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Chapter One

“Where’s your mind at today, Katie?” Sam asked when she dropped the lug wrench again. He picked it off the machine shed floor and handed it to her once more, frowning.

Her face heated with embarrassment as she accepted the tool from her older brother. She couldn’t meet his eyes. “Sorry. I’ve got some issues I’m trying to work out in my head. I’ll put them aside for later.”

He stepped closer to the tractor engine she was working on. “Is it something I can help with? I’ve been worrying about you lately. You seem tense, on edge. That isn’t like you.”

She kept her head down and focused on the task she’d been battling for over an hour this morning. He was right. Of the triplet sisters, she was usually the most easy-going, happy, and satisfied with her life. At least she had been until early this year. For most of this year she’d been acting. She had a huge secret and she’d never been one for secrets, so this was eating at her. It was time she dealt with the consequences of her impulsive act last February, while on the one and only vacation she had ever taken. She would never take another one. She couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly.

“Is it something your sisters can help with?” he pressed.

“It’s personal.” She hoped the bluntness in her tone would end this unwanted conversation. “Kiley and Korey have their own lives to deal with.” And two men determined to talk them into getting married. None of the sisters were big on the idea, each for their own reason. “I can take care of my little problem all on my own, big brother.”

Make that, she hoped she could. Well, on her own, with the help of a lawyer. But it couldn’t be someone from around here, which was another whole glitch to work out. There were times living in a small community was problematic. Everyone quickly knew everyone’s personal issues. She’d prefer that hers didn’t become fodder for the gossip mill.

“Maybe you need some time away from the ranch. It’s been a while since you had some fun. If you went out with some friends or with—”

She turned her head to glower at him and cut him off. “Do not try to set me up again! No, no, no! Focus on your sorry love life instead. Not mine.”

His expression turned sour, his forehead pinched in irritation. He heaved a deep sigh. It was okay for him to play matchmaker, but his love life – or lack of one – was not to be discussed. With her sisters recently semi-settled into relationships, he’d turned all of his efforts toward her. The difficult part was that he kept trying to find women to match her up with. Her fault. Tired of his matchmaking attempts and determined to keep her awkward secret, she’d told her family that she was a lesbian. She’d never had those inclinations, but evidently she’d been too convincing. Her sisters weren’t nearly so naïve, though.

“Do you have any suggestions about Christmas gifts for your sisters? Or something for couples: Kiley and Ethan, Korey and Dante?” He changed the subject and she was grateful.

Except that for the first time ever, the matter of Christmas wasn’t something she liked to think about. The man she’d married – Santo Diego Closs Rodriguez, who went by Santo Closs – was known in the business world as Mr. Christmas. He owned three mega successful businesses: Everything Santa, Elf Help, and All Things Christmas. He had several thousand employees, was a self-made near billionaire, and looked like a Latin Greek god. Plus, he was super talented in the bedroom, even if pretty dominant, which she was okay with. He had everything but a wife and the three children he’d told her were part of his life plan.

Technically speaking, he had a wife: her. Until they ended their marriage of convenience at the end of this year, as discussed before they’d parted ways in February. She needed to stop thinking about this matter for now. Later, when she was alone in her bedroom, she would concentrate on her next step. A step that made her stomach uneasy and she wasn’t sure why.

“Done.” Finished with her latest task as the ranch mechanic, she climbed off the step stool and glanced at her brother. For just a second, she wondered why some woman hadn’t snatched him up already. He was majority owner of a good-sized ranch. He treated a lady well, wasn’t a bad boot scooter, could even cook, and was respected in the community. Although she was his sister and biased, she had to admit that he was pretty darn handsome. Maybe it was time his sisters tried their hand at matchmaking.

That was an idea for another day.

“So what else is on your list of maintenance chores for me?”

“The truck we use for hauling fence supplies is leaking oil again. And Kiley’s VW bug needs the brakes looked at. Plus…” He stopped and shook his head. “Those jobs should keep you busy the rest of the day, maybe tomorrow as well.”

“I’m thinking about asking the boss for a raise,” she teased him with a smile.

He chuckled. “Need more money for that truck you’re rebuilding?”

She nodded. If she wasn’t working on one of the many pieces of ranch machinery, someone’s truck or car, she spent time on one kind or another pet project. This fall she’d been focusing on turning an F-150 she’d bought at an auction into a mud truck for racing.

She walked to a workbench along the wall and grabbed a rag to wipe the grease off her hands. People often said she was the most feminine of the sisters because she wore a lot of dresses or at least very girly shirts with her jeans. Her workdays, though, were spent in grease-covered overalls or raggedy jeans and tattered tee shirts. She was not the kind of woman who painted her nails and had facials.

“I haven’t started thinking about gifts yet. Guess I’d better, since this is the first of December and Christmas is just over three weeks away,” she said, getting back to that subject.

Six days after that she needed to be well into the process of getting a divorce. For some reason that really depressed her, which was ridiculous. They’d been together a total of two and a half weeks, nine months ago. It wasn’t as if she and Santo had a real marriage.

***

Santo looked out the window of his corner office on the ninth floor of Closs Enterprises. On this early December morning, the sky was clear blue without a cloud to be seen. The view of San Diego Harbor and Balboa Park was exceptional. He had been in the city for almost twenty years and it should feel more like home to him than it did.

He took a sip of the gingerbread latte he favored this time of year and let his memories wash over him for a minute. There had been a time when San Diego had felt like where he wanted to live forever, back when his first wife, Theresa, was alive. When she’d died ten years ago, his life had gone off track. They’d had such plans, such dreams. The only thing left from that time was the business they’d started together. Elf Help had survived the woman behind the dream. He’d added two other Christmas-related businesses since then.

His thoughts were disturbed by the arrival of his newest and youngest office assistant. “Abigail wanted me to remind you to check your schedule for the week over again. She added several appointments after you left yesterday.”

“I already did,” he said, feeling the beginning of a headache as he faced her. With a weak smile, he added, “I’m not sure I can keep up this heavy of a schedule. I’m getting too old.” He was only forty-two, but at this time of year when his businesses required so much extra time, he felt almost ancient.

The twenty-something redhead blinked at him. “You’re not too old.” She blushed. “You were teasing, weren’t you?”

He took mercy on her because she had been with his company for only a couple of weeks. She didn’t really know him. “You’re right. But there are days, especially this time of year, when I feel much older than I am.”

As she gave a nod of understanding and left, he thought about the many meetings with his boards scheduled for this week and the holiday parties he was supposed to attend this month. The boards were preparing to discuss how the year had gone and the plans for next year. For the first time since he’d started the businesses, he wasn’t excited about any of it. This year even the idea of going to the various parties wasn’t appealing. As successful as he was and with as many friends as he had, he still felt empty inside. Alone.

His parents wanted him to spend Christmas with them in Tucson. No, not just him. They wanted them to spend the holiday together. Them being he and his wife, Katie.

He stared into the distance and thought about the sensitive brunette beauty he’d met at a Valentine’s Day wedding of a cousin in Maui. She’d been there as a friend of the bride and from the minute they’d been introduced, he’d been entranced by her. He still wasn’t sure what had sparked his interest. He’d gone out with a number of beautiful women since Theresa’s death. Several had almost made him decide to take another chance on marriage. But he just hadn’t been able to follow through with the idea.

What he remembered most about Katie was her smile. She had a way of making you feel special just by experiencing it. Her easy, warm laugh had spellbound him as well. Not overly an extrovert, she had a way of fitting in with everyone, strangers or not.

She’d told him that she was there on her first vacation. The wedding had been the incentive for her to finally leave the ranch in Kansas where she lived with her brother and two sisters. She was one of nearly identical triplets, something that intrigued him. But then there had been a lot about her that had fascinated him. They’d done a lot of dancing, drinking, and talking at the reception. And they’d ended up spending the weekend together at his second home near Lahaina.

He felt an erection starting, as happened whenever he thought about that time… and that woman. He’d never expected her to be so complex. She was a mixture of softness, gentle passion, and had an unexpected side that had definitely made things more interesting. A man with a dominant nature that hadn’t appealed to Theresa or any other woman he’d dated, he’d been pleasantly surprised at discovering the submissive lover side of Katie.

What had surprised him the most was how his parents had fallen in love with her. They’d seen something between them and somehow they’d brainwashed him into needing to marry her. He’d been lost in lust. Poor Katie had gotten caught up in his mother’s romantic whirlwind. They’d gotten married before either of them had really thought everything through. Fortunately, they’d both come out of their sexual haze after the wedding night and realized their mistake.

She hadn’t wanted to hurt his parents, loving woman that she was. They’d agreed that it had been a marriage of convenience and nothing more. They played the happy newlyweds right up until his parents went home to Tucson. She’d returned to Kansas the next day after she’d convinced him to wait on getting a divorce until the end of the year. Again, she hadn’t wanted to hurt his parents.

So, they’d separately communicated off and on with his parents and with each other since then. But their time for this strange marriage was up, the fantasy would end soon. Still, he hadn’t started the divorce arrangements and he didn’t think she had, either.

His phone buzzed and Abigail, his executive assistant, said with concern, “Your mother is on line one.”

Sucking in a breath, he considered having her tell his mother that he couldn’t talk right now and that he would call her later.

“Talk to her,” Abigail prodded him insistently.

With any other employee he would be upset and remind them about exactly who he was: their boss. But Abigail had been with him from the start. She had been with him during Theresa’s devastating fight with cancer, helped him through his grief, and she knew about Katie. She’d been unhappy with him about not being honest with his parents. She’d warned him this whole situation would one day bite him in the butt. And it was.

“All right, I’ll talk to her.” He could almost see Abigail’s smug smile. When she disconnected, he punched the other line and barely managed to say, “I don’t have much time, Mom.”

She huffed. “You never do.”

A fact that made him feel worse. “Why are you calling?” He was almost certain he knew and didn’t really want to hear her response.

“Your father and I have bought airline tickets for you and Katie, for the day after Christmas. I’ll email the details later today.”

Oh hell! It was worse than he’d thought. “Mom—”

“We also bought tickets for us to come see you two, if you insist that you can’t come here.”

He groaned. Yes, this mess was definitely biting him in the ass. He needed to think this new problem through. “I really don’t have time to discuss this right now.”

“There isn’t anything more to discuss, Santo. Either the two of you come here… or we’re coming there.” Before he could protest, she disconnected.

He slumped in his desk chair and took another sip of the latte. His headache was pounding. What the hell was he going to do? This was Katie’s fault. No. This was his fault because he hadn’t insisted on getting a divorce months ago. His reluctance to end the marriage that wasn’t really a marriage puzzled him too. He still wanted to have children, a family, but not with someone like Katie. They had nothing in common. They wanted different things in life, didn’t they?

How little he knew about her was something that haunted him. Most of what he knew centered on sex and meeting each other’s needs. She’d let him do whatever he pleased. Theresa had never been so agreeable or so loving. A thought that made him feel guilty, for the way he’d treated both women. One he’d enjoyed being with and thought he’d spend the rest of his life with. The other he desired more than any other woman and had no future with.

Resigned to having to deal with the sham of a marriage, he picked up his phone. It was time to make an appointment with his attorney. Katie had refused to sign any kind of prenuptial agreement before the wedding. He hoped that he hadn’t made a huge mistake by not pushing the matter. She could turn out to be money hungry and try to get every dime she could. He doubted it, though. She didn’t seem like that kind of woman. She seemed like… a woman he wished he could have in his life.

Sadly, he couldn’t. Besides, she hadn’t given him any hints that she wanted him for longer than she’d promised him.

***

“Holy cow! Where did you get this?” Korey gasped as she picked up a ring from the bottom of Katie’s jewelry box. She spun around and faced her sisters where they sat on the side of Korey’s bed. “This looks suspiciously like an engagement ring.”

Katie paled, heart racing in panic, as she sat on the bench by Korey’s dressing table. How had she forgotten she’d put the ring in there? Why had she brought the box for her sister to dig through, looking for their mother’s old bracelet that she wanted to wear to a special party? At least Korey hadn’t seen the wedding band hanging on the chain around her neck.

Kiley leaned closer and gaped at the diamond ring. “What is this, five carats? Ten?”

Katie didn’t want to answer. But she knew her sisters well enough to know they wouldn’t let this drop. Her secret was about to come out, and maybe that was for the best. Lately, keeping it to herself had started making her almost ill. It was the pressure of the looming deadline. There was no reason to be dreading the divorce, but…

Her sisters walked over and stood right in front of her, eyes narrowed in irritation. “Tell us about this. Right now,” Kiley demanded.

Katie focused on the elegant engagement ring that was far too expensive and lavish for her tastes. She’d been engaged all of a day before the wedding. A lot of that time was a blur. Her hand shook as she pulled the necklace from beneath her blouse and let them see the thin gold wedding band. As they stared in shock, she said quietly, “I’m married.”

“You’re married? Are you joking?” Korey asked, shaking her head in disbelief. “When? How? Married?”

“Why weren’t we there?” Kiley demanded, looking seriously hurt.

Suddenly they hurried beside her and leaned down to hug her at the same time. She was crying and hadn’t even realized it.

“Oh, honey.” Korey gently patted her back and stepped away. Instead of looking angry as she had a minute ago, her eyes held concern.

They waited while she pulled herself together and considered how to explain the mess she’d made of her life. She didn’t know where to start.

Before she could figure it out, they heard heavy footsteps in the hallway. Sam. Her stomach knotted. She wasn’t ready to tell him any of this yet.

An instant later their brother walked into the doorway, jaw tight with fury. “There is a Santo Closs on the phone for you, Katie.” He blew out a deep breath before adding, “He wants to speak with his wife.”

“No!” she gasped. Santo had called her? They had only communicated by email or text before now. Why the change? And why had he asked for his wife? They hadn’t planned to tell her family at all about the marriage. She’d convinced him that it wouldn’t be necessary, and he’d agreed.

She should be running for the phone and yelling at him for making everything worse. But she didn’t move. All she could manage to do was sit in misery on the bench and sob.

Sam blinked at her surrounded by her sisters and said in acceptance, “It’s true, isn’t it?”

 


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