The Billionaire’s Christmas Contract by Laura Haley-McNeil

Chapter 1

Leah Rendell parked her parents’ van filled with four teenaged boys in front of the Mardale, Colorado, secondhand store. On this Friday after Thanksgiving Day, she gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. She wouldn’t let her broken engagement spoil the holiday celebrations.

“Hey, guys, let’s do some shopping and remember, we’re buying clothes you can wear to church.” Forcing a smile, Leah looked over the back of her seat into the dark eyes of the foster boys her parents were raising on their ranch. Taking the boys shopping was the distraction she needed from the last few months when she juggled wedding planner appointments with the English literature classes she taught at an east coast college.

Those wedding plans crumbled to dust when the day the quarter ended, she walked into her fiancé’s law office and realized Charlie was doing more than preparing court cases with his assistant.

Shell-shocked, wounded and unable to speak, Leah could only stare at the blanching couple. Then she did the only thing she had the strength to do―she placed her engagement ring on Charlie’s bookcase and stepped back into the law firm’s paneled hallway.

Now, Leah sat in the van and swallowed the emotion welling in her throat. The boys shifted in their seats and stared out the van’s windows, clearly eager to stretch their legs and explore a town smaller than their inner-city neighborhoods.

Except Zeke. The distrust in the eyes of the boy who had arrived at the Rendell Ranch for Boys last night showed he was plotting his escape to the Denver neighborhood he’d called home until his mother had disappeared.

“We’re going into Tara’s Shoppe,” Leah said, her voice steadier than she felt. “You can pick out a shirt, a pair of pants, and a pair of shoes, then we’ll head over to Danielle’s bakeshop for a treat. Deal?” She pressed the button that opened the van’s doors.

Frankie, Harry and Carl cheered and tumbled out of the van.

“Yippee,” Zeke said, his voice flat. He stepped out of the van and into a puddle.

Water sprayed back into the van, over the curb and against a powerfully built man striding down the sidewalk, a cell phone pressed to his ear. The man froze, his gaze dropping to the pants and tweed jacket now dripping with muddy water.

Zeke’s eyes widened. The fear in his paling face made Leah’s heart squeeze tight. The other boys went rigid, their mouths open in stunned surprise.

“I’m so sorry.” Leah leaped from the van and raced to the man. She lifted her hands to him, not sure if she should brush the grimy droplets off his pristine apparel or stand back and grimace. “Don’t worry. I can take care of this.” She was talking too fast, and she couldn’t stop staring at the trickles streaming down his clothes.

The man murmured something into his phone, then slipped it into his pocket. His crystal blue gaze settled on her before dropping to the jacket that probably cost more than most people made in a month. Muddy rivulets flowed down an outfit that had obviously been tailormade for his well-toned physique.

“It’s fine.” The corner of his mouth curved.

For a moment, Leah caught something familiar about the man. Did she know him? He wasn’t from Mardale. Though for the past ten years, she’d only visited during the holidays, she still knew everyone in town, and she’d never seen him. He dressed like someone planning to spend the weekend on his multi-million dollar yacht.

“No, it isn’t, and I can fix it,” she said. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a panicky Zeke backing away.

Leah snatched the boy’s hand and gently tugged him toward her. She felt his resistance, but her insistent pull brought him next to her and face-to-face with this stranger and his mud splattered clothes.

She looked at Zeke and arched a brow. He gave her that what-do-you-want-me-to-do look she’d seen on several boys’ faces when they first arrived at the ranch. If they played dumb, maybe the problem would go away. She pressed her lips together and tipped her head toward the man.

“You owe Mr.―” Leah’s breath caught in her throat. Who was this man? She gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

The man’s surprised look turned to amusement. “Bryg Winslow.”

“Well, Mr. Winslow, this is Zeke.” She looked at the teen. “What do you say to Mr.―” She stopped and shifted her gaze back to Bryg. “As in Bryg Winslow the …”

She glanced at the boys, who watched intently. Zeke’s eyes widened, waiting for her to finish. Several townsfolk murmured Christmas greetings, their gazes flicking from Leah to Bryg as they passed.

Was this Bryg Winslow the founder of the Winslow empire? Though she hadn’t followed the media stories about the handsome billionaire who always had a beautiful woman on his arm, she’d seen enough pictures to recognize him. What was he doing in Mardale?

“Bryg is fine.” He smiled, his gaze resting on her in a way that was distinctly disconcerting.

Her jaw worked, but no words came. She was staring at Bryg Winslow and realizing he was better looking than any photo of him she’d seen, and he looked pretty good in those pictures … along with his date du jour.

Her mouth slammed shut, and she looked at Zeke. “What do you say to Bryg?”

“Sorry,” Zeke murmured. He shifted his eyes to Leah. “Who is he? How come everyone’s staring at him?”

Leah glanced around and saw the sidewalk was more crowded than she’d ever seen it, even at Christmastime.

“Let’s just leave it with the apology,” Leah said. If Bryg wanted the boys to know who he was, he could tell them. “Now all of you go into Tara’s and pick out your clothes .”

The boys rushed toward the store. Zeke followed slowly, but continued to glance back at Bryg.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Leah called after them, then turned to Bryg. Her gaze dropped to the now drying spots. “I’m so sorry this happened. I can take care of stains. I have a great recipe for removing grime. Your clothes will look as good as new.”

“As much as I appreciate the offer, cleaning won’t do any good. I’ll just throw them out.” His mouth tipped in a smile that made Leah’s heart drum like a marching band.

“You can’t throw away perfectly good clothes,” she said, his cavalier comment shocking her. She knew several people who would appreciate owning the designer threads.

“I’ll take care of the clothes, but thanks for the offer.” He turned away, then looked back at her. “Since you know my name, I think it only fair that I know yours.”

“Leah Rendell.” She gave a nervous laugh, then winced. This wasn’t high school.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, and he did seem glad. A slight frown creased his forehead. “Any relation to Mayor Vern Rendell and his wife Mavis?”

“They’re my parents.” She blinked. How did Bryg Winslow know them?

“Then you’re familiar with the Rendell Ranch.”

“I should be. I was raised there.” Mostly raised there. The Rendells had adopted her when she was two. She might still live at the ranch if she hadn’t been awarded a scholarship to the east coast college where she now taught.

“Then maybe I’ll see you this afternoon, when I meet with your parents,” Bryg said. He gave her a direct look.

“You’re coming to the ranch?” she stammered. She went cold with shock. Her parents hadn’t told her, though they’d been busy preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. If she hadn’t been trying to recover from her broken engagement, she may have realized they hadn’t said much.

“I take it you don’t live in Mardale anymore,” Bryg said.

“No,” she said, the homesickness she felt whenever she left Mardale tumbled through her stomach. “I live back east now, but I’m home because …” Because her fiancé was a cheat, and she had to call off her wedding. “… because the college where I teach takes winter break between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I always help out at the ranch during the holidays.” Her heart ached. If she hadn’t caught Charlie with his assistant, they would’ve shared their vows this Christmas Eve.

“Which college is that?” Bryg lifted a brow. He seemed interested.

“Braxton College. It’s a small college.”

“Yes, I know,” he said with a grin that made him more handsome. “Their English department is renowned. That’s quite an impressive school.”

“I enjoy it,” Leah said, and felt deep color creep into her face. At least she’d enjoyed teaching at Braxton until … she’d let that part go. Her gaze dropped to Bryg’s jacket. “If you change your mind about having your clothes cleaned …”

“I’ll let you know,” he said with a smile. “It was nice to meet you, Leah Rendell.” He held out his hand.

Leah extended hers and felt cool strength in his firm grasp. He said something else, but she was too flustered to understand. His cell phone rang, and he released her hand, sending her hand into a void that made her long for his touch.

“Sorry.” Something flickered in his eyes and his mouth tipped. He slipped the phone from his pocket and glanced at the screen. “I have to take this, but I look forward to seeing you again. Soon.” Turning away, he pressed the phone to his ear and strode down the sidewalk.

She watched him climb into a luxury SUV and drive away. Even after it turned the corner, she still stared down the street.

Why was Bryg Winslow meeting with her parents, and why hadn’t they told her?

Several townsfolk passed Leah and wished her a Merry Christmas. Leah pulled her gaze away from Main Street and returned the greeting. She took a deep breath. She would not think about Bryg Winslow, but she had to think about why her parents were meeting with him.

“Leah?” Frankie, the tallest of the foster boys, leaned through the store doorway. “I got my clothes.” He opened the door a little wider and proudly showed her the orange and purple striped pants. The shirt’s flowing sleeves were long enough for his lean arms. He extended one foot covered with a sparkly shoe.

“Wow, you look great.” Leah stepped into the store. “How are the other boys doing?”

Frankie lifted a shoulder and stared down at his new clothes. “Can you take a picture of me to send to my friends?” He gave her a hopeful look.

“I’d be glad to.” Leah dug her phone from her purse and snapped pictures of all the boys, something even Zeke didn’t seem to mind. “Now go change and bring me your new clothes so I can pay for them.”

The boys brought Leah their clothes and thanked her. She was grateful she could buy them clothes. These boys had struggled enough during their brief lives. She’d do whatever she could to help them follow the right track.

She set the outfits on the counter and handed Tara her credit card.

“I see you were talking to that Bryg Winslow.” Tara rang up the purchases and slipped the clothes into a shopping bag. “I suppose you heard.”

That made Leah’s heart stop. “Heard what?”

“Holly Johnson put her ranch on the market,” Tara said. “She’s been talking about doing that since Oliver passed.”

“She’d mentioned she was thinking of selling,” Leah said slowly. She’d talked to Holly when she’d brought the boys to church for the Christmas pageant rehearsal. She felt sad when Holly said someone was interested in buying her ranch.

Tara arched a brow at Leah.

“Bryg Winslow wants to buy Holly’s ranch?” Leah asked, numb with confusion. “Why would he want a ranch in Mardale?” He was Bryg Winslow. She’d read he owned homes all over the world, including a thoroughbred farm in Kentucky. That had to be much nicer than a rough and tumble ranch in Mardale.

The bell above the shop door rang and a couple with three children stepped into the shop.

Tara’s eyes widened. “You need to ask your daddy about that,” she said, and stepped around the counter to greet the family.

“Come on, guys.” Leah suddenly felt tired. What business had her parents been discussing with Bryg? “Let’s go to the bakeshop.” She pulled the shopping bag from the counter and led the boys out of the store. “We can get a snack before we return to the ranch.”

The boys cheered and dashed across the street, except Zeke. His hands in his pockets, he sauntered, and Leah wondered if he would stay at the ranch. The muscles in her stomach tightened. Her parents had raised hard-hearted boys before, but none seemed as remote as Zeke.

“Remember to look before crossing the street,” Leah shouted after the boys, but by then they had slipped into the bakery.

Leah’s mind raced back to her conversation with Tara and the news that Bryg Winslow was interested in buying the Johnson ranch. A lump rose in her throat. A billionaire wouldn’t be interested in a ranch in Mardale without a purpose in mind. She felt vaguely uncomfortable. When she returned to the ranch, she’d ask her parents why Bryg was coming to the ranch.

And she’d ask them why they’d said nothing to her.