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A Little Country Christmas
By A.J. Pine
By Hope Ramsay
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- Mass Market $7.99 $11.99 CAD
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 29, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Home for the Holidays by Rochelle Alers
To Zane, Isabella, and Carter Seay
With much love
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I’m so excited to be joining Hope Ramsay, A.J. Pine, and Rochelle Alers in this anthology, and I hope that all our readers love these Christmas stories. The Perfect Christmas brings the Longhorn Canyon Ranch series to an end. An author just knows when it’s time to finish a series, but it’s never easy to leave the characters and move on to the next book. These wonderful characters have been in my head for more than two years, and I must admit that I dragged my feet (or maybe I should say my fingers) more than a little bit when I got close to the last bit of The Perfect Christmas.
I’d like to send out a thank-you to everyone who helped make this story possible—to my fabulous editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, who draws every last emotion right out of my stories, and to the whole team at Forever; to my agency, Folio Literary Management, and my agent, Erin Niumata; to my husband, Mr. B, for everything he does so that I can continue to write; and to all my readers who buy my books, tell their neighbors and friends about them, leave reviews, and write notes to me. I appreciate and love every one of you.
Until next time, happy reading!
Cowboys do not cry.
That’s what Landon Griffin kept telling himself as he listened to Vince Gill sing “Blue Christmas” on the radio that cold evening in Sunset, Texas. His mother had passed her love for everything Christmas on to him, and she would want him to enjoy their favorite time of the year. Teresa Griffin hadn’t been a model mother, but from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, every single year, she had made wonderful memories with Landon. As he thought of those good times, tears welled up behind his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
He parked his truck in front of the Quiltin’ House in Sunset, Texas, and pulled a red bandanna from his hip pocket to dry his wet cheeks. Snowflakes that seemed to be as big as half-dollars drifted aimlessly out of the sky, as if there were no such thing as gravity pulling them to the ground. He and his mother had always wished for a white Christmas, but that would definitely have been a miracle in Southern California, where he’d been born and grown up.
He’d never even known he had two half brothers in Texas until his mother had passed away. Not having any other family, he was eager to seek them out. So he’d come to the Panhandle last summer, and Pax and Maverick Callahan were everything he’d thought a big, warm family should be. And just like family should do, he was quick to help out. To his surprise, he found he loved working on the ranch. There was something about taming the land and caring for the great big shaggy beasts, the exhausting work, and the sense of accomplishment every day that he couldn’t get enough of. So when an opportunity arose to learn more from his brothers’ friends in Longhorn Canyon, he jumped at the chance.
He opened the truck door, grabbed the sack of groceries from the passenger seat, and shivered against the first burst of icy wind that sent the snowflakes into a frenzy. He made his way across the yard to the old house that had been someone’s home for years before Claire Dawson turned it into a quilt shop.
He heard little Sally weeping as if her heart was broken when he stepped up on the porch. At less than a year old, she was way too young to be crying over memories of Christmases past, but Landon’s eyes glazed with more tears just listening to her. He knocked once on the door frame and then went right on inside to find the little girl hanging on to her mother’s leg. Landon set the bag containing sugar and cinnamon on the floor, dropped to his knees, and held out his arms. Sally had just started walking the week before and didn’t always trust her legs, so she dropped down on her hands and knees and crawled over to him. When he picked her up, she laid her little head on his shoulder.
“What’s the matter with the princess?” He patted her on the back as he stood up with her still in his arms.
“She’s cutting two-year molars, and nothing seems to help.” Dixie Boudreaux carried the bag to the kitchen. “Thanks for getting these things for me.”
“No problem. I was in town to buy feed anyway,” Landon said.
Sally leaned back, tucked her delicate little chin down to her chest, and looked up at Landon with big blue eyes, still floating in tears.
“I’m right here, princess,” he told her. “Want me to rock you and see if that will fix those old nasty teeth trying to come in?” He set her down long enough to remove his coat and hat.
She held up her arms and said, “Lan-Lan rock.”
He tossed his coat and cowboy hat on the cutting table. Then he picked up the toddler and sat down in the rocking chair with her. He had sure gotten attached to the child in the past three months that he’d been working at the Longhorn. Leaving her in a couple of weeks to go back to his brothers wouldn’t be easy.
He glanced over at Dixie, who was standing on her tiptoes to put the cinnamon away on the cabinet shelf. The first time he met her at Longhorn Canyon Ranch at the Labor Day picnic, he had reached out his hand to shake hands with her and stepped in a gopher hole. He dropped to his knees about the same time that she took hold of his hand, and it looked like he was proposing on the spot.
“Pleased to meet you,” he’d said.
“Even if I’m bad luck?” Her blue eyes twinkled.
He had stood up, dropped her hand, and tried to ignore the vibes but, how could he? She was a pretty woman with all those curves and dark brown hair. And of course, the ranch families and hired hands kept teasing him about proposing to the first single woman he met in Sunset, Texas.
The attraction had only deepened through the day when he saw how not only her own daughter but the other little babies at the ranch flocked to her. Her sweet nature with everyone had warmed his heart and soul, and he had wanted to know more about her. He’d started making excuses to stop by the quilt shop a couple of times a week, and they’d become friends. He wouldn’t let it go beyond that—not when he didn’t plan on sticking around too long. Why start something that he couldn’t finish without breaking either her heart or his in the process?
“Hey, what’s your favorite memory of Christmas?” he called out.
Dixie thought for a moment. “I don’t really have any good memories of this time of year,” she finally answered. “Tell me about yours instead.”
He was sitting in one of the two rocking chairs in what used to be the living room. Nowadays, the walls were lined with shelves filled with bolts of fabric. A long table with a sewing machine on one end and an area for cutting on the other sat in the center of the room.
“Well, the first thing that comes to mind is decorating a Christmas tree. We always did that the day after Thanksgiving. When I was little, we made ornaments in school, and Mom kept every single one—even the hideous ones. And it was always my job to put the star on top.” He smiled at the memory.
“We never had a tree at our house,” Dixie shared. “Just couldn’t afford it. Or presents. But sometimes the fire department delivered something for us, like those give-to-the-needy-children things that towns often do.”
“That must have been hard.” Landon’s heart broke at the idea of Dixie never having a real Christmas experience like he’d had. Teresa may have left him with the nanny most of the year, but she always made sure they celebrated the holidays. They’d decorated a tree together. She took him around to see the holiday lights. They used to make and decorate cookies—the frosting being his favorite part of course. Well, maybe the eating, come to think of it. And then, after all the gifts were opened, they would go see whatever new movie was playing at a nearby theater. The presents on Christmas Day were just the last thing on his list of memories and didn’t mean nearly as much as getting to share a month with his mother.
“I usually just tried to pretend the Christmas season was like any other time of year.” Dixie shrugged. “I got by with telling myself I didn’t need any of it. But I’ll be honest, it was hard as a kid.”
Landon felt a distinct pang in his heart. “Princess Sally needs a Christmas tree, and so do you, Dixie,” he said. “As soon as you close the shop, we’ll bundle this little girl up and go cut down a small cedar at the ranch.” Sally waved her little fists in the air as if she were in total agreement.
“How would we even decorate it? We don’t have any ornaments.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and cocked her head to one side. Landon could tell by her expression that she was warming to the idea.
“See all those quilting scraps?” He pointed to the cutting table. “I can cut circles out of those, and you can sew them together. They’ll be like little round ornaments, and we can string some popcorn for a garland or maybe we could just bunch up some strips of burlap and use it for garland, and we’ll make a star out of that cardboard box. We could glue some of that gold-lookin’ fabric to it…”
“And maybe put some glitter glue around the edges. Yes…that could work. What about lights?” she asked.
“There’s already lights around the window frame,” he answered. “We’ll set it right over there in that bare spot in front of the window. The sun will light it up in the day, and the moon and stars will be the lights for it at night.”
“You’ve got quite an imagination there, cowboy. And an answer for everything it seems,” she said with a smile. “How could I possibly say no?”
He grinned back at her. “I’ve got to take that load of feed out there to the ranch, but I’ll be done unloading it by five. Can you and Sally be ready a few minutes after that?”
“Sure!” she said with enthusiasm.
“Down,” Sally demanded.
“She may not know many words, but she knows what she wants.” Landon set her on the clean floor.
The baby crawled over to a cardboard box that held her toys, picked up her favorite teddy bear, and then went right back to Landon and reached up with one arm.
“Go,” she said.
“We can’t go right now,” Dixie started to explain.
Sally’s chin quivered, and tears flooded her cheeks.
“It’s only thirty minutes until you close up.” Landon picked up the child and settled back down with the baby and the teddy bear in his lap. “I can wait that long, and then I won’t have to drive back into town. She can play with Little Bit and the kittens while I unload the feed.”
“She loves that little miniature donkey, but it’s all right if she gets disappointed once in a while. You’re spoiling her, you know,” Dixie told him.
“And I intend to keep doing just that. After all, I’m only here another couple of weeks before heading back out to my brothers’ ranches.” He picked up one of the little girl’s books. “Let’s read about Frosty the Snowman. If we get a white Christmas, and the folks out at the ranch tell me we just might, you and your mama and I might make a snowman like Frosty right out there in the front yard. We’ll take a picture of you in front of your first Christmas tree and one with your snowman and one of you sitting on Santa’s lap.”
“Looks to me like she’s quite enjoying your lap right now,” Dixie said and smiled.
“I saw a flyer that said Santa was going to be at the Sunset Volunteer Fire Department, and Hud is dressing up like Santa this year. The local ladies in the community are going to have cookies, and the fire department is giving away bags of fruit and nuts. We need a picture of Sally to go with all the others we’ll take while we’re—” He stopped before he said something about the whole Christmas experience. “So we can make a Christmas album for her. If you make one every year, then she can look at them all when she’s grown and remember all the good times.”
“Do you have a set of albums like that?” Dixie swept up scraps of fabric from the floor.
“I did,” Landon sighed. “They were stored at my friend’s house in Paradise, California, but when his house burned up in that big wildfire last year, we weren’t able to save them.”
“I remember hearing about that fire, and I felt so sorry for those people. I know what it’s like to be in a fire,” she said. “I’m sorry that you lost all those pictures.” Dixie patted him on the shoulder as she headed down the hall. “If I’d had something like that and lost it, that would devastate me.”
“I’ve got to admit to a few tears, and big boys aren’t supposed to cry,” he said.
“Neither are big girls, but believe me, I’ve sure shed my share of tears over a lot less than that,” Dixie said. “Maybe tears are just a way to let the grief out of our souls.”
“I like that thought.” He smiled. “To tell the truth, I hadn’t grieved much for my mother until then.”
“That gave you an outlet for your pain,” she said. “I should get our coats and hats.”
“And maybe a blanket or quilt to wrap this baby up in while we chop down a tree,” Landon suggested. That wasn’t what he wanted to say to Dixie—not by a long shot. He wanted to tell her that he’d had feelings for her from the first time he saw her and that they’d deepened through the past three months as he’d gotten to know her better. He had known what it was like to be raised by a single mother, so he could understand Dixie’s struggles. He admired her too much—liked her too much—to ever give her a moment’s heartache or pain, and he wasn’t sticking around that part of Texas.
* * *
Dixie took time to brush her hair, pull it up into a ponytail, and apply a little lipstick before she gathered up her heaviest coat and a little snowsuit that Retta had given her when her own child, Annie, had outgrown it. Just to be on the safe side, though, she picked up a quilt like Landon suggested, along with the diaper bag.
She hadn’t been a bit surprised at the little spark of electricity that popped when she touched Landon on the shoulder. From the first time she shook hands with him at the ranch and he’d stepped in that gopher hole, there had been chemistry between them. If she’d tried to get him out of her mind, it would have been impossible, what with all the teasing from the ladies at the two ranches about Landon’s “proposal.” Since that day, their friendship had kept growing, and she’d learned to admire him more and more. His heart was as big as Texas, and he was constantly doing sweet little things, like making sure she and Sally had a Christmas tree.
Dixie stood back in the shadows for a few moments and listened to him read. He hadn’t quite picked up the Texas drawl that all the other cowboys out on Longhorn Ranch had, and with his shaggy blond hair and scruffy beard, he didn’t look much like them either.
Oh, but he sure looks fine to me, she thought.
Landon looked up, caught her eye, and smiled. “You got those coats ready? This little princess says she’s ready to go. My mama would have loved her. She told me that she always wanted a daughter, but all she got was three old ornery boys. I still have trouble forgiving her for not telling me about my two brothers until I was grown.”
“I have trouble forgiving my mother for turning her back on me when I got pregnant, and Sally’s father for leaving us. But it doesn’t stop the sun from coming up every single morning.” Dixie took the baby from him and slipped the snowsuit on her and zipped it up, then pulled a stocking cap onto her head and tucked her wispy blond hair up under it.
“In other words,” Landon said as he laid the book back on the table and stood up, “life goes on, and our forgiveness don’t matter much one way or the other?”
“Oh, it matters. Not for those who did us wrong, but for ourselves. Unforgiveness and hate can take up a person’s whole heart and then there ain’t room for love,” she answered. “So, when we get ready to forgive those who’ve been ugly to us, we free ourselves from the burden of carrying all that crap around.”
“Then why is it so hard?” Landon kept Sally in his arms and opened the door for Dixie. “And who made you so smart?”
“I’m not smart, Landon,” she told him. “I’ve figured out that it’s just human nature to want to get even, not forgive. I hated Sally’s father for leaving, but then it finally came to me that he didn’t even know how I felt, and if he did, he wouldn’t care. So why was I hanging on to those feelings when I have a better life right now than I ever had before—and a lot better than if he had even stuck around?”
“Oh, no!” he said.
“You don’t agree with me?” she asked.
“No, not that,” he answered as he opened the back door to his truck. “We need a car seat for the princess.”
“It’s in the house. I’ll go get it.” She turned around and jogged back to the shop through the inch of snow that was on the ground. She still wasn’t sure about this whole idea of putting up a tree in the shop. Maybe she should ask Claire before she did such a thing. After all, Dixie only worked at the Quiltin’ House, she didn’t own the place. Claire was married to Levi, the foreman out on the Longhorn Ranch. Working for her the past year had been wonderful, and she had become a close friend. Dixie valued their working relationship and their friendship too much to jeopardize either one.
When she returned, Landon was sitting in the driver’s seat, letting Sally play with the steering wheel. They were both having so much fun that she couldn’t tell him she was having doubts about bringing a tree into the shop without asking. If Claire said that she didn’t want a tree in the shop, then Dixie would just move it into her bedroom.
“Give me a minute or two to get this thing roped down, and then you can hand her over.” Dixie talked as she worked. “First time I did this when I came to live here, we were in Claire’s car and it took me forever to figure it out, but Sally was only three months old at the time. I’ve had a lot of practice since then.” One of her insecurity tells was to chatter when she was nervous. Most of the time she wasn’t all jittery when Landon was around. He’d been in and out of the shop lots of times when Claire asked him to pick up something in town. She’d spent Thanksgiving at the ranch with all the extended family, and he’d been there too. But this was the first time she’d been alone with him in a vehicle, and it seemed an awfully lot like a date—and that made her tense.
She got the baby seat fastened down, and Landon handed Sally over the front seat to her. “I’ve never even tried to get a baby seat fastened into position,” he said. “Never been around babies until I came here to work a few months on the Longhorn Ranch. It’s like a big extended family out there. I feel like Emily is my sister as well as Tag and Hud’s, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned from Cade and Levi and Justin. I didn’t even know I liked babies until I moved over here from out in the western part of the state. Retta and Cade’s little girl, Annie, stole my heart, and Claire’s son, Wyatt, and Emily’s little Hayden, why, they’re the next generation of cowboys.”
“There’s even more on the way. Rose is pregnant with twin boys,” Dixie said. “And you, Landon Griffin, are a natural baby whisperer the way they all take to you.” She got into the passenger seat of the truck. “Nice vehicle here.”
“Thank you. I saved up my money from working for my brothers and bought it just before I came over here.” He started the engine and backed out onto the street. “I’ve never driven or even ridden as far as that trip was. Mama hated road trips, so we flew everywhere. What’s been the longest drive for you?”
She didn’t want to talk about road trips. She would rather ask him why he had to leave, but then that might open up a can of worms she didn’t want to deal with. She’d followed in her mother’s footsteps when it came to men. If forty good men were standing in front of them with roses in their hands and singing a love song just to them, they would pick the forty-first one who wasn’t worth crap—the one who wouldn’t work, wouldn’t stay with them in tough times, and was more interested in a six-pack of beer than buying them a rose. She didn’t trust men, but she also didn’t trust herself to pick out a decent one.
“Did you hear me?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. I was woolgathering. My longest trip was from southern Louisiana to over around Abilene.” She noticed a spiral of smoke coming from a nearby chimney and then caught a whiff of it. The fire that had almost taken her life and Sally’s had happened more than a year before, but the smell of smoke still made her shiver.
“Cold?” Landon asked.
“No.” Dixie shook her head. “It’s the smoke. Gets to me every time.”
“I heard that you and Sally were in a fire. What happened?” He drove straight to the barn on the ranch and pulled the truck through the double doors.
“Sally and I were hitchin’ rides, goin’ toward Sweetwater, and we got stuck in Bowie,” she answered. “We were going to sleep in the park, but we saw an abandoned house where we’d at least be out of the cold weather, so we went inside. It caught on fire, and Hud Baker rescued us. I spent a night in the hospital, and Hud took Sally to Rose’s place. The next day Claire offered me a job, and this is where I’ve been ever since. The whole extended family out at the Longhorn Ranch has become my friends since then.”
Landon laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
“I keep telling myself that the worst thing in our lives turned out to be for the best, but I suppose the smell of smoke will always remind me of the fear of dying and leaving Sally without either parent.” She glanced over at him and their gazes locked for a few seconds. Then he turned back to watch the road. She wanted to read something into that moment but was afraid to let herself. To Landon, she was a good friend, and it was best to keep it that way.
She sighed and said, “Maybe it’s just to let me know that I shouldn’t take anything, not even the air I breathe, for granted.” She caught another whiff of smoke when he opened the truck door, and a vision of Hud coming through the gray fog to lead her and carry Sally to safety popped into her head. Had she and Sally slept in a park that night and hitched another ride the next day, she would never have met Landon. Sarah, one of the elderly people who lived down the road from her, often said that everything happens for a reason. Dixie believed it—almost. If everything really did happen for a reason, then why would fate bring Landon into her life, only to have him leave again?
Maybe it’s to teach you that you need someone other than a baby and a few friends in your world. Claire’s voice was loud and clear in her mind.
I don’t need anything more than what I’ve got, Dixie argued.
Landon hopped out of the truck with intentions of helping Dixie, but she was already sliding out of the passenger seat when he got there. “I’ll get Sally out of the seat so she can go see Little Bit. He’ll be glad to have some company.” He pulled an apple from the console and handed it to Dixie. “Y’all can give him his treat tonight. I usually find a reason to come out here and bring him an apple or a carrot so he doesn’t get lonely.”
He freed Sally from her car seat and carried her over to the stall where the miniature donkey was already flipping his tail from one side to the other in excitement.
Sally wriggled and said, “Down, Lan-Lan.”
- "Carolyn Brown is one of my go-to authors when I want a feel-good story that will make me smile."—Fresh Fiction
- "[A.J Pine] and her characters twist and turn their way right into your heart."—Night Owl Reviews on Second Chance Cowboy
- "Every story by Hope Ramsay will touch a reader's heart."—Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author
- 4 1/2 Star Review! "This return visit to Cavanaugh Island is a whirlwind trip that brings readers up to speed on beloved characters. There are still high drama, a few (legal) fireworks and plenty of hot romance. If this is our final trip to the island, it's a very fond farewell."—RT Book Reviews on CHERRY LANE
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 464 pages