HIS CHRISTMAS BELLE by Lynna Banning
Nursemaid to a spoiled Southern belle isn't how loner Brand Wyler imagined spending Christmas. But beautiful Suzannah's intrepid spirit makes him feel less empty inside
THE COWBOY OF CHRISTMAS PAST by Kelly Boyce
Ada had left her dreams of cowboy Levi MacAllistair behind. Until one Christmas he arrives injured on her doorstep! Maybe it's time for Ada to reveal the truth about their son
SNOWBOUND WITH THE COWBOY by Carol Arens
Mary Blair's Christmas wishes come true when Joe Landon seeks shelter from the snow. The handsome cowboy wants to adopt the orphans in her care. The catch: he needs a wife!
About the Author
Kelly Boyce can't remember a time she wasn't writing stories. In 2002, she joined RWA & Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada. Shortly thereafter, she was one of the featured writers in a documentary about the romance writing industry titled: Who's Afraid of Happy Endings. A life-long Nova Scotian, she lives near the Atlantic Ocean with her husband and a clownish golden retriever with a stubborn streak a mile wide.
Carol lives with her real life hero and husband, Rick, in Southern California where she was born and raised. She joined Romance Writers of America where she met generous authors who taught her the craft of writing a romance novel. With the knowledge she gained, she sold her first book and saw her life-long dream come true. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites you to contact her at email@example.com
Read an Excerpt
Fort Hall, 1868
Smoke? Smoke was the last thing he wanted to see. The very last thing. The puff of black dust rose higher, and Brand's heart sank. What now? A Sioux raid on a wagon train? A pine tree struck by lightning exploding into flames and starting a fire?
He reined in the black gelding and sat studying the sky. Hell's bells, another puff of smoke. Dead west. Not the direction he was riding this morning. Not the direction he wanted on any crisp December morning, not after the telegram about Marcy.
Back in Oregon his sister had loaded her pockets with rocks and waded into Lake Coulter. What Brand didn't know was why. Why would his sweet, beautiful little sister take her own life? Maybe he'd never know why. But he sure as hell didn't want to head west, back to Oregon. Made his gut shrivel just to think about it.
Another puff of smoke climbed into the cloudless blue sky and he groaned aloud. What the ? Those were smoke signals! And he knew exactly where they were coming from.
He leaned out of the saddle to spit onto the hard brown earth of eastern Idaho and reined the black around.
Fort Hall looked just as run-down and dingy as it had a year ago. He rode in past the bored-looking sentry and headed straight for the sutler's squat stucco building. As he tied up his mount, two disheveled cavalry soldiers clumped down the wooden steps. One snapped a salute.
Brand gritted his teeth. He'd mustered out a year ago and now served as Colonel Clarke's scout, but every so often someone forgot he no longer needed to salute him. He tramped up the rickety board steps, his rowels chinging in the hot, still air, and pushed through the open door.
A bearded older man with intelligent blue eyes looked up from the cash register. "'Bout time," he growled. "I hoped you might see my smoke. Somebody said you'd been spotted hereabouts. Where ya come from?"
"Oregon. What's up?"
Jase grinned, revealing a jaw full of yellow teeth. "Seen my signal, huh? Didn't think ya'd ferget how we done it in the old days, but ya never know, do ya? You might be gone back east. Or dead. Or"
"Well, I'm not. I'm goin' to that cabin I got in Montana for Christmas. So why the signal?"
"Got a problem," the older man said. "Big problem." He tipped his graying head toward the back room.
Brand studied the curtained doorway. "Yeah? What kind of problem?"
"You'll see. Whynt'cha go on back?"
"Jase, I can't help wondering why this isn't Colonel Clarke's concern and not mine."
"You'll see, Brand. C'mon, I'll show ya."
Brand followed his old friend through the dusty curtain and stopped short. A young woman made an attempt to straighten up on the rush chair Jase had provided, then gave up and hunched over her belly, her arms clasped across her waist.
Jase laid one leathery hand on her shoulder. "Miz Cumberland, ma'am?"
She jerked up as if somebody'd just shot an arrow into her spine, but she said nothing.
"Don't think so, Brand. She's damned scared is what she is. Kinda like battle-tired, I guess you'd say."
Brand studied her. No apron. Faded blue dress. Shoes that hadn't been walked in that much. Not sunburned. That was odd. Nobody, especially not women out here in the West, escaped the punishing rays of the sun.
He looked closer. Her skin appeared pale and as smooth as cream. Even the hands clasped tight across her middle were white and soft-looking. No red knuckles, and no telltale freckles. Looked as though she'd never washed a plate in her life. A hothouse rose if there ever was one.
He stepped back and spoke to Jase, keeping his voice low. "How'd you get mixed up with her?"
Jase sighed and went a little pink. "Jes' lucky, I guess."
"She is now. Fella drivin' her wagon out from Independence got killed. Shot through the heart. She drove the wagon to the fort with him in it."
"Don't reckon so. Kept callin' him Mr. Monroe," Jase said. "She ain't said more'n two words since she got here. Wagon was pretty well burned up. Burial detail took the body."
Brand leveled a long look at the man he'd slogged through the war with. "So why'd you signal me? Nothing I can do to bring this Monroe back, and you say the wagon's destroyed."
"Yeah." Jase scraped the toe of one boot back and forth across the plank floor. "Thought you might be willin' to"
"Ah, hell, Brand, she's all alone. Said she's on her way to Oregon to get married. You bein' a tracker an' a damn good guide, I thought mebbe"
"Double no." The last place on earth he ever wanted to see again was Oregon.
But just then the woman looked up. Damned eyes were like two pools of emerald-green water. Shiny. As if she was gonna cry. Or already was.
Ah, hell. He squatted in front of her. "Miss Cumberland? My name's Brandon Wyler."
"How do you do, Mr. Wyler." Her voice sounded scratchy.
"I'll make this short, ma'am. You got two choices. One is to head back where you came from. Two is to stay here at Fort Hall until a detail goes east. The colonel's got guest quarters, and maybe Jase here could use some help in his store."
She studied him, working even white teeth over her lower lip. "I wish to go on to Oregon. My fiancé is expecting me."
"I can't help you, ma'am."
"Oh, but" She sent Jase a desperate look. "Mr. Brownell said you might"
"Yeah, well, Mr. Brownell didn't check with me first. I'm not goin' to Oregon this late in the season. Besides, I'm heading in the opposite direction."
Jase bumped his arm. "No ya ain't, Brand. Colonel said he's sendin' you to Fort Klamath."
"Colonel didn't check with me, either," Brand growled.
"I have money, Mr. Wyler."
"So have I, Miss Cumberland. Don't need yours."
Jase edged toward the curtained doorway and signaled Brand to follow. "Ya might wanna check with the colonel, Brand."
Brand's heart sank right down to his boot tops. "You know somethin' I don't, Jase?"
"At ease, Major Wyler."
Brand rolled onto the balls of his feet and stared at the photograph behind Colonel Clarke's bald head. His wife, maybe.
The colonel tented his stubby fingers under his chin. "We wouldn't want to leave a lady in distress, now, would we? That's not the army way."
"Colonel, I don't think"
"This is the army, Brand. You're not paid to think. Now, you've got your orders."
"Well, hell, Colonel, I'm not in the army. Not anymore."
"Now, wait a damn minute."
"That's an order, Major," he snapped. "Dismissed."
Chapter Two leah, she's waitin' for ya, Brand. Ain't too happy, but she's waitin'."
Brand glanced at the slim figure pacing determinedly back and forth in front of the sutler's canned goods display. Small as they were, her leather shoes made sharp staccato sounds on the wood floor, and her white hands were clenched at her sides. Looked as if she was as mad as hell.
Well, so was he. Every bone in his tired body was shouting don't do this. But the colonel had other ideas. His only hope was to get her to change her mind about going to Oregon.
"Jase, lay out some flannel shirts about her size and some jeans and a boy-sized pair of boots." While the older man selected the items and piled them up on the counter, Brand approached his charge.
She stopped pacing and spun to face him. Her face had lost that dazed look she'd had an hour ago. Now her green eyes flashed with anger.
"Yes? What is it, Mr. Wyler?"
"I'm taking you to Oregon, like you wanted."
"Oh? Have you hired a carriage?"
He laughed out loud. "A carriage! Ma'am, you're smack in the middle of Indian country. We don't have roads out here, just rough trails. If we're lucky."
"Perhaps a wagon, then?" She eyed the growing stack of clothing Jase was collecting and raised one eyebrow.
"Look over there on the counter, ma'am. See those boys' duds? That's what you'll be wearing."
"Surely you are joking?"
Brand clenched his jaw. So, Miss Fancy Drawers wanted to ride in style and wear dresses and corsets, did she? Tough luck. So what if her eyes still looked kinda funnymade his chest go tighthe still didn't want to do this.
"We'll be traveling on horseback."
Her mouth sagged open and then snapped shut. "Horseback! You mean I will be riding on a horse?"
"That's what horseback means." His voice sounded exasperated, even to him. "You ever been on a horse?"
"No, I have not. Where I come from, ladies do not"
"Well, they do out here, Miss Cumberland. So if you're in such a lather to get to Oregon, you might as well get used to the idea."
She just stared at him with that hurt look in her eyes. Then she stared at the pile of shirts and jeans Jase had loaded up on the counter. "I do not think "
"Take it or leave it," he said. "Or you could go back east, like I said."
She bit her lower lip, considering the matter, and Brand tried not to think about how lush her mouth was.
"Very well," she said at last. She stuck out her hand. "I agree. We have a bargain, Mr. Wyler."
Without thinking he gripped her hand and shook it. Never in his life had he shaken hands with a woman. He'd waltzed with them, flirted with them, kissed them, made love to them. But shaken their hand? This one was so proper she squeaked.
But her hand felt small and warm and womanly in his. Maybe not squeaky, just stiff and overproper.
"Ya wanna try on them boots, miss?" Jase said from behind the counter.
"Boots! I have proper shoes, thank you."
"Boots," Brand snapped. "Winter's just around the corner and on the trail you'll want all the warmth you can get. Might hold those other duds up to you, see if they fit."
Again she stared at him, her eyes even wider and greener than before. Kinda slow in the brain department; you'd think she'd see the clothes and put two and two together.
She dropped her gaze and very tentatively fingered the shirt on top of the stack, a red plaid. Jase shook it out and held it up to her frame. "Too big," he muttered. He snaked it and two others out of the pile and replaced them. The jeans looked about right.
She disappeared behind the door curtain with the boots. Jase grinned at him and added a wool poncho, a wide-brimmed black hat and a leather belt to the stack.
"You got her between a rock an' a creek, Brand. Don't think she'll be too happy till she's broke in them boots."
Serves her right, Brand thought. She'd maneuvered him into thishe could maneuver right back.
She stomped back through the curtain, slapped the boots on top of the pile and propped her hands at her waist. "What else?" she demanded.
He turned to Jase. "Ammunition. Coffee. Bacon. Jerky. Couple cans of beans and tomatoes. And a blanket." He'd borrow a saddle for the mare she'd be riding, along with saddlebags and an extra canteen. Didn't figure they'd go five miles before she caved in.
"Put it on my tab, will you, Jase? Better yet, send the bill to Colonel Clarke." Yeah, he liked that idea.
"I prefer to pay my own bills," Miss Cumberland said, her tone frosty. "I have adequate funds on my person."
Brand studied her, wondering where she'd stashed it. "Best keep that fact under your hat, miss."
"And," he couldn't resist adding, "start learning to take orders. Here's your first onetake these clothes over to the colonel's quarters and pack 'em up in the saddlebag I'm gonna bring over. Colonel's wife will help. Be ready at dawn."
Her eyes rounded. "You like giving orders, do you not?"
"Got any objections?"
"I most certainly do. It is rude and officious behavior." Brand studied her flushed cheeks. Good. He'd made her good and mad. Maybe she'd give up this whole insane idea.
"Well, like I said, ma'am, take it or leave it. You ride to Oregon on my terms, or you don't ride at all." The look she sent him could bake biscuits.
First thing the next morning, he gobbled Jase's overfried eggs and bacon, outfitted his gelding and a sure-footed mare he'd picked out with bedrolls and his saddlebag, and strode over to Colonel Clarke's quarters to collect Miss Suzannah Cumberland.
She was waiting on the front porch, and he had to look twice to be sure it was really her. The red plaid shirt was filled out in all the right places, and the jeans clung to her saucy little butt like they'd been washed and shrunk on her body.
He looked at her hard and his mouth went dry. She looked crisp and clean and brand-new. And damn pretty. She'd caught her shiny wheat-colored hair at her neck with a red ribbon, and the wide-brimmed black hat he'd picked out rode jauntily on the top of her head.
He swallowed and led both horses up to the porch. "Here's your mount. Name's Lady."
She nodded. Brand picked up her saddlebag and slung it behind the saddle, then waited.
She didn't move.
"Come on, Miss Cumberland. We're wasting daylight."
"II did not expect the horse to be so large," she said. The quaver in her voice made Brand's gut tense. Oh, for cryin' out loud.
"All horses are 'large.'"
"Yes, I see." Still she didn't move.
"You want to change your mind?" he prompted.
"N-no. I will adjust."
Adjust! Riding a horse took a lot more than "adjusting." What she needed to do was get on the damn horse.
Slowly she descended the wide porch steps and edged over to where he stood holding her mare's bridle. "How do I I mean, is there a method for mounting?"
"Yep. Put your left foot in this stirrup and grab onto the saddle horn, that little knob in front of the saddle."
She did as instructed, and he laid one hand on her behind to boost her up. It was so warm and plump under his palm he broke out in a sweat.
She peered down at him. "It is quite far to the ground. Farther than I thought."
"Hold on to your reins and for God's sake don't kick the horse." He mounted the black, leaned over and lifted the reins out of her white-knuckled grip. "Relax. I'm going to lead your horse till you get used to ridin'." He touched his boot heels to the gelding's sides and moved forward. The gray mare stepped after him, and Miss Cumberland let out a screech.
"Damn right," he said dryly. "Horses do this all the time. Just hang on."
He walked both mounts past the goggle-eyed sentry and out the gate while she clung to the saddle horn with both hands and made little moany sounds. God, four hundred miles of this was going to be pure hell.