A Cowboy’s Holiday

This Creed’s Crossing Short Story is available inside the Exquisite Quills A Holiday Anthology, Vol. 2, A collection of Winter Holiday Tales

Thirteen Exquisite Quills authors got together this year to bring you another collection of short holiday stories for your enjoyment. I’m giving you my short story contained that book on this page, but I suggest you visit your favorite ebook store and pick up the entire book, it should be free on all sites. (Cover is linked to Smashwords.com)

The calendar on the wall says 2014 but the holidays are a magical time where anything is possible when it comes to romance. Prepare to travel through snow or to a tropical setting with a little dash of fantasy sprinkled in to make your holiday reading enjoyable. This heart-warming collection of all new, very short stories is our way of saying happy holidays to you.

ornaments

A Cowboy’s Holiday

E. Ayers

Hannah Smith was sitting by a window. She seemed to be staring into nothingness. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a large clip and some of it had escaped the plastic jaws and now tumbled down her back.

Jeremy McCullough walked over, lightly tugged on her wayward lock of hair and put his cup of coffee on her table as he slid onto the seat across from her. “Hi. Penny for your thoughts.”

She looked at him and smiled. “Hi. Not thinking about much of anything. Are you going home for the holidays?”

“Yeah. Three days of driving. I tried doing it in two and almost fell asleep behind the wheel. With the snow that is predicted, it might take me more than three.”

“You’re lucky. You get to go home.”

“You’re not going home?”

She shook her head. “Can’t afford it. My mom is military and my dad and siblings went with her. She’s not even in this country. She’s in Japan.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Same thing as last Christmas. Stay here.” Her smile looked forced. “I was hoping you’d be here, too. Keep each other company and all that.”

This is worth a try and it just might be my lucky break. “Why don’t you come with me? Ever been to Wyoming?”

“I’ve been to a lot of places growing up, but never to Wyoming.” She grimaced. “But I can’t just go home with you. It’s not as though you live an hour away.”

“I don’t morph at night into a crazed animal with claws, nor am I an axe murderer. I promise I’m a gentleman, and my family will welcome you with open arms.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “Listen.” He touched the screen and the phone began to ring. “Hi, Grandma. May I bring a filly home with me? She doesn’t have anyplace to go for Christmas.”

“Of course, you may. Is there anything more to this story that you’d like to tell me?”

He could hear the smile in his grandmother’s words. “No. She’s just a fellow student. But I don’t want her staying here on campus alone over the holiday.”

“But if she’s more than just a friend…”

“Grandma, I promise, she’s just a friend and would appreciate the guest room.”

“Are you sure? You’re a grown man. No one is going to say anything if you want her in your room.”

He could feel the heat headed for his cheeks, and prayed it wouldn’t show as he winked at Hannah. “Really, Grandma. She’s just a friend. We’ve taken classes together, and we often run into each other on campus.”

Hannah put her hand on her forehead as her cheeks flushed, and she lowered her gaze to her almost empty coffee cup.

“Well, of course, she’s welcome to come. It’s nothing for me to set an extra plate. Besides it is Christmas. You two talk it over and let me know when you are on the road.”

“I will, Grandma. Thanks.” He disconnected the call and grinned at Hannah. “See, it was that easy. You’re coming home with me.”

“But I don’t have a bunch of extra money to pay for hotel rooms between there and here.”

“Don’t worry about any expenses. I can cover everything.”

“Professor Hadley invited me to have Christmas dinner with her family. It’s not that I won’t have anyplace to go. She’s very nice, and often has students over who are stuck here.”

“You’re coming with me.”

“But I–”

“Hannah, you’re coming with me…as a friend…to my family’s ranch. I promise I’m a total gentleman.”

Hannah giggled. “You never struck me as being anything else.”

He rolled his palms so they faced up. “I’m a normal male, but my parents raised me to at least act like a decent one. Just wear really ugly pajamas, because I don’t need any temptation.”

She laughed. “Does that mean you like me?”

“Why wouldn’t I? Let’s grab some pizza. I want to get some sleep tonight. I like getting on the road early.”

“Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Call it whatever you want. I’ll call it pizza with a friend.” He swigged down the last of his coffee. “If we go now, it’ll be quieter. I think there are some holiday parties planned for tonight, and I’d like to be asleep before that happens.”

She pushed her chair back. “I’m fine with that.”

***

At five o’clock in the morning, Hannah, still bleary-eyed, dragged her suitcase out of the dorm and into the parking lot where Jeremy greeted her.

“Not much of a morning person?”

She knitted her eyebrows together and watched as he stowed her bag in the cab of his pickup truck. “It’s not morning. The sun isn’t up.”

“What time did you go to bed?”

“Midnight. I had to do laundry so I had something to pack.”

He laughed and held the passenger door for her. “You can go back to sleep.”

“I should have brought my pillow.”

“Well, go get it.”

She turned and went back into the dorm. What am I doing up? What am I thinking? I’m not.

On the third floor, she unlocked her dorm room and grabbed her fuzzy throw and the pillow from her bed. Great. I’m taking my blankie and my pillow. He’s going to think I’ve lost my mind.

She returned to his truck, and he held the door for her.

“There’s coffee for you in the cup holder.”

How can he be so awake? She fastened her seatbelt and sipped the coffee. It was perfect. “How did you know what I like in my coffee?”

“Do you realize how many times I’ve watched you fix your cup?”

Warmth emanated from the seat where she sat. She looked around the cab, and it looked like a luxury car complete with a large computer screen in the dash.

He was saying something about beating the morning traffic on the interstate, but she tucked her fuzzy throw around her legs, put her head on the pillow, and closed her eyes.

She awakened to discover they were driving through flurries. They had lunch from a fast food drive-thru, but when they stopped for dinner, they ate at a truck stop. About eight thirty, they pulled into a small motel, and Jeremy got a room for them. Suddenly the pleasant day they had spent together dissolved when she realized he’d only reserved a single room with two beds.

Her insides clenched. She’d never spent a night with a man. Now she was miles from school with almost no money, and she was with Jeremy McCullough, one of the hottest, smartest guys on campus. Probably every female enrolled in the veterinary school would have killed to be alone in the motel room with him. So why am I feeling like a trapped animal?

“Pick a bed.” He looked around. “Don’t bother. I’m taking the one closest to the door. That one is yours.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Protection. A man sleeps closest to the door in case there’s an intruder or something.”

She raised her eyebrows and looked at him.

He checked the room and the bathroom. “All’s well. Why don’t you use the bathroom first to do whatever, such as put on really ugly pajamas, and then I will.”

“I don’t think I own ugly pajamas.”

He chuckled. “Neither do I.”

She watched him blow a long breath between pursed lips as he sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed the remote. Something inside told her he was feeling just as awkward about the situation. The TV clicked on and he flipped through a few channels. She took her nightshirt, flannel sleeping pants, and a bag of toiletries into the bathroom with her. Quickly she showered and brushed her teeth. Dressed in her night things, she returned to the room. He had turned down her bed for her. The TV was off and he was using his computer tablet.

“There’s WIFI here.” He barely looked at her.

He had changed from his jeans into some pajama bottoms and only wore a short-sleeved T-shirt. Every muscle on him showed. Omigod, he’s sexy. She slipped between the cold sheets. Now what? Do I just say goodnight?

***

Without moving his head, Jeremy glanced up and inhaled. Every curve on Hannah showed under her long-sleeved knit shirt. Don’t think about it.

He heard her climb into her bed and knew he was going to be in for a rough night. “I’ll take my shower in the morning. It helps me wake up.”

“Whatever.”

He used the small bathroom and realized it smelled of her feminine presence, a little like roses and herbs. Sleep. I need sleep. Don’t think about it.

A few minutes later, he returned to the main room. She was curled on her side and he assumed she was asleep, until he caught her watching him. He set the alarm on his phone and glanced at her. She quickly closed her eyes. “I know you’re awake. I want to be on the road at five. What time do you want me to wake you?”

She rolled away from him. “Four thirty?”

“That’ll work.”

It seemed as though sleep would never come. He tossed and turned, and when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got up and went into the bathroom. It didn’t help that he was certain that she wasn’t sleeping either. When he returned, he quietly opened the door to the parking lot and looked out. Crispy cold air instantly cooled him. He watched big flakes of snow softly floating downward. Several inches of snow coated his truck. According to the weather forecast, they were headed into a major storm. He needed some solid sleep.

When the alarm sounded, he jumped up. He peeked through the curtains that covered a large windowpane, and the snow was coming down hard. The sooner they were on their way, the safer they’d be.

He made a pot of coffee in the motel’s little four-cup pot in their room and then jumped into the shower. Now he kicked himself over his sexual attraction to Hannah that had kept him awake. Instead of getting a full eight hours of sleep, he remembered seeing eleven forty-three on his phone. Less than four hours. She could sleep in the truck, but he had to drive. At a little after four, he woke her and handed her a paper cup of coffee. “We’re going to get out of here while we can still get back on the highway.”

She nodded and ran to the bathroom.

As she closed the door, he called, “Don’t take too long. I’m giving you fifteen minutes to get ready.”

He grabbed a few granola bars from the vending machine at the motel and then loaded their things into the cab. He was glad he’d gassed up before they had pulled in last night. The plows were out and the road had been treated, but the snow was falling faster than they could clear it.

He tried to stay relaxed and not tense up as he drove, but he couldn’t make any time. The road was nothing more than tire tracks from the other vehicles in front of him. By three o’clock in the afternoon, he pulled into a truck stop and inquired about a room. “I need two beds.”

“This isn’t the Hilton; it’s a truck stop. Only one I’ve got left is a king.”

Another man walked into the tiny office. “I need a room.”

“I’ve got one left. If he doesn’t want it, it’s yours.”

Panic seized Jeremy. He was tired and beat. As far as he was concerned, he and Hannah could sleep in shifts. He just knew it was no longer safe for him to keep going. “I’m taking it.”

He filled out the form, swiped his credit card through the card reader, and signed his name on the electronic pad. She’s not going to be happy.

***

Hannah looked at the lone bed and wasn’t certain if she wanted to kill Jeremy or cry.

“If you don’t want to sleep with me, that’s fine, but I’ve got to get a few hours.” He pulled off his boots, jeans, and a shirt, revealing a set of long johns. Three minutes later, he was sound asleep.

She paced around the room and stared at him. Other girls would have been green with envy over the opportunity to spend the night with Jeremy, and many she knew spent nights with their boyfriends. But she wasn’t one of them.

Having grown up in southern ports, driving in blinding snow had scared her. Twice Jeremy managed to avoid cars spinning out of control, and the number of vehicles that littered the roads was unreal. She was probably just as tired and worn out from being tense.

A little after six, she left a note in the room and trudged her way through the snow to the truck stop’s restaurant and ordered dinner-to-go for both of them.

As she opened the motel room’s door, she called, “Hey, Jeremy. I bought some food for us. Wake up and eat.”

He grabbed the food, downed it, and returned to bed without saying more than a few sentences. By seven thirty that evening, his truck was nothing more than a white blob in the parking lot. By nine, she decided she was too tired and bored to do anything but sleep.

Still in her jeans, she tentatively pulled down the covers on her side of the bed and gingerly climbed in. She listened to the gentle rhythmic sounds of him breathing. Her body warmed from the realization of his proximity. What am I doing here?

She had fallen in love with him the first day he walked into the classroom. He had an earthy look to him, and his cowboy getups were real, not that of a city boy trying to look like one. Jeremy was one.

Cornell was probably the most elite of all the veterinary schools in America, so to some extent she understood how a rancher’s son would come east to study. But it wasn’t until they had a few classes together that she realized how intelligent he was. There wasn’t a student there that wasn’t topnotch, but Jeremy had them all beat. He also had a big smile and easy way about him, but she never heard anything about him partying. He had hooked up with another female student, but he never acted like they were a couple. Although Jennifer Deleon made it quite clear that Jeremy belonged to her. Hannah wondered what the relationship really was.

Hannah had just about killed herself to make certain she ran into him as often as possible at the coffee shop or in the cafeteria. He’d sit beside her and even put his arm across the back of her chair. She’d managed to be his lab partner a few times and he always treated her like she was his sister. Now he slept inches from her.

She woke once and realized she was tucked against his body and his arm held her in a protective embrace. Afraid to move, she was aware of the steady rise and fall of his chest against her back.

Truck noise outside awakened her and this time she was curled to his chest. Her attempt to roll away was thwarted as his arm tightened and held her close. He mumbled something that sounded like don’t go.

When his alarm went off, he sprang from the bed and dashed into the bathroom. He returned, grabbed a few things from his duffle bag, and the next thing she heard was water running.

“Hey sleepyhead, wake up. There’s a ton of snow, but it’s stopped falling.”

She dragged herself from the bed and peered out the window. Everything was buried in snow, but not a flake could be seen in the tall lights of the parking lot.

“While you get ready, I’m going to see if I can shovel us out.”

“You’re joking.”

“Nope.” He strode over to her and planted a kiss on her cheek. “Wish me luck. Let’s see if we can get out of here. If not, we’ll just have to get back in bed so you can put your head on my chest. That felt wonderful.”

Heat flew to her cheeks and she discovered the sensation of butterflies flitting in her abdomen.

He grinned and ran his fingers through her hair. “That’s what I call good sleeping.”

She watched him put on his coat and go outside, but the butterflies inside her wouldn’t settle down.

***

Shoveling snow took Jeremy’s mind off of Hannah in a sexual context. He wouldn’t have said there was anything particularly striking about Hannah other than her rich brown hair that she usually attempted to confine in some way or another, but it always escaped. Yet she was easy on the eyes – real easy and intelligent with lots of common sense. He also knew she didn’t date anyone.

Other girls belonged to sororities, but not Hannah. She buried her nose in her books and was extremely diligent. Plus she wasn’t squeamish and tackled hard work head on. He could see himself with someone like her. She’d blend in with his family.

Several of his female classmates were daughters of farmers and a few were horse enthusiasts, but Hannah was neither. From the things she had said, she was looking more towards the laboratory end of veterinary science. But unlike the others, she had a strong work ethic and had no problems with bovines.

The only vet he’d ever known had been Doc Medino. The man had an office in Creed’s Crossing, but made house calls because no one put a sick steer in a trailer and took them to an office.

And having grown up on a ranch, Jeremy had learned to do things such as deliver a foal or calf. He probably was eight years old when his pony dam had a problem with her delivery. His grandfather suggested and then talked that young boy through the steps to help the mother. That incident cemented Jeremy’s desire to become a veterinarian. Then as a teen, he spent summers volunteering with Doc Medino.

But Hannah seemed almost aloof until this trip. He was certain that asking her to come with him was the best move he could have ever made. It wasn’t from lack of trying, but it seemed the most he ever could do was catch her in the library, at the coffee shop, or maybe in the cafeteria. But realizing she was in his arms as he slept did something to him. He didn’t deny his sexual attraction to a pretty female, but Hannah was more than a pretty female. He liked her. He enjoyed her friendship, and her quiet mannerisms. Having her on this trip had changed something inside of him – it reinforced his feelings towards her. It was as though she was his woman and he had to protect her.

The truck stop had a convenience store and, when he finished shoveling, he went there and loaded up on foods that would keep. As he wandered the aisles of the small store, he pulled his phone from his pocket and called home. “Hey, Derrick, what are you doing up at this hour?”

“Drinking coffee. We’re buried in snow here, but we didn’t get it like parts of South Dakota and Iowa. They are getting slammed. Are you trying to drive home through this?”

“Yeah. It stopped snowing. Maybe I can make up for lost time.”

“Better check the road conditions. It stopped here for about eight hours, and it’s coming down like crazy again. Heard you got a filly.”

Jeremy chuckled. “Yeah. Can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“Was there a time when you held Chessie in your arms and knew that she was the one?”

“Oh yeah. She just fit my body – as though we were meant to be together.”

“I’m feeling that way, and I’ve never had her in a good arm lock or played kissy-face.”

“Watch your step.”

“I will. Tell Mom, when I get close, I’ll call, but right now, I don’t know when that will be. We must have had over a foot of snow in less than twelve hours. I got a room about three o’clock yesterday afternoon. I could barely see the taillights of the vehicle in front of me. I’m hoping I’ll make better time today.”

“Good luck with that. Be safe, and be real careful if you want her.”

“I will be.”

Jeremy paid for the basketful of food he’d picked up at the convenience store and headed back to the motel room. He tossed most of his food purchases in the truck. He always traveled with certain supplies in the winter, but those ready to eat meals his dad had stored in the emergency kit were lousy.

“Omigod, you’re here! I didn’t know what happened to you.”

He motioned with his thumb towards the truck. “I picked up some peanuts and stuff for us. Apparently we’re in for more bad weather. I thought maybe we had cleared it. Guess not. There’s more bad weather ahead of us. We’ll grab some food in the café before we leave. Hope you’re hungry.”

Once they were on the road, Jeremy sighed with relief. The interstate was plowed and they made reasonable time. But by mid afternoon, the weather had turned once again into blinding whiteness.

According to the GPS, there was another truck stop a few miles ahead. He tried to follow the rear lights of a tractor-trailer, but the truck ground to a halt and the trailer fell onto its side.

“Oh no-o-o,” Jeremy hissed and slammed his fist on the steering wheel. He had followed the truck off the road. At least he hadn’t put the ranch’s pickup in a ditch, but he had no idea where the road was. “Guess we’re stuck here until help arrives.”

The trucker got out and looked around. Jeremy knew the man was okay. But that wasn’t helping Jeremy’s mood. Snow kept coming and Jeremy got out several times and cleared the snow from the vehicle and from around the exhaust pipes.

There were a handful of odd supplies in the locked toolbox that went from one side of the truck’s bed to the other side. He found an orange traffic cone with a battery operated flasher and placed it on the corner edge of the truck’s bed. He prayed that no one would plow into him.

He tried his phone and it was dead. He had plenty of charge, but no signal. Hannah didn’t have a signal either. “Either there’s damage to the nearest tower, or we’re in a dead zone. I’m willing to bet, in this storm, it’s tower damage.”

“Now what?” Hannah asked with more than a hint of concern in her voice.

“We wait. We’re going to hope we see a snow plow and I can shovel us from here to the road.”

Hannah’s eyes filled with tears, but she tried to hide them. They ate some peanuts and drank the semi-frozen individual-sized chocolate milk jugs that Jeremy had placed in the toolbox. He brought the other food items he’d stowed there into the cab.

Every so often he’d clear snow and turn the engine on long enough to heat the cab. He grabbed some jeans from his duffle and tried to create a soft bridge between the two seats so that Hanna could sit closer to him. She was shivering even when he wasn’t.

“What are you wearing under your jeans?”

She looked at him. “Underwear.”

“No long johns?”

“Don’t own any.”

He reached in his bag and pulled out a pair. “For you. Put them on. I don’t want you dying of hypothermia from this. I’ll turn my back.”

She seemed to hesitate and then he heard her slipping off her jeans and wiggling in the seat.

“Okay. I’m dressed again, but now I’ve got to pee.”

He looked at her and laughed. “Open your door and step out.”

“What?”

“Do you see a bathroom nearby? You take that side and I’ll take this one. There’s something about the power of suggestion.”

They both laughed.

They ate chips and chocolate. They ate some beef jerky and some cheese and crackers.

“I’m sure it’s rare, but I’ve heard of people being stuck for days. We’d better be careful of what we eat just in case. I’m scared, Jeremy. You hear about people who get stranded like this and die.”

“We’ll be fine. I’m not happy about this, but I’m not scared. I know what I can do. Just keep watching for any lights.” He held out his arms to Hannah and she curled up against him. He tossed the old wool blanket he had over them and then hers over that. “I’m glad you brought your blanket. It’s extra warmth.”

She slept and he watched for any signs of lights. It was well after dark when he spotted yellow flashing lights behind the truck. “Wake up. I think we have a snow plow!”

He got out and took a flare gun with him. As the light approached, he fired it. The plow stopped.

“You okay?” the driver shouted.

“Freezing cold, but okay. Let me follow you! That tractor-trailer is in big trouble but the driver seems to be okay.”

Jeremy grabbed the shovel and cleared enough to fall in behind the plow. The man radioed the truck’s plight to the state police, but the trucker had no desire to leave his rig.

An hour later, Jeremy pulled into another truck stop. Jeremy gassed up his truck, but there was no place to sleep. The convenience store clerk said there was a motel in town and called to check on accommodations. Jeremy said he’d take whatever they had.

The little town’s roads weren’t exactly in good shape but he made it. His cell phone still didn’t work. He looked at the time and knew the entire family would be asleep. He’d call home in the morning.

Even if the weather had been good, he would have one hard day ahead of him, but with all the snow, he figured at least sixteen hours of driving. In the little motel, they watched the weather report on the TV. State police were begging people to stay off the roads and the interstate was officially closed. And after running off the road, he didn’t want to chance a secondary road. They’d stay where they were.

He looked around the tiny room and laughed. “Remind me never to stay here again. What is this, a no-tell motel?”

Hannah giggled. “The sheets look clean.”

“Thank goodness. At least it’s warm.”

Hannah was peeling off the layers of clothes that she had pulled on while they were trapped.

“Um, before you go any further…” He strode to where she was standing and played with a strand of her hair that had slipped from the confines of a large clip. “It’s only fair to tell you…”

***

Hannah looked at him and he grinned as he placed his hands on her shoulders. His pretty hazel-green eyes stared back into hers. He was the most confident man she’d ever known. And she couldn’t imagine spending three grueling days with anyone other than him.

“I wanted to tell you that I didn’t expect this kind of weather. I thought we’d drive through it and that would be the end of it. If I had known, I would have postponed this trip. But part of me is thrilled to have spent this much time with you.” He kissed her cheek. “I can’t imagine anyone else at my side, or when I’ve enjoyed being with anyone as much.”

She scrunched up her nose. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

He looked over at the two beds in the room. “Maybe.” He let go of her, walked away, and sat on the edge of the one bed. “I wish this room had one bed. I really loved holding you in my arms.”

“Is this the part where I’m supposed to swoon?”

He laughed. “Maybe that’s what I really like about you. There’s an inner strength about you. There are plenty of females who would love to get me in bed for a little fun.”

“And… And I wouldn’t?” She sat beside him.

“Yeah, it’s fun. I won’t deny that. But I’m looking for someone who is more than just a… I want something that will last. Someone who understands what I do and wants to do it with me. Someone who knows how to be a woman and knows something about honor.”

She put her fingers to his lips. “Don’t ask me to be too honorable. You’re one sexy male and a cocky one, too.”

“Does that mean you want to do more than sleep?”

“Sleep? I’d love to roll in the hay with you, but I won’t because I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror the next morning.” She touched his cheek.

“That’s not why I asked you to come with me. I figured it would be a really good way for you to get to know me and for you to see where I’m going when I graduate.” He propped a booted foot over his knee and grabbed at the ankle. “I figured I was man enough to safely get you to the ranch without a bunch of hormones kicking in.”

“So are you trying to tell me that you want me in your bed?”

He looked up and grinned. “Yeah, for as long as we live, but let’s get to Wyoming first, because I don’t want to screw up my chances with you.”

She looked at the bed they were sitting on. “I like being in your arms. But I’m trying to protect my virginity.”

“Saving it for marriage?”

“Ideally, yeah.”

“Not what I wanted to hear, but I’ll give you my word and respect your commitment.”

***

After spending two nights in that horrible little motel room, Jeremy pushed his way to the ranch. They arrived after midnight and tiptoed to his room. They had almost made it when his mom opened her bedroom door.

“Jeremy, what did you do?”

“We’ve been on the road since four a.m., I’ll tell you in the morning.”

“But Hannah…”

“We’re too tired to care.”

Jeremy stripped to his underwear and tried to watch Hannah do the same. He barely remembered Hannah curling against this chest. But when he opened his eyes, their legs were tangled, and he had his arm around her. He didn’t want to rush into anything. He wanted to be absolutely certain, and he wanted her to feel the same way. For four nights, they had slept in each other’s arms without doing anything more. Not that he didn’t think about sex or want it, but this was about trust and respect.

He slipped out of bed and readied for the day. He joined his family at the kitchen table and took a good bit of razzing from Derrick over Hannah spending the night with him. He finally held up his hands and looked over his shoulder to be certain Hannah wasn’t in earshot. “I really like Hannah. She’s special, and she’s what I want for a wife.”

***

Hannah slipped into some clean but slightly wrinkled clothes and made her way downstairs. A beautiful tall pine stood in the living room and twinkled with hundreds of tiny lights, and dozens of fancy packages were tucked under it. She never considered her parents to be poor, but she’d never seen such wealth. There was nothing conceited or pretentious about Jeremy, yet she’d known plenty of kids who were total snobs.

She looked out the large windows over white fields that seemed to go on forever. The ranch had to be huge as he had told her last night when they had entered the Lazy A + 8 Ranch and they still drove forever to reach the house. Once inside the house, they had made their way through the house to his room by strategically placed nightlights that glowed across the floors and illuminated every step on the staircase. She had no clue how big or beautiful the place was, until she saw his bedroom in the morning light.

Sounds of laughter and the aroma of sausage drifted into the living room. She followed the sound and stopped short when she heard Jeremy’s voice.

“She’s special and she’s what I want for a wife. I’ve known her since my first day of classes at Cornell. She’s not the least bit shy, but I’ve never even heard of her dating. I tried to ask her out a few times, but she always turned me down – always said she had to study for a test or something. When she told me she wasn’t going home, I knew I had to bring her here. And what better way to get to know someone than to spend a few days driving with them.”

Hannah could feel her body heating. She moved closer to the wall and listened carefully, but the voices were faint.

“We did a lot of talking. I know I’m in love with her. I don’t want to blow it. She needs to come to the same conclusion. And for the record, the only thing we’ve done is sleep.”

Hannah heard another man ask, “And how long do you think you can keep that up?”

“I’ll do whatever it takes for her to see me as more than just another guy who wants to jump her.”

An older voice said, “You better make some plans to sweep that filly off her feet or you’ll lose her. I almost lost your grandmother because she had no clue I was madly in love with her.”

“I think she knows.”

“Don’t think. Do it.”

Hannah shook her hands at her side in an attempt to shed some tension from her body and plastered a smile on her face. Time to meet the family. She took a few more steps and entered the large kitchen with a handful of people sitting at a long table. “Hi, I’m Hannah.”

Several men sprang to their feet, including Jeremy, who immediately offered the chair next to him. “Have a seat and I’ll get you some coffee.”

One by one the family introduced themselves.

She soon discovered that most of the family had already eaten and that Jeremy was waiting for her so that they could eat together. But it wasn’t until after she’d had the most delicious breakfast that she’d probably ever eaten in her life, that Jeremy suggested she needed the grand tour of the ranch and to do a little riding.

She’d only ridden English a few times, so riding western was a new experience. They rode until the house vanished and all she could see in every direction were snow covered fields and distant mountains. It was unbelievably quiet, and the crispy cold air lacked the scent of pollution. Jeremy dismounted and then helped her down.

He took what looked like a horse blanket and dropped it on a piece of wooden fencing. “Have a seat. I wanted to talk to you without a dozen sets of ears listening.”

She sat on the fence and looked around. “It’s beautiful out here, and your grandparents’ house is gorgeous. I’ve never seen such a tall Christmas tree in someone’s home.”

He nodded as he sat beside her. “I’m not trying to impress you with what my family has. We do have one of the largest ranches around here and we’ve always been successful. But I did want you to see the area. This is where I’m coming when I graduate. Our local vet has been counting down the days until I can take over. I think he wanted to retire the day I announced I’d been accepted to Cornell.”

“Not too many students have that kind of a job waiting for them.”

He tugged at the brim of his big western hat. “I’d like to have a partner. There’s plenty of work.”

“I’m sure there are quite a few people who would leap at the chance.”

“Yeah, but I’ve had one person in mind for a long time. I just figured she’d think I was crazy and turn me down.” He fidgeted with the brim of his hat again.

“Someone would be crazy to turn this down.”

“I was kind of hoping that. But the person I wanted, well, it wasn’t until a few days ago that I thought there was any real future.” He put his hand on her leg and turned it up as though to ask for hers.

She slipped her hand into his. “Who did you have in mind?”

He heaved a sigh and his breath showed in the cold air. “There’s this gal at school…”

Freezing cold air went into her lungs and stayed there. Jennifer Deleon. I should have known.

“Seems I could get her to grab a pizza once in a while with me, but she’d never actually go out with me. Always too busy studying or something. I gave up. But right now, I figure I’ve got another chance with her. Seems as though we’re a lot alike… We share the same values.”

She watched him look away and a little part of her crumbled. Everything she had overheard at breakfast disintegrated into tiny pieces. Maybe he wasn’t talking about me. Gathering up her courage, she knew she’d survive. He’d always been a friend. Not anything more than a friend, but a friend. At least she could say she’d spent Christmas with him, and being here was still better than being alone in a dorm room.

He turned back to her and smiled. “You know men get in trouble because women seem to think we grunt like cavemen and only toss out three word sentences. That’s not true, but sometimes like now… Well, I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to mess things up.” He swallowed. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

“Why don’t you grab your phone and ask her? What’s to mess up? Just call her and tell her you’ve already got a job here when you graduate and you’re looking for a partner. Tell her that you want her to be your partner.” She touched her fingertips to her eyes. “This cold really does get to my eyes.”

“You get used to it.”

He took his phone out of his pocket and swiped the screen a few times. “Just call her?”

Hannah nodded, let go of his hand, and slipped from where she was sitting. “I’ll give you some privacy. Just ask her. Just blurt it out. Don’t try to make it flowery. It’s a business proposition. Act professional.”

He nodded and smiled. “Professional. I can do that.”

She walked to where the horses were tied to a railing and let a few tears slip down her cheeks. I want you, Jeremy. That’s why I consented to this insane trip. Not Jennifer. She wants her worm-filled organic garden and to make homemade vegan food for her furry friends. Little Miss Fashion Forward. I can’t see her standing next to a pile of manure. She only cares about the bloodline of a horse.

Her phone rang and she answered it. “Hello.”

“Hi, it’s Jeremy. I’ve got an offer for you. Would you be interested in accepting a veterinary position in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming? I need a partner. And you’re beautiful, sexy, and I’m madly in love with you.”

“Jeremy, you called me. I’m not Jennifer.” She ended the call and slipped the phone into her coat pocket. Tears streamed down her face faster than she could wipe them away. Then she felt Jeremy’s hands on her shoulders.

“I didn’t call Jennifer. I called you. These last few days together confirmed everything I ever knew about you. I don’t just want a professional partner. I want a life-long partner – someone who will love the ranch, and this way of life as much as I do. I want that person to be you.”

She snuffled and tried to push away more tears.

Jeremy handed her a navy blue bandana.

She shook her head, fished in her pocket for a paper napkin that she was certain was stuffed there, and upon finding it, she blew her nose. “Me? You want me?”

He pushed a stray lock of hair from her face. “Yeah, you. We’ve got some time on our side before you commit. There’s a whole lot of family you still haven’t met. Why do you think we have such a big kitchen table?”

“I figured it was huge like everything else in that house.”

Jeremy chuckled. “I’ll call Doc Medino. Maybe we can pal around with him while we’re here. It’ll give you a better idea of what it’s like working in a ranching community. I’m sure he’d like to meet you.”

“Jeremy.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re crazy, and I’m so glad I said yes to coming with you. But please, I don’t ever want to drive through another blizzard. Can we go back to the house now? I’m freezing.”

“This is Wyoming. Are you wearing long johns or just those skimpy underpants that I saw in your suitcase.”

“The skimpiest ones that I own. A thong made of green lace.”

“Hannah, you’re killing me!”

***

Christmas morning, Jeremy watched Hannah’s face when she discovered packages under the tree for her. His parents had bought her a pair of western boots. She slipped her feet into them and apparently they fit perfectly. The look of joy on her face was priceless.

“I love them. I don’t have the words to express how you’ve made me feel.”

Jeremy’s mom answered, “To us, you’re family.”

But her cheeks turned bright pink when she opened the box from Jeremy. He had bought her a half dozen pairs of long johns, but the very bottom of the box contained a white lace thong with a matching skimpy bra.

He fingered a wayward lock of hair that had drifted over her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Do I get to see them on you?”

She raised her eyebrows and glared at him.

He couldn’t hold back his laughter. He reached in his pocket and slipped a tiny ring from the confines. “If you’re not going to wear those for me, will you at least consider wearing this for now? We can make everything official with a real engagement ring after we’ve graduated.”

He took her hand in his and slipped a tiny gold band with several small diamonds embedded in it onto her finger.

She looked at him and smiled.

Jeremy knew this was the best Christmas he’d ever had. This was the start of his future and that future included Hannah. “Merry Christmas to my future partner.”

“Merry Christmas to the most wonderful guy I’ve ever known.” And then she kissed him.

He wrapped his arms around her. She was everything to him.

###

Ebook retailers

Smashwords

(I’ll try to list the others as soon as they appear on the various sites.)

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