Home > Just in Time for Christmas

Just in Time for Christmas
Author: Carolyn Brown


Chapter 1

   It was just a white frame house at the end of a long lane.

   But it did not have wheels, and to Liz that meant it was a mansion.

   She squinted against the sun sinking in the west and imagined the house with multicolored Christmas lights strung all around the porch, the windows, even in the cedar tree off to the left side. In her vision, it was a Griswold house from Christmas Vacation that lit up the whole state of Texas. She hoped that when she flipped the electricity on she didn’t cause a major blackout because in a few weeks it was going to look like the house in that old movie that she loved.

   Now where is the cowboy to complete the package? the voice in her head asked.

   Christmas lights on a house without wheels and a cowboy in tight-fittin’ jeans and boots—that’s what she asked for every year when her mother asked for her Christmas list. She didn’t remember the place being so big when she visited her uncle those two times. Once when she was ten and then again when she was fourteen, but back then she’d been quite taken with the young cowboy next door and didn’t pay much attention to the house. The brisk Texas wind whipped around her skirt tail as if saying that it could send her right back to east Texas.

   “I don’t think so,” she said with half a giggle. “I’m here to stay, and I know a thing or two about Texas wind. It would take more than a class five tornado to get rid of me. This is what I’ve wanted all my life, and I think it’s the prettiest house in Montague County. It’s sittin’ on a foundation, and…” She clamped a hand over her mouth in disbelief when she saw her uncle’s old dog, Hooter, slowly come down off the porch, head down and wagging his tail. Blister, the black-and-white cat, eyed her suspiciously from the ladder-back chair on the tiny porch.

   “Uncle Haskell, I could kiss you!” she said as she slung open the truck door. The wind pushed its way inside, bringing a few fall leaves with it, but she didn’t even stop to brush them away. Aunt Tressa would say that was an omen—that the place was welcoming her into its arms. Her mother would say that the wind was blowing her back to the carnival where she belonged.

   Her high heels sank into the soft earth, leaving holes as she rushed across the yard toward the yellow dog. She squatted down, hugged the big yellow mutt, and scratched his ears. “You beautiful old boy. You are the icing on the cake. Now I’ve got animals and a house. Who cares about a cowboy? I can’t have it all, now can I?”

   The key was under the chair, tucked away in a faded ceramic frog, just where her Uncle Haskell said it would be when she talked to him earlier that afternoon. But he hadn’t mentioned leaving the two animals. She’d thank him for that surprise later on when she called him.

   She opened the wooden screen door and was about to put the key in the lock when the door swung open. There stood Raylen O’Donnell, all grown up and even sexier than she remembered. Her heart thumped so hard she could feel it pushing against her bra. Her hands shook and her knees went weak, but she took a deep breath, willed her hands to be still, and locked her knees in place.

   “If it’s religion you’re sellin’ or anything else, we’re not interested,” Raylen said in a deep Texas drawl. He held a glass of tea in one hand and the door handle in the other, and the expression on his face said he was as shocked as she was. “I wonder why Hooter didn’t bark?”

   “Maybe because he knows me,” Liz answered.

   She felt the heat of his gaze as he started at her spike heels and traveled all the way to the top of her head. She reached up and tucked several strands of her jet-black hair into a shiny silver clasp.

   “You are Raylen, aren’t you?” she asked.

   “Yes, I am, and who are you?” he asked.

   “I’m Liz, and I now own this place and land,” she said with a flick of her hand to take in more than just the house.

   “Liz?” Raylen’s expression changed to one of disbelief.

   “Surprise!” she said with a smile. “What are you doing here?”

   Could Raylen really be the cowboy Santa was going to leave under her Christmas tree? He’d sure enough been the one she had in mind when she asked for a cowboy. She’d visualized him in tight-fittin’ jeans and boots when she was younger. Lately, she’d changed her vision to nothing but a Santa hat and the boots.

   His hair was still a rich, dark brown, almost black until the sunlight lit up the deep chestnut color. His eyes were exactly as she remembered: pale, icy blue rimmed with dark brown lashes. It all added up to a heady combination, enough to make her want to tangle her hands up in all that dark hair and kiss him. She looked up, but there was no mistletoe hanging in the doorway. She’d have to remedy that when she decorated the house for the holiday.

   Cowboys have roots, not wings. Don’t get involved with one or you’ll smother to death in a remote backwoods farm or else die of boredom. Her mother’s voice whispered so close to her ear that she turned to make sure Marva Jo Hanson hadn’t followed her to Ringgold, Texas.

   Raylen stood to one side and motioned her into the house. “I came to feed and water Hooter and Blister. Haskell asked me to do that until you got here. We met when we were kids, remember?”

   “I do,” she answered. How could she forget? She’d been in love with Raylen O’Donnell since she was fourteen years old.

   “Haskell said that if you didn’t like it here, he’d sell me your twenty acres,” he blurted out.

   “That won’t happen, and you sure are blunt,” she said as she scanned the living room that was exactly like she remembered it, down to the well-worn leather sofa and hassock where she’d snuggled in to read romance books about cowboys the last time she was there. “I’m going to live here. Uncle Haskell said if I like it, he’ll deed the place over to me in the spring. The place isn’t for sale and won’t ever be.”

   “And do what? Ringgold isn’t very big.” Raylen’s tone was filled with exasperation.

   She shrugged. “I don’t know. Pet the cat. Feed the dog.”

   “That won’t make a living, lady,” Raylen said.

   She propped both hands on her hips. “I don’t reckon what I do for a living is one bit of your business, cowboy.” Never in all the scenarios that she’d imagined had he been cross with her like this. He’d kissed her. He’d swept her off her feet and carried her to a big white pickup truck and they’d driven off into the Texas sunset. He’d smiled and said that he remembered her well and she’d grown up into a beautiful woman. But he hadn’t argued.

   She brushed against his chest as she headed into the kitchen to make herself a glass of tea. She’d had Raylen on a pedestal for more than a decade and he didn’t even recognize her. He was probably married and had three or four kids too. That was the way her luck ran, so why should today be any different?

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