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Chrysie Atwater rushed across the creaking floor of the civic center to pick up her young angel, who'd just been shoved to the floor by the unruly reindeer. The boy and his twin brother had been out of control all night, totally undisciplined and requiring constant supervision.
"I want to go home," Jenny announced as Chrysie helped her back to her feet and straightened her wings.
"You don't want to let one reindeer keep you from being in the pageant."
"He's not a reindeer. He's just an annoying boy." A very astute judgment, but Chrysie wasn't ready to pull Jenny out of the performance. Both of her young daughters needed some normalcy and social interaction with their peers, especially Jenny. Moving from town to town had been stressful for her.
Which was why Chrysie was out on a frigid night, volunteering her services to Jenny's kindergarten teacher, who'd taken on the unenviable task of directing the community Christmas pageant.
Mrs. Larkey had the reindeer collared and was leading him toward them. "Tell Jenny you're sorry, Danny," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said, stamping at the floor like a frisky pony and showing no sign of remorse. In fact, mischief danced in his dark eyes.
"No more pushing," Mrs. Larkey said. "If you do, I'll have to tell your father."
"Aw, don't tell him. I'll be good." The kid looked up at the teacher and smiled, showing a gap in front where one of his baby teeth was missing.
Chrysie followed Mrs. Larkey as she walked back to the stage to corral the singing Christmas trees, who were rummaging through the toys that were meant to be props. "Are those two boys always so disruptive?" she asked.
"Pretty much," Mrs. Larkey said. "Such a shame when their father is so nice."
"It's none of my business, but..." She let the comment drop. None of her business was the operative phrase here.
"Okay, Christmas trees," Mrs. Larkey said, "put down the toys and get back on the platform. You have to be ready to sing as soon as Santa Claus delivers the bad news to the reindeer."
She turned back to Chrysie. "The sheriff does the best he can, but the boys are just too much for him."
The Sheriff. Chrysie groaned inwardly. If she'd known the sheriff or any other lawman was even remotely connected to the pageant, she'd never have volunteered or let the girls participate. Better if the guy didn't even know she existed.
She turned away just in time to see Danny's brother crash into the Christmas tree they were using as the main prop. The tree rocked back and forth a second, then toppled to the floor, eliciting piercing squeals from the young girls who'd been standing under it and loud laughs from the boys.
Instinctively Chrysie grabbed the guilty child by the arm. "That was not funny, young man. You could have hurt someone."
"Leggo of me. It was an accident."
"An accident that wouldn't have happened if you'd been practicing with the other reindeer."
"Daddy!" The deafening holler played havoc on her eardrums.
The boy broke away from her and rushed down the steps, hurling himself into the arms of a cowboy who'd apparently come in the back door unnoticed.
A gorgeous, dark-haired hunk of a cowboy. Wouldn't you know?
"Is there a problem?"
"Your son knocked over the Christmas tree."
"It was an accident, Daddy."
The cowboy walked up on the stage, looking tough and incredibly sexy. He rocked back on his heels and studied the tree. "Tree looks like it survived. Was anyone hurt?"
"Everyone's fine, Sheriff McCain." He'd directed the question at Chrysie, but Mrs. Larkey had rushed over and answered for her.
"Then I guess no harm was done." The sheriff picked up the tree and set it in an upright position.
"How's that?" he said, standing back to see if the tree was straight.
Mrs. Larkey smiled up at him as if he'd accomplished some miraculous act. "It looks perfect, Sheriff McCain."
The woman was married, and the guy still had her eating out of his hands. Chrysie stepped between Mrs. Larkey and the sheriff. "Actually, it's not quite perfect. It's leaning toward the left."
Mrs. Larkey looked from the tree to Chrysie, then shook her head as if she thought Chrysie was wrong. But she gathered the children and sent them back to their places.
The sheriff ignored the tree and looked Chrysie right in the eye. "Everything looks fine to me."
"The tree is leaning."
"If you say so." He adjusted the angle. "Does that suit you? If not, I can always move it another fiftieth of an inch."
"Now it's leaning to the right."
He eyed it critically. "Looks straight to me, but maybe I'm just not quite as uptight about Christmas trees as you."
"It was straight before—" She caught herself before she said more. It was the stress of the situation that was getting to her, stress that had nothing to do with Christmas or the sheriff's son. "Tree's fine," she said, then turned her back on him and walked away.
She could kick herself for having said anything at all to the man. Riling the sheriff was the last thing she needed. Keeping a low profile was the name of the game—and the game was staying alive.
"EAT YOUR CEREAL, Danny."
"I am eating."
"Eat faster. It's snowing, and driving will be a..." Josh McCain bit back the word he would have used before the boys had come to live with him. Who'd have thought two small boys could turn his life totally upside down?
"Daddy, Davy's slurping his hot chocolate, and my teacher said it's bad manners to slurp."
"That's just when you're at school, right, Daddy? Cowboys can slurp at home."
"Best not to." Josh grabbed a piece of cold toast as he passed the table. He only managed to wolf down one bite before his cell phone jangled.
"Sheriff, this is Cindy Gathers. I really hate to call you with this, but you're going to have to find someone else to keep the boys after school. I thought I could handle it, but it's just too much on me what with my arthritis and all."
He groaned. It was the fourth sitter he'd lost in six months. The boys went through them almost as fast as they went through a box of cereal.
"I hope you can give me time to find another sitter before you bail on me."
"I'm sorry about this, Sheriff, real sorry, but I just don't think I can handle them another day. You know how it is. I love them, but they just don't mind. It's worse than riding herd over wild horses."
"They're just being boys."
Danny jumped down from the table and went tearing down the hall with Davy hot on his trail.
"You hit me first."
A little undisciplined, Josh admitted to himself, but they weren't bad kids. The problem was probably more his fault than theirs.
He didn't know squat about raising kids. Cattle, yeah. That he could handle. Even sheriffing seemed to come naturally to him. But fatherhood had him over a barrel. It had just come at him too fast and with too little warning.
His cell phone rang again. This time it was Bone-head up on Highway 12. Someone had cut some of his fences, and a couple of his prize bulls had gotten out. He figured it was the Grayson boys since he'd demanded they pay for a sheep they'd shot when they were hunting on his land. Josh promised he'd be out to check the fences as soon as he dropped the boys off to school.
"I'm counting to five," Josh yelled. "You best be in the truck and ready to go to school by the time I finish." Normally they would have ridden the school bus, but he'd let them sleep a little later since he had to make a trip into town this morning anyway.
It took three more warnings to get the boys and their book bags into the backseat of his double-cab pickup truck. The snow was falling pretty good, but the weatherman hadn't predicted anything but flurries today. The real storm wasn't due until tomorrow.
They were almost to school when he spotted the blue compact car parked at the side of the road with the hood up. He pulled up behind the vehicle. The woman who'd been staring at the engine waved and smiled. He didn't recognize her until the hood of her parka blew off and he caught sight of her short blond hair snaring snowflakes.
It was the woman who'd gotten all bent out of shape last night over the Christmas tree mishap at the civic center. Obviously she wasn't as demanding that her husband keep her car in good working order. But then, if you had a woman that cute around the house, you might have better things to do than work on cars.
"The motor died on me," she said as he walked up.
"And then it wouldn't start again."
He looked around under the hood, but didn't see anything obvious. "Probably the battery," he said. "I can give you a jump."
"I'd appreciate that."
"I'll get the cables and be right back. You can wait in the car if you like."
"I'd definitely like. Are winters always this cold in Montana?"
"It'll get a lot colder than this.Where are you from?"
"That covers a wide area. I'd guess Texas, judging from your accent." If he was right, she didn't admit it. "What brings you to Montana?"
"Just wanted a change of scenery."
"Are you and your husband ranchers?"
He strode to the truck, checked on the boys—who were arguing about whether Ice Age or Ice Age 2 was the better movie—then returned with the jumper cables. It didn't take but a minute to bring the engine to life.
The woman put her head out the car window. "I really appreciate the help, Sheriff."
"Can I pay you?"
"A good cowboy doesn't take pay for helping a lady in distress."