Tina Leonard, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Christmas, Texas Style

Read the Excerpt

July 1

Dear Sam,

The Bartholomews have made us an offer we cannot refuse, although we never imagined we might one day sell to folks we don’t particularly like. That being said, we have to play the hand we are dealt. You don’t seem to want to settle, and Phin doesn’t want to work the ranch. We have agreed to sell to the Bartholomews by Christmas of this year—if it appears neither of you intends to take over the reins. Hopefully, the length of time we have managed to negotiate will give you time to discover what is really in your heart. Love, Mom and Dad

P.S. Even though you’re thirty-three, it’s not too late to settle down, marry a good girl like Mary Phillips who understands ranch life, and start a family.

Sam Johnston drove into Union Junction, Texas, on a black and windy day which matched the sadness in his heart. The last thing he wanted to do was return to Montana, but Phin had overnighted their parents’ letter to him in Lonely Hearts Station. Sam had been riding in a rodeo, and though his wrist ached from a twist he’d taken on a bounty bull that had meant business, his pride and his heart hurt more right now.

It bothered him that his parents felt that their golden years depended upon his return to Falling Hills. He would have liked a little more time to figure out what was best for everyone.

Phin, of course, was playing devil’s speed bump, trying to keep his parents from sticking him with the responsibilities. At twenty-nine, Phin wasn’t about to wear the family saddle of responsibility.

Sam sighed, parking his truck and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he looked at the Union Junction Hair Salon. He needed time to think, and this stop between nowhere and Lonely Hearts Station was good enough. A haircut, some lunch, and maybe a beer with the locals might take the burn out of his mood.

He really enjoyed traveling the country, soaking up every town’s characteristics. His life goal was not to be tied to one place, one way of life, or even one woman.

In Montana, if a man was going to survive, it was best to have a woman if for no other reason than to cook food and share some body heat.

Maybe settling down wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He frowned. Mary Phillips would not be his choice, despite his parents’ broad hint about his high school sweetheart. It was true Mary understood ranch life, but if he didn’t understand himself, how could a gentle soul like Mary?

The wily ace in his parents’ letter was the offer from the Bartholomews. If two families despised each other more than the Hatfields and McCoys, it was the Johnstons and Bartholomews. Could his folks possibly be serious about selling out to such scurvy, no-good dime store cowboys? The Bartholomews would keep the best part of the huge Falling Hills ranch for themselves, then carve the rest up into profitable condos and retail sites. They weren’t above cutting deals with the state for use of their land—in return for power and position. In short, they were belly-crawlers who hid under a ranching family’s hat for the sake of money and tax breaks.

Phin was the point on the triangle between his parents and Sam. Phin could easily take over. He liked living in Montana, and he liked the ranch. But Phin wanted Sam to handle the business matters so that Phin could chase his dream of renovating a ski resort or golf course.

Would Phin take charge if Sam stayed on the road? Even Sam doubted it. Phin mainly took care of Phin.

“Hey, Cowboy,” a voice called.

He glanced up at the tiny blonde staring at him from her position on the porch of the salon. Getting out of the truck, he shut the door and tipped his hat to her. “Ma’am.”

“It’s Miss,” she said, “Come on in and have a glass of tea, traveler. We don’t bite in here.”

“Nobody said you did,” he said mildly. “I’m just trying to decide if I want a trim or not.”

She shrugged. “You can get one of those in Montana, when you return. Or here. Suit yourself.”

His truck door was emblazoned with the family business name and logo, so she was paying attention. But she was just a bit too spunky for him. “Do you work or just run your mouth?”

She sized him up as he stepped onto the porch. “Hello, Sam Johnston,” she said, “my name’s Lily. And I multi-task, as most hairdressers do.”

“More cut and less lip, that’s all I’m looking for,” he said crossly.

“Fine.” She pointed the way inside, looking mighty fine, he noticed, in worn blue jeans and a white blouse. “I’ve never had an unhappy customer.”

He wasn’t giving her much to work with, Sam thought. His mood stunk since he hadn’t fully digested the contents of his parents’ letter, and even if he had, he’d still feel like being in a grumpy mood. Sitting in the chair she indicated, Sam winced when she picked up scissors.

It was the gleam in her eye which made him cautious. “I’m not certain you’re trustworthy.”

Her smile was nothing short of Mona Lisa as she put the scissors on the table again.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Waiting for you to take off your hat. As good a stylist as I am, I can’t cut hair around your Stetson.”

He grunted, removing his hat. “Did I tell you I just wanted a little taken off?”

His gaze met hers in the mirror. Lily ran her hand through his hair, considering the previous cuts he’d lopped himself. Her touch felt wonderful, he was annoyed to discover, and he liked her confident demeanor.

Something about her smelled like honeysuckle he remembered from his childhood.

In fact, an irritating bulge was growing under the zipper of his jeans, and he wasn’t happy about it. “I knew of a Lily once, a long time ago.”

She looked at him. “Did you?”

“It’s not a very common name.”

“Hm. How do you expect me to cut your hair if you keep talking?” she asked.

“I thought you multi-task.” He shifted, placing his hat in his lap and glad for the cover.

She touched the uneven strands. “I presume you did the work yourself?”

He nodded. “Maybe I shouldn’t quit my regular job.”

“Not if you’re better at it.”

“I’m not sure if I am or not.” He sighed. “So I guess you hear a lot from your clients.”

“A lot I’ll never tell, cowboy.” She looked in the mirror at him curiously. “Hairdresser-client privilege.”

He had to tell somebody. His mind was on fire and his heart was torn. She was as safe as anyone. Heck, Lily probably wasn’t even her real name. He had known of a Lily, but this woman could not possibly be that girl. That Lily was the daughter of his family’s arch enemies—or rivals, if one wanted to be gentle about it. Lily was reputed to be spoiled and generally a young girl who grew up with all the perks her family, the Bartholomews, could give her. They also, from what he’d heard, taught Lily the same bellycrawler-hiding-under-a-ranching-hat tricks they thrived on.

But this hairdresser seemed professional, responsible, and a bit too sassy for his tastes, he decided, as a much longer strand of hair than he was comfortable losing hit the floor.

“Sorry,” she said, “you really butchered it. I’m trying to be conservative, but it’s very uneven.”

Well, she was forthright. “Hey, would you charge me extra for an opinion?”

She shook her head. “Hairdressers listen. They don’t give more opinion than a ‘mm, you don’t say. Did he really do that, hon? How do you survive?’ kind of thing.” Her gaze leveled on him in the mirror. “At least that’s my schtick.”

It was better than anything he had at the moment, and he really wanted one person’s opinion, just one person who lived outside his family. And he felt like he could trust Lily. “My folks want me married.”

She nodded. “Most parents want to see their children happy.”

“I’m not so sure marriage would make me happy.” He frowned. “Especially not to Mary Phillips.”

The scissors, which were poised to cut, stayed still.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She blandly returned to scrutinizing his hair. “There, all finished.”

He stared at her. “You just started!”

“You said you wanted a trim. That’s what you got.” She put her scissors away.

Feeling his hair, he had to admit that the back was smoother. And it was still long, the way he liked it. But he wasn’t through talking to her! “How much do I owe you? And can I talk you into dinner?”

She shook her head as he rose. “No, but thank you, anyway. And the cut is twenty-five. I’m giving you a discount since you’re passing through town.”

“Thanks.” He dug out his wallet and gave her fifty bucks. “If I don’t settle down very quickly, my folks are going to sell our family ranch to some low-down, scurvy, good-for-nothing people.”

“Really?” Lily put the money in her pocket and looked at him. “Who?”

“The Bartholomews,” Sam said.

* * *

Lily had known who the darkly handsome cowboy was the moment he’d parked his truck—emblazoned with the Johnston ranch logo on the truck door—in front of the Union Junction beauty salon. She’d seen him ride in some rodeos, and knew she wasn’t the first woman to think he was hotter than a Texas sunrise.

What she hadn’t known was how much he despised her family. It was clear by the look in his dark eyes that he was down and needed a listening ear—yet it couldn’t be hers. “Are they as bad as you think they are?”

“Yeah. But nothing I can’t handle, if I was interested in taking over the family ranch. I just don’t think I am.”

This was getting far too personal, she decided. If he discovered that she was a Bartholomew, he’d feel tricked. “Cowboy, I have another appointment.”

“I apologize.” Glancing around, he said, “Now?”

“In a few moments.” She looked up at him defiantly. “I do appreciate the generous tip, however. You didn’t have to be quite so generous. Your hair wasn’t in that bad of shape.”

He grinned at her. “Have dinner with me. I can show you the real meaning of generous.”

Her eyes widened in spite of herself. If he was any other man, she might be tempted to say yes. He was packing an awful lot of temptation into that smile. She shivered. “You make it hard to say no, but I’m afraid I must.”

“Your six o’clock just canceled, Lily,” someone called from another room. “You’re done for the night.”

“Here we go,” Sam said, taking her by the arm and escorting her from the room. “Dinner with a stranger.”

“No,” she said, laughing in spite of herself. “Sam, it’s a really bad idea.”

“Because you never cross that hairdresser-client line?”

He was smiling down at her, his grin in a lazy, crooked crescent, and Lily’s heart jumped in spite of herself. “I never have, that’s true.”

“Good. I’ve never dated a woman who cut my hair, either. Then again, you are the sexiest stylist to tame my hair.”

She stared up at him, wondering if she should tell him who her family was. Clear it up right now, and see if he still offered dinner. “Sam—”

“I’m in the mood to drive,” he said.

“Drive? You just got into town.”

“I know. But I heard there’s a barbeque tonight at a ranch called Malfunction Junction—”

“No,” Lily said. “How about we take a picnic out into the country?”

He smiled, and she thought she saw the hint of a wolf light his face. “Sounds good to me.”

“Great. This will please all of us. Follow me.”

“All of us?” He did as she asked, following her into the upstairs of the salon.

She opened her bedroom door, and a giant Golden retriever bounded off her bed to greet her and inspect him. “Meet Samson. Our latest rescued pet.”

“Samson. I get it.” He grimaced as Samson put hairy paws on his chest, looking up at Sam. “Down, young lad.”

She laughed. “Samson.” Dragging him off of Sam, she showed the delighted dog to his own dog bed. “We just got him last week, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to let him go. He seems to have adopted me.”

“Very comfortable bed,” Sam observed. “If that was my bed, I’d probably stay, too.”

Lily felt herself blush. “Well, Samson will come along on our picnic. You’d be surprised what a listening ear he has. You can tell him anything.”

Not to mention that Samson would provide a chaperone of sorts. She put a leash on Samson and handed it to Sam. “If you don’t mind doing the honors, I’ll pack the picnic.”

He took the leash from her, eying Samson. “If you rescued him, where’s his family?”

“We’re not sure yet. He might have run away or he might have been dumped. He’s very friendly and still a junior dog, so he could have gotten nosy and kept on going, not realizing he was getting lost. But it doesn’t matter. He has a home with me for as long as he needs.”

“You are one lucky dog,” Sam told the dog.

He might not think that if she told him it was her parents his ranch might be sold to. “Water, fruit, some crackers, and even a candy bar,” she said, packing it all into a picnic basket. “That’s just about perfect.”

“Yes, it is,” Sam said. “When I stopped here tonight, I didn’t imagine I’d be having this much fun.”

She turned, looking into the dark brown of his eyes. “That’s an awfully nice thing to say.”

“I’m not being polite, Lily of Union Junction,” he said. “I really do feel luck be a lady tonight.”