ARE THE ONES YOU DON'T EXPECT
But with Christmas around the corner, every day together feels like a blessing. And as the spirit of the season takes hold, playing Santa and helping out a small boy with a big holiday wish is a joy Sam and Nicole can't resist. Neither of them imagines that they'll be rewarded—with the kind of love that lasts forever. . .
"Janet Dailey. . .writes tales that warm your heart."
—The Romance Reader
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A Cowboy Under My Christmas Tree
By JANET DAILEY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Janet Dailey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe towering Colorado blue spruce stood straight and true, unshaken by the man working inside it. Fragrant needles scratched the strong line of Sam Bennett's jaw when he finally climbed down through the branches. He jumped the last few feet to the ground and walked clear of the group of trees he was helping to install for a holiday display.
The park that surrounded them didn't seem big enough to be called one. It was no more than a patch of green right in the middle of a busy New York street, more like a median strip than a park.
But it did have benches—two, painted dark green—and an official city sign that said PLEASE Don't Feed The Pigeons. Undaunted, a gray and white bird waddled over, hoping for a handout.
Sam shook his head. "Sorry, pal. Read the sign." The pigeon gave him a beady-eyed look and fluttered a few steps away, puffing out its feathers against the cold and settling under a bench.
He unclipped the safety rope from his harness and draped the free end inside the temporary scaffolding around the tree installation. His hard hat came off next. Sam shivered as the nippy wind ruffled his brown hair. Stepping back to look up at his tree, he felt a flash of pride.
The blue spruce held its own, even surrounded by glass skyscrapers and older buildings of brick and stone. He was glad to see it upright again. The tree had made the trip from Colorado on a flatbed trailer along with several others from his family's ranch.
Tyrell Bennett, Sam's dad, had planted all of them back in the day. They'd done the cutting with a measure of regret, but the deal had been too good to pass up. The New York company paid top dollar and covered out-of-state shipping costs for fine, tall trees like these.
Sam took a moment to brush needles and bits of bark from his broad shoulders, then bent down and did the same to his jeans, straightening to his full six-foot-two when someone shouted to him from inside a different tree.
"Hey, you going for coffee? Bring me an extra large."
Sam knew the voice. Greg Tsianakas was his boss on this temporary gig and also his friend.
They'd met in college ten years ago, both freshmen at the University of Colorado, but as different as two people could be at the age of eighteen. Sam had grown up on a sprawling ranch at the foot of the Rockies, fifty miles outside of a tiny town called Velde. Greg was a New York native, from Astoria, who'd returned there after graduating. He couldn't ski and he didn't know one end of a horse from another, but they'd been best buds all the same and stayed in touch ever since.
Sam had never been to Astoria, but he understood that it was a neighborhood in Queens, which was a borough of New York City, east of Manhattan and, for all he knew, west of the moon.
"Okay," Sam shouted back. He already knew Greg wanted a splash of milk and two sugars—the guys on the Christmas crew took turns fetching coffee. "Anyone else?"
No answer. The others probably couldn't hear him. He glanced out through the wrought iron fence that protected the park from the noisy traffic whizzing by on both sides.
Yellow taxicabs dominated among the cars and trucks. They seemed to travel in herds, like the buses, but now and then one broke away to pick up a passenger. A woman in a red coat was opening the back door of a taxi near the curb, putting several holiday-themed shopping bags on the backseat before she got in herself.
She barely had the door shut when the taxi drove away. Everything happened a lot faster here. But Sam was getting used to the pace.
The December day was clear and cold, with a biting wind that whistled through the branches of the trees above and stiffened his fingers inside his work gloves. Sam pulled them off before he tackled the buckles on the safety harness strapped around his lower body and removed it. He tucked the gloves into the hard hat, and put it and the harness in the area reserved for the rigging crew's gear.
Felt like a blue norther had slammed into New York. Sam picked up his Stetson and put it on before his head got cold, even though the coffee shop was right across the street. They sold muffins and bagels too, but not sandwiches. It was only eleven, but he was already thinking about a corned beef on rye.
Sam took a little more time to study the tree he'd been working on, the largest of the group and the only spruce. The distinctive silver blue of its needles made it stand out even more against the dark green of the others. He'd attached a few extra branches here and there to make his tree symmetrical on all sides. It looked good. He was close to done.
Stringing the lights was next, a painstaking task that would keep them up in the trees until nightfall tomorrow. He couldn't complain. Greg had crews all over the boroughs doing seasonal work. Some of the installations were for the city and some were for businesses. December was Greg's busiest month and the pay was great.
Sam was never inclined to turn down work in winter. The dry years out West had caught up with everyone in their part of Colorado. The cattle the Bennetts had been able to keep were eating costly bought hay—the price of feed had gone through the roof. Speaking of that, the Bennett barn needed a new one. Maybe next spring.
He and his brother Zach had both taken seasonal jobs this December, leaving their parents to run the ranch. They hadn't expected to end up on opposite sides of the country, with Zach in Oregon and Sam in New York. But their younger sister Annie had stayed in Colorado. His folks would manage, even though money was tight. They had everything they needed on the ranch.
Here in New York, everything was expensive and hotels were astronomical. Sam had lucked into a relatively cheap sublet right up the street from the Christmas tree lot, but he wasn't living there yet. The tenant was a cruise ship performer who would be leaving for Bermuda in four or five days.
In the meantime, Sam was staying with Greg's uncle rent free in exchange for helping the old man with whatever needed doing until New Year's Eve. He didn't plan to blow his earnings, either.
There were a lot of great things to do in the city that didn't cost much or were even free: the electronic dazzle of Times Square, the skating rink at Rockefeller Center right under the famous tree, the panoramic view of New York harbor and the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge—he had a list.
His bank account would be in good shape when he got back to Colorado.
"What are you waiting for?" Twenty feet up in a dark green pine, Greg pushed aside the branches that concealed him. His black hair was held back by a bandanna tied under his hard hat and his gaze had an annoyed spark. "Go, already. I'm freezing up here."
"Okay, okay." Sam laughed. He dug in the pocket of his flannel-lined denim jacket for regular gloves, pulling them on as he waited for a chance to cross the street, his breath lingering in the cold air.
A red light stopped the oncoming traffic, and he was on the other side in a few strides.
He entered the coffee shop and returned the counterman's greeting, ordering quickly but happy to wait where it was warm. He paid and left the change in the tip jar before he exited with a lidded take-out cup in each hand.
When he recrossed the street, Greg was waiting for him behind the fence, down from his tree.
"No problem," Sam said, handing him one of the cups. "And it's on me."
His buddy popped the lid and blew on the coffee to cool it. "I owe ya." He looked up at Sam's blue spruce. "That is one hell of a gorgeous tree. The city got a bargain."
"Glad you think so."
Greg took a big sip. "Looks like you're done."
"Almost. That part over there needs a few more branches."
Greg looked to where Sam was pointing. "Yeah, you're right. None left, though, not in that color. But the parks guy is coming by with more."
"Fine with me." Sam grinned. "I was thinking of grabbing an early lunch anyway."
"Try the sandwich place two blocks up. They make 'em thick. Half is a meal."
"I can eat a whole one," Sam vowed.
Greg laughed and went back to his tree, studying it from several angles.
Sam finished his coffee, turning his collar up against the wind. Then he crumpled the cup and tossed it into a wire-mesh can that looked like it had lost a few battles with a garbage truck. He was one step ahead of the changing light as he crossed in the opposite direction, glancing downtown at the tall buildings looming over the sidewalks. The cold sun glittered off steel and glass, shooting rays through unexpected openings. Whoever had coined the phrase "the canyons of Manhattan" knew what they were talking about.
He spotted the new awning over the sandwich shop from the corner, walking fast to get there, wishing he had a scarf. The door was trimmed with bright tinsel and a bright-eyed paper elf advertising the special: Sandwich and soda! Six bucks!
A deli case loaded with cold cuts and a whole roast turkey got his full attention. Sam ordered from a man in a white cap, who lifted the slab of corned beef and took it to a slicer.
"Pickle or coleslaw? For here or to go?" he asked as he sliced and expertly assembled the sandwich.
"Neither. For here. Thanks." Sam had his eye on a spot at a high counter in front of the window. Perfect for people-watching.
"That's some hat." The counterman admired it as he worked. "Where ya from? That is, if ya don't mind my asking," he added. "Ya have an accent."
Sam had fielded the question before. New Yorkers seemed to think other people talked funny.
"That's far," the counterman said.
Sam nodded. "Eighteen hundred miles."
"Ya miss the wild west?"
"I haven't been here long enough." Sam laughed.
In less than a minute, the man in the white cap slid over an enormous sandwich speared with frilly toothpicks and garnished with packets of mustard. Sam took the plate to the cashier and added a can of soda from a cooler by the register. He grabbed a couple of napkins and headed to the window seat where he could watch the world go by, putting his Stetson by him on the counter.
Entertained by the amazing variety of people on the street in front of him, he ate slowly, enjoying the flavorful corned beef. No one looked at him. He polished off the entire sandwich before he popped the tab on the soda and took a sip.
The flow of pedestrians thinned out for a few minutes, and he looked idly at the stores across the street, focusing on an expensive-looking boutique. Its display windows were covered by large shades printed with hats and dresses and shoes.
Sam squinted. A handwritten placard that he couldn't read from this distance had been taped to the outside of the glass. He glanced up when a neon sign over the entrance blinked on, spelling out a single word.
If that was the name of the boutique, he'd never heard of it. But then he knew zip about fashion. However, he needed to pick up a gift for his younger sister, who did. The wilder, the better—she would love something from a New York store. Annie always went for something short, tight, and bright, he knew that much. She lived in Vail, went to a lot of parties. If the boutique sold anything that wasn't black, he was in luck.
Sam looked at his watch. Not even twelve. He had time to take a look, if they were open. The door was ajar. The sign kept blinking.
NOW. NOW. NOW.
He knew a hint from the universe when he saw one.
Sam left the sandwich shop and waited at the intersection, watching a college kid in skinny jeans and skateboarder sneakers come out of the boutique and wait on the sidewalk. A lumber company van screeched to a halt and double-parked. The driver stayed at the wheel, pressing a button to unlatch the sliding side door.
Awkwardly, as if he'd never picked up anything heavier than a pencil in his life, the kid hoisted long two-by-fours out of the van and settled them onto his shoulder. He turned around, whacking the taped placard off the window as he carried the lumber into the boutique, by some miracle not doing any more damage.
The light changed and Sam crossed, well behind several people who hadn't waited. Jaywalking seemed to be a very popular New York sport.
When he was in front of the boutique, he picked up the placard and read it. Please come in and don't mind the sawdust ... Now is getting ready for Christmas!
Sam heard the familiar whine of a circular saw and caught a pleasant whiff of just-cut wood. He was curious about the carpentry in progress behind the shades but somewhat hesitant, now that he was there, about actually going in and buying something.
He didn't know Annie's exact size and she wouldn't be able to return something that didn't fit. Back home, he knew every clerk at the few-and-far-between stores in his thinly populated rural county and some who worked at the malls closer to the larger towns and Denver. And it seemed like they all knew his sister.
Gruff voices came from one of the covered windows, and he looked over at it, noticing that the printed shade hadn't been drawn down all the way. The shade itself was a giant version of the roller type that snapped up—a plastic ring dangled from it, resting on the floor. He could see workboots coming and going in the gap at the bottom.
They didn't have much room to move around, and the job wasn't going well. Their low comments made that clear enough.
Then a woman's voice with a sultry note to it intervened. She was probably the owner of the boutique, since she seemed to be giving the orders, though she wasn't barking them out.
Sam glanced at the placard he held, wondering if he should bring it inside. It was a plausible excuse for a quick look around. He could hand it over and leave if he didn't spot anything he thought Annie would like.
Then the skateboarder sneakers came over to the window and stepped on the ring, drawing the shade taut to the floor.
Sam smiled to himself. He didn't think the kid meant to be so clumsy, but he had a feeling a minor disaster was imminent.
He heard the female voice say something. The sneaker lifted as the kid took a step.
The roller shade flew up.
Both sneakers were suddenly airborne. There was a loud thump, then a groan.
Sam saw four guys in the background of the window recess, putting down tools to go to the kid, who was getting up off the floor, red in the face. Then the owner of the female voice walked right in front of the window without looking out.
Sam was riveted to the sidewalk.
He couldn't help but stare. Glossy, very dark hair was pulled back from her face in a practical ponytail that did something wonderful for her delicate features and full lips. Her arms were akimbo, hands on her hips.
Twenty-five, twenty-six. Around there. Younger than he was but not by much. Sam took in what she was wearing. On top, a plain shirt, sleeves rolled up. Beneath that were not-exactly-baggy shorts over dark tights.
Nice curves. Amazing legs.
Her ribbed socks rolled down into small-size workboots. A narrow leather pouch on her belt held a multiuse tool, the real kind. He had one just like it.
He looked up again. Without thinking, he tipped the brim of the Stetson to her. She seemed puzzled by the gesture.
Sam gazed into her eyes.
They were hazel, flecked with chocolate, framed by dark, thick lashes. Her finely arched brows drew together. She glared at him.
He ventured a smile.
With a swift downward motion, she yanked the ring and covered the window again.
It seemed unfair. After all, he hadn't made the shade fly up. But obviously she had work to do, someone on her crew had just taken a spill, and she didn't like being gawked at.
Sam heard the people inside the window move around. Someone bumped against it, and the shade flew up again.
This time she was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, he glanced at the framework under construction in the confined space, not able to figure out what it was going to be. The carpenters ignored him.
The college kid was climbing a ladder positioned between the framework and a hanging backdrop painted with a snow scene that hung from a rod.
Sam shook his head. One sneaker had come untied.
Three steps up, he tripped on the shoelace and fell sideways off the ladder, clutching wildly at the paper backdrop. The light dowel it hung from detached from the rigging, and the torn backdrop rippled down over his head as he thudded to the floor. A stream of swear words issued from under the paper as the kid fought free.
The woman in shorts scrambled back into the window space and tried to help the kid before one of the burly guys intervened to lift him. An elderly lady stopped to see what Sam was looking at.
"Oh, my," she said in a reedy voice, peering through the glass. "I think that poor boy sprained his ankle, don't you? He can't put his weight on it."
"Ah—I really don't know, ma'am."
Sam moved to one side, not wanting to get caught staring a second time, and the elderly lady moved on.
Excerpted from A Cowboy Under My Christmas Tree by JANET DAILEY Copyright © 2012 by Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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