The Canadays of Montana, Book 3

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Montana Born Books
The Canadays of Montana, Book 3
Release Date:

Oct 24, 2016

More From Barbara →

The Cowgirl’s Christmas Wish

by

Barbara Ankrum

Event planner Eve Canaday and her secret crush, Dr. Ben Tyler, are unexpectedly drafted to help a little girl fulfill her late mother’s wish—a magical Christmas to create some happy memories. Eve sees this opportunity as a sign; Ben, as a glitch in his plan to leave Marietta behind for good.

As the trio checks off the to-do list of Christmas fun, Ben’s ‘bah-humbug’ opinion of the holiday fades, along with ideas about keeping his distance from Eve. Getting involved is the last thing he wants to do but, alas, there’s no accounting for cosmic interference.

With the season of miracles upon this jewel of a town, will Eve find it’s possible that Christmas wishes aren’t only for little girls?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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“Tell him how you feel. What are you waiting for?” Eve Canaday’s stepsister, Olivia, tucked a string of twinkly, white lights around the trunk of one of the bare white trees inside the Graff Hotel ballroom then handed the strand up to Eve, who was standing on a ladder above her. “I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?”

Eve sighed, wrapping the strand of lights around the thin, white branches. “The worst is he laughs and pats me on the head like I’m hilarious. Until he realizes I mean it and he runs for the nearest exit.”

Olivia chuckled, her blonde hair glimmering in the winking lights. “Pats you on the head? First of all, he’s only what? Six years older than you? So, that’s nothing. And second, lots of men are commitment-phobes until they meet the right woman.”

“That’s just it. He doesn’t think of me as a woman. To him, I’m just a friend. A buddy.” Eve clapped a hand on her chest. “I am not a buddy, Livvy. I have breasts. Not that he’s noticed.”

She laughed. “Um… I’ve seen him looking at you. I think he definitely has noticed.”

“Really?” Eve sighed. “Then he’s just not interested.”

“Maybe you’re just afraid to find out if he really is or if he isn’t.”

“What? Me? I am not.” Because if she’d neglected to stand on her head to get him to take her seriously, well, there was only so far she was willing to go in this standoff. Shouldn’t he meet her at least halfway?

“I’m just sayin’…” Olivia said as she untangled a knot of lights.

Eve shook her head. “No. That’s the wrong approach with him. He’s complicated. And skittish.”

“Maybe you’re both just afraid to mess up a good friendship. But clearly, it’s fish or cut bait time for you, Evie,” her sister said. “If you’re unhappy with how it’s going, change it.”

Eve sighed and sat back on the ladder, wondering if Olivia was right. She scanned the activity in the ballroom she’d been hired to stage for the Marietta Christmas Ball. The room was beginning to look like the Christmas fantasy she’d envisioned—a forest, all magically lit for Christmas. Staged with bare, white trees awaiting twinkling white lights and traditional, towering green spruce, already beribboned and hung with sparkling ornaments and snow. Boxes stacked along the walls held the remainder of the decorations and a handful of Eve’s team of stagers was busy unpacking them. There were ladders and bubble wrap scattered across the floor and, despite the Christmas music being piped into the ballroom, almost everyone wore earbuds and was in their own musical world as they worked. The ball was three short days away.

And she would be going alone.

Pathetic.

“You make that sound so easy. Just because your Jake thinks the sun rises and sets on you.” Eve handed back the end of the strand to connect the plug to the next.

Jake Lassen, Olivia’s gorgeous helicopter pilot fiancé, had come looking for Olivia after ten years in the military and would stop at nothing to make her his. Her other sister, Kate, had settled with bull-rider Finn Scott and his twins, a match no one saw coming, but one that was solid as a rock now.

“You and Kate cannot be my standard bearers for relationships. Because you’re both anomalies and, frankly, that’s just depressing and a lot to live up to.”

“Nobody expects you to live up to anything,” Olivia said, handing up another string of lights. “And let’s face it, I’m no exception to any rule. You know how my first marriage ended.”

Olivia’s first husband had been her mentor/trainer on the way to the Olympic equestrian team, but her dreams had been cut short by a bad accident. Her marriage hadn’t survived the accident either, but one door opened when another one closed, as the saying went. And Jake had walked right in.

“You know,” Olivia went on, “Jake’s and my relationship was far from a cakewalk. But one thing I did learn—I was usually flat out wrong when I tried to guess what he was thinking. So now, I ask. So, don’t be a goose. Look around you, Eve.” She gestured at the ballroom. “This is amazing. You are amazing and any guy would be lucky to have you. If he can’t see that, well…”

Eve’s phone pinged with a text and she looked down at it. “Speak of the devil. I guess he’s finally out of his surgery. I promised him a ride to the airport today. He’s leaving for Roatan. Dive tour.”

“Tell him I think his timing sucks.” Olivia held the ladder for Eve as she climbed down.

With a sigh, she answered, “I agree. Thanks for coming over to help.”

“Sure.” Olivia hugged her. “I can’t wait to see the finished product. It’s going to be incredible when you’re done. As always. And I can’t wait to see what you do for our wedding.”

Eve hugged her. “Thanks. Me, too. And thanks for the advice. I’ll think about what you said. Really, I will.”

“And then you’ll do the exact opposite.”

Eve shrugged with a grin. “Possibly.”

She laughed. “See you later at Lane’s End? Mom’s cooking lasagna tonight.”

“I should be back in time. It would take more than Ben Tyler to make me miss her lasagna. See you then.”

Ben Tyler couldn’t help but smile at Eve from the passenger seat of her car. She’d been chatting away for a few minutes about nothing in particular and for some weird reason, he got the sense she was nervous today. Nervous around him. She was so darned cute when she got chatty like this. Because she had a way of making him laugh over nothing and he couldn’t remember another woman ever doing that before.

You should just tell her the truth.

“So I called them back”—Eve went on—“this company I ordered from, and told them that no matter how many fake eggs they sent me to fill those horrid baskets they’d ‘inadvertently’ substituted, they would still look like a herd of geese had accidentally chosen my party for a nesting spot. Seriously.”

He chuckled. “Gaggle.”

“Huh?”

“A gaggle of geese.”

“Oh. Right. I should have told them that. But they did refund me.”

“Atta girl.” Ben stretched his leg as far as he could under the dash, just then noticing the dark clouds lurking on the western horizon. In the next instant, he heard Eve’s sudden intake of breath, saw the swoop of something flashing in front of the car and then—

“Hang on!” Eve cried.

Ben braced himself as the wheels of Eve’s SUV veered suddenly across the icy mountain pass highway toward a snowy ditch on the side of the road. The antlered streak of brown that had vaulted in front of the car, disappeared like a shadow… along with any chance of him making his flight.

Time slowed instantly to a crawl. The camera of his vision took in every small instant of the skid like an old fashioned flip book.

Tick. He swung a look at Eve, fighting the icy road for control. The look on her face made him—tick—reach a protective hand out to her and realize—tick—he didn’t give a flying damn about his flight!

Bam!

The snowbank exploded against the front end of her car accompanied by the crunch of metal and a sucker punch to the face from the airbag.

And everything went quiet, except for the rhythmic creak of the engine in the muffled depths of the snowbank.

Stunned, he muttered a curse and coughed as the airbag deflated. He waved away the powdery white stuff floating in the air. Still seeing stars, he winced, running his tongue along a fresh cut in his lip. His chest lurched as he flicked a look at Eve, who, like him, was pitched forward against her shoulder harness, still shaking off the impact.

He touched her shoulder and she flinched in surprise. “Eve, you hurt?”

She looked dazed, trying to catch her breath as she rubbed a fist against her chest. A reddish scrape had already begun swelling near her right eye.

She touched her cheek gingerly. “No. I don’t think so. Nothing broken but my pride. And apparently, my car.” Her eyes turned suspiciously glassy and she blinked away tears.

Already the abrasion on her cheek had started to bruise. Still stuck in his seatbelt, he had the weirdest impulse to pull her against him and make everything all right. His fault, for agreeing to let her to drive him to the airport on these roads today. Why hadn’t he just called a cab?

“That was no deer. I could have sworn it was a—” Her eyes widened. “Oh, Ben… you’re bleeding!”

Swiping at his chin, his fingers encountered moisture and came back bloody. “That’s the last time I feel anything less than pure compassion for anyone in my ER who’s been coldcocked by one of these air bags.”

She turned a mortified look his way. “We’ll never make it to the airport now. Oh, Ben—your trip…”

He reached over and shut off the engine. “That thing could be sitting in our laps right now if you hadn’t swerved to avoid hitting it.”

“That thing being a—?”

“Reindeer.” Ben pointed to a stand of Ponderosa pines a few dozen feet off the side of the road in the gloaming light of the oncoming storm. The unscathed culprit stood under the trees, wearing a glittery green and red halter, decorated with jingle bells, like an escapee from Santa’s Christmas barn. Calmly, it chewed on the bare branches of some underlying shrubs and occasionally deigned to glance in their direction, making his harness jingle.

“Ohh-hh,” Eve muttered, narrowing a look at the animal. “Will you just look at him, standing there, all cheery and Christmassy?” Her window made a grinding sound as she rolled it down. “Hey! Thank you!” she shouted over the virgin drifts of snow on the side of the road. “No really, go on and eat. Don’t mind us. We had nothing better to do today than sit in a snowbank!”

He grinned, then winced at his split lip. “Ow. Don’t make me laugh.”

She flicked an apologetic grin back at him. “I’m so sorry, Ben. I’ve screwed everything up for you. Do you think they’ll hold the boat for you in Roatan if you’re late?”

The boat, presumably taking him on a “dive tour,” sounded like a lot more fun than what he’d really been about to do in Central America. Digging himself deeper in the lie he’d already told Eve about this trip was something he’d hoped to avoid, but he was already in this far. And now seemed like the absolute wrong time to confess.

So, he said, “My connections were pretty tight and unchangeable. Flights into the country are so limited, once I miss my flights, it’ll be impossible to catch up with them. They’re scheduled to leave tomorrow morning for ten days. They won’t wait for me.” That much was true.

He sighed, already dreading the phone call he’d have to make to Dr. Camran in Honduras when they got back to town. If he could even reach him.

She looked stricken. “We’re only twenty-five minutes or so from Marietta. I’ll call one of my sisters. Maybe there’s time for one of them to come and—”

But the bars on his cell phone were nonexistent. “No service. We’re in a dead zone here in the mountain pass. I drive this way all the time to the hospital up in Bozeman. It’s dead or spotty at best here for two miles or more. And weather is moving in fast.”

Indeed, the gunmetal sky had grown darker.

“Well,” she said, staring at the miscreant reindeer, “if Santa’s anywhere nearby, we could use a Christmas miracle because this car is not getting anyone anywhere. Not even back to Marietta.” She sighed. “I mean, please, who gets run off the road by Rudolph?”

Me. Ben zipped up his heavy parka over the scuba geek tee Jake had given him that read, “The deeper you go, the better it feels.” Appropriate on some future trip to paradise, but he’d worn it for the sake of the lie he’d told everyone. Not even Jake knew what he was up to.

This whole fiasco was on him, really. If he hadn’t cut things so close. A last minute emergency surgery had pared his schedule down to the bone and now the whole trip was blown because of a freaking reindeer.

Perfect.

Eve wrestled to get her door open, past the snow wedged underneath. She managed a six-inch crack. “Ugh. I am such an idiot, wrecking my car the one time I—” She stopped short and a blush crept up her cheeks, as if she’d admitted more than she’d meant to.

“It’s my fault, not yours,” he said. “I should’ve given myself more time. I have travel insurance. I’ll rebook it for another time.”

“I know, but,” she said, with a wistful sigh, “warm beaches… tropical drinks… coral reefs versus”—she gestured out the freezing window—“five degrees below zero and snow in the forecast.” She sighed. “On the bright side, at least there’s Christmas in Marietta.”

He glanced off at the drifting snow. Exactly. “Yeah.” Even as he watched, the four-legged fulcrum of all this trouble trotted off, unconcerned, into the forest. In his best Michael Corleone voice, he muttered, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

She tilted an amused look at him. “I don’t think Christmas in Marietta was what Mario Puzzo had in mind when he wrote that line.”

“What? You mean the Whoville of Montana? The North Pole of the lower forty-eight?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Oh, I would. There’s no escaping holiday cheer in that place. No dodging city blocks of happy Christmas lights, or red and green displays in every shop window, or apparently, even reindeer running wild.”

“Hmm. I definitely heard a bah-humbug in there,” she said, fingering her injured cheek.

“I’d make an effort to deny it,” he said, shoving his own door partway open against the snowbank, “but this might not be the best time.”

Acknowledging his point with a nod, she shivered as frigid air poured through her open window and she tugged her gloves out of her coat pockets. “So, to clarify, the holiday-ish timing of your trip wasn’t—”

“Coincidental?” he finished. “Nope.”

She tipped her head. “Huh.”

He gave up on his door and slammed it shut again. The snowbank they’d buried the front end in collapsed on the hood and a chunk of snow slid down the windshield with a splat.

Outside, big, fat flakes began to settle against the glass, slowly at first, then furiously. It began pouring in her open window.

“Oh, look. It’s snowing,” she said, catching flakes in her bare hand. “I suppose they’ll find us in the spring when the snow melts. Maybe Rudolph will guide them with his nose-so-bright to our tragically buried car.”

“Or”—Ben forced the mechanism on his seat belt and caught himself with a hand on the dashboard—“we could climb out your open window and flag down someone for help.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, “that would be a happier ending.”

But it took almost another half-hour before another vehicle braved the pass in the storm. It was a semi, heading toward Marietta and the driver radioed a tow truck for them and let them wait in his heated truck cabin. By then, both were chilled to the bone.

When they finally made it back to town, the sun was on its way down. The tow truck driver—a sweet local named Nolan Weeks—asked them where they wanted to be dropped before he took her car to the repair shop. Ben told him to go to the hospital.

“I left my car parked there,” he said to Eve. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

“Why don’t you come out to Lane’s End? Stay for dinner. Shake this off. I hear they’re doing a lasagna thing tonight. They were expecting me anyway and they’d love to have you.”

He and Eve had become good friends a year ago, after meeting at her father’s birthday party, an event his old friend Jake Lassen had dragged him to and his friendship with Eve had bloomed after that night.

He wasn’t exactly sure why it had never gone farther. Why they’d never slept together. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought about it. He definitely had. Like the rest of the Canaday sisters, Eve was so pretty, sometimes, he found himself just staring at her when she wasn’t looking. But he supposed it was because she wasn’t the sort of girl one messed with without serious intentions. She was the kind of girl one married.

That was… someone would marry her, but it wouldn’t be him. He was already in a committed relationship with medicine. That was as much of a promise as he could manage.

Even so, with the reality of how close they’d come to disaster today finally settling over him, he felt grateful he hadn’t cost Eve more than a banged up car and a few bruises. The least he could do was be sociable with her family. Apologize in person.

“Okay,” he said. “That sounds good. I’ll just check in before I go. Tell the powers that be that I’m not taking a vacation after all.”

“You know,” she said, touching his arm, “you deserve a vacation. You work too hard. People actually pay money to come to Marietta at Christmastime. To feel part of the traditions here. It’s a destination.”

He smiled at her. “I grew up here, remember? I know the drill. At Christmastime, I’d rather be somewhere else.”

Eve was still puzzling over his words as she sat in the tinseled red and green nurses’ station, visiting with Kelly Reynolds, an old friend of hers from high school. Still single, like Eve, and now a nurse, Kelly suffered from the same unwavering dedication to her job that Ben did and she’d shooed Ben away, insisting on cleaning up the abrasion on Eve’s cheek herself. Now, while Eve waited for Ben to finish checking in with the chief of staff, she wondered what was taking him so long?

“Owee! That stings!” she complained as Kelly dabbed her cheek with antiseptic.

“Don’t be a baby.” Kelly teased. “You’re very lucky it wasn’t worse. I’ve seen elk go through windshields before.”

“I know. We were lucky. But it wasn’t an elk. It was a reindeer.”

“We don’t have reindeer down here, do we?”

“Wearing sparkly, jingle-bell halters? Apparently so. Know if any have escaped Santa’s sleigh at the Christmas tree lot?”

Kelly tucked a loose auburn strand of hair back into her pony tail. “What do I know? I never get out of this place. I’m like a willing hostage to my job. I do remember that tree lot though with the reindeer. I used to love it as a kid. I was pretty sure if I sat on that particular Santa’s lap, I’d get what I wanted for Christmas. Those reindeer were just the burden of proof I needed to believe. But the one you saw must have travelled far afield to get up to the pass where you were.”

“I know, right? We were really in the middle of nowhere.”

“You and Dr. Tyler. What’s up with that?” Kelly asked with a grin. “You two seeing each other?”

“No.” She sighed. “We’re just friends. I was just giving him a ride to the airport.”

“Uh-huh. But a ride to the airport”—Kelly explained, dabbing more antibiotic cream on Eve’s cheek—“is more than a ride to the airport. It’s dating code.”

“It is?” Eve asked, as if she didn’t know.

“It’s like… I’ll take you to the airport, but that means I’ll be here when you get back. It’s a clear message.”

Said code had clearly skipped directly over Ben’s head. “Wonder what the message is when I nearly kill him on the way?”

Kelly smiled. “But you didn’t.”

“But I almost did.”

“That would have certainly broken a bunch of hearts around here. But I should warn you, he’s got a reputation.”

“Oh?” she asked innocently, though she’d definitely heard about the infamous Dr. Tyler from scuttlebutt around town.

Which was probably why he never gave her an actual second look—that way. He was too busy being chased by nurses and female doctors with agendas.

“Yeah,” Kelly went on. “Commitment-phobe. But I suppose if you’re built like him, with skills like his, why choose?”

Eve answered with a weak laugh. Indeed. “So… you’re not saying he’s a man-whore?”

The other woman laughed. “We definitely have a few of those here, but Dr. Tyler doesn’t fall into that category. No, he’s more of an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, all bundled in a sexy, healthy package. I can count on one hand the women who’ve fallen in his wake. But,” she said, leaning closer, “none of them is really complaining, if you know what I mean.”

Okay then! “Speaking of which, any clue what’s keeping him? We’re supposed to be meeting my parents for dinner at their place.”

Kelly arched a knowing eyebrow about the “dinner with parents” thing just as the answer to Eve’s question came hurrying down the hallway on a squeak of white soles. A surgical nurse in blue scrubs who Eve didn’t recognize came toward them, holding a young girl in her arms.

Eve straightened. If she wasn’t mistaken that was Patsy Sherman’s four-year-old daughter, Lily. But Malcom, the little girl’s widowed dad, was nowhere in sight.

Oh, no. Two very bad things couldn’t happen on the same day, surely. But a moment later, the nurse confirmed her worst fears. She only heard snatches of the conversation as the nurse set the girl down on the waiting room couch across the way and spoke to Kelly.

“Hanging the Christmas lights… bad fall… on-call doctor is in another surgery… take care of her until we can figure this out. Apparently the mom isn’t in the picture.”

That last seemed to Eve a cruel way to point out that Malcom and Lily had lost Patsy halfway through last January to breast cancer, leaving them alone. Eve’s heart sank at the thought that Lily could have actually lost her father, too. The little girl looked red-eyed, like she’d been crying, but now she just sat silently, with her knees up under her chin and her arms wrapped around her skinny little legs.

So, that was where Ben was. One of three go-to orthopedic guys at Marietta Regional Hospital and on staff at several others nearby, Ben was known for innovative surgery most other doctors wouldn’t even attempt. If anyone could fix Malcom’s broken bones, he could. Maybe there was a reason she’d driven that car into a snowbank this afternoon.

The surgical nurse, whose name badge read Katrina, hurried to her next. “You’re Eve Canaday?”

“That’s right.”

“Dr. Tyler asked me to tell you that he’s going into surgery and won’t be able to make it to your parents’ house and that he’s terribly sorry. He had me call a cab for you.”

Did he now? “If you wouldn’t mind, please cancel the cab. I’ll sit with Lily until her dad’s out of surgery. How bad is it?”

Katrina flicked a look at Kelly who nodded. “He was mostly alert and talking. That’s always good sign with a head injury. But he’ll take some healing after the surgery on his broken bones.”

“What about Lily? Any relatives nearby? Can we call someone?”

“There’s no one else, according to Mr. Sherman. Actually, he asked Dr. Tyler personally to look after her.”

Ben? Oh, God. She’d almost forgotten that he and Malcolm were old friends. “What did Dr. Tyler say?”

The nurse sighed. “Nothing definite, but I can’t imagine how he would have time for such a thing. He barely eats.”

“Technically”—Eve pointed out—“he is on vacation. He isn’t even supposed to be here right now.”

“Lucky for Mr. Sherman, he is,” Kelly said.

“He’d be great with her,” Eve said, looking at the little girl curling into a ball on the couch. Katrina and Kelly exchanged looks. She knew what they were thinking. He was a surgeon, not a babysitter. “What? He would,” Eve said. “You just don’t know him like I do.”

Kelly nodded sagely. “Mm-hmm.”

“I don’t mean that way. I just mean—oh, never mind. Katrina, could you please let us know when Malcolm is out of surgery?”

“Sure, dear. And I’ll tell him you’re staying,” Katrina said, then hustled back in the direction of the OR.

Eve looked over at Lily who was shivering. She turned to Kelly. “Can I get a blanket? Something soft?”

Kelly disappeared and returned a moment later from the linen closet with a not-terribly-soft-but-would-do-in-a-pinch hospital blanket.

Eve sat down beside the little girl who was fingering a long, white feather, wrapped on the end with a leather tie. “Hi, Lily. Do you remember me? I’m Eve. We’ve met before. I’m a friend of your mommy and daddy.”

Lily said nothing. She simply twirled the feather between her fingers.

“Your mommy and I went to school together when we were little girls like you. Did you know that?” Lily shook her head. “What do you say we take your jacket off? Personally, there’s nothing I like better than cuddling up in a warm blanket when I’m feeling sad. How about you?”

Slowly, so as not to spook her, Eve helped her out of her heavy winter coat, then unfolded the blanket and draped it over Lily’s small form. The girl clutched it tightly under her chin.

“And when you get nice and toasty, I happen to know where they sell the best ice cream in Marietta. It’s right down the hall in the cafeteria.” She crossed her heart and smiled. Lily still refused to look at her. “No? That’s okay. Maybe later. Mind if I share your blanket?”

It was nearly midnight before Ben found her in the waiting room, beside Lily, who had fallen sound asleep across Eve’s lap. Eve was asleep, too, head tilted against the sofa back. His breath caught as he stood in the doorway at the sight of her dark hair cascading down the porcelain of her cheek. That little line of freckles that ran across her nose made him swallow hard and take a deep breath.

Her hand was resting on the child’s shoulder, a picture of a woman meant to be a mother someday. He was still in scrubs and he ran a hand tiredly down his face, rubbing his eyes. It had been an incredibly long day and it wasn’t over yet. But the conundrum of the child still balanced on the scale in his mind. He’d walked in here intending to ask Eve to take Lily home. To take responsibility for her. After all, Eve had been Patsy’s friend, too. And though he was Mal’s friend from way back, surely, given the choice between himself and Eve, Mal would choose Eve. Surely.

But he’d asked him. And seeing her now with the child in her lap—a task she’d taken on without being asked—it seemed unfair to ask her to do more.

The object of his thoughts roused and opened her eyes. With a sharp intake of breath, she nearly sat up, before remembering the child in her lap. Cautiously, she untangled herself from the girl and walked over to him.

“How’s Malcom?”

“He’ll heal. He’s sporting some extra metal in his femur and his wrist. Luckily for him, he didn’t fracture his pelvis. Just a bad contusion. He’ll be in here for a while with that head trauma though.”

“Thank God he’ll be okay.”

“She fell asleep,” he said, gesturing at Lily.

“She’s exhausted.”

“So are you.”

“I wasn’t the one standing up doing surgery all night after a car accident. I was tucked under my comfy blankie with my little friend. You are exhausted.”

But her hair was tangled and her eye makeup was smudged.

He kind of liked her rumpled look. “I’ll take you home.”

“What about Lily?”

“I’ll take her to my place.”

“So, you’re going to do it? Take care of her, I mean?”

He nodded. “I will until I can make other arrangements. It shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

“What other arrangements?”

He hadn’t thought that far ahead, yet. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Maybe”—she suggested—“there was a reason for that accident today, so you could be here for Malcolm and for Lily. You are on vacation, after all.”

“I don’t believe in cosmic machinations, Eve. But I’m here and you’re right. The timing is good. I’ll bring her home tonight and then we’ll take it from there.”

Eve turned back to the child. “She might freak out to wake up at your place tomorrow, not knowing you. At least she and I made friends tonight. Maybe I should come with you. I could stay on your couch. Then I can introduce you in the morning. I’ve got some work scheduled on the Christmas Ball later in the morning, but, until then…”

He couldn’t help the relief that flooded his expression. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all. It’s almost midnight. Neither one of us is going to get much sleep anyway.”

Before he could think better of it, he grabbed her in a hug. “Thank you.”

After a moment of surprise, she hugged him back. But the soft press of her breasts against his chest, the sweet smell of her hair… even how small she felt in his arms, made him suddenly aware of what a tactical error it had been to get this close.

Backing away, he mumbled, “I’ll just…” Eve nodded as he jerked a thumb at Lily then moved over to pick her up, cradling the little girl in his arms. She cuddled against his chest, sound asleep.

For a moment, he froze in his tracks, looking down at her. Something inside him arched toward that feeling. The feeling of a child, safe in his arms and a woman like Eve standing beside him.

“You okay?” Eve asked with a curious look.

He banished the feeling as soon as it occurred. No time for that. Remember where you’re going. “Yeah. Fine. Let’s go.”

With a tip of his chin, he gestured for Eve to follow him and together, they headed toward his car.

Three hours later, Eve lay awake, staring at the dark ceiling of Ben’s bedroom. He’d insisted on giving her his bed to share with Lily, while he slept on the couch. She’d wanted to fight him on it, but it was futile. Exhaustion was a given for them all, but now, with Lily sleeping beside her, Eve allowed the repeat of the last disaster of a day to replay in her head over and over—the car accident, the news about Malcolm, the awkward hug in the waiting room, Patsy’s family in chaos again.

What a mess.

Obviously, she had cancelled dinner with her parents and forbade them to worry or come to the hospital. But her stepmom, Jaycee, had no sooner hung up than she called Eve’s sister, Kate, who had promptly shown up in the hospital waiting room for an hour or so for moral support.

“The day was an unmitigated disaster,” Eve had said when prodded to come clean. “And it was totally my fault.”

“I blame the reindeer,” Kate replied. “But you’re both okay, that’s all that matters.”

“But I ruined his vacation. And if I hadn’t been distracted by his thigh—”

“Wait. His thigh?”

“You say that like you have no idea what I’m talking about. Have you seen his thighs?”

Kate shrugged. “I will admit, Dr. McTyler is… quite attractive, but I have mostly stopped noticing thighs on men other than Finn. Because, well… the bull rider thing. Oh, and his forearms. Those are hot, too. Actually,” she went on, “just about everything about him is—”

“We were talking about Ben.”

“Oh. Sorry. Ben. So… his thigh?”

“Yes. I didn’t tell him this, of course, but I was glancing at it. I mean it was right there—all flexed and everything and, well, I was distracted. And then, suddenly, there was this reindeer.”

Kate tutted. “Hmm. Ogling while driving… it’s a dangerous thing. But I thought you two were just friends.”

Eve petted Lily’s hair as she lay asleep in her lap. “We are. But that doesn’t mean—”

“That you’re not hot for him?”

“That I don’t wish things could be… different.”

“Ahhh,” Kate said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Different how?”

“More,” she explained, “than friendship.”

Kate sent her a sympathetic look. “Lots of great relationships start with friendship. I mean, from what I understand. I wouldn’t know personally.”

Eve chuckled. The only man who had ever meant anything to Kate was Finn, and their relationship had started out as anything but friendly. Or platonic.

“Is he dating someone else?” Kate asked.

“Aside from every nurse in this facility throwing their coins at his fountain, I don’t think so. But do you know what he told me tonight? He hates being in Marietta for Christmas. Actually, he’s not a fan of the holiday. That’s why he booked this trip. Seriously, who hates Christmas?”

“Not everyone is as Mary Poppins about Christmas as you, Evie, for lots of complicated reasons. I don’t know Ben that well, but Jake does. And from what he’s told me, Ben’s childhood was not all puppy dog tails and rainbows. And that may involve a certain time of year many people have issues with. Look, if Christmas isn’t your thing, Marietta in December can be like fingernails on a chalkboard.”

Now, lying in his bed, Eve pondered how much she really knew about him, despite their friendship. He rarely talked about his family, who’d moved away from Paradise Valley when he’d started college. His father had been a surgeon, too. That much she knew. His mother, some society page woman was all she’d heard. But the fact he had plans to see neither one of them over the holidays was telling enough.

She tugged the covers up to her chin and inhaled his lingering scent with an uneasy sigh. How many times over the past year had she’d imagined this moment? Her, lying right here in his bed? Too many. But to be fair, her fantasies had never included a four-year old, snoring softly beside her, and Ben curled up alone on the couch in the next room.

And was the sudden weirdness between them a direct result of the accident? Or was it something else? Granted, they had some tacit agreement about their friendship and how they wouldn’t venture beyond whatever was between them. Whatever that was.

Actually, she couldn’t remember agreeing to that. But apparently he had. But things naturally evolve, don’t they? Progress? Usually. Still, today made her wonder if she wasn’t just chasing smoke, or pining after a man who didn’t—and would never—want her.

Eve tossed and rolled over, staring out the dark window at the stars.

He was a scientist, a pragmatist. I don’t believe in cosmic machinations, Eve.

Oh, but she did. She believed there was no such thing as coincidence. Or even accidents. She believed in destiny, soul mates, and love at first sight. Things happened for a reason and, most times, that reason remained invisible until a long way down the road.

She believed Malcolm and Lily had been the fortunate recipients of such today, whether Ben wanted to admit it or not. And now, thanks to an escaped reindeer, they were all stuck in the very same cosmic machination.

End of Excerpt

The Cowgirl’s Christmas Wish is available in the following formats:

ISBN:

October 24, 2016