In CHRISTMAS AT CARDWELL RANCH, Tag Cardwell caught Lily McCabe off guard in more ways than one when the two became entwined in a murder mystery. But before they could lose themselves in each other they had to trace a killer. Or risk finding a crime scene under the Christmas tree.
In the holiday favorite KEEPING CHRISTMAS, Chance Walker was the cool-eyed cowboy hired to bring Dixie Bonner, a wild child on the run, home by Christmas. But when the bad guys started to close in, two stubborn souls needed to trust each other if they hoped to survive the season.
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Huge snowflakes drifted down out of a midnight-blue winter sky. Tanner "Tag" Cardwell stopped to turn his face up to the falling snow. It had been so long since he'd been anywhere that it snowed like this.
Christmas lights twinkled in all the windows of the businesses of Big Sky's Meadow Village, and he could hear "White Christmas" playing in one of the ski shops.
But it was a different kind of music that called to him tonight as he walked through the snow to the Canyon Bar.
Shoving open the door, he felt a wave of warmth hit him, along with the smell of beer and the familiar sound of country music.
He smiled as the band broke into an old country-and-western song, one he'd learned at his father's knee. Tag let the door close behind him on the winter night and shook snow from his new ski jacket as he looked around. He'd had to buy the coat because for the past twenty-one years, he'd been living down South.
Friday night just days from Christmas in Big Sky, Montana, the bar was packed with a mix of locals, skiers, snowmobilers and cowboys. There'd be a fight for sure before the night was over. He planned to be long gone before then, though.
His gaze returned to the raised platform where the band, Canyon Cowboys, was playing. He played a little guitar himself, but he'd never been as good as his father, he thought as he watched Harlan Cardwell pick and strum to the music. His uncle, Angus Cardwell, was no slouch, either.
Tag had always loved listening to them play together when he was a kid. Music was in their blood. That and bars. As a kid, he'd fallen asleep many weekend nights in a bar in this canyon listening to his father play guitar. It was one of the reasons his mother had gathered up her five sons, divorced Harlan and taken her brood off to Texas to be raised in the Lone Star State.
Tag and his brothers had been angry with their dad for not fighting for them. As they'd gotten older, they'd realized their mother had done them a favor. Harlan knew nothing about raising kids. He was an easygoing cowboy who only came alive when you handed him a guitaror a beer.
Still, as Tag watched his father launch into another song, he realized how much he'd missed himand Montana. Had Harlan missed him, as well? Doubtful, Tag thought, remembering the reception he'd gotten when he'd knocked at his father's cabin door this morning.
"What are you doing here?" his father had asked, moving a little to block his view of the interior of the cabin.
"It's Christmas. I wanted to spend it with you."
Harlan couldn't have looked any more shocked by thator upset.
Tag realized that surprising his father had been a mistake. "If this is a bad time "
His father quickly shook his head, still blocking the door, though. "No, it's just that well, you know, the cabin is a mess. If you give me a little while "
Tag peered past him and lowered his voice. "If you have someone staying here"
"No, no, it's nothing like that."
But behind his father, Tag had spotted a leather jacket, female size, on the arm of the couch. "No problem. I thought I'd go see my cousin Dana. I'll come back later. Actually, if you want, I could get a motel"
"No. Stay here. Bring your stuff back later. I'll have the spare room made up for you. Your uncle and I are playing tonight at the Canyon."
"Great. I'll stop by. I haven't heard you play in a long time. It'll be nice."
Tag had left, but he was still curious about his father's female visitor. He knew nothing about his father's life. Harlan could have a girlfriend. It wasn't that unusual for a good-looking man in his fifties.
Tag tried not to let Harlan's reaction to him showing up unexpectedly bother him. Determined to enjoy the holiday here, he had made plans tomorrow to go Christmas tree hunting with his Montana cousin Dana Cardwell. He'd missed his cousins and had fond memories of winter in Montana, sledding, skiing, ice-skating, starting snowball fights and cutting their own Christmas trees. He looked forward to seeing his cousins Jordan and Stacy, as well. Clay was still in California helping make movies last he'd heard, but Dana had said he was flying in Christmas Eve.
Tag planned to do all the things he had done as a boy this Christmas. Not that he could ever bring back those family holidays he remembered. For starters, his four brothers were all still in Texas. The five of them had started a barbecue joint, which had grown into a chain called Texas Boys Barbecue.
He would miss his brothers and mother this Christmas, but he was glad to have this time with his cousins and his dad. As the band wound up one song and quickly broke into another, he finished his beer. He'd see his father back at the cabin. Earlier, he'd returned to find the woman's leather jacket he'd seen on the couch long gone.
Harlan had been getting ready for his gig tonight, so they hadn't had much time to visit. But the spare room had been made up, so Tag had settled in. He hoped to spend some time with his father, though. Maybe tomorrow after he came back from Christmas tree hunting.
As he started to turn to leave, a blonde smelling of alcohol stumbled into him. Tag caught her as she clung to his ski jacket for support. She was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Not one of the skiers or snowmobilers who were duded out in the latest high-tech, cold-weather gear.
"Sorry," she said, slurring her speech.
"Are you all right?" he asked as she clung to his jacket for a moment before gathering her feet under her.
"Fine." She didn't look fine at all. Clearly, she'd had way too much to drink. "You look like him."
Tag laughed. Clearly, the woman also didn't know what she was saying.
She lurched away from him and out the back door.
He couldn't believe with it snowing so hard that she'd gone outside without a coat. Hesitating only a moment, he went out after her. He was afraid she might be planning to drive herself home. Or that she had been hurrying outside because she was going to be sick. He didn't want her passing out in a snowdrift and dying of hypothermia.
Montana was nothing like where he lived in Texas. Winter in Montana could be dangerous. With this winter storm, the temperatures had dropped. There were already a couple of feet of snow out the back door of the bar before this latest snowfall. He could see that a good six inches of new snow had fallen since he'd arrived in town.
He spotted the woman's tracks in the snow just outside the door. As he stepped out to look for her, he saw her through the falling snow. A man wearing a cowboy hat was helping her into his pickup. She appeared to be arguing with him as he poured her into the passenger seat and slammed the door. The man glanced in Tag's direction for a moment before he climbed behind the wheel and the two drove off.
"Where did she go?"
He turned to find a slim brunette behind him. "Where did who go?"
"Mia." At his blank expression, she added, "The blond woman wearing a T-shirt like the one I have on."
He glanced at her T-shirt and doubted any woman could wear it quite the way this one did. The letters THE CANYON were printed across her full breasts with the word bar in smaller print beneath it. He realized belatedly that the woman who'd bumped into him had been wearing the same T-shirtlike the other servers here in the bar.
"I did see her," he said. "She stumbled into me, then went rushing out this door."
"Unbelievable," the brunette said with a shake of her head. Her hair was chin length, thick and dark. It framed a face that could only be described as adorable. "She didn't finish her shift again tonight."
"She wasn't in any shape to continue her shift," he said. "She could barely stand up she was so drunk."
For the first time, the brunette met his gaze. "Mia might have had one drink because a customer insisted, but there is no way she was drunk. I saw her ten minutes ago and she was fine."
He shrugged. "I saw her two minutes ago and she was falling-down drunk. She didn't even bother with her coat."
"And you let her leave like that?"
"Apparently her boyfriend or husband was waiting for her. The cowboy poured her into the passenger seat of his pickup and they left."
"She doesn't have a boyfriend or a husband."
"Well, she left with some man wearing a Western hat. That's all I can tell you." He remembered that the blonde had been arguing with the man and felt a sliver of unease embed itself under his skin. Still, he told himself, he'd had the distinct feeling that she'd known the man. Nor had the cowboy acted odd when he'd looked in Tag's direction before leaving.
"Lily!" the male bartender called. The brunette gave another disgusted shake of her head, this one directed at Tag, before she took off back into the bar.
He watched her, enjoying the angry swing of her hips. Then he headed for his father's cabin, tired after flying all the way from Texas today. But he couldn't help thinking of the brunette and smiling to himself. He'd always been a sucker for a woman with an attitude.
Lily McCabe closed the front door of the Canyon Bar behind the last customer, locked it and leaned against the solid wood for a moment. What a night.
"Nice job," Ace said as he began cleaning behind the bar. "Where the devil did Mia take off to?"
Lily shook her head. It was the second night in a row that Mia had disappeared. What made it odd was that she'd been so reliable for the three weeks she'd been employed at the Canyon. It was hard to get good help. Mia Duncan was one of the good ones.
"It's weird," Lily said as she grabbed a tray to clear off the tables. In the far back, the other two servers were already at work doing the same thing. "The man who saw her take off out the back door? He claimed she was drunk.''''
James "Ace" McCabe stopped what he was doing to stare at her. "Mia, drunk?"
Lily shrugged as she thought of the dark-haired cowboy with the Texas accent. Men like him were too good-looking to start with. Add a Southern drawl "That's what he said. I believe his exact words were 'falling-down drunk,'" she mimicked in his Texas accent. "Doesn't sound like Mia, does it? Plus, I talked to her not ten minutes before. She was fine. He must have been mistaken."
Admittedly, she knew Mia hardly at all. The young woman wasn't from Big Sky. But then most people in the Gallatin Canyon right now weren't locals. Ski season brought in people from all over the world. Mia had shown up one day looking for a job. One of the servers had just quit and another had broken her leg skiing, so James had hired Mia on the spot. That was over three weeks ago. Mia had been great. Until last night when she'd left before her shift was overand again tonight.
"Well, tonight was a real zoo," Reggie Olson said as she brought in a tray full of dirty glasses from a table in the back. "The closer it gets to the holidays, the crazier it gets."
Lily couldn't have agreed more. She couldn't wait for Christmas and New Year's to be over so she could get back to her real life.
"Did Mia say anything to either of you?" she asked.
Reggie shook her head.
Teresa Evans didn't seem to hear.
"Teresa," Lily called to the back of the bar. "Did Mia say anything to you tonight before she left?"
Teresa glanced up in surprise at the sound of her name, her mind clearly elsewhere. "Sorry?"
"Someone's tired," Ace said with a laugh.
"More likely she's thinking about her boyfriend waiting for her outside in his pickup," Reggie joked.
Teresa looked flustered. "I guess I am tired," she said. "Mia?" She shook her head. "She didn't say anything to me."
That, too, was odd since Teresa was as close to a friend as Mia had made in the weeks she'd worked at the bar. Lily noticed how distracted the server was and wanted to ask her if everything was all right. But her brother was their boss, not she. His approach during her short-term employment here was not to get involved in his employees' dramas. Probably wise since once the holiday was over, she would be going back to what she considered her "real" life.
"Maybe you should give Mia a call," Lily suggested.
Her brother gave her one of his patient smiles, looked up Mia's number and dialed it. "She's not home," he said after he listened for a few moments. "And I don't have a cell phone number for her."
"If she left with some cowboy, she must have a boyfriend we haven't heard about," Reggie said. "He's probably the reason she was drinking, too," she added with a laugh. "Men. Can't live with them. Can't shoot them."
Ace laughed. "Reggie's right. Go ahead and go on home, sis," he said when she brought up a tray of dirty glasses. "The three of us can finish up here. And thanks again for helping out."
She'd agreed to help her brother over Christmas and New Year's, and had done so for the past few. Since it was just the two of them, their parents gone, it was as close as they got to a family holiday together. The bar was her brother's only source of income, and with this being his busiest time of the year, he had to have all the help he could get.
Ace had learned a long time ago that if he didn't work his own place, he lost money. With Lily helping, he didn't have to hire another server. She didn't need the money since her "day" job paid very well and working at the Canyon gave her a chance to spend time with the brother she adored.
"I am going to call it a night," Lily said, dumping her tips into the communal tip jar at the bar. Her Big Sky home was a house she'd purchased back up the mountain tucked in the pines about five miles from the barand civilization. The house had been an investment. Not that she could have stayed with her brother since he lived in the very small apartment over the bar. Christmas would be spent at her house, as it was every year.
When she'd bought the house, she'd thought Ace would move in since her real home and work was forty miles away in Bozeman. But her brother had only laughed and said he was much happier living over the bar in the apartment.
Lily loved the house because of its isolation at the end of a road with no close neighborsthe exact reason Ace would have hated living there. Her brother loved to be around people. He liked the noise and commotion that came with owning a bar in Big Sky, Montana.
But as much as she yearned to go to her quiet house, she couldn't yet. She wanted to make sure Mia made it home all right. Mia lived in an expensive condo her parents owned partway up the mountain toward Big Sky Resort.