By Katie Lane
By Debbie Mason
By Annie Rains
By Hope Ramsay
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Merry Cowboy Christmas, by Carolyn Brown
‘Tis the night before Christmas, and all through the house is the presence of one wickedly hot cowboy who’s come to stay for the holiday! Fiona Logan is everything Jud Dawson thought he’d never find. But with wild weather, nosy neighbors, and a new baby in the family, getting her to admit that she’s falling in love might just take a Christmas miracle.
Unwrapped, by Katie Lane
Contractor Patrick McPherson is deeply committed to his bachelor lifestyle: No strings, no rings. As the Christmas season approaches, however, Patrick still can’t quite forget Jacqueline Maguire, his curvalicious one-night stand. Then, when she shows up unexpectedly, all holiday hell breaks loose. Because this year, Patrick is getting the biggest Christmas surprise of his life.
Mistletoe Cottage, by Debbie Mason
‘Tis the season for love in Harmony Harbor, but it’s the last place Sophie DiRossi wants to be. After fleeing many years ago, Sophie is forced to return to the town that harbors a million secrets. Firefighter Liam Gallagher still has some serious feelings for Sophie-and seeing her again sparks a desire so fierce it takes his breath away. Hoping for a little holiday magic, Liam sets out to show Sophie that they deserve a second chance at love.
Christmas on Mistletoe Lane, by Annie Rains
Mitch Hargrove wants nothing more than to put his hometown in the rearview mirror, but his plans get derailed when he learns he’s now half owner of the Sweetwater B&B. The fact that he’s given only two months to make the inn a success is a huge problem, but it’s his pretty-and incredibly headstrong-partner Kaitlyn Russo who’s the real challenge. With the grand reopening fast approaching, will Mitch keep running from the ghosts of Christmas past . . . or will he realize the true gift he’s been given?
A Christmas Bride, by Hope Ramsay
Haunted by regrets and grief, widower David Lyndon has a bah-humbug approach to the holidays-until he’s shown the spirit of the season by his daughter and her godmother Willow. Paired up to plan a Christmas wedding for friends, David and Willow will discover that the best gift is the promise of a future spent together.
Sometimes a couple of characters come along who just steal an author's heart. Jud and Fiona were like that for me. I loved Allie and Blake in Wild Cowboy Ways—who doesn't love a wild cowboy with no intentions of being tamed? And I adored Lizzy and Toby—starting backward sometimes does have its reward. But Fiona, with her wanting to belong, and Jud, with his determination to put down roots, combined with all the magic of the Christmas spirit—it was a story I loved telling. I have to admit, they've become my favorite holiday couple.
As always, there are many people who help me take a book from a two-paragraph idea all the way to the book in your hands. To those I owe my deepest gratitude. First I'm taking a deep bow to my editor, Leah Hultenschmidt. And then another one to the team at Forever—from cover guru Elizabeth Turner to marketing expert Jodi Rosoff and publicist extraordinaire Fareeda Bullert. And one more to Bob Levine and Raylan Davis from the sales team. I'm so blessed to have all these fabulous folks working on my team! Now that my head is dizzy from bobbing up and down, I'll simply raise a cup of coffee to toast everyone at Grand Central. You are all totally amazing and I'm honored to be working with you.
A curtsey to my agent, Erin Niumata, and my agency, Folio Management, Inc., for continuing to support me. And my thanks as well as my love to Mr. B, the man I've been married to for half a century. He's always ready to drop whatever he's doing and take a road trip with me to see the places that I write about. And to my readers, hugs to you all for being the best fans in the whole world.
'Tis the season right now to be jolly, so enjoy your visit in Dry Creek, Texas, over the holiday as you read Merry Cowboy Christmas.
Here's wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas.
Until next time,
Jud Dawson tapped the brakes and slid a few feet before his big black truck came to a stop. The rusted out old bucket of bolts he'd been following on the slick road wasn't quite so lucky, though. It kept going right through a barbed wire fence, taking out two steel posts before it finally came to a halt, kissing a big scrub oak tree about fifteen feet from the fence line.
Jud had barely scrambled from the cab of his truck to see if the driver was unhurt when a redheaded woman dressed in tight jeans, boots, and a sweater hopped out of the truck, kicked the shit out of her blown-out tire, and tangled both her fists in her hair in anger.
"Are you okay?" he yelled as he ran toward her, phone in hand ready to call 911 if he needed to.
"Hell no! My truck is a wreck. I'm going to be late to dinner and I'm so mad I could spit tacks." She shook her fist at the gray skies. "Damn tires only needed to run for another half a mile. Since when does this part of Texas get snow in November? I should thank you, but I'm too mad to be polite right this second."
"I can take you wherever you need to go," Jud offered.
She stopped ranting and shivered. "Do you know where Audrey's Place is?"
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am, that's actually where I was headed. You must be…"
He hesitated, trying to remember her name. Faith. Fancy. Something that started with an F, or was it a V? If she was headed to Audrey's, then she had to be the youngest Logan sister, the married one from Houston who everyone said was giving Midas a run when it came to money. So what the hell was she doing driving a ratty old truck?
"I'm Fiona Logan, and I do thank you for stopping and for offering. Let me just get my stuff. The suitcase and box can wait," she said.
Evidently she'd decided he wasn't an ax murderer or a crazy ex-con because she smiled. "Just so you know"—she opened the passenger door of the truck and fished around in the glove compartment—"I do carry a weapon and I have a concealed permit and I can take the eyes out of a rattlesnake at twenty yards."
Damn, but she was cute with that curly red hair, a faint sprinkling of freckles across a pert little nose and all those curves. "Pleased to meet you, Fiona Logan. Good thing I'm not a rattlesnake." Jud grinned. "I'm Jud Dawson, co-owner of the Lucky Penny."
"You're Blake and Toby's cousin?" she asked as she shook his hand.
"Yup, and turns out I'm staying at Audrey's. Your mama didn't want me to live in the travel trailer with winter coming on."
Jud removed an expensive monogrammed suitcase from the passenger seat. It looked as out of place in that old vehicle as a cowboy at an opera.
She nodded toward the fence. "Sorry about the damage to your property."
"I'm just glad you're safe. And I'm sure your family will be eager to see you," he said as he hefted her suitcase into his truck. "What did you pack in this thing? Rocks?"
"Everything I could. What wouldn't fit in there is in the box."
"Lot to bring home for a four-day holiday," he said.
She ignored his remark with a shrug and a shiver.
He whipped off his Sherpa-lined leather coat and handed it to her. "Why don't you get inside the truck and warm up. This will only take a minute."
The box was only slightly lighter than that monster suitcase. As Jud was walking away from her vehicle, he heard a hiss and turned back to see steam escaping from under the hood. Either the steel fence post had punctured the radiator or barbed wire had ripped away hoses and belts.
He shoved the box into the backseat beside the suitcase and slammed the door, circled around the front of the truck, and crawled inside. "Looks like you've made your last voyage in that thing." He started the engine and eased down on the gas. Ice and gravel crunched under the truck's tires as he slowly inched along at ten miles per hour.
"I was hoping that it would get me all the way home."
"At least it got you pretty close." He stole a glance at her. A little shorter than either of her sisters, she was definitely built with curves in all the right places. She sat ramrod straight in the seat in a no-nonsense, take-control posture, but her dark green eyes and the way she kept biting at her lower lip said that Fiona Logan wasn't real sure of herself that Thanksgiving.
Her obvious insecurity didn't jive with the stories he'd been told about the third Logan sister, either. It was shaping up to be an interesting day.
"So what are you doing out on these roads today?" she asked.
"I was sent on an errand. It appears that giblet gravy cannot be made until there is a can of evaporated milk in the house and since Thanksgiving dinner can't be put upon the table unless there is giblet gravy, someone had to go for milk," he drawled.
She nodded and became even more nervous when the old brothel known as Audrey's Place came into view.
So this was Jud, Fiona thought, the cowboy in the Dawson family that everyone said was the lucky one. His blond hair was a little shaggy, hanging down to the collar of his pearl-snap shirt. An errant strand or two peeked out from under his black cowboy hat and inched down his forehead toward his dark chocolate brown eyes. His face would make a sculptor swoon with all those perfect planes and contours, and his hard, muscular body could turn a holy woman into a hooker.
She was glad that he'd been close by when that damn tire blew out. But sitting with him in the truck, traveling at a snail's pace? The air in the black crew-cab truck was way too thin. She inhaled deeply and let it out slowly and was glad it was only half a mile to her home because his coat around her shoulders suddenly made her hotter than blue blazes.
That he didn't seem to be in a hurry was fine with her. She needed a few minutes to get a grip on her nerves and her racing heart before she arrived. It couldn't be Jud Dawson with the sexy eyes and dreamy body causing her to sweat in the middle of a damn blizzard. It was the fact that she was back in Dry Creek, starting all over from scratch. But when she no longer had money for groceries and rent, she realized she had two choices: either go home or go homeless. And the former, even though she'd have to eat her pride, was better than living in a cardboard box and eating from Dumpsters.
Jud parked beside another big fancy truck and she sat there, staring at the house. She wanted to go in and surprise her family, so why couldn't she make herself open the damn door? Lights shining out through the windows threw rays of yellow onto the snow-covered yard and beckoned her to come on inside where there was comfort and unconditional love. First, she needed something, anything, to calm her shaky nerves. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap and waited.
"You going to get out or sit here and watch it snow all day?" Jud asked.
She frowned, a smartass remark on her lips. But that little voice inside her head reminded her that Jud had been kind enough to help her out.
"Thank you for helping me but don't rush me." She swung the truck door open, stepped out into the blowing snow, and grabbed the suitcase from the backseat. With the driving force of a north wind behind it, the snowflakes felt more like hard sleet pellets when they hit her face, so she walked a little faster, the suitcase thumping along like a miniature snowplow all the way to the porch, where she tugged it up the three steps with both hands. She opened the storm door and hesitated.
"Go on inside and I'll bring the suitcase and the box," Jud said.
He was right behind her, box in hand, with two cans of milk sitting on the top.
She'd vowed she'd never come back to Dry Creek for anything more than a visit. Why would she have to? She'd gotten a fantastic job with a law firm in Houston when she graduated college. Married the son of the firm's senior partner a year later. Her family had no idea he'd divorced her last year and made sure her name was ruined when it came to getting another job. She'd worked at a coffee shop until a week ago when the whole business closed down. Now she was back home. A failure.
"You'll freeze if you don't go inside," Jud said. "Besides, this damn box is heavy and this milk is going to freeze."
She looked over her shoulder. His warm smile melted a few snowflakes but didn't do jack shit when it came to easing her nerves. She took a deep breath, wiped away a tear she hoped he didn't see, and slung open the door.
"Fiona!! Oh. My. God! Allie! Mama! Fiona is home." Lizzy squealed and turned into a bright red blur as she ran from the kitchen. Fiona's eyes barely had time to focus before she was engulfed in a hug that came close to knocking her square on her butt right there in the foyer. Before she could move, her mother and Allie were both there and it became a big group hug that kept them all steady and on their feet.
"Surprise," she said weakly.
Jud stood inside the door, that wickedly sexy smile on his face as if he were Santa Claus and had just shimmied down the chimney with a big bag of toys. She frowned at him but he didn't budge.
"Jud, where's the milk?" A tall dark-haired cowboy carrying a pink bundle stepped from the kitchen out into the foyer.
"Right here along with the store keys." He headed to the kitchen with both in his hand.
He'd told her that he lived at Audrey's and that he was Jud Dawson, but it didn't sink in for Fiona until that moment that she would be sharing a house with him.
When everyone was seated around the table, Katy bowed her head and gave thanks. Fiona's hands got clammy and she felt so faint that she popped her eyes wide open to keep from falling off her chair. The food was going to be stone cold if Katy didn't stop thanking God for everything under the sun pretty soon, so Fiona swiped a hot roll from the bowl right in front of her, hid it in her lap, and ate two bites. She felt the touch of a hand sneaking across her thigh and pinching a corner of her bread and glanced toward Deke, the lifelong friend of the Logan family who had eaten Thanksgiving dinner with them for years. He popped a chunk of her hot roll into his mouth without even opening his eyes.
Then a hand brushed her thigh from the other side and suddenly half the roll disappeared. When she looked up into Jud's brown eyes, he'd already stuffed it into his mouth. Sparks danced around the room like embers from an open fire but Fiona chalked them up to being so damned hungry. Nothing had ever tasted as good to her as that hot bread fresh from her mother's oven. Maybe she'd been a fool to ever leave Dry Creek in the first place.
Finally, Katy finished the grace and handed the carving knife to Deke. Fiona had forgotten just how tall he was until he stood up. He looked down at her and one of his pretty hazel eyes slid shut in a wicked wink. Like she remembered, his sandy brown hair needed to be cut and his upper arms were almost as big as her waist. Deke was a couple of years younger than Fiona and had grown up right down the road. He was in and out of their house all the time. Nowadays he was Allie's right-hand man.
She held up her plate for a thick slice of turkey and glanced across the table at her sister, Allie. Pretty Alora Raine, with her long dark hair and those dark eyes, had learned the carpentry business from their father. She'd married young the first time, and Fiona could have told her it wouldn't work. But in those days she was just the sixteen-year-old younger sister, so what did she know?
Allie sent the mashed potatoes around the table. "I still can't believe you are home, Fiona. Having you here makes it special."
"Yes, it does." Allie's husband, Blake, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. He'd stolen Allie's heart almost a year ago, and seeing them together, there was no doubt that Allie had gotten the right man this time around.
"You might not think it's so special when you have to fix your fence," Fiona said. "I had a blowout and plowed right through the barbed wire."
"But"—Jud handed off the bowl of green beans to Katy—"no one was hurt and there are no cattle in that pasture, so we don't have to rush out there and fix it right now."
"Are you sure you're okay? Did you walk the rest of the way? Why didn't you call us to come help you?" Lizzy spit out questions faster than bullets coming from an assault rifle.
Fiona held up a finger and finished chewing a bite of turkey.
Lizzy, the middle gorgeous sister with the height, the curves, the temper, and the fire, had been the apple of their grandfather's eye and had inherited the family feed store business right out of high school.
"I'm fine. I did not walk. Jud was driving right behind me and he brought me home. Are you going to hoard that giblet gravy forever, Deke?" Fiona asked.
"He's like that with good food. He's even worse with dessert." Irene giggled at the opposite end of the table from Katy.
Fiona's heart went out to her grandmother. Before the family had sat down, Katy had whispered to Fiona that today was a good day for her grandmother.
Irene's dementia had gotten worse in the past year and now she lived in a facility for people with Alzheimer's in Wichita Falls. Today, though, she was home for the holiday and she was at least semi-lucid.
Lipstick ran into the wrinkles around her mouth and her jet-black eyebrows penciled in a lopsided arch did not match her short, kinky gray hair. But her smile was bright and there was life in her eyes and Fiona thought she was beautiful.
Deke handed the gravy boat to Fiona. "Go easy on that now. I like leftover sandwiches with a little of that poured between the turkey and dressing."
Fiona nudged him with an elbow. "I bet you had a big breakfast. All I had was a stale cheese cracker. Besides, you are not my boss, right, Granny?"
"No, but I am. And cheese crackers are not a decent breakfast." Irene pointed a long skinny finger at Fiona. "You might as well eat sawdust. I taught you better than that. I bet you ain't been eatin' right since you left. You're too skinny, isn't she, Jud?"
Fiona raised an eyebrow at the sexy cowboy beside her.
"Man, I wouldn't touch that question with a ten-foot pole," Toby chuckled.
Lizzy put a piping hot yeast roll on her plate and sent the last item around the table. "Me neither. Darlin', you'd better have two rolls right to start with." She set a couple of rolls on the edge of his plate. "We might need to get you some sideboards."
"Maybe," Toby said.
Slightly taller than his brother, Blake, Toby looked at his wife sitting beside him, his blue eyes twinkling. Yes, they were every bit as in love as Blake and Allie. Brothers had married sisters. That made any of their children double cousins to Allie's new baby, Audrey, who had inherited Fiona's red hair.
"Back to the ten-foot pole," Fiona said.
"She is too skinny, isn't she, Jud?" Irene shot a look down the table at the newest Dawson cowboy, who'd come to the Lucky Penny a few weeks ago.
"I believe that Miz Fiona looks real pretty today and so do you, Miz Irene. That blue shirt brings out your eyes. Would you like some more cranberry sauce, darlin'?" Jud asked.
"You be careful around that one, Fiona. He's a slick talker for sure," Irene said, and went back to eating.
Deke poked her on the arm. "Was it snowing in Houston?"
She smiled. "It never snows in Houston."
"That's why she left Dry Creek. She wanted to live where they never had a good hard winter," Irene said. "I bet the roaches and flies are big as buzzards in that place without a good freeze to kill them off."
"Granny! I don't want to hear about bugs at the dinner table." Fiona smiled, despite her words. She'd forgotten how much she'd missed her family and their crazy ways. A peace settled over—a sense of belonging—that was every bit as important to her soul as the food was to her body.
Irene smiled. "There's my fiery girl."
"Just how long are you staying?" Lizzy asked.
Before Fiona could answer, Allie chimed in with another question. "Can you stay all weekend?"
"Or a week?" Lizzy piped up.
"She's here for good," Katy said. "She brought a cardboard box. That means she's moving back home and it's about damn time."
Fiona's sense of peace fled as she took a drink of sweet tea and swallowed another huge chunk of her pride. She wouldn't tell them the part about being so hungry she was dizzy or how little money was in her billfold. If she did that, her mother might drop with a heart attack right there on the dining room floor.
She straightened her back, put her hands in her lap, and began. "There's something I need to tell you all." She took a deep breath. "A little more than a year ago, Kyle and I divorced. There was a prenup, of course, so all I got was ten thousand dollars, which went fast while I looked for a job. It didn't take long to figure out that I'd been blackballed in my line of work."
Time stood still.
Fiona was sure if she'd been outside, snowflakes would hang suspended in the air and the wind would cease to blow.
"Fiona Deann!" Katy finally gasped. "What have you been living on? And why would Kyle make trouble for you?"
One shoulder rose in a half shrug. "I guess it upset him when I punched his girlfriend and tried to yank out all her hair."
"He cheated on you?" Lizzy asked indignantly.
"Don't know if he cheated, but she came with him when he told me he was divorcing me. Idiot."
Admitting all that felt so good! Now she could eat dinner without a single worry.
"What did you do?" Allie asked.
"I used the last of my divorce settlement to buy that old truck after my car was repossessed. I put all my fancy clothes in a consignment shop, and some weeks I made enough for groceries from those sales but that ran out after six months. They closed the coffee shop where I worked and I couldn't find anything else and my money ran out. So here I am. Broke and needing a job. You need help at the feed store, Lizzy?"
That was about as short a version as she could make it, but it did the trick. The moment was pregnant with sheer awkwardness. Allie stared at her like she had an extra eye right in the middle of her forehead, but then Fiona remembered a time when she'd looked at her sister the same way when she moved back home after a divorce.
Katy shook her head. "I get first dibs on you. You are the answer to my prayer. I'm run ragged trying to take care of the convenience store by myself. So you, young lady, will go to work with me starting in the morning."
"Mama, I'm happy to help at the store in exchange for room and board here, but I'm also going to need a job that pays me."
"Bullshit!" Irene said loudly. "Living here is your right as family. The job at the store will give you minimum wage just like it would pay anyone else. Right, Katy?"
"Right," Katy said. "How about it, Fiona? There aren't many jobs in Dry Creek. You could probably waitress at Nadine's new café, but I need you worse than she does."
"That's settled," Irene said.
Fiona wasn't sure that it was, but she wasn't going to argue at the Thanksgiving table. Later, when everyone had left, she and her mama would have a long talk and that's when Fiona would tell her that she was not planning to live in Dry Creek forever.
"Sounds like we all have a lot to be grateful for this year. I'm thankful that Toby and I finally found a sofa we could agree on and now our living room has one piece of decent furniture," Lizzy said.
"I'd forgotten about our tradition," Deke said. "I'm thankful for the Logan family and all the good times I've had in this house."
Fiona hadn't forgotten, not on the way home, not in the awkward silence, not even with having to live with Jud Dawson in the house. After the prayer and while they were eating, everyone around the table shared something they were grateful for. She searched for a single thing that she could say because they'd be here until eternity dawned if she shared everything she was thankful for that cold winter day.
"I'm thankful beyond words that Fiona is home," Katy said.
Allie nodded. "I'm grateful for my amazing husband and my daughter."
"I'm thankful that this beautiful woman is both my best friend and my wife and that we have a gorgeous daughter," Blake said.
"Hey, she can be your wife, but she's my best friend," Deke argued. "Fiona, you are going to have to be my best friend since Allie has deserted me."
"I'm thankful to be home and that Deke is my new best friend," Fiona said with a smile.
"For the Lucky Penny and my wife." Toby grinned at Lizzy.
"I'm thankful for Walter," Irene giggled.
"Who?" Lizzy, Allie, and Fiona said in unison.
Katy sighed. "She's taking a trip into the past."
"Hell, if I am," Irene said. "I'm not going anywhere. I am thankful for Walter. He lived over on the Lucky Penny when Katy was getting married. I guess your grandpa got to feeling old since his daughter was old enough to get married, so he found himself a younger woman."
"No!" Lizzy slapped a hand over her mouth.
Well, that damn sure had to hurt, Fiona thought. Lizzy had always had the idea that Grandpa could walk on water.
"Oh, yes," Irene said. "So I started flirting with Walter to get back at him."
"Granny!" Allie said.
Why is Allie so surprised? Fiona held her breath and hoped that Granny kept explaining because they'd all wanted to hear the story of Walter ever since Blake moved in next door. Granny's dementia was getting out of hand and she kept thinking that Blake was Walter.
"Why are you thankful for Walter?" Fiona asked.
"He made your grandpa realize that I wasn't an old shoe that he could toss in the garbage. He broke it off with that other woman and came home."
"And you forgave him?" Katy asked.
"Course I did. I had no right to judge him when I'd done the same thing with Walter. Besides, Walter wasn't nearly as good in bed as your grandpa," Irene said bluntly. "Now pass me those potatoes and, Deke, carve me off another piece of turkey. I'd like dark meat this time."
And there it was, the truth according to Granny when she was lucid. Fiona was amazed that no one was asking a million questions.
"Where is Walter now?" She finally broke the awkward silence.
"Walter?" The light went out of Irene's eyes in an instant. "Is he a new boy in town? I'm ready for dessert."
"I thought you wanted more potatoes," Katy said gently.
- On Sale
- Nov 23, 2018
- Page Count
- 1200 pages