Find a cowboy to keep you warm these long, wintry nights as you cozy up with six sweeping, epic tales of heroism, passion, family and celebration from the genre’s most beloved authors.
Fall in Love with Christmas
Whether it’s a widower finding an unexpected new start, a former outlaw and his new wife welcoming their very own Christmas miracle, a long-lost lover returning just in time for a special holiday celebration, a second chance at love between two warring hearts given peace at last, an unlikely pair working together to bring joy to a small Texas town, or sparks flying between two strangers snowed in one unforgettable wintry eve…every Christmas with a cowboy is filled with light, laughter, and a forever kind of love.
Of A Fairy Tale Christmas by Leigh Greenwood
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
“It’s too much work, Gertie,” Nan said to the thin, middle--aged woman at her side. “And with Gideon not coming home this year, it just doesn’t seem worth it.”
Nan Carson stood with her farm manager’s wife in the wide hall of her family home, Spruce Meadow. The dark oak floors gleamed with fresh wax. White wallpaper with tiny bunches of red poppies and blue cornflowers lightened the gloom created by the dark--stained oak doorways and the stairway that rose to a landing above. Pocket doors opened to reveal on one side an enormous formal parlor furnished with elegant Victorian furniture upholstered in wine--colored velvet and on the other a less formal gathering room furnished with dark leather, cotton prints, and overstuffed cushions.
“But Jake and Eli have already put a pile of cedar and holly on the back porch,” Gertie replied.
“I’ll tell somebody at the church to come get it. They can always use some extra.”
“It won’t seem right not seeing this place decorated,” Gertie said, persevering. “Folks come all the way out here from town to look at it. Won’t seem like Christmas to half of them. Gideon liked it, too.”
“Well, if he’d wanted the decorations put up, he should have come home,” Nan said.
She still hadn’t gotten over the disappointment of learning that Gideon was going to spend Christmas with his fiancée. It wasn’t that Nan disliked Doris Morgan. She’d never met her. And Christmas was probably the best time for Gideon to visit his future in--laws, but this was the first year since their mother’s death that Nan had been alone at Christmas, and she was finding it hard to keep her spirits up.
She was also finding it hard to accept the fact that her little brother was getting married while she seemed doomed to die an old maid. Not that thirty--one felt very old, but in Beaker’s Bend she might as well be sixty. People got married by the time they were eighteen—-or they moved away and never came back.
“Are you going to make cookies?” Gertie asked.
“Of course,” Nan said, coming out of her abstraction. “Children get hungry every year.”
“Then you’d better get started. Though how you have the patience to decorate so many I’ll never understand, especially after taking care of this huge old house.”
“It’s no trouble. All I have to do is dust and make my bed. There’s nobody to mess anything up.”
Framed black--and--white pictures covered the walls in the hall, pictures of her father and mother, pictures of Gideon with his football and baseball teams.
There were none of her.
Nan pushed the loneliness aside. She was fortunate to live in a nice home, own the best farm in the valley, and have so many wonderful friends. So what if she wasn’t going to have a husband and children? She shouldn’t complain when she had so many other blessings.
She wasn’t complaining exactly. It was just that there was an emptiness inside her that seemed to get a little bit deeper and wider each day. She felt like a pumpkin dusted with November frost, the last in the field. The outside was still firm and brightly colored, but the inside was slowly drying up.
“Maybe I’ll make gingerbread people this winter,” Nan said, giving her shawl a twitch and settling a smile on her lips. “I made the Christmas village last year.”
“The children love your gingerbread.” Gertie chuckled. “Only you got to be careful they don’t look like nobody. Last time they took to calling one the preacher’s wife. She got so mad she nearly disgraced herself right there in the church social hall.”
Nan’s smile owed more to her sense of mischief than to contrition. “Maybelle Hanks will be safe. I’ll make certain there are no tall, spindly, sour--faced gingerbread women this year.”
The butter hadn’t had time to soften before the sharp, insistent ring of the doorbell brought Nan from the warm kitchen back into the chilly hall. “I’m coming,” she muttered as she hurried along, her steps muffled by the runner.
The cut and beveled glass in the heavy front door distorted the world outside beyond recognition. Nan looked through the sidelights that flanked the door. On the porch, Wilmer Crider huddled into a heavy coat and cap, earflaps folded down. Nan picked up a wool shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. A wintry blast whipped her skirts about her legs when she opened the door.
“What are you doing here?” Nan asked. “Who’s at the inn?” She knew that Wilmer’s wife, Lucy, had gone to stay with Ruby, her youngest daughter, through a difficult pregnancy. There wasn’t anybody at the inn except Wilmer.
“L.P. and I got a sick fella out here.” Wilmer pointed to the wagon just outside the front gate. “He walked through the door and fell down in a dead faint.”
“What did Dr. Moore say?”
“Doc’s with Ruby. She started having pains during the night.”
Nan had a gift for healing, especially for making sick people feel comfortable and happy. Folks in the valley came to her when they needed help, some even when the doctor was available.
She heaved a sigh. “I’ll take a look at him.”
“You bundle up good,” Gertie called from the back of the hall.
“I’m just going to the road.”
“There’s icicles hanging from the porch roof. You bundle up good.”
Nan put on a heavy coat and wound a thick scarf around her neck.
“You can’t go outside in those shoes,” Gertie said, coming down the hall with a pair of sturdy shoes.
“I hope he’s not very sick,” Nan complained. “He could be dead before I get out the front door.”
“I’ll not have you down in the bed sick on Christmas,” Gertie said.
The December air was frigid. The leaves of magnolias, hollies, and boxwood looked stiff, as if they would crack or break if they moved. Nan’s breath billowed in white clouds before her, and the frozen ground crunched under her feet. The smell of a hickory and oak fire hung in the air. That would be Eli. He hated coal. Said it made the house smell bad. Nan pulled the rough wool of the scarf more securely around her neck.
The mountains that enclosed her valley rose in the distance, their tree--covered flanks dusted with a light covering of snow. Clouds heavy with snow filled the dull sky. Waiting. Threatening. The woolly worms had sported an especially thick coat this year.
The man lay almost buried in a pile of quilts in the back of Wilmer’s wagon.
“I don’t like the look of him,” Wilmer said.
Nan didn’t like the look of him either. He looked exhausted, glassy--eyed with fever. Chestnut--brown hair covered his head in waves. Several strands were matted to his damp forehead. His eyelids were only half open, almost obscuring the deep brown of his eyes. His face had lost all color, but it was clear and handsome and young. He was tall, so tall Wilmer had bent his legs to fit him in the wagon. His suit, starched shirt, and boiled collar announced that he was from a city. Probably somewhere up north. Nobody in the Shenandoah Valley dressed like that.
“Who is he?”
“Will Atkins. Comes from Boston.”
“What’s he doing down here?” Nan examined him carefully. “I’m sure he’ll be all right once his fever breaks, but he’ll need somebody to sit up with him tonight. Is there anybody with him?”
“Good. I’ll explain everything to her. Where is she?”
“There,” Wilmer said, pointing to a person previously hidden by L.P.’s substantial bulk.
Nan’s knees nearly went out from under her. A little girl of no more than four or five sat twisted around on the wagon seat. Her enormous, fear--widened brown eyes stared out from the most angelic face Nan had ever seen.
She was scared almost out of her wits.
Nan felt something clutch at her heart. This child was the image of the daughter she used to dream of having someday.
Nan wrenched her thoughts free of such fantasy.
She had no daughter, and this little girl was alone, frightened, tired, and probably hungry as well.
“Where’s her mother?” Nan asked.
“There ain’t no mother, just them two.”
“She couldn’t have come alone. Who looked after her?”
“Her father, I guess.”
“Then she’ll need someone to care for her until her father gets well.”
“Don’t look at me,” Wilmer said. “I’m closing the inn. Got to go to Locust Hollow. Ruby’s husband has come down with a fever, too. There’s nobody to do the chores till he gets back on his feet.”
“What are you going to do with this man?”
“I was hoping you’d take him in.”
“I’m a maiden lady.”
“Nobody’s going to talk, especially not with him passed out cold as a trout and Gertie and Jake here to look after you. Besides, who’s going to take care of her?” He pointed to the child.
Nan walked around to the other side of the wagon. The little girl was bundled up in a coat and mittens, staring out from a fur--lined hood. Her leggings and shoes were city clothes, too thin to protect her from the ice and snow of this mountain valley. She had to be cold all the way through. Even if her father hadn’t been sick, Nan couldn’t have abandoned her.
“Hi. My name is Nan Carson. What’s your name?”
The child didn’t answer, just stared back at her. Nan saw fear in her clenched hands, her ramrod--stiff posture, her anxious stare.
“Where are you going?”
“Do you know anybody here in Beaker’s Bend?”
“You know they don’t,” Wilmer said, “not with them dressed like that.”
“I guess not,” Nan agreed, “but they’ve got to be going somewhere. Somebody must be expecting them.”
“Well, they’ll not be getting there today.”
“Not for several days,” Nan said, coming to a decision. “Bring Mr. Atkins inside. I’ll take care of him until his fever breaks, but you’ve got to take him again after that.”
“Sure,” Wilmer said.
“You’re going to stay at my house,” Nan said to the little girl. She held out her hand, but the child didn’t move. Tears welled up in the child’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
“Please don’t let my daddy die.”
A lump formed in Nan’s throat. She reached out, unclasped the child’s hands, and took them in her own. “Your father’s going to get well, I promise. I’m going to take very good care of him. And I’m going to fix you something good to eat and tuck you up in a nice, warm bed.”
The little girl still looked fearful, but Nan felt her tiny hands relax and return her pressure. When Wilmer and L.P. lifted her father out of the wagon, the tears flowed faster and her hand squeezed tighter. Nan felt as if her heart would break. She put her arms around the child and drew her close. The tiny body felt frail, yet stiff with fear. Nan wanted desperately to comfort her, but she knew that only time would overcome her dread of being in an unfamiliar town surrounded by strangers, her father very ill. She must feel utterly alone. Abandoned.
Nan picked up the child. “I’ve never had a little girl of my own,” she said. “For tonight, let’s pretend I’m your mommy.”
The child spoke unexpectedly. “My mommy’s gone to heaven. Is Daddy going to heaven, too?”
Nan hugged the child a little closer. “No, your daddy’s going to get well, and you’re going to have the best Christmas ever.”
The child put her arms around Nan’s neck and held tight. Unwilling to break her hold, Nan carried her to the house down a rock--lined path past a bed of dead roses, an empty flower bed, and a half acre of brown, withered grass. She waited while Wilmer and L.P. struggled to carry Will Atkins up the steps. Gertie held the door open.
“Take him straight back,” Nan told Wilmer.
“But that’s your room,” Gertie objected.
The big room, once Nan’s parents’, lay at the back of the house across the wide hall from the kitchen. Nan directed them to place Will on an oversized bed piled high with thick, soft mattresses. The room was filled with ornately carved, dark cherrywood furniture, but Nan’s touches could be seen in the gingham bed cover and lace curtains at the window to let in the light.
“I’ll sleep in my old room,” Nan said.
She put the little girl down. The child wouldn’t let go of Nan’s hand, so Nan knelt beside her. “I’m going to take you to the kitchen while I see about your father.” The child clutched tighter. “This is Gertie,” Nan said, introducing her farm manager’s wife. “She’ll get you something to eat.”
The child still clung to Nan. Nan choked up. How many times had she dreamed of holding her own child just like this? She didn’t want to let go, but she knew she had to see to the father.
“You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll be right here.”
Still she wouldn’t let go. Nan didn’t have the heart to force her to go with Gertie. Still kneeling, still holding the child’s hand, she said to Gertie, “Bring some warm milk and bread and jam to the bedroom.”
She turned to the child. “Would you like that?”
The girl didn’t answer, but Nan thought she detected a brightness in her eyes. Nan led her into the bedroom, to a chair close to the bed. “Sit right here. You can watch everything that happens to your daddy. We’re going to make him better. I’m going to light the fire. It’ll soon be warm as toast.” Nan lifted her into a chair. “I won’t leave you, I promise. But I’ve got to make your father better. You want that, don’t you?”
The child nodded.
“Then sit right here. I’ll be back in a moment.” The child looked scared, but determined to be brave.
Wilmer and L.P. had undressed Mr. Atkins and put him into Nan’s father’s nightshirt. Nan put her hand to his forehead. He was burning up with fever. His pulse was calm and steady, but she would have to keep him warm. She took an extra quilt out of a tall wardrobe and asked L.P. to bring in more firewood for the woodbox. She went out and returned in a few minutes with a cool compress for her patient’s forehead and a hot--water bottle for his feet. She would give him some hot herbal tea as soon as it was ready, but right now she was more concerned about keeping him warm.
She put another log on the fire and turned her attention to the child. Nan was pleased to see her take a bite out of a thick slice of whole--wheat bread covered with freshly churned butter and Concord grape jam.
Nan pulled up a chair next to her. “I wish you’d tell me your name.”
The child wiggled a little, but she didn’t look so scared. “Clara,” she announced. She looked down at her shoes rather than at Nan.
“That’s a lovely name. My name is Nan. I don’t like it very much. I think Clara is much prettier.”
Clara smiled rather nervously.
“When did your daddy get sick?”
“While he was sleeping. He wouldn’t eat his breakfast.”
Just as Nan had thought. Two people in Beaker’s Bend had already come down with similar symptoms. Their fever remained high for about twenty--four hours, then it broke, leaving them weak but none the worse otherwise.
“He should be just fine in the morning. Do you want anything else to eat?”
The child shook her head.
“You can have more.” Nan thought Clara was probably too frightened to be hungry tonight.
“No, thank you.”
“Then I’m going to tuck you into a nice warm bed,” Nan said, wondering who had taught the child such beautiful manners. She acted older than her age. She must be an only child surrounded by adults. Nan wondered how long ago her mother had died. “When you wake up, your daddy will be all better.”
Nan stood. Clara seemed reluctant to leave the fire and the comfort of her father’s presence, but she slid out of the chair.
“I’m going to put you in the room I had when I was a little girl,” Nan said. “You can sleep in the bed I slept in when I was your age.”
Her mother had insisted they keep it for the time Nan’s daughters would need it.
Wilmer had brought the bags in, and Gertie had taken Clara’s bag upstairs to a small room with bright, flowered wallpaper. All the handmade furniture was half--size. Clara allowed herself to be undressed and put to bed. Nan marveled that a room that used to seem so friendly should seem so cold now.
“If you need anything, you just call,” Nan told her. “I’m going to go downstairs to take care of your father, but I’ll sleep in the room right next to you.” She led her into the hall and showed her the right door. “I’ll leave this open so I can hear you. All right?”
Clara nodded, but she seemed frightened again.
Nan hated to leave her, but Clara needed to go to sleep. She probably hadn’t had any rest all day. After the trip and the scare of her father getting sick, she must be exhausted.
“Do you think it’s okay to leave her up there by herself ?” Nan asked Gertie when she came downstairs.
“I expect she’ll sleep till morning. Poor thing looks worn to a frazzle. Now you come into the kitchen before your dinner gets cold.”
“Bring it to the bedroom. I don’t think I ought to leave Mr. Atkins that long.”
“He’ll be just fine.”
“Nevertheless, I’ll feel more comfortable if I sit with him.”
Gertie went away grumbling under her breath, but Nan didn’t pay her any mind. Gertie had never accepted the fact that Nan had grown up and was not the little girl she had been twenty--four years ago when Gertie married Jake Tanner and moved away from Beaker’s Bend.
Will Atkins hadn’t moved. Nan put her hand on his forehead, but she knew before she touched him that his fever hadn’t broken. His skin was hot and dry. It felt tight. Nan had cared for many people, but no one had ever made her as nervous as this man did.
It’s because he’s Clara’s father.
But she knew that wasn’t it. She was nervous because he was a good--looking man. She couldn’t help but be aware of it. She had felt something happen inside her the moment she set eyes on him. Almost as if she were sixteen again.
Don’t be foolish. This man will be up and on his way in a couple of days, and you’ll never see him again. He won’t even remember your name by next Christmas.
Maybe, but she couldn’t turn her eyes away from the handsome head that rested on her goose--down pillows. She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to his wife, and why he should be in the Shenandoah Valley at this time of year. She remembered his ready--to--wear wool suit and Clara’s clothes that spoke of expensive shops in a big, eastern city. He wouldn’t stay in Beaker’s Bend any longer than necessary.
She had brushed his chestnut hair back from his brow, but not even his disordered hair and pallid skin detracted from his handsome face. She brushed the back of her fingers against his cheek. The skin was hot and taut, the cheeks gaunt from fever, but the clean line of his jaw and the finely etched nose complemented the fullness of his lips.
Nan made herself stand away from the bed when Gertie came in to place her dinner on a table next to her chair.
“Jake’s not easy in his mind about you having that man sleeping in your bed,” Gertie said.
“I don’t know why. I’m not sleeping in it, and Mr. Atkins is too sick to know where he is. If that’s not enough, Jake can sleep at the foot of the bed.”
Gertie looked affronted. Nan kissed the older woman’s cheek. “You should be happy. Not an hour ago I was feeling down because Gideon wasn’t going to be home for Christmas. Now we have company.”
“They’ll only be here a day or two,” Gertie said. “It’ll just be that much lonelier when they’re gone.”
Gertie was right. Nan would miss them. Odd. She didn’t know anything about Will Atkins, but she felt drawn to him. But then, a handsome, helpless man offered an irresistible appeal to any woman. She was less able to explain her feeling for Clara. Already she felt a strong attachment to the little girl, almost as if she belonged to her.
It had to be the season and that she felt lonely because Gideon wasn’t coming home. Next year she’d make sure she had so much to do that she wouldn’t have time to be lonely. Maybe she’d go visit Gideon and Doris. She knew he’d invite her.
But it was too late for this year, and she was thankful for Mr. Atkins and his daughter.
Nan twisted in her chair. She had forgotten how uncomfortable it was to sit up all night, even in a comfortable chair. She opened her eyes and glanced at the clock. Twenty--two minutes after midnight. She didn’t get up. She had checked Will Atkins less than ten minutes ago.
Light from a single tongue of fire struggled to hold the darkness at bay. The pattern on the quilt, Will’s shape in the bed, were crisscrossed with shadows cast by the posts at the end of the bed. The rest of the room lay in deep shadow.
Nan closed her eyes, but she remained restless. The floor creaked. Startled, she opened her eyes and sat up. Clara stood by her father’s bedside.
Nan got up and knelt before the child. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You mean you’ve been lying up there all this time waiting for me to come to bed?”
“Didn’t you sleep at all?”
The child shook her head.
“Then you can sleep down here,” Nan said. She reached under the skirt of the bed and pulled out a trundle bed. “I’d almost forgotten this was here.” It only took Nan a few minutes to make up the bed and retrieve the pillow and quilts from the bottom of the wardrobe. “Now, let’s tuck you under.”
Clara climbed between the sheets. “Are you going to stay here?”
Nan heard the fear in the child’s voice.
“Yes,” Nan replied.
Clara settled into the bed, but she didn’t close her eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” Nan said.
She hurried upstairs, lifted the lid on a pine chest at the end of her old bed, and took out a large, handmade doll fashioned of heavy linen with clothes of bright gingham faded with time. She carried the nearly shapeless doll downstairs.
“Here’s somebody to keep you company,” she said as she slipped the doll under the covers next to Clara. “Her name is Betty. She’s a little prickly because my brother Gideon tried to cut all her hair off. I gave Gideon a black eye. Papa was real mad, but Mama understood.”
Clara giggled and pulled the doll close. “She only has one eye.”
“The other one must have fallen off in the chest. We’ll look for it tomorrow and sew it back on. Now you go to sleep. Your father ought to be better in the morning, and you’ll want to be awake to keep him company.”
“Aren’t you going to keep him company, too?”
“Of course, but he’ll especially want you.”
“You’re sure Daddy’s going to be all right?”
“Positive. Now close your eyes. The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can wake up and find him well.”
Clara obediently closed her eyes, the doll clutched in her arms, but Nan could tell she wasn’t asleep.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“I’ll get you another quilt.”
But that wasn’t the answer either.
“Would you like to sit in my lap for a minute?”
Nan didn’t know why she asked that, but she had obviously said the right thing. Clara was out of the trundle bed and in her lap before Nan could change her mind.
Nan felt awkward. She had never held a child like this, but Clara didn’t feel the least bit unsure. She pulled her knees up under her chin, rested her head on Nan’s bosom, clutched the doll in a tight grasp, and closed her eyes. In less than a minute she was sound asleep. She didn’t wake when Nan leaned over to get the quilt to cover her.
Nan didn’t know what to do. She knew she should put Clara back in the trundle bed, but she was afraid she would waken her. The child might feel abandoned when she woke up.
It was some time before Nan drifted off to sleep again. She had a warm feeling inside that spread through her whole body. It made her feel good, contented. She felt almost like a married woman with a husband and a child to care for. She told herself not to be foolish, that only children indulged in make--believe, but she couldn’t stop the feeling. Besides, she liked it. For the first time in a long while, she didn’t feel as if the pageant of life had passed her by. It might be foolish, but it was only a small indulgence. It wouldn’t matter. They’d be gone in a day or two.
Nan looked at the man in the bed and the little girl in her arms. She realized that she didn’t want them to go.
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