“Colleen is a master storyteller.” —Karen Kingsbury, New York Times bestselling author
All Is Calm
It’s going to be an unexpectedly romantic Christmas at Bluebird Ranch.
Brendan Waddell has always considered Bluebird Ranch a little piece of heaven: an idyllic ranch that pairs abused children with abused horses, run by one of his Marine buddies. Now, it seems just the place to spend Christmas recovering from an on-the-job injury.
Lauren Everman first came to the ranch as a foster kid, but now knows it’s the perfect hideout. As the witness to a murder, Lauren needs somewhere to lie low. Her beauty immediately catches Brendan’s attention—but so does her secretive behavior. This Special Ops Intel man knows a woman on the run when he sees one. Can he trust her, or is she putting the ranch at risk? One thing is certain: he’s going to do everything he can to keep her safe so he can see what magic Christmas brings.
All Is Bright
A romantic Christmas wedding at Tidewater Inn gives Delilah’s unique gifts a chance to shine. But will her light be snuffed out before the bride and groom say “I do”?
As manager of the Tidewater Inn, Delilah Carter has been planning a spectacular Christmas wedding for her friend, Elin Summerall. But when Delilah’s car is forced off the road and into the ocean, she finally has to admit that the strange phone calls she’s been receiving lately may be more than just pranks.
Sheriff Tom Bourne has always had a soft spot for Delilah, and he’s determined to protect her. He hopes to win her heart by giving her the surprise gift of a lifetime . . . but first he has to make sure nothing happens to her before Christmas Day.
It’s the season of miracles. But will both Elin and Delilah get the ones they need this holiday season?
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
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All Is Calm, All Is Bright
A Colleen Coble Christmas Collection
By Colleen Coble
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Colleen Coble
All rights reserved.
THIS IS WRONG ON EVERY COUNT. CHRISTMAS WAS THREE WEEKS away. Did that mean nothing to these men? Lauren Everman darted into the barn and locked the padlock from the inside. Angel, the black stallion behind her, snorted when she rattled the chain to make sure it held.
"Lauren, you unlock this door right now." Ranch owner Charles McLeod yelled from outside the barn. "You know it has to be done."
"It wasn't his fault!" She backed away from the door and went to stand near Angel's stall. "It's okay, boy. I won't let anyone hurt you."
"The vet can't stay any longer. We can do this nice and humane, or I'll just have to shoot him later." Her boss pounded on the door.
"I'm telling you it wasn't his fault. Someone shot him full of some kind of drug. I saw it." She had no real hope McLeod would listen to her. Trouble always seemed to find her no matter what she did or how hard she tried. She'd already tried to tell him about the shadowy figures she'd seen two days ago and the bullet that had come whizzing by her head. He claimed she was being dramatic and just wanted attention. She knew better. "Angel would never hurt anyone on purpose."
As if to contradict her, the stallion bit down on her arm hard enough to make her wince. She jerked out of his way. Poor fellow. Angel was stressed. She moved down the length of the stall and checked the back door to make sure it was securely locked. It was. So were the windows. No one was getting in here unless she let them.
McLeod shouted her name again, then peered through the window at her. She turned her back on him and flopped down in the hay. Might as well make herself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.
Through one window the sunset put on a spectacular show. She focused on it and tried to tune out the angry men outside. They couldn't kill Angel ... They just couldn't. She'd never be able to live with the injustice of it.
An idea began to foment. What if she escaped with him and went far away where they'd never find him? With Tonia's lies, the police had been questioning her about Dustin's death as if she was a suspect. But where could she go to find a safe haven?
Bluebird Ranch. The notion popped into her head. She'd spent a life-changing summer there twelve years ago when she was seventeen. It was a terrific ranch that paired abused children with abused horses. When she was a foster kid, the place had been the one bright spot for her. There was always a place there for a good horse and a hard worker. She could get there in a day. All she had to do was get to El Paso, then head east to the Big Bend area of West Texas.
She got up and dusted the hay off her jeans. She couldn't just steal the horse, though. The horse was worth ten grand. On second thought, if McLeod was prepared to put him down anyway, any money he got should make him happy.
Her heart singing, she practically ran to her room, a tiny space in the back of the barn, and dug out her checkbook. She wrote out a check for five thousand dollars, nearly cleaning out her account, and tucked the corner of the check under a lamp on the nightstand.
Once they left her in peace, she'd make her getaway under cover of night. She grabbed her Stetson. It wouldn't be the first time she'd run.
* * *
Brendan Waddell had always considered the Bluebird Ranch a little piece of heaven, and today was no exception when he parked his truck in the dirt drive and got out. He drew in a deep breath of mesquite and creosote, the finest scent on earth as far as he was concerned. The twinkling Christmas lights welcomed him.
Allie Bailey, Rick's petite wife, bounced down the porch steps before he even managed to shut the door behind him. "You're late."
Her tight hug told him he was welcome. "Had to stop for gas." And to walk off the pain gripping his right leg, but he wasn't about to tell her that. He released her and stepped back, eyeing the huge tummy bulge under her sleeveless red top. "You look like you're about to pop."
Her bright blue eyes widened. "How ungentlemanly of you to notice." Her laugh rang out. "It's a girl this time, due end of December."
"I bet Rick is over the moon."
"Sure is. We both want a big family." He followed her toward the house, a sprawling home typical of its West Texas setting. White barns, outbuildings, and bunkhouses ranged over the property. This place was exactly what he needed.
A young woman pushing a child in a tire swing under a large mesquite tree caught his attention. He'd seen her before somewhere, hadn't he? Or a picture of her maybe? In his intelligence position with Special Ops, he read every bit of local news and unusual circumstances that came across his desk. She didn't seem to notice him staring as she pushed the little girl higher and higher.
He nodded toward the two. "Who's that?"
"Interested? I think she's single." Allie's impudent grin flashed up at him.
Used to friends trying to marry him off, Brendan kept his face impassive. If he ignored the innuendos, they'd leave him alone sooner or later. "She just looks familiar. Was she here last time I came?"
Allie shook her head as she mounted the steps to the house. "Lauren just arrived a couple of days ago looking for a job. She was a guest here years ago when she was a teenager. As luck would have it, we were in need of a new horse trainer. She's amazing with horses. It's like she speaks their language. Her letters of recommendation were impeccable, and Rick hired her on the spot."
He spared one last glance at the brunette. The ponytail holding her dark hair emphasized her high cheekbones and expressive dark brown eyes. She looked over and caught his gaze. A tinge of color sprang to her face, and she turned away to attend to the little girl.
"No, one of our foster kids here for the summer." Allie opened the screen door. "Rick will be home in a few minutes. He ran to the feed store."
When Brendan entered the living room, a whirlwind attacked his good leg. He lifted the four-year-old into his arms, and little Matthew clung like a monkey. "Hey, squirt."
The little boy puffed out his chest. "I'm not a squirt anymore, Uncle Brendan. I'm big."
"You've grown two inches since I saw you." Brendan set him back on the floor and lifted a brow in Allie's direction.
"My usual room?"
"It's all ready for you."
"I'll be right back." He sniffed the air, redolent with the aroma of Mexican spices. "Smells like enchiladas." His stomach rumbled.
Allie smiled and took her son's hand. "You nailed it."
Brendan went down the hall and dropped his luggage, then headed for the kitchen.
Allie nodded out the window. "Rick just got back. Have a seat, and we'll eat."
"I'm starved." He pulled out a chair beside Matthew.
The front door banged, and he rose to greet Rick. The two had been in the Marines together before Rick got out and came home to West Texas. Brendan had gone on to bigger and better things with the intelligence division, or so he'd thought at the time. Now, looking at the happy family around him, Brendan wasn't so sure what he should decide this time. He could take a medical discharge or fight it and end up pushing papers the rest of his military career.
Rick hadn't changed much in the ten years they'd been friends. There were a few more lines around his blue eyes, but his rangy form was just as lean and muscular as ever.
As Brendan shook Rick's hand, he noticed another figure behind him. Lauren, the woman from the front yard. Their gazes locked for a moment, then she ducked her head and went to pull out the chair at the other end of the table.
Rick glanced her way. "Lauren, he's not as surly as he seems. Smile, Brendan. I know you know how."
Brendan blinked, then managed a grin. "I promise not to bite."
Lauren's gaze came up, and a tiny smile lifted her lips. She was really a knockout up close. Perfect olive skin and eyes fringed with thick lashes.
"Where you from, Lauren?" He put the question out with practiced charm.
She bit her lip and looked down at her plate. "Dallas area."
What was she hiding? He could sniff out deception a mile away. "You don't have much of a Texas accent."
"Originally from Indiana. I've just been in Dallas three years."
"You're a horse trainer?"
Her nod came, barely discernible. "I love horses."
Rick pulled out a chair beside his son. "She brought a stallion with her. We've already had a neighbor ask to use him as a stud. He's gorgeous."
A genuine smile brightened Lauren's face. "I fell in love with him the first time I saw him. Everyone was afraid of him, but he's a sweetheart."
Allie unfolded her napkin. "I don't know about that. He won't let me within five feet of him. You've got a special touch, Lauren. No horse seems able to resist you. You've got our horses eating out of your palm already. And the children as well. You're like a Pied Piper. I thought we'd have to get rid of Jilly, but she's as docile as can be now."
"I'm glad to be here. It's a wonderful haven."
Brendan considered Bluebird Ranch his haven, too, a place where he could be himself with an old and trusted friend, but what was she running from? There was a darkness in her eyes, some kind of suffering that made him curious. He'd ask Rick about her tonight.CHAPTER 2
The guy put her nerves on end. As soon As the Bailey family moved to the living room and turned on a Christmas special for little Matthew, Lauren said her good nights and escaped to the sky sprinkled with stars. It was like looking at her own personal Christmas lights. The gravel crunched under her feet as she hurried to her room in the barn. The Baileys had offered her a room in the bunkhouse, but it was full of all guys, and she felt much more comfortable here amid the sweet scent of hay and the pungent odor of horse.
She paused to rub Angel's soft nose, then went to her room and shut the door behind her. The ten-by-twelve space held a cot, an upside-down crate that served as a bedside table, and a battered white dresser. A door opened into a tiny bathroom with a rust-stained shower barely big enough to turn around in. She'd loved it immediately.
She pulled on pajamas, washed off her makeup, then braided her hair before grabbing her e-reader and crawling into bed. She'd barely flipped it on when a noise caused her to bolt upright. Someone is out there.
She scrambled out of bed and stepped to the door. Was that breathing on the other side? Her heart thumped hard in her chest. Someone was there, she just knew it. She glanced around for a weapon. Once upon a time, she'd had a gun — until she pawned it. Now all she had were her cuticle scissors, but she was strong. If she jabbed the point into someone, it might be enough to allow her to get away.
She grabbed the small scissors from the top of her bedside table, then stepped back to the door. She held up the scissors and flung open the door. Brendan took a step back.
His eyes widened when they took in the cuticle scissors in her upraised hand. His lips twitched. "If I wanted to hurt you, you'd be on the floor in five seconds flat. Those little things wouldn't help you at all."
"I could put your eye out."
He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the doorjamb. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"You could have called out. What do you want?"
"I asked Rick about you. Last name is Everman, not a common name. I knew you looked familiar. Law enforcement has been looking for you for two months in connection with the death of that jockey Dustin Windsor."
How did he know this? It wasn't like the search was on national news stations. Her throat too tight to speak, she brushed past him and went to check on Angel. Brendan followed her, crowding into her personal space so far that she whirled and shoved his chest. "Back off!"
His brows rose. "You can't blame me for wanting to protect my friends. This a stolen racehorse?"
"I paid for him!" But her cheeks heated when she realized she'd admitted he was a racehorse. "He's past his prime now. They were going to put him down. They blamed him for Dustin's death, but it wasn't his fault." She hated herself for the whine in her tone and straightened her shoulders. "I was happy to buy him and bring him to a new life. My new life."
"As long as there aren't still remnants of your old life that might threaten my friends." His mild voice held a steely undertone. "Why are you here?"
"Did you say anything to Rick and Allie?"
"Not yet. I wanted to hear from you."
"I wasn't guilty of anything. I just wanted to get Angel away from there."
"Innocent, huh? That's what everyone says."
His cynicism made her throat close. People always believed the worst. She believed everyone deserved to be heard, but this cold-eyed man wasn't going to listen to a thing she said. He'd judged her and found her guilty.
She swallowed hard. "You can't tell anyone I'm here. If you do, my death will be on your head."
He straightened. "Your death?"
She nodded and blinked back the moisture in her eyes. "They think I can identify Dustin's killer. I started getting threatening calls."
"Tell me what happened."
She turned and rubbed Angel's soft nose. The scent of horse soothed her and drained the tension from her shoulders. How on earth did she tell this stranger her fears?
"The best thing is to turn yourself in and tell what you know."
"Best for whom? My own cousin —" Angel must have felt her returning tension because he jerked his head away and snorted. She held out her hand. "Easy, boy."
"What about your cousin?"
"Nothing." This intense man wouldn't understand her sense of betrayal. He clearly dealt only with the facts. Her eyes burned again and she looked away.
His hand touched her shoulder, and she turned to look at him. Did she dare believe the bit of sympathy in his brown eyes? Or was it merely a ploy to get her to open up?
"I know a little about betrayal. Who is this cousin and what did he do?"
Betrayal. That's why this hurt so much. She saw the truth of his own pain in his eyes. Maybe she could trust him to get it. She so badly needed to confide in someone. It was hard to force this pain down.
"She." She cleared her throat. "Tonia was with the man who broke into the barn the night Dustin was killed. I saw her, but I didn't tell the police."
She shrugged. "I didn't want anything bad to happen to her."
"But she claimed you let that man in. To throw suspicion off herself?"
"I guess." She looked down at her hands. "I would never rat her out. Even now, you're the first person I've told."
"Tell me exactly what you saw the night of the murder." He was all business now with his expression somber and intent.
She closed her eyes, remembering that night, then opened them and stared into his handsome face. "I was the stable manager and trainer for Charles McLeod. I was working late that night because of a foaling mare. I had the lights off to soothe her, and I was tired since I'd been up the night before too. I must have dozed off. A noise awakened me, and I got up and went to the window. I saw Tonia with a guy in a big black truck. When I turned back around, I saw a hooded figure moving quickly through the barn. Then I saw Dustin lying on the hay. The hay was wet with blood."
"I thought you said there were no lights."
"The moon was shining through the windows." She wet her lips. "The man strode past me, and I saw a hypodermic needle in his hand. He was heading toward McLeod's prize horse, Elijah. Angel was already going crazy and striking Dustin with his hooves. I think the man had already given him a shot of something."
"This man, he didn't see you?"
"Not at first. I looked around for a weapon and grabbed a shovel. When he got close enough, I hit him with it. When he fell to the ground, I ran to the door and shouted for help." She well remembered the terror of that night, the way her scream echoed into the cold night air, the way the lights flashed on in the bunkhouse and men came running. The shrieking of the fire trucks out on a fire run somewhere. "I took McLeod back to the barn where I'd knocked out the intruder, but he was gone."
"I assume the police came that night?"
She nodded. "I told them what I'd seen and who all was there. But the next day when they asked what she'd seen, Tonia told them she'd seen me with some guy, that I'd let him in the barn. That I was involved."
"Why would she do that? What motive would she have for lying?"
A wealth of reasons. How did she even start to tell him about Tonia's building jealousy? "It's complicated. I doubt you could understand. I don't even get it."
"Her one goal in life was to marry well. She wanted a man with money and prestige, and she seemed to have found him in Steve McAvoy."
"The state senator?"
"That's the one. She thought he was going to propose." She looked down at her hands. "Then she brought him to the track and we met. After that he wouldn't leave me alone. I told him I wasn't interested, but he wouldn't listen." The words rushed out, faster and faster. "He started sending me flowers, candy, jewelry. I refused all of it, but then he started waiting for me by my car every night."
"Tonia found out?"
Excerpted from All Is Calm, All Is Bright by Colleen Coble. Copyright © 2015 Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAll Is Calm, 1,
All Is Bright, 99,