The Cowboy Christmas Charm

Chapter Seventeen

Colt hated himself for allowing Saige to assume things about him that weren’t true. He hadn’t technically lied, but he wasn’t sure she’d see it that way.

But this man—Trevor—he made all men look bad in Saige’s eyes. He’d face her and the truth he’d share tomorrow.

Ten years… That was a long time to hold on to that kind of pain. “I’m sorry we came here. If I’d known…”

“No.” She sniffled, but as she’d vowed, not one tear slid down her rosy cheeks. The color had returned now that they were only chilly, not frozen. “I own my mistakes, and rushing out of the diner the way I did to usher you out of my life is on me.” She crossed her legs and scooted closer to the fire. “This was the right choice for shelter. The only choice.”

He scooted closer under the guise of wanting more warmth, but he wanted to feel that connection again. The one when she’d leaned into him. Her cheek pressed to his chest. He’d never felt this kind of flutter in his stomach and desire to feel closer beyond the physical need. “I don’t mean to pry, but you said you left after you realized you couldn’t marry Thomas, and that’s why you went to your childhood ranch.”

She picked up some kindling by her side, snapped it in half, and tossed it into the fire. “Yeah, that’s true. What I didn’t realize until I came to this shack is that our breakup was almost entirely my fault.”

The kindling snapped and was engulfed by a hungry flame. “That’s big of you. It takes two to make a relationship work.”

“Maybe.” She snapped another piece of kindling and tossed it into the blaze. “Was I stupid for giving up a dependable man because I wanted something that hasn’t existed since the 1870s? Thomas isn’t a bad man, but he cared more about money and position than a relationship. He’d been safe, but I know now I’m not only my father’s child who cares only for money—as a matter of fact, I don’t want a man with a big fortune and who cares about taking over companies than the people who work for him. But I’m also not completely my mother’s child because I can’t blindly love someone who isn’t there for me emotionally.”

The way her gaze remained zoned in on the burning wood, her mouth ajar and her shoulders slumped, there was more to this perfect person. “But?”

“But he was right.” She dusted her hands off and pulled the blanket tighter, as if shielding herself from the mess of the world. “I didn’t love Thomas. I was coldhearted and only cared about the next big deal. I don’t want to be that person anymore. There has to be more to life.”

“That’s why you wanted to know more about the McKinnie sisters.”

“Yes, but all I’ve discovered is a great love where the man chose to chase down a criminal instead of remaining by his wife’s side.” She held her palms out to the fire. “I’m a business shark and don’t need a fictitious man to love me, one who will only disappoint me or lie to me later. A playboy or a rich man. The only thing that could be worse is a playboy rich man.” She chuckled.

He swallowed hard, realizing the irony of his choice to join the Billionaire Bad Boys Club. She wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him if he revealed that poor choice.

“Even if that were true, which I doubt it is, there’re men out there who are both kind and strong-willed. A man who can appreciate a women who knows what she wants and goes after it. A woman who stands up to men in the boardroom and puts them in their place, yet still has a soft heart for the man at home.”

“In my experience, there are the men who are all passion and no commitment and those who are all commitment with no passion. I can live peacefully or face a man in bed with another woman again.”

His chest tightened at the way her voice cracked each time she spoke about that day. A day that had obviously haunted her all these years.

His stepmother had made it seem like his father had been faithful since they married, that his extracurricular marital activities were because he didn’t love his wife. Did that mean if Colt found the right woman, he’d never cheat on her? “It sounds like you’ve gone for extremes. Maybe it’s time to try dating someone in the middle. A man who’s kind yet strong. A man not threatened by your ability to take down a room full of businessmen but who wants to bring you flowers to celebrate your win.”

“There isn’t a man like that. Not that I’ve met.”

“You haven’t met all the men in the world.” He nudged her to think of him beyond the friend with possibilities who lived in her house. A dangerous game when he wasn’t sure he could be that man and he’d never want to hurt her the way Trevor had. “I’m not going to argue the point that men don’t screw up. They do. But there are the kind who make mistakes, learn from them, and try to make them right. And those who make mistakes and hide from them.”

“Like partying and destroying a girl’s place then helping to clean it up?” she teased. “A wannabe cowboy who doesn’t have plans for his future? A guy like you?”

He shrank from her words. “No, not like me. Better. You deserve better.”

She ran her fingers through his hair in a dangerously provocative and promising way that challenged his better side. “Maybe you’re exactly that man. You just don’t know it yet.”

She yawned. Exhaustion from the day took hold of him as well. They were too tired to dig into anything deeper tonight. He eyed the bed, but when she stiffened, he knew she’d never crawl up there. The thick carpet and pallet they’d made in front of the fire at the ranch, he could sleep on, but this hard floor would prove too difficult, not to mention the cold would chill them to the bone.

With a deep breath, he decided to try to prove he was a man of action but with a sensitive touch. He only hoped it didn’t backfire. He pushed from the ground, stripped the bed, flipped the mattress, and plopped it down in front of the fire. She scooted away, but he knew Saige would never back down from a fight. “You can keep running from that moment, or you can face it now and move forward with your life. Make new memories to overshadow the old ones.” He winked. “Besides, it’s getting uncomfortable on the hard floor, the fire’ll keep us warm, and we’ll need rest if we’re going to make the hike back to the house once the storm clears.”

She blinked up at him, and he could see a hundred thoughts flash through her head in a few seconds. They’d spent several nights in front of the fire at her place on the carpet floor reclining against a couch and cuddled up, but this was different. A bed. A bed her ex had cheated on.

“I’ll be a perfect gentleman, but the temperature’s dropping, you’re shivering, and if your back feels like mine, you're done with sitting on the floor.” He stood and waited for her answer.

She quirked a brow at him. “Wouldn’t a bad boy convince a woman to crawl into bed with him under the guise of keeping her warm?”

“I’m a recovering bad boy.” He held up two fingers. “Scout’s honor. I vow to keep my hands to myself.” There. That would show her he was going to be a perfect gentleman. A man could master his thoughts. He hoped. Because standing over the mattress with a romantic fire and a beautiful woman? Not a fair test for any man.

“You’re no Boy Scout, so don’t try to pretend to be one.” She eyed the mattress but then crawled up on it and fluffed the blanket out to cover both sides of the bed before pulling a corner back.

He didn’t need any further invitation, so he joined her with an inch between them, not wanting to spook her. “What gave me away?”

“It’s three fingers, not two.” She rolled over to face the fire, so he chose to remain on his back, eyeing the roof, thankful it was sloped and made of tin, or this could be a different story.

“Busted.” He chuckled. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a good guy, though.”

“Really? Then what are the thoughts in your head right now?” she asked in a teasing tone.

“As I said, you need a bad boy who behaves like a gentleman.”

She reached back and grabbed his hand, tugging him to roll over to spoon with her and wrapping his arm tightly around her. “Then let’s hope the gentleman in you doesn’t give way to the dark side, because as you said, we need to stay warm.”

He cleared his throat and attempted to clear his mind of all the thoughts racing through his head while alone in a cabin with a beautiful woman pressed against him. Talk about a rigged test. If he was going to suffer all night with want and need, he decided to let his devilish side peer out, if only for a second. What could she do? Run out into the snow to escape him?

He settled in closer and rested his mouth to her ear. “No need to worry about warmth, because the mere thought of what could be between you and my less tamed side is enough to keep me hot all night.”

Chapter Eighteen

Memories of Trevor faded into the darkness while images of Colt danced in the light of the flames in front of Saige.

When was the last time her body woke to the point of pure desire? Not in this place. Not with a man who couldn’t be real.

“Relax. I told you I’d be good.” He pressed a sweet kiss to her temple, but her body didn’t respond with the same innocence. She kicked one foot out from the covers to chill her body once more into submission, but she wasn’t sure dancing naked in the snow could cool her want.

To her relief, he got up to stoke the fire to allow hers to burn out to glowing embers. A few sips of water and a stretch made the situation a little more bearable. How come her body hadn’t responded to Thomas’s touch this way? No man ever drove her to the point of being unable to control herself. That deep need for connection, fulfillment, satisfaction. Not since Trevor.

All the more reason to see Colt for who he was. A guy who would stir her up and spit her out, even if he didn’t mean to. She knew the cowboy types. They changed directions with the wind.

That cooled her libido, and she allowed herself to fall into a fitful sleep until the first rays of light shone through the window.

Warm and safe, she snuggled into the blanket and the hard body at her back before she remembered where she was and who she was with.

“Shh, relax.” He stroked her hair away from her face, leaving behind delicious tingles radiating through her scalp and down the nape of her neck. “I think I’ve proven my word’s good. To you and to myself.”

His hand drifted down to her shoulder, along her arm, and then his fingers laced between hers where it rested on her hip. This was wrong. Maybe she was the bad girl. What kind of woman wanted a man a week after she was supposed to exchange vows with another man?

How could she think about how Colt’s lips would feel against hers? Enjoy the simple touch of his fingers along her skin? Take comfort in his arms during a raging storm outside? A man who chased away the haunts of her past and gave her hope of future possibilities.

Her breath came in rapid, chest-lifting bursts. His lips raked along her ear, and he pressed a kiss to her neck. “Your heart’s beating fast and your breath is quick. If I’m reading the signs correctly, I best go check outside and put some space between us. Because despite my word, if you gave me reason to believe you wanted me to kiss you, I wouldn’t be able to keep my promise.”

He lifted the blanket and moved away. A rush of cold air invaded her heat and calmed her pulse before her heart beat so hard it broke through her armor.

With deep breaths, she tended the fire, reviving it to a full blaze. The door opened behind her, and damp air saturated the room. She rushed back under the covers before the door shut and closed her eyes to face that awful day in this cabin now that she’d spoken about it. But instead of seeing Trevor on the bed, she saw Colt kissing her, and she couldn’t help but think. Could this man possess the passion she craved with the touch and attention of an attentive partner?

She threw off the covers and decided to find out. A kiss. One kiss. It could be simple yet revealing. After all, she’d gone to the ranch to figure out what she wanted out of life, not close herself off from it.

Maybe Colt was right and he was a man who could have a wild streak but be a loving and honest person.

She went to the window and saw him trudging through the snow. A million thoughts went through her head, and she held on to the small table, eyeing the bed with no mattress and then the mattress by the fire.

The door swung open, and he slammed it shut but didn’t secure it with the board. “Storm’s gone. Sun’s coming up. I found a shovel outside. Maybe we can dig the car out?” He shook off his jacket and hung it on the hook and then faced her. “What?”

She tried to share her thoughts, tell him what she was thinking, but her brain didn’t slow long enough for her to catch a single thought, so she let go of the table and took a step toward a chance on something. The first risk she’d taken in a long time.

His eyes blazed with understanding, and he stood there as if waiting for her invitation, for her to tell him it was okay to kiss her, but she couldn’t find the words, so she decided to show him. With pulse pounding, heart thumping, she closed the distance between them.

A revving in the distance told her there was a car on the road that could possibly rescue them from another night stuck in this cabin, but she didn’t even look away. How could she, with Colt waiting for her next move?

“Are you sure?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“No,” she managed but didn’t stop her approach.

In one swift move, he had her in his arms and unleashed all the passion he’d been holding. It wasn’t tentative like Thomas. It wasn’t demanding like Trevor. It was desire and want and lust and need but with a hint of tenderness.

The floor disappeared from under her feet. She floated, his arms wrapped around her as he lifted her onto the small table and slipped his hands behind her neck, tilting her head and deepening the kiss. An avalanche of room-spinning, heart-pounding, unleashed need drove her to pull him even tighter, and she never wanted to let go.

In that moment, she thought nothing on this earth could ever tear them apart. A bond seared between them, and she wanted more, so much more. She wanted all the possibilities.

Chapter Nineteen

Colt’s mind blurred into a whirl of want. Never had he ever needed a woman so bad in his life. Was this love? His body awoke and his heart thundered. With each swipe of a tongue, slide of her fingers along his neck, press of her body to his, he thought he’d never recover or be able to let Saige McKinnie out of his life.

She would be his life.

He had to stop this now, though, but how could he end a moment that felt like it started the rest of his life? This woman, she drew out his desire to be a better man. A man worthy of her love. And he could only earn that by telling the truth, so with painful effort, he lightened the kiss and nibbled her sweet lips for several minutes, along her jawline, ear, neck. “I have to tell you something, but I need you to know that I’ve changed—or you’ve changed me. I see the world in a different way.”

She clawed at his shirt and lifted her chin, inviting him to continue his exploration, and he wanted to more than anything. But if he didn’t tell her the truth, they could never have a future, and in this moment, the only future he saw had Saige in it.

The engine sound came closer, but he didn’t care. He continued his trek down her neck to her collarbone. “I might have been a Thomas and a Trevor at points in my life, but I want to be Colt, a man who would never hurt you. Will cherish you. And more than anything, I want to get to know you better.”

He was starved for more of her, but he stopped and stood straight, looking directly in her eyes. “I want to find out what possibilities exist between us, and I want to be a man worthy of your love.” His voice cracked, and her hands were cupping his face, giving him comfort he didn’t deserve.

Before he could say anything, she kissed him again. A soft, reassuring kiss. “I can’t picture you saying anything that would be so horrible. I’ve made too many mistakes of my own to judge yours.”

As she claimed his lips, he believed her, that she could forgive him, and that only made him want her more.

The roar of the engine drew closer. She froze in his arms.

“I’m sorry. Did I—”

“No. That’s a snowmobile.”

The engine grew louder and then cut off outside close to the cabin. He wanted to chase their rescuer away. He could have lived on this feeling with Saige for days with no food or water.

“Hello? Who’s in there?” a voice called.

Saige stiffened and she trembled. He held her up and eyed the unlocked door that swung open, startling him into a fighting stance. A man, about two inches shorter but with a true cowboy image from hat to boots, stood in the doorway with his gaze zoomed in on Saige.

Colt didn’t like it, not one bit, so he stepped into the man’s line of view and cleared his throat. “What do you want?” he said in his deepest, I-can-take-you tone.

“Someone reported smoke over the radio, so I came to see who was in my cabin.” He shifted to the side and narrowed his eyes. “Saige? That you?”

Colt calculated all the factors. This man’s claim on the cabin, Saige’s wide eyes and trembling lip, the man’s hungry gaze on her. He didn’t like how it all added up. “We didn’t mean or want to be here, I assure you.”

Saige put a hand to his chest and looked up at him. “It’s okay. I’ve got this.” She straightened herself to her shotgun pose and took two steps toward the man who’d crushed her all those years ago. The man Colt wanted to crush at this moment.

“My car ended up in the embankment. We had no choice but to hike up here for shelter during the storm. We’ll be heading back to the car to dig it out shortly.”

“City life make you forget about the roads ’round here? What were you doing driving in the storm?”

Saige hesitated, so Colt jumped in. “My fault. I needed to get back to the ranch to get to work.”

“Well, you’re not going to dig your car out with that.” The man removed his hat and brushed his light hair back from his face then returned the large-brimmed hat to his head. “I’ll radio in. You can ride down with me. Sorry. Only room for one.” He eyed Colt, daring him to challenge his offer.

Colt took the proverbial glove he threw down and moved to accept, but Saige regained her words and said, “I’ll walk, but if you can call in for a plow, that would be great.”

Her words were sincere, tone direct, and body tense, but Colt saw it. She touched her cowboy charm, and he knew the truth, that she was struggling to maintain her composure.

He couldn’t help but jump in. “Since we crashed here for the night, we’ll straighten up the cabin and then head down and meet the crew to get the car out. I’m happy to pay for any service that can help dig us out.”

“Big spender, huh?” Trevor asked in an insulting tone.

“More like a man who cleans up after he makes a mess of someone’s life.”

“Go, Trevor.” Saige tossed the blanket from her shoulders. “The hike down will be much easier than the hike up. Request a pass of the salt truck.”

“I’ll make sure the road’s clear to town.” Trevor tipped his hat and spun on his boots.

Colt couldn’t let it go. He wanted to send the smug man tumbling down the mountain, but if there was one thing he saw that could hit the man without landing Colt in jail, it was the way he looked at Saige. The way a man looked when he wanted something from a woman. “No need. I’ll be returning to MH Ranch with Saige.”

Trevor paused at the open door, allowing the cold air to flood into the cabin. “Saige?”

She glanced at Colt, and he offered a nod. “She’s in good hands. The softer kind.” He winked. “It’ll be easier for the salt truck to clear to the house anyway.”

“But there’s another storm heading this way. You could be stuck there for days with this…this.”

“Colt. And that won’t be a problem. It’ll be a pleasure,” she said without missing a beat, as if she’d recovered from the shock of seeing the man who’d broken her into pieces she still needed to put back together.

Trevor stepped outside. “I’ll have the salt truck clear the road from your house to town in case you have a change of heart.”

“No, my heart is clear for the first time.” Saige didn’t move, not even a muscle twitch. Colt feared she didn’t even breathe until the door closed behind Trevor and she crumbled against the table, heaving in stuttered breaths.

Colt took her into his arms and held her tight. “I don’t know that I have the right to say this, but I’m proud of you. You’re one of the strongest women I know.”

She trembled in his arms, and he knew it was more from emotion than cold, but he retrieved the blanket and pulled her into his side to stand in front of the fire while he rubbed circles on her back.

“I haven’t allowed myself to feel anything for so long, and now my chest feels like I have a decade of garbage crushing my ribs. I’m not sure I like this feeling. Being closed off to the world has worked well for me. Well, until I faced marriage to a man as closed off as I was.”

“Stop blaming yourself. Be grateful that you saw the truth and walked out before it was too late.

“Too late?” She tossed the blanket off and took the poker to the fire, beating the wood until it fell apart into glowing embers. “I think the day of your wedding is too late. I’m tired of living a lie. It’s time for me to face all my ghosts. That’s why I came here, to reconnect with my past, my mother, and the rest of the McKinnie family. I’ve let a worthless playboy own too much of my life. I’ll never let a man like him near me again.”

Colt needed more time to prove he wasn’t that guy. Besides, he wasn’t going to leave her alone with that Trevor character. His truth would wait until they were back at the ranch and Trevor was gone.

Saige returned the poker but remained focused on the fading glow of the debris. “Hey, I have an idea. I know I need to return soon, but there’s no need before Christmas since the offices shut down. Since you have nowhere you need to be and I’ll be off, we should both stay through Christmas. I don’t think either one of us wants to head back to our lives before then, so why don’t we stay at the ranch until the new year?”

“I think I’d like that.”

The sound of the snowmobile fading away drew her attention to the window. “I could pay you extra, of course.”

A jolt of hurt shot through him. “This isn’t about a job anymore.”

“I insist.” She didn’t look at him, only toyed with her charm, distracting him with the memory of kissing her and how they were about to take a step in the right direction before Cowboy Trevor interrupted. He didn’t know the guy, but he didn’t like him.

“Fine. If that’s how you want to name this, then I’ll work for room and board.” He grabbed the mattress and tossed it on the bed and then grabbed their coats. Irritation built up inside him. He wanted to give her space to figure things out, but making him feel like her prostitute cowboy didn’t sit well with him.

“After the next storm and the roads clear, I’ll take you back to town.” She slid her arms into the coat he held up for her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that…”

“It’s fine,” he grunted.

She spun to face him and clutched his coat. “I want you to stay. Not because I’m paying you but because I want to get to know you better. I fell back on money and power to protect my heart, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. From this moment forward, you’re not my employee, you’re my guest. Although, if you decide to leave after Christmas, I’ll give you the money since you’ll need it to figure out what’s next in your life. I don’t care if you’re poor. Actually, I like that because I don’t have to compete with you in business or come home to a sterile life. I like that you’re all free and wild, which is my problem. Maybe you’re right, though, and you could be both passionate and good.”

He couldn’t tell her that he didn’t need the money, that he had plenty in an account with his name on it that he refused to touch.

“Tell me you forgive me. I’m sorry. My emotions are all over the place. I’ve protected myself for so long I don’t know how to truly trust anyone again.” She stood up on her tip toes and tugged him down, her lips close enough to feel her breath on his mouth.

“Forgiven.” He nuzzled her neck and kissed her cheek, the corner of her lip, but stopped because he knew that Trevor fellow would interrupt them if he took it any further, and he wanted to wait until they were alone to show her how he really felt about her. He wanted more from her, more of what she’d given him a moment before Trevor walked into the cabin, and if they were going to take this any further, he wanted to tell her the truth, so he tore himself away and headed outside.

Thank goodness the icy air cooled his body, or it would’ve been a difficult promise to keep. He took her hand, and they slushed and slipped down the hill until they spotted a big truck pulling her car out, and Colt knew before he saw the cowboy get out of his car that it was Trevor. The dark antihero of Saige’s story.

Colt squeezed her hand tighter in fear she’d release his when they approached, but she didn’t. She held tight all the way to her car and even leaned into Colt when they reached Trevor. “I appreciate you pulling my car out.”

“Loaded up your stuff in the back. Salt truck can’t get here until later today. I’ll give you a ride back. You can’t get there in this death trap.”

Colt eyed the two-seater truck and knew where Trevor headed with this offer. But Colt would flip it on him. “I’ll hike back up later but appreciate the ride. I’m sure Saige can fit on my lap.” He led her to the passenger side and crawled up into the cab. Then he helped Saige onto his lap.

Trevor detached her car and climbed into the truck. “You sure you want to hike back up here? It could be dangerous. We wouldn’t want you falling off the side of a mountain. This country’s rugged.”

“You’re right. Good thing I’m a former Boy Scout.”

Saige’s ribs vibrated, and he knew she was stifling a laugh. Colt tugged her closer and then strung the seat belt over the both of them. “Better to be safe."

She put her hand behind his neck and leaned into him. Her fingers toyed with his hair, and he realized she tamed him with a simple touch. How he’d love to be her cowboy, if only for Christmas.

Chapter Twenty

Saige sat silently watching the trees pass one by one. Images of that day, the worst day of her life, bombarded her. Out of all the people to waltz back into her life, it had to be Trevor. Apparently, facing the memories of their cabin wasn’t enough. She had to face him again.

Not that it should’ve been a surprise, since his family owned the cabin, but still. Talk about being smacked by the past.

On the tight turn at the bottom of the hill, she had to admit Trevor knew this land and how to expertly navigate it. Her insides churned like she rode the snowplow over rugged terrain instead of a four-wheel-drive truck down a hill.

“So what have you been up to?” Trevor asked as if they were old friends meeting for afternoon tea.

Saige cuddled into Colt even more, realizing she was actually leaning on a man for support, literally and emotionally. He was her home base in this feelings game of hide and seek. How many times had she thought of what she’d say to the man who destroyed her completely? Yet, now, she couldn’t even think, so she blurted her resume instead. “I’m a CEO.”

Pride filled her. She wanted him to know that his betrayal didn’t matter, that she’d succeeded in spite of it. Colt did that small circle thing on her back, easing her tension.

“No surprise. Your father always told me you’d succeed if I were out of your life.”

Did her father chase him away? Is that what happened? Didn’t matter. He hadn’t chased Trevor into the arms of another woman. “How’s your riding going? Bull riding, I mean.”

She caught a slight grin on Colt’s face and knew he was cheering for her. She liked that about him. Maybe there could be something beyond the physical draw between them. Keeping him around through Christmas, only to see him leave, would be difficult considering how much her body responded to a simple glance, touch…kiss.

What had that gotten her last time? A broken heart and a right fork on the road of life.

The truck grumbled at the next turn, and from the higher vantage point, she could see over the snow embankment and realized she’d risked not only her life, but Colt’s. The life of a man who held her protectively. A hero who wanted to defend her honor, despite only knowing her for a short time. That’s what he’d be in a rom com anyway. But this wasn’t a movie. This was her life.

Trevor turned onto the main road, and she couldn’t help but feel the symbolism to her life. Maybe she could still find her way back onto her true path. A path she knew meant fitting her mother’s ranch into her life somehow.

“Glad you were able to reach our cabin. You would’ve died out there overnight.”

Your cabin. And it was a last resort, I assure you.” She didn’t like the way her voice wavered. CEOs didn’t show weakness to the enemy. Maybe channeling her father wasn’t so bad in this moment. Could she be what Colt saw in her, a woman of strength and compassion?

Facing the most horrible experience of her life with him had made an impossible and difficult situation bearable. More than that. Her lips tingled with the thought of their kiss.

If Trevor hadn’t shown, what would’ve happened? Something wild fluttered in her belly.

Trevor kept glancing over at her as if to construct the right thing to say, but what could he say? Nothing could change the way she felt about him. Ever.

Around the bend, the house came into view farther up the road. A beacon in the wild land of snow and trees. “Looks run-down. I’ll come ’round when the snow thaws and help with some work.”

“No need. I’ll be working on things now,” Colt announced with an authoritative tone.

Trevor scratched his chin, tipped his hat up, and eyed Colt. “No offense, but you don’t look like the heavy lifting, dirty job kind of guy.”

“A man can be a gentleman and still handle himself in rugged situations.” Colt tightened his arms around her in a protective, I’ve-got-you kind of way.

“We grew up together, and I spent time on this ranch. We have history.”

Saige felt his muscles tense behind his neck and decided this needed to end now. “I’m sure you have more important things to do than come out here to work on the ranch. Colt and I have it covered. It’s time for me to focus on my future.”

He turned up the driveway and focused forward. “Always thought I’d run this place one day.”

Something told her that he had more to say, but he rolled to a stop without a word.

Colt opened the door before the tires stopped. “I’m sure Saige is capable of running her own ranch now that she’s back.” He retrieved the bags out of the back, including groceries and a few tools.

She stood on the icy ground, but the way Trevor looked at her made her blood boil. Not because he stoked the fire inside her with want but because he lit up at the idea she’d be staying, which meant he’d be back. And she didn’t want him back. Not here, not now, not ever. Before she had a chance to tell him as much, Colt slammed the truck door, took her by the hand, and escorted her to the front porch.

Trevor didn’t let it go, though. He rolled down his window and shouted, “I’ll check on you tomorrow.” He patted the side of his truck and scanned the barn. “Too bad you don’t have horses no more. Not really a ranch now, huh?”

His words gutted her. After all these years, how did he still know how to hit her point blank in the heart from hundreds of yards away while galloping through the woods?

The wheels crunched over the ice the way his words crunched her heart. “My mother would be devastated at the sight of this place. No cows or horses or dogs or people to call this place home. Home and family. The McKinnie way of life for generations.”

Colt ushered her inside, shut the door behind them, dropped the bags, and was at her side, cupping her face with his large hands. “We’ll fix this place together. Not because I think you can’t do it alone, but because I want to help. I love this place. It feels like home like no other house I’ve ever lived in.” He locked the door and put his hands on her hips, his eyes soft but wide. “You’re one amazing woman. Brave and composed. You did it. You faced your worst nightmare and survived.”

Part of her wanted to fall into his arms and allow him to chase away her nightmares of her past, but the other part of her told her to back away and breathe. Life had been so tumultuous in recent days, she needed time to sort through everything. “I need a drink.”

She removed her coat and hung it on the hook before crossing her arms over her chest, wanting to give him attitude, but also wanting to make sure she kept her hands to herself.

“How about some food in our bellies before that.” He hung his coat by hers, ran a hand through his hair, grabbed the bags, dropped them in the kitchen, and headed down the hall. “If you need anything, I’m here. I’m happy to listen.”

“I’m fine. Better than I thought I’d be. Although, I’d be happier if he was cursed with premature baldness or had a beer gut and missing teeth.”

“Ouch, harsh. Remind me never to get on your bad side.” He took a right turn into the grand room, and as if he’d taken an advanced course on fire building, flames erupted in a matter of seconds. The man kept her warm, defended her honor, and made fire. What else could she want? He was perfect. Too perfect. Men like him didn’t exist. Not since the 1870s.

She eyed her great-grandmother Francine’s book and decided to flip through a few more of the legible pages. She curled up next to the fire. “I think I can read these pages. You want to hear more from Francine and Walter’s world?”

Colt leaned around the corner with his bright smile. “Yeah, love to.”

She moved to the kitchen with him, sat at the bar, and cleared her throat.

“I sit by the fire with Kerrie and Lucas by my feet, attempting to appear calm, but the pains have come on and the snow is so fierce that I can’t imagine Walt making it home in time. I’m alone, but I know what to do after birthing two already. I long for one of my sisters to walk through that door in time, but I can’t count on such miracles.”

The writing smeared for a few lines, so she flipped the page.

“The pains are closer, and I know by morning I’ll have a babe in my arms. I can’t help but fear the worst has happened to my dear Walt. After losing my brothers and parents to the Civil War, my mind can’t help but slip to violence and murder. The wind is whipping outside in warning, and I know the snowfall is coming. I thought about trying to make it to another ranch, but I won’t risk Kerrie and Lucas.”

She paused and skimmed through more faded writing, straining to make out the words.

“That is one brave woman. I can’t imagine being alone here, about to have a child. Do you know who you’re related to? Could you be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Kerrie or Lucas or the baby?”

A sense of belonging bubbled up inside her. “Wait a second… I remember something my mother said about the naming traditions. In honor of the seven sisters and three bothers, Francine continued the letter naming tradition. Each child named with the next letter of the alphabet. I’m Saige, my mother Rosemary, and my grandmother was Quinn. I remember because I thought it was an unusual name for a woman. I think my great-grandmother’s name was something like Pauline or Pollyanna. I don’t know who was before her, but if it is straight down the female line, I could be related to Kerrie.”

“Unless the baby is a girl.”

“Right.” Excitement filled her with this family tree puzzle. She flipped the page and read further, but there were only bits and pieces. “Wait. I think I found something. Walt. Yes, I think he made it home.”

Colt joined her, wielding a spatula. “What does it say?”

“I can’t make it all out, but here it says, ‘I see him riding toward me. His hat covering his eyes, blocking the light snow falling to his face.’

“Then what? Is the him Walt?”

“I assume so.” She flipped the page. “I can’t make out any more. Wait. Here. ‘My Christmas cowboy kept his promise.’

“So he made it back.”

A burnt odor drew her from the book. Smoke plumed from the pan. “Are you burning something?”

Colt raised a brow at her, and then his nostrils flared and he spun to face the stove. “No.”

He grabbed the pan, burning his hand and dropping the hot pan to the floor. She set the book to the side and raced to help him. Grabbing the towel, she lifted the pan and set it in the sink then turned on the water and guided his hand under it.

“I thought I was the bad cook.” She studied his hand, but it didn’t look bad. “You alright?”

His lips twitched. “Better than dinner, I’m afraid.”

She shrugged. “Peanut butter and banana sandwiches work for me.”

“That sounds gross.”

“Don’t knock it until you try it.” She got out the ingredients and slapped some peanut butter on some bread and sliced bananas while he cleaned up the floor. It felt good to know more about the McKinnie sisters. Although she still hadn’t found out much about her mother, she understood where she’d come from. But she still didn’t know much about the man in her kitchen. “You owe me.”

He dried the pan and then stepped back, eyeing her. “I’m sure I do, but in what way?”

“You promised to share your story. It’s your turn to have your deepest and most scarring secrets cut open and bled out in front of me.”

He brushed past her, warming her faster than the burning wood in front of her. “Right. That.”

He set the pan in the cabinet. “You already know that my father disowned me, and now I’m not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’ve never lived up to his expectations, unlike my brother. I’m the oldest, so I should’ve wanted to be him, but I’ve never liked his life. I want my own life.”

She leaned against the wall, worried that if she moved, he might stop talking. And she wanted to know as much about him as he knew about her. Not to even the playing field but because she genuinely wanted to know more about this man.

“I worked in the family business, trying to impress my father, but I never managed to get his respect. Not that I deserved it. I tried to make it work, but I was never happy following in his footsteps. I realized I was unhappy. I felt dead inside.” He yanked open the refrigerator and took out some milk and poured two glasses. “Last night, despite being trapped in that cabin, I hadn’t felt that free in years. Free from judgement, free from mistakes, free from my father.” He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I’m not poor. Technically, I am homeless, but I can get money if necessary. I went along with your assumption, but I shouldn’t have. I didn’t know you then.”

She chuckled. “I can’t blame you. Not like I gave you a chance to tell the truth with a shotgun in your face.”

He took a bite of her proffered sandwich and rewarded her with a smile, but then he opened the refrigerator door and grabbed some vegetables. “Just adding a side dish.”

She nodded. “It’s refreshing to meet someone who has tried to be something they aren’t to make their family happy. I feel like you understand me in a way no one else can. I’m so tired of the liars of this world who pretend to be something they’re not, just to get what they want. There is nothing worse than a user.”

Saige settled on the  barstool and watched him cook with passion. Chopping vegetables like an artist creating a masterpiece, sniffing spices, and all the time smiling. “Maybe you could be a chef,” she chimed out way too lighthearted for a man pouring his heart out to her.

Mid chop, his knife stopped, as if he was contemplating her comment.

“All I’m saying is that you’re young, smart, talented, brave, handsome, and a good cook. Why do you have to return to something you don’t love? Find what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

“Like you?” He tossed vegetables into the frying pan. The aroma of onions and garlic sizzled to life.

The idea of her being free from all obligations of her father’s world tempted her to consider his words, but that wasn’t reality. “I’m only off for the season. I fought way too hard for way too long to prove myself worthy of more than being Daddy’s little girl in the office. I’m only here on break to figure out how to reconnect with my McKinnie side. I need to find balance.” She went to the bar, found a bottle of red wine, and opened it, pouring some into two glasses and handing him one.

She took a sip of wine. “What about food critic?”

“Nope. I don’t like criticizing other people for doing their job the best they can. Doesn’t seem right.” He plated the food and grated some parmesan cheese on top before passing it to her.

“Then what do you think you want to be?”

He slid some vegetables onto his plate and poured some sort of lemon butter sauce over it, grabbed his glass, and headed for the table, where he pulled out her chair for her. “I want to be a cowboy.”

The way he said it made her snicker, but when his spark faded, she realized he was serious. “Isn’t that a song?”

“Yeah, I think it is, but it doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve loved the outdoors since I was young, that and working with my hands. I used to build model planes, and I renovated several rooms in my father’s house before I was old enough to head off to college. In college, I took on a job renovating an old mansion as a side job.” He let out a quick breath. “My father had no idea. He would’ve never approved, since he only saw my future his way.”

“You should be proud of yourself for being brave enough to leave and figure out what you wanted for yourself. If you want to be a cowboy, then be the best cowboy you can. I was a coward. I ran away from this place because of the loss I couldn’t face. I turned to stone and took it out on everyone around me. I was heartless and ruthless in business.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit.” That sexy grin appeared, so Saige took another few gulps of wine. “You’re not either. I’ll tell you the type of person who should be ashamed of themselves. It’s those people with their lives handed to them by their parents and they waste it on booze and women. I mean, I saw so many of my friends party their parents’ money away and never made anything of themselves. Those are the type of people I can’t respect.”

She dug into her food. Delicious didn’t begin to describe the hearty and rich flavors of her meal. Paprika, salt, and pepper tickled her tongue. “Who are you?” she blurted.

“Someone not deserving of you.” He took a bite, but she caught a hint of his honesty. Did he really feel that way? She was the unworthy one.

“You’re a cultured, well-spoken, kind protector who can cook and wants to be a cowboy. That’s a unique combination of traits.”

He scooped up the last of his vegetables and dabbed at his mouth before answering. “Thanks, but not sure I buy all that. However, I enjoy renovating and building, and I believe I can help you restore this ranch to its original glory. I need a project to focus on for a while.”

She cleared her plate and leaned over the sink, having a mental war with herself. In one breath, she wanted to be his project. In the next, she wanted to send him far away before she found herself in a situation she didn’t want to be in ever again.

Something whispered in her ear that there was more to his story that he still held back. Maybe it was her fear of opening her heart or he was too good to be true, but she knew danger waited ahead. “I didn’t come here to find a man. I came to figure out what was broken inside me. To become a woman my mother would be proud of, not disappointed in because of the choices I’ve made.”

His hands rested on her shoulders, offering comfort she didn’t deserve, not when she’d been heartless and ruthless for so long to everyone around her. “You had something traumatic happen when you were young. I’m sure your mother would be proud of you facing it now. Opening your heart to possibilities.”

“Possibilities. There’s that word again.” She turned in his arms, face-to-face, his warm breath sliding over her cheeks. His eyes offered an escape from her sorrow and his words a promise of something better than the life she’d lived. A zing of desire infiltrated her resolve and coaxed her forward, lips parted.

He leaned forward, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and whispered, “When you’re ready, I’ll be here.”

Chapter Twenty-One

It took everything Colt had not to sweep Saige into his arms and carry her to bed. But she wasn’t a one-night woman. She was an every-night dream. Every muscle in his body screamed for him to remain at her side, to take her in his arms and kiss her like no man had ever kissed her before.

He needed to confess he was the playboy who lived off his father’s money, but he wanted to show her he was reformed, that she’d reformed him, before he confessed. But he couldn’t find the words.

A howl in the distance broke from his thoughts so he poured another glass of wine for them both. “Let’s watch the snowfall by the fire. Now that we have warm bodies and food in our stomachs, it should be a pleasant evening.” He settled on the floor next to the stone hearth facing the large glass doors. “First thing I’d suggest is that we build a back deck.”

She joined him, to his pleasure and settled in by his side. “What happened to the deck?”

“Not sure, but it’s gone.”

“Gone?” She shot up and went to the doors, eyeing outside as if she’d be able to see beneath the pile of snow. “Seriously? I’m going to murder my cousin.” With a head shake and pressed lips, she returned to her seat. “Can’t believe I’ve been paying him all these years to look after the place and he’s done nothing. That’s what I get for not looking after it myself.”

“Stop. No more beating yourself up. Let go of the past.”

She lifted her glass. “Fine. To letting go of the past.”

They sat on the ground until the wood burned out and the moon hung high in the sky. He knew he needed to tell her now. There was no more procrastinating. “Saige?”


He kissed the top of her head and held tight, hoping this wouldn’t be the last time he held her. “I need to tell you something, but I need you to let me finish before you react.” He took in a deep breath, and when she didn’t say anything, he continued. “I want to be the man worthy of you, but there’s something in my past I’m not sure you can forgive. I’m the man you can’t respect. I’m not poor. I have money. Lots of money. Saige, I’m the billionaire playboy you can’t respect.” He held his breath, waiting for her response, but the only answer was a soft snore.


Colt didn’t want to leave since he had Saige curled in his arms on the floor by the fire, sound asleep, but he knew there was one thing he wanted to give her before she sent him away. The Christmas tree from her childhood.

He wasn’t sure about the laws of cutting down trees up here, but he was sure no one would ever find out, considering where they were, so he slid out and dressed in his warmest clothes and the new snow boots Saige had bought him. His guilt pinched his heart with the knowledge that she had no clue what he’d done.

He had to do something, anything to make her feel like there was one man in this world who wanted to make her happy, not miserable. Outside, the wind had died down, but he knew he wouldn’t make it far in the deep snow, so he grabbed the axe he’d seen from the garage and went for the tree line closest to the house.

All he found were trees taller than three houses and sprouts, barely taller than a weed poking out of the snow. He trudged deeper in, heaving for air at the effort and the climate. Apparently running on a treadmill had nothing on walking a few feet with an axe on his shoulder in the winter wilderness.

His efforts were semi-rewarded by a young sapling that would have to do. It wasn’t perfect, but it was big enough to put some homemade decorations on and set up in the main room.

With a tight grip on the handle, he swung low and hit his target. The tree spit bark onto the white surface, but barely a notch showed. This would be harder than he’d thought. He swung again and chipped away some more. His shoulders burned by the fourth swing, but in the quiet of the woods, his thoughts came rushing in about his life. About what his stepmother had said. Could it be true that his father wanted to give him the space to figure out what he wanted?

Another swing, and a large notch in the wood exposed fresh pine scent. That’s when he truly saw what he’d done to the family. He’d told himself he’d done everything he could to be a good son, but he hadn’t. In his desire to punish his father for how he’d treated his wife, Colt’s mother, he’d caused more damage to his family than his father ever could. After thinking about what his stepmother had said, he knew there was truth to it.

He swung and hit so hard the tree arched at the split, but his shoulders screamed in protest, so he took a break, leaning on the axe and sending out puffs of white air.

If his father had really given him a gift to figure out what he wanted, he’d succeeded. With tight lungs, burning arms, and aching biceps, he’d never felt so good. He turned and eyed the ranch through the trees, and the sight took his breath away. All these years, he’d lived a privileged life that he’d never wanted. Perhaps he had too much of his mother in him. He saw it in that moment. The reason they’d split. His parents were never meant to be together.

During his childhood, his mother had always been sad. She’d mentioned feeling trapped. That life could be a coffin, and no matter how much she scratched and cried out, no one opened it for her to breathe. Not until the divorce. The divorce that sent her to travel the world and leave him behind.

It wasn’t his father he’d resented all these years, but his mother. The mother who had left him behind. His chest burned, and tears fought for escape.

In that moment, in the quiet of the mountain, he’d finally stopped working long enough to see it. The truth, and he didn’t like it. He wouldn’t do to his baby sister what his mother had done to him. The minute he’d been sent away, he’d embraced the escape and didn’t want to return, and he guessed his father knew that.

He only hoped he could return with Saige by his side to visit his baby sister, bring her here on holidays to ride horses and see the beautiful snow. This is the world he wanted, but he didn’t have to abandon his old life and family to have it. He didn’t have to be his mother.

With a deep breath, he hacked away until the tree fell, and then he grabbed hold of the trunk to drag it back to the ranch. The worn-down, broken ranch he hoped to fix up and find a home in. He’d known it at first sight. This place with Saige was what he wanted. Now he had to tell her everything and convince her to trust him. No matter how long it took. He’d work hard to get what he wanted, now that he knew exactly what that was, thanks to his father.

His heart softened to the old man. A man who chose his son over his business. A choice Colt knew had to have crushed him. There had to be a way to help his father and have his own life. Knowing his stepmother, she’d be able to help with that negotiation. Once he made a public apology for what he’d done to his family, he’d be able to move on and figure out what was next. It was time for him to own his mistakes and make them right. To be a man worthy of Saige McKinnie.

He dragged the tree to the house, where he spotted Saige running down the steps to greet him.

“I can’t believe you did this,” she squealed.

“No berries, but I can make popcorn, and I’m sure we can find something to tie on the end of the branches.”

She peppered kisses all over his face, and when he nuzzled her neck and held her in his arms, it wasn’t the same explosion of passion but something more. Not pure sexual desire, but a deeper, inexplicable feeling he’d never experienced.

“What are you doing out here in your slippers?” He carried her to the steps, set her softly on her feet, and then dragged the tree up to her.

“Come on. I’ll help.” She grabbed a limb at the base of the trunk, and they yanked and pulled until they had it up the stairs.

“We’ll make a mess with the needles and snow inside,” he warned.

“So, a mess is easy to clean up. Who cares? It’s a Christmas tree.”

“I can’t imagine not caring about a mess in the house.” He set the tree up in the main room, leaning into the corner.

Saige rushed into the kitchen and returned with a mug. “Wasn’t sure where you were, but I made some coffee in hopes you hadn’t disappeared on me.”

“There’s one thing I’ll never do, and that’s disappear on you.” He took a sip of his coffee, savoring the familiar McKinnie blend, kissed her on the cheek, and made his way to the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Popping some popcorn.” It felt like an elf danced on his excitement button. “I’ve never decorated a Christmas tree.”

“You what? You’re not serious.” She shook her head.

“I am.” He made his way to the kitchen, but she didn’t follow.

He heard a creak from upstairs and thought she might have gone into the attic. Colt hoped she remembered where to crawl on the support boards. She returned, box in hand, by the time he finished with the popcorn.

“What’s that?”

“We needed sewing supplies to string the popcorn, silly, and a stand to put the tree in.” She winked, playful, light, happy. He loved this Saige.

Love was a strong word for a person he’d only known a short time. His stepmother had once told him that all it took was a look, and her and his father’s lives changed in an instant. Colt never understood how she thought that was okay when it destroyed a marriage, but now he saw the truth. His mother and father’s marriage was destroyed the day they said I do.

He positioned the tree in the stand, and Saige filled it with water, and then they sat on the couch, her legs in his lap while she threaded a needle and he passed her popcorn that she slid onto the string. He picked up another one and tossed it into her mouth, and they both laughed.

The fire crackled, the sun shone bright, and he never thought he could ever feel this complete again. They were a team, a team of two that strung popcorn and wrapped it around the tree then cut strips of red cloth and tied them in bows at the end of the branches.

“Apparently, they used to have candles on the trees, but that tradition ended after a fire one year. I don’t know all the details, but after that, they tied bows.” She shrugged.

When the last bow was tied, they stood back and eyed their simply decorated Christmas tree. It leaned to one side and had a bare spot here and there, but it was the most magical tree he’d ever seen because he’d decorated it with Saige.

With no more time to waste, he turned her to face him. “Saige, I need to tell you something.”

“Shh.” She put a finger to his lips, and her eyes blazed.

He wanted, needed to tell her everything, but apparently he wasn’t the evolved man he thought he was, because when she moved closer, he lost all thoughts and embraced her with all the lust he’d been holding back for weeks.


Saige stood on her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck, surrendering to her desire, and she wasn’t disappointed. Because any kiss from her past faded away, overshadowed by this toe-curling, body-heating, heart-pounding embrace.

At the moment she thought about pulling back and putting the brakes on, he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her tight against him. His heart pounded fast and hard against her chest, and she clutched him like he was the only flicker of heat in a blizzard.

He slowed the passionate pace into a waltz and then lowered her to the ground with a nibble to her lip, resting his forehead to hers with his eyes closed. “Wow.”

“I agree,” she whispered.

He panted and heaved like he’d lost his breath completely. He let her go but didn’t move away, only pressed his palms to the wall above her head. “I hope you don’t ever regret that.”

She tugged his bottom lip down with her thumb and did a little nibbling of her own. He groaned and pushed from the wall, his hands behind his head. “I need to tell you something.”

A warning flare went off, but she wouldn’t go there. “Go ahead. I’m listening.” She slid her arms around his waist from behind and rested her cheek to his back, listening to his heart pound.

But a knock at the front door pounded louder. “Hey, you okay in there?” Trevor’s voice echoed through the house and sliced through her moment.

She must’ve been so caught up in that life-altering kiss she hadn’t heard the truck roll up her drive. Agitation pooled in the pit of her stomach, so she released Colt to tell Trevor to get lost for good. He had no power over her anymore.

No matter, she’d send him away and never think about him again, because she felt it, her heart mending each day she had Colt in her life.

With her shoulders back, ready to face any battle, she swung open the door but didn’t see Trevor’s face, only a printed copy of an article with the headline: Billionaire Bad Boy Colt Whitmore cares more about partying and womanizing than running his father’s global empire. A man born with a silver Mercedes in his mouth is caught with sheik’s wife in his arms.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Saige’s cold stare shivered Colt from skull to toes. How could the mood switch in the time it took to strike a match? Trevor had struck the match that set Colt’s lies on fire. He reached out with both hands to catch her before she could run from him, in fear he’d never catch her again.

Trevor bolted in between them and smacked the paper to his chest. “Time for you to go. We don’t need your kind ’round here. We take care of our own.”

“The way you took care of her the day her mother died?” Colt fisted his hands, wanting to swing and put the guy on his backside where he belonged.

Trevor smiled, the kind that warned he had a counter to his comment. “You mean a decade ago when I sacrificed our relationship, the woman I loved, because her father told me she was so broken the only hope would be to get her away from this town until she recovered from her depression?”

“What?” she asked in a weak voice.

Trevor turned and dared to touch her arm, but she slipped from his attentions. “Your father told me I had to send you away or you were going to end your life the way your aunt had. That you were depressed. I was so destroyed, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough to let you go, but when I saw you at your mother’s funeral, I knew it was true—you’d end your life if you didn’t find some sort of happiness.”

“You’re trying to tell her that you slept with another woman for her sake? She’s not some young girl. She’s too smart to listen to this garbage.”

“Stop. Both of you. Stop.” She pressed her hands to her ears, and tears flowed down her face. “I can’t believe this. I fell for more lies. Men are incapable of being honest.”

She dropped her hands to her sides. “Get out.”

Trevor moved in, and Colt raised his fists, ready to strike. “You heard the lady. She wants you to leave.”

“Both of you!” she yelled. Her voice cracked, and she backed away. “I’m done with you both. Get out.”

“Saige,” Colt begged.

She strummed the bracelet but then looked down, the cowboy hat no longer hanging from it. “No, no, no. This isn’t happening.”

Colt didn’t care what she’d said or about Trevor’s challenge. He pushed him aside to reach Saige. “I’ll help you find it. Maybe by the tree.”

He rushed to the main room where they’d shared several nights in each other’s arms. Would he ever have that again? He’d been so stupid.

Saige joined him, tearing apart the room while Trevor stood in the entryway watching them. “What’s that thing?” He pointed at the tree in the corner.

“A family Christmas tree,” Colt announced, as if to insinuate that he and Saige were together. He picked up the blankets and the pillows and got down on his hands and knees, fumbling around under the couch and chairs.

“It’s not here.” She ran to the kitchen with Colt at her heels.

“Where did you see it last?” Colt asked.

She shook her head. “Don’t know.”

“You had it in town because you were toying with it the way you do when something makes you uncomfortable,” Colt offered.

She eyed Trevor, and he knew that was what had set her off back in town. Colt tried to keep her attention on him, stepping in between them. “And you had it at the cabin.”

Trevor marched into the kitchen. “I can look at the cabin for it.”

“No, I had it when we walked out the door. I shut the door and adjusted my gloves and saw the charm then.”

“If you lost it outside, you’ll never find it.” Trevor removed his hat and held it in his hands.

His words obviously pierced Saige, causing her to hold her heart.

“I’ll find it,” Colt said.

“You can’t find a little charm in all that snow.” Trevor laughed, his belly deep mockery echoing through the ranch.

“I can try.”

“No.” Saige slumped against the counter. “Trevor’s right.”

The guy grew two inches of pure attitude. “You can leave now. I’ll give you a ride into town.” Trevor wedged himself between Colt and Saige. “Then I’ll come back. We can talk.”

“I don’t think Saige wants to speak to you,” Colt said in a low growl, but he didn’t wait for a response. He hotfooted it to the front door and down the front steps, where he dropped down to his knees and dug in the snow.

Trevor showed up but remained on the porch with arms crossed, watching his manic hand shoveling.

“You’re a fool. Down on your knees looking for some trinket for a woman.” Trevor shook his head.

Colt clawed and clawed and clawed, but out of breath, he sat back on his heels, realizing it had to be on that hill. He’d search for the charm until he found it or died trying. And then after that, he’d figure out how to be the man Saige deserved. He’d start with a public apology to his family, because he saw the damage he’d done, thanks to Saige. He only hoped someday she’d forgive him or, at the very least, find someone truly worthy of her love.

The front door opened, and out stepped Saige. He saw it, her armor put back on to protect her heart. She dropped his bag on the ground and looked at him with no emotion in her eyes as she spoke softly. “I’ve packed for you.”


Saige sat on the floor by the fireplace with no flames, crying. She’d cried all the tears she’d held in for ten years and then some. Her eyes stung, her throat was tight, and her head throbbed.

Not even the pounding on the front door drew her to move.

“I brought your car back,” Trevor shouted through the door, but she didn’t answer again, like the other times he’d come by in the last three days.

“You need to come out of this house at some point. I’ll leave your keys on the porch. If I don’t see you in town tomorrow or if you don’t answer this door, I’ll break it down.”

She didn’t doubt his threat. Trevor had never had patience. Why she’d ever fallen for him beyond the fact she’d been young and stupid, she wasn’t sure. The trash he spoke about sleeping with another woman to let her go almost made her laugh. How naive did he think she still was?

She couldn’t remain on the floor for the rest of her life. Part of her wanted to find Colt and give him a chance to explain. Another part wanted to keep all men from her life forever.

The chilly, dark, and lonely house felt empty without Colt. The way he’d kissed her in the cabin toyed with her determination to keep him out of her life. Where was he now? Trevor had returned every day, but not one knock from Colt to beg her forgiveness.

She pushed herself up and eyed the Christmas tree. The idea of what the holiday would’ve been like teased her resolve, but what would one faux family tradition mean long term? This wasn’t real. It was fantasy. She’d wanted to have what her great-grandmother Francine had back in the 1870s. That darn diary had almost made her believe that a man could really be that dependable and loving.

She picked up Francine’s diary and threw it against the wall. “Legends and lies!”

The book slammed against the wall and popped open, a piece of paper falling from the pages. Saige dropped to her knees and eyed her name written in her mother’s script.

He mouth went death dry. With trembling hands, she picked it up, opening it to find a note addressed to her.

My sweet Saige,

I’m sorry I’m leaving you so soon. You are my joy, my everything. I’m afraid I need you to find that inner McKinnie strength, because he’ll need you. The man who used to be all purrs and passion has turned cold and broken. He’s always been a giving and loving man, and I never thought he’d ever turn his heart away from the world, but I’m afraid my diagnosis has crushed him. I fear he won’t be the father you deserve, but he loves you so much, he can’t face another loss. I’ve pleaded with him to be by your side, to teach and love you the way we wanted to do together. I’m afraid his bitterness may get in the way, but I know my sweet baby girl will show him how to open his heart again once I’m gone.

Take the cowboy charm and hold it tight. Remember what it represents. It is love, honor, compassion, and love. All the things I know you to be and wish for you.

I’ll be watching you from heaven and sending snow kisses with each flake that touches your cheeks.



Saige eyed the picture of her mother she’d held all night, wishing she could hear her sing again, or kiss her goodnight and tuck her into bed, or to tell her what to do when her heart ached for a man who’d lied to her, despite knowing her truth.

Because if he would’ve told her he was like Trevor, she would’ve ended things that moment and sent him packing. Then she could’ve avoided the drama.

She placed her mother’s picture on the hallway table and vowed, “I’m going to restore our home and figure out how to make sure it remains a place for families to enjoy horses and hiking and all the things we once did together. Even if I can’t have a family, I can make this place for others to enjoy.”

With heavy feet, she managed to go upstairs, shower, dress, and make her way to town to find a contractor to hire to do the work.

With no real snow in the last few days, she managed to get to town with no issue. When she passed where her car had gone into the embankment, she slowed, eyeing where they’d held on to each other to make it up the hill. She remembered how Colt had supported her and held her tight, never wavering by her side.

She shook off the thoughts and made her way into town. She parked and decided to head into the diner, where many of the men hung out before they went to work. Inside, she spotted Mindy, who waved her over. “Hey, look. It’s your man.”

Saige scanned the restaurant, her pulse skipping, but she didn’t see Colt.

“No, silly, not in here. On the TV.” Mindy pointed to the television on a shelf high up in the corner, where Colton sat, dressed in a suit, his hair still a little long the way she liked it.

“Turn it up,” she said.

The ticker at the bottom of the screen shot by, but all it had was stock info and news headlines. White lines multiplied on the screen, and the sound increased.

“I want to apologize to my family for my behavior and to all those I’ve harmed in my past for my destructive behavior.”

The reporter did that fake concern yet judgmental face. “Then why did you do it?”

“I thought at the time that I was justified.” He tapped his knee and eyed the reporter then looked straight at the camera. “Because I thought that if I punished my father enough, I’d feel better, but he wasn’t the one who’d hurt me. There’s really no excuse for my behavior. The paper reported the truth. I was a playboy billionaire who acted like a spoiled child, but I want to be a man deserving of respect. I know I have a long way to go to earn it.”

“And how will you do that? Will you take your place at your father’s side? You’re going back to having your bills paid while you jet set around the world?”

“No.” Colt chuckled, that deep, sexy sound. Oh, how she’d missed that sound. “I’m saying that I’ll be working hard to make my own dreams come true. I won’t do that with my father’s money. I’m going to start my own business based on my goals and earn the right to call myself a Whitmore. Someday, maybe we’ll join forces, but for now, I need to be my own man. A man worthy of the name.”

“What about the Billionaire Bad Boys Club tabloids said you joined?” the reporter asked, digging deeper.

“Not my kind of crowd anymore. Besides, from this moment forward, I’m working on being a better man. A man worthy of being trusted and loved.”

“That must’ve been some snowstorm you were trapped in if you reached this revelation. Did you do it on your own, or did you have help? Did you run from the sheik’s wife into the arms of another woman? Another conquest?”

“No. I ran to figure out who I am. And I’m a man who won’t answer slanderous and misleading questions. From now on, I’m only going to tolerate honesty. I believe everyone deserves that.”

Mindy turned down the volume. “You know, I heard he searched that hill for twelve hours that first day for your charm. He only left when the sheriff threatened to put him in a cell after Trevor reported a stranger lurking around his hunting cabin.”

Saige closed her eyes, her head spinning. Could Colton really mean what he said? Did he truly understand what he’d done wrong and strived to be a better man?

Saige spotted Trevor’s hat before he rounded the wall in her view from the other side of the diner. “Glad you’ve made it out here. Now, maybe we can talk about us.”

“There is no us,” she said without wasting another thought on him.

Trevor ran his fingers down her arm. Even through her coat, the touch felt like a curse. “Come on, we were always good together. Besides, I told you I’d help you restore your ranch, and then we can talk about what’s next.”

“What would be next?” Saige asked.

Mindy tapped her pen on the counter. “To convince you to invest in his next failed business venture. To marry him so he can take all your money.”

“Shut up, Mind. Don’t listen to her. She’s bitter.”

“I’d have to care to be bitter.” Mindy grabbed her pad of paper and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Saige standing in the diner facing Trevor.

“She’s upset because we dated for a minute, but don’t worry, I’ll never even look at another woman again.”

“Is that true?” Saige asked but held up a hand to stop him from saying another word. “Don’t bother. I don’t want to hear anything else because all you do is lie. You lied then, and you’re lying to me now.”

“You think that man’s going to come back for you? He’s a billionaire. There’s no way he’s going to return. That’s all fluff, damage control for his father’s company. You’ve always had your head in the clouds and believed in all that sappy romance garbage. That McKinnie mail-order brides legend is the lie here.”

She needed to call Colt and see if he would come back. Trevor had a point, though. Why would a billionaire want to return to Rocky Ridge? “Maybe I want to believe in something again. To be like my mother was at the ranch before she got sick. Happy and loving and full of life. I remember how much my father loved her, and it wasn’t until she became ill and he lost her that he changed. We both changed. Our hearts shattered, but one person has taken the time to help put mine back together.”

Mindy rushed to the door and swung it open. The bell jingled as if to warn about the cold air rushing in. “Oh my goodness, come see this.” She waved Saige to the door, so she brushed past Trevor and exited the diner to find a man on a horse trotting up the main street. She couldn’t see him because his hat was too low.

Trevor bolted in front of her with fists tight at his side.

The horse slowed until it came to a stop a few feet away, and then the rider looked up, showing Colt’s gorgeous face. He slung his leg over and landed like a pro in the street. He cuddled the horse to his chest and pet his muzzle before he tipped his hat up and passed the reins to Mindy. “Can you take him for a minute?”

Mindy only nodded.

Trevor spun and faced Saige. “You’re a fool.”

“I think you’re the fool,” Colt’s voice sang like Christmas Eve carolers, bringing joy to Saige’s heart.

Her mind whirled with thoughts, and her breath came ragged and wild. “You were on TV… I just saw you.”

“It was recorded.” He held his cowboy hat in his hand, but he wore the boots she’d bought him. “You heard it?”

“You need to leave town. You’re not welcome here,” Trevor ordered, but Colt didn’t budge. “I’ll get the sheriff again.”

“And I can tell him how you’re the one who set fire to his barn in high school,” Saige threatened.

Trevor took a step back. His face showed shock, then anger, then fear. “No amount of money in the world is worth dealing with you again. Too perfect all the time. No man can live up to your expectations, ever.” He glared at Colt. “You can have her. Good luck.”

The past stormed off while she saw her future step in. But could she truly take a chance on a man who’d lied and manipulated her? She retreated from him, needing to think. Her legs were weak and her knees threatened to give way, so she backed into the diner wall.

“I know you don’t want to see me, and I’ll leave the minute I’m done, but I just needed to give you something.”

She looked up to see him down on one knee. “I’m afraid I couldn’t find your charm, and this won’t be the same, but I had a new one crafted for you. It’s a boot with M and W for our last names.”

Her heart ached and filled with joy all at the same time. She’d lost her family heirloom but gained a symbol of something new. Of hope. She held out her shaking hands.

“I hope this charm will make you believe in love again. Believe in a man who will treat you like royalty, spend evenings by the fire talking about family traditions, cherish every moment with you, cook for you, and never lie to you again.” He clipped the charm onto the bracelet and stood up. “I hope someday I can be your Christmas cowboy.” He turned away, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t let him go. Like her mother, she wanted a family at the ranch with the man she loved.

“You forgot something.”

“What’s that?” he asked with soft eyes and a humble tilt of his head.

“A heart-pounding, feel-it-to-my-toes amazing kiss.”

His mouth turned up into a mischievous grin. “I’d count myself lucky, ma’am.”

She threw her arms around him and surrendered to possibilities. The possibility of true love with her own Christmas cowboy.


Two Years Later

Colt waited by the Christmas tree with such joy in his heart, he thought he could fly to heaven and meet Saige’s mom in person. The sound of Saige hanging up the phone—that he’d had fixed before agreeing to allow her to be here for even five minutes without him—drove him to open his arms and pull her into his side. “What did he say?”

“Dad says he’ll be here on Friday. He also said he is bring my mother’s book she created, retelling what was in the diary. I can’t wait to find out what happened between my relatives all those years ago.”

Colt placed a hand on her swollen belly and felt his little man kick. The idea of a baby, his baby, brought him so much joy, he thought he’d burst. “My baby sister and my father and stepmother will be here Friday. And any day now, we’ll meet my little man, Turner.”

“Or girl, Tammie,” she reminded him.

“Well, we better finish up the Christmas decorations.” Colton urged, knowing he wanted to hurry so they could resume their position by the fire, since each year they’d sleep out here in memory of their first week together.

“One thing first. I want to go grab my grandmother’s diary. I think it’s in the Christmas box where we left it two years ago.”

“I’m glad we came home for Christmas this year.” Colt let Saige go, but only because it meant she’d get back all that more quick.

“I love that you call it home.” Saige went to the room, brought back the Christmas box, and dug in.

“Oh my goodness!” she squealed, startling Colt to her side.

“Are you okay? Baby okay?”

“Better than okay. Look.” She held up the old Christmas charm. “It must’ve fallen off when we decorated the tree before everything happened.”

“I can’t believe it’s been here all this time.” Colt took the charm and strung it on her bracelet.

“I’m so sorry. I know you never gave up searching for it.”

He kissed her hand. “I’m just glad you found it. Now we can pass it down to our little girl and tell her our story. Except maybe leave out the part where Daddy was hungover and Mom pulled a shotgun on him.”

“But that would be a lie,” she said with a wink.

He knelt down, pressed his ear to her belly, and wrapped his arms around Saige. “I can promise I’ll never lie to our baby unless she meets a guy like Trevor, and then I’ll say whatever I need to, and I’m borrowing your shotgun.”

They both settled in front of the roaring fire with hot cocoa and snuggled up together in the McKinnie ranch.

That Christmas Eve, a new McKinnie-Whitmore baby was born. In keeping with the long family tradition, the precious little girl was named Teagan Rosemary McKinnie-Whitmore.