Former Navy master-at-arms Jason Clements is down on his luck and calling in one last favor. His cousin has secured him a job opportunity as a cowboy working at Price Ranch in Wyoming. Too bad Jason has never even saddled a horse. If he can keep this job without his PTSD getting in the way, it’ll be a Christmas miracle.
Local busybody Sage Cooper loves Painted Barrel something fierce, but it’s time for her to move on. Since her father passed away, the family ranch feels too big for just her, and there’s no chance of finding a husband in this small town. To the rest of the world, she’s just another local fixture, known for her closet full of ugly Christmas sweaters and being perpetually single.
It isn’t until Jason shows up in desperate need of a cowboy crash course that Sage discovers a tall, dark, and handsome reason to stick around. And with the holidays coming up, Sage is in need of a date for a special event—maybe they’ll turn out to be each other’s best Christmas present.
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He had arrived.
Jason Clements drove his small pickup truck down the long gravel driveway that led to the Price Ranch, which was to be his new home and place of work. He didn't stare at the farmhouse for too long, but instead focused on the scenery. Wyoming was very wide-open, he saw, and he liked that. There were mountains in the distance, but here surrounding the ranch it was very flat. He found that comforting.
No place for snipers to hide.
He liked the look of the place, with its pristine snowy ground, the frosted trees, the crisp scent of the air, and the white-capped mountains in the distance. That all seemed mighty nice.
Then he saw the herd of cattle. His mouth went dry at the sight of so many of the big animals. That sure seemed like a lot of livestock. And he was going to be a cowboy?
Maybe this was a bad idea.
Then again, he didn't have a lot of options left. He parked his truck in the driveway, thinking. He'd worked as an auto mechanic last, until a car in the parking lot backfired and he hit the deck, sweating. His coworkers had stared at him so hard that when he could stand, he'd brushed himself off and walked out the door. He'd never gone back. The job before that was truck driving, but he'd hated the long hours in the enclosed cab and the constant stops at motels. He never felt safe. Before that? It was a string of utterly forgettable jobs, all sabotaged in one way or another because he couldn't forget the past.
In a tight moment, his brain still thought he was in Afghanistan, in that ambush. And that usually ruined everything for him.
But this place was open and spacious, and there weren't a lot of overhanging buildings with second floors or high ledges or anything that made him uneasy. It was just a tiny ranch in the middle of nowhere . . . and what looked like hundreds of cattle.
Hundreds of cattle that he was supposed to know something about.
Even as he stared at the herd, a cowboy walked over to his vehicle. He'd come out of the sprawling ranch house and approached, dressed in a puffy vest over a red-checkered flannel shirt, jeans, and boots. He definitely looked like more of a cowboy than Jason ever would.
Jason was here, though. He'd driven all day and all night to come here. Might as well go through with the charade.
The cowboy nodded at Jason as he exited the vehicle. "You must be Jordy's cousin."
"That's me. Jason Clements." He stuck his hand out for the other man to shake.
"Taller than I thought you'd be." The cowboy grabbed it and gave him a hard, firm handshake. "I'm Eli. Jordy's a good kid."
Jordy was nearly twenty-five, only five years younger than Jason, but he still had an innocence about him that Jason hoped the navy wouldn't drum out of him. "He is."
"Anyone he recommends is good in my book," Eli said. "We'll be glad to have you. Come to the house. I'll show you around."
And that was that. Some of Jason's tension eased, and he followed Eli as the cowboy crunched through the snow and walked toward the house. His heart sank as a dog rushed out to meet Eli, tail wagging. It looked nothing like his German shepherd, Truck, but the sight still filled him with an ache that hadn't left since his dog had died last year. Truck would have loved all this wide-open space.
As they walked up to the covered porch, a woman with dark, long curls came to the door. She had a baby in her arms and beamed a smile in his direction. "You must be Jason. I'm Cass, Eli's wife and the housekeeper here." She took one of the baby's chubby hands. "And this is Travis."
"Nice to meet you both," he said. Jordy had warned him about all the babies. It seemed two of the three cowboys had just gotten married and had children, so he could expect lots of diaper talk. He didn't mind, not really. As long as they left him alone and his thoughts stayed clear, he was fine with as much diaper talk as the next person. So he smiled at her, but that smile faded when more dogs crowded the doorway around their legs.
He'd forgotten to ask about dogs. It made sense that there were dogs, of course. The few YouTube videos he'd watched about ranching to prep for his job showed that there were cattle dogs that helped out, rounding up strays and chasing off predators. It hadn't really occurred to Jason that there'd be so many at the Price Ranch, though, and that each one would feel like a knife in his gut.
He missed his service dog something awful. Truck had been more than just a companion while he readjusted to civilian life, he'd been a lifesaver. He'd known when Jason was about to panic, and had steered him out of areas that might have triggered his PTSD. Without Truck at his side this past year, he felt lost. At first, he hadn't wanted to replace his dead friend, but after several triggered events and lost jobs, he'd made inquiries about a new service dog.
Truck had been gifted to him by a charity when he'd first been diagnosed with PTSD. Getting a second dog wasn't so easy, though. Turned out they cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the wait was more than a year. He'd just have to suffer through on his own until he could afford one. Which was another reason why he needed this job.
He rubbed his mouth and did his best not to look at the tails wagging with delight at the sight of him. Instead, he focused on what Eli was saying.
They all lived in the sprawling ranch house, it seemed. As he went inside, he took careful note of his surroundings. The house had a log cabin feel to it despite the size, with rustic decor and woven rugs. There was an enormous plaid couch in the main room, and several sitting chairs. A huge Christmas tree took up the far corner of the room across from the fireplace, and stockings were hung over the large fireplace. Christmas carols played softly in the background. It seemed very domestic and charming, but he still scanned it twice to make sure there were no hidden corners as far as he could see, no shadowy places where an enemy could hide.
As they entered the living area, he met another woman with bright red hair named Annie, who had a baby as well, and more dogs at her feet. Her husband, Dustin, was out moving the herd, and Jason was told that another cowboy, Old Clyde, had been here for the past forty years, but he'd recently gotten married to his sweetheart in town, Hannah, and had moved into Painted Barrel proper to help her with the inn. It'd just be him and Eli and Dustin ranching over the winter, and they'd get a greenhorn or two to help over calving season.
He nodded and pretended to look like he knew what they were talking about. All the while, the bright smiles of the women and the dogs underfoot were eating away at his bravado. He avoided looking at any of them, hoping they wouldn't see the lies on his face.
"So, where did you ranch before?" Eli asked him.
Damn, it was the question he knew would come up, but he still wasn't ready. "Quarter Circle in Kansas," Jason said, making up a lie. He'd passed by the place as he'd driven, and it seemed as good a place as any. Truth was, he'd never ranched a day in his life, but when Jordy had called and said he was joining the navy and asked if he knew anyone that wanted a ranching job, Jason had jumped at it.
He might have lied a little about his experience.
Or, okay, a lot.
The lie didn't seem to be setting them off yet, though. Eli grunted, arms crossed as he nodded. "Can't remember. How many head did they have?"
Of cattle? Jason thought for a moment about what would be a good answer. "Thousand." That sounded like a decent number. How many cattle did a productive ranch have, after all?
When Eli's brows rose, he knew he'd messed up. "This should be easy for you, then," was all he said. "We run about four hundred."
"Great," Jason said, and he felt like a fraud.
Eli pointed at Jason's leg. "Noticed you have a bit of a limp. That going to be a problem?"
This was more comfortable territory, oddly enough. Jason rubbed his thigh. "I took five bullets in Afghanistan in an ambush. One tore my ACL pretty bad. The limp doesn't mean it's not working, though." He smiled to put them at ease.
"Oh my goodness," Annie breathed, holding her baby closer. "What an ordeal. Thank you for your service, though."
He nodded, doing his best not to look at the dogs that crowded nearby, eager for attention. "My old injury won't be a problem, I assure you. I'll work as hard as I can."
"I'm sure you will," Eli said. He gestured at the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. "With the holidays coming up, we're going to be short-staffed. Annie and Dustin are leaving in about a week to go stay with family in LA, and Old Clyde's gonna be visiting his daughters. That means it'll just be me and Cass here on the ranch . . . and you, unless you've got plans."
"No plans," Jason said. His parents and brothers were back east, but they knew he was working. He'd send cards and make a few calls for the holiday, but right now a job and making money was more important than a holiday with family.
Plus, he'd been so messed up in the head lately that he didn't much feel like celebrating.
"All right, well." Eli clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Enough chitchat. I'll show you to your rooms, and then we can saddle up and I'll show you around the ranch."
Saddle . . . up?
Right now? Start working? He was a military man, had done dozens of combat trainings, seen war-torn countries and nearly lost his life in the process. He'd seen some shit go down. He'd made difficult choices.
But right now? He was breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of riding a horse.
"I can't right now," Jason blurted, pretending he didn't see the surprised looks on the women's faces, or the cool, shuttered regard in Eli's face. "I have some stuff I have to take care of in town. I need until Monday."
Eli was silent, studying him under the brim of his cowboy hat.
"Oh, I'm sure Monday's fine," Cass said, and immediately handed her baby over to her husband. "Why don't I show you your quarters, and when you come back on Monday, I'll have the linens freshened for you."
"Thank you." He wanted to leave right that moment, right now, but he somehow politely managed to follow Cass through the house as she pointed out the basement storage, the kitchen they all shared, the main living area (already covered in Christmas paraphernalia) he'd already seen, the den, and of course the bedrooms. His was a single bed with a quilt, an old wooden dresser, a small television parked atop it, and an adjacent bathroom. "It's great," he managed to tell her. "But I should get going."
"Monday, then?" she said, her voice kind.
"Monday." He nodded at her and then headed for the front of the house. He nodded at Eli, too, who just watched him without expression. "You have my number if anything pops up. I'll be back Monday first thing in the morning."
"All right, then," Eli finally said.
And Jason somehow managed to leave the house and all the dogs and all the Christmas carols behind. He stepped back outside into the brisk, open air and sucked in a deep breath.
He had until Monday to figure out what the hell he was going to do, because he wasn't sure he could do this.
Cass was silent as the tall, lean man turned and fled their ranch house as if it were on fire. She said nothing until his truck pulled out of the driveway and headed back toward town. Then she turned and looked at her husband, who had been equally quiet. He held their son, letting the baby pat a hand on his chin over and over, but the look on Eli's face was carefully blank.
She knew her husband, though. And she knew that when he was trying to hide what he was thinking, it was when he was feeling the most. "That's not a good sign, is it?"
Eli just snorted and gave the baby a jiggle. "Thousand head of cattle, my ass."
She bit her lip. "Jordy said he had experience. But the way he was looking around . . ."
"If that man knows how to saddle a horse, I'll eat my hat." Eli grabbed one of the baby's hands and pretended to eat it, much to Travis's delight. The baby giggled with happiness, and some of Cass's worry trickled away. She smiled as Eli spoke again, this time in a cooing voice aimed at their son. "He's not a cowboy, is he, Travis? No, sir, he is not. Not like Daddy."
Annie came to her side, a worried look on her face. "Did you see how he looked at the dogs?"
"No, why?" Cass was curious.
"Just . . . it was strange. He would look at one and then try to look anywhere but at them. And he'd start sweating." As an animal trainer, Annie was always fixated on the well-being of the ranch's many dogs. "There's a story there."
"He's a combat veteran. I'm sure there's lots of stories," Cass said soothingly. "And I remember Jordy was brand-new and you took him under your wing, Eli."
"He didn't lie about it, though," Eli told her flatly.
"No, he didn't, but Jordy also said his cousin was a good man and trustworthy. And I believe him. Jordy's young but he's good with people." Cass crossed her arms over her chest. She wasn't entirely sure why she was defending the newcomer-Jason-so much. Perhaps it was because she didn't want to see her husband overwork himself during the winter trying to do the labor of three cowboys. Or maybe it was because Jason Clements had seemed so very . . . alone. Like he was trying hard to find a place in the world and failing.