Cowboy Single Dad Crush for Christmas
After a full year of hanging out together, Ruby is ready to take her relationship with Dean to the next level, but is he ready?
A VERY COUNTRY CHRISTMAS WISH #5
Ruby Hart lit a trio of orange pillar candles on the glossy white mantle over the fireplace. Sadly, it wasn’t a real fireplace. It was an electrical one with a remote control to turn on the faux fire. The tiny flames flickering from her candles were real, though.
She drew in a deep breath, enjoying how their pumpkin scent made it smell like she had a pie in the oven. Glancing toward the cozy kitchenette at the far end of the second-story apartment she was renting over Mistletoe Books and Things, she was half-tempted to bake her heart out for the rest of the day — one decadent sweet at a time. Her mouth watered at the thought of whipping up a batch of cranberry oatmeal cookies. She’d pop a pumpkin cheesecake into the oven after that, and maybe a tray of her family-secret cinnamon rolls after that. And while all that wonderful deliciousness was baking to perfection in the oven, she could stir up a few refrigerated desserts like strawberry fluff, chocolate delight, and banana pudding.
Unfortunately, a person couldn’t eat their way out of this kind of heartache. It was Dean Isaacson’s fault, of course — the extremely talented painter and extremely handsome widower who was renting the apartment over the festive little antique shop next door. The man had completely stolen her peace of mind with his kisses. Their first kiss had taken place in public at the coffee shop across from the theater, along with their second, third, and tenth kisses.
But that had been nearly a year ago now.
Forty-seven and a half weeks.
Three hundred and thirty-four days.
Not that anyone besides her was counting. And all those days, weeks, and months later, they were still… Just friends? No, they were clearly more than that, since they were friends who kissed. And held hands. And shopped together. And ate meals together — so many times per week that it almost felt like they were married.
Except they weren’t. Dean had never even officially asked her to be his girlfriend. They were sort of dating and sort of not. Sort of together and sort of weren't. She wasn't a hundred percent sure what to call them.
All she knew was that she was constantly being teased about it by her daughter, Christie, and son-in-law, Roman. And don’t even get her started on all her nosy new friends and the gossipy shop keepers up and down Main Street. It was like everyone in town was waiting to hear the big news that she and Dean were formally engaged.
I’m so ready to be his! All his!
After nine years of being a widow, she was ready to move on to the next adventure with the incredible man who’d stolen her heart and made her feel things she wasn’t sure she’d ever feel again. But what if he didn’t feel the same way? What if he wasn’t ready? What if he was never going to be ready?
She shivered at the thought as she trudged across the living room to the window. As soon as she’d returned home from the Christmas parade this morning, she’d changed into her buffalo orange and black plaid PJ bottoms and gray kitty slippers. Like the pumpkin candles, comfy pants and fluffy slippers were things that made her happy.
Well, maybe happy wasn’t the right word, since she felt more like weeping than smiling right now. They were things that gave her comfort, though.
Hiking one hip up on the wide windowsill, she peered out at Main Street below her. The sidewalks were filled with shoppers, both tourists and locals. Despite its remote location, Pinetop was a major tourist magnet. The town had been featured in dozens of magazines across the country as a community that celebrated Christmas year-round. Folks traveled from all over to do their holiday shopping here.
It was a lovely little mountain community, and she didn’t regret moving here. She’d done it to live near her only child. No complaints there. It was truly wonderful getting to see Christie as often as she wanted to. Ruby was secretly longing for the day that Christie and Roman would announce their first pregnancy.
Being a grandmother was something else she wanted so badly that it ached. The only thing in the world that could possibly top it was if she got to become both a wife and a grandmother.
Movement on the sidewalk below her made her insides tighten with apprehension. There was lots of movement happening down there, but she’d recognize the stride of one particular man anywhere, even a man as bundled up against the cold as he was.
Dean Isaacson had a distinctive way of walking. Unlike the countrified locals who moseyed their way down Main Street, or the bazillions of tourists who window-shopped their way down it, Dean always walked with purpose.
Despite her sadness, Ruby couldn’t hold back a smile. The fact that he’d been born and raised in Phoenix showed.
You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy.
Dean walked like a man in a hurry to get to where he was going. He didn’t stop and browse the windows of the many boutiques, or accept samples from the shop employees on the sidewalk who were holding out their trays of goodies. Nor did he keep walking right past her building.
And looked up.
And pushed back his beret to look up some more.
Before she could move away from the window, their gazes locked. She’d been caught staring at him. There was no point in pretending otherwise. They were friends, though. She was allowed to look back.
Forcing a smile, she fluttered her fingers at him.
Instead of smiling or waving back, he frowned. Then he pointed at the side of the building where the external stairs were located — the ones that led to her apartment.
She straightened in alarm. Was he really asking to come pay her a visit? Now?
It was a guilty reminder that she’d turned down his offer to catch lunch together after the parade. She’d claimed she was going home to take a nap.
She’d lied. She’d actually come back to her dismally empty apartment to mope. Unfortunately, she’d been caught by the very guy she’d been moping about.
Only after she gave a reluctant nod did Dean stride toward the stairs. His knock sounded on the door long before she was ready to face him. Swallowing a sigh, she shuffled her feet to her tiny entryway, a small pad of marbled gray tile. She swallowed hard as she threw back the deadbolt and let him in.
He shut the door behind him and locked it without looking. It was proof of how many times he’d visited her place.
“What’s wrong?” He pulled off his brown leather gloves and stuffed them in the pockets of his coffee-colored wool coat.
For a moment, all she could do was drink in the sight of his longish dark hair and rangy frame. The way he caressed her with his dark eyes never failed to take her breath away. He was an utterly gorgeous specimen of manhood. As an artist, he had to know that.
“Come on, Ruby. Talk to me.” He restlessly unbuttoned his coat. “Were you able to get some sleep?”
She folded her arms over her pale gray sweater, feeling suddenly cold. “I, um…no. I didn’t go to sleep. I laid down, though.”
“I can tell.” He shrugged out of his coat and hung it on the hall tree. Then he hung his hat on top of the same peg.
“Oh, really?” Instead of backing up a few steps to give him more room, she held her ground. “What gave me away?”
With a snort, he took her in his arms. “There’s a sleep line on your cheek, for one thing.” He ducked his head over her to lightly kiss the line in question.
The sweetness of the gesture made tears spring to her eyes. Without warning, they gushed down her cheeks.
Dean abruptly raised his head. “Ruby!” There was an agonized note in his voice. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head at him, more tears spilling down.
“Are you sick?” He reached up to gently touch her forehead with the back of his hand.
“No,” she choked. “I just…” I just want you to tell me that you love me. For once, I want to hear the words.
Still worriedly scanning her features, he demanded, “Can I get you anything? May I—”
“No.” She burrowed closer, hugging him tightly. “This is all I need.” Just you. Only you.
With a sigh, he pressed his cheek to the top of her head. “Come on, Ruby,” he coaxed softly. “You’re a girl, and I’m Mr. Mom, so I know when there’s something wrong with one of my two favorite females in the world.”
She gave a damp chuckle at his reference to being Mr. Mom, knowing he was referring to the fact that he’d pretty much raised his daughter by himself. He’d been a widower for nineteen years, a whole decade longer than she’d been alone.
“One of your two favorite females, huh?” That was something, considering that he thought the sun rose and set in his daughter, Hope.
His arms tightened around her. “You are very important to me, Ruby.”
“How important?” She inwardly cringed as the words left her mouth. She hadn’t meant to speak her thoughts aloud. Or maybe she had.
He raised his head to gaze down at her. “Are you sure you’re ready to hear this?”
“I don’t know.” As she tipped her face up to his, more tears cascaded downward. “I guess it depends on what you have to say.”
“I love you. That’s what I have to say.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “You do?”
“Yes. Not sure why you look so surprised.” His scowl deepened. “I’ve spent the past year, uh…” He shook his head at her, looking at a loss for words.
“Kissing me,” she supplied softly. “Holding me. Spending time with me. Being my best friend and sounding board. The only other person in the world besides my daughter whom I could truly count on and truly trust.”
His gaze briefly dropped to her mouth. “Please assure me I haven’t ruined everything between us by telling you how I feel.” He reached up to gently wipe the wetness from her face. “I assumed you already knew.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Well, I haven’t pitched you out of my apartment yet.”
A warning light flared in his dark gaze. “Ruby—"
“I love you, too, Dean.”
He grew still. “Say that again, please.”
“I love you, Dean.”
His features softened with wonder. “Now punch me hard to make sure I’m awake.”
She gave a breathless laugh. “Sorry. I care for you too much to hit you.”
To her disappointment, he took a step away from her, but it was only to bend and hook her beneath her knees. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the sofa. Taking a seat, he settled her in his lap.
“When did you decide that you love me?” His voice was rough as he tugged her close again.
“I don’t know. It just happened.” She couldn’t believe he was interrogating her over it. “Somewhere between the thousands of kisses you’ve showered me with during the past eleven months.”
His hard mouth quirked. “I was trying. Wasn’t sure it would work with you, though.”
She frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
He reached for her left hand and gently circled the pads of his fingers around her ring finger. “You still had your wedding ring on when we first met. You had it on during our first kiss, too.”
“First kisses,” she corrected with an impish look. “It was more than one.” It had been at least ten. She’d lost count.
“You had it on the next day, too,” he reminded.
“I know.” She recalled the intense debate she’d had with herself, and the feelings of guilt that had followed, propelling her to keep her wedding ring on for a few more weeks. “I’d worn it for so many years that it had become a part of me. It was hard to take it off. It almost felt wrong.” The feel of emptiness on her hand afterward had really knocked the wind out of her.
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Dean’s gaze grew shuttered. “From everything you’ve told me, you had a good marriage. I didn’t want to stomp all over your memories like that. I still don’t.”
“You’re not,” she assured quickly. “It’s just that being a wife and a mother had largely defined my existence up to that point. Moving forward from there was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It was…” She paused, searching for the right word.
“Terrifying. I know.”
She nodded, grateful to him for choosing just the right word. “For you, too, huh?”
A fresh sheen of tears formed over her eyes. “I just wanted to do the right thing for my daughter. Honoring the memory of her father was part of that.”
“It was for me, too.” His smile was infused with nostalgia. Not sadness, though.
She took heart in that. “You’re an incredible father, Dean Isaacson. And an incredible painter and an incredible man. I’m so honored to find out that you love me. I…”
The look in his eyes made her stop talking as he palmed her cheek and drew her mouth to his.
“The honor is all mine, sweetheart.” He tenderly claimed her lips.
Knowing that he loved her made her heart soar to dizzying heights. Her tiredness from earlier disappeared as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
When he finally broke off the kiss, her insides were one big tangle of wild and pure joy.
“I love you so much, Ruby. I’m never going to stop loving you.” His hoarse words surrounded her, making her heart race.
If happiness was a liquid, it would surely be pouring out of her ears by now. “So, where do we go from here?” she whispered. She was tired of being single. Tired of living in an apartment. She was so ready to be not single and in a home of her own again.
A home of our own, she mentally corrected herself.
Though his eyes were smiling at her, his mouth twisted in a grimace. “I want to ask you a question so badly right now that it’s killing me. But raising a daughter by myself has taught me that some things in life are meant to come with a little more fanfare.”
Her heart leaped at the possibility he was referring to a marriage proposal.
He dipped his head closer to touch his forehead to hers. “Not that I’m complaining about how you look in flannel pants and cat slippers…”
A giggle escaped her as he hitched her closer.
“But the question I have for you would best be asked over a sleigh ride through the snow, followed by dinner at our favorite café down the street. Maybe the owner can rustle up some candles for us like the ones you have burning on the other side of the room.”
“Yes!” Her happy answer made them both chuckle. She leaned away from him so she could watch his expression. “Does this mean we’re officially dating?”
He gave her an incredulous look. “Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?”
She shrugged helplessly. “You never, well…asked.”
He made a choking sound. “Call it whatever you want, but you’re mine, Ruby. The whole town knows it.” The look he gave her was fiercely possessive. “And now you know it.”
Her heart was so full that she hardly knew what to say next.
He reached for her chin and tipped it this way and that, drinking her in with his dark gaze.
“What?” She would give anything to know what he was thinking.
“I want to paint you.” He made a restless movement, as if preparing to remove her from his lap so he could stand.
“Now?” she gasped.
“Yes, now.” He gestured at her face. “I’ve always been fascinated by your eyes. I’ve made no secret about it. But the way you’re looking at me right now is something that most painters only dream about.”
“What do you see?” She knew what he meant, but she selfishly wanted to hear him say it out loud.
“Love.” He stood with her and set her on her feet. “For me.”
She glanced worriedly down at her PJ bottoms. “The way I feel about you isn’t going anywhere. You know that, right?”
“Please, Ruby. I don’t care how you’re dressed. I just want to capture this moment. It's something I need to do.” He gently tugged her toward the door.
“Well, how can a girl say no to that?” She slid from his grasp and took a step toward her bedroom. “I’ll be right back.” There was no way she was letting him paint her in her cat slippers. Or her flannel pants, for that matter. She was thrilled to pieces to let him capture her love for him on canvas, though, so long as she was wearing a holiday dress.
Red, she decided. The color of roses and the deepest emotions two people could evoke in each other.
The color of love.