Release date: September 26, 2017
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 384
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Long, Tall Cowboy Christmas
Nash could taste the sand in his mouth despite the bandana covering his face. Thank God that tomorrow he would be headed back to Texas for a month-long leave. He was looking forward to the green trees, fishing in the Big Cypress Bayou, and his grandmother’s cooking. But right now a little boy needed his help. And there was no one to save him but Captain Nash Lamont.
The whirr of helicopter blades above the base meant that it was time to leave. Three of his six-man team would be going home in flag-draped coffins—one of them had been married and had children. He’d been the one who saved Nash’s life at the expense of his own, but the captain couldn’t think about that now. There was a child in danger out there beyond the base perimeter. He could hear the mother screaming her son’s name somewhere in the dust behind him.
Nash rubbed the sand from his eyes and focused on the child outside the command center. He yelled at the kid, and the kid waved and nodded. He kicked the inflatable ball he’d been playing with all day toward Nash, but wind picked it up and twirled it back at him like a boomerang, floating over his shoulder and landing twenty feet behind him. Nash couldn’t take a chance on the boy running through that minefield, so he took off in long strides and threw himself on top of the little boy. Then in a flash, he was on his feet with the boy slung over his shoulder. With a kicking and screaming kid beating at his back, he prayed that he’d make it through the gates without stepping on an IED.
When they were inside the gates, Nash set the boy down and let his breath out in a long whoosh. He’d saved him—this time Nash had saved the kid. The boy might be upset, but at least he was in one piece. Everything was going to be all right. He had failed in his mission and half his team was going home in caskets, but he’d saved the boy.
* * *
Kasey tightly held the red bandana across her face and bent her shoulders against the wind bringing half of the dirt in New Mexico across the border into the Texas panhandle. When the storm hit she’d gone to the back door and yelled at her six-year-old son, Rustin, to get inside the house. When he didn’t come running, she’d yelled again and again and finally with worry and fear mixed, she’d started out to find him, stopping every few feet to scream his name.
He’d been kicking a ball around inside the yard fence the last time she checked on him. She searched the barn first, but no one was there. Then she remembered the last time he’d slipped off that she’d found him over at the ranch next door. His dog, Hero, had run away and Rustin had gone looking for him. Hoping that’s what had happened this time, she made a beeline down the rutted path leading that way. She’d moved to Happy the spring before to live close to family and to raise her kids in the wide open spaces of a ranch but it was times like this that she missed living in town with a fenced yard and close neighbors.
A quarter of a mile to the barbed-wire fence didn’t seem like far unless there was a fierce wind blowing dirt everywhere. When she reached the fence separating Hope Springs from the Texas Star Ranch, she found a piece of Rustin’s jacket stuck in the wire and flapping in the wind. She was on the right track. Hopefully, he was holed up in the barn and out of the driving, miserable dirt storm.
She crawled through two strands of wire and then called Hope, her grandmother, to tell her that she’d be back to the ranch house soon with the runaway. Shielding her eyes, she could see the barn through the sand. Who was that in the doorway? He was too tall to be Adam’s father, Paul, her children’s grandfather who leased the ranch property from Henry’s sister. She took another step and rubbed the dirt from her eyes.
Oh, no! Whoever it was had raced out and grabbed her son. He’d thrown himself on top of Rustin, then stood up with the boy thrown over his shoulder like a sack of chicken feed. Rustin was kicking and screaming out for her the whole time. She took a deep breath and started coughing when her nostrils filled with dirt. Feeling as if she was running in boots filled with lead, she could hear Rustin bellowing as she fought against the hard wind trying to knock her backward.
“What the hell!” She gasped for breath when she was finally inside the barn. “What are you doing to my son? Put him down right now!” She shouted as adrenaline rushed through her body like fiery hot whiskey.
Kicking and screaming, beating the man on the back with his fists, Rustin didn’t even see her and turned on her when she grabbed him away from the man. She put her boy behind her and faced the tall, dark cowboy. “Who are you and why were you kidnapping my child?”
Dirt dusted the stranger’s dark hair, but his near-black eyes looked blank, as if he was seeing but not seeing, if that made sense.
“I was saving him. You are safe now, Ahmid.” The man looked as if he was sleepwalking.
Kasey snapped her fingers in his face, and he quickly grabbed her wrist. She jerked it free and took a step back.
“I’m not Ahmid. I’m Rustin.” Rustin wrapped his arms around her waist and peeked around her side.
The cowboy’s brow furrowed in a frown. “You aren’t Farah. You have red hair.”
She jerked off the bandana, letting it hang around her neck, and shook her hair out of the stocking hat. “I’m Kasey McKay and this is my son, Rustin.” She took a step back and looked into his dark brown eyes. “What are you doing in this barn?”
He shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry. I fell asleep out here and when I woke up the sand—I thought I was back,” he stammered. “That’s classified. I am Captain Nash Lamont and I just saved this boy from—oh, no!”
He squared his broad shoulders, standing at attention, but after a few seconds they sagged and he ran a hand over his angular face. So this was Nash. Everyone in Happy had been talking about how he’d taken over Henry’s old ranch. He’d moved into the old house last week, but no one had seen him. Not at the café or at church the previous Sunday. Folks wondered if he might be like his great-uncle—a harmless hermit.
He was well over six feet tall, his black hair brushed the collar of his denim duster that strained at the shoulder seams, and those dark brown eyes darted around the barn as if he wasn’t sure where he was. His broad chest narrowed down past a silver belt buckle with the state of Texas engraved on it. Faded jeans, cowboy boots, a felt hat thrown over there on a hay bale said he was proud to be a cowboy. Yet he’d identified himself as Captain Lamont, and that was definitely military.
“You deserve an explanation.” His accent was a blend of Texas drawl and something even farther south, maybe Louisiana or Mississippi. “I was in the army and did some work in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. There was an incident involving a young boy who had kicked a ball outside the gates in dangerous territory. I tried to save him but didn’t get there in time and wound up with a head wound of my own. I came out here to check on the sheep and the sandstorm hit. I thought—” He shrugged.
“You thought you were back over there, right? The sandstorm and the kid out there in it gave you a flashback?” Kasey understood, but she still kept Rustin behind her.
Kasey had lost her husband, Adam, when he was on a mission somewhere over there in what the guys called the sandbox. Before that, she’d held him many nights through the nightmares that his job caused, so she understood. But it didn’t take away the fear that had tightened her chest so that she couldn’t breathe when she thought he was abducting her son.
“Mama, I’m okay,” Rustin said in a steady voice. “Cowboys don’t hurt little kids.”
“I would never harm a child, and I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding, Miz McKay.” Nash’s deep voice had a dose of deep-seeded southern in it.
“Have we met before?” she asked.
“I heard about you living on the next ranch over.” His gaze went over her left shoulder and landed on the barn door.
There was no doubt that he had been a soldier. Shoulders ramrod straight and squared off. Chin tucked back and eyes ahead. Filled with respect. Ready to do battle. No one stood like a military man, especially one who’d been a cowboy before he enlisted.
“Well, then, we’ll be going home. Welcome to Happy, Nash.” Kasey knew she should invite him to Hope Springs for coffee or supper, but she wasn’t feeling too hospitable, not with all those memories of Adam flashing through her mind. Not to mention dealing with a son who was in big trouble for wandering off when he was explicitly told not to leave the yard.
She pulled the bandana up over her nose again and stooped down to zip Rustin’s jacket, making sure that the collar protected his nose from the roaring wind and dirt.
“I’ll drive you home. My truck is sitting right there.” He motioned toward a black Chevy Silverado parked to one side of the barn. “It’s still blowing like crazy out there. It’s the least I can do for scaring you. And again, I’m very sorry.”
“Apology accepted, but—”
“Mama, I don’t want to walk home in this stuff,” Rustin whispered.
Kasey took one look out the door and realized her son was right. Visibility was practically zero. “Maybe we should just wait it out a little while right here in the barn until it lets up,” she said. She cast a glance at Nash as she pulled her phone from her hip pocket and quickly called her grandmother, gave her the news that she’d found Rustin and that the neighbor would bring them home as soon as the wind stopped blowing.
Nash smiled while she talked, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He sat down on a hay bale and a big white cat meandered out and hopped up in his lap. He started to rub her long fur and she curled up, as if she belonged there.
“That’s the white cat that Aunt Lila talked about. Can I pet her?” Rustin left his mother’s side and took a few steps toward Nash.
“Sure. You can even hold her if you want,” Nash said. “Sit right here and I’ll put her in your lap. She’s real tame.”
“My sister would love her. She’s purrin’,” Rustin said when the cat was in his lap.
“So you have other children?” Nash looked up at Kasey.
“Two. Emma is three and Silas is eighteen months.” She kept a close watch on her son, sitting so close to a stranger.
“And where do you live?” Nash asked.
“On the ranch right next door,” Rustin answered.
“Hope Springs, with my two brothers, Brody and Jace,” Kasey said. “Where did you live before now?”
“The last two years out south of Jefferson, Texas, on my grandmother’s little spread.”
“And before that?”
“Wherever the military sent me.”
His dark eyes were boring holes in her. Not like a man who was hitting on her but more like someone trying to place her in his mind. Like he’d met her before and couldn’t quite remember her name. But he did because he’d called her Miz McKay a few minutes before. When he did look up, his dark eyes were veiled. It was impossible to see exactly what he was thinking, but there was definitely something haunting Nash Lamont.
A couple of baas caused Rustin to cock his ear toward the stalls on the other side of the barn. “Is that sheeps I hear?”
“Yes, they are. I heard we might have a dust storm so I brought them inside. Want to see them?”
“You bet. I ride the muttons at the rodeo grounds sometimes,” Rustin said.
The veil on Nash’s dark eyes seemed to lift a little as he watched Rustin run from one stall to the other looking at his small flock. “Look, Mama, this one has babies.”
Kasey edged around Nash, careful not to get too close, still not fully trusting him, even if the white cat and her son didn’t have a problem with him. “They’re cute little things, but you do know this is cattle country, right?” she asked.
He straightened up and towered above her. “Yes, ma’am. But I’ve always liked sheep, so that’s what I’m raising right now.” He wandered over to the door and looked outside. “I think the wind is dying down. Please let me drive y’all home.”
“Come on, Rustin. We have to get home,” Kasey said.
Rustin took time to stick his hand into the stall and pet one more lamb before he ran to the truck. With long strides, Nash hurried ahead of them both and swung open the doors. Rustin climbed up into the backseat without a moment’s pause, but before Nash could slam the door, the boy’s dog, Hero, jumped right into the truck with him. Kasey hiked a hip on the seat and pulled the seat belt across her chest.
Nash slung open the double barn doors and then hopped into the truck, slammed the door shut, and fastened his seat belt. “Hope Springs? I drive to the end of my lane and turn right? I guess that dog belongs to you?”
Kasey bobbed her head twice.
“His name is Hero and he’s got a sister, Princess, and a brother, Doggy. They belong to Emma and Silas, but they ain’t as smart as Hero,” Rustin said enthusiastically. “I think he likes you.”
“He looks like a good dog.”
Hero flopped his big black head over the seat and licked Nash’s face from chin to ear then lay down with his head in Rustin’s lap. If it was true that children and dogs knew who to trust and who to back away from—everything would be just fine.
Nash sat rigidly straight in the truck seat, reminding her again of Adam’s posture, even if they didn’t look anything alike. Adam had topped out at five feet nine inches, and that was with his cowboy boots on. He’d had clear blue eyes and blond hair. He’d always looked so young that he was carded anytime he ordered a drink, and he had a smile that would light up the whole universe.
The man sitting beside her with a death grip on the steering wheel was a silent, brooding type who had a lot of darkness inside him. He might be late twenties or maybe early thirties, and no one would ever mistake him as being underage.
He drove slowly to the end of the lane, made a right, and then another one a quarter of a mile down the road. The first big raindrops fell, mixing with the dust to create mud that hit the windshield in splats. The wipers couldn’t work fast enough to keep the smears from the windows, so Nash backed off the gas and took them the rest of the way at five miles an hour.
“Rustin, you go straight to the bathroom and shuck out of those clothes. And you”—Kasey turned toward Nash—“you do not have to be a gentleman and open doors. Thanks for the ride.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “And thank you, Kasey, for not shooting me. I apologize once again.”
“Didn’t have my pistol,” she answered as she bailed out of the truck and ran through the nasty rain toward the house. Dripping mud, she stopped inside the front door and kicked off her boots.
Wiping her hands on an apron tied around her waist, her grandmother, Hope, came out of the kitchen with Silas, Kasey’s youngest son, and Emma, the middle child, right behind her. Their little eyes widened out like they were looking at a monster.
“Mama, did you and Rustin have a mud fight?” Emma was totally aghast.
“Mommy all yucky.” Silas’s nose twitched.
Hope giggled. “Got to agree with them, Kasey. You look like you lost a mud-wrestling match. I was about to call to check on you when Rustin came through here like a shot and headed toward the bathroom.”
“I told him to go straight to the bathroom and get cleaned up. It’s practically raining mud out there with that dust storm.” Kasey pulled gobs of wet mud from her naturally curly red hair when she ran her fingers through it.
“Ick,” Emma said. She grabbed Silas’s hand and dragged him toward the living room. “Let’s go build a Lego princess castle.”
“Yep.” Silas nodded seriously.
“So, you got to see Nash Lamont, huh?” Hope sat down in a ladder-back chair beside the foyer table. “What does he look like?”
“He’s every bit as tall as Brody. Dark eyes, dark hair. Military for sure. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he seems nice enough.” Kasey started on down the hall.
“Did he mention his great-uncle Henry?” Hope fingered the gold locket around her neck with a wistful look in her eyes.
“No, but he had Rustin slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Scared the devil out of me.”
Hope clucked like an old hen as she stood up and brushed her hair back with her hand. She wasn’t much taller than Kasey, had gray hair and bright green eyes, and was still the queen bee of Hope Springs, even if she had turned most of the day-to-day operations over to Kasey’s brothers, Brody and Jace, the spring before. Her face and attention to style belied her seventy-two years. “I got to go call Molly and tell her that you almost killed the new man in town.”
“Granny!” Kasey’s green eyes, so much like her grandmother’s, popped wide open. “I didn’t even try to kill him. I might have if he’d been kidnapping my son, but he was having a flashback to the war stuff. Adam did that more than once. I felt sorry for him.”
Hope headed for the kitchen. “Might be wise to stay away from a man who’s got problems like that.”
Kasey couldn’t agree more, but then there was something in those dark, brooding eyes that made her want to know more about him. She dropped her dirty clothing on the bathroom floor and stepped into the shower. She lathered up her hair three times before the water ran clear. With a towel wrapped around her body, she peeked out the door before she darted down the hall. She almost made it to the wing of the house where she and the kids lived when the front door opened.
“Hey!” Her sister-in-law, Lila, grinned as she removed a mud-splashed yellow slicker and laid it across the chair where Hope had been sitting. Not a single bit of dirt stuck to her jet-black ponytail, and her brown eyes glimmered. “I heard that you had a confrontation with the new neighbor. I also heard that he’s quite a hunk.”
Kasey wiped a hand across her brow. “Granny didn’t waste a bit of time, did she?”
Lila followed her back to the bedroom. “I was out in the barn helping Brody when the storm hit. Thought I’d come get the whole story from you.”
Kasey told it again as she got dressed.
“So the part about him being downright sexy is true?” Lila asked.
Kasey shook out her curly red hair and started to brush it. “You ever read Wuthering Heights?”
“Of course. I used to be an English teacher, remember?” Lila nodded. “Is Nash a Heathcliff?”
“Oh, yeah, exactly.” Kasey nodded.
* * *
Nash parked outside the two-story, white frame house and ran inside with mud slapping against his shoulders and head the whole way. He’d seen massive sandstorms when he’d been on missions and he’d endured tornadoes in east Texas and central Louisiana. He had even lived through hurricanes, but never had he seen it rain mud until that day. Maybe it was an omen that he should have never taken his grandmother’s advice and moved to Happy, Texas, to find some peace and quiet on the old family ranch. He left his boots and coat at the back door and padded straight to the bathroom in his socks.
His great-grandmother, Minnie Thomas, had died more than twelve years ago, and even though he’d been a teenager when he attended the funeral, he remembered that every flat surface in the house had been covered with ceramic angels and animals of all descriptions.
That was back when Uncle Henry lived there after his thirty-year military stint. His dad had gotten sick, so he came home to take care of him, not planning to stay five years, much less almost twenty.
“I guess Great-Granny Minnie needed help runnin’ this place, but why did you leave the second time?” Nash muttered. “And if you were going, why did you put away all of Grandma’s stuff? Guess if I was meant to know you’d tell me.”
It sure looked different now—flat-out stark with only the necessities. No fancy candy dishes or feminine touches anywhere. He dropped his dirty clothing on the floor outside the tiny downstairs bathroom. It had a wall-hung sink, a shower so small that he could barely turn around, and a potty—all crammed together so tight that his jeans and shirt covered the entire floor.
The upstairs bathroom was a lot bigger, with a claw-foot tub and a double sink vanity. It even had room for a ladder-back chair beside the tub to hold a stack of towels. But there was no shower, and Nash relished the spray of scalding hot water.
Sending up a silent prayer that all the mud didn’t clog the drains, he looked down at the swirling water around his feet and was reminded of all the blood that day.
No! He wouldn’t go there. He made himself think about something else as he kept his eyes away from the shower floor. Forcing himself to go over what all he needed to do the next few days, he finished and then bumped his head on the curtain rod as he stepped out.
“Dammit!” He swore under his breath as he tucked a towel around his waist and tossed his dirty clothing in the washing machine before he went to the master bedroom located right off the foyer.
He glanced around the room and realization hit him. His uncle Henry, who’d lived here with his ailing parents, had been a career military man. All that clutter that Great-Granny had everywhere must’ve driven him crazy. That’s why the place had changed so much. When Great-Granny died, Uncle Henry had done a job on the place, turning it into what he’d been used to when he was in the army.
“And I’m just like him.” Nash groaned as he glanced around his bedroom at the bed made so tightly that a quarter would bounce right off it. Not a wrinkle in sight. Table with only a lamp and the book he was reading beside a recliner. His foot locker at the end of the bed with a go-bag still packed sitting on the top of it. Half a dozen shirts and a few pairs of jeans hung with exactly the same distance between the wire hangers in the closet. If a five-star general did a surprise inspection, Nash would pass with flying colors.
The window shades were pulled up to let in as much light as possible—at least on days when the wind wasn’t slinging mud balls against the windows. Sinking down in the recliner, he sighed and pulled the lever to raise the footrest. His grandma had decided that a nice quiet little ranch in the panhandle of Texas would be a good place to get his head on straight. She’d moved away from Happy more than sixty years ago, but she still had fond memories of the Texas Star Ranch, where she and her brother, who was also Nash’s great-uncle, Henry had grown up.
He went to the kitchen window and stared out across the flat pasture separating the house from the barn, which was just a blob in the distance. His sheep were probably unhappy in there, but at least they wouldn’t have mud balls embedded in their wool.
Two years ago he’d been discharged from the army. Within weeks, his dad and his grandfather had both died and he’d gone to his grandmother’s place outside of Jefferson, Texas, to help her out on the ranch. One of her neighbors had had an orphan lamb, and he wound up taking care of it. Two years later he had ten in his little flock.
He was deep in thought about putting up better fence around the pasture from house to barn when his phone rang and startled him. He managed to work it out of his hip pocket and answer it on the fourth ring.
“Hello, Addy,” he said and imagined his grandmother sitting on the sofa in her new place. “How are things in Jefferson?”
“I’m adjusting to town life. It’s sure different from living five miles out on a ranch.” She laughed.
The sound of her voice put a smile on his face. “It’s raining mud here in this part of Texas.”
“I saw that a couple of times when I was young. I remember once Mama had white sheets on the line when it hit. Come out of nowhere, but in them days we didn’t have all this technology to tell us when the weather was going to be bad. How are you doin’ there? Have you called your mama?”
“I met Kasey and her son, Rustin, today,” he said bluntly. “I don’t remember her from the times when I came here as a kid. And no, I haven’t called Mama but I promise I will.”
“I wouldn’t expect that you ever met her or her brothers. We usually only stayed a couple of days and you trailed around after my dad most of the time. And he never left the ranch unless he had to. You settlin’ into the town?”
He managed a chuckle. “It’s almost a ghost town. If it wasn’t for those grain silos, I imagine the wind would have blown the whole place away years ago. Even after living on the ranch outside of Jefferson the past two years, this is still a cultural shock.”
His grandmother’s name was Adelaide, and that’s what he heard folks call her when he was a little kid so he’d just shortened it to Addy. Not Granny Addy or even Grandma Addy, but just plain old Addy.
She giggled. “What’s the size of the town matter to you? You’re practically a hermit so what are you missin’? Town could be as big as Dallas and you’d stay on the ranch just lik. . .
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