The Cowboy’s Christmas Homecoming

by

Sinclair Jayne

She’s the one who got away, but now that this cowboy’s home for Christmas, does he have a second chance with his first love?

After years in special forces, soldier Rohan Telford has exchanged his helmet and flak jacket for his Stetson and heads home to Marietta, Montana to try to regain his place working his family’s thriving cattle ranch. He has one final task to carry out for his fallen team leader. Unfortunately, it involves facing the woman he loved but left. Rohan’s never forgotten Ginny, but she’s never forgiven him.

Following the death of her father, single mother and teacher Virginia ‘Ginny’ Lane has never felt less like celebrating the holidays. Still grieving, she’s determined to fulfill her father’s legacy and corral local volunteers to help her open the Harry’s House Annex, a teen center. She’s short on Christmas spirit and that’s before her ex–high school sweetheart Rohan Telford saunters up like twelve years and a messy break up never happened.

Virginia only remembers the bad, but Rohan’s determined to remind her of how good they still are.

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Prologue

The sirocco was threatening to kick back up. The hairs on Rohan Telford’s arms and the back of his neck rose as if in challenge to Mother Nature’s threat. They could all feel it—his brothers molded from duty, sweat, blood, respect and devotion to a guiding light, now extinguished. They all needed to be someplace else, and the window to leave was closing. But no one hurried this process.

Wolf—their new team leader—was solemn. He carefully folded up each slip of paper, his head bowed, lips tight, expression tense, as if the task were a difficult one. A bullet of resentment shot through Rohan. Wolf wasn’t receiving orders from beyond the grave to carry out the final wishes of their fallen team leader, Jace McBride.

Jace had been the best leader, the best friend, the best everything that Rohan had been honored to serve with. Jace had been the best man Rohan had ever met with the exception of his father. He shut down his dark ruminations about home, not allowing his expression to change or his weight to shift. All his brothers were grieving, and he didn’t want to reveal his own pain and doubt. Agony rolled over him with the power of the two-ton one-hundred-percent rank bulls he used to ride on the junior rodeo circuit.

Home.

Not anymore. He’d lost that privilege. Shut out his family and tossed away the love and respect of the woman, who’d been his one and only. And now Jace, the leader, the dreamer, the glue that held them all together was gone.

Jace had been in the process of mustering out.

That had shocked all of them. Left them adrift. But even in the process of leaving them, Jace wanted to lead. He’d planned to return to his hometown of Marietta, Montana—also Rohan’s hometown, the place he’d been avoiding each time he’d re-enlisted and avoided taking leave. Jace had had plans—for himself, but also for all of them. Jace had still envisioned a future, whereas Rohan had been lost in the now. Next mission. Next target.

Jace had wanted to help his mom, dad and sister bring their small family ranch back to profitability. He had wanted his brothers to join him in Marietta. They would stay together. Create a business. Work the land. Build new lives. Have each other’s backs. Rohan suspected that some of the men had been on board with Jace’s plan. Or halfway there. Jace was charismatic and persuasive. And Rohan, with a thriving ranch to return to, should he wish, should have been a slam dunk.

But he couldn’t imagine returning to Marietta. He was too different. His family was too different. They were happy. His two brothers married with children. His sister, finished with college and bottomed out from her thwarted music career as a once up-and-coming rock star, now worked with his mom breeding and training cutting horses. What did he have to offer?

Nothing.

He’d told Jace he couldn’t go home. He hadn’t told him why. But Jace had looked him in the eye and said, ‘You can always go home. You, Rohan Telford, will go home.’ That had been the day he’d led the mission Cross should have.

Rohan’s shriveled heart squeezed painfully.

Jace had always had to have the last word.

Wolf held Jace’s battered helmet in both hands and murmured something. A prayer? Too late for that. Blood spatter remained on the helmet. Wolf had refused to clean it.

“Each of you will pick one task,” Wolf’s deep voice resonated, his Texas Hill Country twang mostly under control. “You will complete this task in Jace’s name, no matter how many challenges fate throws at you. You will honor Jace, his memory. His intentions. And your brothers.”

Everyone kept their heads lowered except Cross. His freaky eyes that looked like lightning shattering storm clouds focused on the helmet—probably imagining it should have been his empty helmet, his blood. Cross had never missed an extraction, and he hadn’t shared what had gone wrong.

“No discussing the task until it’s complete,” Wolf intoned. “No switches. No help. No shirking. We owe it to Jace.”

“Jace,” all his brothers murmured as if they were in church. Jace had been an Amen for all of them in different ways.

“We’ve all put our paperwork in to muster out at different points this year. We will meet in Marietta next Memorial Day at Jace’s grave for his final send-off. Our brother’s spirit must be at peace. Do not let him down.”

Wolf’s intense navy-blue gaze skewered them all, one by one, until each man—Remy Cross, Ryder Lea, Huck Jones, Calhoun Miller and him—met that dark stare that drilled into their souls.

“Yes, sir. Coyote Cowboys until the end,” they all stated, voices firm, not betraying the pain they were in.

The choosing began. Wolf palmed the helmet. Huck had held it initially, but his hands had been shaking too violently. Rohan wanted to comfort Huck. He’d been with Jace when he’d been hit multiple times. Huck had done his best. Kept the enemy off them. Managed to get Jace to an emergency extraction and help, but it had been too late. Not his fault. They all knew it, but Huck—the best with emergency battlefield first aid Rohan had ever worked with—would likely never forgive or forget.

But Rohan stayed put. He’d never known how to solace himself much less anyone else after his colossal life screw-up years ago.

He watched each brother step forward and pluck out a piece of paper. By an unspoken agreement, no one looked at the paper right away. Maybe the tension was too taut. Rohan’s limbs felt like molten lead. It was hard to breathe. Impossible to focus. Maybe Jace had been right. It was time to go home. But how? He was so far from the man-child he’d been—full of dreams and swagger, confident of his place in the world and the girl-woman at his side.

No. He couldn’t go home. She might still be there.

The longing that tore through him was visceral, and he looked down, almost expecting to see blood, bone, torn tissue. No, he couldn’t see Ginny again. Not ever. He wouldn’t be able to walk away a second time. He’d hurt her worse than a man should ever hurt a woman.

He dragged in a breath through his nose, pressing his lips tight. Returning to Marietta and flying under the radar enough so that his family didn’t know he was there would be an impossible task. Maybe Cross—the ghost—could do it. But maybe the task would be…no. He shut down speculation. He shut down hope. He’d mastered shutting down everything but the mission years ago.

This was just another mission.

Two slips of paper remained.

Random or fate?

Mocking his question, Rohan picked the folded paper on the left. It burned like a flame in his palm. Calhoun took the last slip.

“We honor Jace as he would honor one of us,” Wolf said.

“Jace McBride,” they said as if any of Jace’s favorite beer—the Montana-based Moose Drool that Rohan’s younger brother Boone had air-flighted to them at some exorbitant cost—remained in the empties, grouped in one corner of the airport hangar.

His brothers-in-arms one by one unfolded their slips of paper. The air snarled with tension and grief, but no one spoke or broke expression. No one knew what had been on Jace’s list except Wolf and maybe Huck, whom Jace had told about the list and where to find it when he realized he wasn’t going to make it back to base that last time.

Rohan tried to read the room, divine what he and his brothers were up against. He couldn’t imagine what Jace had felt he’d needed to make amends for. He knew the McBride family—he’d gone to school with Jace’s younger sister, Willow, but he hadn’t met Jace until he’d moved over to Special Forces eight years ago. That’s when he’d become a member of the Coyote Cowboys—a slam that they’d all taken as a compliment. Growing up ranch in the American west. Even though Rohan didn’t feel like he could fit back in Marietta or at the Telford Family Ranch that his father had saved and dragged into the twenty-first century, he was a cowboy to his soul. His younger brother Boone had taken his place ranching alongside their larger-than-life father.

His fault. Bitterness soured Rohan’s mouth. Boone had grown into a good, strong, ranching family man. He deserved the place by their father’s side. He’d earned it, all of it—the ranch, his wife, his children, a legacy to hand down. Unlikely the ranch could support two sons, one of them with a growing family. Rohan in a burst of selfishness had squandered his birthright and dreams and shot his life onto a new trajectory.

Stop stalling.

Rohan unfolded the slip of paper as if it were an artistic origami swan, deserving his complete concentration. His emotions and tension soared, but he reeled them back in—until he saw the words written in Wolf’s distinctive tight, upright, all-caps writing. It took him a moment to absorb the enormity of the words. What the task would force him to do. Him. Not Jace.

The paper fluttered to the concrete. Instinct slammed his boot over the scrap.

Carrying out Jace’s wish was the last thing he was suited to do. He couldn’t. He’d wreaked enough pain on the Lane family. But then he looked up and saw Wolf lancing him with those intensely dark blues that saw through to the soul he’d once had—not the shredded one. One by one his brothers all looked at him, and Rohan realized that he’d been running from himself and his selfish, callous words and actions for years.

He was out of options.

Time to give, not take. What would Jace do? His brothers had often teased Jace about his goodness, his altruistic nature that put them all to shame. They even wore those stretchy neon WWJD bracelets for a time as if Jace had been their own personal Jesus. Sang the Depeche Mode song from the Eighties to tease him.

“You good?” Wolf asked the question his brothers’ gazes all asked.

Rohan was anything but good.

He retrieved the paper and jammed it deep into the pocket of his dress uniform.

“I will not fail Jace—or any of you.”

End of Excerpt

The Cowboy’s Christmas Homecoming is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-959988-87-8

November 6, 2023

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