Jackson Stone will always be grateful to the Lamberts, who took him in when he was just a kid. But since the accident that killed his foster brother, Brock, he stays away from the family at Coffee Creek Ranch. Especially now that Brock's former fiancée, Winnie Hays, is back in town with her little boy.
The simmering attraction between them may surprise Winnie, but Jackson fell for her at first sight years ago. Loyalty and guilt require he keep his distance even as their feelings blossom into love. In the end, it's his own conscience Jackson must master. But with the help of the Lamberts, can this Christmas be a time of healing and a new beginning?
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Winnie Hays looked up at the white church and hesitated. She couldn't believe she was here, back in Coffee Creek, Montana. This was her last chance to back out. Everyone would understand if she did.
Since when is wimping out your style? Is that the kind of woman Bobby needs as his mother?
Since the death of her fiance, that was how she had found the strength to go on. By thinking of their son. And putting his needs before hers.
Still, it was impossible not to recall the last time she'd been here. Wearing a long white gown. Expecting to leave a married woman.
Eighteen months had passed since then, a relatively short period of time marked by the most major events of Winnie's life: the death of her fiance and the birth of their son seven months later.
She checked her cell phone, making sure it was set to vibrate so she'd know if Bobby's babysitter called. Not that she was worried. Eugenia Fox had raised a son of her own, and had worked for Winnie at the Cinnamon Stick Cafe since it had opened several years ago.
No, Eugenia and Bobby were going to be fine.
It was herself she was worried about.
If she hadn't been so late, she wouldn't be forced to enter the church alone. Her best friend, Laurel, and her new husband, Corb Lambertthe brother of Winnie's late fiancehad planned to be by her side for moral support. But they must have given up on her. Decided she'd chickened out.
And she still could. There was no one around to see if she just about-faced and scurried home to the sweet toddler who was the center of her universe.
It was precisely because of Bobby that she needed to attend this wedding. This was his father's family. Her son's family. And it was time she faced them.
Still, she paused one last time before entering the church, glancing over her shoulder at the small town of Coffee Creek.
The November day was sunny, crisp and cold. A dusting of snow had decorated the day nicely for the wedding party, the silvery-white crystals contrasting vividly with the blue Montana sky. Olive Lambert, control freak that she was, would be pleased.
Be nice, Winnie. No catty comments about Bobby's grandmother, please.
She grasped the handle, took a deep breath then pulled open the door.
The sound of the organ music almost did her in.
At least it was a different song than the one that had played a year and a half ago. Beethoven was a genius, but she never wanted to hear "Ode to Joy" again.
She peeled off her gloves and tucked them into the pocket of her red wool coat. An usher appeared then, a young man in a cheap suit that didn't fit him well. Winnie remembered him as a cousin on the Lambert side.
"Hi, Adam. Sorry I'm late."
His eyes went wide as he realized who she was. "No problem." He hung her coat for her, then offered his arm. "Come on, I'll show you to your seat."
Winnie schooled herself to look only straight ahead as she walked the length of the aisle. Oh, why had she arrived so late? Now everyone was watching her and there were so many people. Of course there were. The Lamberts owned the largest ranch in the county. They mattered. And her son was one of them. So she couldn't break down and cry, she just couldn't. Not even one little tear.
Adam stopped and gestured for her to take a seat in a pew that already seemed to be full. But room was made and she slid onto the wooden bench, not taking note of the person beside her until after she was in position, purse tucked at her feet, tissue palmed discreetly just in case.
Only then did she notice the masculine thigh pressed next to hers. Looking up, she met Jackson Stone's dark blue eyes. Jackson had lived with the Lamberts since he was thirteen, so he'd been like a brother to Brock, Corb, B.J. and Cassidy. If she'd married Brock, he would have been a de facto brother-in-law to her.
But that didn't mean she knew him well.
Compared to his foster siblings, Jackson was quiet and reserved. Brock had speculated that hardships from Jackson's childhood and early teens had left scars that time might never heal.
And that may well be the case. But at least the man was handsome, with thick dark hair and bone structure good enough to be a model. Weathered skin and the rough look of his hands made it plain, though, that he was a working man.
According to Laurel, Jackson blamed himself for the accident, since he'd been driving, with Brock in the front seat next to him and Corb in the rear. One of the missions Winnie had set for herself on returning to Coffee Creek was to help Jackson see that there was no rational reason for him to feel guilty, and that she, certainly, bore him no malice.
But this wasn't the place for that conversation.
"Hi, Jackson." She smiled and gave him a one-armed hug, which he awkwardly returned.
He'd never been a big talker. "Big day, isn't it? Double wedding and all."
"Can hardly contain your excitement, huh?" Jackson's lips curved up a little. "Weddings aren't my thing."
Not hers, either. At least, not anymore. She scanned the line of attractive men standing at the front of the church. There was the local vet, Dan Farley, a solid, muscular guy with sharp cheekbones and dark, almost black eyes. Farley was marrying Cassidy Lambert today.
Cassidy's brother B.J. stood next to Farley. Taller, thinner, he was the only Lambert who didn't share the blond hair and green eyes that Brock had had.
B.J. was marrying Bitterroot County's sheriff, Savannah Moody. Dark haired, sultry-eyed Savannah had been the one who had come to the church to let them know about the accident.
She'd been on duty then. Though she'd been B.J.'s high school sweetheart, she hadn't been invited to the wedding, due to a longstanding rift between them.
But with the solving of an old case involving arson, theft and murder, they'd resolved their differences. And now they were getting married.
It was an amazing story, and one Winnie had heard secondhand from her friend Laurel as Winnie had still been living in Highwood with her parents at that time.
Moving back to Coffee Creek had been a recent development. So much was the same. And yet so much had changed
Winnie squeezed the tissue, suddenly wishing she'd brought more. She didn't know how she was going to handle watching Savannah walk down the aisle today. But she had to.
"This must be difficult," Jackson whispered.
Had he noticed her nerves? She nodded.
"Imagine you're at the rodeo." She could feel his breath on her hair as he leaned in to whisper, "Everyone's in regular clothes. The guys are in the chutes, waiting for their ride."
"And the organ music?"
"That's just the fans cheering."
He was being silly. But it was working. She could feel her muscles relaxing. She closed her eyes, picturing the scene that Jackson was laying out for her. She'd been to countless rodeos over the years; in fact, that was how she'd met
Her eyes flashed open. Her heart began to race and her body went rigid. If he hadn't died in that crash on his way to the church, he would be sitting beside her right now. They'd be man and wife and
The music changed then, became a march. Everyone shifted in their seats, and after a second, so did Winnie.
"Rodeo princesses are making their entrance," Jackson said softly as the crowd gasped. He placed a steady hand on her shoulder.
Her nerves calmed at his words, his touch.
"Imagine they're on horses," he added.
Not hard to do, since the first bride was Cassidy, and she was never happier than when she was riding. The golden-haired woman with her sunshine smile had a degree from the University of Montana but she worked at Monahan's Equestrian Center now, doing what she'd been born and raised to dotrain horses.
The normally taciturn Farley beamed as his brideno, rodeo princessgave him her hand. The look they shared was so sweet that Winnie's heart tumbled a little, but she set it right again by turning to look at the second bride.
Fortunately, Savannah didn't look anything like a sheriff today in her fitted white dress and delicate shoes, her long dark hair falling in gentle waves down her shoulders. The crowd gave her a second appreciative gasp, but she didn't seem to notice. Her smile and gaze were just for B.J.
As the congregation settled down, Winnie focused on her hands clasped in her lap.
"Family and friends," intoned the minister, "We are gathered today to celebrate the marriages of two very special couples"
A tear dropped onto her hand. She hadn't even realized that she'd started to cry. She blinked, and a second one followed.
Suddenly a large hand covered both of hers. She felt the rough calluses first. The warmth second.
She glanced up and saw such a tender look in Jackson's eyes that she almost started crying again. Thank goodness she'd been smart enough to forgo eye makeup. She had to get a grip here. Listening to the minister had been a mistake. She had to take Jackson's lead and pretend she was somewhere else.
In her mind Winnie started going over all of Bobby's milestones. The first time he rolled over. His first smile. His first tooth. Gradually she could feel her muscles relaxing, and Jackson must have felt the same, because he gave her hands a pat, then returned his hand to his own thigh.
The fact that he was being so kind to her made her feel even worse about the suffering she knew he'd been going through this past year and a half. She should have called him sooner. Maybe they could have helped one another through their grief, rather than dealing with the sadness and loss on their own.
Once the ceremony was over, they would talk. She'd invite him for coffee. Make things right.
Jackson Stone was in agony. Of all the people in this church, why had that damn kid sat Winnie Hays next to him?
If only they weren't squished in so tightly that he could feel her warm thigh up against his. The contact was the sweetest form of torture he could imagine. There were at least a dozen reasons why he shouldn't find her so attractive, but he did.
And he had from the first time Brock had brought her home to meet the family.
He'd never met a woman before with such sparkle in her eyes, such sass in her smile. He'd watched her shake hands with Olive, Cassidy, Corb and B.J. and when it came time for his turn, he'd half expected sparks to ignite when her palm met his.
And they had.
But only for him.
That was when he knew that he had to keep as much distance between himself and Brock's girlfriend as possible.
And he'd done it.
But it hadn't made his life easy. And it had become a true nightmare on the day of their wedding.
Jackson still had terrible dreams about the crash. He hadn't seen the moose in time to avoid a collision. There had been a curve in the road, then the stand of aspen and willows.
And suddenly the huge body of a bull moose coming up from the right.
No. He couldn't let himself go there. Not now. If this was hard for him, it had to be four times more difficult for Winnie. Last night at the rehearsal dinner Laurel had confided to him that she expected her friend to bail out of the ceremony.
"She'll come to the reception," Corb's redheaded wife had said. "But not to the church."
"Yeah. That's probably the best thing," he'd said.
He'd wished he could skip the ceremony, too. But he'd lived with the Lamberts since he was thirteen, and B.J. and Cassidy were like his own siblings. He didn't want to miss their special day because of his own weakness. And he did see it as a weaknessthat he couldn't seem to get past that day.
Diversions helped. Things like work, Maddie Turner's illness and the financial challenge of turning around the fortunes of the Silver Creek Ranch.
But occasionally a guy had to stop and just be.
And that was when the bad memories would sneak in. Sometimes he envied Corb, who'd sustained serious brain trauma in the accident and remembered nothing.
He wished he could have been unconscious, too. Then he wouldn't have the pictures of the awful aftermath in his head.
The split second when he'd seen the moose. Then the crash and the screams. Followed by silence.
The moose had taken out the roof of the truck and sunshine had beamed directly on his head. He'd been pinned to his seat by the airbag at first. Stunned.
The first thing he noticed was the sunshine, warm on his head. Birds were singing. He said a prayer before turning his head.
But the prayer hadn't been answered. Because all he'd seen was blood. And when he'd called out to the others, to Brock and to Corbno one had responded.