Cowboys for Christmas

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Two hours later, with the vibrator and dirty book Georgia had given her tucked safely away from the shocked faces of the crowd, Mary Catherine eyed her friend from across the room. As if sensing the look, Georgia glanced up. She was engrossed in a conversation with Rachel, who looked as uncomfortable being there as she always had in the middle of a crowd. Poor Rachel. She may have taken on the Holly name as a kid, but that hadn’t automatically endowed her with the blond good looks and the ability to charm a crowd. Two traits that her mother so dearly loved.

She wasn’t ugly—and never had been. She was sweet, curvy, and had total girl-next-door appeal. But her mother had an image she wanted to uphold. And Rachel had experienced some seriously awkward teenage years.

Then there was the fact that she was as introverted as they came.

It had been tough witnessing Marilyn brush her own daughter aside over the years. Not that Mary Catherine had ever done much about it. When she was younger, she’d just been glad when Marilyn’s attention hadn’t been directed at her.

She watched Georgia excuse herself and pat Rachel on the knee, then slip quickly away. They met behind the massive spread of hors d’oeuvres.

“You let the dragon make the punch,” Mary Catherine mumbled behind her cup.

The punch was atrocious. Someone had told Marilyn years ago that everybody who was anybody knew that pink sherbet punch was the only acceptable drink to have at a shower.

Mary Catherine’s stepmother had taken that piece of advice to heart. It had not only shown up at all bridal and baby showers hosted by Marilyn over the last two decades, but also at barbeques, holiday picnics, and darned near every single time someone “of class” had shown up at the Holly ranch.

It looked like liquefied cotton candy. Only with an under-taste of raspberry.

Let her make the punch?” Georgia asked. She clinked their cups together and slipped an arm through Mary Catherine’s. “Honey, I just stayed out of the way. Do you know how many evil glares I’ve taken for you today? I wasn’t about to argue over the punch.”

Georgia was not Marilyn’s favorite person. In fact, she probably ranked near the bottom of all time. Even beneath Turnip Simmons, who’d been caught on Holly land trying to steal cows more times than he could count.

The problem was, Georgia had come from the “wrong side of the tracks,” and Marilyn had never let Mary Catherine forget it. Volleyball scholarship and prestigious coaching job aside, Georgia was still trash in Marilyn Holly’s opinion.

But in Mary Catherine’s mind, bonds weren’t based on geography or the amount of money in a person’s wallet. Especially not with friends like George and Claire.

She and Georgia moved to a quieter spot away from the crowd. Since Mary Catherine had arrived late, she hadn’t gotten a real chance to say hello to her friends yet. She looked around for Claire, but caught only a glimpse of the back of her too-big sweater and gorgeous auburn hair headed into the kitchen.

“At least the decorations are great,” Mary Catherine added as she took in the rest of the room. The place was amazing. White poinsettias with vibrant green foliage, ribbons of dark purple scattered around the tables, and silver snowflakes, from tiny ones to six inches across, mixed throughout everything. “It’s perfect.”

Simple but elegant.

Her six-foot-tall, dressed-to the-nines friend snorted. “All Claire Bear. That woman was a basket case when I got here, but for no reason. She had everything orchestrated and ready to go. All I had to do was set things down when she pointed out the spots. And stay the hell out of the way when she didn’t.”

“Well, I appreciate it anyway.” She gave Georgia a squeeze with her arm. “And I appreciate you being here with me for these next two weeks. I know you would have preferred not to come home.”

Ever, Mary Catherine silently added.

Georgia didn’t take the bait of the silent probe; Mary Catherine wanted to know what it was like being home for the first time after ten years away. Instead, Georgia leaned into Mary Catherine’s side and whispered, “As much as you appreciate your gift?”

Mary Catherine felt her cheeks flame. “I can’t believe you got me a dildo, you moron. It’s a lingerie party.”

Humor sparkled from the brown depths of George’s eyes. “Marrying him, I figured you’d need it.”

Tell one secret over a late night bottle of tequila, and some people never let her forget it. “He’s good in bed,” she assured Georgia.

Good enough.

“Yeah, but for what is the question.”

Mary Catherine thought about her sweet and adoring fiancé whom she’d left behind in Houston. The man was stuck working until closer to the big day. He was a really good guy. He was smart, he cared about others, he bought her things—like safe, reliable cars—and he was excellent at planning romantic gestures.

So he had to work really hard to bring her to orgasm?

So what. At least he was willing to work hard.

And really, it was probably more her fault than his. She had a lot on her mind these days.

A pair of hot blue eyes flashed quickly through her mind, but she shoved them aside. The two of them had been mere kids when the owner of those eyes had made her orgasm. No stresses. No responsibilities.

No wonder he’d been able to do it with barely more than a crook of his finger.

Or a flick of his tongue.

Heat once again engulfed her, but this time it had nothing to do with the eight-inch battery-powered device she’d displayed for the entire room earlier. She went for casual, tucking her hair behind her ear and smiling at the new Baptist preacher’s wife, and gave her friend’s ribs a solid jab with her elbow. Possibly a little extra oomph was added in for making her think of Jax.

“Jesus, you fight dirty,” George grumbled.

“Yes, I know.”

Before she could do much more than tell Georgia that she was glad she was there, Marilyn appeared and dragged Mary Catherine off. They passed Claire on their way to visit with Sylvia Campbell, who was Claire’s mother—and the mayor’s wife—and Mary Catherine shot her friend a look.

Save me, she silently pleaded. Not only were Marilyn and Mrs. Campbell both hell on wheels when dealing with them separately, but there was also a hundred-year-old feud between the families—which Marilyn had a tendency to ignore when it suited her needs. Such as when she wanted to show everyone in the community how tight she was with the political players of the town. It made for painful interactions between the two.

Claire’s smile never wavered on her newly slimmed face, but teasing pity did show in her eyes.

She also didn’t rescue Mary Catherine.

Mary Catherine sighed. She would get her back at the Thirsty Cowboy tonight. That’s where the real fun would happen.

The lingerie shower was nice, but too many “grown-ups” were there. She wanted to let loose. Have a little fun. She had limited time with her girls, and she didn’t intend to run around being “the perfect daughter” for the full two weeks. Why not start it off by kicking up her heels?

She’d been back home a number of times over of the years, but she hadn’t stepped foot in the local honky-tonk since graduating from college. Tonight, though, was her bachelorette party. That meant the Thirsty Cowboy was a must. She planned to laugh with her girls and dance with hot cowboys. While she missed her own man, of course.

Blue eyes once again popped to mind, and this time she let the full picture form. It had been years since she’d really thought about him, and though she’d prefer he stay out of her mind now, she supposed it was being back in Holly Hills that kept him making an appearance.

Long, lean, and hotter than a metal tailgate in the late-summer Texas sun, Jax Tipton was all cowboy.

He was also just like his uncle. Or so the rumors swirled.

Story was he’d swindled old man Rivers out of his ranch. He’d been named sole heir when the man had passed a few years back, and even though distant relatives had shown up to fight the claim, Jax hadn’t relented. The spread was his.

Mary Catherine hadn’t seen him in years. Not since her last time in Thirsty’s. But she heard his name mentioned every visit she made to town. He was apparently still a hell-raiser. And fond of the ladies.

As they were of him.

She only hoped he and his ladies found some place other than the bar to be tonight.