Marietta, Montana did Christmas in a big way with all the storefronts on Main Street draped in garland and twinkle lights. The Main Street Diner wasn’t any different with its rustic wreath made with layers of old ropes and decked with red poinsettia leaves and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree playing merrily on the jukebox as Carson Scott opened the door.
No one was exactly sure how the Wednesday night tradition had started, not even Carson, but he knew that his brothers had done it for him. It had been in the dark time right after Rainey had been killed in a head-on collision out on highway 89 on her way back from Livingston. He’d sat at home every night with baby Evan drinking too much Red Bull. His oldest brother Alec had insisted that they all meet in Marietta at the diner for dinner.
Alec had thick blond hair like their momma and piercing blue-gray eyes that Carson had heard more than one girl describe as colder than the glaciers in Glacier Park. But Sienna, Alec’s wife, had said that she knew how to warm him up. Which had led to a lot of ribbing by Carson and his other brothers. Alec needed to be taken down a peg or two at times.
But not on Wednesday nights. Carson showed up here after he dropped Evan off at his maternal grandparents’ house and ate chili and cornbread with his brothers. There were five of them all together and sometimes Flo, who ran the grill, gave them a hard time about being carbon copies of their dad, but that didn’t bother any of them. Their old man cast a long shadow and had a reputation for being honest and hard-working. There were worse things a man could be known for.
There were only five weeks left until Christmas and Evan was being cagey about what he wanted from Santa this year. He’d hinted he wanted a mommy that wasn’t in heaven. And the last thing that Carson was interested in was dating any woman, much less one to become Evan’s new mommy.
“Isn’t that Annie waiting tables?” Alec said as they entered the diner. The walls were heavy red brick and the floor solid wood. There was a counter with red leather-covered stools bolted to the floor in front of it, and for as long as Carson could remember beehive-haired Flo was standing at the grill cooking delicious food, trading gossip, and flirting with any man who entered.
“Annie who?” he asked. He was holding the door open for his younger brother Hudson who had a shopping bag from The Mercantile in one hand and his Stetson in the other.
“Prudhomme. Is there another Annie you’d care about?” Alec asked.
“I thought she’d left town for good,” Hudson said.
Annie. Here. Wow.
It didn’t make sense. He ate here every Wednesday with his brothers. She hadn’t been here last week. Why was she here now?
Carson craned his neck around his brothers’ shoulders to look at the waitress. Goddamn it. She hadn’t changed. She was still the same slim pretty girl he remembered. She wasn’t tall but had long legs and dark brown hair that hung to her shoulders and curled slightly at the ends. He stared at her until she turned and he met those pretty gray eyes that he had thought he’d never see again.
He hardened his heart. If there was one thing he knew without even talking to her it was that this was a temporary move. He doubted she was back to stay. That wasn’t her style and Marietta wasn’t her town.
At eighteen it had felt like he’d never love again when she’d left Marietta – and him – all in the same cloud of dust. But at thirty-three he knew that was a lie. He had loved again and married and had a chance for real happiness. But now he wondered –was that another lie he’d told himself to make Annie’s leaving him okay?
“Yup,” he said, answering his brothers as he turned back to the laminated menu, trying to be blasé when inside he wanted to go and talk to her. Go and find out why she was back and what it meant. Had life turned that ballsy, sassy girl he’d loved into a bitch or tamed her?
But he kept his head down studying the laminated menu like his sanity depended on it. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what he was going to order.
He always got the same thing when he and his brothers came into town to eat on Wednesday nights. His son was visiting his maternal grandparents at their home on the modest section of Bramble Lane. Rhett and Lily had moved out to Marietta after Rainey had died to be closer to Evan and they said having Carson around made it hard for them to bond with Evan.
The thing Carson was proudest of was his son and how well he and the six-year-old had grown up together after Rainey died.
“Yup?” Alec asked.
“That girl—” Hudson said.
“I know. I’m surprised she’s here too,” Carson said trying to play it cool. But the thing with brothers was they always knew when he was bullshitting them. “But let’s face it… everyone ends up back here eventually. You said Pop wanted some help with something?”
Alec’s brother nodded. “He’s determined we need to get that old red barn renovation finished by the New Year. I could use some extra help to finish the work.”
“I’ll send my hands over tomorrow. Is he still planning to sell it?”
“You know Pop, if you can’t ranch it then it’s a bad investment. And he bought it for Trey to live on with his wife but they aren’t interested in settling down here.”
“What’s his hurry then?”
“Lane has a friend who is looking for a place out this way.”
“You do?” Carson asked Lane. “I thought all your buddies were career military.”
“He’s retired,” Lane said. “Like me.”
“Is he like you?” Carson asked. Lane had lost the bottom half of his left leg in an IED explosion in Iraq and now had prosthetic leg.
“Why?” Lane asked.
“Just wanted to know if we should make the halls and bath a little bigger in the house,” Carson said. “Maybe we should anyway”
“Nah, he’s still got both his legs,” Lane said.
“How old is he?” Alec asked.
“Barely thirty but all that fighting has taken it out of him,” Lane said.
“We were lucky to get you back when we did,” Carson said.
“Thanks, boys. Good to know you care,” Lane said.
“Ah, they all care about youngest Scott boy,” Annie said coming over to their table.
She walked toward them wearing the traditional Main Street Diner white apron over her own clothing. There was something almost defiant in her manner. It had to stick in her craw that she’d left here to make it big and now she was waiting on all of Marietta.
Her brown hair swung around her high cheekbones with each step she took. A pair of faded denim jeans hugged her legs and the tips of her worn brown boots were scuffed. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes and she’d managed to chew off most of her lipstick.
Hellfire. It had been fifteen years and one look at Annie was all it took to get him hot and bothered. It wasn’t that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She had an attitude bigger than the Montana sky, but she’d always just had something that made him stand at attention.
“We care about all the Scott boys,” Alec said pointedly. “Even Carson here when he was dumb enough to fall in love with a girl intent on leaving.”
“Sorry,” she said.
There was something her eyes that made her seem… more than sorry, almost sad and he cautioned himself about feeling anything for her, even pity.
“Really?” Carson asked.
“More than you can know,” she admitted. “But you boys didn’t come here to hear about my mistakes. You want dinner, right?”
“We sure do. Did Flo make her jalapeno cornbread today?” Hudson asked.
“Yes she did,” Annie said, taking a pen from the pocket of her apron and holding up her notepad.
“Chili and cornbread for me and root beer,” Alec said.
“Same,” Hudson said.
“Same again,” Lane said.
She looked at Carson and for a moment he remembered the last time he’d held her in his arms, but he’d known then she was leaving. She was always on her way out of Marietta.
“I’ll have a Sprite instead, but otherwise the same,” Carson said.
“Still don’t like caffeine?” she asked.
“Nope,” he said.
She nodded and walked away and all he could do was watch her. And admire the way those faded jeans hugged her butt. Maybe it was just physical… his reaction to her had always been strong. He realized his brothers were watching him watch her and he cursed under his breath. The last thing he needed was Annie back in Marietta this close to Christmas. Christmas always made him wish for things that couldn’t be.
Annie Prudhomme was definitely something that wasn’t meant to be. She’d proven that the day she drove out of town and left him the dust.
“Wednesday dinners just got a little more interesting,” Hudson said.
He punched his brother in the arm, but he felt it as well. There was something about that woman that always made the world seem a little brighter when she’d been in the vicinity. And he knew he couldn’t be stupid again. Couldn’t let himself get involved with a woman who clearly wasn’t long for Montana.
The front door opened, bringing a burst of cold air and the jingling of the sleigh bell wreath on the door. They all smiled and waved as Paige Joffe walked in with her two little ones, six-year-old Addison and five-year-old Lewis. For a while the town matchmakers had tried pairing the two of them up but both Paige and Carson had resisted. She was nice enough and pretty, but just not the woman for him.
He didn’t know her story except she’d come to Marietta from somewhere in California and had the misfortune to move in during a bad snow storm last February. But she seemed to be adjusting to it. Addison was in the same class as Evan at school.
“Evening Scotts,” she said with a friendly wave. Her shoulder-length straight dark blonde hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. She had a strong chin and dimples when she smiled, which she didn’t do that often. He’d really only seen her smile when her kids made her laugh.
“How’s my new waitress treating you?” she asked.
“She’ll do,” Carson said, but he didn’t want to talk about Annie. And it was obvious she didn’t want to talk to him either. She’d pretty much avoided their table after she’d dropped off their food. “Don’t forget to come out to my place this weekend to pick out your tree. The best ones are going fast.”
“Can I come by Saturday morning, first thing?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “We’re going to have sleigh rides for the little ones too.”
“I spoke to Nate. He’s got his foreman’s sister staying with him for the holidays. She’s trying to get a baking operation off the ground. I hate to stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I wondered if she might come out to the tree lot. Maybe sell some gingerbread house kits?”
Carson was all for helping out a neighbor and he knew Ty Murphy and respected him. “Sure. Give her my number and we’ll get it all set up. I’ve asked Sage to send Rose Linn out to sell hot chocolate.”
“You just didn’t want to have to drive to town to get some for yourself,” Hudson said.
“You got me,” Carson said with a grin.
Paige’s phone vibrated and she glanced at it before smiling at their table. “Sounds delightful.”
Paige waved goodbye and moved toward her office at the back of the diner. The evening dinner crowd was thick but not too bad and a few times Carson glanced at Annie as she carried dishes to the tables. When she caught him looking she stood straight and gave him a cheery smile. But when she didn’t notice, he saw fatigue in her every move. Whatever she’d come to Marietta for, she hadn’t planned on waiting tables.
“Hard to believe Mama’s little tree farm has grown so big,” Hudson said, pulling his attention from Annie. “Remember when she used to make us water them?”
“Yes. She loved her trees,” Carson said. Their mother had been Montana born and bred but instead of ranching she’d always had her mind set on growing trees and preserving wildlife. Their father had given her all of his support and turned fifty acres into a forest where she started her no-cut Christmas tree program in the nineteen-seventies and it was still thriving forty years later. They had to move some of the trees by pallet truck and forklift now, but the families that owned them wouldn’t have it any other way.
Carson did a traditional cut-tree service for the town as well and he was happy to be the caretaker of his mother’s trees.
After they ate their dinner and his brothers left, Carson sat there nursing his Sprite and pretending he was waiting until it was time to pick up Evan. A smart man would be on his feet and down at Grey’s Saloon instead of sitting in a corner booth watching the one who got away.