Snowbound in Montana

Book Four of the Carrigans of the Circle C Series

When Eliza Bramble signs up for a Christmas mountain ski adventure with sexy mountain guide Marshal McKenzie, she’s looking to escape the attention of a two-timing charmer and find some inner peace. Instead, a blizzard traps her in a remote mountain hideaway with Marshall and two other families in need of their own Christmas miracles.

Christmas is looking like a write-off, until Marshall suggests they make the best of what they have, and work together. The avid outdoorsman has a special touch with people…and with Eliza in particular. Soon she realizes Marshall isn’t just fixing Christmas—but her broken heart, too.

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Adorned in Christmas finery, the Bramble House Bed and Breakfast had never looked better, while Eliza Bramble, manager and great-niece of the owner, had never felt worse. If she had guessed that her blog post on decorating for the holidays would go viral, she would never have hit the “Publish” button.

But she had. And since she couldn’t turn back time for a do-over, she was going to have to come up with a Plan B for the holidays. A plan that would get her out of Marietta, Montana until Christmas was over.

She had one figured out, already. The tricky part would be explaining her departure to her Great Aunt Mable. Mable was not the sort to embrace change at the best of times. And Christmas, for their family, was never the best of times.

They were seated in the breakfast room of Bramble House, at the large, linen-covered table that could accommodate twelve with comfort. When it was just the two of them, like today, Mable took the chair at the head of the table overlooking the east-facing windows, while Eliza sat to her right.

On the table was a pot of English Breakfast tea, the matching china creamer and sugar bowl, and a ramekin of strawberry preserves. At each place setting were two slices of crispy toast, a small dish of fruit salad, and a tea cup. Cutlery was laid out on linen napkins that had been in the Bramble family for over fifty years—purchased along with many other linens, two china sets, and the silver, by Mable’s parents on their wedding trip abroad to France and England in 1925. It was not the china they set out when they had paying guests. For that they used second-hand pieces Eliza had painstakingly located and purchased on e-Bay.

Aunt Mable had a disconcerting resemblance to the Dowager Countess on her favorite TV series, Downton Abbey: swept-up gray hair, prissy mouth, and laser-sharp blue eyes. Eyes that were currently focused on Eliza with distressing sharpness.

“What do you mean you want to go away for Christmas?” Mable’s gaze shifted briefly to the Christmas tree in the far corner of the room. This year Eliza had decorated trees for all the downstairs main rooms, each with a theme drawn from the Bramble family’s past. The tree in the breakfast room had ornaments made of copper, with gold and silver accents, representing their mining history.

“My reasons are personal, Aunt Mable. I’m afraid I can’t say more.”

“But we’re fully booked for the holidays, aren’t we?”

“Yes. I’ve asked my sister and her husband to stand in for me. They’ll prepare the breakfasts and afternoon teas.” Other meals were not included, guests were expected to make reservations in one of the many restaurants and cafes Marietta had to offer.

“Caroline and Frank?”

“Yes.” It had taken a lot to convince them. They’d been planning to go to Maui for the holidays—their usual method of escaping the holiday madness. Eliza’s two brothers likewise had booked tropical destinations for Christmas, as had her parents. They were not the sort of family who went for the traditional turkey, tree and gift exchange sort of thing.

“But you made such an effort this year. All your baking and decorating—” Mable waved a hand to indicate not only the tree in the corner, but the cedar boughs on the fireplace mantle, the cranberry candles at the center of the table, and the fairy lights sparkling like stars on the mullioned windows.

“I had to do something to attract bookings. We almost broke even this year. I’m hoping we’ll finally get the accounts in the black this December.”

“Yes. I understand all that. What puzzles me is why, after all your hard work, and knowing how important the next week will be for our bottom line, as you like to call it, you would just want to take off and go on a holiday. It doesn’t make sense.”

Eliza smeared a spoonful of preserves on her toast. “Do you remember when I first moved into Bramble House?”

It had been two years ago. She’d shown up on her aunt’s door with two suitcases and her purse, asking her aunt if she could turn the ancestral home into a bed and breakfast. She’d heard, through the family e-mail loop that Mable was thinking of selling—she could no longer afford the upkeep and property taxes on the big, old house.

But Mable had really wanted to leave her home and she’d leapt at Eliza’s offer.

“If you hadn’t shown up that day, I’d probably be living in one of those awful condos for seniors by now.”

“But do you remember what I looked like? The shape I was in?”

“You were dreadfully skinny, with that awful fake brown hair. And sad. Sometimes, at night I would hear you crying in your room.”

This was the first Eliza had heard of that, and the news made her smile ruefully. Some aunts might have tapped on her door and offered help—a pot of tea and a wee chat, perhaps?

But Mable was not that sort of aunt.

“Someone hurt me, badly. And I think he might be about to do it again. That’s why I have to go. I’m really sorry if you feel like I’m abandoning you and Bramble House for the holidays. But I simply don’t have any choice.”

* * *

 Eliza climbed up the stairs to the store front of the Montana Wilds Adventure Company. A huge window display depicting a cozy scene right out of a ski chalet. Two mannequins, dressed in Norwegian sweaters and ski pants, lounged before a cast iron stove. Artfully arranged around them were sets of skis, poles, boots and all the accessories that went with them. In the background was a Scotch pine, decorated for Christmas with sporty wooden ornaments including tiny wooden sleds and miniature ice skates.

When she pulled open the heavy door, the aroma of hot apple and cinnamon cider and the familiar refrain from the Little Drummer Boy, completed the Christmas presentation. Last minute shoppers were everywhere, purchasing mittens, hats and other stocking stuffers, she supposed. A small queue waited at the cash register, where a young woman with her hair in braids seemed to be dealing with them with cheerful competence.

Eliza scanned the busy room, looking for someone to help her. A man who looked to be in his late forties, with a thin face and wearing a plaid flannel shirt gave her a nod and was soon beside her.

“Can I help you find something?”

“I want to sign up for the Nordic Holiday Package. The one for five days, December twenty-second to the twenty-sixth. I saw it on your website, but when I tried to register I got a message, page not found.”

“That’s because it’s full-up. Sorry, I’ve asked my wife, Gracie to fix that—she updates our website, but I guess she’s fallen behind. Marshall!” He called out to a tall man who’d just emerged from the back, cell phone pressed to one ear. “That’s Marshall McKenzie,” he explained to Eliza. “He’s the one leading the group.” Raising his voice again, he called out, “The Nordic Holiday Package is full, right?”

The man named Marshall held up his hand for them to wait while he finished his call. He made a note in an open binder on a back counter, then walked toward them.

He was in his thirties like her, tall, with a lean, athletic build and a plain, but pleasant face.

“It’s been full for weeks, Ryan.” Marshall’s gaze shifted from the bearded man to Eliza. He had warm brown eyes and an open smile. “Are you the one inquiring?”

“Yes. I’m Eliza Bramble. My plans for Christmas changed unexpectedly and I was really hoping to get away for a few days.”

“You do realize the trip leaves tomorrow? It’s been sold out for over a month.”

The man with the thin face left to assist another customer and now it was just the two of them, standing in front of a rack of the Norwegian sweaters on display in the front window.

“I know this is last minute. But I love cross country skiing. And I really don’t want to be in town for the holidays this year.” She smiled and shrugged, sensing Marshall might be convinced to help her, if he possibly could. He had the air of someone who liked helping people. The kind of nice, young man that women ought to fall in love with…but so rarely did.

“How many in your party?”

It took her a second to understand what he was asking. “Oh. Just me.”

Marshall took a moment to mull that over. “Maybe you’d consider our New Year’s Eve Backcountry Adventure? We have mostly singles signed up for that one, and still have space for a few more.”

“It has to be Christmas,” she insisted.

“Well, I might be able to squeeze another room out of Griff. He and his wife Betsy own the Baker Creek Lodge where we’ll be staying. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t have a fireplace like the others. Also, I think it’s too late to include any of your gifts on the Santa sleigh.”

She’d read about that. Guests could arrange to have their Christmas gifts delivered to the lodge by Santa driving a horse drawn sleigh. “I don’t mind either of those things.”

“Yes, well the Santa thing is more popular with our families who have children. We have two of them in this group, as well as two couples without children. One set is in their fifties, the other in their thirties. It probably won’t be the most exciting group for you.”

“I won’t mind,” she insisted.

“The agenda is pretty simple. Breakfast will be provided, along with bagged lunches. We ski all day, then break for afternoon tea in the lodge. After dinner, people sometimes play board games by the fire, or just sit and read. We’ll have a fondue and steak dinner Christmas Eve, brunch on Christmas morning and a roast turkey with all the trimmings that evening. But other than that, it’ll be pretty low key.”

“Sounds perfect.”

“You sure?”

She could see the questions in his eyes. Why didn’t she want to spend the holidays with her family? Was there some sort of problem? Possibly with her?

“I am sure. I brought cash,” she added, pulling out her wallet.

Marshall laughed. “Ryan loves cash. I think we’ve got a deal.”

She started toward the line-up at the front but Marshall stopped her. “I can take care of this for you.” He led her toward the back counter where there was a second register, as well as the binder he’d been writing in earlier.

As he rang up her receipt, she noticed a display of toques. A gray one with a red snowflake design on the front caught her eye. “Would you add this, please?”

“Sure thing.” He finished the transaction, made a note in the binder, then passed her a receipt. “You’re set now. You’ll love the network of trails in the Deerlodge National Forest. Something for everyone. You’ve been skiing about two years now, right?”

Yes. She’d taken up the sport her first winter in Marietta and had been thrilled by how quickly she’d caught on. “How did you know?”

“I sold you your skis. You told me you’d never tried Nordic skiing before and I promised you’d love it.”

A vague memory surfaced. A confusing array of skis, boots and poles, and then one polite man helping her choose exactly the right things. “I do remember.” She hesitated, feeling a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

“Oh, no worries. It was two years ago.” He handed her receipt and smiled again. “You changed your hair color.”

“Yes. This is my natural color. The other was just…an experiment.” She’d dyed her hair brown when she’d left Nashville for Marietta, so broken hearted she’d wanted to be a different person. Only recently had she decided to go back to her original color. If she’d known what was about to happen with her blog, she would have remained a brunette.

“See you tomorrow. We catch the bus here, at eight in the morning.”

She left the shop, still feeling badly. Yes, it had been two years ago. But he’d managed to remember her. Even with her new hair color.

* * *

Marshall put away the trip binder, trying to decide if it would be better to notify Griff and Betsy about the extra booking by phone or email. Since they couldn’t yell at him by email, he decided on the latter. As he typed out the message on the store computer, he found himself humming along to the carol playing over the sound system.

He didn’t know why he was suddenly in such a good mood. Or why he was going out of his way to make room for Eliza Bramble on this trip. Sure, she was pretty. He’d thought so the first time he’d seen her. But with her blonde hair—which suited her fair skin and glowing caramel eyes better than the brown had—she was now even lovelier. Not that it mattered. A gorgeous woman like that was definitely out of his league.

Marshall didn’t have much luck with the fairer sex, despite meeting a lot of them in his line of work. Most trips he’d end up with at least one of the female guests giving him her number. But it never worked out. Attempts at dating were awkward. They never seemed to click.

It bothered him sometimes, his bad luck with women. But he wasn’t lonely, or unhappy. He had a job he loved and lots of friends, both male and female.

“You’re too nice, Marshall. Women like a bad boy.”

He got that line a lot. Which mystified him to no end. Did women really like bad boys? His inability to understand why, was, he suspected, the key to his lack of success in the romance department.

When he was finished with the final preparations for tomorrow’s trip, he checked in with Ryan. “I’m heading off now. I’ll be back to work on the twenty-seventh.”

“Have a good trip. The blonde going with you?”

Marshall nodded.

“I figured you’d find a way to squeeze her in.” Ryan winked. “In your shoes, I would have, too. Before you go, check my desk in the back. There’s an envelope with your name—that’s your Christmas bonus. And a package, too. UPS delivered it while you were on your lunch break. Forgot to mention it sooner.”

Marshall thanked him for the bonus, wished him a Merry Christmas, then went to the back where he peeked at the size of the check before sliding it into his back pocket. The package turned out to be what he’d expected. About the size of shoe box, with a return address from Albany, New York.

He exited out the back way, stopping at the bank to deposit his bonus, before continuing to the little clapboard he rented, just a few blocks off Main Street.

Once inside, he ripped open the box, read the Christmas card from his mother, step-father and two half-sisters, then took a bite of one of the chocolate chip cookies.

He didn’t know why his mother continued to send him two dozen home-made cookies every Christmas. The cost of the postage was probably double the value of the cookies themselves. Was it to remind him that he had a family and that he was loved? Or was it a salve to her guilt, to the way she’d gone on to build a new family after their old one imploded?

Marshall honestly didn’t know the answer. He only wished she’d stop sending the cookies. They’d been his brother Dean’s favorites and they always made him feel a little sad.

* * *

After successfully booking her ski trip, Eliza stopped at Copper Mountain Chocolates. She’d already finished her Christmas shopping—gift cards for Jo and Ella, who did the cleaning and laundry at Bramble House, and a beautiful wool shawl for her Aunt Mable. But she needed to pick up something for her sister and brother-in-law. Her family didn’t usually do gifts, but given the favor Caro and Frank were doing for her this year, Eliza felt she had to buy them something.

Gourmet chocolates seemed like a safe choice. Still, Eliza hesitated a moment before pushing open the door.

The shop owner, Sage Carrigan, was Eliza’s cousin. Sage had three sisters, another of whom, Callan, lived in the Marietta area. Eliza wanted to be close with these girls, who were all around her age, but she’d started on the wrong foot when she’d first moved to town. She’d been so miserable when she’d first arrived in town that she’d spurned both Sage, and her younger sister Callan’s, friendly overtures, going so far as to make up a story about a bereavement.

When she’d opened up Bramble House as a bed and breakfast, she knew there were suspicions that she was somehow taking advantage of Aunt Mable. Which was a laugh. If there’d ever been a great Bramble fortune, it was long gone now. She’d seen her aunt’s bank accounts. The poor woman was barely scraping by—something Eliza hoped to remedy once Bramble House was operating to its potential.

Then, this summer when she’d asked for assess to their late mother’s diaries for the family history she was working on, the Carrigans had refused her access.

Eliza knew it wasn’t fair to blame her cousins—Sage, Callan or the other sisters, Dani and Mattie. She was pretty sure it was the father, Hawksley Carrigan, who was being so stubborn. Still, the refusal had hurt.

But lately Sage had made a few encouraging overtures, including inviting Eliza to her wedding this past October. So—she should stop being silly and go inside and buy those gifts she needed.

The chocolate shop was bustling, so packed with customers Eliza could hardly move. And no wonder—Sage was handing out small samples of her molten hot cocoa. Even with her red hair pulled back into a long braid, and wearing a simple apron with the store logo on the front, Sage looked beautiful.

She smiled at Eliza, as she handed her a paper cup of cocoa. “So nice to see you, Eliza. How is Aunt Mable?”

Earlier in the year Mable had been taken to emergency after a fall. “She’s well, thankfully.”

“Glad to hear it. Sounds like you’re going to have a full house for Christmas. I can’t believe your blog, Eliza! It’s wonderful! Dawson and I saw you on TV, too. Can you believe how much press you’re getting?”

“It’s more than I counted on,” Eliza admitted. “It’s been overwhelming. The website actually crashed at one point, we had so many hits.”

“The themed Christmas trees are brilliant. I love that you made each one reflect a different aspect of the Bramble family.”

Eliza had indulged her inner child with not just the mining-themed tree in the breakfast room, but also a literary-themed tree in the library, a Bramble tree in the sitting room, a baking tree in the kitchen and a huge thirteen foot Montana-themed tree in the foyer.

“The recipes are popular, too.” Eliza had gone through all the old cookbooks in the Bramble House kitchen. It seemed nothing had ever been thrown away. Some of the recipes dated back to the eighteen hundreds, when the Brambles first settled in Marietta. She’d selected recipes to suit a Christmas menu, tested them, then posted them on the Bramble House Blog, along with her decorating tips.

“I bet they are. Lots of them were favorites of my mother’s.” Sage’s expression grew wistful, even though it had been almost two decades since she and her sisters had lost their mother in a ranching accident.

Eliza struggled to find the right thing to say—something tactful that didn’t involve the diaries—but before she had a chance, the woman in line behind her, said politely, “Excuse me, but we’ve been waiting a long time back here for a sample of that cocoa.”

“Of course.” Sage gave Eliza an apologetic smile, then continued handing samples to her other customers.

Eliza moved on, picking out an attractive box of assorted chocolates for her sister, then waiting patiently in line to pay for her purchase. She was ready to leave, when Sage once more called out her name.

“Eliza! You can’t leave without confirming the story. Is John Urban really coming to Marietta for the Christmas holidays?”

Eliza froze.

“I mean, he’s just so hot. And that voice! This town will go crazy if he actually shows up. But he’s such a big country music star. It was just a publicity stunt, right?”

Eliza wished some more customers would show up, demanding samples of rich cocoa. But several groups had just left the store, and at that moment, there was only Sage and her two employees, all of whom were staring at her.

“H-he is booked in,” Eliza confirmed.

“Wow,” said the young woman at the cash register. “I wish he’d give us a concert. Wouldn’t it be neat if he teamed up with Landry Bell?”

“Oh, yes,” said the other employee, a very thin woman who was restocking one of the displays. “And Rayanne Grey could open for them.” To Eliza, she explained, “Rayanne is a local girl, still looking for her big break. Landry bought one of her songs a while ago.”

“That does sound like a dream concert,” Eliza agreed. “But I wouldn’t count on it ever happening.”

“I wonder what the draw for John Urban is,” Sage mulled. “I mean, why would someone like that, who isn’t married and doesn’t have children, want to leave Nashville and come to small town Marietta for Christmas?”

“I can’t imagine,” Eliza murmured. And before they could ask another question, she rushed out the door.

End of Excerpt

Find out more about the Carrigans of the Circle C Series →

Snowbound in Montana is available in the following formats:

Snowbound in Montana
October 23, 2014
Tule
Romance