A Christmas Surprise
Shawn O'Riley is shocked to find a baby girl abandoned at his church on Christmas Eve. He's a pastor and a cowboynot a daddy! Haunted by family tragedy, he's not sure he can risk his heart to baby Noelleor to anyone else. But he needs help. Experienced foster mom Heather Lewis was anticipating a quiet holiday. When Shawn pops up at her door, she's happy to show him the ropes of baby carebut isn't prepared for the way he melts the walls around her heart. Can Shawn and Heather give each other the best Christmas gift of allfamily and love?
Cowboy Country: Surprise babies lead to unexpected love in Texas
About the Author
Award-winning author Deb Kastner writes stories of faith, family and community in a small-town western setting. Deb’s books contain sigh-worthy heroes and strong heroines facing obstacles that draw them closer to each other and the Lord. She lives in Colorado with her husband. She is blessed with three grown daughters and two grandchildren. She enjoys spoiling her grandkids, movies, music, reading, musical theater and exploring Colorado on horseback.
Read an Excerpt
Silent night. Holy night.
Pastor Shawn O'Riley pulled in a deep breath, savoring the rich combination of scents. Poinsettias and evergreens.
He relished the deep peace of the now-empty chapel and was grateful for the blessed evening, although he was equally glad it was finished. Christmas Eve for a pastor could be rather stressful, especially for a simple cowboy preacher who worked on the land for a living and pastored the little church part-time. He'd mended as many literal fences for the neighbors as he had spiritual ones, but he loved every second of itall of it. Especially, on a night like tonight.
Not many knew of all the behind-the-scenes effort needed to pull the more complicated church services together. The children's nativity pageant had gone off without a hitchgive or take a few easily distracted preschool-aged angels and a donkey who couldn't stand still long enough to recite his single line. The parents had loved it and the children had enjoyed performing, and that was all that really mattered to Shawn.
Following that had been the Christmas Eve midnight service, which was one of his favorites, starting with beloved carols and ending in the tranquility of candlelight.
All is calm. All is bright.
And it was. The atmosphere couldn't be more silent and serene. So why did he have a niggling deep in his gut that something was wrong?
He scoffed softly and shook his head. It had been a long week, between preparing some of his animals for the big stock sale coming just after the first of the year and organizing the Christmas Eve festivities. He was overtired, it was as simple as that. There wasn't any deeper significance to whatever unease he was feeling. If he had any sense he'd stop standing here straining for sounds that didn't exist and head back to his ranch so he could get himself to bed where he belonged. Settle in for a long winter's nap, and all that.
Before heading out, all he had left to do was make sure all the lights were off, the candles blown out and the doors locked, and then he could go home.
Alone. To an empty house.
Was that the real reason he lingered?
It wasn't the first time he would be spending Christmas Eve on his own, and he was sure that it wouldn't be his last, but for some reason he was feeling it more than usual. He hadn't spent Christmas with his family since Well, he didn't want to think about that.
He shook his head to unsettle the disturbing sense of melancholy. He wasn't alone. He might be feeling a little lonely, but the Lord was always with him. God had seen him through many a Christmas past.
With a weary sigh, he flipped all seven switches on the light plate, plunging the vestibule into darkness and leaving only the soft flickering of candles beckoning from the warmth of the sanctuary. He'd forgotten to extinguish them.
Shawn grunted and combed his fingers through the short tips of his reddish-blond hair and ran a hand across the five-o'clock shadow on his jaw. Just as well that he had to head back into the sanctuary to take care of the candles. It would give him a moment to refocus and shake this unexpected despondency, remind himself that feelings weren't everything. God was always his comfort and consolation, whether Shawn could feel Him or not.
The light beckoned him. He removed his cowboy hat from his head as he passed through the familiar arch that marked the entrance to the sanctuary. Reverently, and with a catch in his throat, he approached the altar.
He'd been given so many blessings. His health. A little spread of land he was proud to call his own. His six-year ministry at a chapel he adored in a town full of folks he loved. He hadn't been born in Serendipity, and yet the community had welcomed him with open arms as one of their own.
He had so much for which to be grateful. How could he possibly complain when many people were blessed with far less?
As he reached the foot of the altar, he knelt, his eyes dropping from the large wooden cross centered on the wall to the straw-stuffed manger the children had used during the pageant. He grinned as he recalled squalling Baby Jesus, Eli and Mary Bishop's newborn son. The little nipper had squirmed so hard the entire manger
Something moved within the straw.
Shawn blinked and rubbed his eyes. What was that?
He must be more exhausted than he'd realized. For a moment there he was positive he'd seen
There it was again.
From the manger. Just the tiniest quiver within the stalks of hay, as if a whisper of a breeze had passed over it.
Only there was no breeze in the chapel.
A shiver ran up his spine as he bolted to his feet and took an involuntary step backward. The candlelight was no help, casting shadows across the walls and floor. His heart hammering in his throat, Shawn approached the cr che.
When he leaned in to see what had caused the disturbance, his eyes widened and his breath tugged.
A real-live newborn infant, loosely wrappednot in swaddling clothes, but in a tattered Dallas Cowboys snug-wrap blanket. As Shawn watched, the infant's face scrunched as if it were about to break into a wail, but then just as swiftly its expression relaxed back into the peace of sleep.
Adrenaline surged through Shawn, erasing whatever fatigue and anxiety he'd been combating moments before. His mind went into overdrive with a brand-new kind of worry. He was fearful to move, even to breathe.
What was going on here? This couldn't be happening. Not in this little church, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and not on Christmas Eve. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, but when he glanced back down at the manger, the baby was still very much present.
Real. Alive. And kicking.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled as his mind raced to take in the facts, what few there were. Where was the baby's mother? Shawn cast a glance around the sanctuary, but there were no additional movements in the darkness. Somehow, the woman had come and gone without him even knowing she'd ever been.
And she'd left behind the most precious of cargo.
He knew he didn't have any new or expectant moms in the congregation, other than Mary Bishop. To Shawn's untrained eye, all newborns looked like Yoda, but he was certain this wasn't the same little guy who'd played Baby Jesus. He'd watched Eli and Mary pack up their little bundle and exit the church an hour earlier.
Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure the baby presently lying in the manger was a little guy.
The infant's eyes popped open, revealing an unfocused smoky blue-gray gaze. Shawn reached out a finger and the infant grasped it, pulling his hand toward its tiny mouth. Despite all the tension he was feeling, Shawn couldn't help but smile softly as he slid his large palm underneath the baby's head and tenderly scooped it into his arms. Babies were blessings from God, plain and simple.
Only, in this case, the plain and simple part of it was a little more complicated. He hoped he was doing this "cradling the baby" thing right. He was hardly an expert on the subject. He was supposed to support the baby's head and neckthat much he remembered from christenings. With this little one, it wasn't hard to do. The infant was so tiny it almost fit into one of his large palms.
"Shh, shh, shh," he murmured gently to the whimpering infant. He rocked on the heels of his boots. "It's okay, little one. I've got you. Everything's going to be okay. I promise."
He frowned. That wasn't exactly right. Not that the baby could understand his words, but he was hardly in a position to make a promise like that. There wasn't one single thing about this situation that was okay.
Where was the mother now? How had she gotten into the church and back out again without anyone noticing her? Had she disappeared for good, or was she lingering around somewhere to make sure her baby was well cared for? Had she picked this chapel for a reason, out of all the places she could have taken the child?
And maybe the most pressing question of allwhat was he supposed to do with an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve?
If he wasn't mistaken, there were safe-haven laws in Texas to deal with the issue of child abandonment, but Shawn didn't know the exact details. Would a church even be considered an acceptable drop-off point in such a situation? Perhaps allowances could be made, since the nearest hospital was over an hour away? And speaking of hospitals, he should call Delia Bowden, the town doctor, who would no doubt want to check the baby's health. Also, he would need to call the police immediately, to report what could potentially be considered a crime.
He forced a breath through his lungs. He had people who'd help him through this. That was a good thing. But the question remainedwhom should he call first?
No matter how he tried to reason around it, he couldn't get over the fact that whatever motivations had compelled the woman to commit such an act, the distressed mother had chosen to leave her precious baby here, in this church, and not at the police station or firehouse as she might have done.
A myriad of emotions pressed upon him and he struggled to work them out, to untie the knots in his chest. There had to be a reason the baby was here. God didn't make mistakes, and though it seemed incomprehensible to Shawn, it was abundantly clear to him that he was meant to find this child.
Threading his fingers through his hair, he murmured a frantic prayer for guidance under his breath. What would the Lord have him do?
Jo Spencer. Owner of Cup O' Jo Café and second mother to half the town, she had a word of advice to give for any situation under the sun. She'd been a good listening ear and friendly adviser to him in the past.
It was a decision, at least, and a good one, at that. He sighed in relief.
Jo would know what to do in his hour of need. She was the resident expert on everythingand everyone. Shawn was reluctant to wake her at this time of night, but he knew she would want to be part of this. At the very least, she'd help him think through his options, and she'd definitely know who else to call in as reinforcements. She quite literally knew everyone in town. She might even have an idea who the mother was. If there were any women outside the church's parish who might be pregnant and close to delivery, Jo would know about them.
Shawn's heart ached for the woman who was desperate enough to leave her infant at a church on Christmas Eve. She must be feeling such a deep sense of anguish. No doubt her circumstances, whatever they were, had been dire.
He shifted and wrinkled his nose as an odd, pungent odor assaulted him.
"Yes, little person," he said, addressing the baby. "We need to call in the cavalry."
Along with everything else, Jo Spencer would know how to change a diaper.
He curled the infant into one arm and fished for his cell phone in the pocket of his black slacks. Fortunately, Jo was an active member of the faith community, and her number was on speed dial.
After several rings, a gravelly, sleep-muted male voice answered.
"This'd better be good." Jo's husband, Frank, was gruff on the best of occasions, and Shawn highly doubted that being dragged from a dead sleep even remotely qualified for that category.
"So sorry to wake you, Frank, but I've got a bit of an emergency here. This is Pastor Shawn, by the way."
"Yeah, I figured. When Jo's new-fangled cell phone rang, your picture came up on the screen."
One corner of Shawn's mouth rose. He heard a crackle and a thump on the other end of the line.
"Emergency, you said?" Jo didn't even sound sleepy, though he knew he'd wakened her from the same state that had Frank so grumpy. "What can I do for you, Pastor?"
Shawn released the breath he'd been holding, relief rippling through his muscles as he continued to jiggle his arm to keep the gurgling infant happy.
"I have a baby," he blurted.
"Oh. I " It was unusual for Jo to stammer. He'd clearly caught her off guard, and no wonder. "Are congratulations in order?"
"What?" Of all the things he expected Jo to say, that wasn't it. "No. I mean It's not my baby."
Jo let out a big guffaw. Shawn wondered how anyone could sound so gleeful in the middle of the night.
"Well, young man, you'll pardon me for sayin' I'm relieved to hear it. Not that you wouldn't make a wonderful father, mind."
"Thank you for that," he responded, chuckling under his breath. "But I do have a problem. That baby I mentionedI have it right here. At the church. I think someone abandoned it." He hated calling the baby an it, but he thought calling Jo was more expedient than taking the time to check to see if it was a boy or a girl.
"Oh, my stars," Jo exclaimed. "An abandoned baby? Well, why didn't you say so to begin with?"
Shawn grimaced and the baby startled, wagging his or her little arms in the air and breaking into a weak wail.
"I hear the dear little sweetheart. Is it a boy or a girl?"
Shawn shifted the wiggling bundle to his shoulder and bounced softly on his toes. "I don't know. I haven't checked yet. I called you first."
"And that was exactly the right thing for you to do, my dear. I'll be over faster than you can say Jack Washington. We'll figure it out together, you and I. I do believe I'll also get on the horn with Heather Lewis and see if she can come out and help us."
"She's a local foster parent. I imagine she'll be able to give us some perspective on the situation."
With an inaudible sigh, Shawn crooked the phone against his shoulder so he could pat the infant on the back. Jo had no idea how very much he needed to hear that help was on its way. What he knew about babies was quite literally limited to the christenings he performed. He didn't have any children of his own, nor did he have nieces or nephews. He'd never actually had to care for a baby before, especially not in the plethora of ways he imagined this little one would need.
Apprehension shot through him like a bolt of electricity, crackling and exploding along every one of his nerve endings. He wasn't qualified to be in charge of a child. He hadn't even been successful watching an older kid, much less a newborn. He closed his eyes and saw his younger brother David's face, red and sweating, his palms pressed against the glass of the car door and his mouth open in a silent scream.
No. Not now.
Pain stabbed through his gut, and he opened his eyes wide, gasping for air.
Please, Lord, let Jo come quickly.
"I can't tell you what this means to me. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart." And then some.
"No need to thank me, son. That's what I'm here forhelpin' people as the Lord sees fit to use me." He knew she told the truth. It didn't matter that it was the middle of the night or Christmas Eve. Jo was happy to be everyone's go-to woman.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had a hard time getting fully engaged in the story. But once I got past the first two chapters, the story picks up. I really could identify with Heather and Shawn. Both had lot of guilt over the events in their past, but it was good to see them work through their problems and use it to help children who are hurting and need a roof over their hands