It's been nine years since Jake Hamilton broke Allison Buchanon's heart and left town. But she's never been able to forget the high school boy she secretly loved. Now Jake's come home to care for his ailing grandmother, and Allison's family will do anything to prevent a rekindled romance. Unfortunately, the connection between Allison and the green-eyed cowboy is undeniable. She believes that forgiveness is possible, especially at Christmas. But Jake cares too deeply about Allison to take her away from the close-knit Buchanon clan. Will Allison have to choose between a loving family and the love of her life?
The Buchanons: Steeped in loyalty, bound by family.
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Someone was at the Hamilton house. Someone in a black pickup truck bearing a bull rider silhouette on the back window.
Curious, with a tremor in her memory, Allison Bucha-non pulled her Camaro sports car to the stop sign in a quiet neighborhood of Gabriel's Crossing, Texas, and sat for a moment pondering the anomaly. She drove past this corner at least once a week on her way to her best friend's home. She hadn't seen any sign of life in the rambling old house for a long while. Not since before Grandmother Hamilton fell and broke her hip several months ago. And Jake had been gone so long no one even cursed his name anymore.
If Allison had a funny quiver in her stomach, she played it off as anticipation of Faith's bridal shower this afternoon. As hostess, she wanted to arrive early and make sure everythingincluding her dearest friendwas perfect.
She glanced at the dash clock. Three hours early might be overkill.
On the opposite corner, Dakota Weeks and a half-dozen fat puppies rolled around in the fading grass while the mama dog wagged her tail and smiled proudly, occasionally poking her nose into the ten-year-old boy's hand for a head rub. Allison grinned and waved.
A boy and his dogs on Saturday afternoon put her in mind of her older brothers. Even now as adults, rolling in the grass with a dogor each other if a football game broke outwas a common occurrence. And today was a perfect day to be outside. The weather was that cusp season when cool breezes crowded out the scent of mowed grass, Dads cleaned out chimneys and Moms stored away the shorts and swimsuits. Or as townsfolk would say, "football weather."
Like many small Texas towns, Gabriel's Crossing lived and breathed high school football year round, but especially in the fall. Teenage boys in pads and helmets became heroes, not only on Friday night but every day. Golden boys. Boys of the gridiron.
Exactly the reason Jake Hamilton was no longer welcome at her mother's table or a lot of other places in Gabriel's Crossing.
Oh, but they didn't know the Jake Allison had known. The Jake who carried her darkest, most humiliating secret, the one she'd never shared with another living soul.
Casting one last worried glance toward the Hamilton house, Allison convinced herself the truck belonged to a lawn service or maybe some long-lost relative looking to take over the place, not Jake Hamilton.
She eased her foot off the brake and started across the intersection. The front door to the house opened and a man walked out onto the small concrete porch.
This time Allison's stomach did more than quiver. It fell to the floorboard and took her breath with it.
She slammed on the brake and stared. It was him all right. Trim and tight muscled in fitted Wranglers, dusty boots and black cowboy hat, he looked as dangerously handsome as ever.
His head turned her direction, and Allison realized she'd stopped at midintersection. She started forward again. At the last possible second, the steering wheel seemed to take on a life of its own because the Camaro swung into the Hamilton driveway and came to a stop.
With the spontaneity her parents considered impulsive, Allison hopped out of the running car and walked right up to the man, her pulse in overdrive.
"Hello, Jake. Long time." Funny how normal her voice sounded even when she stared into fathomless olive green eyes with lashes as black as midnight.
He hadn't changed much except for a new scar below one eye, and she fought off the crazy urge to soothe it with a touch the way she'd once soothed his football bumps and bruises. He'd also grown facial hair in the form of a very short, scant mustache above a bit of scruff, and his sideburns were long. She couldn't decide if she liked the look but then, when had Jake Hamilton cared one whit about what anyone else thought? Especially a Buchanon.
"You shouldn't be here, Allison." His voice was the same, a low note, surprisingly soft but steel edged as if to drive her away. The way he'd done before.
"We're adults now. We can be anywhere we choose."
Jutting one hip, he tipped his hat with a thumb. His nostrils flared. "Ya think?"
"You owe me a dance."
The reminder must have caught him off guard. Something flickered in his eyes, a brief flame of memory and pleasure that died just as quickly unborn.
Jaw hard as flint, he said, "Better run home, little girl, before the big bad wolf gets you."
Before she could tell him that nothing he'd ever done would change what she knew that no other Buchanon understood, Jake spun away from her and slammed inside the house, leaving her standing in the front yard. Alone and embarrassed. Exactly like before.
* * *
He had as much right to be in this town as the Bu-chanons. Maybe more. His great-great-something on his daddy's side had founded Gabriel's Crossing back in the mid-1800s when Texas was a whole other country and the adjacent hills of Oklahoma were wilder than any bull he'd thrown his rope over.
Jake banged his fist against the countertop of his family home. Right or not, being here would not be easy. Nearly broke, he needed to be working, and if that wasn't enough to move him on, the Buchanon brothers were. And Allison. Especially Allison.
But Granny Pat was his only living relative. Anyway, the only one that claimed him. She'd been his anchor most of his life, but now the tables had turned. She needed him, and he wouldn't fail her, no matter how hard the weeks and months ahead.
He'd wanted her to give up the Hamilton house to live with him in his trailer in Stephenville, but she'd wanted to come home. Home to Gabriel's Crossing and the familiar old house that had been in the Hamilton family since statehood. He understood, at least in part. There was history here, joy and sorrow. He'd tasted both.
Granny Pat had raised him single-handedly in this house after his daddy died and his mother ran off. Grandpa was here, too, his grandmother claimed, and though her husband had been dead for longer than Jake had been alive, she missed him. Ralph, according to Granny Pat, had never liked hospitals and hadn't visited her in the convalescent center one single time.
As if that wasn't scary enough, who was the first familiar face Jake had to see in Gabriel's Crossing? Allison Buchanon. His heart crumpled in his chest like a wad of paper tossed into a fire pit, withering to black ashes. Allison of the dark fluffy hair and warm brown eyes. She'd always seen more in him than anyone else had, especially her family. Foolish girl.
Although as small as a child, Allison could hammer a nail as easily as she could back-flip from a cheerleading pyramid, an action that had sent his teenage chest soaring and turned his mouth dry as dust. And she'd broken that same young man's heart with one sentence. My family would kill me if they saw us together.
No, he'd said, they'd kill me. They'd have had every right, after what he'd done.
The rodeo circuit attracted plenty of buckle bunnies and if a man was so inclined; he could have a new girl every night. With everything in him, Jake wanted to put Allison and her family behind him, but he never had. They mattered, and the wrong he'd done lay on his shoulders, an elephant-size guilt. No matter what Allison said, he'd never been anyone's hero.
When he'd been a lonely boy living with his grandma, the Buchanons had been his dream family, a mom and dad, brothers and sisters. A boy with none of those yearned for the impossible. For a while, for those years when Quinn had been his best friend and Allison had thought he was the moon, he'd basked in the Buchanon glow.
Allison. Why had she pulled into the driveway? And why had he been so glad to see her? Didn't she remember the trouble they'd caused? That he'd caused?
He rubbed a hand over the thick dust coating the counters, coating everything in the musty old house with the pink siding and dark paneling.
He should have stuck to the rodeo circuit and stayed away from Gabriel's Crossing for another nine or ninety years, but sometimes life didn't give you choices. Four years ago, when he'd handed the reins to Jesus at a cowboy church in Cheyenne, he'd vowed to do the right thing from that moment on, no matter how much it hurt. Coming home to help Granny Pat was the right thing. And boy, did it hurt.
He didn't have enough money or time to be here. He needed to make every rodeo he could before the season ended, but Granny Pat came first. He'd figure out the rest. Somehow.
Once his grandma was up and going, he'd get out of Dodge before troublein the form of a Buchanonfound him again.
No one in their right minds had seven kids these days. Which said a lot about her mother and father.
The next afternoon, Allison pushed open the front door to her parents' rambling split-level house on Barley Street and marched in without knocking. Nobody would have heard her anyway over the noise in the living room. The TV blared football between the Cowboys and the Giants while her dad and four brothers yelled at the quarterback and each other in the good-natured, competitive spirit of the Buchanon clan. Her stick-skinny younger sister Jayla was right with them, getting in her two cents about the lousy play calling by the offensive coordinator while Charity, the oldest and only married sibling, doled out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to her two kids.
"Home sweet home." Allison stepped over a sprawled Dawson whose long legs seemed to stretch from the bottom of the couch halfway across the room.
"Hey, sis," Dimpled Dawson, twin to Sawyer, offered an absentminded fist bump before yelling. "You missed the block, you moron!"
"I'll do better next time," Allison said, pretending not to understand. Dawson ignored that, too.
Brothers could be so helpful.
"Jayla?" she implored of her sister, who was scrunched on the dirt-brown sofa between Sawyer and Quinn.
Jayla, twisting the ends of her flaxen hair into tight, nervous corkscrews, never took her eyes off the game. She lifted a finger and pointed. "Backyard."
Backyard. That figured. Mom would rather putter in her flowers, though she'd wander in and out of the huge Buchanon-built house simply to spend time with her kids.
Before Allison made the turn into the kitchen, Brady snagged her wrist. Like Dawson, he was on the floor but propped against the wall with his dog sprawled across his lap. Dawg, a shaggy mix of shepherd, lab and who-knew-what, raised a bushy eyebrow in her direction, but otherwise, like the siblings, didn't budge.
"Aren't you going to watch the game?"
Allison's nerves jittered. Some things were more important than the game, although she would not share this minority opinion with any relative in the large, overcrowded living room.
He tilted his head to one side, a flash of curiosity in his startling cerulean eyes. Brady, her giant Celtic warrior brother who bore minimal resemblance to the rest of the Buchanons. "Everything okay, Al?"
Jake Hamilton, one hip slung low as a gunslinger, imposed on her mental viewer. "Sure."
"Touchdown Cowboys!" someone shouted, and the room erupted in high fives and victory dances. His curiosity forgotten, Brady leaped to his feet and swirled her around in a two-step, as light on his feet as when he'd been chasing quarterbacks at Texas Tech. Allison, regardless of the worry, couldn't help but laugh. Her brothers were crazy wonderful, her protectors and friends, the shoulders she could always cry on, except that one awful night when she hadn't dared. Her heart swelled with love. What would she do without them? And how would they react when they learned Jake Hamilton was back in town?
Brady planted a loud smack on her cheek and turned her loose. Before he could ask any more prying questions, she high-fived her way through the elated sea of bodies and headed toward the kitchen. There she grabbed a bag of tortilla chips, one of several that yawned open on the counter next to upturned lids coated with various dips.
Allison skirted the long table for ten that centered the family kitchen-dining room to push open the patio doors and stepped out onto the round rock stepping stones installed by her brothers.
The yard was a green oasis, a retreat in the middle of a neighborhood of long time friends, of dogs that wandered and of kids that tended to do the same.
Karen Buchanon, matriarch of the rowdy Buchanon clan, looked up from repotting a sunny yellow chrysanthemum. At fifty-nine, she looked good in jean capris and a red blouse, her blond hair pulled back at the nape, her figure thicker but still shapely.
"There you are," Mom said. "You missed the first quarter. Are you hungry?"
Allison lifted the bag of chips. "Got it covered."
"Not very substantial." Her mother laid aside a well-worn trowel, pushed to a stand and stripped off her green gardening gloves. "That should brighten up the backyard."
"Mums are so pretty this time of year."
"Why aren't you watching the game?"
Allison crunched another salty chip. Her mother knew her too well to believe she'd abandoned a Cowboys game to talk about mums. Mom was the gardener whose skills served the Buchanon Construction Company. Allison barely knew a mum from an oak tree. Accounts payable was her area of expertise, such as it was, though Dawson often said, and she agreed, that Allison preferred all things wedding to construction.
But the family business was too important, too ingrained in her DNA to abandon in pursuit of some fantasy. Grandpa and Grandma Buchanon had built Buchanon Construction from the ground up before turning the business over to their only sonher dad. All seven Buchanon kids had known from the time they were big enough to toddle around in Dad's hard hat that they were destined to build houses, to provide beautiful homes for families. Building was not only the Buchanon way, it was their calling.
But construction was not on her mind at the moment. Not even close. "I have something to tell you. Something important."
Mom's eyes narrowed in speculation. Even in shadow from the enormous old silver maple that shaded the back yard, Allison could see the wheels turning. Her mother sat down in the green-striped-canopy swing and patted the seat. "Come here. Might as well get it out. You've been stewing."
"How do you always know?"
Her mom pointed. "That little muscle between your eyebrows gives you up every time." Allison touched the spot.
She had been stewing. Since the moment Jake turned his back and walked away, a dark worry had flown in and now hovered like a vulture over a cow carcass. She'd told Faith, of course. Except for that one shuddery secret she never spoke of, she told her best friend since first grade everything. She'd even cried on Faith's shoulder years ago when Jake had packed a weathered old pickup and left for good.
Allison gnawed on her bottom lip. She was over him. At least, she'd told herself as much for the past few years. But she remembered, too, the terrible injustice done to a heartbroken boy.
Mom would find out anyway sooner or later. The whole family would. Then the mud would hit the fan.
She averted her gaze, watched a blue butterfly kiss a lavender aster.
"Mama," she said. "Jake's back in town."
For a full minute, the only sound was the bee-buzz of hummingbirds and the faint football noise from inside the house. Down the street someone fired up a lawn mower.
Allison could feel the blood surging in her veinshot and anxious and so terribly sorry. Not for her family. For Jake. That was the problem, as the family, especially her brothers, saw it. Allison was a traitor to the Buchanon name. Back when the pain was rawest for everyone, she'd sided with Jake. They hadn't understood her loyalty. And if she had shared her secret, that singular defining reason for remaining loyal to Jake Hamilton, she would have caused an explosion of a different sort.
"Jake Hamilton?" her mother finally asked, voice tight.
The tone made Allison ache. "I saw him yesterday at the Hamilton house on my way to Faith's bridal shower."
"Why have you waited until now to tell me?"
"I stayed late at Faith's and then church this morning " She lifted her palms, let them down again. In truth, she'd been a coward, putting off the inevitable unpleasant reaction and the feeling of betrayal that came along for the ride. "Faith said his grandma is coming home from the rehab center."