Caleb Watson has been crushing on elementary school teacher Amy Mckinney ever since he saw her. She's oblivious to his feelingsprobably because he's never said a word to her. But when he learns Amy's going to be Mrs. Claus in the local Christmas celebration, he volunteers to be Santa so he’ll finally have the chance to introduce himself. Even more than that, he'll use this opportunity to shower her with presents.
Amy's been receiving all kinds of Secret Santa gifts at work and she has no idea who her secret admirer is. She wishes he'd make himself known so they can go on a date, though, because being a newcomer in close-knit Painted Barrel, Wyoming, is pretty lonely. When her flaky landlord claims he's the gift giver…it's not quite the bachelor Amy had in mind. However, she’s doubly shocked when gruff newcomer Caleb Watson crashes her date and insists he’s really the one leaving her presents.
Amy's not sure what to think. Caleb's never indicated that he likes her, much less wants to date. Can he prove to Amy he’s not just the perfect Santa to her Mrs. Claus, but the man of her dreams?
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Caleb Watson had skills. Or so he told himself. He could rope a runaway heifer from horseback. He could keep even the most ornery herd of cattle together. He could ease a breech calf out of its mother without blinking an eye. He could saddle a horse faster than anyone he knew.
And that was just ranching skills. Back when he lived in Alaska, he could track anything, fix a snowmobile out in the field, survive on his own for weeks. Heck, he could even build a log cabin and have it fully functioning within a short time frame.
He was strong. Capable. Self-sufficient.
He stared at the front doors to the elementary school and wished he could stop sweating.
Because Caleb had to acknowledge that when it came to skills in the field or in ranching? He could handle himself with the best.
When it came to talking to people?
He was the worst.
The absolute worst.
His younger brother, Jack, was smooth. He could talk the pants off anyone and always managed to get his way with a smile and a wink. His older brother, Hank, wasn't much of a talker, but he was still better than Caleb.
It wasn't just that Caleb clammed up around people. His mind went blank and nothing would come forward. It was like the moment he was required to give a response, he forgot what words were.
Most of the time he didn't care. He was a cowboy; the cattle didn't mind if he was silent. His brothers didn't mind if he wasn't chatty.
But around women, it was a problem.
Caleb had never had a girlfriend, which was fine when you were a kid, or when you lived in the remote wilds of interior Alaska and you might not see a single woman for months on end. Here in the town of Painted Barrel, Wyoming, though, he felt his lack of social skills acutely.
Very, very acutely.
Because Caleb was in love.
Just thinking about love made him reach into his pocket and pull out his bandanna, then mop the sweat on his brow. Love was difficult even in the best of times, but when you had trouble speaking to women, it was pure torture. Every time he got up the nerve to talk to a woman, it ended up badly.
There was that time he had a crush on a cute bar waitress back in Alaska, who he'd blushed and stammered over until she thought he was mentally disabled.
There was a girl who had worked at her uncle's game-processing shop one summer. He'd gone there often all summer, just to try to speak to her. He'd paid other hunters through the nose for their kills so he'd have some excuse to go into the shop. When he did finally get up the nerve to talk to the object of his affection, she thought he was creepy because he was "killing so many animals" and wanted nothing to do with him. There were a few other passing women he'd managed to somehow insult without meaning to.
And now there was Ms. Amy Mckinney, an elementary school teacher in Painted Barrel.
The moment he'd looked at her, he'd been in love. Amy had a gorgeous face and a smoking-hot body, but what he liked most about her was that she was kind. Or she seemed to be. He hadn't quite got the nerve up to talk to her himself. He'd been around when she was talking to other people, though.
He might have showed up at several PTA volunteer meetings just to hear her talk. Not that he had kids. He didn't usually volunteer, either. But he showed up anyhow, because he'd get to watch her from afar, see her smile at others as she talked easily, and wish he wasn't such a damned idiot the moment he talked to a pretty woman.
Today, though, he had a reason to talk to her. His brother Hank was out in one of the distant pastures, and Caleb had been cleaning out the barn when Hank had texted and said his horse was limping and he was going to walk it in, but that meant he'd be a few hours, and Hank's daughter, Libby, needed to be picked up from school.
Caleb had immediately volunteered to go pick her up. It was the perfect opportunity. Ms. Mckinney was Libby's teacher, so he'd stroll into class, tip his hat at her, announce he was there to pick up Libby, and strike up a conversation.
His mind went blank. A conversation about . . . what? What did one talk about to a schoolteacher? The weather? Everyone was going to talk about the weather to her. He needed to say something different. Maybe something about school? But he didn't have children that went to the school . . . Maybe Christmas?
Surely he'd think of something. He wiped his brow, sucked in a deep breath, and got out of the truck.
Most of the parents at Painted Barrel Elementary knew the drill for picking up their children. Amy took the ones who rode the bus out to the bus driver's line in front of the principalÕs office. She quickly counted heads and then went back to her classroom, where the other children waited with their backpacks for their parents to pick them up. Picking up their child in the classroom instead of outside was better all around, Amy figured, since it was cold and snowy in Wyoming in December, and little hands needed gloves, and those were the first things her students tended to lose.
Plus, it gave Amy a good chance to talk to the parents, to pass along notes about behavior, and to make sure everything was going well. With a small class of twelve students, she could do such a thing. It was one of the main reasons she'd moved out to Painted Barrel and accepted the low-paying teaching job instead of taking a far more lucrative one in a big city. She really wanted to connect with her students. She really wanted the opportunity to influence her kids and watch them grow. She wanted to be a teacher they remembered.
Plus, she was starting over-her life, her career, everything. What was better than starting over in all ways? She'd lived in bigger cities all her life. Now Amy just wanted to blend in to a tight-knit community and be part of things. Maybe being part of a community would help choke down that black hole of loneliness inside her that had just gotten bigger and bigger since her divorce.
This wasn't the time to think about her divorce from Blake, though. Right now, she had to focus on her kids. So as the first parents showed up, she went into teacher mode, chirping about how wonderfully this or that kid did in class today, helping put on little jackets, and finding mittens. More parents showed up, and then her classroom was an absolute cluster of people bundling small children in warm outdoor gear, and so she got her clipboard and checked off names and parents while one of the PTA moms chattered in her ear about the upcoming school Christmas Carnival. It was another one of those ways Amy was probably a bit too anal-retentive about her kids, but she was able to get away with it because it was a smaller class. She carefully kept track of who picked up who every day, and then kept a logbook in her desk. Safety was important.
As parents left with their children and the room started to clear out, she tried to focus on the woman talking nonstop in her ear. She kept an eye on the children left in the classroom as Linda talked about Santa's Workshop and the plans to give each child a small present from the teachers.
"Don't you think that's a good idea?" Linda asked as Amy gazed at the empty rows of desks in her classroom.
"Great," Amy enthused, noting that she was down to two students. One was Billy Archer, whose mom worked a bit later on certain days, so it was to be expected. The other was Libby Watson, though, and usually her enormous bear of a father was here right on time. That was unusual. Libby was calmly coloring at her desk, unconcerned.
"So you'll be Mrs. Claus?" Linda asked as Amy headed toward the school hallway. "We really need a volunteer and I think you'd be great."
"I can do that. Would you excuse me for a second? I just want to make sure I didn't miss someone." Tucking her clipboard under her arm, Amy headed out into the hall and looked around. Occasionally a parent would get distracted by their phone and wander into the wrong classroom, so it was worth checking. She peered down the hall and didn't see anyone, then turned around-
-and nearly ran into a large, bearded man with a cowboy hat in his hands.
Amy bit back a yelp of surprise, hating that she'd jumped up, startled. Her hand went to her chest, where her heart was hammering. "Oh, freaking heck, you startled me."
The man clutching his hat flushed a deep red. "Sorry," he mumbled.
She bit her lip because she'd almost cussed a blue streak-and right in the middle of an elementary school filled with students and parents. Trying to compose herself, she smoothed a hand down her skirt. "Can I help you find a classroom?"
The man opened his mouth. "Libby," he managed to croak out after a moment.
She waited. When he didn't say anything else, she tried to fill in the blanks. "Are you saying you're here to pick up Libby? Mr. Watson didn't leave me a message."
"He's . . . lame."
Amy blinked. "What?"
The man cleared his throat and looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Horse. Lame."
"Oh." She studied him. "And you are . . ."
"Brother. Caleb." He stuck out his hand, then blurted out, "Weather's Christmas, ain't it."
She took his hand gingerly and tried not to notice that it was sweaty. He was nervous, poor man. It was obvious from his actions and the way he stumbled over his words, then closed his eyes after he spoke, as if he were regretting every syllable that came out of his mouth. Her heart squeezed with sympathy.
"Well, Mr. Watson, I appreciate you coming by, but I can't release the students to anyone-even family-without one of the parents' permission. If you'll come inside and wait, I'll call the other Mr. Watson or his wife and make sure it's all right before I send Libby out with you." She gestured at the door, indicating he should go inside her classroom. This was usually a test on its own. If it was a creep of any kind-not that she'd met any in their tiny town-calling the parents would normally make someone run. But this man simply ducked his head in a nod and followed her in, which meant he was likely legit.
She was still calling the parents anyhow.
As he walked inside, Libby jumped up from her seat. "Uncle Caleb," she called, beaming at him. "I drew you a horse! Come see!"
The man's face creased into a broad smile at the sight of the little girl. He glanced at Amy.
"Please, have a seat. This won't take long."
She watched as the big cowboy pulled out a child-size red chair and perched on it, his long legs folded up against his thick, puffy cold-weather vest. Uncle Caleb-Hank's brother. She could see it. Hank was a massive, massive man with a grim face and a thick black beard. He was utterly terrifying-looking at first, but the way he doted on his petite wife and his equally tiny daughter showed he was harmless. Caleb was obviously cut from the same stock-he was as tall as his brother, if not as broad. His face wasn't as hard, but maybe it was because he had dark, dark eyes framed by thick lashes that made him look soulful. He had the same beard and build that his brother did, though.
Handsome, too, not that she was supposed to be looking. Handsome and shy, she decided, when he glanced up at her and immediately turned bright red again. She'd seen him around town and had probably met him before but had never realized he was Libby's uncle. She was bad with faces, which was why she had the clipboard. Both he and Libby looked entirely at ease together, so Amy pulled out her phone and texted Becca Watson-Mr. Watson's recently married bride and Libby's stepmother.
AMY: Hi Becca, this is Amy. A man named Caleb is here to pick Libby up and says Hank has a lame horse? Does this sound legit to you?
Linda cleared her throat, sidling in next to Amy. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Oh. I'm sorry." Amy looked over at her, forcing an apologetic smile to her face. "I didn't catch it."
"I asked if you had a boyfriend. We need a Santa Claus to go with our Mrs. Claus." Linda's expression was avid.
Amy tried not to flinch. Being that it was a small town, relationship stuff came up a lot. "No. I'm sorry, I'm divorced."
Her phone pinged and Amy quickly glanced down at the text.
BECCA: Caleb is totally fine. Do you need a description? Big bearded guy, stumbles over his words. Looks like a shy Hank. Or I can come get her. Let me know.
She smiled down at her phone and glanced up at Caleb and Libby. The man was watching her with those dark eyes, his expression unreadable. For some reason, it made her feel a little flustered and shy herself. "You're good to go, Mr. Watson. Thank you for waiting."
He nodded in a jerky way. "Libby's mine . . . ah, my pleasure." He coughed and then slowly closed his eyes again.
She bit the inside of her cheek not to laugh. Stumbling over his words was right.
Amy started to text Becca back when Linda nudged her, continuing to talk about the Christmas Carnival. "Do you know of anyone that can do it? Curtis is running the popcorn machine and Jimmy said he'd be in charge of the midway. Terry dressed up last year but his wife is insisting that we find someone else. She thinks he's flirting with the elves." Linda tittered at her joke, missing Amy's horrified expression.
The last thing she wanted was to cause problems in someone's marriage. She knew how that felt. "Maybe I shouldn't be Mrs. Claus, then-"
Both of the women looked up.
The cowboy stood next to Libby's desk, his face flushed. His hat was practically crushed in his big hand as he spoke. "I'll do Mrs. Claus."