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The Cowboy’s Unexpected Christmas Gift

She hates asking for help, especially from him. She was the last person he expected to find on his doorstep. Will this Christmas reveal their secret wish?

Amelia has never expected that this Christmas she would lose everything to find what she has been missing the most: love. When she ends up at Shawn’s doorstep, cold and frostbitten, she realizes that the only way she can fix her ranch is by accepting his help. How can she trust again in a man though who broke her heart so long ago?

Shawn is a man with a tough past and choices that haunt him until today. He never celebrates Christmas, and he prefers spending his time alone with his daughter. The last person that Shawn expected to see on his doorstep was a freezing Amelia asking for his help. Will the season of wonders make him realize that he never really takes the beautiful Amelia out of his mind?

With Christmas fast approaching, Amelia and Shawn must believe in the power of the Season of Wonders: unconditional love. Will they be able to find theirs and warm up their cold hearts?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.4/5

4.4 out of 5 (177 ratings)

Prologue

Amelia kept her eyes fixed on the clear sky where an eagle swooped overhead, soaring as its vast wings caught the thermals. Below, the icy blue and gray mountains extended for as far as the eye could see, but that was not where she was looking now. Nor did she find her usual comfort in the warmth promised by the sturdy log homestead nestled at the foot of the mountains a short walk away. Behind her, muffled murmurs reminded her of the gathering of townsfolk who had come to support her this day and to say their final goodbyes. Despite the threat of more snow, at least two dozen people had clustered around the family burial site.

“Because the Lord has chosen to call our brother Thomas unto Himself, we commit his body to the Earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The words faded into the background as Amelia stared away from what was to be her father’s final resting place and past the towering snow-covered crags that had been instrumental in claiming his life. It seemed too impossible to be true, and she fought down a shudder as the tears flowed freely.

“Goodbye, Poppa,” she whispered to the heavens, convinced for a second it was his soul soaring there. But then the soft weeping around her tugged her back to reality, and she was staring into the dark pit before her; the horror of it all came crashing back.

“Oh, Poppa, what shall I do now? I’m all alone,” she whispered as the simple pine casket began to descend, supported by the hands of several men from the Beaver Creek church community. A warm hand clasped her shoulder, but she didn’t turn to see who it was.

“He was a good man, Amelia,” a familiar voice said gently. Glancing over her shoulder, she recognized the lanky form and weathered features of Jeb Carter, the ranch foreman. She nodded mutely, not trusting herself to reply. Mary, Jeb’s wife, had told her it would be fitting to grieve openly at Poppa’s graveside, but she was certain there were no more sobs to release. Those had exhausted themselves as she’d sat at his bedside, staring at his pale features these past days. Mary had been such a help to her then. She glanced back at the sturdy-framed older woman who was hovering beside her husband, her kind features awash with concern.

“My dear?” Father Cartwright was saying, his brown eyes warm beneath beetling gray brows. Amelia looked up to where the preacher was gesturing at the dark grave that now held the remains of her only family. She nodded and swallowed hard, dirt brushing the hem of her slate-gray skirt as she stepped closer and stooped to take a handful of cold soil. The sound it made as it hit the top of the casket drew a wail from someone behind her, and Amelia’s sob finally burst free, though she’d truly believed there were no more left in her.

“Come, darlin’,” Mary murmured as she slid an arm around Amelia’s shoulder and guided her away. Others had stepped up to perform the same gesture, but Amelia could no longer hear the sound over her own weeping. “Your Pa’s with the Lord now,” Mary said, soft brown eyes gentle beneath silvering brown hair, “and your Mama’s right there beside him. They’ll look down on ya, darlin’. They’ll be lookin’ over ya.”

Amelia nodded, but the words were cold comfort. The walk from the small family burial plot to the ranch house took forever. Amelia heard the top step creak as Mary led her up to the porch and remembered Poppa saying he’d be getting to fixing that soon. Those words had been spoken just last week when he’d been so vibrant, so vital. It didn’t seem possible that he was gone now. It didn’t seem possible that she was all alone.

Why, Poppa, why? she wanted to wail out loud. But, of course, she knew why. When the cattle had gone missing in the snowstorm, there was no question that Thomas Roper would go up into the mountains to find them. And he’d returned two days later, chilled to the bone, but triumphant.

“Those are fine, strong heifers, sugar. They weren’t harmed none, though I’ll bet they sure are happy to be back,” he’d said as the errant cows had been returned to the herd. But the rattling cough that followed his words had grown worse by nightfall, and the next day he’d been unable to leave his bed. The fever had come then, and his breathing had grown labored. Even when Doc Ainsley had come in with his potions and compresses, Poppa had battled for air. A week later, it was clear that little more could be done. Each breath became shallower until, at last, there were none.

“Pneumonia,” Doc had said. “It’s a cruel instrument of the Reaper.” Amelia had barely believed it. Her father’s broad, strapping frame still seemed too robust to be taken so quickly.

Now she stood, exhausted and hollow-eyed with grief, in the parlor where they’d gathered earlier to pay their respects. A parlor that should have been wreathed with Christmas garlands as they prepared for the upcoming celebration. A celebration that was also the day of her birth. In the wake of such loss, there’d be no decorations this year. No gifts.

Thumping footsteps were creaking up the broad wooden stairs behind her, and she knew the rest of the mourners were following her into the house. She felt grateful for their comforting presence, but the exhaustion of the previous days was taking hold. As much as it warmed her to know how well her father was loved, a part of her wanted to be alone in her grief.

“How’s that herd, Jeb?” someone was saying behind her, and she dimly recognized the voice of Curley Armstrong, whose ranch lay some miles west of her own.

“All good as could be expected, Curley. How’s your wintering up at Elm Gorge?” she heard Jeb respond.

“Ah, just about tolerable, Jeb,” Curley replied. The conversation seemed surreal, so ordinary in the face of what seemed like a nightmare. Mary was bustling ahead into the small, tidy kitchen just off the living area, where a pot was boiling over the fire. Others were stomping in behind, dusting snow off their shoulders and shrugging out of heavy coats. Guests filtering in who would need hot coffee and slices of pie and someone to set them at ease. Amelia didn’t think she had the strength for it, as much as she appreciated them coming to be with her.

Amelia had barely been aware of the icy weather outside, although now it occurred to her that her hands were numb. She hovered a moment, uncertain of what to do next, and then someone was directing her to a seat—Poppa’s chair beside the window. She sank into it, inhaling his lingering scent there, and tried to pretend that any minute he’d be striding through the doorway and shooing her out of it.

“Come along now, sugar!” he’d say. “Up with ya. That’s my chair, and don’t you know it!” And then she’d grin and resist for a minute before conceding and getting up to fetch his tobacco. She could still smell the sweet, warm fragrance now, bringing back memories of the many hours they’d spent right here, in this cozy log-paneled room surrounded by their worn, comfortable furnishings.

They’d be talking of plans for the coming spring, and the calving that would require extra hands on the farm. They’d be planning their Christmas meal and Poppa would be unsuccessfully attempting to convince her he’d forgotten her birthday.

“Birthday? Who’s having a birthday?” he’d joke. He was a terrible liar. A minute into the conversation and he would tell her exactly what he’d got for her.

Who would talk to her now? Who would she turn to?

Someone was stoking the fire in the expansive stone hearth nearby, and the warmth billowed around her, but it couldn’t quite ease the chill in her fingers…or the one that gripped her heart.

“Here ya go, darlin’.” Mary was standing before her, a steaming mug held in an outstretched hand. Amelia reached for it gratefully, closing her frigid fingers around it.

“Thank you, Mary,” she murmured, hoping the words were enough. She was sure she wouldn’t get through this day without the other woman’s support. More people had bustled into the room, though she could scarcely pick out one from another through eyes made puffy with tears.

The conversation among the others washed over her, but none of the words sank in. She stared down into the dark brew in her cup and felt the chill slowly seeping from her fingers. A brush against her arm let her know that Mary was draping Mama’s quilt around her shoulders. Amelia shot a grateful half-smile up at Mary and then settled back into Poppa’s chair, surrounding herself with these final reminders of the family who were no longer with her.

It’s just me now, she thought, although it seemed self-indulgent when she was surrounded by people who clearly cared for her. But gazing out the window to the vast sprawling pastures that kissed up against the mountain foothills and the crags above, it all seemed overwhelming. The land she’d worked with her father and these men would still demand attention. Come morning, there would be livestock that needed tending and the never-ending stream of chores that came with it. The best she could hope for was a night to weep before gathering herself for the new day’s responsibilities.

A night she would spend alone, despite being a woman nearing her twenty-fifth year. Any hopes she’d had of matrimony had been dashed when she was barely a woman. When he had broken his solemn promise. But she couldn’t think of that now. Couldn’t think of the man with eyes as blue as the Montana sky, or the strong lines of the face from which they had shone for her. She wanted Poppa back, though it could never happen.

The voices around her were diminishing, receding into a smattering of words as people filtered out until it was just her, Jeb, and Mary who remained.

“Get some rest, Miss Amelia,” Jeb was saying, his weathered face coming into focus as she looked up at last. Mary was fussing about her again, and she was aware the shadows were lengthening. Night would fall soon. A night without Poppa.

“There’s warm soup on the fire,” she said. “And Lilly Barlow left a pie. Take care of yourself and get some food in ya, darlin’.”

Amelia gave a nod, feeling as if she was moving underwater. “That’s very kind of her. I’ll be sure to thank her when next I’m in town.” She forced a smile, though the thought of food left her exhausted for some reason. As the couple gathered their coats and made their way out the door, Amelia sank back into Poppa’s chair and drew the quilt closer.

Tomorrow seemed like a lifetime away. And it would bring a new world of worries.

Chapter One

Two years later

A week before Christmas

“Jeb!” Amelia screamed, turning and wheeling Cloudy’s head around. She steered the buckskin gelding back in the direction she’d last seen her foreman and spurred the animal on. Cloudy needed no further prompting and surged forward, powerful hindquarters flexing as he plowed through the snow drifts.

“Jeb!” Amelia cried again, then exhaled as she spotted a shadowy figure up ahead. Jeb’s face was set in grim lines as he rode up to meet her at a steady trot. “Did you get them to the top pastures? Where are the men?” she asked, raising her voice over the wind that howled around them.

Even through the heavy snowfall, Amelia could see from the set of Jeb’s jaw that his news was likely not good. His words bore out her suspicions. “I sent them ahead to take care of the horses at the homestead.”

She looked at him sharply. “But what about—?”

“We done all we could, Miss Amelia,” he said, pulling his hat more firmly down over his head to stop the gusting wind from sweeping it away. “The snow’s too deep to make our way through proper. The horses could barely pick up a pace to round ‘em up. A few took off and, afore we knew it, the whole herd had taken off over yonder.” He was pointing in the direction of the unprotected valley where several hundred head of cattle were now jostling and bawling. Above them, icy peaks loomed, dark and snow-coated, ominous.

“Oh, my Lord.” Amelia exhaled the words. “They can’t stay there, Jeb, it’s not safe! If—” Even as she spoke, the ground seemed to shudder. And then there was a sound like thunder. A deep rumbling shook right through her. But not from the skies above them. This sound came from the earth. Amelia and Jeb exchanged glances, and then Amelia drove Cloudy forward toward the herd.

“Amelia! No!” he shouted, but she charged ahead, even though she knew it was too late. Before her, the mountain was shifting, moving, changing before her very eyes. The cattle, oblivious, huddled together, taking comfort from each other. Yet their bellows still echoed into the rumble that was now almost deafening. It was the worst thing they could have been doing.

“Get along!” she shouted above the noise, not caring that it was pointless. “Get away, get away! Hup hup!” The thunder had grown into a roar, drowning out her words as hundreds of tons of snow and soil crashed their way down the side of the mountain. Down to the valley where the cattle milled about anxiously.

Jeb had taken up pace beside her, but his intention was not to drive the herd. He caught Cloudy’s reins and tugged them from her, jarring her almost from the saddle as he hauled the gelding off the path she’d chosen.

“No!” Amelia screamed. “We can’t leave them!” But Jeb was relentless. Cantering at her side, their knees crashing painfully together, it was a wonder the stock horses didn’t get their legs tangled and tumble to the ground.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he shouted back, his voice hoarse, his face contorted with the agony of the decision he had to make. Amelia knew he was right. Terrified bellows tore into her heart as the avalanche descended and devoured the beasts that were spinning in a panic. Ice and rocks bounced and shattered around them, the explosions causing the horses to leap in fear. Moving at a speed that Amelia could barely comprehend, the snow and debris had collapsed from the mountainside and was rolling toward them like a wave.

Any hope of saving the herd was gone; now it was a matter of saving themselves. Jeb released her reins and Cloudy careened away at a gallop, taking them out past the ranch house and toward the trail to higher ground. Thundering hooves nearby alerted her to the presence of the other hands, who were picking a similar path away from the destruction that pursued them.

Amelia gave Cloudy his head, trusting the sure-footed buckskin to find a safe way out of danger, while behind her Jeb shouted orders to the other men, helping them to free the horses from the barn, where an hour before she had been certain they’d be safe. She’d been wrong.

Shouts and whinnies joined the terrifying thunder of the avalanche, but Amelia couldn’t bring herself to look back; all she could do was pray. The cattle’s bellowing had been consumed by the rumble and now it was impossible to pick out the sounds of the herd.

“Please… Oh, Lord, please…” she gasped, clinging to the galloping horse.

By the time they got to the hill overlooking her ranch, there was just time to see the far edge of the moving mountain reach her home. And then it stopped.

For a moment, the silence was as deafening as the noise that had preceded it. Beside her, Jeb’s sorrel tossed his head, and she heard the clink of metal against leather. She and the men stood silent, all in shock at what had just transpired. From below, the scent of crushed vegetation and fresh pine wafted up to them, the sweet fragrance at odds with the horror that had caused it.

Amelia raised a shaking hand to brush tangled hair from her face and ran an eye over the men—Cody, Matt, and Carter. It was a relief to see that all were accounted for, including Jeb. As weathered and wiry as the men all were, their grim silence told her they were just as shattered as she was. Her home was gone. Her herd lost. The terrifying reality was barely sinking in.

Behind them, a small group of loose horses had clustered nervously, seeking comfort from the closeness of those familiar to them. The snow and rubble wouldn’t come up this far. They were safe up here on the hill where she and Poppa had ridden to view the North Star each Christmas Eve. Where he would hand her the small gift to mark the day of her birth. She felt a whimper bubble up.

Through the steady snowfall, it was hard to make out the lines of the ranch house. The house that should soon have seen the warmth of festive fellowship and gift-giving. The house that was now obscured by a mountain of rock and snow.

As awful as it might be, Amelia knew she had to get back down there. Had to see if there was anything left to be done for her herd. Deep down, she knew it was a vain hope, but she wouldn’t forgive herself if she didn’t do everything possible. After long seconds she turned to Jeb.

“I’m going back down.”

“Miss Amelia—” he began, reaching a hand toward her then dropping it. He appeared to think better about what he was going to say and simply urged his horse to fall in step beside her. They picked their way back down the hill, toward the home she’d grown up in. The outer edge of the avalanche had crushed the barn but thankfully stopped short of the ranch house.

Although, as she reached the center yard that she’d played in as a child, she bit back a small cry of dismay. A vast boulder had rolled in advance of the snow and smashed into the side of her home where her bedroom once stood. If she’d been in that room, there was no doubt in Amelia’s mind that she wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. But the ranch house seemed unimportant as she considered what lay beyond.

“The herd!” she called out to Jeb, who stared in horror at the devastation. He didn’t reply, and she knew why. The men made their way through the outbuildings, trying to establish what damage had been done. Amelia’s focus was fixed on her herd. She headed to where they’d left the animals, and Jeb followed grimly.

As they finally reached the pasture the cattle had stampeded to, her heart clenched and then shattered. There was no sign of life—not a moving creature to be seen. Giant boulders, uprooted trees, and huge swathes of snow completely covered the area. Snow that had once heralded a sense of celebration was now a messenger of doom. Amelia shook her head in disbelief, making her way closer, still hoping…hoping.

Until a dark mound took shape before her. The form grew clearer as she rode closer. A motionless heifer, eyes sightless, protruding from the snow.

“Oh my… Oh, my…!” Amelia’s voice broke and her shoulders shook.

“Miss Amelia.” Jeb’s voice was gentle. He was right beside her, and she looked into his face through the still falling snow. His features had aged since he’d lost Mary barely a year ago—they’d both mourned her loss—but his eyes were still as gentle. “Come back to the house,” he said softly. Amelia shook her head, not wanting to obey. She had to see for herself. Had to know she hadn’t abandoned her herd without trying all she could.

She slid from the saddle, the sound of her feet landing muffled by the snow and made her way over to the felled beast. Her shoulders heaved as she reached down and stroked the cooling hide. Nearby, another lay, equally still. Amelia felt her knees buckle and she sank to the ground, cupping her face in both hands. Great sobs wracked her as subsiding fear and growing grief finally overwhelmed her.

“No…no, no, no…!” she sobbed, sucking in lungfuls of air as she looked around at the slain animals. Everything told her she needed to do something, but it was too late for them now. Nothing she could do would bring these lost lives back.

“It was quick, Miss Amelia.” Jeb’s words were soft behind her. “You can consider that a mercy.”

Amelia shook her head. What mercy was there in this? She cast her eyes around the white-blanketed fields. At the terrible, beautiful, unforgiving land that had sucked the soul from her.

“What’s left, Jeb?” she whispered, at last, ignoring the chill seeping into her from the snow. The man said nothing. He’d seen enough loss and heartache to know what she was going through. Amelia Mason had given her all to Eagle Stone Ranch, even before her father had gone. Thomas Roper had raised her to love this life, doting on the dark-haired infant after losing her mother during birth. Amelia had been on a pony at his knee as soon as she was old enough to keep a firm grip on the reins. Even before that, he would ride out with her propped behind the pommel, pointing out the cattle.

And Jeb had watched her grow up, admiring the way she’d taken on the responsibility of running the place after her Pa had passed. He’d told her as much and said it often, which was high praise coming from the usually silent man. There’d been doubts from some of the others at first, but he’d assured her she could do it. She had her father’s steady head and unflagging determination.

Although that determination was flagging now. Who could blame her?

“We’d best be heading back, Miss Amelia,” Jeb said, sliding a hand beneath her elbow and helping her to her feet. Amelia resisted a moment, almost feeling that leaving now would be a final act of abandonment. Then she nodded and stood. She went to where Cloudy stood patiently, gathered her skirts, set a boot into her stirrup, and lifted herself into the saddle. It was a move she’d practiced countless times throughout her life but, somehow, it seemed to be harder now. Her sodden skirts were heavy about her, and the world lay even heavier upon her shoulders.

“We’ll need to get you indoors, Miss,” Jeb said. “You’ll catch your death out here.” His words reminded Amelia that she’d left the house without her coat, and her dress was soaked through. As the adrenalin seeped from her system, her teeth began to chatter. A chair beside the fire, something hot to drink…

But that was not to be.

“That boulder took out the entire back wall of the ranch-house,” Cody Kellmann called out to them as they made their way back. “And the bunkhouse is clean flattened—not much more than kindling now.”

The tall, gangly young ranch hand had settled well into his duties since joining them a year earlier. He rubbed his forehead with a gloved hand, brushing sandy hair away from wide gray eyes. Nothing could have prepared him for this.

“You’ll not be staying here tonight, I’m afraid to say,” muttered Jeb as they dismounted and tethered their horses before the house and went in to survey the damage. Amelia was loathe to admit it, but the man was right. While the kitchen and living area were largely untouched, the sleeping quarters were completely uninhabitable.

“I’ll make do, somehow,” Amelia said, searching for some way to inject confidence into her voice. Jeb and Cody shook their heads.

“The bunk house is gone, and the homestead won’t shelter you in this snowstorm. There’s no way to keep out the cold, or anything else. It won’t be safe. And you’re soaked to the skin. I’m worried about ya, Miss,” his tone grew fatherly.

“I’ll warm up once we get working. And then get lodgings in Beaver Creek and dry off properly,” Amelia tried to reassure him. Her teeth chattered as she said it and Jeb’s face darkened with concern.

“You already put in a full day before the storm and I can see you’re tuckered out. Me and the men can do this. You need rest, and you gotta get dried off—sooner rather than later.” Jeb shook his head when Amelia opened her mouth to disagree. “It’ll take you two hours to get to Beaver Creek in this weather, Miss Amelia. I think you should make your way down to the Mason place,” said Jeb.

Amelia felt her heart sink further—if that was at all possible.

“No!” she said sharply. The thought of the Masons and Long Meadow only drew her flagging spirits lower. It may have been the closest ranch in the region, but for the past years, she’d worked hard to keep her distance from it. Distance from the ranch, and the man who ran it. “I’ll be fine,” she pressed in vain. “I’ll help you with the horses and then—”

“Amelia,” Jeb interrupted. His tone was now sternly paternal. He seldom addressed her so directly unless he was serious. “You have seen for yourself what can happen if you face this weather without protection.”

Amelia swallowed hard. Her father’s death was proof of that. He’d been a veteran of these parts, yet the cold had killed him as surely as if he’d been crushed under snow. The icy grasp had seized his lungs and crushed the life from him. These mountains were cruel in winter—if exposed to the elements, a body could freeze solid overnight.

“The men and I will see to the horses and then go into Beaver Creek to bunk down for the night. Get on over to Long Meadow now. They’ll see you right.”

“Jeb, I don’t know,” Amelia objected feebly, but as the heat of panic ebbed, the blistering cold started to sink deeper. Her thick dark hair was clinging damply to her face and shoulders, now adding to the blanket of cold. She rubbed her face, which she knew must be drawn and paler than usual. She felt herself caving.

“Please, I urge you to see sense. Long Meadow is barely a half hour from here. You head on over and get yourself warm. Amelia, do it for Tom… For your Pa,” Jeb pleaded.

Amelia slowly nodded, though she couldn’t release the vice around her heart. Long Meadow Ranch was the last place she wanted to be right now. She had vowed to stay far from there.

Far from Long Meadow, and far from Shawn Mason.

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    • Thank you so much, Karen! Your help choosing the cover for my books is always so touching! I can’t wait to hear your feedback! 🎄🥰

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