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Cowboy Fever Series, Book 1: Wings of Love by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)

Cowboy Fever Series, Book 1: Wings of Love by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)
 
(1 reviews)  

When Wings "Mac" Mackenzie falls in love, it's for life, and interior designer Amanda Grant is the woman he has his heart set on. When he asked her to move in with him at his fixer-upper ranch in Fever, Texas--the dinky little cattle town he and his brother grew up in--he'd expected to be there with her often. Unfortunately, as co-owner of a family-owned engineering firm, Mac finds himself spending more time than ever overseeing projects after his younger brother becomes a family man. With Amanda making the house a home for them, he struggles to get his business matters in hand so he can settle down with her, the way he longs to. An on-the-job injury puts his life in perspective. Eager to become a full-time rancher, he returns home at Christmas-time, ready to make the ultimate commitment to Amanda--only to find her long gone.

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Cowboy Fever Series, Book 1: Wings of Love by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)
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1 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Karen Wiesner
Nov 5, 2015
5 Stars! “Karen Wiesner has written this story in such a way that I sympathize with both of their plights. I cannot help but wonder if I would have done anything differently. This is what I call a “feel good” story. If this is a taste of what is to come, than I look forward to the rest of the stories in this series. I am left with a warm feeling and the belief that miracles are possible.” ~ Huntress Reviews
4 1/2 Stars! “This story--just in time for the holidays--is a true gift. The Christmas story will warm your heart and you’ll be looking forward to all the holiday cheer, family, friends, love and celebration. These stories offer a beautiful mixture of romance, fun, inspiration, love and miracles. Wiesner’s Wings of Love is cowboy all the way when Mac Mackenzie falls in love for the third time with the same interior designer who’s fixing up his ranch.” ~RT Book Reviews
“This was a neat short novella with sentiment from the past, sadness, long lost love, with a feel of a throwback relationship. I loved the secondary characters, especially Mama May, Maggie May, and Shell. They made this novella three-dimensional. The characters were endearing, and I grew fond of them.” ~A Bookish Escape Blog
4 Books! “The author does a very good job of describing the scene the story is set in. The story is short but reads well and has enough detail to flesh the story out. Wings in Love was a fun read. This story doesn’t disappoint.” ~Long and Short Romance Reviews
4 Stars! “I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I was rooting for the guy to get their girl. It brought joy to my heart and a smile to my face. I find it the perfect Christmas gem.” ~Readers Favorite
4 Stars! “This is a very sweet story of love and the fear to love. The journey that Amanda and Wings take to come to terms with their pasts comes through well. I felt their conflicting emotions and confusion on how to interpret each other’s words. I was surprised that I got to know the main characters so well and got as invested as I did in the outcome for the length of the story. I recommend this to anyone of all ages who like cowboys and sweet love.” ~Darker Passions Reviews
“Exciting. An enjoyable Christmas contributing a warm family drama starring fully developed protagonists.” ~Mainstream Fiction Blog
“Wings of Love is an enjoyable read. It is a heartwarming holiday story with an incredibly sweet ending that will leave readers eagerly anticipating the next installment.” ~The Readers Round Table
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Wednesday, December 23
Six p.m. (Eastern time)

"I'll be back in a minute," Wings "Mac" Mackenzie told his assistant and protégé.

"Gotta call the little woman?" James teased him, knowing his schedule sometimes better than Mac did himself. Most of the crew had gone on dinner break. He figured he had time to make this call.

Mac offered James a tense grin. Calling Mandy was always a big deal. He called her once a week, always on Tuesday--five p.m. her time, six p.m. his--and those short conversations had a full week's worth of gnawing worry behind them. One false move...and he'd spook the love of his life, maybe for good.

Outside, he noticed that the temperature, if anything, was getting warmer. He wasn't sure how Floridians got used to this weather in December. It was warm, the sun determinedly emitting bright sunshine before evening fell. There was no feeling of Christmas only two days away. He'd grown up in the Panhandle, where the weather this time of year could be mild, sometimes cold, occasionally blasted with a blizzard. This summer climate was ridiculous. Absolutely nothing about the weather, the place, the season resembled the Christmases he'd grown accustomed to. Christmas with my Mandy... I wanted that more than anything this year. Damn that there's no way it'll happen.

He walked out to the job site, clapping on a hard hat as he got out his cell phone, his mind carefully plotting his opening words. He'd wanted this project to be finished by now--wishful thinking, he'd always been aware. Three months ago, he'd fallen under Amanda Grant's spell for what seemed like the umpteenth time. For once, the timing had worked out for both of them. Unfortunately, within days of the start of their whirlwind love affair, one of the wastewater treatment plant projects his engineering firm was upgrading ran into problems only he could correct. Because he'd had no other choice, he'd rushed to the centrally-located city in Florida.

He and his brother Kiowa co-owned Mackenzie Environment & Infrastructure, a business they'd built together from the ground up after college. Their successful engineering firm went further than most companies did. They understood what the wastewater treatment plants needed from start to finish. They were deeply involved in not only designing and upgrading, but in building from scratch. For years, the bachelor brothers had traveled all over the United States, spending a few months--more, if there were problems--overseeing the physical culmination of their extensive planning.

Mac came from a long line of hard workers. He worked his crew hard as well, but he never failed to reward them generously. In the past, he'd always given them major holidays off, but this particular client... He snorted. Heard that I can work miracles with timelines and won't let up until this job is done. Unfortunately, it means my crew's working through Christmas, nose to the grindstone, and I don't take time off unless they do, too.

In the time he'd been on site, Mac had been aggressively grooming James to take over the business so he could retire early to the small ranch he'd purchased more than a year ago. Getting together with Mandy... Yeah, she'd solidified his desire to take a backseat role in the business he and Ki built so he could raise horses in the dinky cattle town they'd grown up in. With Mandy there by his side, the rest of his life was shaping up just about perfectly. But experience had taught him things never worked out the way he wanted them to. He chalked it up to his inability to fathom modern women. They were unpredictable, overly sensitive, and an insane mix of needy and hands-off-buster independence. What I wouldn't give for an old-fashioned woman like my mother. And Mandy seems to fit the bill in ways I've only imagined. But ultimately, she's as much of a career girl as Linnet and Yvonne. If I move too fast, she'll bolt just like they did.

The irony was that, once upon a time, he'd been engaged to a woman more old-fashioned than himself. Barbara had wanted to graduate high school, get married and start having a passel of children immediately. Mac had been young, unwilling to settle down so quickly. "Let me get through college," he'd said over and over. "Then we'll make this permanent." But Barbara had been killed in a car accident before Mac could make her dreams come true.

For the next four years, he'd grieved over his own choices. Finally, he'd gotten on with his life and started dating a woman who was the opposite of Barbara. Linnet had been all about her career and making her way up the corporate ladder. He'd assumed she'd want to get to serious as fast as Barbara had, but she'd freaked out the very first time he suggested they get married--since they were living together. She'd been gone before he could utter another word...and he'd let her go.

Months passed and he met Yvonne, who was much like Linnet--young, on the fast track to making her travel agency successful. He'd learned a lesson, or so he'd thought. Waited a good year before he'd expressed the slightest interest in a commitment. Yet he'd never forgotten the argument he and Yvonne had had--"I can't bear the way you're always trying to tie me down. I have no desire to get pregnant and parade barefoot around the house all day, waiting until you get home so I can serve you dinner. Maybe someday I will have children--but only after my career takes off. You're a Neanderthal, Mac. Face it. I can't be with someone who's not willing to accept what we have and be satisfied with it."

She took off, too, and Mac thought only once about going after her. All it took was the memory of Yvonne's parting words to tell him that he'd once more set his heart on the wrong woman. Like he had with Linnet, he'd packed up Yvonne's things and sent them to her without so much as a note enclosed with the boxes.

In fifteen years, he'd met only one woman who made him want to try again. Amanda Grant. Mac knew her through her father, Pierce, who was also in the contract wastewater treatment operations field. They'd worked together often, whenever their interests merged. For twelve years, he and Mandy had met up at one social function or another that he'd attended at the invitation of her father. Each time, one or both of them had been involved with or dating someone else. Each time, Mac had wished they were both free.

He hadn't even thought about his loneliness until a few years ago, when his younger brother settled down, became a consultant in the business, and devoted himself to his growing family. Mac had realized what he was missing--missing almost to the point of agony.

And then his eyes locked with Amanda Grant's whiskey brown beauties. For the first time ever, neither of them had had a date at her father's shindig. Neither held any attachments at all, in fact. Finally, he'd been free to pursue a woman who'd fascinated him from the very first time they met. Everything about her intrigued him. Not simply her breathtaking, classic, sophisticated beauty, but her heart. Her kindness and sweetness and generosity... In a million amazing ways, she was a woman without compare. Though he'd spent only a short amount of time with her since they'd gotten together three months ago, there was no way he would screw this one up by moving too fast or saying the wrong, stupid thing at the worst possible time. Because, the fact of the matter was, Amanda's wildly successful career mattered to her immensely. And why wouldn't it? She made a difference with everything she did. Mac had told himself that her career was just one facet to her personality, one that only made her more appealing. Besides, she was firmly established the way the other women he'd gotten involved with hadn't been. He wouldn't let the past ruin this for him. And that meant he had to move slowly so he wouldn't spook her into bolting.

If only he knew what the hell he was doing. What I wouldn't give just to be myself. Tell her the truth. "From the minute I laid eyes on you, lady, I wanted to permanently hogtie you next to me so you could never get away. Seeing you with other men... I didn't like it. I wanted you all for myself."

Yeah, that would go over big with his charming little millionairess. Instead of asking her to marry him, he'd asked her to move into the ranch house with him and fix it up the way only she could. Rather than calling her every day, more than once a day, the way he really wanted to, he called her once a week. He told her he "cared for her" instead of the truth--that he was so madly, insanely in love with her, he hadn't been himself for three months. Maybe he hadn't been himself since they met when he was twenty-nine. He'd lost his head, his heart, his will to live without her.

But he had to be careful with Mandy. She was everything he'd ever wanted in a woman, and the thought of losing her terrified him the way that phone call about Barbara's abrupt death had when he was only twenty. Play it cool. Don't scare her off. Don't go overboard. Monitor every word so she can never accuse you of smothering her, trying to take away her independence or her career. I never intended that before, but both women I foolishly got involved with assumed that was my goal.

Mac took a deep breath once he'd called up the landline number of his ranch and pressed the dial button on his cell. While he waited, he drew out the old-fashioned wedding band his mother had passed down to him, saying that someday he would know who to give this ring to. The time would be right, and the woman would be the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Mac had been carrying the thing around with him since the day he'd brought Mandy home to the ranch with him. He'd wanted to give it to her, but he hadn't dared.

Ah, Mandy, my love. All I wanna do is grab you and beg you to give yourself to me. But once you do, remember, you're mine for life. I'll love you and cherish you until my dying day. More so than any other woman, Mandy brought out all his most tender, protective, loving emotions.

"You're a Neanderthal, Mac. Face it."

"Mackenzie Ranch. Merry Christmas!" Mandy's sweet, cultured voice filled his ear and consumed his heart and chest with obscene joy.

Mac chuckled. Ah, Red, I miss you so damn much. "Hey, guess you're gettin' more Christmas spirit over there than I am over here."

"Wings," she murmured, her tone soft and intimate, the way it was when they made love. Only she'd ever called him by his first name. Only she could make him feel proud of such a ridiculous name.

Keep it impersonal, if you can. "Did you get my flowers and chocolates?" He sent both once a week, to coincide with his phone call.

"Yes. You spoil me, but I love it. I wish you could come home for the holidays. You should see the tree Maggie May and I are putting up."

Anything Mandy decorated would be astounding. As an interior designer, she had the best taste. Asking her to renovate the ranch had mostly been a way to get her to come home with him, but he knew everything she did would be exactly what he'd always envisioned for his home. "Is the house ready? Won't be long before I can move in and become a ranch mogul." He kept his words light, teasing.

She paused and her response was decidedly cooler, maybe even confused. He felt himself sinking rapidly. What the rest of the conversation entailed flew straight over his head. Quickly, he wrapped up the call, knowing he'd made a mess of everything but not in the least bit sure what he'd said or done wrong.

While these conversations were generally short and nowhere near as intimate as he would have liked, he'd never had one go rotten so fast before. The tone of her voice was completely off, no longer hushed and inviting. In the background, he heard her stupid little dog yipping like crazy. Mac said he'd call her next week and got the hell off the phone.

Idiot. He stood glaring at his cell, his mind too crazed to try to figure out where exactly he'd gone amiss. Did she go cool when I talked about moving into the ranch? Why? Because it felt like too much commitment for her? Like I was about to ask her to give up her career?

He was so immersed in his disappointment, in kicking his own ass, only the combined shouts from a half dozen of his workers made him whirl around to see them waving frantically at him. He couldn't fathom what they meant until the foreman yelled, "Look out, Mac! It's comin' down!" while pointing above him.

Mac looked up just in time to see a steel sludge collector shaft dangling off the arm of the crane. A quarter of a ton, falling. Heading right for him...

* * * *

Five p.m. (Central time)

"I wish it would snow," Amanda Grant said on a sigh, turning her attention out the large windows that overlooked the large turn-around area in front the ranch. At the moment, the weather in Fever, Texas could be considered cool--more like autumn weather than winter. "I miss snow. Back in Wisconsin, it would have already snowed quite a few times before Christmas. How can it be Christmas without snow?"

"I declare, we got a love-hate relationship with snow down here, sug, but, when it hits, it's like a stampede--hard and fast, and, 'fore you know it, you're done snowed under."

"But it doesn't last long," Amanda guessed, forever adoring Maggie's Southern twang and drawl when she called her "sugar" or just "sug".

"Sometimes does. Sometimes doesn't."

The rumors she'd heard about Maggie May were all apt--and exaggerated. The "lovably horny, sheltered cowgirl always in trouble with the cowboys--always forcing her daddy to run off the source of trouble" had long, wavy hair with a tiny, curvaceous body and a chest big enough to rival a Playboy bunny's. She tucked herself into skin-tight jeans and low-cut blouses that made jaws drop. Men couldn't help being drawn to her, but, since she'd given birth to her son Tex a little less than two years ago, her life revolved around him almost exclusively. She still hadn't told anyone, including Amanda, who the father was. In the reputed only instance of her life, she was keeping her mouth shut tight on that point.

Maggie May carefully attached a Christmas card to the ten foot flocked Alaskan artificial tree with clear lights that Amanda had set up in the living room. She'd found a box of old-fashioned Christmas cards in the only antique shop in Fever. The card pattern showed a bejeweled Christmas tree set in burgundy and red. After removing the backs, she'd punched holes all along the edges and threaded green and silver ribbons through the holes, creating hangers so the cards could be put on the tree.

"Those cards shorely are cute," Maggie's May's mama said, coming into the living room with another of Amanda's friends, Keri Woods-Lewis. Mama May and Keri had insisted on cleaning up after the dinner Amanda served them.

Amanda and Keri had actually known each other back in Wisconsin but only in passing. Marriage to a cowboy had brought Keri to Texas. When Amanda met up with her a few months ago, they'd bonded like glue. "You got real style, Amanda."

Maggie May and Keri both added their praise.

"But, unfortunately, Joshua's expecting me," Keri said.

"And I got another head to do tonight," Mama May said, gathering her massive, mobile haircutting and styling kit.

Amanda set down her cards and walked over to give them both kisses and hugs--something she hadn't expected to participate in when she'd moved here. Where she came from, only relatives greeted and left each other's company with physical affection. Here, from the first time she'd met them, the women were always kissing and hugging while the men kept their distance and rarely said boo. Strange as it'd been to Amanda at first, she'd come to consider these down-to-earth people her closest friends. She adored them passionately and they'd made her feel she belonged in their circle. All four of the neighboring ranches--the Lewis, Triple Aces, May, and Sanford ranches--and the forthcoming Mackenzie Ranch, were what they considered "cooperative". They shared work and play all year round. These were people who worked as hard as they loved, and they could always be counted on.

Fever, Texas was at least an hour from any city of consequence. Considered to be at the center of the South Plains, Fever was located between the Permian Basin to the south and the Texas Panhandle to the north. What little "town" there was to speak of amounted to a gas station with basic groceries, a variety of cattle and horse ranch businesses that sold feed and such, a single school that taught first grade through twelfth, a diner, the antique shop--and a tavern--"watering hole"--that was well-frequented.

After Amanda showed the two women out of the house, she came back to find Maggie watching her twenty-two month old on his knees before Amanda's pooch, Pip-Pip, pretending to be a dog, too. Mimicking Pip's chew bone, Tex had one of his own toys in his mouth.

"He shorely loves that dog of yours, sug. What is it again?"

"Papillon breed. Some people call it a Continental Toy Spaniel." At eight pounds, eight inches, Pip had a small, tapered head and copper patches in his thick, white fur. His face was utterly adorable with the distinctive "drop" butterfly ears. He was always gentle with Tex, who loved to romp and cuddle him.

"Never seen anythin' like it. But then you're pure sophistication, sug. Even your dog fits ya."

Amanda laughed out loud. She pressed the button on the CD player to re-set the Christmas music they were listening to, then once again picked up the stack of Christmas card decorations.

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening..." she sang under her breath. Against her will, her gaze moved to the clock. Four-fifty-six.

Maggie caught the direction of her glance and said, "Mac callin' tonight, sug? I see he sent his usual two dozen roses."

"I told him when we met that I don't consider a house truly designed unless there are fresh flowers inside," Amanda murmured. "I guess he took it to heart."

When Wings had asked her to decorate his fixer-upper ranch in Fever, Texas--where he was planning to move permanently in a year or two, after his small horse ranch was built and set up--she'd instinctively said she would need to see it first. He'd agreed immediately. While they'd met up several times over the years, in the past it'd always been at one of her father's client parties. This time, they'd met at the party his brother and wife had thrown in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the couple and Amanda lived and worked. Amanda had just finished decorating the nursery for the birth of their third child, and the party had been the unveiling of her work.

She'd been secretly attracted to Wings the instant she laid eyes on him when she was twenty. He'd known her father through business, and Daddy had been the one to introduce them. Unfortunately, she'd been with Richard that time, expecting to be married soon. The next time they saw each other, she'd been twenty-five and still not married--and unknowingly, just about to get cruelly dumped for the first time. About once a year for the next five years, she and Wings had become reacquainted. Each time, she'd found herself thinking wildly strange thoughts. Wishing he hadn't come with a date, wishing I hadn't been in a committed relationship. The ease she'd experienced in talking to him, the way he'd looked at her... No other man had ever made her feel so wanted. She'd told herself it was silly to feel like she could fall in love with him or any other man within minutes, only for them to separate and forget each other again until the next meeting. The timing had never been right for them. She'd never expected them to get it right either. But, almost three months ago, serendipity had kissed them both.

When they arrived at his ranch only a day after his brother's party... Okay, so maybe it was my fault things happened so fast between us. I'm always like a kid with five dollars in my pocket--a fortune that'll be taken away if I don't spend it immediately. She just hadn't expected to spend six of the most glorious days and nights of her life with the most perfect man in the world for her and then have it end so abruptly. A project his company was working on had gone awry, the problems needed to be fixed immediately, and his presence had been required on-site. That had been almost three months ago. He hadn't been back to the ranch since, though he'd unsatisfactorily called once a week and sent weekly flowers and gifts.

Not sure what else to do, she'd started work on the run-down ranch house. In part, the lack of decent shopping--and mailing services--had contributed to the lengthy stretch of time she'd taken with this particular renovation. But the biggest reason came down to tweaking, obsessing, stalling, waiting for him to come back and prove he wanted her to stay with him, indefinitely.

In the quiet and solitude of living in an area known for wide-open spaces, however, she'd started to doubt herself, doubt the feelings she'd taken for granted Wings also felt for her. Their reacquainting almost three months ago had seemed so fated. The attraction between them had been instantaneous and rampant, the way it usually was, but this time, finally, there'd been nothing to hold either of them back. No, he'd never said he loved her. Never said he wanted her to be here with him longer than it took for her to redecorate the place. He'd never said anything to encourage her as far as she'd already gone with him in her mind.

Along with her laborious decorating, she'd combated her insecurities by getting to know Wings' foreman, Don Shelley, who lived out in the old bunkhouse. Wings said that Shell had been his father's best friend when his parents were alive. Shell was overseeing the building and renovation of the rest of the ranch. Construction crews had been out near every day since Wings left, building the horse barn and everything else needed to run a small horse ranch. Shell had become like a grandfather and she couldn't help doting on him. But she'd also gone out to the cooperative ranches and introduced herself, saying only that she was the interior decorator working on Wings Mackenzie's house. Every single one of them had welcomed her as if she was Wings' wife. That alone had helped her comfort level skyrocket. She'd put her heart and soul in designing a home Wings would love to be in--one they would both love sharing.

Only sometimes the doubt would creep back in, no matter how she tried to forestall it. The worst doubts came when Wings' called her. How could a man be so infuriatingly silent and yet manage to create such large hopes inside her?

By the time the phone rang, she was nothing short of frazzled, trying to hide her state in singing Christmas carols that did nothing to lift her spirits. With Pip barking like mad the way he did at the slightest sudden noise, she picked up the receiver and said with more enthusiasm than she felt, "Mackenzie Ranch. Merry Christmas!"

Mac chuckled, and her heart squeezed tightly at the sound of his deep, tender and sexy voice. "Hey, guess you're gettin' more Christmas spirit over there than I am over here."

"Wings," she murmured, praying he would tell her he loved and missed her. Just once. Okay, so maybe that could never be enough.

"Did you get my flowers and chocolates?"

"Yes. You spoil me, but I love it. Oh, Wings, I wish you could come home for the holidays. You should see the tree Maggie May and I are putting up."

"I wish I could come home, too."

His pause made her tense, eagerly anticipating some intimacy that would convince her for good this time that he loved her as much as she loved him.

"Is the house ready? Won't be long before I can move in and become a ranch mogul."

For a long minute, Amanda replayed the light-hearted words over and over in her head, unable to believe he'd spoken them. The house? He wanted to know if she was done decorating his house? How coldly impersonal could he get? He might as well have said "Are you done decorating so I can move in soon?"

Flushed, Amanda told him what he seemed to want to hear. The house was done. She barely heard the rest of what he said, barely responded to his conversation. Hanging up was a relief she could never have believed.

"What is it, sug?" Maggie asked in surprise.

Amanda sank down on the butter-soft leather sofa. "I can't believe he said that. Can't believe he asked that."

"What?"

"He asked if the house was done so he could move in."

Maggie seemed to understand without another word. "You haven't said much about you and Mac, sug, but I know love when I see it. You're bat-poopy in love with the guy."

Amanda's face flamed. "I'm not so sure it's returned."

"Oh, I don't know about that. I know Mac pretty well. His work comes first, always has. It's what's kept him away from Fever all these years. But he's a good guy. He really is, sug. He's not a love 'em and leave 'em type. Not like Tex's daddy."

"You've never talked about him before," Amanda said in her distress.

"Not much to tell. Easy to love, hard to hold. You know the type."

Amanda nodded. "Did you know...Barbara?"

Obviously intrigued, Maggie lifted one silken eyebrow. "'Fact that you know 'bout her, sug, tells me Mac does have feelin's for ya. He doesn't talk 'bout Barbie too often."

Wings had told her about his childhood sweetheart after the first time they made love. She'd never been quite sure why. "She was his first love. She died. Maybe he'll never get over her."

"I agree he probably has a lotta regrets there--she wanted to get married and start a family. He didn't. Not yet." Maggie shook her head. "I know he hurt your feelin's, askin' that about the house, but don't do anything yet, Amanda. He's probably just busy. When a man's busy, he's even less likely to say the right things. Ya know?"

Just busy. That was just exactly the point in Amanda's mind. From the time she and Wings had come together again...or for the first time, he'd been busy beyond belief. All day--and night--long during those six days they'd spent together, his protégé had called him, updating him, requiring direction. Wings had never refused the calls. His life was his work. He would never have time to truly settle down, the way he said he wanted to. She no longer believed his claim that he was grooming his assistant to take over his engineering business. I no longer believe he wanted me to move in here permanently, to get it ready for the two of us to live in together. I fooled myself again because my feelings were strong enough for both of us. But he did fool me completely. During the week we spent together, I truly believed our time had come. He did everything right. Since he left, though... Nothing's right. It's time I faced that. That this might be over for him as soon as I finish getting his house ready. In other words, now.

Maggie was looking at her with uncertainty. "Ugh, I need to get Tex home, in a bath and to bed. Call me if you wanna talk, sug, 'kay? Promise?"

Amanda nodded, and Maggie leaned over, enveloping her in a cloud of her perfume, to hug and kiss her. While she gathered her things, Amanda picked up Tex and he gave her his sweet, miniature cowboy kisses.

After her friend left, she worked mechanically to finish decorating the tree. She'd hoped Wings would come home even for a few hours and he could put the star at the top--not that he'd ever given her any indication he might. As she decorated, her mind connected dots she hadn't been willing to let herself make before. Every single one of their conversations could be traced back to a single origin, a single intent on his part. He'd hired her to decorate his house. Allowed her to live here while she completed the task. And now...now that it's done...he's also done diddling his employee.

Fire blazed in her cheeks. How was it she'd never considered he wasn't in love with her? How could she have missed that he'd found her attractive--and convenient? Now that she recalled the past, she realized she'd never seen him with the same woman twice. He'd brought a new date to every party. And never remembered her name by the next time Amanda saw him and asked about "his friend".

Oh, Lord, I need to get out of here. I refuse to allow myself to be used even one more time, even if I so enjoyed being "used" by Wings.

Burning with her humiliation, Amanda grabbed the cell phone out of her purse and contacted the airport. She arranged to have her private jet waiting to take her back to her home in La Crosse later that evening. That done, she got out her half dozen luggage cases and started packing. While working steadily, she saw the sweater she hadn't gotten a chance to wrap yet. She'd never knitted anything beyond a square before, but she'd remembered her grandmother trying to teach her. After re-doing every stitch about ten times, she'd finished the reindeer sweater in gold and burgundy, like his hair. I was looking forward to seeing him wear it.

Swallowing her broken dreams, she threw the sweater in the small trashcan on his side of the bed. She changed into her cleaning clothes and did a final polish of the house from top to bottom. She wouldn't allow herself to cry. She'd worked so hard, hoping he would come home for Christmas. She'd even let herself believe he would give her the best gift ever and ask her to stay with him here for the rest of their lives.

Fool. You've made a home here. Who told you to get so darn comfortable?

After a quick shower, she changed into comfortable traveling clothes and pulled on her coat. After loading her trunk, she went out to the horse barn. Shell was there, tending to the few horses Wings already owned. She stroked her favorite one, Sundown, wordlessly saying goodbye. She wanted to ride him one last time but knew she'd remember too poignantly all the times she'd taken Sundown out alone, imagining her and Wings riding together when he was home for good.

Putting on a brave face, she turned to Shell. "I wanted to let you know I'm going."

"Goin'?"

"Home."

"Home," he repeated in that unhurried drawl that had made her wonder if she spoke a different language than the cowboys here. "Got some emergency, little lady?"

"No. It's just...I usually spend Christmas with my family. Loved ones. You know. And I do love a white Christmas. It's time to get going. I left some of the blueberry muffins from breakfast on the table in the main house, and, if you're hungry tonight, there's Shepherd's pie for dinner. You can warm it up in the oven in the bunkhouse, if you'd like."

She thrust a foil and ribbon wrapped package at him. "Your Christmas present."

Delighted embarrassment filled his craggy old face. "Shucks, little lady, you didn't need to do that."

"Of course I didn't. You know I love quilting, and you admired the quilts I hung in the living room. I made you one of your own. I hope you like it."

She hugged and kissed him, clearly throwing him off with her unexpected affection. Then she turned and rushed back into the house to get Pip. It was time to go.

Her pooch was curled at the end of the huge bed, making use of the wedding quilt she'd made for her and Wings. The pattern, with the true lover's knot quilt block, had been her grandmother's favorite.

"Don't all women start planning their weddings from the time they're little girls?" Wings had asked their first night here. They'd been talking about his brother's fairytale wedding a few years ago.

"I don't expect to ever get married, but, if I ever do, I want it to be unique. I want to be proposed to in some wild, sweet way. Not the usual, boring restaurant proposal. Then I want the wedding all planned out for me. I know for a fact that I'd be terrible at planning a wedding. I obsess enough on interior decorating jobs. This would be a nightmare that I'd ruin for myself. No. I want something spontaneous and the exact opposite of formal with a few people that I love. I just want to show up looking beautiful."

What she hadn't told him was that a friend of hers, a famous clothes and wedding dress designer, had made her exactly the dress she wanted to wear at her own wedding years ago. It was in her closet right now, awaiting the proposal of her Prince Charming.

Amanda lifted Pip, then smoothed her hand over the quilt. Wings wouldn't recognize the significance of the symbols. Why would he? It would simply become another facet of his home, like the new furniture and countless decorations she'd placed so carefully in every room.

As she walked downstairs, she considered calling her new, wonderful friends. But she didn't trust herself to say goodbye. Didn't trust them not to run over here in an attempt to talk her out of leaving. How could she love them so much already? She could barely imagine living without them. Maggie May, especially, would give her an earful the next time they talked. I'll need at least twenty-four hours before I can tell anyone. If I try to talk now, everyone will know I'm bat-poopy in love with my employer.

Giving each room a final once-over, the way she always did before letting a client see her handiwork, she approved wholeheartedly of her work even as she thought, Wings is just a client, and he'll love the work I've done here. It'll be everything he ever wanted. I was his employee. That's all it ever was between us. I've done what I forever do with men--let myself fall in love blindly, be used for sometimes scandalous stretches of time, then find myself tossed aside unceremoniously. But this time I won't let myself lose stride. I'm thirty-two years old. I've wasted more time than I can afford on relationships that hurt more than they heal.

Standing beside her car, she looked back at the beautiful house. All it needed was snow to make it look perfect--like a Christmas card scene. She couldn't help thinking, I wanted Wings to be different. But there's only one way I'll ever believe he is now. He'll have to come after me.

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