After Tilda, Maybelle Linberg cornered him. Renner danced with her only once. Poor Maybelle had to keep Garnet from turning the North Pole prop into a stripper pole.

At the bar he ordered another beer and found himself face-to-face with Susan Williams, owner of Buckeye Joe’s. Even Susan exuded the holiday spirit in a pair of reindeer antlers.

“Surprised to see me, Jackson?”

“You’re always working, Williams. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you outside of the bar.”

“And ain’t that a sad state of affairs?”

“It is if you’re not happy. So, who’s runnin’ Buckeye’s tonight?”

“No one. I closed it since everyone in town was gonna be here.” She toasted him with a drink that appeared to be eggnog. “Cheers. Helluva place you’ve got. Glad you didn’t open a public bar. I couldn’t compete.”

“Wasn’t my intention to compete with the businesses in Muddy Gap. My goal is to become part of the community, not apart from it.”

“I’d say so far you’re doin’ a good job.”

“Thanks.” He found a spot where he could watch the goings on, and keep an eye out for Tierney. He hadn’t seen the woman yet, but he knew she was here someplace.

The slow song by Keith Urban ended, but Bran and Harper Turner kept dancing, so lost in each other that Renner’s heart ached. What would it feel like to have that bone-deep kind of love? And not care who knew you felt that way about the person who filled you with that love?

You’re a sentimental fool.

As the next slow song started, more couples joined Harper and Bran. Including Hank and Lainie Lawson, although they weren’t dancing close, given Lainie’s pregnant state. Abe led Janie onto the dance floor, crushing her against his chest—Renner wondered how Janie could breathe, but Janie’s face read joy, not oxygen starvation. Over the last few weeks, things had changed between Janie and Abe. He just hoped Janie was smart enough not to run this time.

Several of Hank, Abe and Bran’s buddies were dancing with the Mud Lilies—Ike with Pearl, Fletch with Tilda, and Eli with Maybelle. Tobin was stuck with Garnet again, but he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Everyone was paired up.

Everyone but you.

Since he’d had one beer, he couldn’t even blame his melancholy mood on booze.

But he could blame his agitation on the woman who’d set this shindig up, who was MIA.

He wended his way through the crowd on a mission to find her. She wasn’t lurking by the buffet tables. She wasn’t in line for the bathroom. She wasn’t lingering near the bar. For some reason when the song ended, he glanced at the main doorway leading to the dining room and saw her.

Only her.

He stilled.

She stilled.

Everyone and everything faded into the background.

She was a goddess. An angel. A siren in a red dress.

Then he moved toward her without conscious thought.

In that instant, as Tierney was backlit by the glow of the exit sign, Renner knew he loved her. Not because she wore a slinky dress or the sleek way she’d styled her hair, or the sweet smile on her red lips, but because she’d waited for him. She’d seen him and stopped, knowing he’d come to her.

He stood before her, a changed man, a man in love with her for Christsake, and he couldn’t seem to make his mouth function.


Tierney, his beautiful brainiac, placed her hand on his chest above his heart, like she did whenever they were alone. “What’s wrong?”

I love you.


“Dance with me.”

“What?” Her hand dropped. “No.”

“Yes. Now.”

“No way. I’m a terrible dancer.”

“I’m not. Just follow my lead.”

“Are you crazy? People are watching us.”

“I don’t care.”

“People who don’t like each other usually don’t dance together,” she pointed out. “We’re not supposed to like each other, remember?”

“So act like you hate that I’m dragging you onto the dance floor with me.” Renner snagged her hand.

“I cannot believe you’re making me do this,” she muttered. “It’s unnatural.”

“You bein’ resistant to my charms in public is natural.” He fought the temptation to tuck her against his chest and rest his chin on the top of her head. “But there’s no resistance in private, is there, sweet darlin’?”

Tierney was having none of it. She pulled farther away. “What’s gotten into you?”

“You.” He spun them so no one could see his face. So he could show her the heat in his eyes. “Where’d you get the dress?”

“I bought it from Harper a couple of weeks ago. Why? Don’t you like it?”

Renner leaned closer. “I f**king love it. You are so goddamn gorgeous you make it hard for me to f**king breathe.”

Her eyes went a soft, liquid brown. “Oh, you suck. Giving me a compliment like that when I can’t even kiss you.”

He turned his head, allowing his mouth to touch the shell of her ear. Her shudder of pleasure mollified him until he could elicit the real thing when they were alone. “You can kiss me any time you want. But if you need a little prompting, I’m sure Garnet would let you borrow her mistletoe.”

“Right. Us. Kissing.”


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