Cowboy Caleb Dalton has loved single mom Ellie Bell, and her little daughter, Amelia, for years. But since Ellie is his best friend’s widow, Caleb’s head knows Ellie will always be strictly off-limits. If only his heart got the memo. So when Caleb discovers that Ellie has a Christmas wish list—and hopes for a kiss under the mistletoe—he’s throwing his cowboy hat into the ring. If anyone’s going to be kissing Ellie and sharing this magical time with her and her daughter, it’s him.
Ellie has dreaded the holidays since losing her husband. But this year, she’s finally ready to make some changes. She never expects the biggest change to be the heart-stopping kiss she shares with Caleb. For almost five years, Caleb has been her best friend, her rock, her salvation. This Christmas, can Caleb prove he’s also the missing puzzle piece of Ellie’s and Amelia’s hearts?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ellie Bell could sometimes imagine that she lived an entirely different life. Not because she didn't love so much about what she had, but because it was nice, even for a little while, to set down the various burdens that she carried around with her and just focus on the moment.
Getting chickens had been an interesting endeavor, one that had proved to be quite a bit more sanity-preserving than she had anticipated.
Sometimes when she was out collecting eggs, she felt like she'd fallen through a time warp. Where she was younger than twenty-eight. Not a woman with a heavy burden of responsibility, or the crushing weight of loss deep inside her.
But somebody liked. Somebody carefree. Whose only responsibility was to collect eggs and look out at the beautiful view that stretched out before her.
Her little farmhouse was modest, and it was old, with a porch that had white peeling paint that she hadn't been able to rally herself to fix. But she'd hung baskets of flowers from the rafters, and she supposed that was something.
At least it was something she was much more up for than painting.
Maybe someday she would get it together and do all the renovation that the place needed.
She took a deep breath, and she focused her gaze on the horizon. On the long stretch of emerald field that faded into the evergreen-covered mountains, currently bathed in a rose-gold glow from the setting sun. The days were getting shorter, heading into the Christmas season, and honestly, that was something else that just made her tired.
She had to do things.
For Amelia's sake.
Well, handily, Tammy Dalton was always around to do something. The Daltons had been her late husband's surrogate family, and after Clint's death, had become hers and Amelia's, as well.
Tammy always made a wonderful Christmas dinner, and the gathering that they had was spectacular. And it gave Ellie an excuse not to make a big fuss about Christmas at her house, which always felt vaguely sad to her.
She didn't want to drag out the ornaments that she had gotten with Clint. And she didn't want to get rid of them and get new ones either. They'd had cozy Christmases in their apartment back by the high school in town. Their own ornaments. First Christmas, with a bride and groom. The Bells, on a big silver bell ... She'd loved him so much. Right from the beginning. He was just a nice man. In spite of the fact he'd had a rough upbringing. He'd been open, and he'd laughed easily. He'd taught her to laugh a little easier.
He'd taught her to love in a way that was so different from the way she'd known love as a child.
She'd spent her growing-up years craving her mom's attention, while her mom craved only the attention of whatever man had her heart at the time.
She'd hated it. And she'd sworn off love herself.
But then she'd met Clint.
He'd been tall, with dark hair and a slight build. Rangy and athletic. He was the kind of guy who had to climb up the side of a rock face on a hike if there was one; the kind who had to jump over obstacles just as easily stepped over.
He'd been the one thing to distract her even slightly from her laser-focused vision. She'd wanted to go to college, be a teacher. Because it was teachers who'd given her the support, the help, that her own mother didn't.
She'd made Clint wait to get married until she was finished with school. She'd been strong that way. She'd been determined to forego boyfriends, especially while she was studying. But she hadn't been able to stay away from him. He was so magnetic and happy, and she'd wanted that.
As soon as she'd graduated, they'd gotten married.
They'd lived in little apartments near the high school, and Ellie had gotten jobs substitute-teaching in the area, and then spent a year as a teacher's assistant at the school right near their house.
They'd been young when Clint wanted to try for a baby, but he'd been so excited about it. So they'd started trying, and not just for a baby but also to find a house.
They'd found the farmhouse. She'd found out she was pregnant.
He'd been the proudest, happiest man alive that day.
And four weeks later he'd died.
Before they'd moved into their home. Before he'd ever even gotten to hear his child's heartbeat.
She'd never had a Christmas in the farmhouse. Her and Amelia's Christmas traditions were built around the Dalton family, and that was okay with Ellie.
Her egg-collecting was feeling terribly sad at the moment. But she blamed the upcoming Christmas season for that.
It was inescapably bittersweet.
Always, she thought about that first Christmas without him. When she had been eight months pregnant and so miserable. So alone.
Alone, except for Caleb Dalton.
The entire Dalton family had been good to her in the years following the loss of Clint, but no one had been quite as good as Caleb.
Caleb had been Clint's best friend in the world. A man who was like a brother to him, so he'd said often. He'd talked about Caleb all the time, from the beginning of their relationship. She could still remember going to her first Dalton family barbecue with Clint. He'd been nervous, because it had been like meeting his parents, he'd said.
All three Dalton brothers had presence. A perfect combination of their father, Hank's, charm and charisma, and their mother, Tammy's, beauty and quick wit.
Caleb had been unlike any man she'd ever met. A daredevil with an easy smile, and he was so big. Larger than life, both in height and in presence.
He could fix anything. If her car needed a tune-up or an oil change, Caleb could just do it. Why call the landlord when their apartment had an issue? Caleb could always handle it. She'd been in awe of that. The way his hands worked to puzzle together anything that might have been broken.
She could see why Clint loved the family the way he did, and Caleb in particular. She'd bonded with him easily, quickly.
And now ...
Caleb had become her best friend in the entire world. She'd always liked him. But he became something more during these long, lonely years.
He'd become her rock. Her salvation.
He was always on hand in an emergency. If she needed cold medicine in the middle of the night for Amelia, yet didn't want to drag her little girl to the store, she could call Caleb. And he would go get the cold medicine. He would bring it to her. If she wasn't well, he would be the first person to come by with soup, and to make sure that Amelia was taken care of while she convalesced.
He had built her chicken coop. Had been the one to help her figure out what you were supposed to do with chickens in the first place.
And when she had partnered with his brother Gabe to help start the school that she now taught at on the Dalton family ranch, Caleb had immediately partnered with her, too.
He had helped make her dream a reality, the moment that she was able to have dreams again.
She felt much happier, thinking about Caleb.
He was definitely a lot more of a safe space than Christmas could ever be.
As if thinking of him conjured him up, she heard the sound of truck tires on gravel, mixed with the sound of an old engine from a Ford F-150.
It was Caleb, coming home with Amelia. Amelia had spent the day with Tammy. The school that Ellie had been part of founding, and that she worked at full-time, specifically geared toward troubled boys, was on the Dalton family ranch, and Hank and Tammy Dalton lived there in a large house. Tammy had graciously offered to watch Amelia after preschool on the days when Ellie worked.
It just so happened that today, by the time Ellie had finished up, Amelia and Tammy were in the middle of a baking project.
Usually, Ellie would have hung out, but today she had been eager for escape. For a moment in silence. Out of time.
And she wasn't even sorry it was over. Because Caleb was here. And so was Amelia. No matter how difficult or chaotic life could seem, she loved the people in it.
She stepped out of the coop, her basket clutched in her hands, and she made her way across the field, toward her driveway. Her floral dress caught the breeze and fluttered around her legs, strands of blond hair whipping across her face. She pushed them away and smiled as Caleb got out of the truck.
"Was she good for you?" Ellie asked.
"We've been singing the theme song to a show I've never heard of for twenty minutes," he said, opening up the driver-side door wider so he could put the front seat down.
And there was Amelia, strapped into her car seat and looking extremely pleased with herself. "It was Shimmer and Shine, Caleb," she informed him.
"Shimmer and Shine," Caleb amended, directing that toward Ellie. "I think I like Peppa Pig better."
"You and me both," Ellie said.
She took a step toward the truck and Caleb grinned. "I've got her."
He pushed his black cowboy hat back on his head, his blue eyes catching the light. He had a dusting of light stubble on his jaw, not unusual for him at this hour of the day, and his muscular arms were still streaked with dirt, she noticed, as he began to unfasten Amelia's seat belt.
He had battered, workman's hands. He worked the ranch that his family owned, and he was a firefighter by trade. He'd ridden rodeo for a while before that, though not for very long. But still, everything he did had a certain amount of labor involved, and no small amount of danger.
She'd always liked curling up on the couch with a book, safe indoors, over doing anything outside. She knew that for his own reasons, that would be torture for Caleb. He was a man who needed movement, who needed open spaces. A man who preferred hands-on learning over book learning.
It unnerved her that he continued to fight wildfires, even after what had happened to Clint. But she knew that it was unreasonable to ask him to quit his job.
Didn't mean she didn't want him to.
He set Amelia down gently on the ground, and her little girl launched herself at Ellie. She swung her up for a hug before depositing her back in the driveway. "Did you have a fun day with Grandma Tammy?" she asked.
Tammy Dalton was the closest thing Amelia had to a grandmother.
Both Clint and Ellie hadn't had involved families at all. In fact, it was one of the things that had bonded them together when they'd met.
Ellie had been cautious. She'd never dated. Not after watching the way her own single mother had burned through men, the quality of which had been incredibly variable.
Of course, she had ended up a single mother anyway.
Which seemed fully unfair, given how very much she had tried not to perpetuate the cycle she'd been born into. She'd gotten into school. She'd finished. She'd started a teaching career. Gotten married.
But she'd been widowed.
If there was one thing she'd learned it was that you couldn't plan everything, no matter how much you might want to.
"It was good," Amelia said. "We made chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies."
"And where are the cookies?" Ellie asked.
"We ate them all," Caleb said.
"Did you really?"
She hunted around behind him, trying to see if she could find a plate of cookies in the truck.
"Of course not," he said. "I have some for you."
"Can I take the eggs in the house?" Amelia asked.
"Sure," Ellie said, handing her daughter the basket.
She raced up the stairs as quickly as her little legs could carry her, her pink cowgirl boots glittering with each movement. A gift from the Daltons. So of course, they were Amelia's favorite.
"Thank you," Ellie said. "It was nice to have a few minutes to myself this evening."
"No problem. You're on my way home."
"I am. It's handy."
It really was. More than handy. A lifeline. The man was like one of the mountains that surrounded her home. Stalwart and steady, never changing, even as the seasons around them did.
He reached into the truck and pulled out a plate of cookies, handing it to her. She didn't wait. She dove in, taking a peanut butter one from the top and helping herself to a large bite. "Your mom is a genius," she said. "I try, based on everything she's taught me, but they still never turn out this good."
"I don't even try," he said, shrugging. "I just eat them."
As if to demonstrate his point, he grabbed one of the chocolate chip ones from the top and put the whole thing in his mouth.
"That's mean," she said. "You could have taken some more from your mother's house."
"I did," he said.
"Then you have no call taking my cookies."
"It's a delivery fee."
"For my child or for the snacks?"
"Thanks for reminding me," he said, this time taking a peanut butter one.
She expected him to go then, because it had been a long day, and it wasn't like she hadn't seen him at work earlier. But he didn't. Instead, he stood for a moment, his expression uncharacteristically thoughtful. "I might not be able to drop Amelia off at home as often in the future."
It was abrupt and weird. Especially considering she'd just been thinking about what a stalwart Caleb was.
"Yeah," he said. He braced himself on the truck, and her eyes were drawn to his biceps, to the way the muscle shifted beneath his tanned, scarred skin.
She wondered what the scar on the inside of his arm was from. Barbed wire? An angry bull? Maybe just from a youthful misdeed. It was very hard to say with a man like Caleb.
It really was a wonderful arm. It had to be said. Objectively speaking, Caleb was a perfect masculine specimen.
He wasn't pretty. No, he was too raw to be anything like pretty. Even with those blue eyes, which were the kind of blue that women had difficulty letting pass by without remarking on. But he was scarred, and he was weathered from working outdoors, and, as she had previously been thinking, his hands were rough.
Though, they could be gentle when they needed to be.
If she had a single friend, she would definitely set her up with Caleb.
"I ... Why?"
"I'm buying a new piece of property."
"Really?" Caleb hadn't given any indication that he was thinking of moving away from the acre lot that he lived on.
"Yeah," he responded, maddeningly opaque.
"Details, Caleb." Having a man for a best friend could be annoying, because they didn't tell you things, like the fact that they were considering moving. And then, when they finally did tell you, they didn't tell you anything about it.
"I bought Jehoshaphat Brown's place."
"You didn't," she said.
Jehoshaphat Brown was an eccentric who lived a few miles up out of town, and had the largest Christmas tree farm in the area. "I did," he said. "I mostly don't believe it because I don't believe he would move. But he is. He's moving to Hawaii."
"Now, I really don't believe that," she said.
"Hey," he responded, "believe whatever you want, but he is. He's moving to Hawaii, taking a job as a bartender at a resort. Oceanside. He bought a condo with the money I paid him."
"But you are ... You're going to run a Christmas tree farm?"
"At least temporarily. Everything's ready to go now, which means finishing out the year, or the next few years, is guaranteed money in the bank to begin other ventures. There's contracts already made with outfits around the country, truckers on hand to drive the things to their destinations. And he owns that small lot down on the main street of town. So, I'm all set not only to sell this year's crop around the country, but also sell it here."
"But you don't ... You don't actually want to ... be a Christmas tree farmer?" "My ultimate goal is cattle," he said.
She'd had no idea. None at all. Not that he wanted his own ranch, not that he'd been unhappy at the school. Was he unhappy at the school? Was he leaving?
"What does this mean for your position at the school?" "I will be leaving. Which I will be talking to Gabe about later tonight."
"With West Caldwell coming into town, there's no need for me to hang around. He's going to be working on the ranch."
"Your half brother that you've never met. That's putting a lot of stock in a man you don't even know."
"Gabe figures we owe him. And, since Gabe is awash in guilt over the whole half sibling thing, I figure that works in my favor."
As much as Ellie loved Hank Dalton, the patriarch of the Dalton clan, it was becoming more and more clear that he was problematic. A couple of years ago it had been discovered that he had a daughter that none of them had known about. McKenna Tate. She'd come into town after discovering the identity of her family, and after some adjusting, the Dalton family had welcomed her into the full. But on the heels of that revelation had come another one.
There were three more children. All adults now.
Hank had never known about them. But Tammy had.
It had changed the relationship, that reveal.
But Hank was awash enough in the guilt from the actions in his past, that the two of them were trying to work through it to an extent. And Ellie really hoped that they did. For some selfish reasons, if she was honest. Because she loved them, and they were the closest thing to a family for her, and she didn't want to lose them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboy Christmas Redemption"
Copyright © 2019 Maisey Yates.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.