear-end her. And there really was no place to pull over.
However, she was getting close to Hank’s Bar. A mile or two, maybe? She could stop there, hunker down with a glass of white wine, and wait out the storm. She had called her parents earlier in the day to tell them she was coming, but they hadn’t picked up, so she’d left a message on their archaic answering machine.
As if on cue, her phone buzzed. She grabbed it from the console where she’d stashed it.
“Skylar?” It was her father. “Are you driving, honey?”
“Yeah. I’m between Durango and Hesperus. But it’s really coming down.”
“Be careful. Can you pull off somewhere? I’m going to call Oliver to come get you.”
Skye’s back ached from leaning forward. “I’m almost to Hank’s. Tell Ollie to meet me there.”
“Okay. Call me when you arrive.”
Skye chanced a glance down to end the call, then looked up as she fumbled to put the phone back in the console. Suddenly her tires turned and with only one hand on the wheel the car veered to the right. She jerked the steering to the left but overcompensated, and the vehicle fish-tailed, sliding off the road and sinking into a trough before coming to a stop.
* * *
Joe Carrigan watched as the red taillights in the distance slid from left to right and then right even more, finally stopping. He’d been following the Prius for a while, and the driver had been conservative, but their luck had just run out. He was in his Bronco—the same one he’d driven in high school on these very roads—and it could still be trusted in bad weather. He’d been able to afford better cars over the years, but he still had a habit of jumping in this one, especially on a night like this.
He checked his rearview mirror. Thankfully, no cars behind him. He slowed the Bronco and guided it as far to the right as he could without getting stuck.
Stepping out of his vehicle, a blast of cold air hit him as heavy snowflakes engulfed him. He really shouldn’t be out in this, but he’d agreed to meet Oliver and Celeste and a friend of Celeste’s, a blind date he’d been badgered into. His life had been too busy of late for a woman, but it didn’t mean he actually needed or wanted one in his life.
He reached inside the Bronco and grabbed his heavy canvas coat, quickly pulling it on and zipping it to his neck. The snow crunched beneath his boots and his breath came out in white puffs as he crossed the beam of his headlights and approached the Prius. He tapped on the driver’s window, the shadowy figure of a woman on the other side. She hesitated a moment then rolled the window down.
“Are you all right, miss?”
As the woman’s face became fully visible, he did a double-take. “Skylar?”
Her forehead pinched into hard ridges, and her eyes registered a flash of outrage. “Carrigan?”
As if a freight train had hit him, he uttered, “It’s been a long time.”
“You don’t say. What are you doing here?”
Corralling his thoughts, he said, “I moved back six months ago. I bought the Three C Ranch.”
“I know.” Her face shifted into a slightly less offensive glare, her skin blanching white in the process. “I heard. I mean, what are you doing out in this?”
Over the years, he had wondered what it would be like to see her again, but now that the moment was here, he wasn’t prepared for it. In high school, she had been quiet and wickedly smart, both a determined tomboy and a girly-girl, a combination that was uniquely Skye. She had always caught his eye—once they’d hit high school, it had been difficult to ignore her curves—but for his own self-preservation, he’d stayed away from her, in the romantic sense at least, even when she had made a play for him, a memory he rarely revisited.
But the woman facing him now—the playful lips, the creamy complexion offset by dark auburn hair, and the expressive eyes that had always intimidated him—reignited the fire that had smoldered for years.
“I’m on my way to meet your brother and Celeste down at Hank’s. I thought you lived in Denver.” He’d learned in the past few months that she was a lawyer. No husband. No children.
“I do.” She frowned. “Ollie and Celeste?”
“You didn’t know about them?” He didn’t think it was a secret that Oliver Mallory had developed a hunger for Celeste Bailey, but if Skye didn’t know about her brother and her lifelong best friend, then maybe Ollie didn’t want it advertised just yet.
“I don’t think it’s serious,” he added, but he knew that was a lie. “Are you headed to Hank’s?”
“Yeah,” she replied, “I’m supposed to meet Ollie for a ride, or at least that’s what my dad said when I talked to him a few minutes ago. But I didn’t know Ollie was on a date with Celeste, and I’m guessing my dad didn’t know either.”
The snowfall had stopped, but it would likely begin again. He opened her car door. “C’mon, I’ll drive you to Hank’s. You shouldn’t stay here. Someone might hit you.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I can call Ollie to come get me here.”
“Still stubborn. I’m not leaving you stranded by the side of the road, Skye.” He motioned for her to exit the vehicle. “Besides, it’ll give us a chance to catch up.”
For a brief moment, she reminded him of a cornered possum, her eyes darting around for an escape route. But she gave a nod, put her car into park, and turned off the ignition. She collected keys, purse, and a coat then tried to leave the Prius, but it was angled in the snow bank, and she fell back into her seat. Leaning down, he grabbed her hand and yanked her out, bringing her close enough that he caught a whiff of her flowery scent and loose strands of her hair caressed his cheek.
She immediately put distance between them. Her blue eyes, visible now in the headlights, locked with his. Clad in a snug ivory sweater and jeans, she had grown from bewitching girl to gorgeous woman without missing a beat.
Opening the door to the backseat, she struggled to pull out a suitcase, the messy bun at the nape of her neck bouncing up and down.
“Here, let me help.” He ushered her aside.
“Okay,” she said, her voice breathless and strained.
“You planning to stay for a while?” he asked as he retrieved two suitcases.
“Hopefully through the New Year.”
He grabbed one more bag and a briefcase, which she reached for, careful to avoid touching his hand.
“I’m not contagious,” he teased.
They locked eyes again.
“You seem stressed,” he said. “You didn’t hurt yourself when you hit the snow bank, did you?”
“No.” She repositioned her coat over her arm and tugged the straps of her purse back onto her shoulder. “I’m fine. A little rattled, that’s all.” She gifted with him with the fakest smile he’d ever seen.
There had been a time when he and Skye had been buddies, the only female friend he’d ever had. He couldn’t blame her, he supposed, for feeling awkward around him—he’d left town without saying goodbye nine years ago and had never bothered to stay in touch. It had seemed easier that way.
He turned and headed to his Bronco.
“You still have this thing?” she said.
“It’s stood the test of time.” He secured her bags in the back and came to open her car door, but she’d already settled herself into the passenger’s seat. He got behind the wheel and started inching the vehicle forward once again on the snow-covered road.
As Skye pushed strands of hair away from her face, Joe kept his gaze forward to avoid staring. He wondered if she still had the handful of freckles on her nose and cheeks. It had always been his favorite feature of hers. Growing up, she’d been a country girl through and through, but she had always possessed a certain sophistication that had somehow been innate. She had been the girl he admired, the girl who had always disarmed him with her intellect, and when she was older, the girl he had been careful to keep at arm’s length.
Then his dad had announced he was selling the Carrigan Ranch and uprooting Joe and his mom north to Estes Park.
A clean break had always worked best for Joe, and he’d seen no reason to change that method, so he had put Skye Mallory into a place in his thoughts where desire and longing couldn’t bother him. He’d always been good at that.
Striving to keep his tone neutral, he asked, “How have you been?”
“I heard about your dad. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” Buck Carrigan had died in January, and Joe was still sucker-punched by it. As ornery as his old man had been, he’d always had a soft spot for Skye.
“You were one of his favorites,” he said, sneaking a glance at her.
She rewarded him with a hint of a smile. “He was one of mine. But he sure could be scary when he wanted. Remember the time you, me, and Ollie took the tractor out, and it got stuck in that ravine, and your dad had to get a bunch of the neighbors with their trucks to pull it out? When he lectured us about how disappointed he was, I wanted to curl into a ball and disappear.”
Joe laughed. “Yeah, he was mad, but later he told that story with a smile plastered all over his face. He referred to the three of us as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
“Who was The Ugly?” she demanded.
“Ollie, but don’t tell him.”
“That seems about right,” she said with a hint of satisfaction.
Joe turned the Bronco into Hank’s, several cars covered in varying layers of snow dotting the parking lot. The weather hadn’t been enough to keep the crowds away. It was Friday night, after all. He made his own makeshift parking spot and shut off the car.
“So which one of us was The Good?” she asked.
He turned to look at her. “You, of course.”
She hadn’t donned her coat and the rapid rise and fall of her chest became noticeable as her breathing increased. In the harsh glow of the parking lot light, her cheeks took on a rosy flush that sent his thoughts to one place—kissing her.
“That would make you The Bad.” Her quiet voice broke through the stillness in the darkened cab. She abruptly released her seatbelt from the buckle and clutched her large purse to her chest. “Well, thanks for the ride. I’ll wait inside until Ollie arrives.” She grabbed the door handle for a hasty exit.
“I’ll buy you a beer,” he said.
She swung her gaze back to him, her eyes wide.
“I’m meeting Ollie and Celeste, remember?” he added. Along with a woman Celeste was supposedly bringing along. For one wild moment, he wondered if the blind date was Skye, causing a surge of anticipation to slice through him. But she wasn’t. Celeste had said he didn’t know the woman, but she was sure he would hit it off with her. The chance of that had seemed slim to none at the time he had agreed, and now with a thudding certainty, it was none.
Seeing Skye had sealed that deal.
Skye nodded stiffly, then slipped out of the Bronco into the blustery winter wonderland.
Joe exited the vehicle and trailed behind her to the entrance. He moved past her to open the large wooden door of Hank’s, and she bumped into him, meeting his eyes briefly before she moved quickly inside.
He had been dragging his feet about coming tonight but now was glad that he’d ventured out. The blind date hadn’t been his fate after all. It had been finding Skye Mallory on the side of the road.
Copyright © 2020 K. McCaffrey LLC