Any Given Christmas

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Game time.

Nothing in NFL quarterback Dean Silverthorne’s career of media blitzes, celebrity propaganda, and general mayhem had prepared him for the wedding day brouhaha in which he found himself immersed.

His formula for a happy marriage?

Stay single.

Not that he didn’t believe marriage worked. His parents proved it did with a thirty-six year union.

He just didn’t believe marriage would work for him.


He’d been smart enough to figure out that mystery of life at the age of fourteen. While his seventeen year old cousin had stood inside the smallest chapel in Deer Lick, Montana and pledged his life to a girl he’d knocked up but barely knew, Dean had been rolling in the hayloft of old man Wilson’s barn. One hand firmly on third base beneath Cathy Carlisle’s pretty pink tank top. The other sliding into home beneath her grass-stained 501s.

The misery Dean witnessed that day on his cousin’s face had compelled him to make himself two promises. Never get suckered, lured, conned, or tricked into exchanging the dreaded I Dos. And never ever let anything or anyone stand in the way of his dream to become a star NFL quarterback.

At thirty-four he could claim success to both.

For twenty years he’d played it smart and safe. Touchdown passes and reliable condoms. Victorious teams and supermodels more intent on magazine covers than putting a Mrs. before their names.

In his book, weddings and all the frou-frou crap they entailed were more trouble than an intercepted pass on the final play of the game. For years he’d avoided such occasions. Yet here he was smack dab in the heart of matrimony central stuffed into the monkey suit he only hauled out for awards banquets.

As he stood inside Deer Lick, Montana’s local Grange he glanced around the spacious room and almost laughed. Someone with a very twisted sense of humor had transformed the plain white cinder block walls he’d known as a kid into some kind of girly circus tent with twinkling fairy lights. The long deceased masters who’d built this farmers’ fortress must have turned in their overalls.

Though an early December snowstorm blew a bitter cold wind outside the big metal doors, inside the corners were draped with autumn bouquets wrapped in gold ribbons that swirled toward the concrete floor. Dinged up folding tables had been covered by white cloths and mirrored centerpieces reflected the glow of tapered white candles. The entire display was an outrageous departure from the usual sparseness of the women’s Friday night Bingo games or the annual Texas Hold ‘em tournament that stunk up the place with stale beer and cheap cigars. Even Kate’s big-pawed pup, who sat perfectly humiliated near the gift table, had been bedecked with a pink satin tux.

The redhead who’d bullied him into attending the event waltzed by on the arm of her new husband. The bride—aka his baby sister—had the balls to wink at his obvious discomfort.

“How’s the shoulder, Dean?” Edna Price clamped an arthritic hand over his good shoulder and smiled. Her weathered face crinkled like an old dry chamois.

“Great.” Thankful for ditching the arm sling that label him as weak, Dean rotated his shoulder slightly. A simple movement to prove he wasn’t in agony for the pain pills that would temporarily numb the ache.

“Bull pucky.” His mother’s dearest friend shook her blue-haired coif. “The minute that Denver tackle drilled you into the turf I told your daddy you was gonna be in a big hurt.”

Dean’s lips compressed so tight the blood drained from them. Big hurt didn’t begin to describe the pain that had sliced through him after that hit. The pain that had twisted in his shoulder like a dull-edged razor. The air had been sucked from his lungs and he’d barely managed to get up off that field. In a haze of agony he’d lifted his hand in a wave to his team and the fans before they carted him away to the locker room for a series of x-rays and MRIs.

He smiled now at Edna, and the blood flowed back into his lips. He refused to display an ounce of weakness. Whining was for pussies. “Just another day at the office, Mrs. Price.”

The sympathy in the older woman’s faded eyes told Dean he couldn’t fool someone who’d had her own share of pain. “Well, we’re real proud of you son. And we’re sure lookin’ forward to the Stallions winnin’ a spot in the Super Bowl this year.”

“Yeah,” Dean grumbled. “Me too.” Only he wouldn’t be there to participate. And didn’t that just piss him off.

Last year he’d let his team down. The coveted Lombardi had been within their reach. But in the final forty seconds of the game he’d stayed too long in the pocket. The defense had been fast and his feet hadn’t been quick enough to buy time for his receiver to get in position. He’d over-compensated. The pass flew over the receiver’s head and into the gloves of the opposing team who took the ball in for the winning touchdown. A rookie mistake. And he’d been no damn newcomer to the game.

The vicious sack he’d received during the Thanksgiving Day game last month had drilled his already ravaged shoulder into the unforgiving turf. As a result, he’d been placed on the injured list for the remainder of the season—or longer if he listened to the bullshit they tried to feed him in rehab.

His team had lost that day and now his guys had to rely on the backup QB to take them to the show. He’d failed them twice. No way in hell would he fail them again. No. Way.

A few of the boys had visited him after the surgery—his third within four seasons on the same shoulder. They’d apologized for not having his back. And they’d sworn they didn’t blame him for the loss that day. But anyone with eyes could see their disappointment. Hell, it burned in his gut.

While the guilt blazed, he returned his attention to the present, determined to sail through the remainder of the matrimonial festivities and get back to the real world.

After a few quick anecdotes of life on the NFL Super Highway and a hug that smelled faintly of moth balls and Listerine, Edna Price moved on. Dean downed his crystal flute of champagne.

The doctors were wrong.

Damned wrong.

He’d prove it to them and everyone else of little faith.

“Well, well. The hometown hero returns.”

Fawn Derick, the first girl in Jr. High he’d managed to educate on the finer points of ‘Show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ sauntered toward him in a little black dress and pearls.

Fawn no longer possessed the long, lithe body she’d once flaunted in tank tops, tight Wranglers and strappy little sandals. Now she had an excess of curves. Some natural. Some man-made. As she leaned in for an air kiss she pressed herself close enough for him to decide which was which. Even more impressive than Fawn’s after-market assets? The huge diamond on her finger she’d received from a rich Californian who played rancher.

“And you’ve just become more beautiful in my absence.”

Obviously flattered, Fawn leaned in for a full-breasted embrace. “Are you staying long?” she whispered against his ear.

Though Fawn had once been tempting and it might be fun to reminisce, for him, married women were more forbidden than women who salivated for a trip to the altar.

He gave a shrug that fired a spike of pain through his shoulder. “Once they break out the hokey pokey or the chicken dance, I’m outta here.”

Coffin black cat claws drifted down the sleeve of his Hugo Boss. “I meant are you staying long … in town.”

Not if he could help it. He had a life to get back to—one where a good time did not come with rules and attachments. Besides, he’d only be good for a day or two in his hometown before he became bored out of his mind. Or a target for females with big ideas.

The women in Deer Lick, God bless them, subdivided into three categories—single, married, and single again. They came in all shapes and sizes but they all had the same ambition—a band of gold around their finger and a ring through their intended’s nose. A wealthy NFL star quarterback like him made a prime target.

Fawn wasn’t the first tonight to let him know she might be open to a little action down at the Cottage Motel. As much as he hated to disappoint them, he didn’t do groupies, strangers, or anyone who may have a jealous significant other. He didn’t want to end up like the Ravens former Running Back who’d taken up with a groupie and ended up gut shot like an opening day buck. So to preserve his unrivaled reputation among the townsfolk and not to come off as a total ass, Dean turned on his aw shucks charm.

“Sorry, gorgeous, it would be great to get together like old times. Unfortunately I’ve got to get back to the team.”

Her hopes disintegrated with her smile. “But I thought—”

“Hey, big brother, they’re playing our song.”

With an exaggerated look of apology, Dean turned away from Fawn and her thinly veiled invitation toward his baby sister who gave him a smug smile that proclaimed she knew she’d just rescued his sorry ass. No doubt she intended to collect her reward later. So while Sinatra serenaded them, Dean swept his sister into his arms and out onto the dance floor. He’d deal with the painful repercussions later.

His heart gave a proud stammer when he looked down into her green eyes. Marriage may not be for him, but it already seemed to be sitting well with her. “Has anyone mentioned how breathtaking you are?”

“Just the man I married, you, and maybe a few dozen others. Who’s counting?” She gave him a wide grin and smoothed her hand over his injured shoulder in a motherly gesture. “You don’t look so bad yourself. A tux looks so much better on you than that stinky old football jersey.”

He chuckled to cover his flinch at even her softest touch. “That stinky old jersey generates million dollar contracts.”

“Happiness is not always about money, you know.”

“Is that how you convinced yourself to give up your glamorous Hollywood career?”

Au contraire, big brother, I didn’t have to convince myself of anything. My career appeased me, but it never brought me deep satisfaction. You know, the kind that makes you go ‘Oh yeah. This is it.’ But that man right there …” She tilted her bridal veil toward her new husband as he waltzed by and twirled his 70-year-old partner in her orthopedic shoes. “… he definitely gave me my ah-ha moment.”

“Uh-huh.” Dean let his gaze drift so he wouldn’t insult her with an eye roll. “You were surrounded by the Spielbergs, DeNiros and Madonnas of the world. What could possibly make one small town deputy stand out above the rest?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Honesty. Heart. Compassion. Not to mention the toe-curling sex.”

His gaze snapped back. “TMI, Kate.”

Her laughter rang as light as Christmas bells. “Someday you’ll find the right woman and fall in love. Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t fall in love.” He grinned. “Lust … is another matter.”

“Well, Mr. Perfect, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you will fall in love. And when that happens, you will be shocked down to your jock strap. Because nothing else in this world will be more important to you than every breath she takes.”

The catered hors d’oeuvres in his stomach dive-bombed at his sister’s use of the nickname he’d earned after his first flawless season at USC. Mr. Perfect. He couldn’t claim to be perfect anymore. Far fucking from it. “I doubt it. There are still too many long-legged blonds out there.”

“Silly me. By the tabloid covers I see at the Gas and Grub, I’d have thought you’d already sampled them all.”

“Nope. Still a few left. When I’m done with them I’ll move onto the brunettes.”

“You can talk smack all you want, big brother. But I know the real you. And that party-all-the-time playboy image you portray, isn’t the real you.”

“Says who?”

She laughed. “Says me. Because dad would kick your ass if you were truly that disrespectful.”

Dean smiled. Kate was right. He had a deep appreciation for women. He didn’t mind that he could have any woman he wanted, but he didn’t expect it. And he certainly never took advantage. But where baby sister was concerned he had no intention of letting down his guard. Otherwise the next thing he knew she’d have him set up in some cozy little cottage with a white picket fence, a wife, and 2.5 kids. Family meant everything to him. But appreciation didn’t mean he had to have one of his own.

While Sinatra sang about flying off to far Bombay, their sister Kelly, middle child and kick-ass prosecutor, twirled and wobbled by in the arms of the best man. James Harley’s wild reputation spanned the Rockies. Not exactly Kelly’s brand of testosterone. Kelly tilted her head back and giggled.

Giggled? Sister Serious? No way. “Our sister appears to be drunk,” Dean said. “And flirting.”

Kate glanced over her shoulder. “She’s having fun. Leave her alone.”

“You’re not worried she might do something stupid?”

“She’s a big girl,” Kate said. “And she deserves to have a little fun. The case she’s on is ugly and tragic. She’s not eating and she’s losing sleep. So if she lets her hair down for a night who the hell cares?”

“Not me?”

“Correct. Not you. And not me.”

After another quick check on their tipsy subject, he conceded. “I guess a little happiness never hurt anybody.”

Concern wrinkled Kate’s forehead. “I want you to be happy too, Dean. With something more than throwing a football.”

“Careful, you’re starting to sound like mom.”

“Really?” Her smile brightened. “Maybe that’s not so bad.”

This from the daughter who believed our mother out-wickeded the witch of the west?”

“Maybe I’ve changed my mind. We women are allowed to do that, you know.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “And the first thing mom would tell you would be to stop pushing yourself so hard.”

The look she gave him was all-knowing. But Kate didn’t know half of what she thought she knew. No one did. And no one would find out either.

Everything in his life was trashed. And for a moment, the tremendous losses stole his breath. He glanced away at the festive decorations. They reminded him of what his mother would create. Only this time she hadn’t. She hadn’t even been there to see her last born walk down the aisle.

Their mother had died suddenly a few short months ago. No warning. No goodbye. Just bam! She was gone.

His eyes stung and he blinked.

He missed her.

She’d been his biggest fan. And more times than not, his best friend. And it seemed as though now, Kate intended to pick up the baton.

“If that new husband of yours ever gets out of line, you better come to your big brother,” he said, steering the conversation away from himself.

“No way.” Kate tilted her head back and laughed. “If he gets out of line, I get to use the handcuffs.”

Go figure. Kate had found her paradise in a town with a population of six thousand. His paradise, however, was a thousand miles south in the Lone Star state on the deep green field of football dreams.

“Now, what’s this about mom?” he asked.

“Mom is …” Kate paused and looked over his shoulder. Then she gave him a faint smile.

Her odd comment snapped his attention back to the present and he found they’d waltzed toward the edge of the dance floor. “Mom is?”

“Never mind.” Kate stopped in front of two women who appeared to be in the midst of an entertaining conversation. One of them happened to be the little blond he’d escorted down the aisle just a few hours earlier. She turned toward them with laughter still playing at the corners of her mouth.

“Dean, this is my very good friend, Emma Hart.” Kate slipped his hand from her waist. “Why don’t you two dance and get to know each other better?”

Dean whispered against her ear, “Do not play matchmaker, Kate.”

As though she didn’t hear, Kate embraced the blond dressed in a strapless chocolate gown that hugged some pretty knock-out curves. “If he’s not nice, I give you permission to sack him.”

A smile and a wink later, Kate glided away, leaving him alone with a too short woman who looked too intellectual, seemed much older than the models he dated and, by the lack of gold on her finger, was most likely single and man shopping. Still, his sister would never forgive him if he didn’t display über politeness. He had no choice but to turn on the charm he usually reserved for the media after an opposing team had opened up a can of whoop-ass.

As Frank Sinatra faded away, the DJ put on a country ballad. What was it with all the hokey slow dances? Dean took his cue and extended his hand. “Well, Emma, very good friend of my sister Kate, would you care to dance?”

She looked up at him and sparks flashed deep in her unique Mediterranean blue eyes. Lips that looked marshmallow soft parted slightly and revealed the slightest space between her two front teeth. In an instant, studious turned to sexy and a deluge of testosterone flooded Dean’s system he couldn’t have held back if he’d been the Hoover dam.

She hesitated.

He held back a laugh.

Like she’d really turn him down?

She tilted her head and silky hair draped across her bare shoulder. He took that as a yes and reached for her hand.

“Thanks.” She tucked her hand behind her back. “But no thanks.”

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