Read an Excerpt
She'd done it now.
Amelia Hughes stared out the windshield at the blowing snow and thought about her rash decision to drive into town in spite of blizzard warnings. She had thought she could outrun the storm. In her haste to get back to the ranch, she had hit a slick spot, and the truck had slid off the snow-packed road onto the soft shoulder.
"Mom, we got stuck!"
"We don't know that for sure," she said, wondering what her penance should be for lying to a five-year-old boy. In an attempt to right her wrong, she eased her foot onto the gas peddle causing the tires to spin and the back of the truck to slide further off the road.
Great. With a sigh, Amelia stopped her attempt to regain traction, and turned to meet her child's wide brown-eyed gaze. His stocking cap covered a head full of whiskey-colored curls, and light freckles dusted his small nose and rosy cheeks. Jesse Thomas Hughes was her everything.
Somehow she had to get them out of this. After all, she'd lived in rural western Montana all her life. She came from sturdy, frontier stock. Her great-grandparents mined this land, finally turning to ranching. They never gave up, nor would she.
She gripped the wheel and went back to work. Yet, no matter what direction she turned the wheel, or how gently she worked the gas peddle, she couldn't get the old truck to move forward. She finally stopped to save fuel. They might need heat if they had to spend the night here. No, she refused to think about that. They had hours of daylight left.
"Boy, Aunt Kelley is going to be mad."
"No, Aunt Kelley won't be mad." Another lie just rolled off her tongue. "But maybe we shouldn't tell her. Shehas a lot to worry about with taking Grandma Ruby to the hospital."
Jesse nodded. "Okay. Maybe if we wish really hard someone will come by and save us."
Amelia wasn't so sure that was going to work, either. There wasn't much reason for anyone to be on this road. Everyone else was at home heeding the storm warning. She'd only gone out to buy supplies before they'd gotten snowbound.
Normally the Hughes household was prepared for bad weather, but the December storm caught them off guard. With Gram's illness, everyone had been distracted getting her into Helena and the hospital.
Jesse turned to her again. "Maybe we should call Aunt Kelley. She'll know what to do."
Amelia didn't doubt it. Her older sister pretty much ran the cattle operation, while Amelia handled the household. It wasn't that she didn't love taking care of the family, but she'd also like her sister to listen to some of her ideas for the ranch. Kelley hadn't even trusted her to handle things while she was in Helena, and made arrangements to hire a ranch hand to help out.
The last thing Amelia wanted was for her sister to know she'd already messed up things in her absence. But what was more important, she needed to get herself and her son out of this weather.
She pulled out her cell phone. "I've got a better idea. I' ll call the sheriff."
Boone Gifford was a Texas boy, born and bred.
He had never been crazy about cold weather or snow. Now he was in the middle of a blizzard outside of Rebel Ridge, Montana. He'd only come here because he'd given his word. And Boone never went back on his word. So the sooner he got to the Rocking H, the sooner he could leave for a warmer climate.
He swiped his gloved hand over the windshield to clear away the condensation. It didn't help. Visibility was nil. Even reducing his speed to a crawl hadn't helped much. He wasn't even sure where he was.
Absently he rubbed his sore shoulder, reminding him of his last job on the off-shore oil rig and the accident that nearly took his life. He'd survived, but he would never forget the men who'd died that day. Especially one.
He shook away the memory to concentrate on his task. Not an easy one, either. The wind gusted again, continuing to make it difficult to keep his vehicle on the road. His grip tightened around the steering wheel. If he had a brain, he'd never have attempted to get to the Hughes ranch today.
No, he needed to finish this, once and for all. He needed to see Amelia Hughes, then he could move on with a clear conscience.
Boone kept his gaze sharp as his new four-wheel-drive truck crept along the dangerous terrain. Lucky for him, his tires could handle mud and snow. Suddenly he saw flashing emergency lights up ahead. As he got closer, he realized it was a truck parked at a funny angle along the shoulder.
So he wasn't the only crazy person out here. He stopped in the middle of the road, then, pulling the collar up on his coat, he climbed out. Fighting the sharp wind, he made his way to the embankment and the truck cab.
"Hey, is there anyone in there?" he called, and banged on the window.
He blinked the snow from his eyes as the window came down and a woman's face appeared. "Oh, thank God you came by. My son and I went off the road and we're stuck. If you could just help us to our ranch? It's just up the road a few miles."
"The Rocking H?" Boone asked.
"Yes." The pretty woman smiled, lighting up her rich green eyes. "Oh, you must be the hand from the Sky High Ranch. I'm Amelia Hughes."
So he'd found her. As Russ had described, she was a pretty brunette. Not wanting to stand here and give her an explanation, he gave her a quick nod. "Boone Gifford. Look, we need to get out of this, and my truck seems to be our best bet." He pulled open the door and helped the woman out of the truck, then behind her he saw the small boy.
"My son, Jesse," Amelia called, fighting the wind.
The boy slid across the seat. His eyes were wide along with his smile. A sudden tightness gripped Boone's chest.
"Hi." The boy cocked his head to the side and grinned. "Are you my Christmas wish?"
The normal ten-minute trip had taken nearly thirty by the time Boone pulled the truck up to the back door. Amelia finally released a breath. She climbed out of the truck and carrying two grocery bags, trudged her way to the porch. Boone Gifford swung Jesse up into his arms and followed her.
"We made it," Amelia cried as she stepped into the big kitchen. She set down her groceries on the long table. She wanted to drop to the floor and kiss it. She didn't want to think about what could have happened if they had been left out there.
"Yeah, we made it," Jesse mimicked as he came into the room.
Boone put her son down, but Jesse wasn't leaving his side. Amelia noticed the child's budding hero worship.
She pulled off her hat and shook out her long hair. "How about some coffee, Mr. Gifford?"
"Please, call me Boone." He took off his cowboy hat and unwrapped the scarf from his neck. "Yes, please, I wouldn' t mind a cup to warm up."
"Can I have some hot chocolate, Mom?"
Amelia took her son's coat and hung it on a hook beside the mud room door. "Yes, you can, but I want you to go change out of your jeans into some warm sweats."
He tugged off his cap, revealing his curly dark hair. "Ah, Mom. I want to talk to Boone some more."
That was the problem. She had to nix this before her son drove the ranch hand crazy. "You can when you get back, but right now there's a storm coming and we need to take care of the livestock, too."
"'Kay," he murmured and walked out of the room.
"I apologize for all my son's questions on the way home."
"Not a problem. He seems like a good kid."
"I think so, but I'm a little biased." She smiled and he smiled back before he turned away to the window.
Boone Gifford wasn't what you'd call classically handsome, but you took notice of the man. His ebony eyes were deep set, his jaw was chiseled with a shadow of a beard. His thick hair was coal black with a slight wave and long enough to brush the back of his collar. He was tall, well-over six feet, with shoulders so broad it made the room seem crowded.
Boone turned back toward her, catching her looking at him.
"Looks like this storm is going to be a rough one," he said, his gaze holding hers. "I should get out to the barn while I have a chance."
She cleared her throat, but couldn't remember what she wanted to say. She nodded, then went to the counter and began making coffee. "Good idea."
"Okay, you have anything special you need done?"
"My sister, Kelley, left written instructions in the tack room. And your sleeping quarters are right next door."
He nodded. "I'll go check out things and be back shortly." He started for the door, then stopped. "What did your son mean when he asked if I was his Christmas wish?"
She froze. "Oh, you know how kids are. It's only two weeks before Christmas and he has his list of what he wants. I'm sorry if he bothered you."
"It's not a problem." He paused again. "What exactly is he asking for?"
Jesse walked into the room. "I want a Dad."
Boone hurried into the barn and forced the door shut against the bitter cold wind. He was a coward. He'd had the perfect chance to tell her the real reason he was here. Instead he let her continue to think he was the ranch hand who'd been hired to help out. Why not? Amelia Hughes needed help, and he could at least hang around until the other guy showed up.
Boone walked down the center aisle to find everything neat and orderly. There were nearly a dozen stalls lining the walls, four with horses. He found he was a little envious.
Back in Texas his barn had looked a lot like this one. He'd taken pride in all the work he and his dad had put into the Last Dollar Ranch. The house had been far from a showplace, because they put every penny into the care of the stock. Then, after the bank took over, the ranch fell into total neglect. But not for long. Thanks to the financial settlement from the accident, he had the money and the opportunity to get it back.
Just as soon as he paid his other debt.
Suddenly a big chocolate Labrador appeared and began barking. "Hey, fella. Where'd you come from?" Boone held out his hand and the animal approached, then began wagging his tail. Once the dog relaxed, Boone petted him. He noticed the animal's full flanks. He grinned after further examination. "So you're a gal and a mother-to-be. And by the looks of it, you don't have long to go."
The dog barked in agreement.
Boone stood. "Come on, show me around?"
They headed toward the immaculate tack room and the dog's bed lined with blankets. He also found the list of boldly printed instructions. The next room was the sleeping quarters for the hired hand. A single bunk and a dresser, plus a wall heater. This wasn't meant for him. And before the real ranch hand showed up, he'd best tell Amelia the truth.
His thoughts turned to the pretty woman with the rich green eyes. She had a full, tempting mouth that caused his body to tighten, making him realize how alone he'd been the past six months.
He shook off the wayward thoughts. What would Amelia Hughes do when she realized he hadn't been exactly truthful? He rubbed the back of his neck. Maybe he should just hand over the envelope addressed to her and head out.
The wind howled outside. He wasn't going anywhere right now, and maybe not for a while.
And there was Jesse. He needed to know about his daddy, especially since Russ Eldon had died before he got the chance to come and meet his son.
Now all Boone had to do was tell a little boy he would never get his Christmas wish.
Amelia paced the kitchen, occasionally glancing out the window at the blowing snow. She couldn't see a thing. And according to the forecast, the weather wasn't going to improve for at least three or four days. How bad was it going to get? She looked toward the barn, barely able to see the red structure. Suddenly, she was happy Boone Gifford had showed up.
The phone rang and she picked it up on the second ring. "Hello."
"Amelia. It's Kelley."
"Kelley, hi. Is Gram okay?"
"Yes. I got her settled in her room and she's resting right now."
"That's good." Amelia knew how hard it had been to convince seventy-five-year-old Ruby Hughes to have this procedure done.
"Well, the doctor had to sedate her so she'd be relaxed." There was a pause. "How are you and Jesse doing? I'm worried about this storm, Amelia. It's going to get bad."
Amelia glanced outside again. The wind was blowing heavy snow. "We'll be fine, Kel."
"But what if you can't get out?"
"I have help."
"Oh, good. So Joe sent over the hand from Sky High Ranch."
She wasn't going to tell her sister that he had already rescued her and Jesse. "Yes, he's moving his things into the barn and checking on the horses."
"I'm glad you're not there alone."
So was she, but she'd never tell Kelley. "I know you don't think so, but I can handle things. I've lived out here as long as you have."
"I know, but I can't help being worried."
"Don't, because then Gram will worry, too. She's got to be your only concern right now. Mine is the ranch and Jesse." She went to the high counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room and glanced further into the great room to find her son sitting in front of the television watching a video.
Kelley still wasn' t convinced and rattled off a list of instructions. Amelia heard the back door shut and turned as Boone walked into the kitchen. His dark eyes met hers, and her throat suddenly went dry.
"Amelia… Amelia. Are you there?"
She shook away her wandering thoughts and turned back. "Yes, I'm here. Look, Kel, Jesse needs me so I better go. Call after the surgery tomorrow. Bye."
Amelia hung up the phone before her sister gave her more things to do.
"I came for that coffee." He removed his hat and coat revealing a dark-green flannel shirt.
"Sure." Amelia swung away from the distraction and went to the freshly brewed pot and grabbed two mugs. After filling it, she placed them on the table. "Cream or sugar?"
He shook his head. "No, black's fine, ma'am." The large brown dog lumbered into the room.