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Lights & Secrets

Vignette 5: Six Pack Ranch Vignettes

The original two Six Pack homes lie across a coulee from each other. Blake, Jaxi and their four little ones occupy the homestead ranch, while Travis and his two partners are happily settled on the other side of the creek. Close family who are close friends.

But this holiday season, there’s a brotherly rivalry brewing…

Timeline: This vignette takes place after the ending of ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHELTER, just before Christmas and in the middle of ROCKY MOUNTAIN DEVIL.


TRAVIS

Travis Coleman opened the curtain barely an inch, and pure white light rushed past him. A whimper of complaint rose from the bed as Ashley rolled away from the bright streak to bury her face against Cassidy’s chest. Cassidy didn’t wake, but he curled an arm around her instinctively, one hand landing on her ass.

Sleep-warmed and relaxed, the two people who made Travis’s heart beat lay together with room left for him to join them. Cassidy stretched his other hand to the side as if searching for him.

Travis turned back to the curtain, distracted again by what was way too much light for three a.m. in the morning.

Between the Peters house, where the three of them lived, and the main Six Pack homestead, a long narrow coulee divided the land. In the bottom of the dip, a creek ran slow in the winter, edges freezing over as the water faded to a mere trickle.

They’d built a bridge years ago, the shortcut between the two houses well used and familiar—and now wrapped in tiny white lights. It was pretty, and festive.

And a pain in the ass, because while the house Blake and Jaxi occupied was barely visible from Travis’s master bedroom, the bridge lay in plain view, a beacon now shining across their bed, brighter than Rudolph’s nose.

“What the heck are you doing?” Cassidy complained, his deep grumble dragging Travis’s attention away from the wintry scene outside the window.

“Go back to sleep,” Travis ordered. “The decorating fairies found the coulee, that’s all.”

Green eyes blinked lazily, then Cassidy patted the mattress beside him. “Come back to bed while you still have time. ”

Ashley was now half draped over him, their legs tangled together, her hand partially covering the tattoo on his chest. The one with three initials tangled into a brand.

Travis was all too willing to resume his place, falling asleep to thoughts of mischief.

***

“Do we have any Christmas lights?” he asked casually at breakfast the next morning. “I thought I’d put some up.”

Ashley whirled on him, wide grin in place. “Yes!”

He snorted in amusement. “Well, that’s an enthusiastic response, even for you.”

Cassidy pressed a coffee cup into his hands. “Probably because a year ago when she asked that same question, you insisted the last thing you wanted to do after a day’s work was fiddle with hooks and lights.”

“Which is why I only got to put up a tiny tree out front with Cassidy’s help.” She sniffed. “Grinch.”

A squeal escaped her as she clapped her hands to her butt, rubbing the spot where Travis’d pinched her.

“Your ‘Grinch-B-Gone’ worked. I’m going to put up a whole mess of lights.” Travis figured Blake didn’t do it on purpose, but one good deed deserved another.

Cassidy brushed past, pausing to plant a kiss on Ashley’s cheek before facing Travis. “Joel texted me. We’re taking the quads to the back pasture to clear deadfall and set up the cattle. We’ll be out of range all day, but if you need a hand, I’ll help you tonight.”

“I have time this morning. I might start on my own.” Travis caught Cassidy by the hips, holding him in place. “No stupid shit like racing my brother. I don’t need you breaking yourself before Christmas.”

“Why? Did you get me a gift you can’t return?” Cassidy smirked, remaining still as Travis caught hold of his neck and locked them in position. “You be careful today. Climbing on tall ladders can be dangerous when you’re clearly still feeling delicate after last night.”

“God, you two.” Ashley dropped Cassidy’s lunchbox on the island. “Whose dick is bigger today?”

Mine,” Travis and Cassidy announced at the same time.

She snickered. “I’ll break out the ruler later. Now get out of the kitchen so I can get to work. Vicki and Marion are coming over to put together Christmas hampers, and there’s no way I’m letting your mom in the house without double-checking all the toys are put away first.”

Cassidy leaned in and kissed Travis, quick but deep. “Mine,” he muttered under his breath before escaping to the mudroom for his coat and boots.

“Brat,” Travis called after him, laughing as he turned back to Ashley. “And that wasn’t my fault, you know. Besides, my mom has seen crops before. She probably figured it was from the barn.”

“With a heart-shaped cutout in the leather?” Ashley demanded. “What are you doing to those poor animals—? Oh my God!! Travis, put me down this instant!”

She continued to laugh as he lowered her to her feet, wondering at the joy he got to experience every damn day.

“Lights?” he asked again.

“Art studio, ground level. All the holiday stuff is in boxes labeled ‘humbug’.”

Life was never boring with Ashley around. “You were pretty pissed last year, I take it.”

She smiled sweetly. “Go. Play. I hit the most awesome sale, so there’s a bunch of stuff for you to pick from. I’ll come supervise later.”

He kissed her. Sweet and passionate—the icing on his morning.

There were at least a dozen boxes labeled humbug, and his plan expanded. Ashley had enough lights stockpiled to decorate every outbuilding on the ranch.

Travis had no intention of that. Just one spot. Somewhere with a clear view of his big brother’s home…


BLAKE

It was bedlam time at Blake and Jaxi’s.

Rachel and Rebecca had finally settled down after their bath, curling up beside him as he held Lana in his lap and read about a certain teddy bear for the umpteenth time.

He didn’t need to look at the page anymore, just recited the words—with voices—from memory until Rebecca interrupted in an attempt to take charge of the book and her sisters.

“No, Lana,” Rebecca scolded. “I’m the oldest, so I get to turn the pages. You don’t always treat books nice. You need to be older, like me.”

Rebecca continued to lecture, waving a reproaching finger in front of Lana’s face. Lana watched for a moment before her chubby little fingers darted out. She caught hold of the tempting item, pulling her sister’s hand to her mouth as Rebecca squealed and complained.

Meanwhile, Rachel silently turned the page before looking up at Blake, her bright blue eyes blinking innocently.

How had he survived before they’d come into his life?

Across the room in the rocking chair sat the very heart of his body. Jaxi’s eyes were closed but a smile twisted her lips as she listened to them. Eighteen-month-old Peter lay on her chest, lingering colds making both of them less energetic than normal.

His wife opened her eyes and their gazes met. She must’ve liked what she saw, because she lit up, her smile like a star shining over her family.

Over him—as if he was all she’d ever need.

Book reading completed, three tiny princesses rushed her for good night kisses before vanishing down the hall to their rooms.

“You need anything?” he asked Jaxi when he returned after tucking the girls into bed. He reached for his son who had started fussing and was wheezing lightly as he offered up sleepy cries.

“A bucket of Tylenol and three weeks uninterrupted sleep,” Jaxi requested.

Even with shadows under her eyes, she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

“Grab a shower then crawl into bed,” he ordered. “I’ll take care of everything here.”

She stretched as she rose, curling against him briefly to plant a kiss on Peter’s forehead. “I’m too tired to argue with you.”

Blake waited until she’d left the room, then lifted his son until he could look him in the eye. “Seems as if the men of this family need to do some work to take care of our ladies. You ready to pull your weight?”

Peter blinked, staring seriously. His fussing forgotten under Blake’s focused attention.

“That’s what I thought. Dishes first, and we’ll get you all bundled up and you can help your papa check the new lambs.”

He’d barely walked out the back door, Peter in his arms and clinging tightly to his neck, when an out-of-place glow caught his attention.

Travis had strung lights over the barn that had been converted to an art studio for Ashley. Only, he hadn’t just placed lights along the edge of the rafters. He must have hammered up two by fours to attach additional strands where there was no building. Now the structure was shaped like a castle instead of a barn, twinkling lights flashing in pretend windows as if people, or elves, were hard at work.

“Son of a gun.”

It was more Christmas spirit than he expected from his brother. Then again, he’d put up the lights on the bridge after Jaxi had suggested it, so maybe this was Ashley’s idea.

Back at the house, Blake changed Peter and tried to put him down. The little boy clung like a limpet until Blake gave up.

“Bring him to bed with us.” Jaxi’s soft voice. “Then we can all get some sleep.”

Peter burrowed into her warmth like a puppy, cuddling in. Blake sat on the mattress edge and stared as that ache rolled in again. The one in his heart that never seemed to go away, but that he never truly wanted to escape.

Still, there were times when they seemed to have far more chores and urgent things to accomplish than they had hours for in a day, that he wondered.

“You ever regret not doing things differently?” he asked quietly, the words escaping before he’d thought them through.

Jaxi’s lashes fluttered open. “Never.”

Her instant response and firm tone said it all.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“Of course you do.” Her lips cracked into a smile even as her eyes remained closed. “And I love you too. Totally, and completely, but you forgot to turn off the yard lights,” she muttered sleepily.

He kissed both Jaxi and his son before heading back downstairs, where he was surprised to find that flicking the switch at the backdoor didn’t change the light pouring in the windows.

He leaned against the glass, scratching the frost away.

Damn, he’d forgotten. The castle was glowing like a landing beacon. Travis had aimed the main lights directly at Blake and Jaxi’s house. At their bedroom window.

Blake plotted as he headed to bed. Drawing the curtains tight, he crawled in and pulled his already sleeping wife and son into his arms where they belonged.

And dreamt of thirty-foot-tall snowmen with waving arms, and spinning spotlights that would follow Travis no matter where he hid.


CASSIDY

Cassidy twisted on the seat of his skidoo, waiting for Travis to catch up with them.

“He’s slow,” Ashley teased. “What’d you guys do last night?”

“The Coleman boys Christmas party? I’ll never tell.” He pretended to zip his lips shut.

Ashley popped off her sled and crawled over him, legs hanging over his thighs as she faced him. “They won’t kick you out, you know.” She pulled off her mitts so she could press her hot palms to his cheeks. “You are one hundred percent Coleman boyforever.”

He resisted the urge for all of two seconds, then dragged her over his body to rest fully in his lap where she belonged. “One hundred percent Coleman man, you mean.”

She rolled her eyes. “Is it something in the winter air? You two are hyper-testosterone-y lately.”

“It’s the animal instinct,” he quipped. “Fighting to be top dog.”

Woof,” she teased.

Yeah, she was just as likely to come out on top in any battle, except both of them tended to defer to Travis. Usually.

Except when the turkey got up in the middle of the night to go and put up extra Christmas lights. As far as Cassidy was concerned, Travis’s current tired ass was his own damn fault.

He pulled Ashley close and nuzzled her neck. “When’s the girls’ party again?”

“Why? You planning on crashing it?”

“Hardly. Jaxi would rip my ears off. Or those little girls of hers would bat their lashes at me, and I’d end up babysitting and playing Barbies all night.”

“Softie.” She kissed him then, giving over one hundred percent of her attention, distracting him from the lightly falling snow, and the cold temperatures, and the—

Whack.

Something icy and wet smacked into the side of his toque, snow crystals sliding down his collar as Travis whooped in the distance.

Score.”

Laughter rippled from Ashley’s lips. “That’s not going to put you in either of our good books,” she called in warning, twisting toward where Travis’s dark green toque stuck up over the ridge behind them.

His head vanished, the sound of a revving snowmobile engine growing louder as he rounded the corner and pulled up beside them, grinning in spite of the tiredness in his eyes. “You’ll both forgive me. You lurve me.”

Ashley got back on her own sled, and the three of them played in the snow for the next hour, traveling all over the Coleman land before returning home.

Home. It was such an amazing word, and Cassidy wondered if he’d ever walk through that door without feeling complete and utter soul-satisfaction inside.

“You guys grab a shower. I’ll get supper tonight,” Ashley offered, already digging in the fridge.

Neither of them complained. They weren’t stupid, and it meant that five minutes later Cassidy was standing under the full force of the showerhead, hot water streaming over naked skin while Travis’s strong hands soaped him up in a way that made Cassidy hope whatever Ashley was making would take a long time to cook.

Lips pressed to the side of his neck, and Cassidy chuckled. “I’m surprised you have the energy for this.”

He got a sharp nip as a reward for his teasing.

“I always have energy,” Travis murmured, digging his fingers into Cassidy’s biceps.

“Except when you’re out of bed at strange hours.” Cassidy rotated rapidly, grabbing Travis’s hands and surprising him enough he managed to pin Travis’s wrists to the tile over his head. “What’s going on with the Christmas lights?”

Travis’s grin grew wider. “They look pretty awesome, don’t they?”

He tried rocking against Cassidy, but Cassidy held his ground, leaning in with his heavier weight and trapping him in place.

“Last year, no lights. This year, you’ve decorated the shop, all the fence lines to the south, and I spotted a dozen new boxes of decorations in the back of the track.” Cassidy leaned closer, stopping only inches away from Travis’s lips. “What. Gives?”

“Just feeling the holiday spirit,” Travis murmured a second before angling his head and taking control with a devastating kiss.

And suddenly, as curious as Cassidy was about Travis’s strange obsession with holiday lights, other things rated higher on his agenda.

Travis’s decorating game was forgotten in a hurry.


JAXI

It had been dark for an hour already, which meant every time Jaxi walked past the living room window she was reminded all over again how good her life was.

It wasn’t often that she needed reminders—she had them all around her, every moment of every day. In the little boy tugging at her fingers. In his older sisters: Lana who didn’t say much, but seemed to shadow him at all times, and his big sisters who would be five years old this spring, and knew everything about everything, and were intent that Peter should miss none of the significance of their family Christmas traditions.

There were shreds of wrapping paper all over the house, Christmas trees drawn in crayon stuck on the fridge. Letters to Santa waited by the door, ready to be delivered through some secret method Blake had promised.

They had cleared out one corner of the living room, and a growing collection of things to give to others was stockpiled there. Christmas Eve day they would pack it all up and drive around town, delivering baskets, and boxes, and all kinds of presents from their family to their friends and relatives.

And sometime that night, after the kids were in bed, magic would happen. The tree would appear, tall and perfectly suited for their growing collection of decorations.

She knew the girls would be up first. When she and Blake headed downstairs in the morning, they’d discover tiny princesses staring in amazement at the sparkling lights and brightly colored packages.

It was Christmas, and it was love.

They had each other every day of the year, and their house exploded with joyful noise most of the time, but the holiday season seemed that much richer. That much more meaningful.

That much—brighter.

She looked out the window again at all the festive lights she could see. The ones Blake had put up, plus the ones that had magically appeared across the coulee, and she grinned.

For the past week Blake and Travis had taken turns lighting up the countryside. Their un-discussed combat had accelerated to the point they were running out of room for new projects.

There was another new one tonight over on Travis’s side. Racing lights twinkled in sequence like a moving train, or the edges of a landing strip. Which made sense when she followed the flickering colours to their final destination to where Travis had a spotlight aimed at an enormous billboard announcing “Private airstrip, reindeer only”.

It went well with the enormous Santa sleigh Blake was just putting the finishing touches on. She leaned against the window as she watched them—her three little girls dancing around their daddy, their toddling son picked up out of the snow by his grandpa. The whole lot of them surrounded by glowing red and green and golden lights.

It was as bright as midday outside, and she found a bubble of amusement escaping her. Small giggles gave way to full out laughter as she looked at the dozens of displays covering the Six Pack land.

She had to give it to the boys—whatever they did, they put their heart and soul into it, even if it was decorating for the holidays.

Making spirits bright, indeed.


ASHLEY

Her sister-in-law-ish was laughing out loud in the empty house as Ashley snuck into the front foyer.

“Hey, no having fun without me,” she called as she stepped out of her boots and hurried down the hallway, nearly bumping into Jaxi as she rounded the corner.

“Have you seen what they’ve been doing out there?” Jaxi asked with a snicker. “We’ve got our own Candy Cane lane happening, and we have only two driveways.”

“They have been enthusiastic,” Ashley agreed, tilting her head toward the door. “You feel up to pulling on your coat? You’ve got to see what it looks like from the road.”

Jaxi bundled up, and they stepped out, linking arms as Ashley led her to the best vantage point.

It was nice to have someone like Jaxi living close by. They’d become good friends, although maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. Jaxi was all about family, and Ashley and Cassidy both loved Travis to distraction, which made everyone in the Coleman family happy.

Plus, she and Jaxi had a few things in common, more so now than ever before.

“I convinced Cassidy to move a couple benches to a strategic spot. I think you’ll like it,” Ashley said cheerfully, the cold night air sharp as she breathed it in.

They walked together, arm in arm, supporting each other over the slippery snow-stomped path. Ahead of them, more laughter rang from where Jaxi’s children were chattering and playing with their daddy and grandpa Mike.

Jaxi jerked to a stop. “Is that a…menorah?” she asked in amazement.

“Uh-huh. And there’s a Yule Log over there.” Ashley waved a hand toward the front driveway. “And about twenty giant-sized candles all over the front lawn and fence line.”

Jaxi settled on the bench, looking around with satisfaction in her eyes. “Candles. Like the type you would put on an old-fashioned Christmas tree?”

Ashley felt guilty for just a moment before admitting, “I was thinking more of the feast of Saturnalia, but your idea works, too. Let’s go with that if Marion asks.”

Jaxi covered her grin with a hand. “You are so bad.”

“Hey, it’s the holidays. I figure everybody who’s celebrating this time of year should get a shout-out in the light displays.”

“And all it took was you mentioning some candles would look good, and Travis put them up?”

“Of course not. I might have casually left a few drawings on the dining room table, though.” Ashley squeezed her arm then turned slowly in a circle as she admired the happy beauty all around them. “You were right. Last year I had zero success getting Travis to budge on the light thing. This year?” She leaned forward and offered Jaxi a big smile. “You made one little suggestion to Blake, and poof, we’re walking in a winter wonderland.”

Her sister-in-law-ish shrugged. “The bridge needed lights,” she insisted. “It’s far safer this way.”

“And it’s been a good distraction,” Ashley said innocently. “Between putting up all those lights, and his regular chores, and the rest of the holiday preparations, I bet Blake hasn’t even noticed…”

Jaxi’s cheeks flushed red, but it could’ve been from the reflected Christmas lights, or the cold.

But Ashley bet it wasn’t. She just stared at the other woman, daring her to admit the secret she’d been keeping.

Jaxi finally caved. “How did you know?”

“That you’re pregnant?” Ashley shrugged. “Peter’s nearly two. I figured if you were going to have another, it would be soon. Plus, there were few other signs.”

“This is the last time,” Jaxi said firmly. “Now, no spilling the beans to anyone before I get a chance to let Blake know. I was going to tell him on Christmas Eve.”

That sounded like a wonderful idea…

“Your secret is safe with me.” Curiosity demanded she ask, though. “That leaves you with five kids. I thought the family joke is Blake insisted you guys would stop at six.”

Jaxi made a face. “If he wants to conceive, carry and birth that last one, I’m good with it. Otherwise, I’m done with five.”

Vehicle lights on the gravel road leading to the houses made them turn. More family pulled into the yard—Daniel and Beth and their boys, who raced off to examine the lights up close.

Cassidy brought out a couple more chairs, then tugged Ashley into his arms and kissed her hard enough her toes curled as Jaxi whistled in admiration.

His grin was wide and contented as he proceeded to get a small bonfire going.

“Not that we need it for the light,” he teased as Travis, Blake and the kids wandered over, drawn by the fire. “Think you got enough decorations up yet, T?”

“It’s so Santa can find the house better,” Rebecca offered in his defense. “Uncle Travis said so.”

Ashley looked up into Travis’s laughing grey eyes, felt Cassidy’s arm around her shoulder, and knew she’d landed in the most perfect place of all.

With family.

With people who loved her—completely and forever.

“Christmas Day at our place this year,” Mike reminded them before the group broke up to head home. “And Boxing Day at Whiskey Creek.”

Which left Christmas Eve for the individual families, and a growing warmth inside threatened to burst out and make Ashley shout her secret too early.

I’m going to tell him on Christmas Eve, Jaxi had said.

Yes, that sounded like a wonderful time to share a secret with her two loves…

“Anything special you want to do on Christmas Eve?” Cassidy asked as the three of them curled up on the couch in front of their fireplace.

“Dick wars,” Ashley deadpanned.

Travis snorted. “Sounds like fun.”

“What are the rules?” Cassidy asked as he leaned on Travis’s chest, pulling her feet into his lap so he could dig his fingers into her soles.

Her gaze met Travis’s over Cassidy’s shoulder. “He wants to know the rules. What have you done with him?”

“Not my fault,” Travis insisted. “His straight-and-narrow side rears its head every now and then.”

“We should really do something about it,” she teased softly, trailing her fingers up Cassidy’s leg.

“I’m not moving,” Cassidy warned. “You want to do dirty things to me, you do them here.”

“Lazy ass,” Travis poked.

“Smartest ass in the room,” Cassidy countered.

“Biggest ass in the room.”

“Biggest cock, you mean.”

A short ha! exploded from Travis.

“Boys…” Two faces turned toward her, and she shook her head, happiness pouring through her. “Dick wars—they never do end.”

So softly she might have imagined it, both of them whispered mine, and she couldn’t stop herself. Laughter escaped like teeny bubbles, washing over them.

It was tempting to spill the beans now, but she resisted. Christmas Eve was the perfect time to tell them her secret.

Then they’d have to wait another seven months to discover who’d won that particular round of the dick war.

They’d all won, really.

Ashley leaned back, the twinkling lights shining in the darkness outside the window paling to shadows compared to the bright lights shining in her lovers’ eyes.


If you’d like to read Travis, Blake, Cassidy, Jaxi, Ashley’s story you can find it in Rocky Mountain Devil, the tenth book in the Six Pack Ranch series.

Buy ROCKY MOUNTAIN DEVIL

Copyright © 2013 by Vivian Arend