CJ Carmichael Here Friday At 7:00 pm PST

 
 
C. J. Carmicheal Here On Friday @ 7pm PST

What Child Is This

Most people looked forward to Christmas, but for Garret Frost, the last one had been hell and he wasn’t expecting much from the upcoming one either. Christmas was for families, right? But Sara was dead, and now he was a single father. It was up to him to make sure their five-year-old son had a wonderful Christmas—never mind the fact that he didn’t have a mother anymore.

It had been just over two years since Sara died, along with their unborn child. For Garret most of the pain had faded into sorrow. But he couldn’t be sure about Duncan. His son seemed like a normal little boy who loved exploring and playing with his best friend Nathan.

But Garret knew children could hide their wounds—and hide them very well.

Because when he was four, he’d done just that.

And he didn’t want the same for his son.

An awesome Christmas, that’s what was needed. And for an awesome Christmas, he needed the perfect gift.

Garret pulled out the toy store flyer he’d saved from the Burlington Free Press. He was at his desk in one of the offices that had been added to the Old Sugar Shack. This was where his grandfather had originally boiled the sap to make the maple syrup for which Frost Farms was famous. Now all that work was done in a modern new barn and the Sugar Shack was used to host events for visitors and guests. The addition of offices to the back of the barn had been made by Garret’s father, Harold, who had officially retired this year, making room for his eldest son to step into his place. Garret loved the family business, but had to admit the work load was a little overwhelming at times.

Another reason a great Christmas for Duncan was really important this year.

Garret flipped through the pages of the catalogue. He wasn’t foolish enough to think that the right toy could make up for Sara’s absence, or the many hours he put in at work.

But it couldn’t hurt, either.

So far, his attempts to subtly question his son about what he wanted had been unsuccessful. But he knew Nathan, Frost Farm accountant Peter Boychuk’s son, was getting a Wii.

Would Duncan like one, too? Garret circled the game in the flier, as well as an age-appropriate Lego set and a remote control car that looked kind of cool. A toy telescope had just caught his eye when he heard a terrible crash from the front of the barn.

“Are you okay, Duncan?” Lily Parker, their new public relations manager sounded concerned but not panicked.

Garret hurried to see what had happened.

The commotion had come from the main event room, which still contained the original fireplace and iron vat from his grandfather’s years. But Garret’s attention was drawn to the big oak door, where his PR manager lay on the floor, a toppled stepladder, basket and several bundles of mistletoe around her.

Right there, at the scene of the crime, was his son. Unharmed, but clearly beside himself with contrition.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Parker. I was coming to talk to my dad and I didn’t see you.”

“That’s okay, Duncan. But maybe you should walk, rather than run next time.” Lily gingerly shifted up to a sitting position. He wouldn’t have blamed her for being angry—who wouldn’t be after getting knocked off a ladder—but he could tell she wasn’t.

“Are you hurt?” he offered his hand to help her stand.

What Child Is This“I’m fine.” Lily normally wore skirts and blouses to work, but today, because of Frosty Frolics—a holiday event hosted by the farm that would be starting in about two hours—she was in jeans and a sweater the same light blue as her eyes.

She pushed her pale blond hair out of her face, and accepted his hand. As he pulled he picked up on her signature botanical scent that might have been perfume, but was faint enough that it could have come from a scented bar of soap. He’d noticed that he had to be standing really close to her to smell it.

“I was trying to hang the mistletoe for the party. I hope it isn’t crushed.”

Her sweater had pulled up, revealing an inch of her slender midriff. He tried not to look. “I’m more worried about you. Are you sure you’re okay?” “Luckily I’d only climbed up to the first rung.”

She pulled her hand from his, and Garret stood there looking at her and feeling awkward, until he realized he should pick up the ladder. And talk to his son. “Duncan, I hope you’ll remember what Ms. Parker said. And let’s have another apology, son. Make sure you look Ms. Parker in the eyes when you give it.”

“I’m sorry I knocked you off the ladder, Ms. Parker.”

Garret was pleased to see his son’s hazel eyes trained on Lily’s blue ones.

“And I won’t run anymore.” He looked rather pleadingly at his father. “Not ever, Dad?”

“Not when you’re inside.” Garret tried not to smile. “Now gather all that mistletoe and put it back in the basket.” He turned to Lily, who was still adjusting her sweater.

Maybe, as her employer, he shouldn’t have noticed that glimpse of her slender waist.

But he didn’t think there was a man alive who could be immune to Lily Parker with her pretty features and lithe, graceful body. Not only was she attractive, but she was smart and capable, with a friendly way about her. She was only thirty—four years younger than him—and he’d never heard her mention anything about having a boyfriend. That said, he didn’t even know how long she’d been divorced. She made a habit of skirting topics of a personal nature.

He took the basket from his son. “You can go to the house now and see if your grandma needs help getting ready for Frosty Frolics.”

“ But...—Dad. Grandma wants me to talk to you. She said I could stay up late tonight because of Frosty Frolics. If you say it’s okay. You do, right?” His son tugged at the jeans that were always slipping down his skinny hips. His light brown hair was messy as usual, and his eyes were glowing with excitement.

Garret resisted the urge to hug him tight. Since Sara’s death he often had moments of intense emotion where his son was concerned. Lately his mother had pointed out that he was becoming too protective. “I know it’s hard, that you’re scared of losing him, too. But you have to let him enjoy his childhood. The way you and your brother and sister did.”

For the most part it was true, he and his brother Jimmy and sister Josephine—Joey to most—had terrific childhoods. They’d been lucky to grow up on a maple syrup farm with lots of room to run and play and the fun of sugaring-off in the spring.

They’d had their share of mishaps. And maybe that was the problem. He knew the kind of the trouble a young boy could get into...

Still, his mother was right. A life without any risk at all, was no life at all.

For some reason that made him think of Lily. If he ever were going to date again, he would want it to be with someone like her. Someone he was attracted to, but who didn’t remind him of Sara...

“Daddy?”

Garret realized he still hadn’t answered his son. “If Grandma thinks it’s okay, then sure. You may stay up late tonight.”

“Really?”

Garret realized Duncan had been expecting him to say no. “Yup. Really.”

Duncan whooped then bee-lined for the door.

“Duncan!” Garret called out.

What Child Is This His son’s rubber soled boots skidded on the wood plank flooring. “Sorry, Dad. I forgot.” He walked the rest of the way out of the barn.

With a rueful smile, Garret looked at Lily. “I apologize for my son. Obviously he isn’t quite housebroken yet.”

“Standing on ladders in doorways in asking for trouble, I suppose.” She held out her hand for the basket, but he shook his head.

“Let me hang this. I thought we’d finished decorating last night.”

For the past week everyone—himself, Lily and the other three members of Frost Farm’s office staff—had worked at transforming the maple syrup farm into a Christmas wonderland. He and his operations manager, Chet Blackwell, with help from Peter Boychuk, the accountant, had strung lights along the roof, window frames and door of the sugar shack. They’d also outlined the branches of the trees around the skating pond and had put up the temporary stage by the fire pit.

Lily had been in charge of decorating the interior. She’d festooned a fourteen-foot white pine and had lined the walls with dozens of potted poinsettias—which would all be given away during the raffle that evening.

She’d also set-up the outdoor, life-sized nativity scene that Garret’s father, had made by hand twenty-five years ago. And helped stack wood for the bonfire pit next to the stage where the choir would be performing.

No doubt about it—she’d been a real trooper, pitching in wherever she was needed.

“I wanted to make sure the mistletoe was fresh,” Lily explained. “So I left it in the fridge until now.”

“Good idea.” He glanced at the dark green leaves that had been bundled with red ribbon. Only then did the significance of what they were doing occur to him. He glanced from the mistletoe, to the woman by his side. Her mind seemed to be channeling the same old custom. She immediately took several steps backward. But not before a pretty interesting expression chased over her face.

Was it possible she’d wanted him to kiss her?

If there had been a second where the idea had struck her as somewhat tempting, the moment was gone now. She brushed her hands together, as if ridding herself not only of an unwanted job, but also, unwanted company. “If you need me, I’ll be in my office going over the schedule.”

And before he could say anything else, or do anything else, she was gone.

* * *

She hadn’t signed up for this. Lily closed her office door and leaned against it, wishing she could forget what was on the other side.

When Sylvia Frost had interviewed her this September for the position of public relations manager at Frost Farms it had seemed like a heaven sent opportunity. After the nightmare of the past two years, Lily had been dying to leave New York, her corporate job and the expensive condo she’d been awarded in her divorce settlement.

She’d needed change and she’d thought she would love living in a small town. Being in charge of PR for a farm that produced maple syrup had seemed just too quaint to be true.

She and Sylvia had talked for over an hour on Skype. Sylvia had explained that with the economy so tight, her son felt Frost Farms needed to do a better job at promoting their excellent products. On the priority list was building a new brand, revitalizing their website, and creating a Frost Farms Facebook Page and Twitter Account.

What Child Is This “Not that I really understand what those things are.” Sylvia had shrugged, demonstrating her helplessness. To Lily, trying to judge her interviewer from a grainy Skype image, the woman seemed more elegant and well groomed that she would have expected a farming woman to be.

“I suppose I could learn,” Sylvia continued, “but my husband retired from the business last year, and I’d like to do the same thing.”

“Your son is right. Social media is really important to business these days.” That’s what Lily had said. All the while she’d been thinking: What an opportunity. It’s perfect.

So she’d taken the job. Sold her condo and moved to Carol Falls, Vermont.

And it was true—the job had turned out to be interesting and challenging and a fresh change from her previous corporate clients.

But Sylvia had said nothing about her son looking like Doctor McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy. She hadn’t mentioned that he was smart and sweet—or widowed with an adorable five-year-old son.

Lily grabbed the water bottle she kept on her desk and took a long drink. She didn’t have time for emotional distractions today. So Garret had touched her. Looked at her as if he’d wanted to kiss her. Made her feel as if she was a desirable woman again.

She had to forget the incident had happened. Today was going to be hard enough as it was. Frosty Frolics was the first major PR event that they’d held at the farm since she’d been hired. At the planning meeting with Harold, Sylvia and Garret, they’d made it clear the entire family considered it a very big deal.

Everyone in the community was invited—though usually only a hundred and fifty or so attended. There was a buffet meal, the local choir singing Christmas carols, skating and tobogganing for the kids. This was the Frost family’s way of giving back to their neighbors and friends and also, at the same time, raising funds by raffling off poinsettias and turkey vouchers with the proceeds going toward Christmas Boxes to help the less fortunate. It wasn’t a stretch to say that her very job depended on this evening being a success.

She studied the checklist on her clipboard, shaking her head at the irony. The last two years she hadn’t even celebrated Christmas. And now it was her job to host a holiday party for an entire town.




Oh, How I Love Cowboys




Promise Me, Cowboy
 
 
 
Promise Me, Cowboy

A Copper Mountain Rodeo Novella

Sage Carrigan never meant to be the other woman. Unfortunately bronc rider Dawson O’Dell neglected to mention he was married the night he invited her to his bed after they’d both placed first in their rodeo events. When his wife walked in on them Sage was deeply hurt and humiliated.

After an accident in the ring the next day, Sage decides she’s quitting the rodeo--and cowboys—to become a chocolatier in her hometown ranching community, Marietta, Montana.

She’s doing just fine, but then Dawson shows up —five years later, with a little girl in tow. He’s here for the Copper Mountain Rodeo hoping to win big. But he’s also got plans of settling down with his daughter and buying a house—the very same one that Sage has been dreaming about.

He says he’s here for her and he’s making lots of promises. But can he keep them?
 
 
A lot of people believe you can’t keep a secret in a small town, but that simply wasn’t true. Sage Carrigan was only twenty-nine years old and already she had two that would blow the minds of her sisters and her father and the girlfriends who thought they knew every little thing about her.

And one of those secrets was just now stepping into her chocolate shop.

Sage stepped behind the counter, needing something solid to lean on. It was really him, Dawson O’Dell, her biggest secret, her biggest mistake... her biggest weakness.

Right now O’Dell was one of the top ranked cowboys in professional rodeo. She’d met him back in her barrel-racing days, but five years hadn’t changed him much. He still dressed like the bronc-rider he was, in Wrangler jeans and dusty boots, western shirt unbuttoned to the white T shirt beneath. His dark blonde hair was a little too long, and his green eyes a little too astute.

The second his eyes met hers she knew this was no chance encounter.

“Sage.”

He walked right up to the counter and gave her a look that made her instantly remember all the things she had once found so irresistible about this man.

“It’s been a long time,” he added.

He looked at her as if he knew her inside and out. Which he did. Or at least he had. Then his gaze swept the shop, the shelves of attractively packaged chocolate. However you liked it, she had it. Dark chocolate covering silky mint creams, milk chocolate over salt-flecked toffee, chocolate shavings and chocolate mixed with nuts. Bars of dark, milk or white chocolate. Chocolate in the shape of horses, cowboy boots...or the letters from A to Z. And more.

“Quite a departure from barrel-racing.”

“That was kind of the point.” Finally she’d found her voice. And now that the shock of seeing him was settling down, anger began seeping into its place. “If you’re here to buy something—please do it quickly. Otherwise, it would be best if you just left.” She looked pointedly at the door, hoping she’d kept the nerves out of her voice.

He rubbed the side of his face, using his left hand. No wedding ring, she noticed. But then there hadn’t been last time, either.

He gave her a lopsided smile. “Sounds like you’re still a little angry.”

“I’m not angry, O’Dell. Just really not interested in seeing you. Or talking to you. Or even breathing the same air as you.”

His eyebrows went up. “That’s harsh.”

Obviously not harsh enough because he didn’t leave. Instead he wandered to the display of chocolate letters and selected an “S.”

For Sage?

“ I owe you an apology,” he allowed.

“Five years ago you owed me an apology. Now, you just need to walk out that door and let me go on pretending I never met you.”

He sighed like she was the dolt in the classroom who just didn’t get it. “I did try to apologize. But you left town mighty fast.”

Less than twenty-four hours after she crashed on that second barrel, her father had shown up in Casper, Wyoming and had whisked her home. But there had been time for Dawson to reach her. If he’d wanted to.

That had been the last rodeo she’d ever competed in. And it had been the last time she’d let herself get tangled up with a cowboy, too.

“Sage, even if it is a little late, I still want to say it. I was sorry then, and I’m sorry now.”

Damn, if he didn’t look sincere. But she hardened her heart. Facts were facts and how sorry could he be if he’d waited so long to find her?

Keeping her tone artificially sweet, she asked, “What exactly are you sorry for? Would that be for sleeping with me even though you were married?”

He winced.

“Or for your wife catching me butt naked in your bed and then pointing a rifle in my face?”

His gaze dropped to the counter and he swallowed hard. The words—she’d never spoken them aloud before—hung out there, embarrassing, and true, damn it. All too true.

“Sure sounds bad, when you put it like that.”

“They are the plain and simple facts Now, may I point you in the direction of the door one more time?” She glanced out the window, seeing scores of shoppers out on the street. Would one of you please come in and buy some chocolate? Save me from having to say anything more to this guy?

“I’ll be on my way soon,” he promised. “Let me pay for this first.” He put the “S” on the counter. He’d chosen milk chocolate. She preferred dark.

“That’ll be ten dollars.”

His eyebrows went up. “That’s a lot of money for one piece of chocolate.”

“It’s premium quality. Made from scratch in-house. I buy the beans myself, directly from Venezuela. But if you want to put it back, go right ahead.”

“No, no, I’ll take it.” He pulled out his wallet and counted out a five and some ones.

“For someone special?” she couldn’t resist asking, after placing the confection in a cute paper bag and tying the handles with some copper ribbon. “Susan, maybe? Sandra? Sonya?”

“Savannah, actually.”

She was such a fool for thinking, for even a second, that he’d selected it for her. “Here you go.”

As she handed him the bag, she noticed him checking out her fingers. Oh my God, was he looking to see if she was married, too? What about this Savannah girl? The man was incorrigible.

And lucky. She couldn’t believe they hadn’t been interrupted by another customer during all this time.

“O’Dell?” He was looking at her like she was a toy in a catalogue that he couldn’t afford. “Shouldn’t you be leaving now?”

“Yup. Just wanted to say, it was nice to see you, Sage. You’re even prettier than I remembered.”

She couldn’t help softening at those words, and the sincere look in his eyes as he said them. But then she remembered how she’d felt staring down the barrel of that shotgun, and her resolve was back, stronger than ever. “Goodbye, O’Dell.”

On his way out the door, he turned over the “Open” sign in the window.

Had he... ?

He gave her a wink and another one of his killer smiles. “Didn’t want anyone walking in on us, did I?”

Damn it, he had.

But she still managed to get the last word. “You mean like last time?”



Christmas Baby!!!



Big Sky ChristmasWinnie Hays looked up at the white church, and hesitated. She couldn’t believe she was here, back in Coffee Creek, Montana. This was her last chance to back out. Everyone would understand.

Since when is wimping out your style? Is that the kind of woman Bobby needs as his mother?

Since the death of her fiancé, that was how she had found the strength to go on. By thinking of their son. And putting his needs before hers.

Still, it was impossible not to recall the last time she’d been here. Wearing a long white gown. Expecting to leave a married woman.

Eighteen months had passed since then, a relatively short period of time bookended by the most major events of Winnie’s life: the death of her fiancé and the birth of their son seven months later.

She checked her cell phone, making sure it was set to vibrate so she’d know if Bobby’s babysitter called. Not that she was worried. Eugenia Fox had raised sons of her own, and had worked for Winnie at the Cinnamon Stick Café since it opened several years ago.

No, Eugenia and Bobby were going to be fine.

It was herself she was worried about.

If she hadn’t been so late, she wouldn’t be forced to enter the church alone. Her best friend Laurel and her new husband Corb Lambert—brother of Winnie’s late fiancé--had planned to be by her side for moral support. But they must have given up on her. Decided she’d chickened out.

And she still could. There was no one around to see if she just about faced and scurried home to the sweet toddler who was the center of her universe.

She sighed.

It was precisely because of Bobby that she needed to attend this wedding. This was his father’s family. Her son’s family. And it was time she faced them.

Still, she paused one last time before entering the church, glancing over her shoulder at the small town of Coffee Creek.

The November day was sunny, crisp and cold. A dusting of snow had gilded the day nicely for the wedding party, the silvery-white crystals contrasting vividly with the blue Montana sky. Olive Lambert, control freak that she was, would be pleased.

Be nice, Winnie. No catty comments about Bobby’s grandmother, please.

She grasped the handle. Took a deep breath. Then pulled open the door.

The sound of the organ music almost did her in.

At least it was a different song than the one playing a year-and-a-half ago. Beethoven was a genius, but she never wanted to hear the Ode to Joy again.

She peeled off her gloves and tucked them in the pocket of her red, wool coat. An usher appeared then, a young man in a cheap suit that didn’t fit him well. Winnie remembered him as a cousin on the Lambert side.

“Hi Adam. Sorry I’m late.”

His eyes went wide, as he realized who she was. “No problem.” He hung her coat for her, then offered his arm. “Come on, I’ll show you to your seat.”

Big-Sky ChristmasWinnie schooled herself to look only straight ahead as she walked the length of the aisle. Oh, why had she arrived so late? Now everyone was watching her and there were so many people. Of course there were. The Lamberts owned the largest ranch in the county. They mattered. And her son was one of them.So she couldn’t break down and cry, she just couldn’t. Not even one little tear.

Adam stopped and gestured for her to take a seat in a pew that already seemed to be full. But room was made and she slid onto the wooden bench, not taking note of the person beside her until after she was in position, purse tucked at her feet, tissue palmed discretely...just in case.

Only then did she notice the masculine thigh pressed next to hers. Looking up she met Jackson Stone’s dark blue eyes. Jackson had lived with the Lamberts since he was thirteen, so he’d been like a brother to Brock, Corb and B.J and Cassidy. If she’d married Brock, he would have been a de facto brother-in-law to her.

But that didn’t mean she knew him well.

Compared to his foster siblings, Jackson was quiet and reserved. Brock had speculated that hardships from Jackson’s childhood and early teens had left scars that time might never heal.

And that may well be the case. But at least the man was handsome, with thick dark hair and bone structure good enough to be a model. Weathered skin and the rough look of his hands made it plain, though, that he was a working man.

According to Laurel, Jackson blamed himself for the accident, since he’d been driving, with Brock in the front seat next to him and Corb in the rear. One of the missions Winnie had set for herself on returning to Coffee Creek was to help Jackson see that there was no rational reason for him to feel guilty, and that she, certainly, bore him no malice.

But this wasn’t the place for that conversation.

“Hi, Jackson.” She smiled and gave him a one-armed hug, which he awkwardly returned.

“Winnie.”

He’d never been a big talker. “Big day, isn’t it? Double wedding, and all.”

“Yup.”

“Can’t hardly contain your excitement, huh?”

Jackson’s lips curved up a little. “Weddings aren’t my thing.”

Not hers, either. At least, not anymore. She scanned the line of attractive men standing at the front of the church. There was the local vet, Dan Farley, a solid, muscular guy with sharp cheekbones and dark, almost black eyes. Farley was marrying Cassidy Lambert today.

Cassidy’s brother, B.J., stood next to Farley. Taller, thinner, he was the only Lambert who didn’t share the blonde hair and green eyes that her own Brock had had.

B.J. was marrying Bitterroot County’s Sheriff, Savannah Moody. Dark haired, sultry-eyed Savannah had been the one who had come to the church to let them know about the accident.

She’d been on duty then. Though she’d been B.J.’s high school sweetheart, she hadn’t been invited to the wedding, due to a longstanding rift between them.

But with the solving of old case involving arson, theft and murder, they’d resolved their differences. And now they were getting married.

It was an amazing story, and one Winnie had heard second hand from her friend Laurel as she’d still be living in Highwood with her parents at that time.

Big-Sky ChristmasMoving back to Coffee Creek had been a recent development. So much was the same. And yet so much had changed...

Winnie squeezed the tissue, suddenly wishing she’d brought more. She didn’t know she was going to handle watching Savannah walk down the aisle today. But she had to.

“This must be difficult,” Jackson whispered.

Had he noticed her nerves? She nodded.

“Imagine you’re at the rodeo.” She could feel his breath on her hair, as he leaned in to whisper. “Everyone’s in regular clothes. The guys are in the chutes, waiting for their ride.”

“And the organ music?”

“That’s just the fans cheering.”

He was being silly. But it was working. She could feel her muscles relaxing. She closed her eyes, picturing the scene that Jackson was laying out for her. She’d been to countless rodeos over the years, in fact, that was how she’d met—

Brock.

Her eyes flashed open. Her heart began to race and her body went rigid. If he hadn’t died in that crash on his way to the church, he would be sitting beside her right now. They’d be man and wife and—

The music changed then, became a march. Everyone shifted in their seats, and after a second, so did Winnie.

“Rodeo princesses are making their entrance,” Jackson said softly as the crowd gasped. He placed a steady hand on her shoulder.

Her nerves calmed at his words, his touch.

“Imagine they’re on horses,” he added.

Not hard to do, since the first bride was Cassidy, and she was never happier than when she was riding. The golden-haired woman with her sunshine smile had a degree from the University of Montana but she worked at Monahan’s Equestrian Center now, doing what she’d been born and raised to do—train horses.

The normally taciturn Farley beamed as his bride—no, rodeo princess—-gave him her hand. The look they shared was so sweet Winnie’s heart tumbled a little, but she set it right again by turning to look at the second bride.

Fortunately Savannah didn’t look anything like a Sheriff today in her fitted white dress and delicate shoes, her long dark hair falling in gentle waves down her shoulders. The crowd gave her a second, appreciative gasp, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her smile and gaze were just for B.J..

As the congregation settled down, Winnie focused on her hands clasped in her lap.

Big-Sky Christmas“Family and friends,” intoned the minister, “We are gathered today to celebrate the marriages of two very special couples--"

A tear dropped onto her hand. She hadn’t even realized that she’d started to cry. She blinked, and a second one followed.

Suddenly a large hand covered both of hers. She felt the rough calluses first. The warmth second.

She glanced up and saw such a tender look in Jackson’s eyes that she almost started crying again. Thank goodness she’d been smart enough to forgo eye make-up. She had to get a grip here. Listening to the minister had been a mistake. She had to take Jackson’s lead and pretend she was somewhere else.

In her mind, Winnie started going over all of Bobby’s milestones. The first time he rolled over. His first smile. His first tooth. Gradually she could feel her muscles relaxing and Jackson must have felt the same, because he gave her hands a pat, then returned his hand to his own thigh.

The fact that he was being so kind to her made her feel even worse about the suffering she knew he’d been going through this past year and a half. She should have called him sooner. Maybe they could have helped one another through their grief, rather than dealing with the sadness and loss on their own.

Once the ceremony was over, they would talk. She’d invite him for coffee. Make things right.


Jackson Stone was in agony. Of all the people in this church, why had that damn kid sat Winnie Hays next to him?

If only they weren’t squished in so tightly that he could feel her warm thigh up against his. The contact was the sweetest form of torture he could imagine. There were at least a dozen reasons why he shouldn’t find her so attractive, but he did.

And he had from the first time Brock had brought her home to meet the family.

He’d never met a woman before with such sparkle in her eyes, such sass in her smile. He’d watched her shake hands with Olive, Cassidy, Corb and B.J. and when it came time for his turn, he’d half expected sparks to ignite when her palm met his.

And they had.

But only for him.

That was when he knew that he had to keep as much distance between himself and Brock’s girlfriend as possible.

And he’d done it.

But it hadn’t made his life easy. And it had become a true nightmare on the day of their wedding.

Jackson still had terrible dreams about the crash. He hadn’t seen the moose in time to avoid a collision. There had been a curve in the road, then the stand of aspen and willows.

And suddenly, the huge body of a bull moose coming up from the right...

No. He couldn’t let himself go there. Not now. If this was hard for him, it had to be four times more difficult for Winnie. Last night at the rehearsal dinner Laurel had confided to him that she expected her friend to jam out of the ceremony.

“She’ll come to the reception,” Corb’s red-headed wife had said. “But not to the church.”

“Yeah. That’s probably the best thing,” he’d said.

He’d wished he could skip the ceremony, too. But he’d lived with the Lamberts since he was thirteen, and B.J. and Cassidy were like his own siblings. He didn’t want to miss their special day because of his own weakness. And he did see it as a weakness, that he couldn’t seem to get past that day.


Diversions helped. Things like work, and Maddie Turner’s illness, and the financial challenge of turning around the fortunes of the Silver Creek Ranch.

But occasionally a guy had to stop and just be.

And that was when the bad memories would sneak in. Sometimes he envied Corb, who’d sustained serious brain trauma in the accident and remembered nothing.

He wished he could have been unconscious, too. Then he wouldn’t have these pictures of the awful aftermath in his head.

The split second when he’d seen the moose. Then the crash and the screams. Followed by silence.

The moose had taken out the roof of the truck and sunshine had fallen directly on his head. He’d been pinned to his seat by the airbag at first. Stunned.

First thing he noticed was the sunshine, warm on his head. Birds were singing. He said a prayer before turning his head.

But the prayer hadn’t been answered. Because all he’d seen was blood. And when he called out to the others, to Brock and to Corb—no one had answered.

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LET'S WELCOME ELLEY ARDEN AUTHOR OF: THE PERFECT GAME

LET’S WELCOME ELLEY  ARDEN     AUTHOR OF: Rad-Reader:  How did you come up with this story?  And why a biracial? E...