When Sarah Kendrick meets her high school sweetheart again, she's ashamed to show Marcus Ender how far she's fallen. But when they're snowed in on her ranch, and he returns holiday joy to her family, Sarah could have a merry Christmas if she'll say yes.
The Cowboy's Christmas Gift by Arlene James
An injury forces rodeo rider Matt Ender home to his family's ranchwhere he clashes with his grandmother's pretty business partner.
Former cowgirl Neely Spence has no time for love. Can they open their hearts and find family this Christmas?
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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.
Author of more than 90 books, including the Chatam House and Prodigal Ranch series, from Love Inspired, with listing at www.arlenejames.com and www.chatamhouseseries.com. Can be reached at POB 5582, Bella Vista, AR 72714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
"Cowabunga!" Marcus Ender stomped on the brake of his truck and jerked the steering wheel to the right, nearly jackknifing the empty horse trailer he was towing behind him. Snow glistened on the evergreen branches and banked along the sides of the road where the plow had gone through.
At first he thought he was seeing things. But no.
The animal was there right in front of his eyes, all rightexcept it wasn't a cow that had bounded into the road and completely blocked his truck from passing. Marcus narrowed his gaze on the antlered beast.
Not an elk. Not a deerat least not the white-tailed variety that one generally expected to find in the thickly forested Colorado landscape. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.
A reindeer? Like the kind that pulled Santa's sleigh? Up on the housetop and all that?
Man, was this thing lost. Like on another continent, lostor wherever the North Pole was supposed to be. Geography had never been Marcus's best subject.
He chuckled. The reindeer, which stood right in front of his truck with garland draped around its neck, calmly ruminated and stared back at him as if he were the odd man out.
Maybe he was. Texas born and raised in Oklahoma, he had never been to Colorado before. He wouldn't be here now if he wasn't doing a favor for his Grandma Sheryl. He was already anticipating being home for the holidays at his grandmother's ranch in Red Bluff, Oklahoma. His older brother, Matt, had already arrived, celebrating the holiday with the family for his first time in years. Marcus didn't know how he felt about thathe and Matt had never gotten along well and hadn't seen each other in a long time, but he hadn't been the one to put distance between them, and he wasn't about to let Matt ruin the holidays for him.
He'd just pick up the horses here that his grandmother had purchased and be on his wayas soon as the reindeer decided to move. It was taking its own good time about it.
He was about to roll down the window and shake his hat at it, but then it occurred to him that the animal must belong to someone, probably a local, if the garland was anything to go by. Could reindeer be domesticated? He had no idea how much one cost, but he was guessing they couldn't be cheap.
It wasn't in his nature to drive away when he might be able to help someone find a missing pet, and anyway, he was curious. He hoped it was tame.
Did reindeer bite? Worse yet, since he didn't know what he was doing with a live reindeer, he ran the distinct prospect of antlers prodding his hindquarters.
Taking a deep breath and whispering a prayer for safety, he gently opened the cab door, half expecting the reindeer to dart away into the brush, or worse yet, charge him. It lifted its head and followed his movements but didn't appear to be startled by his presence.
"Easy now," he murmured gently. He took one step toward it, then two. "We're all friends here, right?"
The reindeer's ears twitched forward as if it understood what he was saying.
"Right," he repeated, verbally reassuring himself. As a general rule he liked animals and they responded in kind, but a reindeer?
Even if he could get next to it and even if it was somehow tagged with an addresswhich was highly unlikely, now that he thought about itwhat was he going to do with it? Sure, he was pulling a horse trailer, but there was no way he would attempt to load a wild animal into it.
He heard the clip-clop of a horse's hooves on the pavement behind him and turned just in time to see a woman riding bareback toward him on a very large black draft horse. The sun shone directly behind her and Marcus lowered his straw cowboy hat over his brow to shade his eyes. He couldn't make out more than her shadow, but she looked downright diminutive on top of the enormous Percheron.
"I see you've met Crash," she said with a spritely laugh.
Marcus froze at the sound of her voice, and for a moment he thought his heart stopped beating. He knew that voice. He knew that laugh.
"Marcus?" Sarah sounded just as stunned as he felt, as well she should be. What was his high school sweetheart doing out here in the middle of the Colorado forest?
Even if he hadn't recognized her voice, his heart affirmed the truth and his pulse raced wildly at the thought of seeing her again. It had been a long time. As far as Marcus was concerned, too long. Either that, or not nearly long enough.
Sarah trotted up to him and reined the horse to a halt. He reached for the horse's head without a second thought. She'd been riding with nothing more than a rope halter to guide her enormous mount.
He wasn't surprised that Sarah rode with such ease. She'd always had a way with horses.
And reindeer, apparently. Crash, was it?
"I don't understand," she said, effortlessly swinging her leg around and sliding off the Percheron. She looked thinner than he remembered her, and the circles under her eyes were almost as dark as her sable hair, which she had pulled back into a loose ponytail. She'd slung a lariat across her shoulder and looked halfway as if she'd just ridden out of an old Western. "What are you doing here?"
Without taking the time to think through his actions, Marcus grinned and enveloped her in an impromptu hug. He'd always respected the value of a good hug, even before spending the past several years working as a counselor at a ranch for troubled teens. To his dismay, she immediately stiffened in his embrace. He dropped his arms and stepped back, feeling as awkward as the youth he was when he'd seen her last. He cleared his throat, wondering what to say to break the silence.
"I suppose I could ask the same thing of you." Marcus paused and then clicked his tongue as the realization sprung on him. "Except I think I already know."
Grandma Sheryl had sent him on this errand to pick up some horses she'd bought on his way to her Oklahoma ranch, and he'd agreed without even remotely suspecting an alternate motive. Anything for his grandmaanything except this. Grandma wasn't usually so sly. Heat rushed to his face and he lowered his head so Sarah wouldn't see his flaming cheeks.
Why hadn't it occurred to him before that Grandma Sheryl might have something up her sleeve? He wouldn't put it past her to have cooked up some nutty matchmaking scheme. How was he going to explain that to Sarah? Her reception could be termed less than enthusiastic.
"I didn't expect. you," Sarah admitted, voicing exactly what Marcus had been thinking. "When I spoke to your grandmother, I had the impression she was sending one of her wranglers to collect my horses from me, not one of her grandsons."
"If it makes any difference, she didn't tell me I'd be seeing you, either."
That one syllable pretty much summed it up. His skin prickled as if he was breaking out in hives. Had it not occurred to Grandma Sheryl that this encounter might not go well? That Sarah might not want to see him again? He and Sarah hadn't parted on the best of terms after they'd graduated from high school, and they hadn't seen each other since. And she didn't sound as if she was too thrilled about the prospect of seeing him now.
"I'm just here to collect the horses and then I'll get out of your hair," he promised, grinning despite the discomfort of his churning stomach.
"Fine," she agreed with a clipped nod. She wasn't even trying to smile. "But first I need to take care of Crash. Clever girl somehow opened the paddock gate and decided to take a little hike on her own. I was afraid I might have lost her for good."
Marcus eyed Crash and then the Percheron. "How do you plan to get her back to your ranch?"
She chuckled, but to his keen ears it sounded forced. He laughed along with her, hoping that would encourage her not to stress over it. Chasing a runaway reindeer was kind of funny in a way, but maybe not if you were the owner of said reindeer.
"It's a Christmas tree farm, not a ranch. And I've brought my trusty lariat along to catch the errant reindeer," she said, tilting her head to look up at him, the sudden sparkle in her gray eyes making Marcus's breath catch in his throat. "Can you give me a boost? Mag here is as gentle as a lamb but he's a big ol' brute."
"I'll say," Marcus agreed, threading his fingers to provide a hand-made stirrup. She steadied herself by gripping his shoulder and their gazes met and held for what seemed like an eternity, but which was probably only a few seconds, long enough for electricity to zing through him and rev his pulse.
They were both older now, and hopefully wiser, but apparently some things never changed, such as the way her gray eyes could so easily capture his and jolt him right down to his core. Such as the way his head spun when he inhaled the sweet apple of her shampoo, the same scent she'd worn when they were dating in high school.
What would Grandma Sheryl think of that?
Better for him if she didn't find out. He swallowed hard and boosted Sarah up onto Mag's sturdy back, half-relieved when she was no longer in his arms, and yet he felt oddly vacant.
"Is Mag short for something?" he asked, trying to turn his mind to something less hazardous.
"Magnificent. The other half of his team is Jes Majestic."
"Clever. And accurate."
"Thank you. I named them myself." She seemed to sit a little taller as she slipped the lariat off her shoulder and nudged Mag forward with her heels. To Marcus's surprise, Crash didn't budge when the large draft horse trotted in her direction, and Sarah easily slid the loop over the reindeer's neck.
"Okay, now, Crash, let's get you back home where you belong." She glanced behind her to Marcus, leaning her free hand on Mag's flanks. "You can follow me back to the farm in your truck."
"That won't bother the animals?"
"Not if you don't tailgate."
She flashed him a cheeky grin, turned forward and kicked Mag into a quick trot. Crash snuffed in protest but held back for only a moment before following her without any more hesitation. Marcus couldn't say that he blamed the reindeer.
There was a time when he would have followed Sarah anywhere.
Sarah couldn't seem to catch a breath nor calm her erratic pulse. She was painfully aware of the deep purr of Marcus's truck directly behind her, but she didn't dare glance backward to see if he was following at a safe distance.
He was. He was Marcus, after all.
Marcus Ender. He'd been on her mind often in recent weeks, but she'd never considered that she might actually see him again. He was her happy place, the spot in her mind and the high point of her past memories where she went when she needed to remember the way things used to be, when in her innocence and naïveté she'd believed the whole wonderful world stretched before her, full of adventures and blessings. Before she'd grown up and finally understood how painful life really was.
To her deep regret, little had gone right in her life since she'd graduated from high school and left smalltown Oklahoma behind for the thrill of Colorado. She'd been full of ideals and intentions, the promise of higher education and making it out on her own.
She'd graduated college, but then her life had gone off on a tangent she never would have expected. Things had gotten bad. Then worse. Then downright terrible. Right now she felt as if she was drowning. She would have long since given up trying to succeed at all if it weren't for her beloved daughters. Even given all the misfortunes she'd encountered, she would do it all again in a heartbeat for Onyx and Jewel.
Every day, with every ounce of her being, she fought for her children and prayed for them and worked for things to get better. But they didn't get better, and no matter how hard she prayed, the Lord didn't appear to answer her, or even hear her meager pleas. Lately she'd stopped asking.
Crash snuffed, bringing her abruptly back to the present. The reindeer pulled back unexpectedly, contending with the rope around her neck. The lariat tightened and nearly slipped from Sarah's fingers. She dropped the horse's reins and grabbed the rope with both hands, tugging against the stubborn reindeer. That's all she needed, to have Crash bolt and run. This day was already a prime disaster in the making without silly reindeer games.
She snorted at her unintentional pun. Oh, she was funny today. And it was only going to get better from here.
Marcus had come to take away the last vestiges of her life with her late husband, Justin. Mag and Jes, the Percheron team that had once drawn the sleigh taking cheery guests out into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, would now be part of Sheryl Ender's breeding programor something. They hadn't really discussed why Sheryl wanted to purchase the draft horses from her. Last she knew, the older lady and her business partner bred and trained quarter horses for barrel racing. Percherons seemed a far cry from that, but if Sheryl had use for the Percherons and would give a good price for them, who was Sarah to complain?
At least her beloved horses were going to someone she trusted and admired. Tears pricked the corner of her eyes, but she dashed them away with the back of her hand.
No more tears. She was done crying.
The only animals left at the farm after the Percherons departed would be Snort and Crash. She had no idea what she was going to do with a couple of live reindeer. Trying to sell them a week before Christmas was like trying to pawn penny candy at a gourmet chocolate shop. An added stress to an already bleak season.
The sky, which only minutes before had been a pale blue and lined with a few fluffy clouds on the horizon, had now turned a dark, ominous mixture of colors as a storm surged over the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Sarah was familiar with Colorado weather and how abruptly things could change. Some days you could get a tan in the morning and build a snowman by midafternoon. She sensed the change as much as saw it, breathed the feeling of imminent snow in the air, and moments later large white flakes were spitting from the sky.
She glanced back at Marcus. He was following close enough that she could see the half smile on his lips, but his expressive eyes were shadowed by the brim of his hat. He'd appeared every bit as shocked as she was at their unexpected encounter with each other, and she wondered what he thought about it now.