Luke’s jaw dropped. He turned to Mia. “You got notes, too?”
“Notes!” Lisa shook her head. “Holt didn’t write any notes, that’s for sure.”
“I think he did.” Mia leaned forward. “Am I right?”
Holt didn’t answer, but his struggle to hold back was plain for anyone to see.
“Did you butt in with notes, you old goat?” Lisa said. “Then you owe me a trip to Paris twice over.” She slapped her palm on the table. “Although I want to know how you managed it.”
“I don’t have to take you anywhere,” he burst out. “You said I couldn’t say a word about marriage. You didn’t say I couldn’t write about it.”
“How could you? You don’t even know how to write!” Ned said.
“I guess I do, after all,” Holt said, and folded his arms across his chest. “You aren’t the only one who can hire a tutor.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Rob leaned forward. “Next thing you know, pigs’ll fly. Dad getting some schooling—that’s unexpected.”
“I know what I want for my next wedding anniversary.” Lisa smiled at Holt.
“A trip to the moon?” Holt eyed her back.
“A love letter.”
Luke fought to regain his footing in the conversation. The last person he’d suspected of writing those notes was his father, but while revelations were being spilled, he might as well tell everyone what else had happened.
“Looks like you fooled us all, Dad. You’re a real joker.”
“Not the only one around here from what I’ve heard.” Holt turned serious. “Seems like the jokes have gotten out of control, too.”
“I didn’t start it,” Ned said, as if he suspected he’d get blamed.
“I didn’t start it, either,” Rob said, holding up his hands.
“Sure you did! You stole my dress boots on Ned’s wedding day!” Jake pointed a finger at him.
“I had nothing to do with that and I have no clue why Cab here felt like he had to butcher my topiary.”
The sheriff looked indignant. “I didn’t butcher anyone’s topiary! I’m the victim here. Jamie’s the one who put that damn Honk if I’m Sexy sign on my cruiser. I still get crap about it from my deputies.”
“I didn’t do anything to your cruiser. I’m the one who’s half-naked on a Cowboy calendar because of Ethan here.”
“Are you serious?” Ethan exploded. “I don’t have the time or energy to enroll cowboys in calendar contests. I’m too busy taking hemorrhoid medication deliveries from Ned!”
“Let me guess.” Holt’s voice cut across the table and the hubbub subsided. He jabbed a finger at Ethan. “It was you who sent Ned the children’s book, not Luke. You just made it look like Luke.”
Ethan sat back. He ducked his head. “I guess that wasn’t cool. But like I said, the hemorrhoid joke wasn’t cool, either.”
“I had nothing to do with that.” Ned looked like thunder.
“I was the one who sent the hemorrhoid cream.” Jamie spoke up. “Because of the calendar.”
“And I was the one who signed you up for the calendar.” Cab nodded at Jamie. “Because of the sign.”
“I’m the one who put the sign on,” Rob said. “Because of that damn bush.”
“Which I turned into a bulldog,” Jake said, chuckling a little. “Because I thought you stole my boots on Ned’s wedding day.”
“Sorry, that was me,” Evan confessed. “When I got that envelope with the offer to trade my ranch for The Breakers, I thought you were making fun of me—especially with that note that said The Breakers was worth so much more.”
“That wasn’t Jake,” a new voice said. “I’m afraid that was me.” Carl rounded the corner and hesitated in the doorway to the room. “When I got to town I was so excited about getting my ranch back, I drove straight to your place and left the envelope in your mailbox. When you never answered me—not even to say no—I figured you had no intention to sell, so I moved on. It wasn’t until Luke here told me you thought it was a joke that I went back and looked through my things. I found the letter I was supposed to include explaining my offer—which meant all you got were the photos and that scrawled note. No wonder you didn’t take it seriously.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “The offer still stands, by the way. I thought I didn’t want the ranch anymore back when Lacy—my fiancée,” he explained to Evan, “broke things off with me, but I’ve realized since then that I didn’t move to Chance Creek for her. I moved here to be the person I’ve always wanted to be. So now I’m back.”
All around the table Luke saw stunned faces. Evan spoke first. “I don’t think we’re planning to sell. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“We really love the ranch, too,” Bella added, “and we’re already building my animal shelter and clinic there. I hope that won’t be a problem for you.”
“Not at all,” Carl said, although a flicker of disappointment crossed his face. “I have temporary lodgings, and I’ll keep looking.” He looked from face to face. “I guess I’ll be on my way.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Lisa said, standing up. “Luke, where are your manners? Show your guest to his seat. It’s time for dessert. Ladies, will you help me clear?”
In the general bustle, Luke led Carl to his seat. Mia leaned forward to smile and say hello. Others around the table called out greetings, and those close by moved to shake his hand. Carl looked pleased by the friendly welcome he was receiving.
Mia whispered in Luke’s ear, “That was nice of you to invite him.”
“Carl’s okay.” He kissed her neck. “Just don’t get any ideas.”
“You’re the man for me, Luke Matheson.” She kissed him back.
Luke stilled. Did she mean that?
He sure as hell hoped she did.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I wasn’t there,” Mia said to Luke as they walked back to his cabin. “Who knew your dad would learn to write?”
“I hate to admit it, but those notes nudged me along a couple of times.”
“Me too—shocking as that is. Holt the matchmaker. That’s a dangerous proposition. You need to put that man back to work full-time on the ranch.”