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“But from what I’ve learned, mistletoe and Christmas is important to the town. It’s what made the town, and the mistletoe has become a profitable cottage industry.”
The conversation halted as Suzie arrived with their orders. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and one of the muffins the café was known for, and for Melody, rabbit food—a salad with grilled-chicken strips.
“What brought you and your daughter here?” he asked once they were alone again. “I heard through the grapevine that you were from the Dallas area.”
She picked up her fork and smiled once again. She had a beautiful smile, and he felt as if he’d just swallowed a shot of scotch that warmed him from head to toe.
“I’ve learned that the grapevine is pretty healthy here in Mistletoe.”
He grinned. “By morning, everyone will know that you and I had dinner together, and trust me, there will be embellishments.”
“At least neither of us is married, so there can’t be too much of a scandal,” she replied in amusement. “Anyway, to answer your question, it’s true we’re from Dallas. My husband passed away two years ago, and it wasn’t long before I realized Libby and I needed a change, a place to start over. We’d visited Mistletoe a couple of years ago and I decided it was a good place to make a new beginning.”
“Have you always been a dancer?” he asked. She looked like a dancer, tall and lithe and graceful, the exact opposite of what he’d always thought to be his type.
“Always. I had a studio in Dallas, so it was only natural that I’d open one here. Not only does it pay the bills, but I love it. Do you dance?”
He laughed, the sound a bit rusty to his ears, making him realize that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed out loud. “I can manage a Mistletoe two-step if I’m forced, but that’s about it.”
For the next few minutes they fell silent as they focused on their meals, and once again Jake found himself questioning the impulse that had made him jump into the seat opposite her.
He hadn’t looked twice at a woman for over five years, but the first time he’d encountered his new neighbor, a spark of something had lit inside him.
Lust, he told himself. It had been so long since he’d been with a woman he’d forgotten what lust felt like, and he certainly didn’t understand why the dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty across the table from him seemed to stir it up inside him.
“Tell me about your daughter,” he said, certain that a discussion about a little girl would squelch any inappropriate thoughts he might entertain.
Again she flashed him that wide, beautiful smile. “Libby is the love of my life. She’s bright and giving and makes me laugh. She’s also precocious and willful and occasionally throws a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way.”
“Sounds as though you’ve got your hands full.”
“In a good way,” she replied easily.
He relaxed a bit. Not only was he not interested in any kind of a long-term relationship with a woman, he especially wasn’t interested in kids.
They both turned to look as bursts of laughter came from the front of the café. Suzie had managed to get her mistletoe over the head of old George McKnight, and as the two shared a kiss, the crowd clapped its approval.
“That’s a tradition I don’t particularly like,” he said as he focused his attention back to Melody. “I also don’t like New Year’s Eve kisses. I think kisses should mean something and should only be shared between people who love each other.”
He felt the flames that filled his cheeks. What was he doing sharing that with a woman who was a virtual stranger? The madness of Mistletoe had obviously made him truly crazy.
“That’s a nice sentiment,” she replied softly.
“Thanks,” he replied, and motioned for a check from Suzie. He felt the sudden need to escape. He needed to get back to his ranch, where there were no Christmas decorations and no mistletoe anywhere in sight.
Suzie arrived at the table with the check, and Jake looked at Melody. “Since I invited myself to your meal, I’d like to buy your dinner.”
“That’s not necessary,” she protested.
“Consider it a Christmas gift,” he replied as he stood and grabbed his coat and hat from the booth next to him. With a murmured goodbye, he left the booth and hurried to the cashier. He paid the bill and then put his hat on his head and left the café.
As he drove home, he knew he’d mentally gone around the bend. He hated the tradition of a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe, and yet he couldn’t get the vision of Melody Martin in his arms beneath the shiny green leaves with their waxy white berries.
* * *
MELODY RELEASED A deep breath as Jake left the table. Once again she curled her hands around her cup of warm Mistletoe Toddy.
The man was sin on legs, she thought. His slightly shaggy dark hair begged for female fingers to thread through it. His eyes were an interesting shade of silvery-gray, and his rugged features came together in a way that radiated both strength and handsomeness.
His pasture came very close to her yard, and she had spent far too much time over the past several months standing at her kitchen sink and watching him ride his fence line.
Long-legged, broad-shouldered and with a slender waist... The man could have been a pinup model in a Cowboy of the Month calendar.
Town gossip had let her know that he was a loner who came in the café often to eat but didn’t do much socializing. Not that it mattered to her; the very last thing she’d ever want in her life again was a cowboy.
Been there, done that and had the heartache that would last a lifetime. Her marriage had been a happy one, and at least she had Libby to fill some of the space that had been emptied in her heart when Seth died.
Moving to this little town with its community closeness and aura of joy had been a good decision. Libby was thriving, as was the dance studio, and it was only occasionally after Libby went to bed that the ache of loneliness unexpectedly gripped Melody.
Tonight there would be no time for loneliness. Once Libby was asleep, Melody would creep out to the car to retrieve the gifts she’d bought, and then wrap them and hide them back in the trunk of the car.
There would be no time for loneliness in the next week. There was so much going on in the town, events and fun that she and Libby intended to immerse themselves in. There were sing-alongs and tours of the local mistletoe ranches, a night of caroling and of course a visit with Santa.
She glanced at her watch and realized it was time for her to load her packages into the car and head out to pick up Libby. She took a last drink of the yummy hot toddy and then pulled on her coat, grabbed her shopping bags and hurried toward her car, which was parked in front of Carrie’s Christmas Shop.
Within minutes she was on her way to Laura and Jack McKinny’s house on Mistletoe Lane. Their daughter, Megan, not only took dance lessons at the studio, but she and Libby had become best friends.
Mistletoe Lane was decked out for the season with bunches of mistletoe hanging from every streetlamp, along with trailing red ribbons. White sparkling lights created a lovely shimmer on the whole street.
Laura greeted her at her front door with a warm hug. “Did you get finished with what you needed?” she asked.
“Santa shopping all done,” Melody replied. “I can’t thank you enough for keeping Libby busy so I could get out alone.”
“No problem. Want to stick around for a cup of coffee?” Laura asked.
“Rain check?” Melody replied. “To be honest, I’m exhausted and ready to get home and settled in.”
“Then, next time,” Laura replied with a friendly smile. She was one of the first women Melody had made friends with when they’d moved here. Laura was a teacher at the grade school and her husband worked at the bank.
She took a couple of steps down the hallway. “Libby, your mom is here.” Girlie groans filled the air.
“That sounds like her ‘not so happy to see me’ noise,” Melody said.
Laura laughed. “They’re at that age.” She rolled her eyes.
Libby came running up the hall, her long dark pigtails bouncing with each step. “Mom, my princess doll was just about to meet her prince.” Blond-haired Megan ran just behind Libby.
“I guess she’ll have to wait until another time to meet her prince. It’s time for us to head home. Now, what do you say to Ms. Laura and Megan?”
“Thank you for having me over. I had a super time,” Libby said. “And maybe Megan can come over real soon and we can play at my house.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Laura said as she handed Libby her coat.
“Thanks again,” Melody said, and then she and Libby headed to their car.
“I had such fun,” Libby said as she buckled her seat belt. “We played games and then got out all of Megan’s fashion doll stuff. She has a ton of it.”
“I’m glad you had a good time. Did you eat dinner?”
“We had mac and cheese and hot dogs. Megan is my best friend ever. We’ve decided we’re going to get married on the same day and we’ll buy houses next to each other and our husbands will be best friends, too.”
As Libby continued to chatter, Melody found her thoughts drifting back to the unexpected dinner with Jake. Why had he decided to join her?
She hadn’t been averse to his company, and he certainly hadn’t been hard to look at from across the table, but it seemed out of character from what she’d heard about him.
She had to confess that she’d entertained a silly crush on him since the moment she’d first seen him. But she’d decided when Seth died that there would be no more cowboys in her life. If she ever decided to marry again it would be to a lawyer or a banker who didn’t work with horses that could kick them in the head and kill them.
Libby was still talking about her time with Megan when they arrived home. Home was a nice little ranch house with three bedrooms, an airy kitchen and a living room.
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