Come home to Topaz Falls, Colorado, where the best way to spend Christmas is in the arms of a cowboy!
When the beloved Farm Café in Topaz Falls burns to the ground, widow Darla Michaels comes up with the perfect plan to help her friends rebuild — a Cowboy Christmas Festival complete with a sexy bachelor auction and a benefit rodeo. But to pull it off, she has to pretend to be engaged to Ty Forrester, the irresistible bull rider who keeps testing her keep-things-casual policy.
A fake fiancée wasn’t on Ty’s Christmas list this year, but it’s the only way to get his family to visit over the holidays so his NFL-star brother can draw more tourists to the festival. The engagement wouldn’t be such a problem if Ty wasn’t starting to have real feelings for Darla. Knowing he can’t go on pretending, Ty prepares to tell his family the truth-but then he and Darla discover a precious little Christmas surprise that just might help them embrace a whole new life together.
Everyone had their dirty little secret, and Darla Michaels fully intended to keep hers under wraps.
She cinched the belt on her trench coat, pulled a long brunette wig over her short black hair, slipped on her Jackie O sunglasses, and climbed out of her cherry-red Mercedes roadster, which she’d parked across the street in case anyone she knew happened to drive by.
You’d think traveling two towns away from her home in Topaz Falls, Colorado, made for a pretty safe bet that none of her friends or acquaintances would find her out, but one could never be too careful. What if someone she knew back home had to make an impromptu Target run? Glenwood Springs would be the first place they’d come. They would likely take this very route, which meant they would inevitably recognize her car, because—hello—a cherry-red Mercedes roadster stuck out like a sore thumb among the burly, big-tired, four-wheel-drive SUVs and diesel pickup trucks that typically cruised these mountain roads. But that was okay because even if someone did happen to drive by and see her car, they wouldn’t know where she’d gone.
For all they knew she could be shopping in one of the many boutiques right here along the main drag. They’d never in a million years suspect she’d gone into the dingy basement of the nondescript brick building across the street. And that was good because whatever she did, she had to make sure no one in Topaz Falls ever found out about her secret life here.
After a quick scan of the street, Darla made her way across and ducked into the building through the glass door, which had been splattered with slush from the last snowstorm that had hit, right after Thanksgiving.
Once she stepped inside, the space’s familiar warmth brought a soothing comfort—the feel of the threadbare carpet beneath the soles of her boots, the hum of the old rickety furnace churning out heat. The first night she’d come here, she’d sworn it would only be a onetime thing. But somehow, eight years later, here she stood, getting ready to attend her eightieth meeting with her bereaved spouses support group.
Before going down the steps to join the others, Darla quickly removed the trench coat, then the wig, then the sunglasses. She balled up the coat and shoved it onto one of the cubby shelves the community center had built for children to store their belongings. The disguise was only for the outside world, not for this little community she’d become part of.
When her husband had died nearly ten years ago at the age of thirty, there were all these steps she felt she had to take. Step one: Make a ridiculously expensive and impractical purchase. Hello, Mercedes roadster. Step two: Get a new job that would completely dominate all of her time and thoughts. Three weeks after Gray’s funeral, she’d decided her job as pastry chef at an upscale restaurant in Denver wasn’t nearly consuming enough, so she’d taken the insurance money, moved three hours away to Topaz Falls, and opened the Chocolate Therapist—a wine and chocolate bar on Main Street, which had indeed dominated all of her thoughts and time. Then there was Step three: Attend a support group for grieving spouses so she could talk about her feelings with people who understood.
She’d found the group two towns away, lest anyone in Topaz Falls get the idea that she was still a poor, grieving widow. Pretty much everyone in town knew her husband had died a long time ago, but after too many sympathetic glances and awkward I’m so sorrys, she’d made a habit of never discussing it with any of her friends. She gave them the basic facts, answered their questions, and made sure to always be the life of the party so they would all know she didn’t need their pity.
She’d never planned on discussing Gray’s death with anyone, actually. She had only attended that first bereavement support group meeting with the intention of crossing it off her list, a kind of Look! I did it! I checked off all the boxes! I’m a healthy and happy widow. But…well…for some reason she chose not to examine too closely, she hadn’t quit coming yet.
“Darla? Is that you?” Josie Wilken lumbered up the concrete steps from the basement meeting room. “I thought I heard the door.” Her smile went broad, the ends of her mouth accented with crescent-shaped dimples. Like everyone else in the group, Josie had gray hair, though she always wore it coiled on top of her head in a carefree knot that bobbed from one side to the other as she walked.
“You’re late,” Josie announced with a glance at her watch. As the group’s fearless leader, she’d always been a stickler for time. “You missed refreshments.”
Darla grinned at her and fluffed her hair back into shape. “I don’t need refreshments. I make chocolate for a living.”
“Speaking of…how’d the new recipe turn out?” Josie was always giving her ideas for new flavor combinations to try in her truffles. “For the lavender-infused variety?”
“They turned out unbelievable.” Darla unearthed a small box of truffles from her purse. “Seriously. I never would’ve thought to try it, but once again, you’re brilliant.” She handed the box to Josie.
“I knew it would turn out!” The woman opened the box and popped a truffle into her mouth, closing her eyes in obvious rapture. “Damn, I’m good.”
Darla laughed and linked their arms together, guiding her friend back down the steps to the basement. “So how’ve you been?” Seeing these friends only once a month meant there was always plenty of gossip to catch up on. In fact, that was really what the group had turned into—a place to talk about life with people who knew what it meant to go on living after someone you loved was gone.
“It’s been a boring month,” Josie complained. “The kids at school are doing all this crappy testing, so I haven’t even been able to do any fun projects.” As the art teacher at the local elementary school, fun projects were Josie’s specialty. “What about you?” Her friend paused outside the door of the community meeting room. “How’s your month been?”
Darla gave the same answer she usually did. “Good. Busy.” Though she would’ve liked it to be busier. Topaz Falls didn’t exactly see many tourists October through November. Things didn’t usually pick up until the ski season started, and even that had been slower with the warm, dry winters they’d had the last few years. “Hopefully we’ll have a busy Christmas season this year.” God knew the town needed it. They’d already lost three businesses over the previous several months.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about Christmas.” Josie gave Darla’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze. “You’ll be comin’ up on the big One Zero this year, huh?”
Darla was only half paying attention. Inside the room, she could hear Peter, Ralph, and Norman discussing Peter’s latest date. “‘One Zero’?” she asked, also trying to eavesdrop on the men’s conversation.
“Yeah.” Josie steered Darla’s gaze back to hers. “You know, the ten-year anniversary.”
The realization of what her friend meant sent her heart skidding. “Oh. Right.” December 23. Ten years since Gray had died. “I guess I haven’t thought about it too much,” she lied. The closer the holiday got the more that familiar anxiety seemed to simmer. All those memories of trying to give Gray one last beautiful Christmas only to lose him days before.
“It’s a tough one, that ten years,” Josie said solemnly. She’d lost her partner twelve years before, so she always liked to keep Darla informed on what to expect as time went on. “I don’t know why, but that one hit me the hardest. Almost had me a mental breakdown, I did. Made me reevaluate everything in my life.” Josie and Karen had been together for almost twenty years, which was more than triple the time Darla had shared with Gray, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter. A soul mate was a soul mate whether you’d spent six years with them or twenty.
“You got a plan for how you’re gonna get through it?” Josie was big on plans.
“Like I said, I haven’t thought about it too much,” Darla said, brushing the whole thing off. “It’s always such a busy time of year, and I don’t usually mark the anniversary.” In fact, she did everything she could to keep herself too occupied to think about it at all. That was her MO: avoidance through escapism. So far, it had worked pretty well for her. In fact, it could work for her right now. She peeked back into the meeting room. “We’d better get in there before we miss all the juicy details about Peter’s date.”
“What? I told him to wait until I got back!” Josie took the bait and charged into the room with Darla at her heels.
“Hello gentlemen.” Darla dug into her purse and retrieved more boxes of truffles, handing one to each man.
“My God, I wish I was thirty years younger.” Norman gave her a hug. At eighty, he was the oldest in the group—but also the most handsome, she’d say.
“Lookin’ good, doll.” Ralph took his turn next. “Thanks for the chocolate. You’re my dream girl.”
Darla smiled and placed a kiss on his cheek. Come to think of it, this could be why she hadn’t left the group yet. It was good for her self-esteem.
“You’ll have to fight me for her, Ralphie,” Peter said, forgoing the hug completely to give her a quick smooch on the lips.
“You’re all a bunch of playboys,” Josie mumbled behind them.
“And I love them.” Darla gave her friend a wink. These men were actually decent, kind, and loyal.
“What took so long?” Peter demanded, munching his way through his third truffle. “What were you two talking about in the hallway?” Chocolate crumbs sprinkled the gray scruff on his chin.
“Darla’s coming up on her ten-year,” Josie informed the others.
Groans went all around.
Seriously? It was that bad? Dread crammed itself tightly into her chest. “It’s not a big deal.”
Peter finished off the last truffle. “Oh it’s a big deal all right.”
“There’s something about a decade that makes you rethink your whole life,” Ralph added.
Josie’s head bobbed in a self-important nod. “That’s what I told her.”
“And I’m telling you all, I’ll be fine.” She didn’t want to hear any more about how hard it would be. This year was like any other. She had her business, she had her friends, and she would plan a whole lot of festive events to keep her moving from one thing to the next. Memories of the previous year crowded her mind. She’d attended at least five parties in the days leading up to Christmas, but that hadn’t quite been enough to keep the loneliness at bay. She’d sat at home by herself on December 23 looking through old pictures of her first few Christmases with Gray. Not that she would share that with the rest of the group.
“Come on.” Darla took Peter’s hand and led the way over to the circle of chairs they typically sat in for their discussions. “I’m dying to hear how your date went last month.”
For the next hour they discussed Peter’s disastrous date. The woman he’d met online had brought her cat to the restaurant in her purse. The poor man had been caught unawares until the cat climbed up his leg and started to nibble on the mints he had in his pocket. When he’d jumped out of his chair, the entire table had flipped over.
“I wish you’d agree to go out with me,” he said to Darla as the meeting was wrapping up.
“Sorry, Pete. You know I don’t date.” She went out with men—and sometimes hooked up with the very tempting specimens—but dating was off the table.
Josie sent a look to the others and at the exact same time, they all opened their mouths. “Ten years,” they said in a chorus.
“Wow, did you practice that?” Darla stood and folded her chair. “Is that what you were doing before I came? Rehearsing?”
“Sorry, love.” Norman swooped in and put her chair away for her. “We just don’t want you caught off guard. It’s better to be prepared.”
“And anyway, I don’t understand why you don’t date,” Josie said, while Norman took care of the rest of the chairs. “If your loss is no big deal and all.”
Darla gave her a look. “Wow, it’s such a bummer we’re out of time tonight. Guess we’ll have to save that topic for another time.”
“Another time never comes,” the woman muttered.
Darla pretended like she hadn’t heard. “Can I give you a ride home, Ms. Josie?”
That perked up her friend’s sullen expression. “Sure.” She never could resist a ride in the roadster.
They all walked up the stairs together, filing out onto the street while they pulled on hats and gloves and coats. Darla went ahead and stuffed her wig and sunglasses into her purse since it was dark outside. Surely she wouldn’t see anyone she knew at this hour.
Everyone exchanged more hugs, and after the hearty goodbyes, Darla and Josie crossed the street together.
“Poor Peter.” Darla started to giggle again. “I was dying when he told us how the cat jumped the waiter.” That had to be one of the best blind date stories Darla had ever heard.
“That’s what you get when you use those online dating sites,” Josie said. “You only meet a bunch of weirdos.”
“And you wonder why I don’t date—” A spray of ice-cold slush hit Darla’s upper body. Cold. She gasped and sputtered, trying to mop her face with the sleeve of her coat, which had been soaked clean through. Oh God, it was freezing. She glanced at Josie, who by some miracle, had been spared. “Who the heck—?” A truck pulled over next to the curb ahead of them and stopped just behind her car.
It was a big truck. A black burly diesel extended cab with a familiar pro-rodeo bumper sticker.
“I’m so sorry.” Ty Forrester got out and came jogging down the sidewalk. “I didn’t even see you there until it was too late.”
Darla stopped dead in her soggy tracks. No. Not Ty. Anyone but Ty. “It’s fine,” she called, lowering her voice so he wouldn’t recognize it. “No worries.” Leave. Turn around and get into your truck. But Ty was a cowboy, and if there was one thing a cowboy couldn’t stand, it was leaving a damsel in distress.
“It’s not fine,” he said, making a fast approach. Of course he had to look good. Ty always looked good. He wasn’t tall, but his upper body had a lot of brawn, which didn’t seem to fit the classically handsome structure of his face. Maybe it was the flawless angle of his jaw or inviting curve of his mouth, or the magnetic energy in his deep-set blue eyes. Yes, those eyes. They happened to be the perfect contrast to his dark hair.
“You’re soaked—” Ty’s eyes went wide and he skidded to a stop two feet away. “Darla? Is that you?”
Leave it to her to try to hide right under a streetlight.
“Damn, it is you,” he said when she remained silent. “I thought that looked like your car. What’re you doing here?”
“Noth—” she started, but Josie butted in.
“We just finished our bereaved spouses support group meeting,” her friend offered. “I’m Josie Wilken, by the way. And you are…?”
“Ty. Ty Forrester. I’m a friend of Darla’s. From Topaz Falls.” He quickly wriggled out of his winter coat and wrapped it around Darla. “I’m sorry. Did you say bereaved spouses group?”
“Yep. As in dead spouses,” Josie said helpfully.
“Spouses?” A look of pure shock bolted his gaze to Darla. “Wait. You were…? You’re a…?”
“Yes,” she huffed through a putout sigh. And that overly sympathetic look on his face, along with the awkward silence, was the exact reason she didn’t talk about it with anyone back home.
“Wow.” Ty diverted his disbelieving stare to the ground. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“But you said you were a friend.” Josie turned to Darla and crossed her arms. “Surely you tell your friends about your husband.”
“‘Friend’ can mean a lot of different things.” In her and Ty’s case, it was supposed to be fun and casual. He was single, she was single—and it was slim pickin’s in Topaz Falls—so of course certain things had happened between them. A few times. Isolated incidents, if you will. “I was married a long time ago,” she informed Ty. “And I was a completely different person back then.”
That didn’t seem to alleviate the concern that pulled at his mouth. He was likely thinking back through their sexy encounters to figure out how he’d missed the fact that she was a widow.
“She’s coming up on her ten-year anniversary,” said Josie, aka the informant. “I was telling her that’s one of the toughest.”
Aaannd that was her cue. “Josie, why don’t you go ahead and get into the car?” Darla found her keys and hit the Unlock button. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Right.” Her friend suddenly seemed to realize she’d overstepped. “Nice to meet you, Ty,” she mumbled before she scurried away.
“Yeah. Nice to meet you too.” He didn’t even look in Josie’s direction. The man was obviously trying to wrap his head around the new information he’d learned, but Darla would stop him right there.
“You never said what you’re doing here.” Other than exposing a perfectly good secret.
“Oh.” Ty seemed to shake himself out of his thoughts. “I had to get a part for my truck. The auto shop here was the only location that had it in stock.”
Of course it was. The universe loved her like that. “So what’s it going to take for you to keep this quiet?” she asked, getting down to business.
“Keep what quiet?”
“The support group. No one knows. And I’d like to keep it that way.” If her friends found out, they’d realize she wasn’t over her past. They’d be scheduling weekly coffees to try to counsel her about her unresolved grief. But none of them knew what it was like. They wouldn’t understand the extra layers of protection she’d had to build around her fragile heart. They couldn’t grasp the traces of fear and anxiety that still lingered even all these years later.
Ty continued to stare at her with that damned frown. “I won’t tell anyone, Darla.”
God, even the way he said her name had changed. It was so solemn. They used to joke around, poke fun at each other, banter back and forth, but now he obviously felt sorry for her.
“I know you’re surprised, but it was a long time ago,” she said.
“You still attend a support group,” he pointed out.
“Because they’re my friends.” She didn’t know why she even tried. There was obviously no talking him out of the sympathy he suddenly felt for her. She would simply have to work extra hard to convince him—and everyone else—she was fine.
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