This cowboy’s finally coming home for Christmas
Zach Garrett is home from war, haunted by PTSD, trying to fit in to what has become an alien world. With the holidays fast approaching, his uncle Big Jim Garrett offers him a place on the family ranch. Zach isn’t sure he’s up for a noisy, boisterous Garrett Christmas…until he meets beautiful Stephanie Gale, and all his protests go up in flames.
Firefighter and EMT Stephanie Gale is ready for anything. She’s got her life under control…until she locks eyes with Zack and realizes her heart’s in a whole new kind of danger. But with a little help from Zack’s long-lost army dog, maybe he and Stephanie will be able to make this a Christmas of new beginnings after all.
It was late November when he found the envelope.
Big Jim Garrett held the letter for a while before opening it. It was from his sister--in--law, Adele, who now lived over in Fort Worth. There was a stack of mail on the kitchen counter, but from what he could tell, it was made up mostly of Christmas cards. He would leave those for the others in his household to open, but this letter was addressed to him personally with no “and family” tacked on.
What’s going on with Adele? After Big Jim’s brother had died, Adele had sold their land and moved to Fort Worth, where she had some relatives.
Big Jim’s back teeth ground together as he recalled how she had fallen way behind in property taxes and was forced to sell off the property and stock. The woman had always been headstrong and shortsighted, to his way of thinking. No business sense, and she hadn’t come to Big Jim until it was too late.
He took a seat at the counter separating the kitchen from the dining area. Tearing the envelope open, he slid out a single sheet of notepaper.
I’m writing to let you know that Zachery is home from his second tour of duty with the U.S. Army. He intends to return to Langston and hopes to find employment. I hope you can help him get settled.
I feel really bad that I had to sell the ranch, but I just couldn’t manage everything by myself. I’m so worried. Zach just doesn’t seem the same as when he left. I’m hoping he can find himself when he goes home.
Big Jim carefully folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope.
His nephew, Zach, had grown up with Big Jim’s own three sons. They had been like a pack of puppies, inseparable and carefree. After graduating from high school, Zach had enlisted, while his own sons, one by one, had gone to college and returned to the land. The land that Big Jim would never sell under any circumstances.
He was more than a little peeved that Adele had sold off the land his brother had worked so hard for and that he must have thought would go to Zach someday.
Big Jim shook his head. Sad. But of course he would try to help his nephew settle in and find his place now that he was a civilian—-a rancher—-again.
Ranchers. The Garretts were ranchers. It was part of their genetic makeup.
Even his rebellious middle son, Tyler, now a country--western singer, had returned to his roots. Of course, he had returned with his bride, Leah, and her daughter, Gracie. He had built a home for his new family right there on the sprawling Garrett ranch. Big Jim knew that Tyler would always return to the place he called home, no matter where his musical career might take him.
Big Jim’s oldest son, Colton, had also married and was in the process of building a home for his bride, Misty, and her younger brother, but the snow had hindered their progress. For now, they were living with Big Jim at the Garrett ranch house, happily making preparations for their first Christmas as man and wife.
His youngest son, Beau, had gotten back with his high school girlfriend, Dixie, and their beautiful daughter, Ava. Now, reconciled, they were happily remodeling Dixie’s ranch house and getting it ready for their own Christmas celebration.
But now the Garrett Christmas celebration would include Zach Garrett.
Big Jim had made a passionate and somewhat irritable vow to his deceased brother that he would do everything in his power to ensure that Zach would be welcomed and know that he always had a place here with the rest of the Garrett family.
He tucked the letter in his pocket and headed out to the stables. Saddling up his favorite stallion and letting that horse run free would help shake off his own demons. “Bah! Humbug,” he muttered.
The countryside whizzed by, but Zach Garrett paid no attention. He felt nothing. Only the passing of time.
It was cold, but he was well insulated. Nothing could touch him.
The sprawling metropolitan Dallas–-Fort Worth area made him feel claustrophobic, but now that the bus was speeding along the highway, he could breathe at least.
He wore his uniform because he’d left his civilian garb at home—-the home his mother had packed up and sold. She told him all of his belongings were carefully stowed in the two--car garage of the house she’d purchased in a nice, quiet neighborhood. But he hadn’t opened even a box.
Maybe his past was in there, along with his dad’s. Maybe he would be able to open the boxes someday, but now all he wanted was to get back to Langston, the last place he had been happy. He wanted to see his cousins, the crazy guys he had grown up with. Most of all, he wanted to feel like he belonged somewhere.
Zach heaved a sigh. It must have been loud because the old lady across the aisle from him looked him over. It’s okay, Grandma. I’m just the remains of Zachery Garrett…his outer shell.
He hoped to find something to stuff himself with. Something with feelings. Something strong that could withstand whatever was to come next.
The old lady was still staring.
He shifted in his seat, turning his wide shoulders to the window. He tried to focus on the images as they passed. Mostly pastureland, cattle grazing in the distance. He tried to identify the breeds. Hereford, Black Angus, Charolais…there were some Brangus, an interesting cross--breed of Angus and Brahman.
Another huge sigh escaped.
He’d always thought he would come home to his family’s ranch, to the snug ranch house with barn, stables, and outbuildings. He wondered who was living there now.
Zach snapped out of his trance. His fists were clenched. Every muscle in his body was tensed, and he wasn’t sure why. Is this anger? He wasn’t sure what anger felt like any longer. He had felt anger in Afghanistan. Rage, in fact. Intense loss and fury over the unfairness of life…and death.
It was better to feel nothing.
Be alert for danger, but feel nothing.
“I can’t wait to meet your friend, Colt.” Misty Garrett sat in the passenger seat of the big silver double--dually truck. Her twelve--year--old brother, Mark, sat behind her playing a handheld video game.
“He’s my cousin. I hope you like Zach. Sometimes, he was more like a brother to me than my own brothers.”
“The two of you were the same age. It’s natural you would be close.”
Colt snorted. “Probably, but we had so much in common. We were in the same grade and played all sports together.” He gave Misty a pat on her thigh. “We showed calves and later bulls at the area fairs. We just had a natural interest in the same things.”
He recalled the hot summer days when they would go to the creek to cool off, sometimes trying to ditch the younger boys. Usually his mother would insist he take his little brothers along and be responsible for watching out for them…a task shared by his cousin, Zach.
Now, as Colt drove to Amarillo to meet his cousin’s bus, he was excited. He hadn’t seen Zach since the day he had enlisted. But he was sure his best friend, from childhood through high school, felt the same way.
He couldn’t wait to show off Misty. Glancing at his bride, he was filled with a sense of pride and emotion. He knew the love they shared would last forever. As long as we both shall live…
Maybe Zach had somebody special in his life. Colt hoped so. He knew his own life had taken on a whole new dimension since Misty had become a part of it.
As they rolled into Amarillo, Mark chattered about his game, and Misty made complementary comments.
When he parked beside the bus station, Colt realized he was wearing a broad grin. “Hang out here while I try to find Zach.” He swung out of the truck, leaving the motor running with the heater on.
A blast of cold air hit him full force. He zipped his down jacket and held onto his Stetson. He couldn’t let that fly off his head. Once inside the bus station, he stopped, his back against the wall, to search for his friend. Colt was as tall as his father, Big Jim. At six--foot--plus, he could easily scan the room, but it just took one sweep to find Zach, still wearing his camouflage gear and clutching an enormous duffel bag.
Colt swallowed hard.
Zach didn’t appear to be really focused. Perhaps he was tired from all the traveling.
Colt called his name and started across the width of the bus station. But Zach snapped to and rose to greet him. The two embraced and slapped each other on the back.
“Damn, Colt. You’re looking great.” Zach was staring at him as though he was looking for changes.
This was only fair because Colt was doing the same thing. “Thanks, bud. You look…different. It must be the hair.”
Zach ran his fingers over his buzz cut. “Or lack thereof.”
Colt hefted the duffel onto his shoulder and motioned for Zach to follow. “Let’s get into the truck and on the road. Dad and the guys are waiting for you at the house.”
A look of sadness flashed across Zach’s face. “Um, yeah. I can’t wait.”
Zach followed Colton outside to the parking lot. Colt had always been tall, but over the years, he had beefed up considerably. He was built like a Mack truck, effortlessly lobbing the heavy duffel bag into the bed of a big silver truck. There was a sign on the door with Circle G Ranch emblazoned across it. It had an image of the big horseshoe--shaped arch over the entrance to the ranch.
Zach felt as if he had been sucker--punched. Here was his best friend, living the life he could have been living. Colt was a bigger--than--life cowboy, with a family full of cowboys, born to raise cattle and work the land.
Zach swallowed hard. It was over for him. There was no land or cattle. His home was gone. Someone else owned it now, so he should just turn the page and move on.
He opened the passenger door and stepped up into the cab, surprised to see two other people in the vehicle. A very attractive young brunette woman sat in the backseat along with a dark--haired boy.
She grinned and waggled her fingers in a wave as Colt climbed in front in the driver’s seat.
“Zach, this is my wife, Misty, and her brother, Mark.” He started up the truck. “Sorry you missed our wedding.”
“Um—-congratulations. Sorry I missed it too.”
“Hi, Zach,” Misty said. “Colt has told us so much about you. I’m happy to get to meet you finally.”
“Thanks… I—-I’m happy to meet you.” Zach was stunned. It was reasonable that Colt would get married, but the reality was staring him in the face. Another way in which Colt had moved on, while Zach was living like a rat in the desert, in a place where he couldn’t tell enemy from noncombatant. In a place where the enemy wired their own children with explosives to use them as weapons against those they considered infidels.
“Hey, Zach. Are you all right?” It was Colt who nudged him out of his trance.
“Yeah, I’m great. It’s great to be here. Everything’s great. Thanks for picking me up.”
The expression on Colt’s face could best be described as uncertain.
The drive to the Garrett ranch was uneventful, with sparse conversation. Zach wasn’t able to manage small talk.
Eventually, Colt slowed and turned in at the horseshoe arch with the name Circle G overhead, the tires bumping over the cattle guard. This jarred Zach physically and emotionally, as he recalled all the times he had bumped over the same cattle guard and into the same comfortable world where he knew all the players.
Stephanie Gayle looked at the check. “Oh, Big Jim. This is so generous. You’re going to make sure the children have a nice Christmas.”
Big Jim shrugged. “It’s the least I can do for those poor kids.” He looked around the room, his gaze falling on a little red--haired girl and a blonde girl maybe a little older. “I think all children need to be loved.”
“I feel the same way.”
Big Jim’s face morphed from sentimental to grim. “How are those two kids you saved? The ones whose mother got killed.”
Stephanie tried to control the tremor in her voice. “They—-they’re still at the children’s center. They don’t have any family members willing to take them in.”
“Well, that’s a damned shame.”
She nodded. “Rafe Neeley, the stepfather… He’s been arraigned and bound over for trial.” The image of Rafe’s angry face as he screamed threats made her shudder.
“Good,” Big Jim pronounced. “I hope that sumbitch gets what’s coming to him. I can’t imagine a man hurting a woman or a child…much less murdering the woman you’re married to.”
Stephanie’s throat tightened. “Hope they put him away for a hundred years. The children…they witnessed their mother being murdered. They—-they were so traumatized.”
Big Jim let out a snort and reached in the back pocket of his Wranglers. He produced a worn leather billfold and pulled out a couple of hundred--dollar bills. “Here ya go. Buy them two angels a little something special…and let me know what happens to them. I hope they wind up with some good family.”
She swallowed hard. “Thanks, Big Jim. I’ll find something special for them.” The words some good family stuck in her craw.
“Come have a cup of coffee, Stephanie.” Big Jim motioned her into the kitchen.
Stephanie took a seat at the counter while Big Jim filled two cups with coffee. He set one in front of her and leaned on the other side of the counter.
That was when Colt’s voice could be heard from the front of the house. “Hello! Where is everyone? I brought my brother from another mother.”
“Back here,” Big Jim called.
Misty and Mark led the way, both grinning. “We got him,” Mark announced.
Colton came next, followed by a tall, muscular man wearing camouflage gear. This guy appeared to be on edge, like he’d just been plucked from a battleground. His gaze took in the entire interior and everyone in the large kitchen. When he locked eyes with Stephanie, she felt a jolt like an electric shock. He was a Garrett.
It was the Garrett eyes. Those amazing, smoky--turquoise eyes, ringed with black lashes. They held her in thrall for a moment before releasing her.
Big Jim let out a yelp. “Zachery Garrett! Come here, boy!” Big Jim held out a hand, and when the newcomer reached for it, Big Jim dragged him closer and clasped him in a man hug. “Dang! It’s been a long time…and look how you’ve grown.”
“Yes, sir. It’s been forever.”
Big Jim pounded him on the back and then pulled back to look at him. “I’m glad you’re here, son. We all are. Just in time for Christmas.”
“Glad to be here, sir.” His gaze flicked back to Stephanie.
“Where are my manners?” Big Jim asked. “This fine young man is my nephew, Zach Garrett. He’s just been discharged from the U.S. Army.”
Stephanie smiled. Nephew, huh? Garrett through and through.
Big Jim gestured toward her. “And this lovely young lady is Stephanie Gayle. Believe it or not, she’s a firefighter.”
Stephanie gave a one--sided grin and rolled her eyes. “Why do people always find it difficult to think of me as a firefighter?”
“Because we always think of firefighters as big burly men,” Misty said. “One has to see you in action to know what a badass you are.”
This caused a round of laughter, all except from this Zach guy. He just continued to stare at Stephanie as though he was committing her to memory, molecule by molecule. It was unsettling, to say the least, but there was something else…something simmering just below the surface.
Stephanie swallowed hard. It felt like a roll of razor wire at the back of her throat. She straightened her shoulders, refusing to be intimidated by his scrutiny. Who is this guy anyway?
“Good to meet you, ma’am,” Zach said.
Ma’am? She nodded and offered a hand, which he wrapped with a large baseball mitt–-size paw that was warm and very rough.
Colton slapped Zach on the shoulder. “C’mon, bro. Let’s get you settled in.” Colt shouldered the huge duffel bag and headed off toward the room where he planned to settle Zach.
Zach hit her with his laser--beam eyes again and gave a little nod before turning to follow his cousin. Misty and Mark trailed after them.
“He’s had a rough time,” Big Jim said. “My brother died while Zach was deployed, so he never got to say goodbye to his father.”
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Stephanie said.
“He’s a good boy. He’s going to be just fine.”
Stephanie agreed. Fine. That pretty much summed up the hottest guy she had laid eyes on in a long time…and she worked with the hottest men in the county.
Like what you're seeing and want to take this further?
AMAZON | B&N | INDIEBOUND | APPLE | BAM | KOBO
AMAZON | B&N | INDIEBOUND | APPLE | BAM | KOBO