From USA Today bestselling author Caitlin Crews comes A True Cowboy Christmas, the first in a sensational series debut about a cowboy, a farm girl, and the greatest gift of all. . .
Gray Everett has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean he believes in the magic of Christmas. He’s got plenty else to worry about this holiday season, what with keeping his cattle ranch in the family and out of the hands of hungry real-estate investors looking to make a down-and-dirty deal. That, plus being a parent to his young and motherless daughter, equals a man who will not rest until he achieves his mission. Now, all Gray needs is the help of his lifelong neighbor. . .who happens to have grown into a lovely, spirited woman.
For Abby Douglas, the chance to join forces with Gray is nothing less than a Christmas miracle. Much as the down-to-earth farmer’s daughter has tried to deny it, Abby’s been in love with stern, smoking-hot Gray her whole life. So when Gray proposes a marriage of convenience as a way to combine land—and work together toward a common cause—Abby can’t refuse. But how can she convince Gray that sometimes life offers a man a second chance for a reason. . .and that their growing trust and mutual passion may be leading to true and lasting love?
About the Author
USA Today-bestselling, RITA-nominated, and critically-acclaimed author Caitlin Crews has written more than seventy-five books, including Frenemies, Princess from the Past, A Royal Without Rules, and Undone by the Sultan's Touch. She has won fans with her romance, Harlequin Presents, women's fiction, chick lit, and work-for-hire young adult novels, many of which she writes as Megan Crane (including the dystopian Viking romance Edge series). These days her focus is on contemporary romance in all its forms, from small town heat to international glamour, cowboys to bikers to military men and beyond.
Crews has taught creative writing classes in places like UCLA Extension's prestigious Writers' Program, gives assorted workshops on occasion, and attempts to make use of the MA and PhD in English Literature she received from the University of York in York, England. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with a husband who draws comics and animation storyboards, and their menagerie of ridiculous animals.
Read an Excerpt
Everetts had been going to their eternal rest in the same remote plot of land with its breathtaking view of the same range of gorgeously unforgiving Colorado mountains for at least three generations. And counting.
Gray Everett had always understood that sooner or later, he'd follow suit.
Today was one of those bright and blue November days that seduced a man into pretending he couldn't feel winter kicking there in the snap of the air against his face, sweeping down from the snowy heights to tug at his bones and make him feel every one of his thirty-eight years. It was the kind of sky that made Gray imagine he might be immortal. Colorado sunshine was nothing if not deceptive, even in an autumn that had already dusted the jagged peaks around the remote Longhorn Valley with a couple of teaser snowfalls, just to get the blood pumping and the snow tires ready.
And today it was Gray's famously ornery father who was carrying on the inevitable Everett tradition. He was being interred into Everett land in the simple pine box he'd requested in the will he'd drawn up years ago, and had thereafter theatrically amended with a red pen at the dinner table any time he felt irritable or slighted.
And Amos Everett had pretty much felt nothing but irritable and slighted, every day of his miserable life.
Gray was the one who'd had to keep the ranch running, no matter Amos's many feuds and grievances. He was the only one of his brothers who'd bothered to stick around and take care of what was theirs, so he'd long since stopped paying attention to his father's dark mutterings and periodic pronouncements of who was in and who was out. He'd had actual fences to mend, calves to brand, colts to halterbreak, bulls to move from one pasture to another. Amos's dark obsessions had been a distraction, nothing more.
The pine box was about the only thing the old man hadn't changed in all these years of will amendments.
And there were worse things than an eternity spent in this pretty family plot, miles away from anything, draped in wind and quiet, snowstorms and summer breezes. Shaded by cottonwood trees overlooking the icy blue river that tumbled down from the higher elevations and had given the four hundred acres Gray's ancestors had claimed its name. Cold River Ranch. The seat of the Everett family as long as there had been Everetts in Colorado.
His trouble, Gray thought as his reluctant family and the few neighbors who didn't outright hate Amos gathered around the grave Gray had dug into the chilly, resistant earth the previous morning, was that it turned out he might want more from his life than the Everett family tradition being interred in front of him.
He'd come from this land and like it or not, he'd be returned to this land, sooner or later. Staring at his father's grave brought that home to him with a kind of wallop.
Gray had spent his life deep in the harsh realities of running cattle, committed to handling Amos's nonsense as best he could, and dedicated to the raising of his daughter the way he'd been doing since Becca's mother had taken Gray's truck and crashed it on the mountain on her way to see one of her lovers ten years back.
He stared at his father's casket sunk deep in the ground and figured it wasn't the worst idea in the world to see if he could enjoy his life before he found himself stretched out beneath an adjacent patch of grass. And maybe make Becca's life easier than his had been while he was at it.
Everetts historically lived mean and more than a little feral, out here where the land had a mind of its own, cattle and weather wreaked havoc at will, and the pretty town of Cold River was an iffy mountain pass away. Everetts tended to nurse the bottle or wield their piety like a weapon, spending their days alone and angry until they keeled over in a barn one day. Gray's grandfather had been found one morning slumped over his tractor. Amos, who Gray really should have been taking this opportunity to mourn in the way a good son surely would have, had staggered off to the barn to saddle up his horse on Halloween morning and hadn't come out.
Gray's grandfather Silas had been a tough man, but a good one. When he had died, the whole valley had turned out to pay their respects. To this day Gray couldn't make a trip into town without some old-timer gruffly reminding him he had the look of his grandpa about him. He was fairly certain it was a compliment.
Amos, on the other hand, had been as bitter as he'd been spiteful and had taken it out on anyone who'd happened near. He'd run off a pair of wives, a series of girlfriends, not to mention two of his three grown sons. He'd also gone out of his way to alienate just about every resident of this cold, protected valley a world away from Colorado's fancy, glittering ski slopes and a solid few hours of hair-raising driving from the city lights of Denver.
Gray wasn't given to dramatics, but he could see his future as well as anyone if he didn't change. He didn't have to like it or the way it was mapped out right there in front of him to accept it.
Today's grumpy hermit is tomorrow's bitter, old man, he told himself.
He didn't love thinking about himself that way, and he wasn't thrilled at how much he sounded like Amos inside his own head, so he frowned around the small graveside service instead. His two younger brothers stood to one side of him, looking solid and grounded as if they hadn't gotten the hell out of Cold River at the first opportunity and left Gray to handle everything all these years. Across the way, loyal neighbors like old Martha Douglas and her capable, dependable granddaughter, Abby, stood with the sprawling Kittredge family who had land farther out in the valley. The longtime hands had lowered Amos's casket into the autumn earth and now stood there, taking part in the moment of silence.
Gray didn't know what anyone else was feeling, except for his daughter, whose muffled sniffles seemed to indicate she was actually mourning the bitter, old man in question's passing. But then, Becca was fifteen and had tried her best to dote on her grandpa as if the mean, old geezer was some kind of substitute for the mother she'd lost way too young. The mother Gray maybe should have tried to replace.
Gray couldn't say he or his brothers had tried all that hard with Amos. They'd learned better a long time ago.
When the simple service was finally over, everyone headed back toward the ranch house despite the fact there was supposed to be no gathering, "celebration of life," or any of that nonsense, per Amos's pissy wishes etched out in thick, red pen on that damn sheaf of papers he'd called his will. Becca gave him a hug before jumping in a truck with one of the Kittredges, but Gray decided to hike the mile back from the river with his brothers as if they were close.
They weren't. Even way back when they'd been kids, it had been every man for himself in Amos's version of family.
"Congratulations," Brady said as the three of them settled into the walk at Gray's brisk pace. "Dad's dead, Gray. That means you're free."
Gray adjusted his collar against the biting wind that rushed down from the snow-topped mountains and tended to remind a man exactly how small he was. A feeling Gray had always liked because it put things into perspective. He knew Brady hated it, because Brady had complained about it pretty much constantly throughout his teen years. He eyed his baby brother, all polished and fancy like the city slicker he'd made himself in his years down in Denver. Gray didn't want to imagine what the fool had spent on those boots of his.
"No man with four hundred acres is free. Or maybe you forgot what ranch life is like."
"I didn't forget. That's my point. This ranch is a cross no one asked you to carry. And one you can put down anytime now, in case you wondered."
Gray didn't want to have this conversation. Ever. And certainly not with Brady, who'd never made any secret of the fact he hated not just Cold River Ranch, but the town of Cold River and the entire Longhorn Valley too. Brady, who had never sacrificed a thing, was filled with all kinds of opinions. And yet had done nothing but run away.
Which was fine by Gray. But it wasn't him.
"I'm not selling," he said gruffly, to end the discussion.
Brady glared at him. "Not sure that's up to you, big brother."
On his other side, their middle brother Ty threw back his head and laughed, hard enough that the wind couldn't snatch it away and long enough that Gray and Brady stopped glowering at each other and turned it on him instead.
"Let's really get into it," Ty suggested when he fully had their attention. "Throw a few punches, leave a few bruises, and roll into the house with enough blood to horrify the neighbors and make sure we're the talk of the valley. Isn't that exactly what Dad would have wanted us to do to mark his passing?"
Gray's mouth curved despite himself. "The old man did like to cause a commotion."
Brady shook his head. "He could pick a fight with a tree. And win."
"He was banned from every bar from here to Vail, repeatedly." Gray almost sounded ... nostalgic. "Lately, though, he liked to hole up at home with a bottle of whiskey and list his enemies."
"Did ungrateful sons count as enemies?" Ty asked lazily. He sounded as cool and unbothered as the hotshot bull rider he was, and was exhibiting only the vaguest hint of a limp to remind anyone looking at him that the last bull he'd tried to ride had stomped him good on the way down.
Amos had pretended not to be aware that Ty rode bulls on television, because he'd always refused to acknowledge anyone who'd wronged him by leaving, from the ex-wives he'd bullied to the sons he'd chased away. But when others mentioned the famous Ty Everett, he'd certainly always seemed to know everything there was to know about his superstar middle child's career.
"We were disappointments, not enemies," Gray assured his brothers.
Brady scoffed. "How are you a disappointment? You're just like him. You might as well be a Cold River wet dream."
Ty snorted. "I definitely don't want to hear about your wet dreams, baby brother."
Gray didn't want to hear from either of them. He tuned out their bickering as they hit the crest of the hill, because there was his life's work laid out before him. In every direction, as far as he could see, there was nothing but Everett land. Sweet Angus beef, Colorado mountains, and the sweat and tears and stubborn dreams of all the family who'd come before him.
He took a deep breath, then let it go, his gaze fixed on the ranch house where he'd lived most of his life. He remembered his brothers grousing about it way back when. They'd each called the place claustrophobic, in their own ways, and each of them had made tracks out of the mountains as soon as they'd turned eighteen. Ty to the rodeo, Brady to school.
Only Gray had stayed. Only Gray had endured.
Because what Gray saw when he looked around wasn't the ball and chain Brady imagined or the chokehold Ty had never wanted.
He saw his home.
The place he'd raised his daughter. The place he planned to stay until it was Becca walking down this hill from the family plot, leaving him behind.
"This is the loneliest place I've ever seen," Brady muttered from behind him.
"Lonely is as lonely does," Ty replied, all drawl and the sound of his famous smile. "Which in my case is usually a whole lot of whiskey until I fancy myself a pool hustler."
Gray didn't turn around.
"I'm not selling," he said again, more seriously this time. "It's not happening."
He could feel his youngest brother's impatience. And he was sure he could feel the two of them exchanging glances back there, behind his back.
"Then tell me your plan," Brady said, using the rational, corporate voice he probably got a lot of mileage from down in the city. It made Gray want to swing on him. Which he didn't do, of course, because he was a grown man who was supposed to have a cool head on his shoulders.
"Same plan as always," he said instead. "Run cattle. Sell beef. Nothing changes here, Brady. Isn't that the reason you never come home?"
"What kind of life is that?" Brady demanded.
Gray cut his gaze to the side to find Ty there, a lot less belligerent than usual. A lot less swagger and a lot less of his typical showy crap too, now that he considered it. Maybe that last bull had actually stomped some sense into him.
"It's my life," Gray told Brady quietly.
"You could live an entirely different life if you wanted to."
"I don't want to."
"You could sell this land and never have to work another day in your life."
Gray shook his head. "What kind of man doesn't want to work?" "There are developers from here to Grand Junction and back who would kill for this kind of view."
"And I'd kill them all with my own hands before I'd let them turn our family legacy into a sea of tacky condos. Forget it, Brady. Dad didn't want to sell and neither do I."
"He left the ranch to all three of us."
"He did." Gray would turn the supreme unjustness of that over in his own head, in his own time, likely while continuing to be the only one of the three who actually put any work into the land that now belonged to all of them. That had been a kick in the gut. But Gray wasn't accustomed to showing the ways he hurt. "But it requires a unanimous vote to sell."
Brady looked frustrated for a moment, but then he blinked and his expression turned canny again. Like the slick finance guy he'd turned himself into. "What about Becca?"
"What about Becca?" Gray growled. "You have a sudden interest in my kid's well-being? I'm real happy to hear it, but you better break it to her gently. You're nothing but a face in a photograph to her."
That wasn't entirely fair, but Gray was okay with that. He was a lot less okay with that edgy, uncomfortable feeling in his own chest, making him restless and far meaner than he wanted to admit.
Maybe you're not as different from Amos as you like to think, that spiteful voice in his head chimed.
And maybe he needed to pay more attention to his daughter's well-being himself, and figure out ways he could make her life on the ranch better, though he didn't plan to admit that to Brady.
"You might have bought the legend of the Everetts hook, line, and sinker, but that doesn't mean she has," Brady replied, uncowed. "What if she wants to go to school and learn a few things, instead of spending her life neck-deep in cattle and dust and endless drudgery?"
"Whatever my daughter decides to do," Gray said, very distinctly, not touching the "drudgery" remark because if he did, he really would give his kid brother a bloody nose like he was thirteen again, "it has nothing to do with you."
"Just like the ranch has nothing to do with you, Brady. That was what you wanted. That was what you got. Don't think you can come back here because the old man is gone and start acting like you care what happens to the land, or Becca, or me."
Gray started down the hill toward the house, his stride longer than before, not just annoyed that he'd taken the bait in the first place — but that he'd imagined he could actually have a conversation with his brothers without wanting to smack them upside the head.
Apparently he wasn't going to grow up any time soon. Even if his brothers were adult strangers now instead of the snot-nosed brats Gray had always had to corral while their parents were busy fighting.
"Brady's just trying to point out that there are options," Ty said, reasonably enough, matching Gray's pace a touch too easily for a man who'd sustained injuries bad enough that he'd had to drop out of the bull-riding circuit in the spring.
But Gray didn't feel reasonable. About any of this. He was a thirty-eight-year-old man who'd poured his heart and soul and entire adult life into this land. He'd lost his wife to it. Oh, sure, he knew Cristina had cheated on him, just like he knew that some people weren't suited to marriage in the first place — especially not with a rancher who could never take those extended vacations she'd longed for or ever leave the land long enough to buy her the pretty things she'd been so sure would make her happy.
But he also knew that if he hadn't been more married to his land than he'd ever been to his woman, he might have prevented her from taking his truck that night and skidding over the side of the pass on her way into town.
If he had to live with that, he'd rather do it out here where there was nothing but the wind and the evergreens bristling on the sides of the mountains, his cattle in the distance, and his land beneath his feet.
He didn't expect Brady, who'd never stuck with anything or thought much beyond himself, to understand that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A True Cowboy Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Caitlin Crews.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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