Noel Johansen, heir of the Rocking J, happily left for the big city years ago. When he loses his family in a terrible accident, the best thing for everyone is to sell the place, ditch the memories, and move on. But his brother-in-law has other plans, and the beautiful new cook they've hired for the season threatens Noel's desire to remain detached.
The ranch represents Noel's future and selling it becomes more important than ever when one more tragedy leaves him with nothing. But memories can't be bought and sold, nor can a broken conscience heal itself. Home, heart, and future are irrevocably tied in Crazy Creek.
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Leah Meets the Cowboys
Cupcake was a liar.
Leah gripped the rusty metal gate with one hand while half-waving, half-pleading to the departing minivan with the other. Cupcake Wimmer and his wife Jeanette drove away from the café on their first real vacation in fifteen years. Leah couldn't fault that. She thanked them for finding her — a stranger to Crazy Creek, Wyoming — a winter job cooking on a working ranch with a small year-round staff, while they figured out if they could stand retirement.
"Lord, You know the plans You have for us," Cupcake had prayed before they let Leah out of the van. "Show her Yours. Help her to settle in. Amen."
Nope, couldn't find fault in that. Someday, Leah might consider retirement ... in fifty years, maybe, if she could afford it. Like going to church. Some day. If she had time. Life at twenty-three so far wasn't headed in that direction.
Leah turned back to the porch of the big, low, rambling log house now occupied by a scowling man piled into a wheelchair like so much pot pie dough. She squinted. Maybe it was the amount of raggedy clothing pooling around him that made him look a part of the machine. His dark hair was over long and messy, and whiskers that could have been sexy had grown too long to be a shadow, too short to be a beard. Only one leg made it over the seat of the chair to meet the footrest. And what hit the footrest wasn't natural.
She looked one last time over her shoulder at the retreating cloud of the Wimmers headed for the border — uh, Arizona — and took in a deep, steadying breath. She pushed open the gate and tried to stride confidently for the porch and, she assumed, her new boss. Temporary boss. Leah could handle anything for a few months. Cooking for cowboys had to be better than dodging lonesome long-haul trucker pinches and a boss who'd fired her for not being friendly enough. Landing in Crazy Creek while headed west from Minnesota had seemed fitting last summer. Until Cupcake mentioned he'd be shutting the café for the winter — the café where she worked baking, packing catering boxes, serving and cleaning up ... and slept in the tiny back apartment. She couldn't stay in the back of the empty restaurant, Cupcake told her. They were leaving the utilities at minimum while they were gone ... unless Leah could pay ...
No, she couldn't.
The Rocking J Ranch a couple miles down Highway 50 happened to need a cook.
Cupcake was a liar. The Rocking J Ranch needed a lot more than a cook. Flower beds surrounding the porch were obscured by tall, dried weeds. The lawn hadn't been trimmed in forever, and out of the corner of her eye, Leah noted honest-to-goodness movie set tumbleweeds blowing across abandoned gravel paths that wound between buildings. Dark clouds decorated the sky, adding to Cupcake's untruth. This atmosphere did not agree with the song lyrics of the sky being not cloudy all day. A snowflake passed before her eyes, followed by a dozen more.
"Old Marty will get in your face a bit at first," Cupcake had warned her. "But you stand up to him, and you'll be fine. Cowboys appreciate the chance to stand up for themselves. Don't mind losing so much, then, see? If they had a chance to prove themselves first, that is. Now, Marty, he's a pipsqueak of a man on land, but on a horse, why he'd rope rings around anyone. Busted too many legs to walk straight and went to the kitchen some years back." Cupcake grinned. Lines of enjoyment of life in general showing on both sides of his mouth. "Ain't the best cook, but it's been his opportunity to contribute. He needs time to recover from pneumonia is all. The Johansens run a good outfit with good people."
Leah appreciated that sentiment. She climbed the first step of the leaf-and-pine-needle-strewn porch. The man in the wheelchair shifted some, but said nothing. Judging by the grimace he wore and the pain paling his deep tan, he also appeared to be suffering. She wasn't a nurse, so she hoped he didn't expect her to take care of him too, even if she had plenty of experience helping her foster siblings.
"Mr. Johansen? I'm Leah Hanes." She held out a hand for him to shake. He took it and squeezed the tips of her fingers as though working an exercise ball. "Cupcake ... um, George, sent me."
The man let go of her hand but still didn't speak. Maybe more than his legs weren't working.
"A-about the j —"
A fit of wet coughing erupted from behind the screen door into the home, which Leah just noticed was open. Inspiration struck. "About helping out around here. Just until ... well, you know, until you all can get back on your ..."
The screen door slammed open and a spare man strode out. "Huh!" Free-roaming iron corkscrew hair and a drooping mustache overwhelmed the man's face. Leah hunched some so her five-foot-six inch height wouldn't tower over him. For the first time, the man in the wheelchair relaxed his white knuckle grip of the sides. His lips trembled slightly. He met her gaze.
"The truth is, ma'am, getting on our feet would take a miracle." He turned the chair to face the screen door. "Cupcake told me about you," he mumbled. "You might as well come in, but don't expect much."
"I never do," Leah replied, and she followed the men across the threshold.
The inside of the house was exactly what Leah expected: perfection. Dusty, but precisely how she would decorate a log home. A little fusty-smelling, as if it could use a good airing, but otherwise not bad. She wrinkled her nose while swiveling to look every which way. On either side of the great room with a stone fireplace were darkened passages. Exterior walls of the entry and great room had been plastered for insulation she assumed, but the interior walls remained half-rounded and varnished. The light fixtures were classic brass and glass, and if cleaned of cobwebs and dead bugs, would glow. She scuffed one of the braided rugs on the wood floor and quickly smoothed it back into place with her toe. A wide-planked wooden table posed in an area open on two sides. The walls on either side of the table were glass windows facing a sad kitchen garden one way and a view of the buttes the other. The far side of the table looked as if it opened to the kitchen. The procession stopped at the table. Leah sat gingerly on a crumb-strewn chair. The late afternoon sky threatened to follow through with the predicted "S" word — snow.
"Good time to be skedaddling south," Jeanette had said while they packed the minivan.
The small cowboy sat and leaned over his elbows. Leah struggled not to wheeze with his painful-sounding inhales. More than one of her foster siblings had suffered with asthma.
"I'm Gil, and this is Marty," the man in the wheelchair said. "Manny, Jorge, and Tom stay over in the bunkhouse. Marty's been helping me out since I got back from rehab, but we're gonna move over there, too." A wry cast came over Gil's features. "Seems no one planned for wheelchairs around here. The bunkhouse is on the level and has wide doors. Someone's always on crutches sometime during the rodeo season. My rodeo-in's done, but at least I can get around like a man over there. So you can stay here if you're not afraid to be alone."
Leah nodded cautiously. She was definitely not afraid to be alone. But she had learned not to get too excited until the ink dried.
"There's a good kitchen over at the bunkhouse," Gil said. "But everyone's been eating here lately. We're done haying for the season. We have just a few acres of beets to get in, but we can manage that. The herd's in winter grazing."
"He means," Marty said, "that there's no crew to cook for." He coughed into his shirt sleeve. "He thinks I can't handle a few meals for a coupla mouths."
After silent permission from Gil, Leah looked Marty in the eye. "You'd be helping me out by letting me stay and work with you for the winter, Mr. Marty. I don't have anywhere else to go right now."
Marty set his face in his crossed arms.
After a few seconds, Gil cleared his throat. "Cupcake said you can cook just fine. Gave you a good reference, though Noel did a background check anyway."
Leah blinked but didn't have time to ask about it before Gil went on. "You passed. We need some help around here, as you can see. There's a contract here for you. Since the position's temporary, we're not giving vacations and such, and your only benefits are room and board and you can visit the same doctor we do if you have a need. We'd cover that. You're to take care of ordering supplies and making and cleaning up after meals ..."
A faint moan from Marty made Leah turn her head toward him, but she quickly faced Gil again.
Were better than Leah expected. She could save up, buy a car that worked, and come spring, if the Wimmers never came back, get to a bigger city and find a real job. Or go to school. Maybe both. Unless this worked out ...
"Sorry?" Chagrined, she realized Gil had asked her a question.
"I said, you won't be expecting time off for Christmas?" Gil asked. "We don't count on getting out much at any particular time in the winter. We get a lot of snow up here."
"March-April's been the worst lately," came a muffled warning from Marty.
There went spring. "No. About the holidays, anyway." She shrugged. "I told you before that I have no place to go." And no reason whatsoever to feel anything but bitter about Christmas, but that was no one's business.
For the first time, emotion other than unhappiness traversed Gil's features. Sympathy? Was that ... sympathy? For her?
"I was raised in a large foster family," she said. "My foster parents were kind, but busy. We all helped." What else could she say without making it sound too great or too terrible? She'd been one of the older kids, not physically or emotionally splintered, like the last half-dozen kids who'd come and gone at the Fullars' home. Gil's condition didn't faze her.
"You did the cookin', hah, didja?" Marty raised his head. His pale eyes were red-rimmed and watery, like his nose. "Don't mean you can cook for men."
"No one's trying to get rid of you, Marty!" Gil's voice showed his exasperation. "We barely got along while you were in the hospital. If it weren't for Jeanette catering our meals, things would have been bad."
"Don't matter much anyway." Marty returned his face to his splayed, pink and white plaid flannel-covered forearms. "When the place gets chopped up and sold."
Leah stared at the table surface and rubbed her palms against her thighs. Cupcake mentioned that the ranch owners had died, Gil's parents, she thought she remembered. An accident, which also stole his legs. Cupcake and Jeanette warned her not to get attached. She wouldn't. She'd learned the hard way not to get attached to anything.
"Nothing's been decided for sure," Gil said. "Except we'd like you to work for us this winter, if you think you can handle it. Not many people could, being away from the social life and all. It will be lonely out here, far enough from Gillette to make it a day trip."
"Besides gettin' stuck weeks on end by blizzards," Marty grumped.
"I'm not into the social life much," Leah said. "And I don't mind hanging around."
"Jeanette brought out some of your food. A couple of pies, too, last summer," Gil said.
"Said they were hers," Marty huffed.
"So I know you're good." Gil pulled a manila folder from the side pocket of his chair and opened it. "Here's the contact. If you haven't changed your mind yet, look it over." He pursed his lips and stared into the big room, seemingly haunted by something Leah couldn't name. Under all that gruff, he wasn't so bad. He might even clean up nice if he bothered. She bent her head to study the typed page — just one — for her temporary stopover in life.
Gil kept droning. "Mary had a housekeeper part time cook years ago. Before Bertie grew up and we got married. B-bertie ..." He swallowed and swiped at his eyes.
"Sweet Roberta. Dear Mary and Robert." Marty moaned.
What had Leah fallen into? These people were still in mourning, nowhere near ready to resume a hardy western cowboy's life.
"I taught Miss Roberta to ride," Marty said. "She was the dearest, sweetest little girl."
"Not always." Gil sniffed. "Anyway, like the contract says, we only expect you help out food-wise. You should clean your own room and do your own laundry. I'll show you around more, later on."
Leah closed her mouth and went back to reading. It wasn't up to her to decide whether Gil and Marty were ready or able to run the ranch. If they thought they could, she'd do what she could to help. One day off a week ... well, that was nice. She could always store up meals for the men to reheat. There wasn't much required of her, no housekeeping, but she'd go nuts if she didn't have something else to do. There were bound to be a few nice days left of the fall to get out in the yard. And this house needed a good polish. Surely Gil wouldn't object if she ...
She slid a sideways glance at Marty, who had taken to staring at her. She quickly returned to the page. The rest was like Gil explained. She picked up the pen Gil set on the table, and scratched her signature and dated it.
"That's that," Marty said.
"Wait a minute." Leah was through listening to a grown man whine — even one who'd recently been sick. Marty's imagined problems cowered in the gargantuan shadow of what Gil had lost. What would Gil do now, anyway, if she let off some steam? Fire her? "I can cook and clean up after a crowd. I can slap a grown man who thinks he can take liberties. I can mop up after sick kids and how to deal with all sorts of injuries and ... and ... differently-abled people. I can manage a winter without much dancing and barbecues, but I'll let you know right now that I'm not much of a sunshine committee. I just signed on as temporary help, Mr. Marty. You can think of me like one of the harvesting crew, or whatever, and let me help you, or you can hide out and complain. I won't cook better than you, and I won't do everything right all the time, but unless Jeanette Wimmer steered me wrong by telling me the Rocking J outfit was full of the nicest, hardest-working bunch around ... kindest ..." Leah ran out of words.
Gil laughed quietly and Marty narrowed his eyes. "Jeanette is a good woman."
"Will you teach me about what needs to be done?" she asked.
A clicking sound came from the kitchen. Keys rattled. Leah drew her brows. One of the other men? She checked Gil's reaction. He'd clammed up. Marty cinched his mouth tight under the mustache and lowered his face again.
A bellow echoed from the kitchen. "It's supposed to start snowing tonight! Nothing's ready!" Leah twitched at the ominous male tones thundering from the kitchen.
"Did that woman get here yet? I don't want to to haul someone's ..."
A black, knee-length coated figure appeared, framed in the space of the passage between dining room and kitchen. The dark-haired man raised his arms to brace himself. "Ah ... vehicle ... out of the ditch."
For the first and hopefully only time in her life, Leah understood her foster mother's expression of someone walking over her grave.CHAPTER 2
Noel Stands Alone
With the weekend plans in shreds due to a predicted snowstorm, Noel Johansen turned his new car south to the Rocking J. It was not home — hadn't been in years — and he needed to maintain his cool if he wanted to convince his brother-in-law to sell the land.
Gil wasn't the owner, Noel reminded himself as he sped down the highway.
Noel wasn't the Grinch.
But he had sparked some interest with the Equus-Tour people. Thousands of acres to develop trails and training, with homes and rental properties surrounding it. Just like golf courses these days. Crazy people, crazy to live and vacation near horses. This was the first property Equus considered as a home base. If it worked, Noel would be all set to open his own land development office. Equus hinted they would hire Johansen Properties as their scout for other locations.
Gil could keep the house. They could try hiring help for him. Maybe Tom was ready to hang up wrestling steers in exchange for handling Gil. Tom had to be getting up in years.
A snowflake hit the windshield, followed by a spurt of others.
Noel stepped on the accelerator.
He needed to show the property before it was buried under a ton of snow. If Gil had done as he asked, hired help to spruce up the buildings and the yard, he could talk his way through the rest — the cattle on the untillable hills and pond, the acres of alfalfa, the wheat, and the sugar beets his crazy sister had insisted ... crazy ... gone and buried ...
The car slowed. Noel reached for the radio and listened to sports talk until it fizzled out when he reached the buttes. He forgot about the loss of connection out here in the hills of eastern Wyoming. Some places didn't have consistent Internet coverage.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crazy Creek Christmas"
Copyright © 2019 Lisa J. Lickel.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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