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A Texas Holiday Reunion

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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Chapter One
As her parents exchanged their wedding vows, Resa McCall dabbed at her tears.
And tried to ignore one mind-numbing cowboy, Colson Kincaid.
She and Dad had pulled it off—surprised Mom with a renewal ceremony at the Bandera, Texas, dude ranch where they’d married thirty years ago last spring.
On this first afternoon of December, the anniversary of the day they’d met, they wore replicas of their original wedding finery. The same bridesmaids and groomsmen who’d stood up for them initially now flanked her parents. Even the thirty-five-year-old ring bearer and flower girl had come. And most of their friends and family were here, too.
But try as she might, Resa couldn’t keep her gaze from wandering to Colson now and then. Confident and still ridiculously handsome. Bandera rodeo hero, high school heartthrob with swoon-worthy, vivid green eyes. They’d worked together in their early twenties, six years ago. Fallen in love.
And then he’d left without so much as a goodbye. Spurred her vow to never trust another with her heart other than Jesus Christ.
“I now pronounce you still husband and wife.” The pastor winked and pointed to the mistletoe overhead. “Duncan, you may kiss your wife.”
Great. Resa had missed half the vows thanks to Mr. Cowboy Distraction.
Beneath the tulle-draped rafters of the great room, multicolored twinkle lights reflected off the iridescent Christmas garland as her parents laughingly kissed. Their devotion to one another was clear in their sweet embrace. As a teen, she’d longed for that kind of love. To follow in their footsteps with a committed lifetime marriage.
Until Colson Kincaid.
“Mr. and Mrs. McCall request your presence for the reception in the dining room across the foyer,” the pastor announced, as a mid-eighties love song started up.
Her parents turned to face their guests. Wearing blissful smiles, they retraced their steps down the white-poinsettia-lined aisle toward the foyer. The wedding party followed and then Resa and her brother, before ushers began escorting guests.
Her gaze flitted to Colson, then darted away. The last person she wanted to see. Today or any other day. She’d had to invite him. How could she not, since his father was her parents’ business partner? But she hadn’t thought he’d actually come.
In the foyer, Mom and Dad lined up with the wedding party.
“This is so wonderful.” Mom latched on to Resa’s arm. The tears started up again, and before she knew it they were blubbering, with Dad pulling them in for a hug.
“It was Dad’s idea.”
Mom kissed his cheek. “It was perfect.”
True to form, Resa’s brother, Emmett, stood off to the side. Inspecting his nails, looking bored.
“Break it up, you two.” Dad cleared his throat. “Greet our guests without getting them wet.”
“I better go make sure everything’s set in the dining room.” Resa disentangled herself, dabbed under her eyes, shot a glare at Emmett.
She stepped through the doors to the reception area. “Ceremony’s over.” Garland lined each side of the steaming buffet, which included lasagna, zucchini and seven-layer salad. “They’re greeting guests.”
“All set here,” a voice called from the kitchen.
There was a long row of tables in the center for her parents, family, close friends and the wedding party. Round tables filled each side for guests, graced by centerpieces with strings of imitation pearls woven through white poinsettias.
“Thanks.” Resa checked her appearance in a barn-wood-framed mirror. Thankfully, her waterproof mascara had lived up to its hype.
Backing to the entryway doors, she scanned the room. Intricate rockwork twin fireplaces bordered the space, with a wall of windows on the far end. Two massive chandeliers her father had crafted from iron wagon wheels nestled among the massive beams framing the wood ceiling.
Exactly the way it had looked in pictures of her parents’ original reception. Perfect. Only better, since all the current furnishings and decor had come from her family’s handcrafted log furniture store.
The door from the foyer opened. Spicy cologne filled her space. The same scent that had haunted her dreams for six years.
More like her recurring nightmare. She could feel him right behind her now. She drew in a calming breath, turned around.
Not one smart-aleck word surfaced. Probably best. Smart-aleck and Christian attitude didn’t compute. So he’d finagled his way into her heart. Told her she was the only girl for him. Then left her behind, to marry someone else. It was a long time ago. She needed to get over it already.
She forced a smile as her lungs deflated. “I’m surprised you came.”
“I got an invitation.”
“Yes, but—”
“You haven’t seen hide nor hair of me in six years.” He ducked his head. “Dad strong-armed me into coming. Said it was important to your folks.”
He was hatless for once. But his boots, jeans and Western shirt proved he hadn’t changed. He was still a cowboy through and through.
“This place is awesome.” He pointed toward the foyer. “I did those chairs out there.”
“How can you remember?” She’d designed the two cowhide wingbacks on sturdy log frames instead of the usual Queen Ann legs, but hadn’t realized he’d been the crafter.
“I remember all the pieces I build. The same as you probably remember all of your designs.”
She did. And those had been a challenge. When the order had been placed, she hadn’t been sure she could make rustic wingbacks come together. But in the end, it worked. And the second generation owners, neighbors and friends had placed more orders, until only Rusticks Log Furnishings complimented Chasing Eden Dude Ranch.
Silence hung loud and heavy, and turned awkward. He shifted his weight.
“I’m sorry about Felicity.” There, she’d said it. And she was sorry. Why was it so hard for her to say his wife’s name?
His eyes dimmed. He was obviously still grieving her. “Thanks.”
The doors opened. “Heads up.” Devree, her wedding planner, entered the dining room. “I gave the guests a nudge in this direction, so we’re about to be inundated.”
“We’re all set here.” Resa sidestepped Colson, but he chose the same direction and she smacked into him. It was like running into a brick wall.
“Whoa.” His breath fanned her forehead.
He was still solid. Her cheeks went hot as she stepped around him and opened the door to the foyer.
Mac beamed at her. “Resa, so good to see you.” Colson’s dad gave her a warm hug.
“You too, Mac. Thank you so much for doing the best man thing again.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.” He was such an honorable man. If only his son was as loyal.
“Please come in,” she called to the guests, gesturing toward the tables. “You’ll find name cards at each place setting and the ushers will help you find your seat.” Her smile felt forced.
Partly because of Colson. But mostly because after the reception, Mom and Dad were leaving and would be gone until Christmas Eve. They were finally taking the time to realize their dream of a Mediterranean cruise. Leaving Resa to oversee Rusticks Log Furnishings and the family ranch.
Alone.
Her gaze landed on her brother. Fun-loving, charming ladies’ man. He didn’t take anything seriously and didn’t have a speck of dependability in him.
Even though Mom had asked him to come home to help run things during their absence, Emmett would probably leave as soon as he took their parents to the airport. At least Resa wouldn’t have to worry about keeping him in line, along with everything else.
Once the reception ended, Colson would leave, too. Then maybe her heartbeat would get back to normal and she could focus on designing furniture and keeping the ranch and the store running smoothly through the Christmas rush.
Just get through this day. Concentrate on Mom and Dad. Not Colson.
*
The reception got under way and Colson tried to blend in. Resa’s mom was radiant as she chatted with guests at the head table.
Colson stiffened, immediately on guard when his gaze landed on Emmett sitting just down from his mom. He hadn’t noticed Resa’s elusive, prodigal brother. Hadn’t expected him to show.
But Cheyenne was safely tucked away at the McCalls’ house with his step-mom. Protected from the one man who could turn her world upside down.
With a yawn, Emmett’s ice-blue eyes scanned every attractive female in the room. Nothing had changed since high school. He was still a playboy who was always in trouble, who left a string of young girls heartbroken. But he wouldn’t get a chance at Cheyenne.
Emmett was the epitome of a spoiled rich kid, while Resa never gave off our-parents-are-loaded vibes. A kind, caring Christian. If only Colson had listened to her in high school when she’d tried to tell him about Jesus.
His life would have been so different.
But he wouldn’t have his little girl. Cheyenne was proof that good things could come out of bad decisions.
“Can you believe Maryann asked Emmett to help me at the store while they’re gone?” his dad whispered.
Colson’s insides tilted. “He’ll be here?”
“I sincerely doubt it. I’m surprised he even showed up for the ceremony. He’ll probably leave as soon as they do.”
Colson couldn’t possibly stay here if Emmett did. No way around it, he’d have to let Dad down.
Seated at the head table, Resa avoided his gaze. Maybe he should have stayed in the truck. Steered clear of Emmett. And her.
But one glimpse of Resa still twisted his insides into a pretzel.
Forget-me-not blue eyes still beautiful despite the hurt he’d put there—turned icy when she looked at him. Her silken inky hair, creamy skin, delicate features always turned heads. Her lacy red dress only highlighted her beauty. Yet she’d never married. Never even dated after him, from what he’d heard through the grapevine.
After what he’d done to her, she probably thought he and all other men were just like her brother. And Colson had purposely let her think it.
His father pushed his plate away. “There was a time when I thought you might marry her.”
Colson’s breath caught. “Who?”
“Who.” Dad chuckled. “That girl you haven’t taken your eyes off of. That spring when you worked at the ranch and y’all dated, I thought it would last.”
“I had to do the right thing.” He’d turned his back on her. “Felicity needed me. And now that she’s gone, I have to focus on Cheyenne.”
“But things are different now. And Cheyenne could use a woman in her life.” Dad patted his knee. “Just because your marriage wasn’t good—just because your mother divorced me—it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give love a chance. Look at them.”
The elder McCalls exchanged a kiss. There was a lifetime of love obvious in their smiles.
But his mother hadn’t only left Dad behind. She’d left Colson. Not because she’d died, but on purpose. One day, she’d thrown him the perfect birthday party. The next day, she ran off with another man. Never looked back, called, sent letters or emails. Nothing.
At the tender age of nine, he’d decided to never love another woman. And he hadn’t. Not even Felicity. Until Resa McCall got to him. Took him to church. Introduced him to Jesus. And by trusting in a man he couldn’t see, he’d learned to trust her. Had fallen for her.
But then his past mistakes had caught up with him. Felicity had dropped her bomb. In doing the right thing, he’d left Resa feeling abandoned, just as he’d felt when his mother had left. Trashed any chance of anything happening with the only girl he’d ever loved. Trashed her heart in the process.
Her gaze met his, then skittered away.
The longing to explain boiled in his gut. To tell her why he’d married Felicity. To share how miserable his marriage had been. To dislodge the distrust he’d imbedded in Resa’s eyes. To make it up to her, the only person he’d ever intentionally hurt. His time working here would be easier if he cleared the air. But if she didn’t hate him anymore, his heart might end up in very dangerous territory.
He had to focus on his daughter. And even though Felicity had lied to him, made his life miserable, she hadn’t deserved to die. He didn’t deserve to be happy and he couldn’t risk Cheyenne’s biological family learning the truth.
Of all the places he needed to avoid, Bandera, Texas, was top of the list. Yet here he was. For the next three weeks until her parents returned. Maybe even the full seven weeks until the ranch foreman could come back to work. Gripping his secret and his heart with both fists.
Silverware clinked on glass as Duncan McCall stood. “I want to thank everyone for coming this weekend. A special thanks goes to our daughter, Resa, for pulling this together, all without letting her mother in on our scheme until our guests started showing up. And our gracious hosts went above and beyond to accommodate our guests and recreate our wedding day.
“Maryann and I have loved catching up with all of our friends over the weekend.” Duncan raised his glass of sparkling cider. “But we’ve long dreamed of going on a cruise. And since our plane leaves in a few hours, I’m afraid we need to get going.”
The four family members stood, did the group hug thing as the guests applauded.
“Maybe you can help Resa clean up,” Dad whispered.
Something squeezed in his chest. Exactly what Colson didn’t want to do. But he might as well get used to it. At least until Christmas Eve, she’d be stuck with him.
“When will you tell her about Juan?”
“After Maryann and Duncan leave.” Dad lowered his voice even more. “If they find out, they’ll cancel their cruise. I’m just glad you can stay and fill in for him. She’ll have a lot on her plate.”
Given a choice, she’d probably take letting one of her inexperienced hands attempt to run the ranch. Do without a foreman rather than work with him. But during this forced nearness between them, maybe keeping her ranch running smoothly would in some small measure make up for the way he’d hurt her six years ago.
Colson just needed to bide his time here, get his head and heart together. Once this gig was over, he could go back to Kingsville. Back where nothing mattered but Cheyenne.
*
“None of your usual antics.” Dad jabbed a finger at Emmett.
Resa loved her brother, but he was so transparent. He’d never step foot in the office or ranch during their absence.
“Who, me?” Emmett raised his hands in surrender, his playful smile oozing charm.
Bringing Emmett home to help had been Mom’s idea. She hoped these three weeks would give him stability, teach him responsibility. But Resa didn’t see it happening. The doubt reflected in Dad’s eyes said he didn’t, either.
“You’re here to lend a hand. Not to flirt. Be a help to your sister, not a hindrance.”
“We’ll be fine.” She gave each of her parents a reassuring hug. “Don’t worry, have fun, and get out of here or you’ll get held up at the airport and miss your flight.”
“Are you certain you’ll be all right? I hate for you to be alone through the Christmas rush.” Mom twirled a strand of Resa’s hair between her fingers. “We should have stopped taking orders months ago to cut your workload while we’re gone.”
“I’m fine. It’s only a few weeks. Juan can handle the ranch, Mac’s got the store. Emmett’s here to help and y’all will be back in time for Christmas.” She tried to sound convincing, and plastered on a smile. “You’ve looked forward to this trip your entire marriage.” She picked up a suitcase, handed it to Dad. “Now go.”
“You’re right.” Dad kissed the top of her head. “You’ve got this, with or without Emmett.”
“Hey.” Emmett glowered. “I came when you called, didn’t I? Don’t I get credit for that?”
“I’ll get a full report when we return.” Dad frowned. “No trifling with our employees. It’s against company policy.”
“If you trust me so little, why did you call me?” The hurt in Emmett’s tone was backed up by his wounded gaze.
But Dad didn’t soften. “Here’s your chance to show me what you got.”
“Stop worrying.” Mom clucked her tongue. “Emmett’s not a kid anymore. He’ll be fine.” She checked her watch. “We really should be going.”
Another round of hugs and Resa managed to hold the tears threatening to spill.
“Your mother made me promise not to check in,” Dad whispered. “But you’ll call if anything goes wrong?”
“I will. But it won’t.”
Mom tugged him out the door.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” Resa murmured to Emmett, just loud enough for him to hear.
“Of course not. You don’t need me hanging around. You got this.”
True. But just once, it would be nice to be able to count on her brother.
“I’ll be back for the Christmas open house this weekend, and then the night before their return.” Emmett followed them out, stashed their suitcases in the trunk of his Ferrari and helped Mom into the backseat.
Standing on the porch, Resa waved until they rounded a curve on the wooded property and were out of sight.
Guests began to disperse and she thanked each one for coming.
As soon as the last one exited, she crossed the lobby to help Landry, her friend and owner of the dude ranch, clean up.
“Resa, we need to talk.”
Mac.
She turned around to face him. There was Colson by his dad’s side.
“It’s business.” Mac gestured to the paneled door by the check-in counter. “Your friend said we could use the office.”
“Sure.” Why include Colson? He hadn’t been involved with the stores in six years. Resisting the urge to suck in a big breath, Resa crossed the foyer. Inside, Juan, the ranch foreman, waited in a nailhead wingback chair.
Mac settled on the leather sofa, with Colson flanking Juan in a matching chair.
“There you are.” The slight Mexican man straightened his left leg out in front of him. He’d always been kind and treated her with fatherly care. But today, his smile was jittery.
“What’s going on?”
“Have a seat.” Mac gestured to the sofa.
Nerves pinging—from Colson’s presence and Juan’s tone—Resa perched on the edge. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
“Just tell me.”
“As you know, I saw my doctor Friday.” Apology was thick in Juan’s voice. “He wants to do a knee replacement.”
Her jaw dropped. Please not until after Christmas. Not now. She couldn’t deal with not having a foreman. Not until Dad was here to fix it.
Stop being selfish. Focus on Juan. “Rest assured, I’ll take care of anything your insurance doesn’t cover.”
“I appreciate that, Miss Resa. It’s terrible timing. I wanted to tell you, but I knew if your folks knew, they’d cancel their trip.”
And they would have. It was just like Juan to know that. To worry about it.
“You just do what you need to do. When is the surgery scheduled?” Her ranch hung on his response.
“My doctor had a cancellation, so he can get me in Thursday. Or I wait for three months.”
Breath clogged in her chest. As in four days away. “I know how much pain you’ve been in. I don’t want you to put this off.”
“I need to go on leave as of now. Doc wants me to take six weeks afterward. I’m so sorry, Miss Resa.”
For a total of seven weeks, starting now. And what if the surgery wasn’t a success? What then?
But she tried not to let her distress show. “We’ll figure it out.”
“I took the liberty of doing that for you.” Juan turned to Colson. “I called Mr. Mac when I got the news.”
And that had what to do with Colson?
“Colson has agreed to fill Juan’s spot until your folks return. And if needed, until Juan can come back.” Mac’s tone was confident. As if all her worries were taken care of.
Colson. In Bandera. At her ranch. For three weeks. Maybe more. Her heart took a nosedive.
This could not be happening. She couldn’t let it.

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