Cowboys Don’t Stand Under the Mistletoe

 

Chapter 1

Mack went to church. Of course he did. In and out. Good for a week. Sometimes two. He and God had a deal. Mack put his hour in and God took care of him during the week.

It didn’t take much effort on his part and he was pretty happy about that.

Today was a bit of a different story, and he was sweating under his button up and t-shirt. He wasn’t used to being in the bowels of a church. Down in the basement. Could be the setting for a horror flick. The smell alone was enough to drive him out. Dampness and stale coffee and possibly a hint of lasagna from earlier in the spring.

Currently the calendar said December.

He wrinkled his nose because he was going to have to power through. He had a niece in each arm and he needed to find their Sunday School rooms. He couldn’t hardly drop them at the bottom of the stairs and run scared, even if that’s what he really wanted to do.

Because tonight when they were crying for their mother and insisting there were monsters under their beds he might lack the proper adult authority when he tried to dismiss their concerns if he bailed on them now.

Children could smell fear with more ease than a shark scented blood.

He looked around at the big, rec room he was walking through with the dark hallway where children ran and parents chatted and that led to Sunday School rooms in front of him. Give him shark infested waters any day.

“Uncle Mack, are you going to leave us?” Holly whispered.

What could he say, except, “No. Of course not.”

“Mommy said that too, then when we woke up, she wasn’t there.” Ashleigh tightened her arms around his neck.

It hurt, but not like her words did. He couldn’t help what his sister did. She’d dropped her two preschoolers off at his parents’ apartment in the senior living center and took off after her boyfriend who’d gone to France with his new flame.

Mack had tried to talk his sister out of it, because, come on, what are the odds he’s going to come back, especially if she turns up at his doorstep screaming like a banshee. Not exactly going to convince him he made a mistake.

Pick up the pieces and move on. But his sister wasn’t thinking rationally. Women normally didn’t, in his experience.

Now he had two of them clinging to his neck, because his parents weren’t allowed to have children staying indefinitely at their senior living complex. They didn’t want to get kicked out and he couldn’t blame them. Although the girls might liven that place up some.

If he were a single dude in his fifties, it’d be a great way to pick up chicks – take the girls to his parents’ over fifty-five digs. But he wasn’t and he wasn’t that desperate anyway.

Still, if he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have brought the girls from Oklahoma to North Dakota. But he’d promised Clay, his harvest crew boss, that he’d be up before Christmas to look over the business and see if Mack wanted to buy it from him.

So, since the girls couldn’t stay with his parents, he was left with little choice but to bring them along.

And, according to his, somewhat dubious, upbringing, part of being a responsible surrogate parent was taking his charges to Sunday School.

He entered the hall, thankful that his blood still seemed to be getting to his head, even thought the pressure around his neck hadn’t eased.

“You can see for yourself if I leave or not,” he finally said. It didn’t do anything to ease the pressure, but he hadn’t really expected that it would.

He almost gave an audible sigh of relief when Clay, along with Abner, a co-worker on the harvest crew this summer, stepped out of a room to his left. He felt a little more stable with familiar male faces.

Through a door on the right he could see a slim blond woman bent over a small child, who looked to be about the same age as his nieces. At least if that was the class he had to stay in for the next hour the teacher wouldn’t be hard to look at.

“Mack! I was expecting you yesterday.” Clay looked like he was going to hold his hand out, but took a second look at Mack’s clinging nieces and changed his mind.

“Yeah, sorry. I should have texted. Stayed at a hotel last night because the trip was just too long for the girls.”

“You’ve been busy in the last three weeks,” Abner said with a raised brow.

“Not as busy as I’ve heard you’ve been. You have me beat times three,” Mack said with a smirk, referring to the fact that Abner had just married his high school sweetheart and had gone from a single man with no children to a married man with six since they’d winterized and parked their combines for the season.

“Guess you’re playing catch-up,” Abner’s lip pulled up in a half-grin.

“Not interested in catching up, my friend,” Mack said, his smirk getting a little bigger.

A slender woman in a long skirt with waist-length brown hair walked up beside Abner and put her arm around his waist. Mack had to stare at that, only because Abner had never seemed like the kind of guy who needed, or wanted, a woman. Mack had to admit he’d judged wrong as Abner’s face softened and he gazed down at the woman beside him.

“This is my wife, Cora,” he murmured, barely taking his eyes off her.

“Good to meet the girl who lassoed that one,” Mack said, jerking his head at Abner. “I’d shake your hand, but mine are full.” He bounced his nieces in his arms. They’d buried their heads in his neck and hadn’t lifted them. “You guys know where the preschool class is?”

He suspected he knew, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

“Right behind ya,” Clay said. His face was straight and as serious as a coffin. But that was Clay. He wouldn’t wink and smirk about the good-looking Sunday School teacher, and he definitely wouldn’t make a comment about her.

“Thanks,” Mack said as Clay’s wife came up beside him. “Hey, Reina,” he greeted before he turned away.

“Be nice to her, Mack,” Reina said. Which make Mack’s brows push together and he turned and looked harder at Reina.

“Huh?”

She just lifted her brows, like he’d know soon enough, and then gave Clay a big smile. Clay’s arm went around her and he pulled her close.

Clay barely looked at him when he said, “There’s no dinner after church, but if you want to come out to my mom’s I’m sure she won’t mind. She’s got a big brisket in the slow cooker.”

“Might do that.” He needed to talk to Clay anyway.

Mack turned and headed toward the Sunday School room with the cute blond teacher, still wondering what Reina’s cryptic comment could mean.

He didn’t wonder long.

The blond straightened and turned, and he knew immediately what Reina had meant. Angela Davis. The woman who’d tried to get Clay to marry her for his money, then had told Boone, Clay’s brother, that he wasn’t good enough for her because he wasn’t rich.

She was beautiful, no doubt, but any man would be a fool to get close to her.

Angela walked to her doorway. “Mack.”

He nodded at her. He could be nice. He knew what she was and what she wanted.

“Angela. Looks like I’m going to be in your class today.”

“I would have guessed you a little older than preschool,” she said. Her smile was sweet and her blue eye beguiling.

Mack felt free to flirt since he knew he’d never be interested. “You don’t look a day over twenty.”

She laughed, as he’d meant her to. “Still a sweet talker.” Her long, blond hair shimmered softly across her shoulders as she shook her head. “Looks like we have a teacher’s pet here today.”

“I’ll be good as long as I get to color with the sharp crayons.”

“Everyone gets their own crayons, including the cowboy with the soft brown eyes.” Before he could remind himself that she led guys on, she continued, “Who do we have with us today?”

Her fingers lightly touched Holly’s back, and Mack realized she was talking to his niece and not him.

“Is this your daddy?” Angela asked, tilting her head and looking so sweet he’d have been surprised if Holly could have resisted.

But she didn’t. “No,” she said softly, shaking her black curls.

“Your boyfriend?” Angela said with a twinkle in her eyes.

Holly giggled. “No.”

“It’s Santa Clause on a diet.”

This time Ashleigh laughed along with Holly. “No! He’s Uncle Mack.”

“Oh.” Angela lifted a brow at him, like she’d just gotten the scoop. Which, she kind of had. “He’s your uncle.”

Holly nodded. “He said he would stay with us.”

“That’s fine, although I don’t think his legs are going to fit under my table. Can we unhook them and set them by the door? He can put them back on before he goes upstairs for the service.”

The girls giggled again. Ashleigh, who, at three, was a year younger than Holly, said, “Yeah. Take them off!”

Mack winced. “Ooh, that sounds painful. Can we work out a compromise?”

“Like what? One leg off, one leg on?” Angela snorted.

Mack grinned at her. He’d always kind of pegged her as a Sunday School girl – quiet and good and boring. Then, when things went down with Clay and Boone, he’d added conniving to that list and stuck her under the heading “do not consider.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of I’ll pass out paper and pick up crayons and be the bouncer if you let me keep my legs. Both of them.”

Angela shrugged. “We could just unattach them at the knee caps.”

“You don’t need a bouncer?”

“You missed the bar. It was three houses back that way.” She waved toward the east. “I’m sorry you got confused.”

“It’s because the Sunday School teacher has big blue eyes and she’s batting them at me.” He winked at her and she laughed, but her cheeks got pink, too, and he wondered if she was really as bad as the crew had made her out to be.

“I need a paper, Miss Davis,” the little boy at the table said.

“Okay, I’ll be right there, Kohlton,” Angela said. She grabbed a chair from the side of the room that was slightly larger than the miniature chairs that were set around the half-moon table. “Here, Mack. This isn’t quite your size, but you can sit here and hold the girls until they feel comfortable coming to the table.”

“Thanks, Miss Davis,” he said. There was still flirt in his voice and her turned up lips said she hadn’t missed it.

But she was all business with her little class and had herself introduced to his nieces and had them sitting at the table and chattering in no time. But what really impressed him was when she told the story and held their attention the entire time.

On the long trip from south-western Oklahoma to North Dakota, he didn’t think they’d been quiet for more than a five minute stretch at a time, except the time they’d been sleeping, which hadn’t been nearly long enough. Yet somehow Miss Davis had gotten their attention and kept it for a good fifteen minutes. Even the little boy was paying attention.

“Seems like you’ve been doing this for a while,” he said when the class was over.

“That’s a compliment, and I’ll take it,” Angela said, her eyes twinkling.

“Come on, girls,” he said.

“We want to stay with Miss Davis,” Holly said, her lip sticking out.

“I can take them to Junior Church if you want me to,” Angela said, bending down and writing Holly’s name on her paper.

“Sure. That’d be great.” Mack put his hand in his pocket. “I guess I’ll just come downstairs after the service and pick them up somewhere?”

“It’s in the big room at the end of the hall, but I’ll be in the service and I can take you down afterwards.” She said it like it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and Mack found himself agreeing.

“Sounds good.”

He walked out, knowing he could at least find the stairs. The place was like a labyrinth, but luckily because of his job and running around all over unfamiliar places almost on a daily basis, he had a pretty good sense of direction.

Although it was kind of hard to pay attention, because Angela hadn’t been anything like what he remembered. She was much friendlier for one. And she didn’t seem like she was trying to manipulate him. Finally he thought to wonder why she was in Sweet Water, North Dakota to begin with. Hadn’t she gotten married to someone else after Clay refused her and she ditched Boone?

He probably wasn’t going to try to get the whole story out of Clay or Boone, because how did a guy ask a question like that?

He could talk about the guts of a combine, profit and loss on Clay’s business for the last five years, and he’d even ask to see Clay’s bank account statement before he ask about the girl who tried to manipulate him into marrying her for his fortune.

If that’s really what she did.

Mack sat in the back and used a Bible from the pew. The service wasn’t long, thankfully, and although the preacher probably had some good things to say, Mack’s attention was pulled to the blond head that sat in the second pew from the front. Alone.

After the service was over, he stood, making his way to the stairs, thinking to wait on Angela. He had no clue where his nieces were.

A hand clamped on his shoulder. “We’ll see you in a bit out at the home farm, right?”

Mack turned to see Clay. “Sure will,” he said. “I don’t have anything to bring.”

“Mom always makes extra and Reina and I have twenty pounds of mashed potatoes in two slow cookers. If you want anything fancy, you’ll have to bring it yourself.”

Mack froze. “Did you make the mashed potatoes, or did Reina?”

Clay’s grin was mischievous. “Live on the wild side, my friend.”

“Reina did.”

Clay huffed out a short laugh. “Maybe.”

“No offense, but I don’t have any better prospects, so I’ll probably be there anyway.” He started to turn away, but realized that Clay might be able to help him with something else. “Where’s the closest hotel? The last one I remember seeing was about thirty miles to the south.”

“That’s it. But Mr. Swanson has the big blue house beside the gym here on Main Street and he’s got a room or two available.” Clay waved in toward the west.

“That’d be much better if we’re going to be working together.”

“I’d offer to let you stay with us, but we’re living with my mother until the sale on the place we put an offer on goes through. Another month, probably.”

“Sounds crowded.”

“It is. But mom loves it. She basically has slaves to do all the handiwork stuff she can think of. By the time Reina and I move out, she’ll practically have a new house.” Clay held his arms out as Gina, his daughter, came running up the stairs, chattering away. “See ya in a bit,” he said before putting his arm around his daughter and tilting his head to listen to her.

Mack jerked his head in acknowledgement.

When Clay moved away, he could see Angela deep in conversation with an older lady. They were both holding clipboards and seemed to be checking items off.

Mack took a deep breath. Up here in the sanctuary the air was heavily scented with the pine greens that sat in the deep windowsills. Each window had an electric candle as well. It all reminded him that it was less than four weeks until Christmas.

Would his sister be home before the holiday? He could hardly believe that someone would just drop her kids off and fly across the ocean, and just before Christmas, of all times.

“Hey, I’m sorry.” Angela’s voice came from slightly behind him. “I’m short of help for the Christmas festival, and I was trying to figure out if we’ll be able to do everything we have planned.”

He didn’t know squat about Christmas festivals and didn’t want to get sucked into helping with that. He was going to have all he could do to keep his nieces and work with Clay. He needed to give Clay a firm answer about whether or not he was buying the business, and in the meantime, he’d told Clay he’d help rebuild at least one of his combines while Clay had promised to show him all the paperwork he had so he could make an informed decision.

Not that he’d ever owned a business before. He had no clue if he could actually do it. But he wanted to try. Just wasn’t sure if he wanted to take that big of a risk.

“No problem,” he said. “Was talking to Clay some anyway. Don’t suppose you know if Reina’s been taking cooking lessons, by chance?”

Angela stopped organizing the papers on her clipboard and tilted her head. “No?”

“Never mind.” He could laugh about Reina’s total inability to cook, and he was pretty sure Reina would still be laughing as well, but talking about her when she wasn’t around was pretty close to gossip, and he didn’t want it getting back to her in the wrong way, so he shut his mouth. “You gonna show me where you imprisoned my nieces?”

She chuckled, as he thought she would and led the way down the stairs.