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Grant Dodge was alone. And that was how he liked it.
He had spent the entire day out in the cold mountain air conducting roping demonstrations and leading trail rides. Not that he minded any of those things in isolation. It was the addition of people that made them somewhat challenging.
Worse than having to deal with people in a general sense was dealing with people who recognized him.
Not the typical small-town recognition; he was used to that. Though he could live without getting sad widower face from people he barely knew in the grocery store, but even then, at least it was people who knew him because he'd lived in Gold Valley all his life.
What really got to him was the people who recognized him from the news stories.
Eight years hadn't done anything to make those moments less weird. People often couldn't place where they knew him from, but they knew they did. And they would press, and press, until he told them.
The woman who had recognized him today had been a grandmother. A great-grandmother, even. Sweet and gray-haired and looking at him with sympathetic eyes that made him want to jump off the nearest bridge.
It always seemed worse around the holidays. Perhaps because of the sentimentality people seemed to feel that time of year. And tried to inflict on him.
He didn't really know.
Whatever the reason, he seemed to have an uptick in well-meaning-but-irritating interactions.
Maybe that was why he always wanted to drink more this time of year, too.
He shook his head and settled down into his chair, looking around the small, cozy cabin that he called home. And then he looked into the full, inviting whiskey glass he called salvation.
He didn't have a problem or anything. He was functional. He considered that the benchmark. Low though it might be.
He was functional enough that his family mostly joked about his drinking, which meant it was probably fine.
But the one thing he didn't want to do was get in bed at night stone-cold sober. Sometimes he could. When the long, hard day of work came inside with him, resting on aching shoulders and the lower back that was getting touchier with each passing year — because age. Not that thirty-four was exceptionally aged, not at all. But physical labor had a way of speeding all that up.
But then, the alternative had been to spend the rest of his life working at the damned power company, living in a little house on a quiet street in a neighborhood tucked back behind the main street of Gold Valley Living the life of a man lost in suburban bliss, without any of the trappings that generally made it blissful.
He never had the children, but there had been a time when he and Lindsay had hoped for them. Even though ...
That had always been a pipe dream, he supposed.
But for a while, he and Lindsay had lived in a world of dreams. Reality had been too harsh. And sometimes sitting around and making plans for a future you knew wouldn't be there was all you could do.
He took a long swallow of whiskey and leaned back in his chair. This was why he didn't go to bed sober.
Because it was these quiet moments, the still ones — particularly this time of year — that had a way of crushing in on him, growing louder and louder in the silence of the room.
Solitude was often as welcome as it was terrifying. Sometimes it had teeth. And he did his best not to get savaged by them.
He took another swallow of whiskey and leaned back farther in the chair before setting the glass on the table with a decisive click. Then he let his head fall back.
He must've dozed off, because when he opened his eyes again the hands on the clock hanging on the wall had made a more pronounced journey than it would have if it had only been the few minutes it felt like.
He stretched, groaning as his joints popped. He stood, making his way over to the window and looking out into the darkness.
At least, he should have been looking out into the darkness.
Instead, he saw a dim light cutting through the trees.
They did have guests staying on the property, but none out in the woods behind Grant's cabin.
Grant lived well out of the way, on the opposite end of Dodge land from the guest cabins. And if there was anyone out there right now, they were not where they were supposed to be.
He opened up the drawer in the kitchen and took a small flashlight out, and then shoved on his boots before heading outside. He supposed, if he were thinking clearly, he would have called his brother Wyatt. But then, he was half-asleep and a little bit drunk, so he wasn't thinking all that clearly. Instead, he made his own way out through the trees and toward the single light that was glowing in the woods. When he was halfway between his house and the light it occurred to him what he was probably about to walk in on.
The back of his neck went hot, tension rising inside of him.
Odds were, anyone out in the middle of nowhere at this hour was up to one thing. And he didn't especially want to walk in and find two people having sex in the middle of the woods, interrupting his drinking and sleeping time. The teeth on that would be just a little bit too sharp to bear.
But then, if he wasn't getting any, nobody else should, either.
Especially not right next to his house.
That only increased his irritation as he continued on toward the light, the wind whipping through the trees, the bitter cold biting through the flannel shirt he was wearing. He should've put a jacket on, but he hadn't thought of it.
He swore, and then he swore again as he approached the light.
He frowned. Right. There was a cabin back here, but it was dilapidated. One of the original buildings on the property, from back in the late 1800s. One that hadn't been inhabited in a long time. At least, not by humans. He had a feeling there had been several raccoons, and about ten thousand spiders. But not humans.
And raccoons did not light lanterns. So he could safely assume this was not a raccoon.
He was on the verge of storming in — because why the hell not? — but something stopped him. Instead, he softened his footsteps and walked up to the window.
It was not what he'd been expecting.
It was a person, but not people. And nobody was having sex.
Instead, there was a small woman, curled up beneath the threadbare blanket. She looked like she was asleep. The camping lantern next to her head was turned on, a thin, yellow band of light stretching across what he could see of her face.
She was not one of the guests; at least, he was reasonably certain. He didn't make a practice of memorizing what they all looked like.
Mostly because he didn't care.
It was also difficult to identify her positively because she was curled up in a ball, the blanket halfway up over her head. He shifted his position and saw there was a backpack in the corner of the room. But nothing else.
He frowned, looking at her again, and he saw that there were shoes on her feet, which were sticking out just past the edge of the blanket.
He dragged his hand over his face.
She could be a criminal. A fugitive from the law. But then, most likely she was a woman running from a difficult situation. Possibly from a man.
Which could mean there was a safety issue. And he had guests on his ranch, not to mention his younger sister, Jamie.
Jamie knew how to handle herself, of course. She was a tough-as-rawhide cowgirl who was often packing heat. But that didn't mean Grant would knowingly expose her to danger.
It was a lot of drama that he didn't want coming to roost.
He stood there, debating for a moment, and then he turned away from the cabin, jogging back to his house and grabbing his cell phone off the bedside table. He dialed his brother Wyatt's number, knowing that he was going to wake up spitting mad. Because it was four-thirty in the morning, and nobody wanted to be woken up at that hour. Though the Dodges were frequently up before the sun. They had responsibilities to take care of on the ranch that dictated early mornings. Though not this early.
"What the hell?" Wyatt asked by way of greeting.
His voice was gruff, evidence that he had been asleep.
"We have a visitor," Grant said, keeping his own voice low.
"Are you drunk?"
"No," Grant said.
At least, he didn't think he was. But even if he were he wouldn't hallucinate a woman sleeping in a cabin on their land.
"Really?" Wyatt pressed.
"Not anymore," Grant said.
"What's our visitor?" Wyatt asked, clearly confused.
"I woke up early," Grant said, by way of explanation. There was no need to tell Wyatt that he had fallen asleep in a chair in his living room after drinking a glass of whiskey. And that the pain in his back from sitting sleeping up had been the thing that had woken him. "I went and looked out the window and saw a light coming from the woods. I investigated. There's a woman sleeping in one of the cabins."
"I wanted to call you and find out what the hell you want to do about it."
"You could call the police," Wyatt suggested.
"No," Grant said. He wasn't sure why that was his conclusion, only that it was. Just that ... He had no idea what the circumstances might be. She could be young. A runaway teenage girl, and if they called the police ... who knew who might come for her. It might be the very people she was running from. And he would rather make sure he wasn't throwing her back into harm's way.
Grant didn't consider himself a particularly compassionate person, not these days. He'd drained all that out of him over eight years of being a caregiver to the woman he was married to. He didn't resent it. Didn't resent Lindsay at all. But that didn't mean he had anything left to give anyone else. Particularly a random stranger.
That artery had been bled dry.
Still, he couldn't ignore the fact that there was something incredibly vulnerable in the way she was sleeping. With the light on. Like she was afraid of monsters even out there in the middle of nowhere.
"Okay," Wyatt said slowly. "Then what do you suggest?"
"She's a tiny little woman," Grant said. "I imagine we can handle her. Go in and talk to her. Maybe Lindy should talk to her."
"Hell, no," Wyatt said. "We are not sending my wife in to talk to a random stranger squatting on our property."
Wyatt had gotten married only a couple months earlier — extremely quickly — after finally getting together with the woman he'd been obsessing over for years. Although Wyatt would never say he'd been obsessing over Lindy for that long, but Grant knew it was true.
When you were a man with no social or sex life you had a lot of time to observe things. The entire world was Grant's own personal Where's Waldo game. He had nothing to do but sit around and identify hidden feelings and truths in the lives of other people.
And drink. There was the drinking.
"We're going to end up giving her a damn heart attack," Grant said.
"She's sleeping on our land," Wyatt said. "As much as I don't relish the idea of terrifying a woman, it's not like she checked into the Embassy Suites and bought herself some privacy."
Grant shrugged. Mostly, he didn't want to hassle with her personally. He wanted to go back to sleep and wake up in a world where he didn't have to contend with another person or care about their feelings or whether or not he scared them.
"You're right there," Wyatt pointed out. "Why don't you wake her up?"
"And then what?"
"I don't know. Bring her over to the house. Give her some breakfast. Unless she shoots you."
"Which is a good point," Grant said. "I don't want to get shot."
"Bring your gun."
"I don't want to be in a shootout."
Grant hung up the phone. His brother was just getting on his nerves now. He grumbled and grabbed hold of his hunting knife, which was in a leather case that snapped onto his belt. He put it on his hip, grabbed his cowboy hat and went back to the front door.
He was not using a hunting knife on a woman, even if she came at him. But he supposed if there was a gun involved he might have to use something.
He just felt resigned, really. If she wanted to shoot him he might let her.
Then at least he could get some rest.
He grunted and walked out of the house again, shoving his phone in his pocket, because he should probably bring that, too. In all honesty, he would need the phone before he needed the knife.
He walked quietly across the heavily wooded ground, careful not to land any heavy footfalls. Of course, if he did, he might wake her up, startle her and send her off running. And if she did that, then she wasn't his responsibility. Not anymore. If she wasn't on the property, what did he care where she was?
He gritted his teeth and stopped right in front of the cabin door. And then he pushed it open.
* * *
Mckenna Tate was used to sleeping lightly. And tonight was no exception. She had been keeping one ear tuned into the sounds around her, just in case, even while she dozed.
Not that deep sleeping in this place was likely. It was cold, and the floor of the little cabin was hard. Two days spent in it didn't make it feel any more like home.
Except it wasn't fine right now, because she heard something. And that was why she'd stirred.
Suddenly, reality slammed into her. The door to the cabin was opening.
She scrambled into a sitting position, attempting to push herself onto her feet, but then the door flung open completely, and she found herself stumbling back, hitting the wall and curling up there like a startled animal ready to strike.
It was a man. Which, out here in this big bad world, was the scariest thing she could think of. She would rather tangle with a bear any day. This was definitely a man.
Silhouetted in the doorway, tall and broad and terrifying. He had a cowboy hat pulled down low over his face, and she couldn't see any of his features. She could just see that he was big.
"Calm down," he said, as if a command issued from a stranger would make her feel calm.
"What?" So, now she knew he was insane, which was great. Telling a woman whose sleep he'd just interrupted to be calm.
"I said," he responded, "calm down. I'm not going to hurt you."
"Like you would announce you were going to hurt me if that was your plan," she said, curling up tighter. "I have no idea what I would do if I was going to hurt you. Because I'm not going to. I do, however, want to know what you're doing here."
"I can see that. Or rather, I could. Though you aren't sleeping now."
"Very observant. I'd give you a trophy, but I'm fresh out."
He shifted, crossing his arms. "You're awfully mouthy for somebody sleeping on someone else's property."
"And you're awfully chatty for a guy who just found someone sleeping on his property. Don't you have follow-up questions?"
"Several. But I don't want you crouched there in the corner like you think I'm about to stab you."
She snorted out a laugh. "Oh, I'm not really that worried you're gonna randomly stab me. It's other things I worry about with men."
"You don't have to worry about that, either," he said.
His voice didn't soften it all. He didn't look like he felt bad for her, or like he pitied her in any way. That would not be the angle to take with him. Crying or anything like that. She could see that right away. She could paint a glorious picture of her tragic plight, and he would probably just stand there like a man carved from rock. Unmoved. Whoever he was, he was not a soft touch.
She was pretty good at identifying a soft touch. They were the kind of people who came in handy in desperate situations. People who wanted to wrap you in a blanket, give you a piece of pie and say some encouraging words so that they could go on with their day feeling like they were decent human beings.
She had a feeling this man did not care whether or not he was a decent human being.
She recognized that in him, because it was the same thing in her.
You couldn't care much about whether or not you were decent when you mostly just wanted to be alive.
"I just want to sleep here," she said, holding her hand out. "That's all."
"You don't have anywhere else to sleep?"
"Yeah, actually, I have a mansion up on the hill. But I like a little impromptu camping. Bonus points if it's on someone else's land, because it adds to the spirit of adventure. I love being woken up in the middle of the night by large, angry ranchers."
"It's not really the middle of the night. It's almost five in the morning."
She groaned. "Close enough to the middle of the night in my world."
"This is usually about the time I get up every day."
"Don't brag to the less fortunate," she said. "I'm liable to get jealous of such decadent living."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Tall, Dark Cowboy Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Maisey Yates.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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