Cowboy Grumpy Boss for Christmas
A closer peek at Team Hofstetter...
A VERY COUNTRY CHRISTMAS WISH #6
Chad Hofstetter had been keeping a secret from his wife — his very pregnant, very exhausted wife, who was nearing the end of her second trimester. He hoped that telling her his secret this afternoon would cheer her up a little. Actually, he was hoping it would cheer her up a whole lot.
Shelly hadn’t been her usual mouthy self for the past few weeks, and it was really bothering him. Yeah, she was expecting their third child and that was a huge deal, something a rugged, oversized lumberjack like himself would probably never fully understand. However, he was starting to worry something else might be wrong.
He was half-afraid that the surprise baby shower her friends were throwing for her this evening might be too much. His wife was that tired after a full week of serving as an office manager by day and the mother of two by night. It was why he was cutting out of work a few hours here and there every chance he got. She needed his help more than ever, and he intended to be there for her.
As worried as he was about her condition, the thought of returning home to spend more time with her and the kids gave his own tired limbs a much-needed shot of energy. It had been a long week of logging and running the sawmill. His company had grown so much in the last two years that it was getting to be too much to run by himself.
The secret he had to tell Shelly was going to change that, though. It was going to change everything.
He resisted the urge to break into a dance as he strode to his work truck. His team of loggers would never let him live it down if they caught him doing it. He was already leaving work early on a Friday afternoon, a fact that had stirred an endless amount of teasing in their ranks.
It's alright, boss man. We know you wear down early these days.
Being a Papa Bear will put frost at your temples, for sure.
His all-time favorite one was this:
We know who really calls the shots on Team Hofstetter, and it ain’t you.
They already teased him nonstop about all the happiness he’d been bleeding lately, claiming he was a Big Leaguer now and accusing him of “stacking” his own team. It was a mix of baseball humor and sawmill humor, which was kind of hilarious. Not that he’d given them the satisfaction of so much as cracking a smile at their jokes.
As far as he was concerned, he had every right to be excited about becoming a dad times three. They were right about the Team Hofstetter stuff, though he and Shelly sort of took turns calling the shots. The fact that they were such a close team was why he knew she wasn’t herself right now. Whatever was bothering her, she was simply going to have to lay it on him. Today. Now. That was why he’d cleared his schedule for the rest of the day.
That, and the fact that he’d promised to get Shelly out of the house for a half hour or so, in order for their friends to rush over and decorate for the baby shower.
It would be the perfect time to share his secret. And since he wanted her to be the first to hear it, he needed to tell her pronto. In a town as small as theirs, he had no hope of keeping his secret under wraps much longer.
His boots crunched over the gravel in the parking lot in front of the sawmill office. Reaching his old red work truck, he leaned over the side of the bed, straightening a few tools to keep them from rattling up a storm on the short drive back to the ranch. Then he reached up to give his ladder on the rack a good shake for the same reason.
Satisfied that both would stay put, he yanked open his door and eased himself carefully behind the wheel. Guys his size barely fit in standard-sized trucks. Every time he got in a hurry, he bumped his head on the door frame or slammed his knees into the dashboard. Someday, he was going to buy a custom truck that was more Chad-sized.
Or a small bus. One of guys who worked for him had just this morning joked about upsizing to a bus since he was busy growing his own baseball team. It wasn’t an entirely bad idea.
He started the truck and revved the motor a few times to wake up the ancient Ford pickup. It did a fair amount of choking and coughing before settling into a healthier purr. Yeah, he could afford to replace it. No, he didn’t plan to. His truck was like a very well-broken-in, very comfortable pair of jeans. He wasn’t putting it out to pasture until it had coughed its last cough. Even then, he might just have Wes down at Pinetop Auto rebuild the engine or something.
His drive from the sawmill led him down Main Street, a street that was as festive looking in April as it was in December. Though the snow was long gone, big tinsel-wrapped ornaments were still mounted to the streetlights — gold, red, and green angels, bells, candy canes, stars, presents, and wreaths.
And right smack in the middle of the busy commerce section of town was the building he’d just finished purchasing. That was his secret. Well, the first part of it, anyway.
It was going to take some pretty hefty renovating to turn the former antique emporium into the toy and furniture building wonderland he envisioned, but it was something he and Shelly would brainstorm together. She had an incredible knack for stuff like that, something he’d discovered while watching her sketch out the latest addition to their farmhouse.
He'd inherited more than a hundred acres of woodland on the other side of town from where they lived, on which he would’ve happily built her a bigger home with an even more spectacular view. However, he seriously doubted he’d ever talk her into moving from their farmhouse on Bear Mountain Ranch. Her parents lived on one side of them. Her brother, Brady, and his new wife, Adeline, lived on the other side. They were family, and there was no price tag you could put on that.
Chad punched a button to open the garage door as he pulled into their driveway. However, he parked outside and killed the motor. He hadn’t parked inside the garage for over a year. It was too full of bikes, strollers, and other stuff piled next to their family vehicle, a silver Land Rover. The SUV surprisingly still had that new car smell clinging to it after a few months of carting their six-year-old daughter, Suzy, and nearly two-year-old son, Gentry, around in it. It might only be because of the new-car-scented air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror, but still.
He remained in his truck for a few extra seconds to text Shelly’s best friend, Carol.
Just got home. I’ll let you know when the coast is clear.
He whistled as he picked his way carefully through the land mine of children’s toys, lifting the overturned tee-ball holder on his way to the door. To his surprise, the house was dead silent when he walked in.
“Babe?” He kicked off his boots by the back door and pulled his ball cap around as he stepped into the kitchen. It was easier to kiss his wife without a hat brim in the way.
She wasn’t in their cheerful country kitchen with the buffalo red-and-white table runner she'd sewn for the breakfast nook in the corner. Or the living room with its comfortable overstuffed furniture and massive area rug that covered most of the hardwood flooring he’d personally cut, stained, and laid there. She wasn’t at her sewing table in the corner of the laundry room, either.
He gentled his steps as he neared the bedroom, wondering if she’d decided to spend her day off in bed. The more he thought about it, the more he hoped that was the case. She needed rest. Badly. If only there was a way to bottle some of it and save it up for when baby number three arrived!
He stopped short at the sight of their king-sized bed. It looked nothing like the one he’d crawled out of before daybreak this morning. A brand new red-and-white buffalo plaid comforter was tucked up beneath the pillow shams. Since it was identical to the table runner in the kitchen, he could only presume she’d sewn it herself.
A green and white striped flannel sheet was pulled back a few inches at the top, bringing to mind spearmint candy canes. His favorite. A berry-red quilted duvet was folded across the foot of the bed. A long, white-on-red embroidered pillow completed the ensemble. The words Faith, Family & Home were stitched across it.
Which still didn’t explain where Shelly was.
“Babe?” he repeated a little louder. His heart thumped with apprehension as he made his way through the bedroom toward the bathroom.
A distinctly feminine sniffle stopped him in his tracks. It was coming from their walk-in closet. The sliding barn door leading into it was pulled wide open.
“Shelly?” He burst through the doorway and found her critically eyeing her reflection in the tall dressing mirror. “There you are.”
At the sight of the tears slicking her cheeks, he hurried her way to circle his arms around her from behind. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing,” she grumbled. “Just trying not to look like a buffalo in every outfit I try on.” As she melted against his chest, another tear streaked down her face.
“Shells,” he muttered, dipping his head to kiss the soft side of her neck. He had to move aside a handful of her hair to reach it. Tangling his callused fingers in the long, dark, silky strands felt like heaven. “You look nothing like a buffalo. Trust me.” The green, white, and black knit dress she had on was hugging her in all the right places.
He slid his hands down her shoulders and arms to cup her swollen belly. “Nope. You don’t feel like one, either. All that’s here is my super-hot wife with batter number three warming up in the box.”
She gave another damp-sounding chuckle. “I’m surprised you haven’t upgraded to basketball analogies. Or beachball.” Her words ended in another sniffle. “My belly has been pulled and kicked in so many directions, I’m worried it’s not going to snap back into place this time, after—”
He silenced her with a kiss. He couldn’t think of any other way to show her that nothing on the planet was going to keep him from loving her.
The soft sigh she gave was all the invitation he needed to deepen their kiss.
One of her arms crept up to loop around his neck, holding him there. “What are you doing home so early?” She spoke against his lips, sounding a little less tearful than before.
“This.” He kissed her again.
“No, really.” A hint of laughter crept into her voice.
His heart lightened at the sound. “I was hoping to steal you away for a quick drive to town. There’s something I want to show you.”
“I can’t go like this,” she gasped, attempting to slide from his embrace.
He didn’t let her. “Why not? I haven’t finished looking my fill of you in that dress.” She’d paired it with nude ankle boots and a gold ankle bracelet. She was truly breathtaking. How could she not see that?
“Chad!” A blush crept across the apple peaks of her high cheekbones.
“Shelly.” Unable to resist, he reached up to trail a finger across the rosy redness of one cheek.
“It was a really bad idea to buy a dress with lines in it,” she grumbled, returning her attention to her reflection. “I’d rather die than let anyone see how badly I’m stretching them out.”
His eyebrows shot upward. “A little late for that, don’t you think?”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “I meant other people.”
Better. He was relieved to hear her getting some of her old sass back. Pretending to be offended, he curled his upper lip at her. “Don’t my opinions count?”
“In this case, no. Sorry, mister.” With a grimace, she finally succeeded in twisting out of his arms. “You’re way too nice to tell me I’m fat.”
He snorted. “Did you just call me nice?” He was a lumberjack, for crying out loud. He had a tougher reputation to maintain.
Her scowl deepened. “Is that all you got out of that statement?”
“’Fraid so. Guess I’d better set you straight on the matter.” Without any further ado, he scooped her unceremoniously into his arms and carried her out of the bedroom toward the garage.
With a muffled yelp, she gripped his shoulders. “Put me down, you big doofus!”
He was enjoying himself way too much to set her back on her feet just yet. “I thought you said I was nice.”
“I take it back.”
“Too late.” Yeah, his woman was definitely back, and all it had taken was a little caveman behavior on his part. No way was he stopping now. He stepped into his boots at the door and kept walking.
“At least tell me where you’re taking me,” she begged through her giggles.
“And spoil the surprise? Not a chance.” He carried her to his side of the truck. He’d left the door open. Easing her inside, he climbed in after her.
“Oh, all right,” she muttered, glancing down to clasp her seatbelt.
He took advantage of the momentary distraction to text Carol again.
We’re in the truck. It’s go time!
“This had better be good, though,” Shelly muttered as she gave the seatbelt a tug to loosen it. “I have a thousand things to get done at home before the kids—”
He stopped her with another kiss. “It’s good.” I hope. His secret had taken an upfront investment, of course, making their family finances a little tighter in the short term. However, he was expecting a profitable summer and an even more profitable Christmas season. This was going to work. It had to.
They rumbled down the gravel road leading to the main highway. As they picked up speed, he reached for her hand.
“Is everything okay at work?” Her voice was soft with concern, inviting him to share the deepest, darkest parts of him.
“About that.” He cast a sideways look at her. “There’s been something I’ve been wanting to tell you. Just wanted to wait until the right time.”
She searched his face. “Should I be worried?”
“Nah. You do enough of that already.” He reached over to tweak her hair. “The secret I have to share with you today was specifically designed to make you worry less.”
“I see.” Her tone told him that she was as mystified as ever.
Main Street was so crowded when they reached the building he’d purchased that he was forced to keep driving past it. He circled around to the parking lot behind the building. It wasn’t as pretty as the front of the building, but it was still big and impressive.
“Whelp,” he announced cheerfully. “We’re here.”
She gazed cautiously around them. “Isn’t this the old antique emporium?”
“I thought it closed down.”
“And the building is for sale.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you trying to say—?”
“I bought it, Shells,” he affirmed with a happy nod.
She slowly shook her head. “Why?”
He waved his hands grandly at the building. “You’re looking at the home of our future furniture and toy shop.” He’d had to dip way into his savings to make the purchase, but it was going to prove worth it. He could feel it in his bones.
“Ours?” she repeated carefully. “Did you say ours?”
“Yep. Ever heard of the Merry Woodmakers?” He was pretty sure he’d seen one of their marketing postcards in a pile of their mail recently.
“Every business owner in Pinetop has heard of the Merry Woodmakers.” She gave him one of her duh looks. “They have a booth set up at the Christmas market in town every year.”
“What would you say if I told you they were going to keep their booth set up in town year-round?”
“I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just scream for joy. Loudly. And kiss you silly. They make the best children’s toys, Chad. High-quality, hand-crafted stuff out of real wood. Stuff that’s made to last.”
This was exactly the response he’d been hoping for. “They’ve agreed to go into business with us.” He pointed at the empty emporium building. “Right here. All that’s left is for you to look over the partnership agreement our attorneys have drawn up. Told them I won’t sign it until you give me the green light.”
Her lips parted in shock. Then a look of wonder stole over her features. “You can’t be serious!”
“Thought you were going to scream.”
Before he could finish getting the words out, her shriek of delight filled the truck cab. “Oh, Chad!” She launched herself into his arms…well, as much as possible with their seatbelts still strapped on. “This is so, so, so wonderful,” she babbled against his shoulder. “I know you’ve always wanted to open a furniture shop someday. I guess I just never imagined it would happen so soon. Wow!” She raised her head, eyes sparkling. “Details! Details!”
He briefly outlined his agreement with the man who owned and operated the Merry Woodmakers. “His wife and two daughters will be moving to town with him. As you may already be aware, all three are certified wood makers like himself.”
“His two daughters, huh?” Shelly sounded a little less enthused than before.
“Yep. Said it was all of them or none of them. They’re a package deal.”
“His daughters are young and single.” A cloud of suspicion wafted over her face. “And beautiful.”
“So are you,” he reminded, capturing her mouth in another soul-searing kiss. “The young and beautiful part, anyway. Not the single part. My fault. Don’t expect an apology, ‘cause you aren’t getting one.”
She laughed against his lips. “You say the nicest things to me in the meanest way.”
“And you love me for it. Rough edges and all.”
“The fact that I do,” she sighed, “isn’t making it any easier to picture my ruggedly handsome husband working next to two lovely single ladies.”
“Eh, they won’t be single forever. Plenty of lonely cowboys in this town, babe. I’m not one of them.” Thankfully. He stretched his arm across the seat behind her. “The best part about it is that their dad will be helping out at the sawmill office, too, which will free up more of my time to spend with you and the kids.”
Her whole face lit up. “Seriously, Chad?” Her sass and disgruntledness from earlier vanished. “You would seriously do this for me? For us?”
He couldn’t believe she felt the need to ask. Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones or something. Cupping her face in his palm, he locked gazes with her so she could read everything he was feeling. “You and the kids are my whole world.”
Her gorgeous dark eyes misted at his words.
“I don’t want to spend their entire childhood gone before they wake up every morning,” he continued, shaking his head regretfully. “And sometimes asleep before I get home.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too.” The way she was looking at him told him she was no longer worried about how she looked in her green plaid dress. He hoped she would forgive him for driving her home right smack into the middle of a party.
Knowing her bestie, she would probably be in a few dozen pictures in it before the day was over.
He started the truck motor and circled out of the parking lot, pulling back onto Main Street.
Shelly was silent for a moment. “Do you, um, want to grab some dinner before we go home?” She gave a self-deprecatory look town at her dress. “Not that I’m any more interested in being seen in this dress than I was when I first put it on.”
“You look amazing,” he assured, trailing his fingers lazily over the curve of her shoulder. “As for dinner, I have something else planned for us.”
“Ooo!” She looked intrigued. “Tell me.”
“Can’t. It’s a surprise,” he informed her loftily. “Just keep looking beautiful in that new dress of yours.”
“Ha ha.” Her voice was so dry that he wished there was a way to convince her that he really did think she was beautiful in it.
They turned on the gravel road leading to their home.
“Oh, my goodness,” Shelly leaned forward in her seat. “It looks like Carol is visiting my parents. I hope everything is okay.” Carol was the children’s pastor at The First Church of Pinetop.
“I’m sure they’re fine.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “Just in case, though, maybe we should pay them a quick visit after you change clothes.”
“I thought you said I look beautiful.”
“You do, but I’m not going to spend all evening defending your dress. If my baby doesn’t like it, it’s gotta go.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
She burst out laughing again as he turned off the motor and pushed his door open. “Throwing a new dress under the bus for me. I like it!”
“Of course, you would, princess.” He grinned as he held out his arms to her. “Ready for you next surprise?”
She nodded happily as she leaned into his embrace. They walked arm-in-arm across the crowded garage and through the door.
No sooner had they stepped into the living room did the house erupt.
“Surprise!” Friends and family crowded around them, hugging Shelly and shaking hands with Chad.
The way his wife’s face was blooming with happiness told him that she’d forgotten all about the green plaid dress.
He’d get an earful about it when she saw herself in the pictures afterward. She’d fuss at him. Then they’d make up with some kisses that never failed to steal the breath right out of his chest.
He couldn’t wait.