Wyoming winters can be rough, but for two waiting hearts, an approaching blizzard just might whip up the best gift of the season . . .
A brutal blue norther is battering Wind River Valley just in time for Christmas when retired Marine Travis Grant spies a driver spinning out of control on black ice. It’s probably a tourist who doesn’t understand the deadly conditions, and Travis knows he has to help. The last person he expects to find behind the wheel is his childhood sweetheart, Kassie Murphy. She’s injured, but alive. And now, for Travis and Kassie, this snowy silent night will be one last chance to put the painful past behind them—and treat the wounds only love can heal.
Praise for Lindsay McKenna’s Wind River Rancher
“Moving and real . . . impossible to put down.”
—Publisher’s Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
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A blizzard was coming. A bad one. A blue norther and a five-dayer, as Wyoming ranchers referred to the deadly weather front.
Travis Grant fed his two horses, made sure all the windows were shut and the area as warm as it could be. His two geldings had thick winter coats and would weather this blizzard, no problem, in his two-story, one-hundred-year-old barn. They were well fed and completely protected from the harsh, brutal elements to come. He'd also placed a heavy canvas well-padded horse blanket on each of them every night. Wyoming winters got way below zero.
It was barely dawn, a lighter gray ribbon along the clogged, cloudy western horizon. Pulling his sheepskin coat collar up a little tighter around his exposed neck, Travis heard the howling of the wind slamming against the western barn wall like invisible fists pummeling the aged wooden surface. Gale-force winds would precede this blue norther, and more than likely three to six feet of snow would be dumped on the Wind River Valley as it passed through like a slow-moving freight train.
Travis lived near the center of the Wind River Valley, about six miles away from where Maud and Steve Whitcomb had their hundred-thousand- acre Wind River Ranch where he worked four months out of the year as a wrangler.
His cowboy boots echoed and thunked hollowly along the old oak planking. He slid the door shut to the horse barn and went into his furniture-making studio, which was right next to it. In there, since returning home from the Marine Corps and too many deployments to Afghanistan, he'd found a way to make money and deal with his PTSD instead of committing suicide, like so many of his vet friends already had.
Turning on the overhead lights, his gaze moved through the thousand-foot rectangular room. It held his projects, all handmade furniture for clients who had ordered specific pieces from him.
Walking across the oak floor that shined dully beneath the fluorescent lights, he trailed his fingers across a reddish-colored mahogany top of a four-drawer dresser that was closest to where he stood. It was nearly finished, the deep crimson gleam of the wood beautiful beneath his hand and the patient waxing he'd done on it all day yesterday. It was a beautiful hardwood from South and Central America.
In creating furniture he'd found solace, maybe even a tiny corner of peace, by working alone in here from dawn to dusk, his anxiety tamped down, which was a godsend. Hard physical work like wrangling or creating furniture kept his PTSD anxiety volume turned down to a dull roar. He could use his woodworking tools, his hands, his chisels and sanding paper, to create beauty even though anxiety lived inside him like an angry, stalking monster 24/7/365.
He meandered through the clean room, a bit of satisfaction flowing through him. The scent of the different types of wood, the organic beeswax polish he used, made him breathe a little deeper. It was like a tack room in a barn, in one sense; the fragrance of leather saddles, bridles, martingales, the neatsfoot oil and saddle soap applied to all of them from time to time always calmed him, too.
In one corner he had a black potbellied stove that radiated enough heat to keep the studio toasty warm. Having just made the fire for the coming day's work, Travis walked over, opened the latch, and placed a couple more pieces of wood he'd chopped a week ago into it. Shutting it, he went to a small kitchenette where he made his coffee. Recently, he'd installed a small fridge with comfort foods such as cheese, milk, fruits, and veggies he liked to nosh on. The steel double sink was a place to wash his hands and the few dishes he dirtied daily.
For the next five to seven days, as this blizzard roared through northwestern Wyoming, Route 89, a north-south two-lane highway, would be closed. Wyoming simply did not have enough snowplows to quickly clear the one-hundred-mile stretch of Wind River Valley. It would take days to open it back up after the snow rapidly accumulated, so truck and civilian traffic could flow freely back and forth once more.
The studio was warming up. He checked the progress on each of his six projects. Thanks to Steve Whitcomb, owner of the Wind River Ranch, his career as a furniture maker had suddenly and unexpectedly taken off. Steve was a world-class architect, and he'd invited Architecture magazine to send out a reporter to do a story on him and his master carpentry craftsmanship last year. He'd had three pieces of furniture under way at that time, trying to make a living between being a wrangler on their ranch during the summer months and creating beautiful furniture the other eight months of winter. That one article catapulted him from being a nobody to a somebody in the world of high-class handmade furniture.
He was forever indebted to Steve for his support. He and his rancher wife, Maud, had already ordered and bought two pieces from him. The money was more than good and he'd been able to buy this small farm that sat along Route 89. It only had five acres, a fifteen-hundred-square-foot single-story turn-of-the-century cabin on it, a two-story barn, corrals, and a huge garden area. For him, it meant safety, solace, and finding the peace that eluded him since getting PTSD.
Seeing the flash of headlights through his double-paned window, he scowled. Who the hell was out at this time of morning and driving in the imminent deadly weather conditions? The beams had turned in a full circle on Route 89. That meant someone had hit black ice and was spinning out of control.
He pulled his black Stetson down a little tighter on his head, hauled on his thick elk skin gloves to protect his hands from the plummeting temperature, and quickly headed out of the barn. The wind was hard, battering against his body as he ran to the garage. He hit the door opener and waited impatiently to get to his huge Dodge Ram three-quarter-ton pickup inside. His dirt road was muddy and iced, as well. He backed the truck out, a sense of urgency filling him.
Probably some stupid tourist or a person who didn't really understand Wyoming blizzard weather, he thought as he drove slowly through the ice-covered mud ruts. They'd already gotten two feet of snow a week ago, and the plows had just finished pushing it off the sides of the highway into high white banks. There was no way he could speed down his quarter-mile driveway or he'd spin out, too. Mouth tightening, Travis saw that the car, a bright red one, had spun out and was now tipped on its side in the huge ditch next to the entrance gate of his property.
Travis parked behind the gate and climbed out, seeing steam rising from beneath the bent hood. He couldn't see who was in the vehicle because all the air bags had deployed, and there was no movement. That bothered Travis. The windshield wipers on the car were still, indicating the car's engine was off. All he could see as he slipped and slid down the short slope of mud and snow were the layers of deployed air bags. His mind automatically began to tick off potential medical issues. As a trained recon Marine, Travis was more than knowledgeable about medical emergency situations, what to do and how to handle them.
The wind, sharp and cold, tore at him, his ears unprotected, tingly and burning as they began to freeze in the dropping temperature. Was the person in this car injured?
As he reached the car door, he could only see the outline of a person beneath the limp air bags. Eyes narrowing, he knocked on the window, but there was no movement. He called out. No answer. The driver could be unconscious. Double damn.
Travis didn't need this complication with a blue norther blizzard bearing down on the area shortly. There was no way an ambulance would try to make it out here from the small hospital in Wind River, twenty miles away. The first responders knew better than to drive after the road had been shut down by the sheriff's department, according to his weather radio, an hour ago. This car and driver were probably the last to make it onto Route 89 before they closed the gates. No Wyoming person would ever go out in this kind of killing weather.
He yanked open the door. It grudgingly gave way.
"Hey," Travis called, pushing the air bag out of the way. "Are you all right?"
His heart crashed in his chest.
There, lying unconscious, slumped in her seat belt, was Kassie Murphy!
His mind blanked out briefly as he froze, as so many images from their past — talks, kissing her, then leaving her — slammed through him. Travis shook himself out of his state, reaching in after yanking off a glove, two fingers pressed gently against the side of her slender neck, searching for a pulse. Her black hair, thick and luxurious, had swirled around her shoulders, covering part of her face. Worse, as he felt for a pulse against her carotid artery, he saw just how pale she'd become. And then, as he swiftly perused her for other injury, he saw a thin trail of blood leaking out from beneath her hairline along her left temple.
Kass! No! No, this can't be happening!
Travis felt as if his whole, carefully structured world had just shattered. The woman he loved was unconscious. Injured.
And he'd left her after returning to civilian life a year ago, telling her they'd never make it in a relationship because of the severity of his PTSD. He'd released her, wanting her to have a chance at real love with a normal man, not someone as wounded as he was. Kass had cried the day they'd had that gut-wrenching conversation. Her tears felt like acid eating away what was left of his heart. He loved her enough to release her. There was no way he was going to accidentally injure her again by living with her. It just wouldn't work.
His heart leapt in his chest. A pulse! There! It was strong and steady. That was a good sign.
Swallowing hard, tears jamming into his eyes, Travis fought them back. He heard her moan, her parted lips closing for a moment as she began to become conscious.
"Kass? It's Travis. Stay still, you've been in a car accident. I'm going to unsnap your seat belt and get you out of here. Just hold on ..."
In no time, because she was a lightweight compared to his six-foot, nearly two-hundred-pound frame, she was in his arms. Her head lolled against his shoulder, brow tucked beneath his jaw, completely limp in his arms.
She was fading in and out of consciousness. Travis moved swiftly through the mud and ice, climbing and awkwardly scrambling up the ditch wall. Once on top, he made it over to his Ram truck. Holding her with one arm around her torso, balancing her against his thigh and body, he got the passenger-side door open.
"Kass? Can you hear me?" he rasped, quickly sitting her up in the cab, careful not to bang her head on anything. Hands trembling, he belted her in.
No answer. She was out cold again. There was blood dribbling down her cheek now from that cut on the side of her head.
Closing the door, Travis hurried around to the driver's side, hopped in, and got the truck turned around. Looking out on the highway, he could see the asphalt here and there gleaming with huge patches of nearly invisible black ice across it. For a moment, he'd thought about trying to drive to the hospital in Wind River, but then better judgment descended over him. He'd have to take care of Kass here, at his home. He had medical knowledge, although he wasn't a surgeon. But he would know shortly just how badly Kass was injured. Then, he could make a professional determination.
Heart pounding, he drove slowly, trying not to jostle or jerk Kass around in the seat belt. She hung like a limp rag doll in the harness. He'd settled her head against the seat, used an extra blanket as a way to keep it from moving around too much, possibly injuring her spinal column as a result. No, he had to take it slow and easy getting back to his cabin, glancing at her every now and then.
Kass seemed to start coming to for a moment and then plunged back into unconsciousness. She was so damned pale! His mind spun, wondering why she was out in weather conditions like this in the first place. Kass knew better. She'd been born and lived in Wyoming all her life.
Travis swallowed hard, several times, raw, haunting emotions washing through him like an unwelcome tsunami. What were the odds, the chances, of Kass being out in this kind of storm? What had spurred her to try and beat a blue norther that was barreling down on them, to try and get home? She wasn't a flaky, brainless woman. Just the opposite. They'd not seen each other for almost a year. And yet, here she was, unexpectedly dropped back in his life again. He tried to separate his anxiety from the PTSD and the worry over her condition. Terror that she could be badly hurt rolled through him. He felt a desperation coupled with his love of her that had never died. It had never gone away. Ever.
How many times had he tried to push her from his mind? His thoughts? Travis had lost count. It had been so damned hard to do it, too. The last three months, Kass was in his mind and heart even more strongly and he didn't know why. Up would pop one of their many spirited conversations, her laughter, that dancing, happy look in her eyes when she was with him. Remembering when she kissed him, letting him know she desired him as much as he desired her, that tore him up the most. He came to the conclusion he was missing her terribly and that was why his life was shared daily with memories of what they'd had before he released her.
So many mistakes. So much water under the miserable bridge that he called his life. He'd left Kass crying at age eighteen, getting on a bus for Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, California. Because she had loved him with a teen's love, he knew he'd broken her heart.
They'd never gone to bed during their high school years. There was just something in Travis, that old-fashioned Western ethos that one did not go to bed with the woman he loved until they were married. That age-old belief had prevented it from occurring. It was just a part of who he had been, at least at that young age of immaturity, innocence, and ignorance. That Travis was gone forever, thanks to many deployments and too much combat. He was a changed man, and he'd never be who he was before.
And when Kass had heard he'd come home after his enlistment was up in the Marine Corps, she had driven out to see him at Maud and Steve's ranch. Travis hadn't been expecting her to show up, to welcome him home with that sunbeam smile of hers. He'd been gruff with her, stoic, and short.
Once more, he'd hurt her with his rudeness. He couldn't help himself because his PTSD was so damned virulent and it controlled him. He was trying to adjust to civilian life, grateful that Maud and Steve had given him a part-time wrangler's job so he could make enough money to survive. But there was no way he could handle a relationship with any woman, much less Kass, who he'd never stopped loving. And once again, he'd sent her away.
Coming to a halt at the front of his log cabin, he parked and shut off the truck engine. After giving Kass one more glance, reassured she was still breathing and still unconscious, he hurried to the door of his cabin and flung it open. Hurriedly, he went back to the passenger side of the truck. Opening the door, he released the seat belt around Kass and gently eased her into his arms and against him. She was boneless.
The first hard, almost icy snowflakes from the blue norther struck at his exposed face. It felt like sharp little knives hitting his flesh as he carried her from the truck. Travis knew these blizzards as well as anyone else who lived in frigid Wyoming. First, the hard, icy crystals, then later, a deluge of heavy, wet flakes that would swiftly coat the area in many feet of snow.
The fury of this storm ate at him because he might have to try, despite the danger, to drive Kass to the hospital in Wind River.
Shutting the truck door with the heel of his boot, Travis took her directly to his bedroom. Laying her gently on the bed, he formed the pillow beneath her neck to ensure her airway was kept open. As carefully as he could, he laid her out on the bed. Only then did he cross the living room and kitchen to shut the door and lock it.
Walking quietly into the bedroom, he saw her thick, black lashes flutter. His heart bounded. Travis stood next to the bed, watching a pale pink flush begin to stain her cheeks. Kass was becoming conscious once again. But how conscious? He wanted to go to the bathroom and get a wet cloth and examine her head wound. That would have to wait. It was more important someone be with her if she awoke.
Very slowly, her lashes lifted, revealing cloudy willow green eyes. She stared up at him, the silence deepening.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kassie's Cowboy"
Copyright © 2017 Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Sweet forever love story ??