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Though Thanksgiving was still a week and a half away, Christmas apparently had already rolled into Pine Gulch, Idaho, in all its snowy glory.
Hope Nichols looked through the windshield of the crappy old Ford pickup truck she had picked up for a cool thousand dollars at the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Salt Lake City. On a late afternoon in November the storefronts of the small but vibrant downtown area were alive with Christmas displaystrees, lights, toy soldiers, the occasional Nativity scene.
As she drove through more residential areas on her way to Cold Creek Canyon, she saw the holiday spirit extended here. Nearly every house had decorations of some sort, from inflatable snowmen to a full-fledged Santa and reindeer display.
She didn't mind even the kitschiest of decorations, even though to some it might seem early in the season. Considering she hadn't spent the holidays at home for the past five yearsor even in the countryshe couldn't wait to embrace the whole Christmas thing this year.
She supposed that was a good thing, since her family's ranch was the holiday epicenter around here.
This area of eastern Idaho already had a few inches of snownot much, but enough to cover everything in a lovely blanket of white and add a bit of seasonal charm to the town she remembered with such warmth and affection.
While Pine Gulch wasn't exactly her hometown, it was close enough. Hope and her sisters had lived here through most of their formative teen years, and she loved every inch of it, from the distant view of the west slope of the Tetons to the unassuming storefronts to the kind people who waved at her even now, though they couldn't possibly recognize her or the old blue pickup truck with the primer on the side.
She had come to be pretty fond of the old Ford. It didn't exactly drive like a dream, but it had four-wheel drive and all its working parts. Buying it had been an impulsive decisionshe had intended to rent a car in Salt Lake City to drive home after she flew in from northern Africa, but had suddenly realized she would need transportation permanently now. This truck would get her through the gnarly winter season until she figured out what she would do next. After a decade of wandering, she was ready to stay put for a while.
Nerves in her stomach danced a little, as they had been doing throughout the five-hour drive from Salt Lake, while she tried to anticipate the reaction she would find at the Star N Ranch when she showed up out of the blue with her duffel bag.
Aunt Mary would probably cry, her older sister, Faith, would be shocked and her younger sister, Celeste, would smile in that quiet way of hers.
The children would at least be happy to see her, though she knew Louisa and Barrettand everyone else, for that matterwere still reeling from the death of their father. Travis, Faith's husband and childhood sweetheart, had died four months earlier in a tragic accident. Hope had come back for his funeral, of course, but her correspondence and video chats with her family since then had mostly been superficial.
It was time to come home. Past time. Since Travis's death, she couldn't shake the feeling that her family needed her, despite their protests that all was fine. The holiday season was insane at The Christmas Ranch and all hands were necessary, even when those hands belonged to the wanderer in the fam
With a noise as loud as a gunshot, something hit the passenger-side window of her truck, jerking her thoughts back to the present. In the space of a heartbeat, the window shattered as Hope slammed on the brakes, ducked and instinctively yelled a curse word her mostly Berber students taught her.
What the ?
Who would be shooting at her? For a crazy moment, she was a terrified, desperate thirteen-year-old girl again, heart pounding, adrenaline pulsing. She didn't have flashbacks very often, but when she did, they could roll over her like a bulldozer.
She drew in a breath, forcing away the panic. This was Pine Gulch. There were no snipers here, no rebel factions. Nobody would be shooting at her. She glanced at the window. Because the truck was older, it didn't have tempered glass and the entire window had shattered. All she found was a melting pile of snow amid the shattered glassand a healthy-sized rock.
Not a gunshot, then. A dirty trick. Tentatively, she raised her head to look around. At first, she didn't see anything, until a flurry of movement on that side of the vehicle caught her gaze.
A young boy stood just off the road looking shocked and not a little guilty.
Hope pulled over to the side of the road then jumped out of the driver's side and headed for him.
The kid stared at her, eyes wide. He froze for only a moment as she approached, then whirled around and took off at top speed across the snow-covered lawn just as a man walked around the side of the house with a couple of snow shovels in hand.
"You're in luck, kid," he called. "I found shovels for each of us."
The man's voice trailed off as the boy raced behind him, using what were quite impressive muscles as a shield, as if he thought Hope was going to start hurling snowball-covered rocks right back at him.
"Hey. Come back here. Where do you think you're going, young man?" she demanded sternly in her best don't-mess-with-me teacher's voice.
The big man frowned and set the snow shovels blade-down on the sidewalk. "Excuse me, lady. What the heer, heck is your problem?"
She told herself her heart was racing only from adrenaline at her window suddenly shattering. It had nothing to do with this large, muscled, gorgeous man with short dark hair and remarkable hazel eyes. Somehow he seemed even bigger as he bristled at her, overpowering and male.
She, however, had gone against bullies far worse than some small-town cowboy with a juvenile delinquent and an attitude.
She pointed to the pickup truck, engine still running, and the shattered passenger window.
"Your son here is the problemor more accurately, the rock he just tossed through my window. I could have been seriously hurt. It's a miracle I didn't run off the road."
"I'm not his son," the kid snapped. He looked angry and belligerent at the very idea.
She supposed it was only natural her mind immediately went to kidnapping, especially after the sudden flashback.
"I'm his uncle," Sexy Dude said, with a frustrated look at the boy. "Did you see him throw it? I'm sure you must be mistaken. Joey is not the kind of kid who would throw a rock at a moving vehicleespecially a stranger's moving vehicle."
Was he trying to convince her or himself? His words rang a little hollow, making her wonder if Joey was exactly the kind of kid who would vandalize a vehicle, whether he knew the owners or not.
"Then explain to me why my window is shattered and why he took off the moment I stopped my truck to talk to him about it."
The guy frowned. "Joe. Tell the nice lady you didn't throw a rock at her window."
The boy lifted his chin obstinately but after meeting her gaze for just a moment, he looked down at his snowboots. "I didn't throw a rock," he insisted, then added in a muffled sort of aside, "It was a snowball."
"A snowball with a rock inside it," she retorted.
He looked up and gave his uncle an imploring look. "It was a accident. I didn't mean to, Uncle Rafe. I swear."
"Joey." The uncle said the single name with a defeated kind of frustration, making her wonder what the situation was between the two of them. Where were the boy's parents?
"It was a accident," he repeated. Whether it was genuine or an act, Joey now sounded like he was going to cry.
"An accident," she corrected. "Whatever," the boy said.
"Using proper English is important when you wish to convey your point." Yes, she sounded prim but six years of combined experience in the Peace Corps and teaching English across the globe had ingrained habits that were probably going to be tough to break.
"Okay. It was an accident," he spoke with such dramatic exaggeration that she almost smiled, until she remembered the crisis at hand.
"That's better, but I'm still not sure I believe you. I think you were aiming right at my truck."
"I didn't mean to break the window. I wasn't even trying to hit the window, I was trying to hit the hubcap. My friend Samantha and me are playing a game and we get five points for every hubcap."
"My friend Samantha and I," she said. She couldn't seem to help herself, even though she noticed the correction only made the uncle glower harder, making him look big and rough-edged and even more dangerous.
She suddenly felt small and not nearly as tough as she liked to think.
"Can we deep-six the English lessons, lady, and focus on your window?"
She was nervous, she suddenly realized. Was it because of his military haircut or the muscles or because he was so great-looking? She pushed away the uneasiness and forced herself to concentrate on the real issue.
"Sorry. Reflex. I'll stop now. I've been teaching English in northern Africa the past few years and was in the Peace Corps before that. I'm just returning to Pine Gulch to visit my family. They live in Cold Creek Canyon and."
Her voice trailed off. He didn't care about that. She cleared her throat. "Right. My window. It was a very dangerous thing you did, young man. Tell your friend Samantha it's a bad idea to throw snowballs at cars, whether the snowballs have rocks in them or not. You could distract the driver and someone could easily get hurtmaybe even you."
The boy gave her a pugnacious sort of look but said nothing until his uncle nudged him.
"Tell the nice lady you're sorry."
"I don't think she's very nice," he grumbled.
Again, Hope almost smiled, until she met the man's gaze and found him looking extremely unamused by the entire situation.
"Too bad." The boy's uncleRafe, was it?frowned at him. "Tell her you're sorry anyway."
Joey looked down at the snow-covered ground again and then finally met her gaze. "I'm sorry I hit your window and not your hubcap. We don't get any points for hitting windows."
As apologies went, it was a little weak but she would still take it. She was suddenly weary of the whole situation and wanted to continue on toward the Star N and her family.
"In your defense, that window had a crack in it anyway. It probably wouldn't have shattered if it hadn't been for that."
"You're not going to be throwing any snowballs at cars again," the boy's uncle said sternly. "And you're going to tell Samantha not to do it either, right?"
"But I was winning the contest! She was gonna give me her new Darth Vader LEGO minifig if I won and I was gonna give her my Green Ninja minifig if she won."
"Too bad. The lady is right. It's dangerous. Look at the trouble you've already caused!"
The boy didn't look happy about it but he finally shrugged. "Fine."
"We'll pay for the window replacement, of course. If you get an estimate, you can have them send the bill to me here. Rafe Santiago. I'll warn you that I'm only going to be in town for another few weeks, though."
The name seemed to strike a chord deep in her subconscious. Had they met before? Something about his hazel eyesstriking against his burnished skinreminded her of someone but she couldn't seem to pin down who or where.
She didn't remember any Santiagos living in this little house before. From what she remembered of Hope's Crossing, this had always been a rental house, often used short-term for seasonal workers and such.
"I will do that." She held out her hand, deciding there was no reason they couldn't leave on good terms. "I'm Hope Nichols. You can find me at The Christmas Ranch, in Cold Creek Canyon."
At her words, something sparked in those hazel eyes but she couldn't identify it.
"Nichols?" he said sharply.
Perhaps he knew her sisters, though Faith went by her married name now, Dustin, and she couldn't imagine quiet, introverted Celeste having much to do with a roughand-tumble man like him. Maybe Joey had caused trouble at the library where Celeste worked. She could believe thatthough, okay, that might be a snap judgment.
"Can I go inside?" Joey asked. "Snow got in my boots and now my feet are freezing. I need to dump it out."
"Yeah. Go ahead. Dump the snow off on the porch, not inside."
Joey raced off and after a moment, Rafe Santiagowhy was that name so familiar?turned back to her.
"I'm sorry about my nephew," he said, rather stiffly. "He's had a rough time of it the past few weeks."
She wondered what had happened, but when he didn't volunteer any further details, she accepted it was none of her business. "I'm sorry if I came down too hard."
"I didn't say you did. Whatever he's been through isn't an excuse anyway. I'll talk to him about this stupid contest and make sure he and his friend both realize it's not a good idea."
He gave her another searching look and she had the strangest feeling he wanted to say something else. When the silence stretched between them, a little too long to be comfortable, she decided she couldn't wait around for him to speak.
"I should go. My family is waiting for me. I'll be in touch, Mr. Santiago."
"Rafe," he said gruffly. Was that his normal speaking voice or did she just bring out the rough edges? she wondered.
"Rafe. Nice to meet you, even under the circumstances."
She hurried back to her pickup truck and continued on toward home, though she couldn't shake the odd feeling that something momentous had just happened.
Rafe watched the taillights recede into the early evening gloom until she turned a corner and disappeared. Even then, he couldn't seem to make himself move, still reeling from the random encounter.
Son of a bi gun.
He checked the epithet. He was trying not to swear, even in his head. Joey didn't need any more bad habits. If Rafe didn't think the words, he wouldn't speak them. It was a logical theory but after twenty years in the navy, seventeen of those as a SEAL, cleaning up his language for the sake of a seven-year-old boy with an enormous chip on his shoulder was harder than he ever would have imagined.