Excerpt: A Real Cowboy for Christmas

Excerpt: A Real Cowboy for Christmas

Book 6: Wyoming Rebels

A deathbed promise should never involve snow, subzero temperatures, and family who don’t know you even exist, and sure as hell don’t know you’re coming.

Especially a deathbed promise given in front of one’s six-year-old daughter, who won’t ever let you forget your oath. Like, ever. Not even for one headache-laden, frostbitten-toes moment.

“Mom!” The six-year-old in question tugged on Jaimi Hamilton’s hand, apparently not remotely concerned about the wind that was knifing through their clothes. Because that was how six-year-olds operated. They never felt cold, unless it was eighty degrees and they wanted to leave the park the minute the attractive, single dad with decent moral standards and a car that actually worked showed up. “Do you see them? Are they here?”

Jaimi squatted down so she was level with her daughter, her heart tugging at the way Emily’s blue eyes sparkled in the wintry snow. She gently pulled Emily’s stocking cap lower over her forehead. “Baby cakes, remember. This is a secret mission. They can’t ever know we’re here for them, unless we decide to reveal our true identity, right?”

Emily’s lower lip jutted out. “What if I don’t want to be a spy?”

“We have to be spies. What if they’re evil, and we have to stop their plan to steal toys from all the children in the world on Christmas morning? Then we don’t want them to know who we are, right?”

Emily giggled and rolled her eyes. “They don’t have a plan to steal toys from all the children in the world.”

“Really? You’re so sure about that?” Jaimi gave her daughter her most skeptical look. “How do we know until we spy on them for a while?”

Emily put her hands on her hips and eyed her mom. “Grandma would never tell us to come to Wyoming to find them, unless they were nice. Don’t you trust Gram?”

Jaimi laughed. “Sweetie, no one ever trusts Gram if they know what’s good for them.” Wait. Not trusts. Trusted. Because Gram was gone now. God, she felt like she’d never get used to that fact.

Laughter bubbled out of Emily. “Gram was such trouble.”

“That she was.” A lump formed in Jaimi’s throat, but she quickly swallowed it away. She’d promised her mom that there would be no tears. Life was too short for tears and regret. Every moment was a gift to be treasured. “And so are you.”

Emily’s grin widened. “Gram says you’re trouble, too.”

“That’s been my lifelong goal, so I’m still working on it.” Jaimi pulled off her glove and held up her hand. “Trouble-making girls rock the world, right?”

“Right!” Emily whipped off her pink fuzzy mitten and hooked her pinkie around Jaimi’s. “I swear to cause trouble my whole life,” she said with a solemn giggle as they squeezed pinkies. “Just like you and Gram.”

“And I swear to continue to cause trouble my whole life, just like you and Gram.” God, how many times had she made that oath with her mom over the years? A thousand times? And then, after Emily had been born, it had been the three of them…until two months ago. Now it was back down to two.

Two pinkies were not nearly as good as three when it came to pinkie swears.  

Emily beamed at her. “They’ll love us, Mom. We’re amazing like that.”

Jaimi couldn’t help but smile at her daughter’s self-confidence. Her number one goal as a mom had always been to raise a daughter who lived life on her own terms, who would never be held back by what anyone thought of her. It meant she had a little hellion on her hands at times, but she’d never trade a second of chaos for a daughter who shrank from who she was, who she wanted to be, and what anyone thought of her.

In terms of embracing her badass self, the pupil had far surpassed the teacher long ago, and was turning out to be a lot like her Gram, which was awesome. Jaimi, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly the self-confident, f*ck the world, mover and shaker that her daughter thought she was. But hey, that was her little secret, right? As far as Emily was concerned, Jaimi was everything she told Emily to be. So, she smiled. “Of course they’ll love us. Who wouldn’t want two fabulous girls appearing on their doorstep the week before Christmas and announcing they’re family that no one ever knew existed, right?” Oh, God. Just the idea of that made her stomach knot. What on earth had her mom been thinking, making Jaimi promise to make this trip? She hadn’t specifically made Jaimi promise to actually introduce herself, however, so Jaimi was holding tight to that little loophole.

“Totally!” Emily clapped her hands. “Can we do it today? You have the address, right? To their huuuge ranch? What if we moved onto the ranch? Can I get a pony? I could become a barrel racer—”

“Slow down, cheetah-girl. We’re not moving here. We’re just here for Christmas vacation, and we both have to be back at school after New Year’s.”

Emily wrinkled her nose. “You don’t like teaching. I heard you telling Gram. Why do you teach if you don’t like it? You always tell me to follow my heart, and you’re not.” Emily set her hand on her hips and glared at Jaimi, apparently completely offended by her mom’s failure to deliver.

Sigh. Maybe she should have focused more on raising a wimpy child who hid in her room all day after all… She tweaked her daughter’s nose. “I do like teaching, and I keep teaching because it works perfectly because we’re in school at the same time, so you don’t need to go to late care, right?”

Emily shrugged. “Late care is fun. Three kids got bloody noses last fall. I missed every one of them. All the blood was cleaned up by the time we had recess the next morning. What fun is that?”

“Recess without blood is definitely a downer.” Heaven help her. “But you’ll get another chance when we go back there after New Year’s. For now, we’re here for Christmas, checking out the town, and learning how to enjoy our first Christmas without Gram.”

The tenacious little pugilist was not swayed from her agenda. “And we’re going to meet our family, right? We’re going to go up to them, and you’re going to say ‘Hey, Chase Stockton, I’m your sister—”

A few heads turned toward them at Emily’s raised voice, and Jaimi quickly interrupted. “Shh, sweetie, I—” She suddenly noticed the sheriff lounging nearby, watching them. His gaze was intense and hooded, and his casual stance failed to hide the raw strength of his body. His cowboy hat was tipped back, showcasing a strong, whiskered jaw, and dark sunglasses that hid his eyes. But it was clear he was staring right at them, and her stomach jumped again…though she wasn’t sure whether it was fear of being caught before she was ready to declare herself, or because he was just so freaking male. His jeans were faded, and his long jacket was open, flapping about his calves, as if he didn’t feel the cold at all. There was something untamed and unruly about him, as if he were the kind of man who lived life without walls, exactly how she wanted so badly to be.

He nodded at her, and she suddenly realized she was staring at him. Heat flared in her cheeks, and she dragged her gaze off him and back to Emily. “We need to be top secret, Em.” The Stocktons were well-known in Rogue Valley, and she didn’t need the sheriff, or anyone else, alerting them that two out-of-towners were talking about being their long-lost family before Jaimi had a chance to figure out how she wanted to handle it. “We might or might not introduce ourselves, remember? We’re spies right now, until we decide whether we want them to know who we are. If they aren’t worthy, they don’t get to know us, right?”

Emily met her gaze. “They’ll be worthy.” There was absolute conviction in her voice, which alarmed Jaimi.

She realized the little minx was planning to take control of the situation. No way. Some things in life were far more complicated than a six-year-old could grasp, and this was one of them. Curses to Gram for bringing Emily into this! Jaimi grasped her daughter’s hands and squeezed gently. “Sweetie, I need you to make me a promise. Some people in this world aren’t so nice. We don’t know if the Stocktons are nice, and we don’t know whether they would fit us. So, promise me you won’t mention their names again unless we’re alone, and you won’t introduce us, until we both decide together that it’s the right decision. We’re a team, remember?”

Emily sighed, but nodded. “I promise, but Mom, it’ll be okay. Gram said you’d be scared, and I had to keep telling you it would be okay so your inner wimp wouldn’t win out. So, it will be okay, ‘kay?”

Jaimi’s brows shot up. “My inner wimp?”

“Yes, Gram says we all have one, but yours is really loud and obnoxious and it sometimes needs to be smacked around to make it shut up.”

Jaimi burst out laughing at her mom’s words coming out of a six-year-old’s mouth. “God, I love you, kiddo.”

Emily beamed at her. “I love you, too, Mom.” She reached her hand into her parka pocket and pulled out a photograph. She held it up, and scanned the crowds passing by them. “I brought Chase’s photo. Do you see him? Let’s start spying—”

“You brought one of the photos Gram had?” Jaimi snatched it out of her daughter’s hand. Good God. They were going to look like stalkers! “I’ll take that.” She looked around, needing to distract her daughter. They were on the edge of the grounds of the Rogue Valley Christmas Festival, and there were people everywhere, tromping through the snow, wearing Santa hit, and overflowing with happy laughter on this opening afternoon of the three-day celebration. “Oh…look! Reindeer!”

“Where?” Emily spun around, her eyes widening when she saw the pen of reindeer across the way. Christmas lights twinkled on the fence, and two of Santa’s elves were giving out food pellets for the children to feed the animals. “Do you think Rudolph is there? Can we see?” She took off in a sprint, not even waiting for Jaimi.

Jaimi sighed, and sat back on her heels, watching her daughter dart across the dirt road, effortlessly dodging crowds until she reached the fence around the reindeer pen. Emily grabbed the middle bar and climbed right up, moving with alarming speed and determination. Dear God, was she going to climb into the pen? “Em! Get down!” Jaimi jumped and started running toward her. “Emily!”

Suddenly, she heard a horn blast, and she glanced to her right. A huge tractor was bearing down on her, only feet away. “Oh, shit—”

Something suddenly hit her hard from the side, thrusting her out of the path of the tractor. She landed hard on the frozen ground, gasping as two strong arms dragged her across the gravelly earth, jerking her trailing feet out of the way of the massive tires just as they crunched by.

She gasped, frozen, as she watched the massive tractor roll by, towing a trailer filled with hay bales and curious people, who were leaning over the side, gawking at her. Dear God. She’d almost been crushed. That would have made for an extremely sucky first-Christmas-without-Gram, positive attitude notwithstanding.

Her lungs heaved, trying to catch her breath, as she became gradually aware that she was lying on top of a warm body, not the hard ground, and that those arms were still locked around her waist.

She looked down at the hands clasped around her belly, and saw the worn black cuffs of a certain calf-length jacket she had just been gawking at a few minutes ago. Oh, crap. The hot sheriff had saved her? Heat rose in her cheeks as she twisted around to look behind her.

Sure enough, playing the role of her landing pad, was the same untamed, intensely male sheriff who had been watching her so carefully just a moment ago. It was his hard, hot body beneath her, and his booted foot between her calves. He grinned, flashing her a smile that made heat tingle all the way to her frozen toes. “Welcome to Rogue Valley. My name’s Sheriff Wilson…” He paused. “But you can call me Dane.”

 

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