A Cowboy Under the Mistletoe

By: Vicki Lewis Thompson

1


TY SLATER WAS BEAT, but the decorated streetlamps in Sheridan’s historic business district perked him up considerably. A large dose of caffeine would help even more. He parked in front of Rangeland Roasters, a family-owned coffee shop that had originated in Cheyenne but had recently expanded to a second location in Sheridan.

They brewed great coffee, and he’d meant to check out the new shop when he’d visited his foster parents back in August. So he’d try it out now, instead. He didn’t want to arrive at Thunder Mountain Ranch for Thanksgiving weekend dragging ass. If he did, Rosie and Herb would fuss over him.

Years ago he wouldn’t have minded a little fussing. But he was twenty-seven for God’s sake, with a grown-up job as a contract lawyer at a well-respected Cheyenne firm.

He’d burned the midnight oil to get his work done before the holiday, and a cup of coffee would keep him from falling asleep during the pre-Thanksgiving Day supper, which was guaranteed to feature tuna casserole. He loved that casserole almost more than he loved the turkey dinner they’d enjoy tomorrow.

He climbed out of his truck into slushy snow that had gathered near the curb. Gray clouds promised more of the same before nightfall, which made the cozy coffee shop even more inviting. Candy canes and delicate snowflake decorations covered the windows, and an evergreen wreath topped with a red bow hung on the door.

Stomping the slush from his boots, he stepped inside where warmth and the fragrance of roasted coffee beans and peppermint greeted him. Manly cowboy types weren’t supposed to like flavored coffee, but he might break ranks and order the one they called Peppermint Pleasure.

He unbuttoned his shearling coat and glanced around. The place had drawn a crowd on this cold November afternoon, so most of the tables were taken. A Christmas tree in the corner decorated with coffee-related ornaments looked similar to the tree he’d seen in the Cheyenne location. The tree topper featured the Rangeland Roasters logo, a double R positioned back-to-back on a tan coffee mug.

Branding was always a good thing, and this shop felt very much like the one in Cheyenne. A cheerful buzz of conversation overlaid the carols playing in the background. Fortunately for the owners, the expansion gamble appeared to have paid off.

As he stood in line waiting to order, he recognized one of the baristas who used to work in the Cheyenne location. She’d made an impression on him last summer with her jaunty blond ponytail and ready smile. She was at least five-ten and looked athletic, as if she might be a runner and possibly a skier.

He pictured the nametag she’d worn in Cheyenne. Whitney. An unusual name, but he would have remembered it anyway. When something was important to him, he took a mental snapshot and stored it away.

He’d felt the tug of mutual attraction whenever she’d taken his order but he’d been dating someone during the time she’d worked in Cheyenne. She might have been involved with somebody, too. He hadn’t bothered to find out because there’d been no point.

Then one day she wasn’t there anymore and he hadn’t asked about that, either. Now she’d popped back into his life and he was ridiculously happy to see her. He should ignore that sudden burst of pleasure.

He wasn’t dating anyone these days, but getting involved with a woman who lived in Sheridan made no sense. As many hours as he put in at the firm, being separated by a five-hour drive wasn’t an optimal situation. And that was assuming she was free and he’d been right about her interest.

All that aside, he looked forward to saying hello and finding out how things were going. The dynamic with the other two employees suggested she was in charge, so maybe she’d been given the manager’s job. He wouldn’t be surprised considering her brisk efficiency and easy rapport with customers.

Then he saw the calendar on the wall behind her. Aw, hell, he’d forgotten. He’d probably find it plastered all over town. He pulled his Stetson a little lower over his eyes. Like that would help.

There he was in all his glory—shirtless, arms folded on the rail of a corral, hat at a rakish angle and a cocky grin on his unshaven mug. The photographer had insisted on the scruff. The other guys had been clean-shaven and she’d wanted him to look as if he’d just crawled out of bed with a lover.

Apparently he did look like that. He’d had several women hit on him as a result of the calendar and he’d had a brief affair with one of them. She’d expected him to live up to that manufactured image and hadn’t been the least bit interested in getting to know who he really was. After that he’d turned down any similar invitations.

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