The Buckskin Brotherhood
He’ll be her Santa tonight...
Wrangler Leo Marston’s used to women pursuing him because of his looks. Apple Grove newcomer Fiona Hildebrand is the first to run in the opposite direction. Too bad she’s also the one he can’t stop thinking about. How can he convince her to take a chance on him? He can’t exactly change his appearance.
Or can he? Volunteering to play Santa and distributing toys to needy kids, with Fiona as his helper elf, is the perfect opportunity to show her there’s more to him than a pretty face. But when the evening ends, will she meet him under the mistletoe, or boot him out the door?
“Time to be me.” After stuffing his gloves in his pocket, Leo put the glasses in there, too.
“I’ve heard that voice before.”
“Yes, you have.” He pulled off the stick-on eyebrows and took off the hat, which went in the other pocket. Last of all, he unhooked the beard from around his ears and crammed that in his pocket, too.
Fiona stepped closer, peered up at him and gasped. “Leo?”
She moved back so fast she bumped into a display table of boxed stationery. “You told me your name was Clark!”
“Because it is. My birth certificate says Clark Leopold Marston.”
“There’s no Smith in there, I’ll bet.”
“No, that was a cheat, but it seemed like a somewhat fair one. Nobody’s named Smith.”
“No, everybody’s named Smith. That’s why crooks use it for an alias. And sneaky cowboys.”
Ouch. “Fiona, I was out of options. I just found out last night why you won’t date me, so I asked Ben if—”
“You dreamed this up last night?
“Late last night, to be exact, after the Brotherhood wrapping party at the Moose. On the way home, I pleaded with Nick to tell me why you never—”
“He didn’t tell you before? I thought for sure—”
“He didn’t say anything because he figured there was nothing I could do about it. And there wasn’t, except for this. It gave me one night to—”
“Does Ben know?” The pace of her breathing picked up.
“He does, but if you’re upset, please don’t blame him. I convinced him that he’d be doing us both a huge favor.”
“Oh, did you, now?”
“Because I believe it. You’ve just spent more than three hours with me. Did you have fun?”
“Are my looks really that big a deal?”
“You look like a movie star!”
“You knew that when you bid on me.”
“Fair enough. I bid on you to challenge myself, take another step out of my comfort zone. Turns out it was a giant leap out of my comfort zone. You’re so handsome I can’t think straight. Literally.”
“My looks are a curse, not a blessing. Early this year I gave up dating. Want to know why?”
“You were tired of women throwing themselves at you?”
“Yes, because I appeal to the ones who are fixated on appearance. I was afraid you’d be the same, but you weren’t. Made me so happy. But now—”
“Attractive men, I’m fine with. I’m attractive, too. But when—”
“You’re beautiful, Fi.”
“Not like you. When I see that face, when I gaze into those blue eyes, I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say, what to do.”
“You’re holding your own right now.”
“Because I can barely see you, especially now that I’m way over here. And you’re wearing a baggy Santa suit.”
“I could wear baggy clothes.”
“You can’t work in baggy clothes. They’d catch on things. You need those snug jeans and those sexy shirts that make your shoulders look a mile wide.”
“I have a couple of ugly ones, a dirt tan and pea-green plaid and a barf brown and gray striped. They were on sale at Jeans Junction. They’re hideous. If I—”
“Stop. You could wear the ugliest shirt sold in that store or in the entire world and you’d still turn my brain to mush. I don’t like it when that happens. I don’t like feeling like an idiot.”
“But you’re not an idiot. I was all set to talk about Pluto on our date and you cut yourself off.”
“I was too distracted to discuss it intelligently. I would have started babbling nonsense.”
“You didn’t babble nonsense on the way home from Ed’s party. We had a great discussion.”
“About what? I was a little bit… toasted.”
She groaned. “And I rambled on about it again tonight. You must think that’s all I talk about. How embarrassing.”
“Don’t apologize. I enjoyed every minute.”
“Sure you did.”
“Damn it, I like that you’re smart and you know stuff. Turns me on when you bring up subjects like how the Egyptians built the pyramids.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No! That was the whole point of this, to prove that you could have fun with me, that we could enjoy interesting discussions. And unless I’m a bad judge of such things, we had chemistry tonight.”
“I had chemistry with Clark Smith.”
“Which is me.”
“No, it’s not. Clark Smith is jolly Saint Nick. You’re Leo Marston, smokin’ hot cowboy. Too hot to handle.”
He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “So I take it we’re not going over to the Moose for pie and cider?”
“Definitely not. The minute I see you in full light, I lose thirty IQ points. Maybe forty.”
“And you still won’t go out with me?”
Time for a Hail Mary pass. “Then this is it, the last time we’ll spend time alone together?”
“Leo, I can’t relax and be myself when I’m with you. I wish I could, but—”
“Will you let me kiss you goodbye?”
“To end the evening on a friendly note. We could shake hands, but considering you saved me from a little kid who was assaulting my manhood, I think we’ve moved past a stuffy handshake.”
“I’ve been thinking about kissing you ever since our date back in August, when it was clear you didn’t want that. I’ve just spent the past three and a half hours thinking about it and hoping this time you would let me kiss you. Give a guy a break.”
She hesitated. “I guess that’s fair.”
Not really. He had no intention of playing fair. Too much was at stake.