Today, author Kristen James shares a sneak-peek at her book, A Cowboy for Christmas.
When her estranged brother passes, Missy is suddenly an unwanted co-owner to Ocean View Stables by Florence, Oregon. Missy wants to start over somewhere new after her old boss burned her. She’s jobless and has a wrongly ruined reputation, so this works out perfectly . . . until she meets the cowboy running the place. Brent built his dream with determination and his two hands; he’s responsible for everything that happens there. Secretly, he feels responsible that his former partner died. He also doesn’t hide his belief that Missy won’t stick around. Women tend to take off on him so why would she be any different? They both have a past that can ruin their future. Can he trust her to stay? Can she trust him with her heart?
By Kristen James
If her name meant anything to the tall cowboy who leaned against the porch rail, he didn’t react. Instead, he appraised her with sky blue eyes while the afternoon light slanted against him. She’d pulled up to the house and introduced herself, and now waited for his name or a hello.
“The name ain’t ringing a bell,” he said quietly, then looked her up and down. “And believe me, I’d remember your face.”
Would you now? It sounded like a compliment, but he didn’t smile with it. Missy wasn’t sure what to make of him.
His voice carried like a gentle breeze. The man, however, looked rough as the landscape around them. Hard stance, set jaw, arms folded. His long, lean body might be perfect for pressing against a woman, but his eyes were distrusting.
The sign clearly said Ocean View Stables, so she knew she had the right place.
“Melissa Nelson,” she repeated. This was awkward. “Ben may have called me Missy.” Come on, nothing? She rubbed her arms through her jacket, chilled from the cool Oregon weather and this overly warm welcome. “I’m Ben’s sister. Aren’t you Mr. Hatcher?”
“Nope.” He tilted his head and stared some more, like he’d never seen a woman before. The daylight darkened. Raindrops plopped on her while she waited for some kind of answer. Any kind of answer would be nice. “Ben’s lawyer called you,” he added, “And you came right over. I see.”
He wore a tan Stetson on his head, a rich blue shirt with sleeves rolled up, snug Wranglers, and boots. He’d make a great bedroom poster, something to ogle on lonely nights, but his too sexy look only distracted her.
Did she really lose her train of thought while checking him out? “I flew in from Nevada . . . He asked me to come.” She almost added that Mr. Hatcher was supposed to meet her here. Wouldn’t this guy know that?
“Come on in, then.” Without introducing himself, he turned to the front door and led the way in. Inside, she fought off a shiver. It wasn’t the cold this time, but a reaction to his nearness. His eyes were so intent on her, she could scarcely breathe.
Scents of leather and pine met her inside his home. A man’s home, for sure. “How did you know Ben?” she asked.
He opened a closet door and gestured to her coat. She wanted an answer, but decided to shrug out of her coat, since it was thin and wet anyway.
With his brows creased at her, he took it. “We went in fifty-fifty on this place.”
Oh, no. She hadn’t considered there would be other investors. That explained why he was here. “So you live here?”
“Yup.” He faced her and rested his hands on his hips in a lazy manner. Irritated, she turned and glanced around at the open floor plan.
She spotted a kitchen nook off to her left. What kind of man had a kitchen nook? To her right, a fire smoldered in the large brick fireplace in the living room. What she could see of that room gave an impression of comfort, where a family could gather.
His house was beautiful, but it looked more like a family home than a bachelor’s place. Well, it could be with some personal touches. At least it was warm and dry, unlike the misty weather outside.
Since he blocked her way, she couldn’t ignore him any longer. “What?” The words burst out, and sounded desperate to her own ears.
“You look like him.”
Well, he knew her late brother, but she didn’t know enough about Ben’s life to guess who this guy could be. She asked, “Were you close to my brother?”
“Friends, business partners,” he said with a shrug as if it didn’t matter.
He moved toward the kitchen, but turned back around and looked her over again. “Ben never talked about any sister.”
Ouch. “Well . . . We weren’t raised together. We didn’t even know about each other until our father died three years ago.” Since she could lose herself in the hurtful past, she tried to ignore it.
“Missed the funeral, you know.” Arms folded, he leaned back against the counter. She couldn’t pinpoint anything about him that would make a shiver race up her back, though one did.
“Ben’s lawyer didn’t get a hold of me until yesterday,” she explained. He walked around the counter and into the kitchen, a tidy space decorated only with a lone marble horse statue on the counter.
Sighing, she rubbed her temples while his back was turned. He couldn’t know she was jobless, with an uncertain future, and had spent a pretty penny on the airfare to come out.
She’d withdrawn some of her savings to make the trip. The lawyer wouldn’t have asked her to come unless there was something here for her. Now she wondered if it would be worth it.
“I get it.” He faced her, planted both hands on the counter, and leaned toward her. “You hoped to make out with some dough. Too bad you didn’t know about me.” He ignored her gasp and pulled several things from the refrigerator, then started lunch on the opposite counter, with his back to her.
“What kind of person says something like that? You don’t know me!” Who cared if it might be true? He had no right to be so rude, not when he didn’t know why she hadn’t been able to get better acquainted with her brother.
“Exactly.” He didn’t turn around to speak. It appeared like he wanted her to leave. He added, “I don’t know you. I knew Ben, and you never came to visit.”
How could she have known they were out of time? “Listen, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I was asked to come here, remember?”
No answer. Figures. She tapped the toe of her shoe as she sought another angle to try. “So who are you?”
His face, when he glanced back at her, had softened. Those blue eyes could melt a woman’s will, but she doubted he’d use them on her. All the better, because she didn’t need another man using her and then tossing her away.
“Brent Williams. Ben and I started this place together.”
Brent meant the ranch, the hills and paths she’d seen when she drove in, and the horses that grazed and ran in the pastures. Maybe she’d get somewhere now. “Is the lawyer coming?”
“He’s on his way over.” He turned around and pushed a plate across the counter. “Might as well join me for lunch.”
“Lunch?” At the word, her stomach growled. After the flight into Oregon and the drive west to Florence, she felt starved. She’d been too distracted to eat as she thought about the past and worried about her future. “Umm, thanks.”
“You look like you need some good food in you.” He poured her a glass of milk to go with it before he walked around the counter with a stool for her to sit on. She didn’t know what to make of the sudden hospitality from the cold cowboy, but once she bit into the sandwich, she didn’t care. “Wow.”
He sat on a stool on the opposite side. They ate without discussion, and the passing minutes grew more tense.
When she couldn’t take the silence, she asked, “How did Ben die? The lawyer didn’t tell me.”
Brent’s gaze dropped down to the counter. “You can ask him when he gets here.”
Okay, so no more playing nice. While he didn’t look distraught over Ben’s death, he sure closed up when she asked about it.
Why did he have to be so brutally attractive? Why was he rude to her, and then fixed her lunch? She contemplated his actions while she nibbled on the last of her sandwich.
He drained his glass and set his plate next to the sink, then stood in the kitchen and looked at her. And, boy, did he look at her. After he searched her face, his gaze slid down her throat. She tried to keep the color from her cheeks, thankful she hadn’t worn anything low-cut.
“Are you sure Mr. Hatcher is on his way?” She couldn’t take much more of this.
“Yeah, he called right before you showed up.”
Now why didn’t he mention that before? She glared. He glared back. Someone knocked.
“That’d be him.” He left her trembling with anger and answered the door, where a middle-aged man in a suit waited. She stayed by the kitchen counter.
Brent greeted the shorter, dark haired man by saying, “Did you know Ben had a sister?”
“He mentioned some family,” the other man said with an easy-going smile as he came in and offered a hand to Missy. “Nice to meet you in person, Miss Nelson. I’m Nick Thatcher. Looks like you found the place without problem.”
“The problems started after I got here.” She spoke coldly and threw a look at Brent.
Nick turned to Brent. “Are you giving her a hard time?”
Brent gave him a what can I do? shrug. Nick sighed and said, “Ah, he’s rough on the outside, but he’s a good man.”
“You two are buddies?” she asked. Great, a big conspiracy.
“That doesn’t mean anything bad for you, Miss Nelson.” He looked at Brent and held up his briefcase. “Is there somewhere you’d like to sit down and go over this?”
Brent led the way into the living room. He sat on the couch across from her and sank back, his eyes once again on her like a hawk about to strike. Did he look at her because she reminded him of Ben, or did he think of the quickest way to get rid of her?
She took a deep breath and decided to pretend indifference. In reality, she hoped this would give her a way to start over, somewhere new. After her last relationship, and her job, crumbled, she needed direction.
“Ben left no children, as you both know, and no other relatives but you, Miss Nelson,” Nick started. “As such, his interest in Ocean View Stables goes to you.”
“No!” Brent sprang to his feet. “That’s just not right. This is my ranch, built by my own sweat and blood. Ben’s interest should go to me now.”
Nick sat forward. “Now, hold on and let me talk. Miss Nelson didn’t come here to take over your ranch. There’s no reason why you can’t buy her out.”
That’s what she wanted to hear. Brent glared at her as if she’d set the place on fire.
“Brent,” Nick started, “Is there a possibility you can buy her out?”
Brent went to the window that overlooked the pastures outside and spoke. “We just got started two years ago, and we’re not turning much of a profit yet. So, no, there isn’t the capital to do anything like that.”
Missy yanked in a breath. Now what? “What does that mean?”
Nick’s brow furrowed and he puffed out his cheeks. “Well, you have half interest in these stables. Do you like horses?”
Brent spun around. “This is my place and it’s staying that way.”
Her and horses? Could today go any worse?
“I’m sorry, Brent, but you own the back forty acres. Miss Nelson now owns the front forty, along with Ben’s six horses.” Nick weaved his plump fingers together. She guessed he might be considering the options for them, but she didn’t plan to sit back and let them decide.
“I can take over Ben’s work here.” Now where did that wonderful idea come from? Just because Brent didn’t want her here didn’t mean she had to stay and spite him. Did it?
Both men looked at her with blank faces. Okay, so maybe she should have dressed in something besides her silk suit. And stilettos.
Nick coughed, but it sounded suspiciously more like a laugh to Missy. “I don’t think you understand what’s involved in caring for horses. And what about your job back home?”
She wouldn’t tell them, but that was the problem. She didn’t have a job. “Do you think I’m not capable?”
She’d directed the challenge at Nick, but he looked down and shuffled his papers. Brent sat down on the couch and answered as he linked his fingers behind his head, “You’re not needed.”
“Oh, so you’ll hire someone to take on Ben’s share of the work?” The property seemed to be a good size, but she hadn’t seen any other men who worked it.
He let out a pent-up breath.
Ha, got you, don’t I?
“Miss Nelson, could you sign these papers now?” Nick stood and took them to the counter. Brent’s insistent gaze kept her in her seat for a second. Thoughts of fighting with him every day unnerved her . . . and made her feel restless.
She broke their staring contest when she stood, and left Brent to stomp around and swear in his living room.
When she joined Nick at the counter, she asked in a whisper, “How did Ben die?”
After glancing toward the other room, he whispered, “A wreck on the freeway. He was pulling an empty horse trailer.”
“How awful.” She shivered and wished she could push the feelings away.
“Please don’t ask Brent about it,” he said, sparking her interest. She gave him a look she hoped would prompt him to explain, but Nick didn’t elaborate. Instead he explained the papers and took her through page by page. He pointed and she signed.
“Thank you, Miss Nelson, I’ll be in touch.” He nodded to her and met Brent by the door. After he spoke with Brent, he waved and left. They stood next to each other, two strangers facing off.
“You obviously don’t want me here. That’s okay, I’m used to that.” She folded her arms, and kept a calm demeanor despite the fear that he could tell her to leave at any moment.
He rubbed his chin, maybe thinking, and she noticed the way his shirt pulled over his muscles. He had a presence about him, like a graceful oak that presided over an otherwise treeless field.
But his good looks didn’t mean a thing. So, what if one more man thought he could brush her aside? She had every right to stay. Ben had, after all, bought all this with the inheritance money from their father. Her father raised her, but he left everything to a son Missy had never even met.
“What do you know about horses?” he asked, and it threw her out of her thoughts. She pictured the horses she’d seen in parades. Maybe she shouldn’t show off her expertise.
Brent sighed. “I see. So you’ve never ridden, but you want to come out here and play cowgirl.”
This wasn’t a game. “This is the only way I have to know Ben now.”
He must have heard something in her voice, because he studied her again, this time with kinder eyes. “We have a lot of work to do around here.”
“So I’ll learn.” She’d end up with every dirty job he didn’t want, but she’d settle for that. “What else can we do?”
He didn’t have a choice, and they both knew it.
“We take boarder horses, mostly in the winter.” He surprised her when he switched into instructor mode. “We give lessons and take groups on rides over the hills and down to the beach. You’ll have to learn how to ride and care for the animals.”
“Okay.” She’d adapted many times in her life, and she could do it now. “I just have one stipulation.”
He looked at her with raised brows. “Go on.”
“You can’t stare at me like that,” she said and folded her arms. His lips twitched and his cool eyes lightened for a second before his hard look returned.
He pulled her coat from the closet and handed it to her. “So if I stare at you all day, you’ll leave?”
“Fat chance,” she said before she slipped her coat on.
“Did you bring any bags with you?” he asked and actually looked away from her to open the front door.
“Well, I’ll show you to Ben’s. I guess it’s yours now.”
* * * *
Brent grabbed his suede jacket and headed out into the morning mist. The fog blocked his view of Ben’s house farther down the road, but he still looked in that direction as he pictured Missy. Obviously Nez Pierce like her brother, she had reddish-cocoa skin and exotic brown eyes. They were huge and slightly tilted. Did she ever use them to seduce men?
More importantly, did she care about her dead brother? Care that she came here and replaced him?
What would a sweet little city slicker do out here without her morning espresso? She didn’t exactly talk like someone from the city, but she dressed like one. He only knew she was from east of here.
He stalked down to the horse stables, but froze mid-step at the entrance. His Appaloosa gelding, Jeffery, nuzzled Missy’s hand.
Thoughts of that darn woman had kept him up half the night. But she looked rested. What was she doing here so early?
Her face wasn’t guarded. He hadn’t realized just how snobby she’d looked the day before in her nice clothes, but now she smiled at the animal. Her hair hung down her back like a black, shinny mane. It’d been up yesterday, so he hadn’t guessed it was so long.
Nick was wrong. She was here to take over the stables, starting with his own damn horse.
The traitor horse reacted to Missy just like he had to Ben. She had the same natural ease around them. They made a nice picture, for sure. That long body of hers would look great riding on a horse.
She must have listened to his suggestion that she go into town and buy some work clothes. Now in jeans, insulated boots, and a thick, winter coat, she looked like she could belong. On her own ranch, that was.
Wasn’t it his luck that she was so hot? He loved long hair, and she had plenty. And huge brown eyes in an oval face. Lips that just begged for a kiss. Darn it, he didn’t need to waste his time with fantasies.
She saw him and stepped back from the horse.
“Morning,” he said as he rested a hand on the stall. “I see you and my horse are on good terms.”
“What’s his name?” Her gaze rested on the horse, then Brent, and then the horse again. A teasing smile slipped onto her face.
“His name’s Jeffery. And what’s so funny?” He caught himself right before he returned that enticing smile.
“They say pets and their owners start to look alike. Jeffery has your long face.”
One corner of her mouth tilted up before she bit her lip. He saw her white teeth nibble on her lower lip and thought of doing the same. Whoa!
“So does Dancer remind you of Ben?” he asked, tilting his head to the black stallion that watched her.
Missy looked back at the wild-looking thing. “I don’t know.”
Yeah, he had her there. Funny thing was, he felt bad that he’d made her face go all sad. “So, you ready?”
She nodded, though she couldn’t know what she agreed to.
“Great, truck’s outside,” he said and noticed how quiet she was. He waited until she slid in and buckled up to start the engine. Her lavender scent smelled strange mixed with the truck’s normal leather smell. “Not a morning person?”
“Missy?” That made her turn her face his way.
“Sorry, I’ve got so many things on my mind,” she said, still not focused on him.
“Second thoughts about being here, or worries about the life waiting for you?”
“I’ll pull my weight, don’t worry. And I’m sticking around, so get used to me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He turned the truck off his gravel road, onto the highway, and sped up.
“It’s just being in Ben’s house . . .” She looked down at her lap.
He felt guilty. Maybe he shouldn’t have left her there alone. Too late now.
Or could he fix it? “I wasn’t thinking. You can move over to my place if you need to.” What in hell was he thinking now? Her in his house?
“It’s all right. Being there just made me think about him more, wonder about him.” She turned to her window, and a minute later, added, “The sky there looks like the inside of a seashell.”
At her soft comment, he glanced over. She was too pretty to be sitting in his dusty truck. Something stirred in him at the sight of her hair, her hands resting one on top of the other in her lap. Casual beauty, he thought.
Darn it, her looks weren’t his business.
A few days of hard ranch work, and she’d hit the road for home. Just like Amanda had two years before.
“We need more hay for the horses,” he said. Since she still gazed out the side window, he let himself stare for a quick minute. Nice profile. Nice mouth, too. A man could go crazy thinking about kissing her. But back to ranch business . . . “There’s two guys working out here, Dale and Ivan. You’ll run across them.”
“They live on the property?” she asked, and the hint of panic in her voice surprised him. So far, she acted as if nothing could run her off.
He shouldn’t ask about it. Besides, she seemed to be trying to cover for it now. “Dale does, in a small house closer to the main road. You probably didn’t see it through the forest over there.”
In his side vision, he saw her flick a look over at him. She’d trailed her gaze over him a few times the day before, but he couldn’t tell if she liked what she saw or not. It didn’t matter, but he liked to think she did.
“Have you always been around horses?”
“My dad made his living from horses, and I always have, too.” He felt his shoulders relax, though he hadn’t realized before how stiff he’d been. Maybe they could manage this. “When we finish today, you might want to go check out some books on horses. I’ll go over everything with you, but it’d help if you can tell a bridle from a stirrup.”
“I’m not that slow.”
“I’m just saying, I’d like you to know what everything is. Horse breeds, grasses, a little about horse care. Check into trail horses, since that’s what we have here.” He glanced over. “That is, if you’re serious about this.”
“I am.” Her voice wasn’t haughty like before, but heavy. Maybe she did see what she was getting into.
“This is Jack’s farm coming up.” He pulled down a long gravel drive. Ready for them, Jack waved and swung open the barn door, but he scratched his thick, gray beard as he looked at Missy. Hopping out, Brent told him, “Jack Wilson, this is Ben’s sister, Missy Nelson.”
“Ben had a sister?” At Jack’s words, Brent gave her a look.
She narrowed her eyes as she stepped back. He knew that she wouldn’t be much help. Her petite frame couldn’t be more than five feet five, and the bales were stinking heavy. Still, she needed to see what they did.
Jack jumped up into the truck bed and stacked the bales as Brent loaded them. He paused after a minute to toss her a pair of gloves.
“I noticed you don’t have a pair.” He waited while she slipped them on. “Want to help out?”
He threw another bale into the bed to demonstrate and stepped back to let her try.
Bending, she grabbed the strings and pulled. “Holy crap!”
He couldn’t stop the laugh, but he managed to keep it silent. Too bad she caught him shaking when she stood up.
“Would you like to keep the steering wheel warm?” He grinned with the comment so she’d know it was in fun.
“You jerk!” She glared. “There are other ways I can help out on the ranch.”
He sobered because her eyes grew smoldering with anger. They looked amber, and entrancing. He felt his breathing quicken.
Turning, she walked to the front of the truck and got back in the passenger seat. He went back to work, shrugging at Jack’s puzzled look. They both looked in the back window at her stiff shoulders and knew to keep silent as they worked.
“That about does it,” Jack said when he stacked the last one.
“See you, Jack,” Brent waved and joined Missy in the cab to head back. With her arms folded, she turned her body away and didn’t speak the entire trip home.
This wasn’t so bad, he thought with a glance her way. If they could stay angry at each other, he wouldn’t have to wonder about her.
When they reached the stables, he backed his truck up to unload the hay, but he didn’t get out when he turned off the engine. “Listen, I’ll find you something else to do.”
Trying not to grin again, he asked, “It was funny, wasn’t it?”
Her head turned. When her gaze locked with his, the truck cab grew suddenly smaller. Talk about one determined lady.
He saw her Nez Pierce heritage in her high, proud cheekbones and skin the color of red baked clay. She had a face someone could stare at for hours.
But not him. Right?
Brent knew she had her own agenda, not a relationship, on her mind. Well, she wasn’t the only one.
Author Kristen James lives on the river in Oregon and loves the outdoors. She cycles, runs, hikes, canoes and enjoys finding wild berries and mushrooms. Of course, writing is a huge passion. Her other romances include More Than Memories and Embers of Hope. The River People is her Native American fiction. She also has general fiction novels and an upcoming fantasy novella titled The Fairy and her Giant. Learn more about all of her titles and read her blog, or connect on Facebook or on Twitter. Until November 16, 2011, you can enter her November Giveaway on her Facebook page to win an ebook or $25 Amazon gift card.