Grit and Grace, Book 2
Release Date:

Nov 4, 2024



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Catching a Christmas Cowboy


Leah Vale

Reluctantly retiring from Special Forces following an injury, Noah Halliday returns to Texas seeking solitude through the holidays at his brother’s unoccupied ranch. Arriving late, he intends to crash in the first bedroom he finds only to be chased out by a beautiful blonde brandishing a boot. New Plan.

The ranch has been leased to a group of women determined to challenge the traditions and beliefs of the male dominated rodeo rough stock contractor world. There’s nowhere to hide. Never one to be idle, Noah pitches in and his Christmas spirit is rekindled by the feisty cowgirl.

Emma Barrett had been a timid child until she’d been lifted onto the back of a bronc, and she finally discovered her skill and power. She excelled at the sport and is determined to solidify her place at Grit and Grace by training the new bronc she and her partners have heavily invested in. The last thing she needs is a horse whispering, sexy ex-soldier offering to work by her side this Christmas as she and her partners launch their enterprise.

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Chapter One

“We have to get this horse out somehow,” Emma Barrett said for the fifth time. No, the sixth. She gritted her teeth, turned, and drifted away from the four women standing at the back of the aluminum multi-horse trailer, absently straightening the Christmas wreath hung on the trailer’s side. She stopped to stare out at the incredible vista of the Texas Hill Country that was the A Bar H Ranch, home of the Grit and Grace Rodeo Roughstock Company.

Even though it was late November, the vibrant copper and auburn fall colors mixed in with the stubbornly green leaves of the live oak trees would be an artist’s dream. Too bad Emma possessed zero artistic ability. And about the same amount of patience.

The only thing she was really good at was taking risks. A skill she’d unlocked the first time she’d been lifted onto the back of a bucking bronc—unwillingly—by her nasty to-the-bone older brother. That had been the last time she’d been afraid.

Until today. Handling, as well as training, their rodeo bucking broncs was the one thing she could contribute to the Grit and Grace partnership the former Buckin’ Babes reality TV stars had formed after they’d been summarily cancelled. By forming Grit and Grace, they’d been intent on proving there was more to them than just long hair, lip gloss, and sparkly jeans. If Emma couldn’t reliably contribute . . . What then? She had nowhere to go if she lost her place here.

“She’s a stubborn one, that’s for sure.” Even Beth Dawson, the critter queen of Grit and Grace, who normally could sweet-talk anything on four legs, was failing to convince Freaky Freda to leave the horse trailer she’d been transported in from her former home in Cheyenne to the A Bar H, just outside of Last Stand, Texas. Beth flipped her long black braid over her shoulder and said, “Let me go see if I can find a treat of some sort to tempt her out of the trailer with.” She turned and headed into the bronc barn.

Laura Senske, the accountant in the bunch and ever practical, huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “I say we make her wait until the guys get back and let them muscle her out.”

“No,” Meira Ware and Sammie Abel both shot Laura down at the same time.

No explanation needed. They’d started Grit and Grace to prove that whatever the boys could do, they could do better. No way would they let a twelve-hundred-pound draft horse mix prove them wrong.

Sammie reached up and tightened her dark-blonde ponytail. “Let me give her a go.”

This time Emma joined Meira in shouting, “No!”

Emma stomped back to the horse trailer. “No way are you going in there with a horse we don’t know yet.”

Sammie made a rude noise. “I’m pregnant, Emma, not disabled.”

Meira said, “Alec will render us disabled when he gets back from the range and finds out we let his pregnant fiancée go in that trailer.” Said like the geneticist she was. They all knew bull rider Alec Neisson, grandson of a legend in rodeo roughstock contractors, Thomas Wright, was a good guy and very supportive of Grit and Grace, but he was extremely protective of Sammie and loved her with a depth Emma could only imagine.

Sammie opened her mouth as if to argue. Behind only their long-distance partner, Peyton Halliday, Sammie had been the best bronc rider among them. But she was even better at winning others over to her way of thinking, which made her an excellent choice for securing rodeo roughstock contracts for Grit and Grace. Something Sammie had successfully done three times since they’d leased the A Bar H Ranch from Peyton’s oldest brother, Asher Halliday, in June.

Thanks to those contracts, the women had been able to sign on enough investors to acquire new stock, like the impressive but uncooperative mare currently refusing to leave the trailer they’d transported her in.

As if acting of its own volition, Sammie’s hand settled on her baby bump, which at six months was hard to ignore, especially on Sammie’s tall, slender frame. Her mouth snapped shut.

Emma said, “That’s right, Momma. Leave the stupid stuff to the professionals.”

Having learned the hard way that some broncs will happily take a chomp of anything hanging loose, Emma tucked her long platinum-blonde braid under her cowboy hat and stepped up into the large, gooseneck horse trailer. Freaky Freda, creamy white with a slightly darker mane and tail, turned a mismatched striking blue eye, her other one being brown, on Emma and rumbled deep in her throat. More a warning than a welcome.

The red nylon lead rope attached to Freda’s halter hung loose from the last attempt to convince the bronc to leave the trailer. Emma eased toward the mare, cooing, “Easy, big girl. You’re going to love Grit and Grace. I promise. You’ll have your own stall, with air-conditioning . . . I kid you not.”

Freda slow-blinked, then turned her head away from Emma, clearly unimpressed.

Emma continued forward until she was able to lay a hand gently on Freda’s shoulder. Freda didn’t react, so Emma spent a moment stroking the bronc’s smooth coat, quietly telling her what a good, pretty girl she was.

Freda shifted her weight away from Emma and cocked a hind leg.

“Okay, good. Now we’re relaxed,” Emma whispered, continuing to stroke the mare. Behind her, she heard someone step up into the low-slung trailer.

“See if she’ll take these,” Beth said.

Emma turned to see Beth holding out a handful of the oblong-shaped, pressed oat, apple, and molasses treats the horses favored. Taking a few of the treats from Beth, Emma made kissy noises to get Freda’s attention and held out a single treat.

Smelling the sweet snack, Freda swung her head back toward Emma and gently took the offered goody from Emma’s palm with her lips. A good sign.

Emma looked back at Beth with a grin. “See, she’s got some manners.”

The second the words were out of Emma’s mouth, Freda shifted her weight again, and before Emma could react, the horse took a step sideways and swung her rump toward Emma, squishing her against the wall. The metal ribbing inside the trailer pressed into her back while Freda settled her impressive weight against Emma’s chest.

Emma let out an “Oof” and her hat was knocked askew.

Beth said, “Oh no. Freda!” She slipped past on the other side of the horse to her head and took hold of the nylon lead. “Push her off, Emma, while I push her back.”

Emma groaned. “I’m trying.”

Meira leapt into the trailer. “Is she hurting you?”

“No,” Emma grunted out. “Just making me . . . taller.”

Sammie called, “I’m getting Cedar.”

Meira said, “Good idea.” She left the trailer at a run, passing Sammie on the way to the stable.

Taking hold of both sides of Freda’s halter, Beth tried to turn the mare one way, then the other, as well as trying to shove her straight back. “She’s like a boulder stuck in a foot of mud. Can you wiggle down and escape underneath her?”

“I’m happy to just be breathing. She’s leaning all her weight into me. Try offering her another treat, then make her move to get the next one,” Emma suggested with a gasp.

“Here, Freda,” Beth said. “Here’s another nummy. Good girl. Here’s another one . . . No, you have to step over here . . .”

Freda started to shift, and the pressure on Emma’s chest let up long enough for her to fill her lungs with air. But the horse seemed to think better of moving and settled her weight back onto Emma. Apparently, imposing her will on the humans held more appeal for Freda than a little treat of pressed oats, molasses, and apple.

Shoving against the mare’s flank to create enough space to breathe a little, Emma growled, “You and I are going to have words over this, Freda.”

“We should have turned her and let her walk out of the trailer instead of trying to back her,” Beth lamented.

“I’m not sure she would have cooperated either way.”

“Can you get an elbow into her?”

“Already did. Freda is not impressed.”

Beth blew out a breath. “I hope this horse is worth it.”

“At least we know she’ll make a great doorstop,” Emma joked, despite being nearly crushed.

Emma heard approaching hoofbeats outside the trailer and strained to see over Freda’s haunch. Cedar, a beautiful, broad-chested buckskin quarter horse and arguably the best saddle- and cutting horse on the entire A Bar H ranch, was approaching with Sammie in the saddle and Meira seated behind her. They’d readied him in record time. When they reached the open back of the trailer, Meira slid off Cedar and Sammie handed her a lasso they’d draped over the saddle horn.

Meira hurried into the trailer, uncoiling the rope. “How do we want to do this?”

Beth said, “If we try turning her, she might crush Emma even more.”

Emma interjected, “No cracked ribs, please.

Nodding, Beth said, “It would be best if we can get her to back straight out.”

Meira handed Beth the looped end of the lasso. “Put the rope over her head, but settle it down on her chest and shoulders. Hopefully, that will encourage her to back up.”

Beth did as Meira instructed. “I’m glad she’s just being stubborn. I wouldn’t want to try this with Willie Bite.”

Emma grumbled, “Oh, I don’t know. A nip on the shoulder doesn’t sound so bad right . . . about . . . now.”

“Just hang on a minute more, Emma,” Meira said as she ran the lasso over Freda’s back, then hurried from the trailer and handed the rope to Sammie, who wrapped it around the saddle horn.

Sammie said, “Okay, I’ll ease Cedar back on the count of three. Beth, try to make sure Freda doesn’t turn and squish Emma even more. Emma, be ready to push and move toward her head.”

“Got it,” Emma gasped.

Meira said, “Let me get in there to help Beth.” Ducking under the rope, she hurried back into the trailer and positioned herself next to Beth at Freda’s head.

Sammie started her countdown. “One, two, three!” She only had to give a slight pull on Cedar’s reins to encourage the well-trained quarter horse to slowly begin backing up, gently applying a steady pressure on the lasso.

The rope tightened on Freda’s chest, and she snorted in protest.

While Meira shoved against Freda’s chest, Beth pushed on Freda’s halter and commanded, “Back. Back, Freda.”

The huge white bronc resisted at first, leaning into the rope and against the pressure Cedar was applying and, unfortunately, shifting even more of her weight into Emma.

Emma gritted her teeth and pushed back with all her strength.

Thankfully, Freda gave in with a nicker of protest and more snorts and started to move backward.

Sammie called, “Watch your feet, Emma. Her hooves are huge.”

Emma was too busy shifting to get her shoulder wedged into Freda’s side to respond.

Obviously realizing her stubborn protest was at an end, Emma felt Freda relax and willingly ease herself backward out of the trailer.

As soon as Beth and Meira moved the big horse past Emma, her knees gave out and she sunk down, taking a moment to fill her lungs with as much air as she could and test out her ribs. Luckily, nothing felt terribly injured or broken. As far as she could tell, only her pride was bruised.

With Freda clear of the trailer and under Cedar’s competent control, Beth rushed to Emma’s side.

“Emma?” Beth settled a gentle hand on Emma’s shoulder. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. Really.” She quickly pushed herself to her feet, grateful for Beth’s assistance given with a hand under her arm.

But she was mostly embarrassed that she’d need the help in the first place. So much for being able to prove her worth by successfully handling the broncs on her own.

Emma closed her bedroom door as quietly as she could to avoid waking her partners. Not wanting to worry them or, worse, have them believe she was too delicate to do the job, she had waited until everyone else was long in bed before creeping out of the house and slipping into the hot tub. Integrated into the pool area, the tub was part of the gorgeous backyard oasis created by Asher Halliday, the ranch’s billionaire oil tycoon owner, and was greatly appreciated by those who spent their days working with broncs, bulls, and steers. Or being squished against aluminum trailers by half-ton horses.

Dropping one end of the oversized towel she’d wrapped around herself to keep her wet bikini swimsuit from dripping on the stone tile floor, Emma padded on bare feet into the ensuite bathroom that was hers and hers alone.

Yet one more thing she adored about living here. Not having to share one bathroom with her mom, an overworked, distracted single parent, and her older brother, who, despite being a grown man, still lived at home and delighted in tormenting Emma. She’d take being crushed by Freaky Freda any day over having to return home with her tail between her legs.

She rinsed off quickly and changed out of her wet swimsuit, hanging the top and bottom in her shower, then slathered herself with her favorite lotion and donned her dark-blue satin pajama top and matching shorts bottom. No sign of any bruising, courtesy of Freda. Yet. The soak in the hot tub had done wonders for the achiness she’d tried to ignore all day.

After freeing her hair from its braid and turning off the lights, Emma slipped gratefully into the queen bed with its dark-stained, heavy-timber head- and footboard that matched the furniture and finishings throughout the rest of the large main house.

As exhausted as she was, Emma couldn’t immediately find sleep. All the things she could have done differently to get Freda out of the trailer, the different choices she could have made, ran on repeat through her brain. With each loop, she grew more and more angry with herself.

Why hadn’t she been able to manage Freda on her own? She had more than enough motivation. If she couldn’t contribute to the workings of Grit and Grace on a daily basis, her place would eventually be in jeopardy.

Emma realized that, ultimately, she had two choices. She could give up, claiming she was too little, too weak to handle broncs like Freaky Freda. Or she could nut up and do the job.

Unwilling to return to being the scared little girl she’d been before discovering her power on the back of a bronc not all that dissimilar to Freda, Emma knew what she had to do.

She would try and try again until she gained the trust and cooperation of Freda and the rest of the broncs owned by Grit and Grace. Then her place at the women-owned-and-run rodeo roughstock company would be assured.

Her plan in place, sleep finally found Emma.

Lugging his kit bag from his rented vehicle up to the main house of his brother, Asher’s, ranch almost proved too much for Noah Halliday. He had thought he’d known tired. Being a Special Forces Operator for the past five years, he’d experienced exhaustion on a cellular level. But he’d never lost his grit. His determination.

Now . . . Now he felt as though he’d lost everything, and the act of simply existing seemed like too much.

He’d find a bed and not leave it until his family hauled him home for Christmas.

On autopilot, Noah punched into the electronic door lock the code Asher always used for his home security. Noah would be sleeping in the cab of the truck he’d rented in Austin if Asher had changed his stubborn ways and used a different code. For the first time in months, luck was with Noah and he heard the deadbolt lock mechanism slide open.

Noah pushed his way inside, not bothering to relock the door or even turn on a light. The last time he’d talked to his oldest brother, seemingly a lifetime ago, the extensive remodel he’d wanted done to this ranch was nearly completed. And despite claiming he intended to eventually live here at the spread just outside of Last Stand, Texas, he’d renamed A Bar H, Noah knew Asher was still living and working in The Woodlands, where the corporate headquarters for Halliday Oil was located. Aside from a ranch hand or two and the manager, who were living in the bunkhouse, the ranch was devoid of two-legged inhabitants.

Noah needed to be alone. At least for a while, and the way Asher had described the main house, it would be the perfect place for Noah to start down the road to healing.

Because there was one thing Noah was sure of—he wasn’t fit for company. And the minute he went home, the pressure would be on to join the family business. He had been through a lot, but nothing would compare to the struggle he’d face trying to make it in the corporate world. A world he literally couldn’t understand.

Using the light from the moon shining in through the windows to navigate by, Noah moved from the foyer and living room toward a hallway he assumed held the bedrooms. Asher had said he was putting in several ensuites, so Noah wasn’t worried about finding a place to crash.

He opened the first door he came to, and sure enough, by the light of the moon, he could make out the outline of a large bed directly in front of him. Or maybe it was the landscape lighting shining through the partially closed blinds covering tall windows on either side of the bed that allowed him to see where he was going. Wanting nothing more than to immediately find oblivion on a soft mattress, Noah set his kit down and stripped to his skivvies. He moved to the side of the bed and felt for the top edge of the sheet and comforter, pulling them back just enough to slide beneath them.

He found instant relief. The pillow was incredibly soft, and hell, it even smelled good. Like honeysuckle. Lord, this was heaven. The mattress was not too hard, not too soft. He could get used to this Goldilocks life.

Yes, coming here to the A Bar H had been a good idea.

He turned on his side, reaching for the other pillow. But instead of a pillow, his hand encountered silk. No, not silk. Hair. A lot of it. His hand traveled downward and found hot, smooth skin.

Good lord.

The thought had barely formed in his head when the silky hair and hot, smooth skin shifted toward him, then erupted out of the bed with a startled yip. Apparently, the bed he’d chosen was already occupied. By a woman.

“Well, shit.”

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping November 4, 2024

Catching a Christmas Cowboy is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-964418-54-4

November 4, 2024


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