A Bent Creek Christmas

A Bent Creek Christmas is available as part of the Christmas Wishes and Cowboy Kisses boxset.

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A Bent Creek Christmas

 

Chapter One

The letter was impossible.

And yet there it was in black and white, an offer to buy the building that housed my shop for a ridiculous amount of money.

I skimmed to the end. It was from a large development firm with a Chicago address. Some place miles and miles from Bent Creek, Montana, with the signature of someone I was sure had never even stepped foot into my small town.

I refolded the letter and shoved it onto a messy shelf under the cash register, one that held a barrage of broken ornaments, torn Christmas cards, and discarded receipts. Why I was keeping it, I didn’t know. Selling this place was something I’d never do, not for anything.

But I’d be lying if I said that amount of money wasn’t tempting, especially right now.

“Maybet!” The sound of a sweet, squeaky voice pulled me from my thoughts. I smiled when I saw Diego’s adorable, sticky face peering up at me from below the other side of the counter.

I pretended to study him seriously as I leaned over the counter. “You had peanut butter for lunch, didn’t you?”

His big brown eyes widened. “You know, Maybet!”

I nodded, serious as sin. Then I tapped my temple and said, “I know everything.”

Diego looked behind him to his mother—and my best friend. Larkin Reyes grinned and shrugged her shoulders.

Diego glanced back at me. The telltale swipe of peanut butter under his lower lip gave everything away. I reached below the counter and pulled out the Rubik’s Cube that some tourist had left behind, and that I kept just for Diego. I held it out to him, and his chubby hands grabbed it on either side.

He toddled over to the corner between two sets of shelving and plopped down, twisting and pulling at the Rubik’s Cube. He had no idea what it was or what the point of the puzzle was; he just loved turning the different colors and admiring the patterns he created.

Diego satisfied for a few minutes, I stepped out from behind the counter to hug my friend. Larkin looked exhausted, but that seemed to be her permanent state ever since Diego was born. Raising a baby on her own and scraping by to make ends meet would do that to anyone. She chewed on her lip now, her attention on Diego in the corner.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She looked more stressed out than usual today.

She shook her head. “Nothing more than the usual. Mom got called into work, and Mrs. Hopkins’s mother is in the hospital.”

I held up a hand. “Leave him with me. He can help me close up and you can pick him up at the ranch when the coffee shop closes.”

Larkin turned to me, her brown eyes—exact replicas of Diego’s—soft with gratefulness. “Are you sure? If a bunch of customers come in, you’re not going to want a toddler running around underfoot.”

I spread out my arms. “I think all these customers can handle it.” It was meant to be a joke, but the bitterness seeped through.

“It’ll get better, Marybeth,” Larkin said, grabbing one of my hands and squeezing it. “The tourists will come flocking in. They always do.”

I forced myself to smile, but what I couldn’t say out loud—because I could barely admit it in my head—is that I was afraid this year wouldn’t be like the others.

That the bills to keep this place open would become too much. That I’d have to sell or declare bankruptcy. That I’d have to live the rest of my life on the ranch with my brother.

I took a deep breath, forced the smile even more because Larkin had enough on her mind without hearing my worries too, reassured her Diego would be fine, and shooed her out the door to her job.

Leaning against the doorframe, my gaze flitted between Diego in the corner and Larkin walking half a block down to the coffee shop in the couple inches of snow that had fallen overnight. And I wondered if I shouldn’t just let the inevitable happen.

Opening a Christmas shop in Bent Creek was a novelty, but something I’d fully believed in. My brother Luke thought I was crazy when sweet old Mrs. Caldwell left me this corner building in her will and instead of selling it, I decided to open my shop. And it went well, for a couple of years.

Bent Creek wasn’t a destination itself, but it was a cute, old town with a stunning mountain backdrop, located smack in between two popular ski resorts. When people got tired of the pretend, manufactured old-timey shops and restaurants in the ski resort towns, they came here for the real thing.

But this last year had been different. The tourists still came, just not as many of them. And I’d noticed it in summer too, when the resorts were quieter, but the budget tourists came to enjoy hiking and mountain climbing and white water rafting. They’d stayed in the resort towns. Then fall arrived and the tourists kept staying away from Bent Creek. The skiing was due to start soon, and then I’d know for sure.

Sam Watson, who ran the soda and ice cream shop across Main Street from me, said it was because of the big development companies pouring money into those resort towns. They kept building and growing and there was no reason for anyone to leave to come here. The mayor said they’d get tired of it soon enough and come back. But we hadn’t seen it happen yet.

I blew out air, which sent my bangs flying up from my face as I crossed my arms against the October chill. Larkin disappeared into Mountain Roasters minutes ago, and yet I still couldn’t seem to leave my post in the doorway. The streets weren’t completely empty, but I knew most of the people I could see from here. There were a  handful of obvious tourists, but a handful wasn’t going to keep Bent Creek Christmas open.

Are you crazy? Sell it. Luke’s words from back when I came up with the idea for the shop echoed in my head. Maybe I should have done just that. But I loved this place. I couldn’t imagine not coming here every day.

I slipped back inside my empty store, wove around my displays and decorated Christmas trees, and offered Diego some crayons and paper, and retreated behind the counter. That envelope caught my eye again.

It would be so easy. Sell it before the debt accumulated too much, take what would be left, and  . . . do what? Leave?

My heart constricted at the thought. Leaving might’ve been easy for my other brothers and my parents, but it wouldn’t be for me. But if I sold this place and stayed, I’d have nothing.

There was the ranch, but that was more Luke’s than mine, now that he was okay most days. I didn’t have a college degree. No useful skills other than riding horses and making small talk with customers. No boyfriend. No impressive work history. No apartment. No nothing.

All I had was this shop and this town. Larkin and Diego. Luke, who needed me less and less as time went on.

Diego must have known something was bothering me because he abandoned his crayons, waddled over, and wrapped his sweet arms around my jeans-clad leg. I reached down and rubbed his back.

Giving up felt like betraying everything and everyone that meant something to me. And I wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t.

I’d fight for Bent Creek and the people I loved until I took my last breath. And that meant fighting to keep this shop going.

No matter what.