“A delightful annual tradition.”
—RT Book Reviews
Sometimes the best surprises are right at home . . .
Returning to Branding Iron, Texas, is Travis Morgan’s last resort, and the abandoned ranch he inherited isn’t much more welcoming than the prison cell where he spent the last three years doing time for a tragic accident. Completely without funds or family, Travis finds celebrating Christmas is the last thing on his mind, but there’s no escaping the holiday spirit in this close-knit little town—not with Branding Iron’s longtime Santa retiring, and sweetly stubborn Mayor Maggie Delaney determined to find a replacement. When her no-nonsense façade slips to reveal the sensual, vulnerable woman beneath it, Travis realizes Maggie just might be as lonely as he is—and that this holiday season, love could be the gift that heals them both.
“The spirit of Christmas permeates this charming holiday romance.”
—RT Book Reviews on Merry Christmas, Cowboy
About the Author
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Branding Iron, Texas, early November
Travis Morgan muttered a curse as he scraped the frost from the inside of his bedroom window. Last night's storm had started as rain. But sometime after midnight, a brutal cold front had swept in, freezing the rain wherever it struck.
Ice had covered the windmill with a frigid glaze, freezing the vanes and connections solidly in place. Wind howled around the corners of the old frame house, shaking the bare cottonwoods along the road and sending showers of ice to the ground. The windmill, however, wasn't moving.
With the cold spell expected to last the rest of the week, Travis reckoned there was nothing to do but climb to the platform of the windmill and free the apparatus.
Swearing under his breath, he layered on warm clothes, laced up his boots, and pulled on thick leather work gloves. Even after nearly a year on this run-down ranch, Travis didn't know much about windmills — or a lot of other things that country-raised folks took for granted. He'd grown up with his mother and stepfather in a mid-size Oklahoma town. As a man, he'd planned to build a future there — until a career with the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol had ended with a botched arrest and a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Freed after serving three years, he'd discovered that the stigma of being an ex-con would follow him for the rest of his life. Unable to find decent work anywhere, he'd turned to the only refuge he had left.
This small Texas ranch had been in his mother's family for generations. He'd even lived here, in this house, for the first two years of his life, before his parents split up and his mother took him away from Branding Iron. Now that the other heirs had passed on, the long-abandoned place was his — every drought-ravaged, rock-strewn, snake-infested acre of it.
As he opened the door and stepped onto the rickety covered porch, a blast of cold wind hit him like a runaway freight train. He staggered backward. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. But the storage tank was getting low. If he didn't get the windmill working, the house would soon be out of water.
The rusty bucket that held his tools sat next to the door. Whatever he chose to do the job would have to be small enough to tuck into his belt, freeing his hands to climb. After a moment's deliberation, Travis chose a claw hammer. With luck, a few well-placed blows would shatter the ice and fix the problem. If not, he'd be in trouble. But he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
The front steps were glassy. Bracing against the wind, he took them one at a time. The ground was bare of snow, but everything in sight — the fields, the trees, the sheds, and even his battered '99 Ford pickup — glittered with a patina of ice.
The windmill stood on the far side of the yard. Its height was about average for this part of the country. But right now, looking up from its base, it appeared as tall as a skyscraper. And every rung of the narrow ladder leading up one side was coated with ice.
This is insane! You're going to break your damn fool neck!
Closing his mind to the thought of danger, Travis placed a foot on the bottom rung and began to climb. The soles of his work boots held fine, as long as he placed each foot securely. His hands were another matter. Even through his thick gloves, the cold was numbing. His fingers could barely feel the rungs he was holding. By the time he got to the top, he would have no feeling in his hands at all. But now that he was more than two-thirds of the way up, it didn't make sense to quit.
Minutes later, he gained the platform and clung there, shivering and willing himself not to look down. He'd never been one for heights, but this had to be done. Fumbling under his coat, he managed to pull the hammer out of his belt. He could see where the rain had dripped and frozen in a solid lump, blocking the motion of the gears. He aimed at the spot, muttered a prayer disguised as an obscenity, and struck a sharp blow. The ice shattered, showering pieces over the platform. Slowly, then faster as the wind caught, the windmill began to turn — and Travis began to breathe again.
Thank God for small favors. Now all he had to do was get down.
Leading blindly with his feet was harder than he'd expected. More than once, his boot missed the rung, and he had to save himself by grabbing with his hands. But at least the job was done. At least he was on his way down.
He'd made it more than halfway when the sound of a motor caught his attention. A vehicle was coming down the narrow road that ran between the fence lines. Travis was used to seeing farm trucks out here. But this was no farm truck. Cruising along the road, moving a little too fast on the frozen surface, was a big, sleek, black Lincoln Town Car.
He kept easing his way down the ladder, stealing glances at the Lincoln as it came closer. Travis had an eye for cars. This model, which appeared to be in good condition, was about fifteen years old, the kind of vehicle a well-heeled senior citizen might own. Maybe the driver had taken a wrong turn and was lost. There was no other reason a car like that would be on this road.
He was about eight feet from the ground when the Lincoln hit an icy spot, spun in a half-circle, and slammed into Travis's gatepost.
Distracted for an instant, Travis let his foot slip the barest inch too far. His cold-numbed hands lost their grip. He slipped down several rungs and fell backward, landing on the hard ground with a force that felt like being hit by a ten-ton truck. For the moment, all he could do was lie there and close his eyes until the world stopped spinning. Nothing seemed to be broken. But when he got his breath back and his legs under him, some old codger was going to catch hell!
* * *
Maggie Delaney, the newly re-elected mayor of Branding Iron, had driven out to check on Abner Jenkins, whose farm was a few miles out of town. Earlier that morning, she'd called the old man to make sure he was prepared to play Santa in this year's Christmas parade. His landline phone had rung six times without an answer. Worried about the old man, she'd climbed into the big Lincoln that had been her late father's and gone to check on him. She'd found Abner's truck missing from the yard. His house, when she checked inside, had been empty.
After leaving a note on his door, she'd been about to turn around and drive back to town when an impulse had changed her mind. The recently paved road, which cut off the highway and ran past Abner's place, had been an icy mess. Two passing farm trucks had almost slid into her. Maybe it would be better to go forward, following the less-traveled part of the road where it looped through the back country and rejoined the highway a couple of miles to the south.
It had been a bad idea. The rest of the road was even icier. She was already late for her 10:00 meeting with the library board, and now her dad's beloved old Lincoln had slid, spun, and crashed into a metal gatepost, causing a startled man to fall off his windmill.
From the car, she could see him lying on the frozen ground. He didn't appear to be moving. Good Lord, what if she'd killed him?
She flung herself out of the car, her kitten-heeled boots barely finding purchase on the ice-encrusted ground. The car had pushed the gatepost to one side, freeing the gate to swing open in the wind. She hurried across the bare yard to where the man lay at the foot of the windmill, sprawled on his back.
Approaching, she could see the faint rise and fall of his chest beneath the old woolen peacoat he wore. His long legs, clad in faded jeans and worn-out work boots, were moving slightly. At least he appeared to be alive. But he'd taken a nasty fall. He could be badly injured.
Her gaze took him in. He was a stranger — tall and lean as a whip in his worn-out work clothes. Below the knit cap that covered his head and ears, the planes of his face were sharply chiseled, the closed eyes narrow and deeply set.
It was a striking face, handsome in a stubble-jawed, Clint Eastwood sort of way. But how could she be ogling the man at a time like this? She needed to be checking him for injuries and calling 911.
As she bent over him, his eyes opened — slate-colored eyes, their look so cold and piercing that she drew back with a little gasp. His lips tightened. He cleared his throat. "What the blazes did you think you were doing?" he muttered.
With effort, she found her voice. "I was trying to decide whether you need an ambulance. Are you hurt?"
He stirred, wincing as he sat up. "I'm fine. That's not what I meant. You were driving like a bat out of hell down that icy road. You're lucky you didn't break your fool neck — and mine."
"You sound like a cop."
His mouth tightened. "I hope that's a joke," he said.
She stood as he hauled himself to his feet. Maggie was a statuesque woman, almost five foot nine. He loomed over her by half a head.
"I was late for a meeting in town," she said. "I'm sorry for distracting you. And I'm sorry about your gatepost. My purse is in the car. I'd be happy to write you a check for the damage."
"Don't bother. I'll fix the damn thing myself." He turned away from her and walked over to the metal gatepost, which stood askew against the front bumper of the car. Maggie could tell he was in some pain.
What was he doing out here? As she recalled, this rundown ranch had been abandoned for several years, since the people who'd been leasing it moved away in the middle of the night. What was this ragged-looking stranger doing on the property? Was he some homeless derelict needing shelter from the cold? Or worse, a fugitive criminal, hiding out from the law?
Either way, it was clear that he didn't want her around. Maybe she should ask the sheriff to check him out. There was something raw and a little wild about the man. Something that whispered danger.
Her key was still in the ignition. If she was smart, she'd get back in the car, lock the doors, and pray that the engine would start.
* * *
Travis gripped the gatepost with his gloved hands and tried to pull it straight. It didn't budge. What the hell, everything else around here was broken, why not the gate? It wasn't like anybody was going to come in and rob him.
The car didn't look too badly damaged. Just a slight dent in the bumper. These old Lincolns were built like Sherman tanks. Come to think of it, the woman wasn't built too badly either. Tall and curvy, she was well dressed in a thigh-length tan trench coat over tailored slacks, cashmere gloves, and pricey-looking boots. A green silk scarf flowed around her neck. Its color matched her eyes and contrasted with her shoulder-length mahogany hair. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Probably married to some rich dentist or banker. All in all, she was the kind of woman he had no use for — spoiled, pushy, and wearing her upper-class status like a suit of armor.
She was shivering, her hair blowing around her face. He was cold, too. The sooner he got her out of here and on her way, the sooner he could go inside and make a fire in the old iron stove.
The driver's side door, which she'd left open, had blown shut. He opened it and held it against the wind. "Unless you're stuck, you shouldn't have any trouble driving," he said. "There's nothing for you to do here. Climb in, and get back onto the road."
She moved past him, slid her shapely rump into the driver's seat, and turned the key. The big Lincoln roared to life. Wheels spun on the ice as she geared down and backed away from the gate. It took some rocking back and forth, but she finally made it onto the road and shifted gears again. At least she knew how to drive a stick shift.
He gave her a parting wave. "Slow down," he yelled. But she gunned the engine as if she hadn't heard him. That, or she was just being contrary. She struck him as the type.
He watched the car until it disappeared from sight. It would serve the fool woman right if she slid off the road again. But it wasn't his job to worry about her safety. He wasn't a cop anymore.
By the time he'd checked the water storage tank and made sure no pipes were frozen, he was in serious pain. The hard fall hadn't broken any bones, but he ached in every joint and muscle. He knew, without checking, that there was nothing in the medicine cabinet except toothpaste, dental floss, Band-Aids, and a flattened tube of antibiotic salve. If he wanted to make it through the rest of the week, he would need to pick up some ibuprofen and maybe some good old-fashioned liniment. That would mean driving to town — a trip he made no more often than necessary.
Chiseling the ice off the front and rear windshields of the truck took almost half an hour. The forecast for last night had been rain. If he'd known the rain was going to freeze, he would have covered the vehicle with a tarp or parked it in the barn. Live and learn. He'd arrived here late last winter and managed to survive. But the season had been mild, with only one big storm. Something told him this winter would be different.
The truck started on the first try. Travis was a decent mechanic. Last summer he'd managed to get the abandoned tractor running and used the old tiller, rake, and other rusty attachments to raise two crops of hay. The barn was piled high with rectangular bales that were just light enough for a man to lift. When Travis had started up the old hay baler, he'd forced himself to forget that this machine had cost his father one of his legs. That had been thirty years ago, when Travis was a small boy. His father still lived in Branding Iron. But Travis had bitter memories of the man. Now he wanted nothing to do with him.
As he backed out of the gate, which swung loose from the damaged post, he asked himself one more time whether he could really make a go of this ranch. There was so much to be done, and so little in the way of resources to do it with. Maybe he'd be better off selling the land, pulling up stakes, and starting over somewhere new.
Selling the hay to neighboring farms and ranches had given him enough money to live on — but he was barely getting by. He needed more income from the ranch. But buying even a few calves to raise and sell would require money he didn't have, and no bank he'd ever talked to would grant a loan to an ex-convict.
He could look for a job. He hadn't tried in Branding Iron. But facing another string of rejections was more than his pride could handle. A man with his record couldn't be trusted to muck out a stable without stealing the horses.
Gloomy thoughts for a gloomy day. As he drove toward the highway, he made a mental shift to the memory of the woman who'd crashed into his gate that morning. She reminded him of somebody — some actress he'd seen on TV back in the day. He recalled little details, the way her dark red hair curled against her porcelain cheek; the way her emerald green scarf matched her eyes; and the cool, challenging look those eyes had given him. Classy and confident — those were the words that came to mind. Something told him the lady knew how to play hardball. But there was softness about her full lips and amply curved body. She hadn't introduced herself. But that was just as well. He certainly didn't plan on meeting her again — not even if she'd spun off down the road.
Coming up on his left was the home of his nearest neighbor. Jubal McFarland was in his front yard, clearing ice off the front walk. He waved as Travis drove past. Travis returned the greeting and drove on. Good people, the McFarlands. They'd invited him to dinner a couple of times, but knowing he couldn't reciprocate, Travis had made his excuses.
He could almost envy what Jubal had — a prosperous ranch, a loving wife, and two children who'd make any man proud. But Travis knew better than to dwell on what he'd never have. Any hope of such a life had vanished with the thump of a judge's gavel and the clang of a cell door.
Turning onto the highway, which had been salted to melt the ice, was a relief. As he passed Hank's Hardware on his right, Travis noticed a crew of workers unloading cut Christmas trees from a big flatbed truck and stacking them in the store's fenced side lot. Sweet racket, those trees. Hank had the only Christmas tree lot this side of Cottonwood Springs, and he charged top dollar for every one of them. Not that Travis cared. Damn sure, he wouldn't be buying a tree this year, or any other year — especially from Hank.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Kind of Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Revocable Trust Created by Jimmy Dean Dailey and Mary Sue Dailey.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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