Smokin’ Hot Cowboy Christmas

“Fiery personalities and off-the-charts chemistry” – Harlequin Junkie

Have yourself a Smokin’ Hot Cowboy Christmas

It’s been one fiasco after another for newcomer Belle Tarleton since she began trying to turn her ranch into an arts center. Local workers seem determined to ruin her Christmas party plans, and she hopes bringing in down-on-his-luck Rowdy Holloway to help with renovations will get things back on track.

Rowdy is the unluckiest cowboy in the whole of Wildcat Bluff County, Texas, and things are not improving this holiday season. Sure, he’s the object of many local women’s drool-worthy fantasies, but the town has decided he’s the man who should stop Belle’s renovation plans.

It started as a simple mission, but now Rowdy’s so twisted up he doesn’t know whose side he’s on. With only days until Christmas, Rowdy and Belle need to tap into their fiery personalities and off-the-charts chemistry if they’re ever going to find a way to thaw the ice on this reluctant town’s heart.

“Cowboy Christmas reading at its very best.”—Carolyn Brown, New York Times bestselling author, for Cowboy Firefighter Christmas Kiss


Chapter 1

“101 Uses for a Bandana—Red, Blue, Yellow, Green, Purple, or White—to Add That Classic Accessory to Your Lulabelle & You Wardrobe.” Belle Tarleton cocked her head to one side as she considered the words she’d just typed on her laptop.

Was one hundred and one too many? She’d only come up with nineteen so far. She particularly liked “Fancy Gift Wrap,” “Emergency Diaper,” and “Trail Marker.” Surely she could figure out more uses. She liked the high number, par­ticularly for promotional copy, because it sounded sassy and fun. She was determined to rev up her line of women’s Western wear, so she’d come to Wildcat Bluff County to get back to her cowgirl roots.

She looked out over the neatly fenced ranch with Angus cattle, a black herd in one pasture and a red herd in another. By sharp comparison, her front lawn was a disorganized mess. Strewn about were stacks of roof shingles, lumber of all shapes and sizes, lengths of gutter, packages of nails, screws, whatnot, and cans of paint. At least, that’s what she recognized by sight. She was clueless about the other stuff piled here and there. All she knew was that the building material was supposed to be on the house and not on the ground. She needed the work completed in time for her make-or-break Christmas party in six weeks to introduce media and buyers to her new Lulabelle & You Ranch.

Unfortunately, there was a big glitch in her plans. Ranch renovations were at a standstill. Was there not a single man or woman in the entire county willing to get the work done? So far the answer appeared to be a resounding negative. She’d had one person after another appear, order stuff she’d paid for, and then, after one excuse or another, disappear never to return. She was actually losing ground instead of gaining it.

She could’ve called in a team from Dallas to finish her projects, but that wouldn’t go over well in the community. She wanted to build a solid, positive foundation with locals to create a good relationship that stretched into the future of the ranch and her business. She particularly wanted to nurture friendships because she had the uneasy feeling, although no one had said anything directly to her, that folks hereabouts didn’t much care for the idea of a dude ranch in their midst. They probably thought there’d be extra traffic, which there would be, and a lot of strangers, which there would be, but she planned an upside for the area as well.

She balanced her laptop on her knees as she perched on the red-and-white-checked cushion of the swing hang­ing from the front porch roof of the Lazy Q ranch house, hoping for inspiration. It wasn’t that she didn’t know ranches. She loved them. It wasn’t that she didn’t know Texas. She loved the Lone Star State. It was just that she’d been spending most of her time in big cities doing business and she’d grown more comfortable there than in the coun­try. Besides, she was East Texas, born and bred, and that was Southern country compared to the Wild West heritage of North Texas. Piney Woods versus Cross Timbers. They were equally beautiful but equally different.

She could thank her family for the idea of her taking over the ranch. They’d bought the place to help out friends who’d wanted to retire, but her folks hadn’t had time to do much with the land. She’d been at loose ends in a lot of ways…from the breakup of a long-term relationship to the downturn in clothing sales to simply wanting a change in life.

Yes, the ranch was a promotional tool, but she intended it to be so much more. Maybe nobody thought she read emails and messages sent to her at Lulabelle & You, but she read as many as she could snag time for, and her media assis­tant read all of them. She was particularly attuned to young­sters who wore her clothing line and looked to her as a big sister with answers to their problems. She addressed many of their concerns in her weekly “Belle & You” newsletter, but she wanted to do more for them.

She’d come up with an idea that the ranch could also be used to support the creative arts that were so vital to future generations of clothing designers as well as those aspiring in the other arts. Imagination that translated into creative power was high on her list of important life skills. She also wanted to make available a place that nurtured youngsters living in cityscapes without access to the country, where they could positively interact on tours with farm and ranch animals such as horses, cows, and chickens to experience an agrarian way of life. She wasn’t sure yet how she could make it all work, but that was her ultimate goal.

Yet…one step at a time. First, she had to get work com­pleted on the house in time for her Christmas party. Second, she had to create marketing for Lulabelle & You. Third, she had to get local folks to accept and support her goals. A tall order? Yes. But she was a cowgirl, even if she was now on the citified side, and she knew how to get a job done.

She amended that thought as she looked out over the construction-in-progress mess. Normally she knew how to get stuff done. In Wildcat Bluff County, so far she’d met an immobile rock of resistance or ineptitude or something unknown. She just hoped the next cowboy, due to arrive at any moment, would be the silver lining in her stormy sky.

She had high hopes for this guy because he’d been rec­ommended by Hedy Murray, head honcho of Wildcat Bluff Fire-Rescue. When she’d called and talked with him on the phone, he’d said his name was Rowdy, no need for a surname. Why not? It didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that he had the ability to arrive on time, carry heavy loads, and drive a nail in straight… maybe he even had a few cowboy firefighter friends who’d help him do the job.

To meet this paragon of construction virtue, or so she hoped, she’d dressed conservatively in a sample of her upcoming line of Western business attire for ladies that was a feminized version of the traditional male Western suit. She was considering a line of bolo ties to accent the shirts and suits, but she needed the right designer to create the look while staying true to its heritage. But that was on down the road. Right now she waited for Rowdy to show up and prove he was just what she wanted and needed to set her life straight.

In her mind, she pictured him as bowlegged from spend­ing life on horseback when he wasn’t crabbing his way across rooftops for repair. He’d sport plenty of muscle from wrangling thousand-pound-plus animals even if he might have gone to seed a bit. Looks didn’t matter. She’d spent so much time with sleek male and female models on photo shoots for her clothing line that she was immune to physical attributes. All she needed was a man with clever hands and an agile body.

And so she waited. A blue jay took wing from an upper branch of an ancient post oak with spreading branches that had dropped all its leaves. She liked that shade of bird blue and wondered if she could get fabric in the exact same color to be made into a jacket or suit. Maybe it was too bright and brassy for a semi-professional look, although cowgirls did like flashy. She’d keep it in mind for later seasons.

For now, late afternoon in the middle of November was a lovely time of year with the temperature in the mid-seventies. It’d drop into the fifties at night, but that was comfortable weather with a sweater or jacket. She enjoyed being outside now that she was on the ranch. She’d missed the great outdoors with its scent of dry grass riding the air, the sound of wind in the live oaks and cedars, and the natu­ral beauty of the land.

She focused back on Wildcat Road, though it was some distance from the house. Rowdy would come that way, from one direction or the other, turn under the Lazy Q Ranch sign, and follow the gravel road upward. She smiled at a sudden thought. Maybe he wouldn’t be in a truck at all. Maybe he’d be riding horseback, jumping fences as he crossed pastures to reach her. She liked the image. Maybe she’d use it in a promotion.

As if she’d conjured him with her thoughts, she saw a battered, faded blue pickup chug up the road with black smoke from its tailpipe proving it was burning oil, turn under the sign, and head her way. She hoped Rowdy was in better shape than his truck because it looked like it was on its last legs. Hedy had said Rowdy was a volunteer cowboy firefighter, so he had to at least be strong enough to lift lad­ders, tote fire extinguishers, drive fire engines, and handle emergency medical situations.

When the pickup pulled to a stop in front of her on the circular drive, backfiring a few times as the engine died down, she waited with bated breath, hoping against hope that this cowboy was just what she needed to set her Christmas right.

She set her laptop down on a cushion, stood up, and watched as the rusted, dented truck door squeaked open. First one and then another dirt-crusted, scuffed work boot found purchase on the ground. Long, tanned fingers grasped the side of the door, wrestled with it a bit, and then managed to get it shut after several tries.

She caught her breath at the first sight of Rowdy. She was a clotheshorse and appreciated a well-dressed man, so it wasn’t his clothes that snagged her attention. He looked like he’d stepped straight out of Hollywood central casting or a modeling agency’s book for the hot cowboy who appeared as if he’d been ridden hard and put up wet—yet was still ready, willing, and able to handle any job…or any woman.

He wore stained, ripped, faded Wranglers that show­cased long, muscular legs. A washed-to-softness denim shirt with white snaps barely concealed his muscular shoul­ders, chest, and arms. From underneath a stained, beige-felt cowboy hat, he looked her over with hooded eyes the color of bluebonnets set in a face of high cheekbones, wide jaws, and full lips. He was flat-out beautiful.

He took off his hat and revealed thick, dark blond hair. He placed his hat over his chest…as if sending a mes­sage from his heart to her heart. And he smiled, revealing a single, tantalizing dimple in his left cheek accented by a close-cropped beard.

Oh my. She felt a chill race through her body followed by a surge of heat. She wasn’t known for strong reactions to good-looking men because she’d seen so many, but this cowboy was under her skin with a single look.

“I’m Rowdy.”

“Belle Tarleton.” She walked over to him with out­stretched hand in business-friendly mode.

When he clasped her fingers in a traditional shake, it was anything but ordinary. She caught his scent of sage and san­dalwood. She saw his eyes darken with interest. And she felt the heat and strength of his work-rough palm.

“Hear you need a bit of help with the place.”

“Yes.” She freed her hand, although he seemed reluctant to let her go, and gestured at the piles of construction material.

He glanced around and then turned back to her with an amused glint in his blue eyes. “I take it you want me to put this stuff where it belongs.”

“That’d be good.”

“Got a completion date on your mind?”

“I need everything done before Christmas.”

He put his hat back on his head. “That’s a tall order.”

“I’m planning a big party.”

“Party.” He glanced around again. “Lots of parties going on about that time of year, so folks are busy.”

“This particular party is important to my business. Didn’t Hedy Murray explain?”

“A bit.” He cocked his head to one side, as if considering her words.

“I’m the CEO of Lulabelle & You…women’s Western wear.” She focused on his eyes so he’d understand the importance of what she planned to do. “I’m turning this working ranch into a dude ranch…well, really, it’ll continue to be a working ranch, too.”

“Is there a lot of interest in that sort of thing?”

“It’s mainly to promote my clothing lines.” He didn’t need to know the extent of her plans to complete the work, so she held back that information.

“You’re going to use the ranch to sell clothes?”

“Partly. I want to make the most of this beautiful ranch and share it with others.”

He shrugged, appearing skeptical. “It’s a lot of work to get done in six weeks or so.”

“Do you have friends who might be willing to help?”

“Maybe. But like I said, folks are busy.”

“If possible, I want to hire local.” She hoped suggesting that she could bring in outside help might motivate him to take on the job.

“Local is good.” He pushed the brim of his hat up with one thumb while he gave her a hooded look along with another flash of dimple.

“I think so, too.”

“I’ve got my own ranch to run.” He glanced around again. “But I guess I’m willing to take time to help you out here.”

“Thank you so much.” She felt a surge of relief wash over her. “You won’t regret it.

Chapter 2

Bert Two Holloway, alias Rowdy, already regretted it.

Still, he was caught between a rock and a hard place, so he had to get out of the chute as fast as possible and hang in there.

He would’ve recognized Belle Tarleton anywhere because she was the face—and hot body—of Lulabelle & You. He hadn’t expected her to pack such a wallop in real life. He’d figured she was all camera angles and retouch in her photos. Not so.

He knew her three brothers, but he’d never met her before, and he wished he could make up for lost time. He couldn’t, no matter how much he suddenly lusted after her. Even worse, she’d never forgive him if she ever found out what he was about to do to her because he’d always be Bad Santa in her personal Wildcat Bluff Christmas…