None of the Sheridan family members has visited the gorgeous Angel's View Ranch in the entire thirty months Annie McCade has been the caretaker of the property, and she has no reason to believe this holiday season will be any different. After all, why would they visit? Annie knows Wallace Sheridan, the family patriarch who hired her, loved it here but no one else in the family did. They couldn't face their dark memories of the place. Annie certainly understands their pain--when, as a child, she lived on the ranch, she saw a young and frantic Tate Sheridan come galloping out of the mountains,, looking for help for his severely injured father, who would later die from massive injuries. Since then, with the exception of Wallace, the whole remaining family couldn't get away fast enough.
And actually, Annie is grateful to have the place to herself--her ne'er-do-well brother got himself thrown in jail over the holidays, and she took temporary custody of her little niece and nephew for Christmas. Until Tate shows up and she unexpectedly hits him square in the face with a snowball! She worries that she is about to get fired, but Tate, after confronting the ghosts of his past, realizes he wants Annie to stay. His big family and their entourage are arriving the next day, and he can't manage them--and the big, echoing ranch house--without her.
So Tate has a brilliant idea. He tells her she and the kids can stay, through the holidays at least--if she agrees to pretend to be his long-lost love, to keep his busybody matchmaking grandmother off his back.
Annie is at first outraged by the suggestions and then intrigued. How hard could it be to pretend she and Tate have fallen for each other? He's gorgeous, after all--and some part of her heart had never forgotten their long-ago friendship. The trick, she realizes, will be convincing her heart during the magical holiday season that it's only make believe.
THIS WAS WAR. A RELENTLESS, MERCILESS BATTLE for survival.
Backed into a corner and taking fire from multiple fronts, Annelise McCade launched missiles as fast as she could manage against her enemies. She was outnumbered. They had teamed up to attack her with agile cunning and skill.
At least it was a nice day for battle. The snow the night before hadn’t been particularly substantial but it had still left everything white and sparkly and the massive ranch house behind her was solid and comforting in the December afternoon sunlight.
A projectile hit her square in the face, an icy splat against her skin that had her gasping.
At her instinctive reaction, giggles rang out across the snowy expanse. She barely took time to wipe the cold muck off her cheek. “No fair, aiming for the face,” she called back. “That’s against the rules.”
“It was an accident,” her six-year-old nephew, Henry, admitted. “I didn’t mean to hit your face.”
“You’ll pay for that one.” She scooped up several more balls as fast as she could manage and hurled them across the battlefield at Henry and his twin sister, Alice.
“Do you give up?” she called.
Henry followed up his defiance by throwing a snowball back at her. His aim wasn’t exactly accurate—hence her still-dripping face—but it still hit her shoulder and made her wince.
“Never!” his twin sister, Alice, cried out. She had some difficulty pronouncing her Rs, so her declaration sounded like “Nevoh.”
Alice threw with such force the effort almost made her spin around like a discus thrower in the Olympics.
It was so good to hear them laughing. In the week since they had come to live with her temporarily, Annie had witnessed very little of this childish glee.
Not for the first time, she cursed her brother and the temper he had inherited from their father and grandfather. If not for that temper, compounded by the heavy drinking that had taken over his life since his wife’s death a year ago, Wes would be here with the twins right now, throwing snowballs in the cold sunshine.
Grief for all that these children had lost was like a tiny shard of ice permanently lodged against her heart. But at least they could put their pain aside for a few moments to have fun outside on a snowy December day.
She might not be the perfect temporary guardian but it had been a good idea to make them come outside after homework for a little exercise and fresh air.
She was doing her best, though she was wholly aware that she was only treading water.
For now, this moment, she decided she would focus on gratitude. The children were healthy, they all had a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs and their father should be back home with them in less than a month.
Things could be much, much worse.
“Time out,” Henry gasped out during a lull in the pitched battle. “We gotta make more snowballs.”
“Deal. Five-minute break, starting now.”
Annie pulled her glove off long enough to set the timer on her smartwatch, then ducked behind the large landscape boulder she was using as cover and scooped up several snowballs to add to her stash.
The sun would be going down in another hour and already the temperature had cooled several degrees. The air smelled like impending snow, though she knew only a dusting was forecast, at least until the following weekend.
She didn’t worry. Holly Creek, Wyoming, about an hour south of Jackson Hole in the beautiful Star Valley, almost always had a white Christmas.
Annie’s phone timer went off just as she finished a perfectly formed snowball. “Okay. Time’s up,” she called. Without standing up, she launched a snowball to where she knew the twins would be.
An instant later, she heard a deep grunt that definitely did not sound like Henry or Alice.
Annie winced. Levi Moran, the ranch manager, or his grizzled old ranch hand, Bill Shaw, must have wandered across the battlefield in the middle of a ceasefire without knowing he was about to get blasted.
“Sorry,” she called, rising to her feet. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
She saw a male figure approach, wearing sunglasses. The sun reflecting off the new snow was hitting his face and she couldn’t instantly identify him.
“No doubt,” he said, wiping snow off his face with his sleeve. She frowned. This was definitely not Levi or Bill.
He stepped closer and Annie felt as if an entire avalanche of snow had just crumbled away from the mountain and buried her.
She knew this man, though it had been nearly two decades since Annie had seen him in person.
It couldn’t be anyone else.
Dark hair, lean, gorgeous features. Beneath those sunglasses, she knew she would find blue eyes the color of Bear Lake in summertime.
The unsuspecting man she had just pummeled with a completely unprovoked snowball attack had to be Tate Sheridan.
Her de facto boss.
The twins had fallen uncharacteristically silent, wary of a tall, unsmiling stranger. Henry, she saw, had moved closer to his twin sister and slipped his hand in hers.
Annie’s mind whirled trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
Tate Sheridan. Here. After all this time.
She shouldn’t be completely shocked, she supposed. It was his family’s house, after all. For many years when her father was the ranch manager, the Sheridans had trekked here annually from the Bay Area several times a year for the Christmas season, as well as most summers.
His younger sister had been her very best friend in the world, until tragedy and pain and life circumstances had separated them.
She had wondered when she agreed to take the job if she would see Tate again. She hadn’t truly expected to. She had worked here for nearly a year and he hadn’t once come to his grandfather’s Wyoming vacation ranch.
How humiliating, that he would show up when she was in the middle of a snowball fight with her niece and nephew— who had no business being there in the first place!
“What are you doing here?” she burst out, then winced. She wanted to drag the words back. It was his family’s property. He had every right to be there.
“I might ask the same of you. Along with a few more obvious questions, I suppose. Who are you and why are you having a snowball fight in the middle of my property?”
“You don’t know who I am?”
Of course he wouldn’t, she realized. And while she thought of him often, especially over the past year while living at Angel’s View once more, he probably had not given her a moment’s thought.
It was stupid to feel a little hurt. “
Annelise McCade. My dad was Scott McCade.”
He lifted his sunglasses, giving her an intense look. A moment later, she saw recognition flood his features.
“Little Annie McCade. Wow. You’re still here, after all this time?”
She frowned. He didn’t have to make it sound like she was a lump of mold growing in the back of the refrigerator. She had lived a full life in the nearly two decades since she had seen Tate in person.
She had moved away to California with her mother, struggling through the painful transition of being a new girl in a new school. She had graduated from college and found success in her chosen field. She had even been planning marriage a year ago, to a man she hardly even thought about anymore.
“Not really still here as much as here again. I’ve been away for a long time but returned a year ago. Wallace…your grandfather hired me to be the caretaker of Angel’s View.”
She saw pain darken his expression momentarily, a pain she certainly shared. Even after two months, she still expected her phone to ring and Wallace Sheridan to be on the other end of the line, calling for an update on the ranch he loved.
The rest of the world had lost a compelling business figure with a brilliant mind and a keen insight into human nature.
Annie had lost a friend.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said softly.
“Thank you.” His voice was gruff and he looked away, his gaze landing on the twins, who were watching their interaction with unusual solemnity.
“Are these yours?” He gestured to the children and Annie was aware of a complex mix of emotions, both protectiveness and guilt.
The children shouldn’t be here. She had never asked permission from anyone in the Sheridan family to have the twins move into the caretaker’s apartment with her.
She deeply regretted the omission now. While it was a feeble defense, she hadn’t really known whom to ask. No one in the Sheridan organization seemed to be paying the slightest attention to any of the goings-on at a horse ranch in western Wyoming that represented only a small portion of the vast family empire.
Annie knew she was in the wrong here. No matter what uproar might have been happening during Wallace’s illness and subsequent death, she should have applied to someone for permission to bring the twins to live with her here.
Instead, she had simply assumed it shouldn’t be a problem since it was only a temporary situation and the children would be back with their father after the first of the year with no one in the family knowing they had been here at all.
“Not mine. They are my niece and nephew. Wes’s children.”
Tate and Wes were similar in age, she remembered, and had been friends once upon a time, just as Annelise had been close to Tate’s younger sister Brianna. The McCades lived on the ranch year-round while the Sheridan children only visited a few times a year, but somehow they had all managed to have a warm, close bond and could always pick up where they left off when the Sheridans came back to the ranch.
She could only hope Tate would remember that bond and forgive her for overstepping and bringing the children here.
“Henry and Alice are staying with me for a few weeks because of a…family situation.”
“Our mommy died last year and our daddy is in the slammer,” Henry announced.
Annie winced, not quite sure where he had picked up that particular term. Not from her, certainly. She wouldn’t have used those words so bluntly but couldn’t deny they were accurate.
Tate looked nonplussed at the information. “Is that right?”
“It’s only temporary,” she told him quickly. “Wes had a little run-in with the law and was sentenced to serve thirty days in the county jail. The children are staying with me in the caretaker’s apartment through the holidays. I hope that’s okay.”
Tate didn’t seem to know how to respond. She had the impression it was very much not okay with him.
“We can talk about it later.”
Annie frowned, anxiety and nerves sending icy fingers down her spine. She didn’t like the sound of that.
What would she do if he told her she had to find somewhere else for the children to spend Christmas? She would have to quit. She didn’t want do that as she enjoyed working here. But what other choice would she have?
“Why don’t we, um, go inside,” she suggested. “We can talk more there.”
“We won, right?” Alice pressed. “We hit you like six times and you only hit us twice each.”
Her priority right now wasn’t really deciding who won a snowball fight. But then, she was not six years old. “You absolutely won.”
“Yay! That means we each get two cookies instead of only one!”
Annie had always planned to give them two cookies each, anyway. She was a sucker for these two. The twins knew this and took full advantage.
“Kids, why don’t you go change out of your snow stuff and hang out in your room for a few moments,” she said when they were inside the mudroom. “I’ll be there soon to get your cookies.”
The twins looked reluctant but they went straight to her apartment through her own private entrance, leaving her alone with Tate.
Excerpted from Sleigh Bells Ring by RaeAnne Thayne. Copyright © 2021 by RaeAnne Thayne LLC. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
is the #1 Publishers Weekly, New York Times, and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than sixty books. Her books have been described as "poignant and sweet," with "beautiful, honest storytelling that goes straight to the heart." She finds inspiration from the beautiful northern Utah mountains, where she lives with her family.