Christmas may be coming, but it's just another day at the ranch as far as Eli Pickett is concerned. Someone has to take care of the herd and that means no holiday vacation for him. But that's just the way he likes it--it’s not like he has a woman to spend time with anyways. Most women don't want the ranch life, or the surly, silent cowboy that comes with it. Fine with him. He'd rather have the quiet of a roaring fire and the company of his dogs.
Cassandra Horn is trying to make it to her parents' winter cabin in Wyoming before the blizzard hits. She desperately needs a vacation from the chaos of Manhattan...and her boss’s boyfriend, who is making her life miserable. But Cass never makes it to the cabin.
A raging snowstorm causes her car to crash, where she's found unconscious by Eli. When Cass wakes, she has no memories of who she is. Eli takes one look at Cass's big blue eyes and dark curls, and like a Christmas miracle, falls head over heels in love. But while the attraction is mutual, can she give her heart to this cowboy if she’s not sure it’s hers to give?
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jessica Clare
Eli Pickett wasn’t a big fan of holidays.
It wasn’t that he had something against Christmas in particular. As holidays went, it was a perfectly nice one. The songs were catchy. The decorations were festive, if gaudy. The food was all right. What he liked least about holidays was that no one worked.
Having grown up in foster care and now making a living as a rancher, he found the concept foreign to him. Cattle didn’t care about holidays or spending time with family. They wanted to be fed. They wanted their hay freshened. They wanted to go out to pasture even when it was deep with snow outside. Holidays didn’t account for ranch animals.
As he sat down in the main room of the lodge, oiling his boots, he watched the others get ready to leave, rushing back and forth to pack last-minute items. Maria, the housekeeper and cook, had three entire suitcases full of presents for her grandbabies and fussed over how to get a box of cookies into her purse.
Eli watched with amusement as she packed and repacked things. “You know you’re only going for two weeks, right?”
“No lip from you, mijo,” she told him, pulling things out of her oversized purse and trying to squeeze the box into it. “I feel bad enough that you’re going to be staying here by yourself over Christmas.”
He shrugged. Things had been different around the ranch since the new owners bought it. The cattle herds had been downsized from thousands to four hundred. The Texas oil tycoon who’d bought the land had plans to build a ski lodge on some of the rolling hills. The ranch itself was used for a tax break, thus the downsizing. Eli had kept his job, but the ranch itself had gone from a dozen employees to five. It was just him, Maria, Old Clyde, Jordy, and Dustin. Once upon a time, he’d have spent the holidays here with a few other ranch hands who opted to care for the animals over Christmas instead of going home.
Now it was just him. But he had a job, and he loved this ranch, and that was all that was important. “It’ll be fine. I don’t mind being on my own.”
She clucked at him, shaking her head before pulling out even more stuff from her purse and trying to push the cookie box in there. “I don’t like it. Young man like you should go home for Christmas. Spend the holidays with family. You could come with me. My older daughter Alma makes a lovely spread and you know she’s single now.” Maria gave him a knowing glance. “She’s very pretty. I showed you pictures, remember?”
Yikes. He remembered. Maria’s daughter was pretty, but he was also sure that she wasn’t right for him. For one, she lived in Los Angeles, which might as well be hell as far as he was concerned. And for two, he doubted she’d want to come live on the ranch in Wyoming with him, and he had no intention of leaving. “’Preciate the thought,” he told Maria. “But someone’s got to feed the animals, remember?”
She rolled her eyes. “Old Clyde should stay. He’s not a young man who needs to think about family. He can do it.”
“I heard that,” Old Clyde bellowed from the next room over.
Eli just shook his head and paid attention to his boot. Maria’d been trying to get Old Clyde to trade places with Eli for the last month now, but Clyde was visiting his daughter in Tucson. Eli didn’t have anyone to visit. Truth was, he was ready for the others to go. It’d give him a few weeks of quiet to settle his head, not have to worry over people prying about family that he didn’t have. They’d return in January, ready to work again, and then things would get back to normal.
By the fire, Frannie whined and thumped her tail, looking over at him hopefully.
“This boot ain’t for you,” he told her, grinning. The dog responded to his tone, getting more excited by the moment. She got up and waddled over to him, her pregnant sides sticking out from the white fluff of her thick coat. Eli put the boot aside and rubbed Frannie’s face. Two weeks of just him and the dogs, which were the best company a man could ask for. No, he didn’t need more than that.
“She better not have her puppies before I get back,” Maria told Eli. “I want to be here.”
“I’ll tell her to keep ’em in until you return,” he vowed, grinning. Like that would happen. Already Frannie looked ready to burst, and she wasn’t a small dog. Great Pyrenees were devoted herders and perfect on a ranch, but they were also destructive chewers when they were bored. And since Frannie was being kept close to the ranch house due to how pregnant she was, a lot of boots were getting destroyed.
He knew how she felt. Well, not the pregnant part. The stir-crazy part. If he had to leave this place for two weeks, he’d probably start chewing on boots, too.
Maria just shook her head at him. “You and those dogs.” She turned her head and yelled over her shoulder. “Jordy! Dustin! We’ve got to go! Ándele!” She turned back to Eli and gave him another motherly look. “Are you sure you don’t want one of us to stay with you over the holiday? That big storm’s rolling in—”
“No,” he told her for the hundredth time already. “Ain’t calving season for another two months. No one’s going to be dropping. We drove in all the cows and moved ’em to the pastures close to the barn so I can cake ’em easy—load them up on protein and extra food—when it’s cold. The storm will be fine. Me and the dogs will handle it like we always do.”
She just shook her head at Eli, exasperated. He was pretty sure she was more disappointed that he wasn’t into Christmas and family like she was, but that just wasn’t his thing. “I’ll bring you back some fruitcake,” she compromised.
“You sure don’t have to do that,” he joked.
A moment later, Dustin, Jordy, and Old Clyde came stomping down the stairs of the farmhouse. At their heels were the other ranch dogs, Jim and Bandit. All herding dogs, they worked twice as hard as most of the ranch hands did. Definitely harder than Jordy, Eli thought with amusement. Jordy was still new and tended to hinder more than help, but in time he’d be a good cowboy.
“Let’s go,” Maria told them, slinging her bag over her shoulder, gray ponytail bouncing. “If they shut down the airport and I have to spend the holiday with you idiotas, I’m not going to be happy.” She moved to Eli’s side and gave him a motherly kiss on the cheek, then patted his face. “You call if you get too lonely, mijo. Mama Maria’s always a phone call away.”
“Will do,” he promised her, though he was thirty-two and didn’t much need a mama. Maria just cared. Weren’t no harm in that.
“Try to have yourself a good holiday,” she told Eli.
He nodded, though. Maria was never going to realize that some people just didn’t care about Christmas. It was just another day to him. Another day of ranch work and cattle tending, except without the extra hands around to make working in the upcoming winter storm easier.
It’d be quiet. Peaceful.
He’d enjoy the next two weeks for what they were and not worry about the rest.
Cassandra Horn sang along—loudly and badly—to Bing Crosby in her rental car. The more enthusiastic the Christmas song, she hoped, the more holiday-ish she’d feel. So far it wasn’t working, but she wasn’t going to give up hope. It was early yet, after all. She had a week before Christmas to get herself into the holiday spirit. Surely between now and then she could muster some sort of enthusiasm.
The wind whistled against the windows and threatened to push her car off the icy roads. Biting back a nervous scream, Cass clenched the steering wheel tighter and turned down the music. She needed to concentrate. Driving in Wyoming in the mountains was a heck of a lot different than driving in the city. Oh, who was she kidding? She lived in Manhattan. She didn’t drive. She took a taxi or an Uber anywhere she wanted to go.
But there weren’t a ton of Uber drivers heading into the mountains in this part of the country, so she’d rented a car and headed out on her own. She’d driven herself everywhere back in her college days, after all. This was just like one of those road trips, just a solo one. No big deal.
Of course, she didn’t quite remember having blizzard conditions back in college, either, but she was pretty sure she could handle it. Reasonably sure. It was either that or turn around and go back to the airport, since she didn’t have the money for a hotel.
So yeah, blizzard it was, because she was not going home for the full two weeks she had off. No way, no how.
She needed a break from work. No, she amended. She needed a break from her boss, not the work itself. Cass loved what she did. Or she used to. Being a personal assistant to a successful fashion model had been exciting and fun. She got to hang out with a famous friend all day. Well, sort of friend. They’d been chatty since college, but after Cass took the job, Rose made it clear that they were employee and employer. Cass didn’t mind, most of the time, and she understood that Rose was under a lot of pressure. Rose Gramercy’s career had skyrocketed in the last couple of years and so Cass did everything from grocery shopping to Starbucks runs to handling Rose’s calendar to even lunching with Rose’s people when Rose was too busy to meet anyone. She worked weird hours and that was all right. It wasn’t as if she had a boyfriend or family to go home to. She had a small, pretty apartment in Rose’s building so she could be nearby, but a lot of the time, she just slept over at Rose’s place in case Rose needed her.
That was BKW, though. Before Ken Wallis, when everything became miserable.
To think that once upon a time, Cass had been excited to meet Ken Wallis. He’d starred in some of her favorite movies—the remake of Titanic; the romantic and lush Nutcracker Prince; and her personal go-to when she was feeling lonely, The Eyes of the Queen. When she’d found out that Rose was dating him, she was beyond ecstatic. And at first, Ken was nice. He was friendly, he was charming, and he was approachable. Cass had happily grabbed coffees for him when she got them for Rose. She’d pick up his dry cleaning when his assistant was unavailable, and she truly didn’t mind that he tended to sleep over at Rose’s place a lot, even if it meant Cass would have to head home to her own quiet place.
It was great for a while. Then things started to get weird.
Rose went to Milan for a friend’s wedding without Cass. Ken was still in Manhattan on a shoot. He’d asked Cass to pick up a few items for him at a local bodega, and since she’d been doing that sort of thing for him for a while, she didn’t think anything of it. She showed up at his apartment with the cigarettes and beer only to find that he answered the door naked.
It was clear that he’d expected her to come in. And it was clear that he had more than assisting on his mind.
She’d managed to stammer out an excuse that day and had turned and run. Ever since then, working for Rose had become less about working and more about avoiding the boyfriend. Ken was everywhere. He showed up when Rose was on set and made sure to harass Cass. He showed up when Rose was out of town. He texted her. God, did he text her. Every day, her phone was blowing up with messages from him that she was always careful to answer neutrally and in a way that would never make it look like she was betraying Rose. Even just responding was stressful.
She’d tried talking to Rose about it, but it was clear that Rose didn’t think Cass was pretty enough to get Ken’s attention. He’s just being friendly, Rose would say with a laugh. Don’t worry. You’re not his type.
It seemed that his type was “unavailable,” though, because the more Cass told him no, the more Ken hit on her. It got so bad that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her interesting job had turned into an absolute nightmare, and she couldn’t even say anything to Rose. Ken was too good of an actor and Rose was in love.
Cass was just the employee.
She shuddered and clutched the steering wheel harder.
That was one reason why when Rose said she was going to the Riviera for the holidays, Cass decided that she was going to go on a trip as well. She was not about to stay in NYC alone, because she didn’t trust Ken not to show up at her apartment. It was to the point that she wanted to go to the police. But who’d believe her? Yes, I’m the average-looking assistant to Rose Gramercy, and her movie-star boyfriend is hitting on me. She’d hinted about it to a few people, but they just laughed in her face. In photos, Ken was utterly devoted to Rose, and their romance was one that sold tabloids like crazy. No one believed Cass, and so she stopped mentioning it.
So . . . a cabin by herself for Christmas, it was. She was originally going to stay with her family, but her parents were overseas having a second honeymoon somewhere in Europe, and her sister was staying with her husband’s family in Idaho and there was no room for one more last-minute straggler. She’d decided to rent a car and head up to the family’s old cabin in the mountains in Wyoming. Of course, she hadn’t been here in ten years, but it’d be a nice place to hang out for a while, unwind, and figure out what the heck she was going to do. The trunk of her car was full of paperback books and snacks, her email was cleaned out, and her voicemail was changed to an out of office.
She was ready for a vacation.
Cass hadn’t counted on the weather, though. She should have guessed that Wyoming in December would be cold and snowy. She hadn’t exactly considered that “cold and snowy” could quickly turn to whiteout conditions in the space of an hour, which was how long ago she’d left the airport. And as she let the car gently crawl around one icy curve of road after another, she worried that she was being stupid. Maybe she should turn around. Fly back to New York—because two weeks of hotel fees would break her meager wallet—and just pretend not to be home. Maybe that’d be smarter than trying to get this automatic sedan up a snowy mountain road.
Her phone buzzed with an incoming text.
One hand tight on the steering wheel, she picked up her phone and glanced at the screen.
The car swerved slightly and she dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, holding tight to the steering wheel. Her heart pounded with alarm and she looked for a place to pull over. When she couldn’t find one, she slowed the car to a halt and put on her blinkers. It was stupid, of course, but the road was empty thanks to the weather, and she was only going to stop for a moment.
Cass quickly checked the phone, terrified of what she’d read. It was like a train wreck—she knew she shouldn’t look, but she couldn’t help it.
KEN: You abandoned me for the holidays? Naughty Cass! Where are you?
Cass bit her lip, trying to figure out the best way to respond. She couldn’t be rude to him. Rose would get upset with her and Ken would just spin it to make her seem unreasonable. She thought for a moment, anxiety spiking, and then quickly texted an answer.
CASS: Cabin in the mountains for Xmas. Have a good holiday!!!
The response came back immediately.
KEN: The set shut down for the week. Got room for one more up there?
He attached a smiley face, as if that would make everything seem sweet, innocent. In reality, her skin crawled. He wasn’t going to visit Rose for the holidays? He was going to try to hook up with Cass? Ugh. She didn’t know what to do.
CASS: No, sorry. Family event! Go see your family!
And she stuck a smiley face on there, too.
KEN: Your family’s back from Europe?
Crap. How did he know about that?
KEN: I’m thinking someone’s playing hard to get. Tell me where you’re at and I’ll get a flight out there. You shouldn’t be alone for Christmas . . . and we need to talk.
No smiley face that time. Cass’s stomach clenched miserably. Talk about what? Talk about “them” even though there was no “them”? Talk about how he’d been discreetly harassing her? Talk about Rose? She knew it was bait to get her to continue the conversation—Ken was great at that sort of thing—but she forced herself to ignore it. She couldn’t keep her car idling in the middle of a mountain pass, no matter that no one else was coming up the road. The wind and the snow were getting worse with every moment, and she’d be stupid to stay here longer than necessary.
CASS: Gotta go! TTYL.
She tossed the phone back in the passenger seat and turned off her blinkers, then started the car again. The tires spun on the ice, and for a heart-pounding moment, she worried she was going to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. The mountains rose high around her, and she didn’t remember much about this area, just that the roads sometimes closed in the winter due to bad storms . . . and crap! Why hadn’t she thought of that sooner? She’d been too rattled, too distracted by the enticing thought of getting away from Ken and his sleaziness.
Cass thought about turning around. Play it safe, go back down to town and forget all about her Christmas vacation. But she was close to the cabin. Had to be. Even driving as slowly and ultra-carefully as she was, it couldn’t be more than another fifteen, twenty minutes away. Town was at least an hour out, and it seemed silly to turn back when she was so close. She leaned forward over the steering wheel and gazed out at the skies, the wipers working furiously against the windshield. Snow was still flurrying down and showed no sign of stopping. Well, she had plenty of food and an entire case of ramen noodles in the trunk. She would be perfectly fine snowed in for a couple weeks.
And if her return home got delayed, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. In fact, it might not be a bad idea at all. With that thought running through her head, Cass put the car into drive and headed up the road a bit farther. Visibility was no more than a few feet before everything turned into a whiteout blur, but no one else was coming or going, and she could go slow. No problem at all.
She even turned the Christmas music on again.
Just as she rounded another snowy curve, her phone rang again.
“Shoot,” she whispered under her breath and turned off the radio once more. She didn’t answer, though. She stared ahead at the blizzard and glared out the windshield as her ringtone sang happily out in the car. When it stopped, she let out a breath and waited for her voicemail chime to come on. She could answer voicemail later. Much later.
Instead, her phone just rang again.
As the car crawled forward and the snow poured down, Cass gritted her teeth and endured refrain after refrain of Beethoven’s Fifth as someone desperately tried to call her. She leaned over and grabbed the phone, sliding it into her lap. The storm was too fierce for her to look at the screen right now, and up ahead, the road would fork, one route leading to her family cabin, the other to the big ranch that extended all through the mountains and into the valley. She couldn’t miss that turn, because she was pretty sure that there was no way to turn around her car at this point, thanks to all the snow. Plus, going downhill in this seemed like a scary proposition. She had to pay attention.
But the car kept going, her phone kept ringing, and that fork in the road was nowhere to be seen. Her nerves fraying by the moment, Cass’s imagination started to get the better of her. What if it was her parents, calling because something was wrong? Someone calling to warn her about the weather? What if it was Rose and there was a problem in the Riviera and she was needed? It was her job to remain on call at all times, no matter the hour. Rose wouldn’t call her while she was on vacation, because she’d promised to give Cass real time off. Every time the phone rang, though, she worried a little more.
Then, it happened. One ring, then a hang up. Two rings, then a hang up.
If it rang again, that was the SOS. When she’d first started working with Rose, they’d established a code to let the other know that there was something super urgent that had to be discussed. Out of habit, she grabbed the phone and fumbled it up to her ear, gaze glued to the disappearing road. Was the storm getting even worse? How did people even see in this sort of weather?
“You are an expert at playing hard to get.” Ken’s silky voice rolled across her ear.
Horrified, Cass dropped the phone.
There was no emergency. It was just Ken, not taking “no” for an answer.
The phone slid between her feet and landed against her shoe, resting lightly on the gas. She tried to kick it aside, but it got wedged against the gas, and then she spent a moment trying to nudge it away from the pedal. Oh please. She didn’t need this right now. Come on, come on, she silently pleaded with the phone, jammed against the side of the gas. Frustrated, she kicked it—
And accidentally floored the gas pedal. The car surged ahead, just in time to smash into the big tree that split the road in two. She heard the awful crunch of metal before her head banged against the steering wheel.
The world faded.
He was missing a cow. Damn it all.
Eli rode his horse through the clustered herd again. His mount didn’t like the blizzard weather but knew better than to balk at him. Nearby, flouncing through the snow, Bandit and Jim raced back and forth at the edges of the herd, and Eli pressed a clicker, counting cattle head. They couldn’t go far, because this pasture wasn’t more than ten acres or so, and he’d put out feed and hay for ’em to keep them comfortable through the worst of the blizzard. When the other ranch hands got back, they’d drive the cattle back out further, but for now, he should have all four hundred right here near the barn.
But he kept getting three hundred ninety-nine.
If it was calving season, he’d assume a cow had split off to drop her calf somewhere. But that was two months away, so there was no reason for a cow to wander away from the herd unless something was wrong. Heck, this was just what he needed. He’d been thinking all day about what he was going to do to fill his time now that the others were gone. Not that it would be a problem—the opposite, in fact. There was so much to do around the ranch that he was having to mentally prioritize what items to tackle first. It was a good thing, because then he wouldn’t notice just how quiet it was late at night, knowing he was the only one on the entire mountain.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Doc Parsons was probably up at the Swinging C Ranch on the other side of the mountain, but that was a little too far for visiting.
Eli whistled at the dogs and then began to ride his prancing horse around the edges of the fence, looking for answers. There was one particular cow that liked to run off, and he looked for the familiar white blaze on her nose in the herd of black cattle. When he didn’t see it, he circled back and looked again, and then cursed. Just as he suspected.
Houdini. Damned cow.
There was one in every herd that didn’t play nice with others. One that always tried to go her own way or was more trouble than she was generally worth. That was Houdini. If there was a fence, she’d escape it. If there was a blizzard, she’d find a way to make them chase her down. The cow had a wandering soul, and he’d threatened to sell her off many times, but fact was, she always gave birth to fat, healthy calves, and that counted for a lot. So they kept her around.
On days like today, though, he regretted it. Now he’d have to go out into the blizzard and hunt her down. With a bit-back curse, Eli led his horse closer to the fences. Sure enough, one had been leaned on until it was knocked over. Most of the herd was smart enough to stay near the hay. Not Houdini. Either she was the dumbest cow they had, or the cleverest. Either way, she was gone and he was gonna have to go after her.
Eli repaired the fence, cursing the entire time, and then got back on his horse. “Jim, Bandit, come on. Let’s go find ourselves a cow.”
To think he’d been looking forward to a quiet night by the fire. So much for that.
The good thing about tracking a cow in the snow was that it left a nice, easy trail to follow. Houdini had left a set of footprints that was plain to see, though he was lucky he’d found it when he did. Much longer and the falling snow would have covered it up. He gigged the horse forward, noticing that they were heading out toward the mountain road. That was all right. No one would be coming up the pass during this storm. Likely the roads themselves would be closed off at the base of the mountain if things got bad enough. That was a good thing, considering no one’d be able to see a runaway cow in this blinding white.
Nearby, the dogs began to bark. First Bandit, then Jim. They raced ahead of the horse, disappearing into the storm. Good. That meant they’d found the cow. Thank goodness, because he was about done with this, mentally and physically. It was getting colder by the moment, and while he was used to terrible weather, that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. It was hard on the dogs, hard on the horses, hard on him.
Maybe it was sappy of him, but he also wanted to get back and check on Frannie, see if she’d had her pups yet. All of the ranch dogs were hard workers and well trained, but he had a special bond with that one in particular.
The dogs’ barking grew louder, and he heard the angry low of a cow. Finally. With his gloves, he grabbed his rope lasso and began to give it length even as he drove the horse forward with his knees. As he got closer, he saw that the pregnant cow had stopped in the shelter of a nearby tree and was cornered by Jim and Bandit. She’d be easy to rope, now that she was done with running. He managed to loop her and tie her back to the saddle within minutes, all the fight gone out of her. “That’s right, Houdini,” he encouraged her. “You and me both’ll go back to the barn and we’ll have a nice dinner and forget all about adventurin’ for a few days.”
The cow just bleated a protest and jerked against the rope, but when the dogs nipped at her heels, she turned obediently toward the ranch.
Eli pulled his hat down and scanned the area. Sure enough, the cow had gone to the main road. There wasn’t much of one up the mountain, and what was there was more of a winding, twisting gravel path that tourists ripped around a lot faster than was sane during the summer, and no one came up during the winter.
Which, he supposed, was why he looked twice when he thought he saw a hint of beige amid the whiteout conditions. Wasn’t a lot that was beige out here in December. Things were either white, white snow, yellow snow, brown mud, and the occasional black cow. Beige didn’t happen. He peered harder but the wind picked up, whipping an icy blast against his face. He tipped his hat low and closed his eyes, waiting for the frost to melt away from his lashes, and when he looked up again, that beige was still there. There was just a hint of it between gusts of snow, but it was still there.
Well, now he had to check it out.
He dismounted, tied his horse to the tree, checked the rope on the cow, and then began to wade through the foot-deep snow toward that spot of color. The dogs began to bark again, dashing off in that direction, and his skin prickled with alarm. This was not good.
A few steps more, and he saw a bumper.
Definitely not good.
“Jim! Bandit! Over here,” he called as the dogs’ barks grew more shrill with excitement. He put a glove on his hat as the wind picked up, threatening to rip it from his head, and leaned into the gusting breeze as he approached the car. It was half buried in the snow, which meant that it had been here for a while. At least an hour, if the way the storm was filling up his footprints was any indication. He circled the car slowly. It was off, the front end crumpled against a big tree at the split in the road. Someone hadn’t been paying attention, it seemed, and had gone straight when they should have gone left. Right would have taken them straight to Price Ranch, and Eli sure wasn’t expecting visitors. Left it was. Likely the owner of the car had gotten out and headed in that direction, but when Eli looked at the ground, he didn’t see footprints.
His gut clenched as he ran his glove over the windshield and saw that it was cracked. There was a dark spot inside. Blood, probably. Maybe the person inside this car didn’t get out after all. If it was a dead body, it was likely going to have to stay for weeks, until a tow truck or the ambulance could make its way up the mountain. This place was near impassable after a blizzard. Eli swallowed hard and pressed his face against the glass, trying to see inside. With the shattered spiderweb of cracks, it was hard to tell. He grabbed the door handle and pulled, expecting it to be iced over. Instead, it fell open easily—a sign the interior was warm—and he saw the woman sprawled inside.
Dark brown hair spilled over the steering wheel. Her figure was slight, and she was wearing a black sweater over jeans. Her purse had erupted all over the passenger seat, and in the back of the car, he saw a few Christmas decorations and what looked like boxes of food.
What kind of fool drove up here in a sedan during a blizzard? Now she was dead. With an angry growl, he pushed her body backward so he could get a good look at her face.
Even as he tipped her back, she groaned.
Shocked, Eli stared down at the woman. She was in her late twenties, maybe about his age. Her face was covered in blood and there was a massive bruise right smack-dab on the center of her forehead where she’d hit it against the windshield—or the steering wheel. Or both. He didn’t know.
All he knew was that he couldn’t leave her out here. She’d die for sure.
Eli knelt beside the car and gently shook her shoulder. “Ma’am?”
Her head lolled and she didn’t respond.
After a few gentle attempts to rouse her, it was obvious that he’d have to take her back to the ranch with him. Just like a wounded calf, she’d be safer someplace sheltered and warm. “We’re gonna get you to safety, ma’am,” he told her politely, even though he was pretty sure she couldn’t hear a word he said. Talking to her made him feel a little better, though, and less like she was going to up and die on him.
He dug through the back seat of the sedan and found a bag of clothing, but everything he pulled out was not nearly warm enough for a Wyoming blizzard. He didn’t have time to dither, though. He had to get himself and the dogs back to the ranch, and get his horse and cow out of this mess. And his woman, he added to the mental list. Well, not his woman. Whatever. He was just flustered at finding a pretty brunette near dead.
He was supposed to be alone for the holiday, damn it. Now he had a problem. A pretty brunette problem, but still a problem. Eli pushed a couple of her thin little sweaters over her head and tugged them down over her body, hoping she didn’t have bruised ribs or anything. It still didn’t seem warm enough, so he grabbed the Christmas tree skirt in the back seat and wrapped it around her, then eased her out of the car.
“Sorry about the cold,” he murmured to her as he cradled her against his chest. “But I can’t leave you here, and I can’t call you a car. Ain’t nobody heading in this direction for the next while, so it’s just you and me. Hang tight and I’ll get you somewhere safe.”
She didn’t answer. The dogs barked, but the girl against his chest was limp and lifeless.
Eli just hoped he wasn’t too late.
It wasn’t easy getting an unconscious woman, a pregnant cow, two dogs, and a horse through a blizzard, but somehow he managed to get them all back to the ranch without losing anyone. He cradled the unconscious woman on the saddle in front of him against his chest. She didn’t stir, which worried Eli. There wasn’t anyone around that could make the pass through the mountains in this weather. They’d have to wait until it cleared, and if her injuries were bad enough, it might be too late.
Luckily, his horse was well trained. She knew the way home even with minimal guidance, and Eli was grateful to see the sloped roof of the large barn come into sight. He hurried his horse over to the pasture, left Houdini with the rest of the herd, stabled the horse in the barn, and then carried the woman inside the house, the dogs nipping at his heels. Normally, he’d unsaddle the horse and rub her down before tending to things in the house but this couldn’t wait. The horse would be all right for a little bit and the girl in his arms might not be.
First things first.
Eli kicked open the door and Jim and Bandit rushed inside, even as Frannie danced around his legs. “Back up, girl,” he told the dog, and she moved away, watching him closely, her tail wagging with excitement. She probably thought this was a new fun game.
It was cold inside the house, since he didn’t like leaving a blazing fire going when he was the only one at the ranch. He gently laid the woman down on the couch and then moved to the wood-burning stove, desperate to get some heat going. After a few logs were put in, he closed the stove door and then peeled off one of his gloves, rubbing his face.
Most days he liked being alone. Today? The weight of his responsibilities weighed him down. There was so much to see to and everyone needed attention right away. Frannie whined at him, her tail flicking against his leg.
Eli peered over his hand at her. “Do me a favor and don’t have your puppies today, all right? Man can’t take much more than this.”
Excited that he was talking to her, Frannie sat on her hindquarters and wiggled, an enormous white mountain of fluffy fur. Just the sight of her made him feel a little better, and he rubbed her head and then got back to his feet.
One thing at a time.
He’d take care of the woman first. Make sure she was out of danger. Then, the cowboy in him would kick in. He couldn’t neglect the ranch. There were too many animals waiting to be fed. He’d check the herd one last time. Feed ’em their cake pellets and put out more hay. Since the weather was getting colder by the hour, the cattle needed to eat more to keep their systems warm. Luckily, they’d moved the herd closer to the ranch itself and it wouldn’t be difficult to put out more feed, just time consuming. Then he could check on the animals in the barn . . . and then on his unconscious patient.
But he had to make sure she was well enough to be left alone first.
Moving to the sofa, Eli sat down on the edge and stared down at the woman. He thought he knew a bit about doctorin’. He’d pulled more calves from pregnant cows than he’d thought possible. He could give an animal medication without blinking an eye. He’d stitched his own gashes and wrapped twisted ankles so he could go back to work. He’d set bones and popped a shoulder back into the socket before. He kinda had to be self-sufficient this far up in the mountains, because if he stopped working every time he got hurt, he’d never get anything done.
He’d never done this sort of thing for a woman, though, and never a stranger.
Gently, he unwrapped the Christmas tree skirt from her body and then felt her arms and ribs for protruding bones. When nothing seemed out of order, he pulled up the clothing and looked at the skin underneath. Bruised, but nothing looked swollen or bloated, which would be a real bad sign. She was breathing regularly and sounded okay. He heaved a sigh of relief and ran a hand over his mouth again. So far, so good.
Frannie moved to the edge of the couch and began to lick the woman’s face. “Not now, Frannie girl,” he murmured to the dog, though she probably had the right idea. He retrieved a towel from Maria’s kitchen, wet it down, and then began to gently wipe the crusted blood from the woman’s face.
There was an enormous gash on her forehead, and the dark bruise right smack between her eyes seemed to be getting darker. Her face was swollen, but he thought that underneath it all, she was probably really pretty. Young and pretty, and driving alone in the mountains close to Christmas. Some guy out there really screwed up and let his woman get away, Eli thought to himself. He finished cleaning her face and then tapped her cheek to try to wake her. “Miss?”
She moaned but didn’t wake up.
He didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. What should he do? Frannie laid her head on his knee and gave him a soulful look, as if she wished she had the answers. “Me too, girl. Me too.” He patted her absently and then an idea hit him.
Phone. Doc Parsons was still at the Swinging C over the holidays. Maybe he’d know what to do with an unconscious woman. He got to his feet and raced across the house, looking for the cordless phone. Eli found it, and then spent several minutes searching for Maria’s note card of important phone numbers. Of course, it was on the fridge. With an angry snarl, he grabbed it and dialed the Swinging C Ranch.
After four rings, Doc answered. “I’ll be damned. This Eli? Using a phone?” He sounded amused. “Hasn’t been but a few days since the others left. You brand yourself out of boredom?”
“Ain’t got no time for chitchat, Doc. I got an emergency over here,” Eli warned him. Damn Doc of all people. He was smart and knew a lot about medicine and animals, but he was also the jokiest man, and Eli didn’t much like joking around when a perfectly good, straightforward conversation would do. “I pulled a woman out of a car on the pass. She’s unconscious. Hit her head, I think.”
Doc’s tone changed. “Broken bones?”
“Not that I could see.”
Eli could feel himself blushing. “She’s got some. I guess. I didn’t really check too close.” He didn’t want to strip her down in case she woke up and saw a strange man standing over her with his hands under her sweater. “Doc, what do I do?”
“Well,” Doc mused, in that slow, jokey way of his. “Normally I’d say don’t move her in case you make her injuries worse, but I guess that horse has already left the barn.”
He was tempted to throw the phone down, but gritted his teeth. “I couldn’t leave her in the car. There’s a blizzard outside.”
“I noticed. Spent all day caking the cattle up here. Hungry little buggers. You’d think they’d never been fed before. She local?”
Eli rubbed his forehead, trying to follow Doc’s line of thought. “I guess? No, wait. She wasn’t wearing a very big sweater. Must be a tourist.”
“Maybe Santa left her for you to find.” He chuckled.
He grit his teeth in frustration. “Be serious, man. I’ve got an injured woman over here.”
“Right. Sorry.” Doc cleared his throat. “Well, I’d say I’d come over and take a look at her, but I can’t go anywhere in this weather without turning into an icicle myself. One of the cows is aborting and I need to make sure it’s clean or else we’re gonna lose her, too. I can’t do much on your end, either. You did good, Eli. Just be patient and she’ll wake up. Keep her warm, do a quick check for broken bones and internal bleeding, and hope for the best.”
Hope for the best? “What kinda medical advice is that?”
“You need more? Okay. Walk over to her.”
Eli raced back to the woman’s side. “I’m there. What do you want me to do?”
“Look at her. Has she lost control of her bladder?”
What? “No . . .”
“She defecate on herself?”
“No.” He squinted at the air, scowling.
“Congratulations, she ain’t dead. Now, you wait for her to wake up and ask her how she feels, and then call me back.”
He gritted his teeth. Sometimes Doc was no help at all. “How do I wake her up? I tried shaking her.”
“Well, don’t do that. Don’t slap her, either. If she’s unconscious because of medical reasons, that ain’t gonna help.”
“She’s got these awful bruises all over her face, Doc,” Eli said in a low voice. “She looks terrible.”
“Now, now, it ain’t her fault she ain’t a looker,” Doc told him, amused.
“That wasn’t what I meant—”
“If she’s not vomiting or seizing up, that’s a good sign. Might not be more than just a knock on the head. Just wait for her to wake up normally. That’s about all you can do. Lay her on her side, don’t put a pillow under her head, and listen to her breathing. Make sure there’s no gurgling or choking, and make sure her lips don’t turn blue. And then you wait. Feel free to call me no matter what time, day or night, once she wakes up.”
Finally, he was getting somewhere. “Okay, I can do that.”
“No Christmas carols or music, or television, because if she’s got a concussion, it might set off a seizure.”
That shouldn’t be too hard for him. He didn’t have any sort of Christmas crap anyhow. “Fine.”
“Try not to leave her alone. Keep her resting. That’s it.”
It didn’t feel like enough, and yet Eli’s brain felt overloaded anyhow. “All right. Thanks, Doc.”
“Call me back if she gets worse,” the other man said cheerfully, as if they were dealing with no more than a sick calf. But looking at the unconscious woman on the couch, Eli felt like he was the one in danger of throwing up. He could handle just about anything the ranch threw at him . . . but he didn’t know what to do with an injured woman.
She shifted, moaning slightly as her head moved on the pillow he’d jammed under her head.
Pillow! Aw, crap. Eli raced over to her and carefully dragged the woman onto the floor. He took the pillow away, even though it felt cruel, and turned her carefully on her side. As he did, her dark hair spilled out over the worn rug and she looked . . . downright pretty.
Well, if it wasn’t for the nasty bruising and the fact that she had dried blood along her ear and jaw. But he didn’t need to be thinking about how pretty she was. He needed to be worried about what to do with her if she didn’t wake up. He thought for a minute, and then wrapped one of Maria’s quilts around her, then patted her gently as if that solved everything.
Don’t leave her alone, Doc had said, but Eli had chores that had to be tended to. He hesitated, watching the unconscious woman sleep, but he didn’t know what to do. He could sit here and stare at her, but there were a million other farm chores that wouldn’t wait for her to wake up. But he couldn’t leave her, not if she needed help.
As if sensing his thoughts, Frannie moved next to the woman and curled up beside her, pregnant belly sticking out. Her tail thumped and she licked the woman’s forehead, then looked up at him with her dark eyes. It was like she was telling him that she had it under control. That she’d watch over her.
He rubbed her muzzle. “You’re the best girl, Frannie. You come and get me if she’s sick, all right?”
Frannie’s tail thumped against the floor, and that was that.
Cass’s head was surrounded by fur. Not just a little fur, but a choking amount of white fur that looked pretty but smelled terrible. In fact, it smelled like . . . dog? Which was weird, because she didn’t have a dog. She didn’t have any pets. This had to be a mistake.
She pushed the fur aside and something smacked across her forehead. The dog’s tail thumped against her with excitement, but it hurt so much she nearly blacked out again. Oh, jeez. Pain rolled through her head and she carefully lifted a hand to her throbbing skull. It felt swollen and hot, and it hurt.
What had happened? Where was she?
And why was there a dog?
When the pain faded from “overwhelming” to “dull roar,” she squeezed her eyes open again. The ceiling overhead slowly came into focus, and she saw she was staring up at naked wooden beams. Huh. That didn’t seem familiar. Neither did the dog licking her forehead.
In fact, none of this seemed all that familiar. Cass slowly sat up, wincing as everything ached and throbbed in response. Ooh, that was going to hurt in the morning. She should have known better . . .
Better than to what? Her brain was foggy. She pressed a hand to her forehead and tried to think. Nothing was forming. She needed coffee and some aspirin, maybe, to shake the fog from her brain. Cass looked around the room, frowning to herself as she did. None of this looked like her sort of thing. For one, it looked very . . . rustic. The walls of the house were bare wood, like the ceiling, and a metal star hung off one wall, next to several pictures of horses. There was a deer head over the fireplace, along with a rifle, and the mantel had a Navajo vase on one end and a cow skull on the other. A cast-iron stove was on the opposite side of the room and it was the source of all the heat in the area. As for Cass, she was wrapped in a faded Navajo quilt. The couch itself was brown and red, and there was a rocking chair in one corner and a TV set that looked as if it predated the Internet. It was all very bold and Western and strange.
This . . . didn’t seem like her. Cass glanced down at her black sweater and jeans. That looked familiar, at least.
The dog at her side thumped its tail again and gave her an eager look, getting to its feet and running around in excited circles.
“Do you need to go outside?” Cass asked, curious. That’s what dogs wanted when they got excited, right?
At the word “outside,” the dog got even more excited, letting out a high-pitched yip.
“Okay, we can do that,” Cass told her, and worked on getting to her feet. Her clothes felt slightly damp and the room was chilly despite the heat given off by the stove blazing in the corner. She didn’t have her shoes on, though she didn’t recall leaving them somewhere. This was odd, too. If her head would just stop throbbing, she’d be able to concentrate for a moment and clear her thoughts. As it was, she was having a hard time focusing.
The dog yipped again.
“Right. Outside.” She managed to pull herself to her feet, and a wave of pain crashed over her, knocking her backward onto the couch and making her pant. Oh god, everything hurt. Her head hurt, her face hurt, and her chest hurt, too. Her knee throbbed like it had been twisted, but her chest was the worst—it felt like one big bruise and she wanted to cry with the pain. Was this a heart attack? Was this how she was going to die?
Cass put a hand to her chest, alarmed, and then realized that the simple act of touching her chest caused another shock wave of pain. She tugged down the collar of her shirt and saw a hint of what looked like an enormous bruise covering her from her breastbone on down. Judging from the feel of things, it probably covered her all the way down to her navel.
Well, good grief. Where did that come from?
She pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to think, and that hurt, too. Okay, bruise on the forehead and the chest? What had happened to her? Was this why she couldn’t think straight? Cass ran her fingers lightly over her brow and felt a cut there, too. She was definitely banged up.
She just didn’t remember what had happened to do all the banging.
Cass got to her feet again, bracing herself, and this time the pain wasn’t as excruciating. Now upright, she staggered toward a hall and found a kitchen, and a mudroom. There was a door outside in the mudroom, and it had a window. The window itself showed nothing but dark and chill, and when she stepped into the mudroom, it was freezing, her feet painfully cold. “Are you sure you want to go outside in that?” she asked the dog.
The big fluffy white dog whined at her.
“All right.” She touched the doorknob—ice cold—and fumbled with it, trying to figure out how to open the door. A moment later, it opened and snow poured inside. She gasped, stepping backward, but the dog didn’t seem like it was going to go outside anymore.
Well, she didn’t blame it. After a moment, Cass shut the door again, rubbing her arms and staggering back into the warmer kitchen. “We need coffee,” she told it. Coffee might help her brain clear up. She moved into the kitchen—again, with a rustic Western theme and pine cabinets, and cold Saltillo tile that made her toes curl when she stepped on it—and looked for her coffeepot. She couldn’t find it. Well, no, she took it back—she found a coffeepot with a plug and a percolator, and she had no idea how to use it. Wasn’t there a Keurig somewhere around here?
But she couldn’t find one. That didn’t make sense.
She’d make tea, then. Cass frowned at the cabinet, looking for tea bags. She didn’t see any, but a huge bag of sugar stared right at her. That seemed odd, given that she took her coffee . . .
She paused and waited for her brain to fill in the blank.
A note of panic crept into her mind. She forced herself to calm down. It was just coffee. Maybe she didn’t have a “way” she took it. There had to be other things she remembered, and not just this big blank. Like . . . the dog’s name. She stared down at the big white fluffy beast. It was fat and huge, almost up to her waist. It had dark eyes, and wagged its tail so fetchingly she felt a surge of affection for it. And its name was . . .
Cass had no idea.
She swallowed hard and touched the sore spot on her brow. Perhaps these things were connected. Okay, she wouldn’t panic yet. She knew her name was Cass, and her last name was . . .
Was . . .
Her brain didn’t fill in the blank. There wasn’t anything when she tried to access that memory. She didn’t know who she was. She tried thinking of other things. Where she lived. Where her job was. What her job was. How old she was.
She had nothing.
Cass squeezed her eyes shut and tried to picture her face. Surely she’d remember her face. When nothing came to mind, a sob caught in her throat and she hobbled forward, passing through the kitchen and down another hall. There had to be a bathroom around here. A bedroom. Someplace with a mirror—
There! She caught sight of a bathroom with beaten copper sinks and a rope-edged decorative mirror. Breathing hard, she flicked the light on and stared at her reflection, clutching the sink for balance.
Her face didn’t look familiar. Oh, it kind of did, in that weird “have I met you somewhere before?” feeling, but other than that, it was like looking at the face of a stranger. She had brown hair and blue eyes, and a hellish-looking bruise on her forehead. Her nose was huge, and when she touched it, it felt squishy and painful. Swollen, then. Her brows were dark and it was hard to tell if she was attractive or not, because there were massive bruises under her eyes and she looked awful.
Hot tears threatened to seep out, and she dashed them away. She wouldn’t cry over a stupid ugly reflection. Not when there were bigger problems like who the heck she was. Her heart hurt . . . but that could have been the bruising. “Right,” she whispered to herself. “Bigger problems than a big schnoz, Cass. It’s not like you have someone to impress—”
And then she paused, because did she? Maybe she did and she didn’t remember, and wouldn’t that just be awful?
Maybe . . . maybe her cell phone would have the answers. Excited at the thought, she made her way back out of the bathroom and limped back to the living area. It was huge, but she didn’t see a purse or any place she’d have plugged in a cell phone. Maybe she kept it by the bed? She explored the lower floor of the enormous house, looking for bedrooms, but all the doors she found were locked. If there was a key, she had no idea where she might have left it.
Down a long hallway, she found a small, cramped room that was stacked high with paperwork, shelves full of clutter, and a dusty computer with a CRT monitor that took up most of the rickety desk it was perched on. She sat down on the folding metal chair in front of the computer and tapped the keyboard to unlock the screen.
A box popped up on the screen.
She thought for a moment, and then pushed the keyboard away. She had no idea. She had no idea about anything. She didn’t know where her damn purse was, where her phone was, or anything. She didn’t even have a pair of shoes. She didn’t know the date.
Feeling hopeless, she gazed around the small, messy office looking for a calendar. There was one on the wall . . . for the entire year.
A helpless, horrible little laugh bubbled up in her throat. Okay, she was pretty sure that was the least helpful calendar of all time. She knew it wasn’t 2008, because that was when . . . was when . . .
Well, it didn’t matter. She didn’t know what the date was, but her brain knew a few things. She had her name. She knew it wasn’t 2008. Maybe if she worked at it, she’d remember other things.
There was a mug shaped like a boot with some ballpoint pens sticking out of it, so she grabbed one and a piece of paper and started to write.
CASS, she wrote at the top, and then added . . . ASSANDRA? with a question mark, because she wasn’t entirely sure, but it felt right. Tapping the pen, no other names came to mind.
As she flicked the pen back and forth, she noticed it had writing on it. Her head throbbed, but she forced herself to read the tiny words.
Hmm. So this was a ranch. That explained the decor and the fact that it was a big house, big enough for multiple people to live in. Why was she living on a ranch? Cass chewed on her lip and then wrote PRICE next to CASSANDRA. That didn’t look right.
So who were the Prices, then? How did she know them?
The dog’s head went up, and the tail began to wag furiously. Before Cass could ponder this, the fluffy white monster was off like a shot, barking. A moment later, she heard the sound of a door slam somewhere in the direction of the mudroom.
Someone was here!
Wobbly, Cass raced back toward the kitchen and the mudroom, even as two other dogs came racing up to her, tails wagging with excitement. These weren’t the white, fluffy monsters like the other one but smaller with patchy coats and excited, wriggling bodies. They were thrilled to see her, at least. A low voice murmured something and her heart skipped a beat at that. A man.
Her man, maybe?
She touched her ring finger but there was nothing there. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Maybe when she’d smacked into whatever she’d smacked into, she’d lost her ring, too. Cass rubbed her finger as she headed into the kitchen, moving slowly so everything didn’t hurt.
When she entered, the breath sucked out of her lungs.
Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, fresh from the outside, was a cowboy. Not just any cowboy, but a cowboy that looked like a cross between the Marlboro Man and something out of a woman’s secret fantasy. He was busy knocking snow off a tan hat, and his legs were encased in dark jeans. A red flannel shirt encased a strong upper body, and he had a belt buckle that shone like a star. His face was tanned and handsome in its solemn severity, but the most noticeable thing was the silvery gray of his eyes, and they reminded her of the ice, too. Crisp and clear and bright. Match those perfect, handsome features with those broad shoulders and the cowboy hat?
He was a fantasy come to life.
Oh goodness, this was her man? God, why didn’t she remember this?
The cowboy stared at her expectantly, and Cass supposed she needed to point out that she’d lost her memory. Instead, what came out was “Are you my husband?”