Friday, December 1, 2023

Christmas With a Cowboy Tour and Giveaway

 


The holiday spirit has wrapped up a cowboy just for her, but romance isn't in her plans.


Christmas With a Cowboy

Cowboys of Burton Springs Book 7

by Pam Mantovani

Genre: Holiday Romance

 

She’s all wrapped up in him . . .

Avery McClain is looking forward to her first Christmas in Montana with her little girl. But as soon as she arrives, she’s caught in an unexpected tug of war between two ranchers wanting to buy the land left to her by her favorite uncle. All she wants to do is make the holiday special for daughter. But instead, she’s overwhelmed with attempts to pressure her into selling. And she’s uncomfortably attracted to one of the men competing for her property.

Judson Ford wants Avery McClain’s land to expand his horse breeding operation. He didn’t anticipate his attraction to her, or his admiration for her courage. And her little girl is so damn cute! Before he knows it, he’s been swept up in her Christmas spirit. Suddenly, Avery and her daughter are filling all the empty spaces in his life.

But then, Avery is offered a job opportunity that would mean she’d have to relocate. And Judson realizes that everything in him is pushing him to ask her to stay and make a life—a family—with him.

Unfortunately, someone else has other ideas.


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Chapter One

AVERY MCCLAIN didn’t cry when she signed the divorce papers. Tears, along with regrets, had disappeared as she’d fought her now ex-husband for what she wanted . . .what was rightfully hers.

Since he was a prominent attorney from a long line of prominent attorneys, it had not been an easy battle. Still, despite all his slick tactics, all his demands, all his legal maneuvers, she’d refused to bend.

When something mattered, when it was important, she fought to keep what had been given to her and her alone.

Timothy had argued harder and longer for the ownership of the cabin in Montana—the cabin she’d inherited from her uncle—than he did over signing away any and all claim to their daughter.

Walking out of the attorney’s office, she smiled for the first time in months. A dark limo waited at the curb. The driver nodded as he opened the door, offering a hand to assist her inside the luxurious interior.

“You didn’t have to do this.”

“Of course, I did.” Londyn Fitzgerald, her college roommate, wildly popular fantasy author, and Avery’s only constant friend, waved a hand. “What’s the point of being famous—and very, very rich—if I can’t do something for my best friend?”

“He never even asked about her.”

Londyn blew out a long breath as the driver pulled into traffic. “He never deserved sweet Brenna,” she said, naming Avery’s three-year-old daughter. “Or you.”

“Well, now he doesn’t have either one of us.” She turned to peer through the smoke-tinted window. “I’m going to Montana.”

“What? Why?”

“It’ll be good for me and Brenna to have a fresh start.”

“Come to New York.”

“I love you for offering, but I feel like I owe it to Uncle Alex to use his cabin.” She looked at Londyn. “Maybe I’m just being stubborn. Maybe I’m going simply because Timothy fought so hard to take it from me.”

“Can’t you just picture him, sitting there in one of his three-piece suits, in a hunting cabin?” Both women chuckled. “I’m sorry, Av,” she said. “But what the hell did you ever see in him?”

“I was lonely. He saw that and used it for his own purposes.” She frowned. “I won’t let something like that happen again,” she promised.

“And you think Montana is the place to start again?”

She shrugged. “I won’t know if I don’t go.” A store sign caught her eye, and she pointed at it.

“The Christmas sales start earlier and earlier,” Londyn commented.

“In Montana I can give Brenna a traditional Christmas with a real tree, snow, and the magic of Santa. And maybe it’ll restore my faith in joy and goodness.”

“Christmas shopping in New York could do that.”

Avery laughed, wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulder. “I’ll call you every week,” she promised.

It took time. She packed up and shipped out the few items she wanted to keep, along with giving her new contractor time to complete necessary renovations to the cabin before they moved in. Londyn, as only an understanding and the best of friends would do, postponed returning to New York and completing the final installment of her fantasy series to provide moral support. The day Avery dropped off Londyn at the airport, she and Brenna began their cross-country trip.

She took her time driving. After all, a three-year-old could only stand sitting in a car seat for so long. She constantly talked to Brenna, warding off fatigue or restlessness until they stopped, either to run off energy or take in sights along the way.

They stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast in Tennessee, then toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Brenna squealed with delight while Avery got nauseous at the top of the Arch in St. Louis. Londyn laughed when Avery told her about the experience later that night during their weekly phone call. When road construction got in the way, she changed routes. Crossing into Montana, beneath an eye-searing blue sky where she spotted her first eagle, the vast landscape ranged from rugged mountains, already topped with snow, to dense evergreen forests and more lakes than she’d imagined.

Impatient to get to her new home, she skipped a drive through Yellowstone. “We’ll come back,” she promised Brenna, who played with the stuffed moose she’d become infatuated with at a truck stop.

She took time to stop in the town of Burton Springs and pick up some basic groceries before heading to the cabin. People nodded in that friendly smalltown way she’d come across once or twice during her travels. This time, however, it felt different. These would be her neighbors. Still, she rushed through her purchases and headed out, following the directions.

At the end of a long gravel road, she braked to a stop, shut down the engine and stared through the windshield, taking it all in. A hundred yards away was the cabin that held warm memories of an uncle who had welcomed her in the summers, given her the attention and love she’d so rarely known from her parents.

“Mama,” Brenna cried from the back seat. “Out.”

“Home,” she corrected her daughter. “We’re home.”

“YOUR UNCLE WAS a heck of an outdoorsman, but a lousy housekeeper,” Harley Barker said as he signed his name to the final document.

She’d arrived in Burton Springs two days ago and was now taking care of official business. Harley Barker, her uncle’s attorney, was the first stop. “Whenever I visited Uncle Alex, I always felt like I was going on a treasure hunt,” Avery recalled, thankful that the happy memories were starting to replace her guilt for having neglected him for so long. “I would find a bird’s nest, an old arrowhead, a collection of elk antlers, a turtle shell he used as a bowl to hold rocks and nuts, and, once, a bear claw.”

“The place is cleaned and updated for you now.”

“I appreciate you taking care of everything,” she said. The attorney had been helpful in so many ways since he’d informed her of her uncle’s passing fourteen months earlier.

“I’m obliged to tell you I’ve been approached by someone to inquire if you might be interested in selling your property.”

“No, I’m not.”

“A hundred acres of land is a big responsibility for a young woman.”

She smiled slightly. “You mean a young woman who’s lived her entire life in a city in Georgia?”

He paused, glancing at the corner where Brenna talked toddler gibberish to a collection of stuffed animals. “I mean a single mother with a young daughter.”

The reminder that she, and she alone, was responsible for her daughter’s welfare could have depressed her if it hadn’t been true since the day Brenna was born. Her ex-husband hadn’t attempted to hide his disappointment at being told he had a daughter instead of a son. His loss, she thought now as she watched Brenna put the stuffed animals in a basket, then laugh when she tipped it over so they spilled out. His very great loss.

“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Barker.”

“Harley,” he reminded her. “It’s a generous offer, one that could give you and your daughter a comfortable life.”

“You know how hard I had to fight to keep this property.” He nodded. “I have fond memories of the summers I spent here with Uncle Alex. I’m not going to dishonor his legacy by selling it off before the ink is dry on the deed.”

“Do you have any idea what you’re going to do with the land?”

“No, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ll stay in Montana beyond Christmas.” She pointed at the wall calendar a month shy of turning the page to November. “But I am looking forward to spending the holidays here.”

“The town does it up right. There’ll be plenty for you to do and see.”

“I look forward to it.”

Harley stood and offered his hand. “If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

AVERY WAS USED to the stares. Although she had arrived seven weeks earlier, people in this small and close-knit community still looked at her as if she was a stranger rather than their newest neighbor. The bulk of those seven weeks she’d spent in the cabin, setting up house, acclimating herself and Brenna to their new surroundings. She’d had work deadlines to meet—she was just starting out as a graphic designer and knew that she had a reputation to keep up—and, she smiled a little, she’d also spent considerable time shopping for winter wardrobes.

Today, however, the stares were for a little girl who was fussy and tired. Avery knew she was blessed with a child who willingly went down for naps. The problem today was, with Thanksgiving two days away–she’d spotted some businesses already starting on their Christmas decorations—Avery had needed to run errands. And they’d taken longer than she’d anticipated. She wouldn’t be preparing a traditional feast, or contacting a caterer to serve it for her ex-husband’s family and associates, but she did want to make the day as special for her and Brenna as she could.

She glanced down into her cart. Most of the other shoppers had full ones, with the traditional turkey, stuffing, and other assorted items for big family gatherings. Tossed in with their discarded coats, her cart held a box of Breanna’s preferred macaroni and cheese and a frozen lasagna for herself. Along with a nice bottle of wine.

“Brenna . . .” Avery rubbed a thumb on her daughter’s palm, a gesture that, since birth, always calmed her. Her eyes, green like her father’s, were heavy with fatigue and her full bottom lip, inherited from her mother, trembled against the urge to cry. “Okay, sweetie, we’re going.” It would mean a trip back to the store tomorrow, when it was likely to be a madhouse, but she would manage.

“Uh, oh. Looks like someone missed their nap.”

Avery watched as a man leaned down to smile at Brenna. “I know just how you feel, sweetheart. I get cranky myself if I don’t get enough sleep.”

Maybe it was a small town, but Avery didn’t like the idea of a stranger being so close to her daughter. She unhooked the safety strap and lifted Brenna out of the seat . . .then gasped in surprise when Brenna flung herself into the man’s arms.

“I’m sorry,” Avery said, reaching for Brenna.

“No problem. Well,” he said, smiling as he leaned back when Brenna reached out for the brim of his caramel-colored cowboy hat. “Maybe one. Sorry sweetheart, but no woman, no matter how cute, gets her hands on my hat.” He removed it and tossed it into Avery’s cart.

“She doesn’t usually go to strangers,” Avery said, nervously.

“Then let me introduce myself. I’m Judson, Judson Ford. I own the New Horizon Ranch.”

“’Udson.” Brenna said, earning a chuckle from him.

He pointed a finger at Avery. “And who’s this lovely lady?”

“Mama.”

Maybe because this man held her precious daughter so carefully, charming her by making funny faces and earning delighted giggles, Avery couldn’t dismiss him outright, as she’d easily been able to do with every man who’d crossed her path in the past year. Still, she wouldn’t let down her guard either.

Then, over her daughter’s head, his eyes locked with hers. She felt a shock, an intense streak of fire, race down her spine. She had no idea what had caused it, had no idea why she’d felt it. All she knew was it wasn’t entirely sexual in nature.

“I was sorry to hear about Alex Mitchell’s death.”

“Did you know him?”

“Our paths crossed from time to time, since his property borders mine.” He paused. “Since it’s yours now, that makes us neighbors.”

“I’ll keep that in mind in case I need a cup of sugar.”

“That and a few other basics are about all I have in my kitchen.”

Avery glanced down at her cart. “Maybe I should pick up some sugar to have on hand.” She smiled at Brenna. “And for when I make Christmas c-o-o-k-i-e-s.”

“That doesn’t look like much of a Thanksgiving feast.”

Heat rose on her cheeks. “Brenna’s too young to have turkey, and it hardly seemed worth the effort to cook for one,” Avery said.

“Can’t blame you there.”

Avery watched Judson’s gaze move over her shoulder and warmth softened the dark color of his eyes.

“Audra,” he said, pleasure evident in his voice.

Avery turned, surprised to find a woman pushing a cart. Inside it were two young boys, and another holding onto the cart handle. All three children were currently entertained with toy cars and action figures.

“Hello, Judson. I’m surprised to find you here.”

“Audra Montgomery, this is Avery McClain. She’s the new owner of the property next to mind.”

“Oh, you’re Alex Mitchell’s niece. I didn’t know him, but I’ve heard good things about him. Welcome to Burton Springs.” Her features softened as she studied Brenna, who now had her head lowered to Judson’s shoulder. “What a beautiful little girl you have.” She sighed and stroked a hand over the small bump of her belly before reaching over to snag the car her three boys fought over. It took only a single look to stop the arguing. “I’ll be outnumbered five to one come July.”

“Carter’s a lucky man,” Judson said.

“No,” Audra corrected him, smiling at her three boys. “I’m the lucky one.”

“Audra and Carter got engaged on Thanksgiving,” Judson said. “Since then, it’s become a tradition for them to open their house to whoever wants to come.”

“Please join us,” Audra said. She nodded at Judson, a gesture of acceptance of what he’d been suggesting. “If you don’t, I’ll worry all day about you being alone.”

“That’s very kind of you, and I appreciate the invitation. Really. But Brenna and I will be fine.” She hesitated. “We’re used to being alone. And, as you can see, she likes her nap time.”

“You talk funny.”

“Bradley,” Audra gasped with embarrassment.

“Well, she does. I didn’t say she sounds bad.” The boy standing at the handle hunched his shoulders. “It’s kind of like music.”

Avery leaned forward and tapped a fingertip to his nose, when what she really wanted to do was sweep him into her arms. “That, kind sir, is just about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Hey,” Judson protested. “Are you trying to steal away my reputation as the most eligible man in town?”

“No, sir. You’re not ‘pose to steal. Aunt Kendall will arrest you if you do.”

“My sister-in-law,” Audra said with a chuckle. “Is a deputy sheriff.”

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just jealous because you’re so sweet,” Avery said, grinning when the two other brothers made kissing noises. She straightened, looked at Audra, then gave in. If she wanted to become part of the community, she needed to participate. “What can I bring?”

“Nothing this year. It’s your first time, and we always have plenty.”

“Enough for me to take home a leftover dish?” Judson asked.

“Or two,” Audra agreed. She brushed a hand over Bradley’s hair.

“Really, I can’t come empty-handed.”

“A bottle of wine?” She looked at the boys. “Maybe something special for the kids?”

The boys piped up with their favorites and Audra gave Avery her address before she led the boys away to complete their shopping.

“I’ll take her now,” Avery said to Judson, holding out her arms, only to realize Brenna had fallen asleep.

“You don’t want to wake her when she just fell asleep, do you?”

“And you want to hold her?”

“It’s called being a good neighbor.”

Avery gave in and selected two additional bottles of wine, along with a bouquet of flowers for Audra, before picking out the drinks the boys had mentioned. Standing behind her as she paid for her purchases, Judson Ford kept up a conversation with the clerk, who bounced curious glances between him and Avery. When her transaction was complete, and her bags stored in the cart, she turned to Judson.

“I’ve got her.”

“But it’s cold outside,” Avery protested, holding up Brenna’s coat.

“I’ll keep her warm.”

Rather than make a scene in the front of the store, Avery said nothing and turned to push the cart toward her vehicle.

“This time next year, you won’t even need a coat,” Judson said beside her. She looked over to find him studying her.

“It’s a long way from Georgia. Or is it Alabama? Tennessee, maybe? C’mon,” he said when Avery looked at him. “Even before Bradley said anything, you knew we could all hear the magnolias in your voice. Or is it peaches?”

“Peaches,” she confirmed as her lips twitched. “Atlanta to be specific.” Using her key fob, she opened the rear hatch of her SUV and unlocked the doors before turning to him. She had the added feature of the engine starting, and therefore the heater going as well. “I’ll get her strapped in the car seat if you don’t mind putting the bags in the back.”

She had a hand slipped between Brenna’s body and his chest when she froze. It was, she realized, the first time she’d had to make this kind of transfer. Brenna’s father had never held his daughter, not even as an infant.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded, completing the transfer. But she held Brenna close a moment, before moving to place her in the car seat. It was nice to have an extra pair of hands, someone to take care of the groceries while she settled Brenna. “Thank you,” she said sincerely when he came to her door.

“What time should I pick you up on Thanksgiving?”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather drive myself,” she said, clicking her seatbelt in place. “I need to do some work that morning, and if I have my own car, I can leave if Brenna gets cranky.”

He stepped back. “Okay. See you then.”

Hours later, after dinner, bath, and cuddle time with Brenna before she fell asleep, Avery poured a glass of wine and thought back over the day. A part of her questioned how she’d allowed herself to be railroaded into spending Thanksgiving Day with strangers but another part of her had been warmed by the invitation. Besides, how could she deny the sweetness of having a small boy tell her that she sounded like music when she talked?

There’d been little sweet about Judson Ford. Oh, he’d been charming, but there’d also been a sharpness and intensity beneath that public layer. It reminded her, painfully, of why she was in Montana. She recalled Thomas’ pursuit of her back when they’d been dating. At the time, it had been flattering to be the center of his attention.

Then again, Judson had made no effort to change her mind when she insisted on driving to the Montgomery ranch on Thanksgiving.

She roamed the central room, with an unobstructed view of the eating area and kitchen. The master bedroom and bath were on the other side of the cabin, with two remaining bedrooms, split by a bathroom, lining the rear of the house. A wide deck, now covered in a foot of snow, extended the front length of the house and would be a great place to sit outside in warmer months. Maybe she’d speak to Jessica Thorne, the woman who’d handled the renovations, about building a swing set for Brenna. And a rocker for herself.

It was a far different, more updated version of the house she’d stayed in while visiting her uncle. But the house had just been somewhere to be when they couldn’t be outdoors. She’d had a different freedom here than at home. There had been so much to explore and discover. Uncle Alex had shown limitless patience as he taught her about the environment and respect for the wildlife.

He'd laughed with delight when she’d caught her first fish, had beamed with satisfaction when he taught her how to select and cut a thick branch to make into a hiking stick. She recalled the two of them sitting on the back porch, juice running down their chins from the first freshly picked tomato they’d grown together. He’d never been too busy to answer questions or explain something to her. He’d given her the attention her own parents had been too interested in their careers to offer.

She vowed Brenna would never doubt her mother’s love.

Taking her wine with her, she went into the bedroom she’d set up as an office. She’d take her mind off disappointments, heartache, and the surprising attraction to Judson Ford by concentrating on work. If she succeeded in winning the graphic design contract for a national cookie company, it could make all the difference in the world for her and Brenna. Not only would it give her more financial security, but it would ensure she could keep working from home and always be available for Brenna.

Whether home ended up being here or somewhere else was a question to be answered later.


Chapter Two

“YOU’RE WORKING?” Avery wedged the phone between her chin and shoulder so she could pour coffee. She’d stayed up later finishing a project last night than she’d planned. Thankfully, Brenna was content playing with a doll at the moment. “Oh, Londyn. I hate knowing you’re alone.”

“No one is ever alone in New York. There are plenty of places I can go if I want. But, honestly, I’m fine by myself. I’m on a roll, and I really need to finish this last book.”

“Last book? Then, you’ve decided for sure to end the series?”

“It’s time, Avery. I . . .”

She set down her untasted coffee at the uncharacteristic hesitation in her friend’s voice. “Londyn? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” The hurried reply didn’t ease Avery’s mind. “I’m just a little distracted with this last scene I wrote. It’s not developing the way I imagined.”

“Maybe you need a break. Why don’t you come out here? You said the book isn’t due until February. You could spend some time with me and Brenna. Stay for Christmas. It snowed, again last night.”

“It snowed in New York, too.”

“I bet my snow’s prettier.”

Her grin at Londyn’s laugh faded as she glanced out the window. The pretty snow she’d mentioned completely covered the path from her house to the main road.

“I bet it is,” Londyn said. “What I really want to know is . . .are the cowboys as rugged and good-looking as they are in books and movies?” This time, the hesitation was all Avery’s. “Oh,” Londyn cooed. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“I met my neighbor, Judson Ford. Brenna took a liking to him right away.” She turned her back on her daughter. “Londyn, she hasn’t once asked about Timothy.”

“That’s no surprise. She can’t miss someone she’s never known. She’s got you, and you and I know that’s more than either of us had. Now, tell me about this Judson.”

“He’s bald, twenty pounds overweight, chews tobacco, and is bow-legged from riding horses all day.”

“He must have made an impression on someone other than Brenna if you’re avoiding telling me about him.”

“I’ll let you know after today. I’m going to another ranch for Thanksgiving. Wish me luck.”

“Oh honey, you’ve already got all the luck you need. Say hello to your cowboy for me.”

Avery laughed and ended the call. If Londyn only knew . . .

A couple of hours later, as she settled Brenna down for an early nap, Avery heard a muffled engine. Taking her phone with her, she stepped onto the wide deck that fronted the house, surprised to see a tractor coming up her path, clearing snow.

With a gloved hand raised in greeting, the man driving the tractor continued working until he reached the edge of the deck and cut the engine. He looked to be early to mid-forties with the rugged good looks that Londyn had mentioned.

“Hello. Happy Thanksgiving.” He flicked a finger at the brim of his hat. “I’m Daniel Gaines. My ranch, The Golden G, borders your property on the west side. I figured since you’re new here, you wouldn’t have a plow to clear your road.”

“That’s very nice of you, Mr. Gaines. I’m Avery McClain.”

He nodded. “I heard you and your little girl came from Georgia.” Now she nodded. “I’ve got a girl of my own.” He chuckled. “She’s sixteen and thinks she knows everything about everything.”

“I remember thinking the same at that age.”

“I tell myself that’s the kind of attitude that will help get her what she wants when she’s older. Plenty of people around her will tell you she inherited her stubbornness from me.”

“I’m sure you and your wife are proud of her.”

“Sadly, my wife’s been gone for nearly eight years now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t know.” He reached to turn on the engine, then paused. “My cook is known for her Thanksgiving feasts. I apologize for the last minute invitation, but you and your girl are welcome to join us.”

“Thank you, but we already have plans. But I appreciate the offer.”

His gaze narrowed, and Avery would have sworn she saw a lighting quick flash of temper before his features relaxed. “I’m glad to hear you won’t be alone. I’ll have to make sure I don’t wait so late to invite you the next time.”

“I’m really grateful to you for clearing the driveway for me. Uhm, if you’ll tell me what you charge, I’ll be happy to pay you.”

“Nonsense. I killed two birds by coming out here and introducing myself while giving you a little help. That’s what neighbors are for, right? You just be careful when you drive. Sometimes, there’s ice under the snow.”

Hours later, she took his advice to heart, slowly creeping along the cleared path. “There’s no rush, right?” she asked Brenna, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“White, Mama.”

“It sure is, baby.”

Even when she reached the main road, she continued to drive carefully, following Audra’s directions. “Okay,” she said, taking a long breath as she parked alongside the other cars and trucks in front of a large two-story home. A wreath hung on the dark blue front door and she spotted Christmas lights already rimming the windows and porch railings. The door opened just as she lifted Brenna from her car seat. In a flannel shirt and jeans, Judson came down the steps.

“’Udson.” Brenna held out her arms for him to take her.

“Hey, cutie.” With an ease that had nothing to do with strength, he scooped Brenna high above his head, making her laugh. “I was just heading over to see if you needed a ride.” He settled Brenna at his hip, then looked at Avery. “I wasn’t sure if you’d had your road cleared or not.”

“Daniel Gaines came by this morning and took care of it for me. I offered to pay him, but he insisted he just wanted to help me out.”

“I bet he did.”

Avery shut the car door after she grabbed the bag of wine and the flowers. “Is there a problem?”

“Be careful around Daniel, Avery. He’s not what he seems.”

“He was perfectly polite. He even invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at his ranch.”

Judson opened his mouth as if to comment, then closed it without saying anything.

She looked at him. “Why do I have the feeling there’s more going on here than you being beat to the punch about clearing my driveway?”

“Daniel has a reputation for getting what he wants, using whatever means is necessary.” Judson adjusted Brenna on his hip. “He wants your land.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There’s a large stream on your property.”

“Yes, I know. Uncle Alex taught me to fish there.”

“It’d be a good water source for Gaines’s cattle, and the land would provide more pasture space.”

“Harley did tell me he’d had a generous offer for the land.”

“And?”

“I told him I could hardly think about selling when the ink on the deed wasn’t even dry.”

“And now that it has dried?”

“I’m not making any decisions until after the first of the year.” She stroked a fingertip over Brenna’s cheek. “I want to give her the kind of Christmas I never had.”

“Then we should go inside,” Judson suggested. “Can’t get to Christmas without having Thanksgiving first.” He held out his hand. “Call me if you ever need help, okay?”

Avery couldn’t explain why her mouth suddenly went dry. Or why she couldn’t seem to look away. She nodded.

“Cold, Mama.”

“You’re right, cutie,” Judson said. “Let’s get inside where it’s warm. Besides—” He rubbed his nose against hers, eliciting a giggle. “That’s where the food is.”

Seeing its comfortable furnishings, and a clutter that clearly showed children lived here, Avery realized this was a home meant to be enjoyed and not simply admired. Already, a Christmas tree, strung with brightly colored lights but missing ornaments, stood in one corner. Children of assorted ages and genders ran around, chasing one another or playing together with the toys overflowing out of a wooden crate. Two girls, young teenagers, sat together, whispering and giggling. Avery watched her daughter walk over and immediately pick up a plastic horse.

Perhaps her attitude was skewed by past experiences during her marriage, but she had expected everyone to be polite but restrained. Instead, she found herself welcomed as if she was an old friend rather than a new resident. They asked questions of course, wanting to hear about her life and work in Atlanta. Several mentioned having known her uncle. There was the predicable division of women in the kitchen while the men kept an eye on the children. Avery was told, in no uncertain terms, that since this was her first Thanksgiving in Burton Springs, she was excused from any kitchen duty. Although, from what she could tell, Audra Montgomery had everything under control.

“You look like you could use this.” Avery accepted the glass of white wine offered by a stunning woman in a snug blue dress. “And standing here with you keeps me from being expected to do anything domestic.”

“Glad I could help.”

“Rhonda,” Audra admonished. “Be nice.”

“I’m always nice,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. “Until it’s more fun to be wicked.”

Rhonda eyed her over the rim of her glass before her gaze slid to the side. Unable to resist, Avery looked . . .and felt her heart swell at the sight of Judson sitting cross-legged on the floor, Brenna cuddled on his lap while helping him play a card game with Audra’s two youngest sons.

“You and your girl have excellent taste,” Rhonda softly commented.

“She was taken with him from the start. He’s so patient with her. I’m surprised he’s not married with a family of his own.”

It didn’t surprise Avery that, even with all the noise coming from the other room, the sudden silence in the kitchen was like a roar.

“Okay, I’ve answered your questions about my divorce and why I moved here.” With an openness she’d rarely offered, she added, “I don’t let just anyone around my daughter, so tell me what you’re trying not to say.”

“Judson’s a widower,” answered Kathy Davis, a mother of two, who owned the feed store with her husband and had recently started a new business with Jessica Thorne, the contractor Avery had used to help fix up the cabin. “His wife was a marathon runner, training for the Olympics. She was out for a run when she was hit by a car.”

Avery pressed a hand to her stomach. “That’s awful.”

“That’s when Judson came back here and started his ranch.” Kathy paused in her peeling of carrots. “Every one of us trusts him with our children. He’d never do anything to hurt your daughter.”

It didn’t surprised Avery that she and Judson ended up seated next to one another. The fact that the table was designed for ten but now sat fourteen, meant their arms and thighs brushed with each move. She quickly gave up trying to make space between them. After Carter offered some short, but lovely words about being thankful for family and friends, lively conversation competed with requests for the overflowing platters and bowls to be passed.

“You don’t want pie?” Audra asked as three different choices were passed around the table.

“I’m not much for sweets, but I’d love some coffee.”

“I’m not sure,” said Kendall Montgomery, Audra’s sister-in-law and a deputy sheriff. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like sweets.”

“I’ll take her slice,” Judson offered and, under the table, pressed his thigh against hers. “I’m practicing for Christmas cookies.”

“I heard the mayor’s setting up a cookie decorating contest this year,” Audra said. “Are you going to do the wagon rides around town again, Judson?”

“You don’t think the mayor would let me get out of that, do you?”

“Wagon rides?” Avery asked.

“Yes, Judson gives horse-drawn rides every weekend during the holidays, starting this Saturday.”

Avery tried to keep track of the conversation as everyone informed her of the town Christmas activities. Only the image of Judson driving a horse-drawn wagon kept running through her mind. She could easily picture him, his hat and coat covered in a dusting of snow, his profile lit from the lights hung around town, with people in the back singing along with the Christmas carols someone mentioned he played during the ride.

Thinking of how much she and Brenna would enjoy the ride, she glanced over at her daughter. Brenna’s eyes were drooping.

“Looks like I need to get someone home,” she said, picking up her cup to carry into the kitchen.

“No, Mama. Play, ‘Udson.”

“Didn’t I hear you ask Audra about a tour of her studio?” he asked. “I’ll keep an eye on her if you want to go out and take a look.”

Given the way every woman in the room looked from him to her, Avery knew they’d be the topic of gossip the next day.

“I have a few Christmas ornaments left from Founders Day,” Audra said. “You mentioned you needed some for your tree.”

“I bought a half dozen,” said Gabriella Ferguson, the town doctor.

There was no way out of it. Nodding to Judson, she followed Audra out of the room.

An hour later, Avery returned to the house with four ornaments for her tree, one to send to Londyn, a candle holder that held a six-inch-wide pillar and a cherry red bowl for her kitchen table. She found her daughter sound asleep in Judson’s arms.

“I tried to keep her awake,” he said. “But she just gave out on me.”

“It’s what she does.”

“Can she teach ours?” asked Sydney Evans, referring to her five-month-old twin girls.

Judson stood. “I’ll carry her out for you.”

Audra draped a blanket over Brenna while Avery used her car fob to start the engine before she got her coat and said her good-byes. With the leftovers Audra insisted she take home stored in the trunk, and the back door closed, she turned . . .and bumped into Judson.

“Oh, sorry.”

“No problem.”

For one frantic heartbeat, as he leaned toward her, she thought he might kiss her. Whether or not she wanted him to became a moot point when he opened her door and stepped back.

“I’ll follow you home.”

“Oh, you don’t—”

“You’re not used to driving in this weather. Especially in the dark. I just want to make sure you don’t run into any trouble.” With a hand curled around her elbow, he guided her into the car, shut the door, then walked over to his truck.

She kept an eye on his headlights behind her all the way home. At the house, he left his truck running as he carried Brenna to the back door while Avery unlocked and stored her bags inside.

“Thank you,” she whispered when he handed her the sleeping baby. “Drive careful.”

“Happy Thanksgiving, Avery.”

She stood in the back foyer, watching him through the window as he navigated his truck through the snow and drove away.

“He’s a nice man,” she whispered to Brenna as she carried her daughter into her bedroom. “Why does that make me nervous?”

JUDSON RAN A gentle hand over the muscular flank. “Oh, yeah, you like that don’t you?” he said, his voice soft. His hands continued to stroke, enjoying the softness as much as the strength.

“How about a ride, girl?” He moved his hand to the horse’s nose and rubbed. “Feel like getting some fresh air, Nelly?” He moved over to scratch the neck of the German Shepherd he’d had since he started the ranch. “What do you say, Ginger? Want to have a run?”

“It’s not speed or air you’re after.”

Judson didn’t bother to look over his shoulder. He’d caught the odor that clung to his father’s clothes before he’d spoken. Hodge Ford reeked of the two packs of cigarettes he smoked a day—the two packs a day he’d smoked for more than fifty years. Father and son had had a helluva argument over Judson’s demand that Hodge not smoke in any of the buildings on the ranch. It was simply the latest of the many arguments father and son had fought over the years. While he’d been living in Chicago after college, Judson hadn’t been able to prevent the housefire that had killed his mother. The fire that started because his father had dropped an unnoticed burning cigarette onto the throw rug under his recliner before heading out to his truck for a drive into town for supplies. It hadn’t been intentional, but Judson wasn’t going to take a chance of anything like that happening again.

Of course, accidents happened no matter what you did to prevent them. His wife hadn’t planned on getting hit by a car during that last run after he’d stormed out of their apartment.

“Have you asked our new neighbor about selling you some of her land yet?” Hodge asked. “By the way, what do you want that land for anyway? Seems to me you’ve got plenty of it here.”

Judson welcomed the talk of a potential for the future rather than the devastating losses of the past. Including the one he’d never told anyone about. “Jacob Reece over at the Double R asked me if I’d be interested in breeding with his thoroughbreds. If I do that, I’ll need more pasture land.”

“Don’t see what’s wrong with the horses you’ve got.”

Ignoring his comment, Judson added, “The new owner fixed up the cabin. It could give you a better place to live than that shack at the back of the barn.” He stood, spreading the saddle blanket over Nelly’s back.

“Trying to get rid of me?”

“If I was, you wouldn’t be working here.”

That was another sore spot. Judson had built a ranch far and away better than anything his father had managed to scrape together. Shouldn’t a father be proud of what his son had accomplished? Shouldn’t a son want to help his father out of love rather than obligation? Too often it felt like the answer to both questions was no.

“I hear the new owner’s a woman.”

“Alex Mitchell’s niece,” Judson confirmed as he saddled the horse.

“I thought Harley told you she wasn’t interested in selling?”

“I’m just being friendly and checking in on a new neighbor.”

Hodge grunted as he followed Judson out of the barn. “You can fool yourself into thinking that, but I’m not falling for that line.”

“Gaines went by there yesterday and plowed her driveway. He even invited her to dinner at his ranch.”

It irritated the hell out of Judson to know the man had made an impression on Avery with his appearance. Not that Judson was above trying to do the same. After all he’d followed her into The Market a few days earlier hoping to find out what she was like.

“You think he’s hoping to buy her land.”

“He already made an offer.”

Hodge swore, then stepped several steps away to light a cigarette. “You warn her about him?”

“I tried, but she strikes me as the kind who’d dig in her heels if I push too hard.”

“Most women are,” Hodge said as he blew out a stream of smoke. “I thought I’d work on that bit of fence that came down.”

 “You shouldn’t be out in this cold. Stay inside and work on the tack. I noticed a couple of the bridles look like they could use an oiling.” Judson swung onto the horse, scowling down as his father coughed even as he dragged in more smoke. “Those things are killing you.”

“If not these, something else will,” Hodge replied, as he had for as many years as Judson could recall.

“Maybe you should head into town and let Gabriella check you out,” he suggested, naming the town doctor. “She asked about you at Thanksgiving yesterday.”

Hodge’s answer was to lift a foot so he could rub out the cigarette on his boot heel before heading back to the barn.

“Stubborn old fool,” Judson muttered as he flicked the reins. Once he was out of sight, however, he drew out his cell phone.

“Doctor Ferguson,” Gabriella answered.

“I’ve yet to figure out how you can sound so professional and yet sexy at the same time.”

“Must be because I love my job. And my husband.”

“It’s almost your anniversary,” Judson said, hearing the luxuriant sigh that conveyed her happiness.

“The first time Van and I were openly together was at Thanksgiving last year.” Gabriella paused. “Is that something we’ll be saying about you and Avery next year?”

Judson wasn’t surprised by the question. He might be interested in Avery’s land, but it was the woman herself who was on his mind. She intrigued him, and he couldn’t resist finding out more about her. And that daughter of hers was a heartbreaker.

He thought again about Avery. Unlike the braid she’d worn when he’d met her at The Market, her golden-red hair had hung in a straight curtain to her shoulders yesterday. Her laughter had been light and quick, if infrequent, accenting the fullness of her lips. The brown of her sweater had brought out the gold in her amber eyes, and it had hugged her small breasts the way he fantasized about doing.

“Doc, I didn’t call to discuss my pretty new neighbor.”

“But you agree she’s attractive?”

Judson ground his teeth. “Yes.”

“And her little girl seemed quite taken with you.”

It took no effort to relax and recall the pleasure of holding Brenna, the little girl who had curls her mother didn’t have, and green eyes. And that cute way she had of saying his name and holding out her arms to him? Well, he knew when he was beaten. When she climbed onto his lap later in the day and had fallen asleep, he’d experienced a piercing pain for the loss of the child his wife had taken measures not to have.

He reined his horse to a halt at the crest of a small hill. In the valley below, he scanned the flat land. While now covered in snow, apart from the cleared ribbon of roadway, he visualized horses grazing in the summer, drinking from the stream he knew ran parallel to her western boundary. He took in the house, a tidy little A-frame. It would be a bonus and a definite step up from where his father lived now. If he could convince the stubborn man to move.

But what he really wanted was the land. Shifting in the saddle, he flicked the reins and started the slow approach toward the house.

Continuing his phone call, he said, “The reason I called is because my father was hacking up another lung when I left. Nothing new there, I know,” he said to Gabriella. “But it worried me. I know you’re going to the wedding out at the Double Diamond Ranch, but, maybe on your way home, would you have time to stop by and give him a quick look?”

Once he finished up with Gabriella, who promised to let him know about her visit with his father, he approached the house. Windows gleamed in the weak sunlight, and a thick layer of snow covered the deck. Ginger, true to form, sniffed around the edges of the deck and the few bushes that poked through the snow. She scampered back when he swung off the horse.

“Yeah, I know.” He rubbed her. “It’s pretty as a picture. Now—” he said when he heard a door open. “You be on your best behavior, okay.”

Keeping a hand on Ginger’s neck, and his fingers wrapped around Nelly’s reins, he waited while Avery, carrying Brenna, took a cautious step onto the deck.

“’Udson.”

“Hello there, cutie,” he answered as Avery kept her from lunging toward him. For one brief instant, he wasn’t sure if he was talking to the mother or the daughter. “I was out for a ride and thought I’d stop by to say hello.”

“Horsie. Doggie.”

He nodded to the horse. “This here is Nelly.” He leaned over to rub the dog. “And this is Ginger.” Straightening, he nodded toward the chimney. “I thought I’d check to see if you had enough firewood. It’s always a good idea to keep some on hand in case the power goes out.”

“I have gas logs.”

“Makes life easier. I have them myself as a matter of fact.” He stroked a hand down Nelly’s neck, as he scanned the surroundings. “Sure is a pretty piece of property you have here. I can’t blame Gaines from hoping you’ll sell.” He looked back at her. “In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you I’d like to have it myself.”

“Then I’ll say to you what I told him. I’m not making any decisions until after the first of the year. I want Brenna and I to have Christmas here.”

“Fair enough.”

“What are you doing?” Avery demanded when he let the reins drop, knowing Nelly wouldn’t stray, and reached for the snow shovel propped against a corner of the house.

“Thought I’d shovel off your deck. And the walk to your car.”

“Does this have anything to do with Daniel coming by yesterday and clearing the driveway.”

“It’s not a competition.” He pointed at Brenna, who’d gone wide-eyed at the brusque tone of his voice. “I don’t like leaving here thinking you might take a spill while you’re carrying her out to the car.” He watched Avery wrestle with his words. “Tell you what? I’ll trade shoveling snow for a cup of hot coffee before I head back to my ranch.” With a wary nod, she turned and went back into the house.

Judson scooped up the first shovelful of snow, pitching it off to one side. Ginger, as she often did, chased after the snow he heaved, her yips and barks echoing in the stillness. Overhead, he heard the scream of an eagle and at one point, he caught the tail of a deer running through the woods. His breath misted in the air while sweat gathered at the small of his back. Once he paused long enough to mold and wing a snowball, grinning as Ginger dashed after it.

When he turned back to shovel more, he caught sight of Brenna, her nose pressed against the window, watching him. Unable to resist, he flicked a shovelful of snow in her direction, startling her into taking a step back, then laughing. With a wave of his hand, he turned back to his task.

He usually enjoyed this kind of work, the kind that kept the body toned and the mind free to go where it wanted. Today, however, his thoughts circled around the cautious woman inside the house. Twice, he’d caught her watching him through the tall window overlooking the deck. Only, unlike Brenna, she wasn’t laughing.

He didn’t take Avery’s hesitation about his showing up personally. Especially after his confession that he was interested in her property. He wondered if she was naturally cautious or if it was the result of her divorce. After all, he was less willing to trust a woman after learning of his wife’s betrayal.

Once he had the deck and walkway cleared, he located the outdoor water faucet and, stretching out his arm, let Ginger and Nelly drink their fill from the end of the hose. From the saddlebag, he pulled out and offered a dog biscuit and two sugar cubes. He’d just finished rolling up the hose when he heard the door open.

“Coffee’s on.” He looked over his shoulder. Avery stood in the doorway, her gaze focused on Nelly. “Are your horse and dog going to be okay out here?”

“They’ll be fine.”

She smiled a little. “Brenna’s asking if she can pet them.”

“How about this.” He stepped close to the door and stomped his feet to get the snow off his boots. “You can bundle her up before I leave, and I’ll bring her out to meet them. They’re both gentle,” he added at her hesitation. “You don’t have to worry.”

“Yes, I do.” She opened the door wider. “Come inside.”


An author of passionate, emotional romances with heart, Pam loves crafting stories about independent women and men who discover the thrill and joy of falling in love. After years of moving as both an Army Brat and corporate wife, Pam and her craftsman husband settled in Atlanta, close to family and friends. When not writing, Pam enjoys quilting, planting beautiful flowers, home improvement projects and spending time with her wonderful family.


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