Montana Born Books
Cowboy, Come Home, Book 3
Release Date:

Nov 2, 2023

ISBN:

978-1-961544-45-1

More From Anne →

The Cowboy’s Christmas Miracle

by

Anne McAllister

The last present he expected – a nearly two-year-old son!

Deke Malone never gave a thought to having kids – until the day Zack came into his life. Now he can’t imagine not being a dad. It’s not easy, but it’s the best thing he’s ever done. It’s the hardest, too, because it takes him back to Montana for the holidays  – to give his son a family and make peace with his own father if he can. He never expects to run into widow Erin Jones.

Once upon a time, when they were barely more than kids, Erin was madly in love with Deke – while he thought she was his best friend.  A lot has changed in fifteen years. Erin’s a widow now, with a young family of her own and a wealth of loving memories behind her. Could she really be so lucky the second time around?

Deke thinks it’s their first real chance.  Besides, it’s Christmas. And isn’t that the season of miracles . . . and love?

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Chapter One

“Da,” the little boy in the car seat said. He bounced against the restraints that anchored him in the back seat of the crew cab, clapped his hands together, and grinned. “Da,” he said again, testing the word, frowning as if it didn’t sound quite right. “Daaaaa . . .” he said again. “Da-da . . .” Then finally, “Dad.”

And he beamed his triumph at the man driving the pickup—his father.

Me, Deke Malone thought, his gaze flicking to the boy in the rearview mirror, his fingers strangling the steering wheel.

Even after three months’ time, the notion still occasionally had the effect of poleaxing him.

He was a father. Two and a half years ago, he had contributed unknowingly to the conception of a child.

This child.

This beautiful, wonderful, nearly twenty-month-old boy whose existence he had never imagined—especially not that August afternoon when a stranger had appeared on his doorstep.

She had looked proper and official in her dark trousers and pale-blue blouse, not at all like the usual photographers’ groupies or wannabes who occasionally turned up to knock on Deke’s door now that his work was well-known.

She was, she’d said, Mrs. Trammell, from some department of social services or child welfare or something he’d never heard of before. He’d said she must have the wrong house.

But she had consulted the sheaf of papers in her hand, then looked up and asked if he was Mr. Malone. “Mr. Daniel Kevin Malone?”

“That’s right,” Deke said, still mystified.

And she had smiled at him. “I’ve brought your son.”

For a moment, the words had meant nothing to him. Son wasn’t even a part of his active vocabulary. Deke wasn’t a family man. Had no intention of ever becoming one. But as the word echoed in his head, it connected with the previous one: your—and the meaning began to register.

Deke took a quick step back, holding up his palms in denial. “Son? My son? Ho, no! No, ma’am. No way. You’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t have a son.”

But Mrs. Trammell had assured him that he did.

“Who’s the mother?” he’d demanded, certain she was mistaken. Not that it was impossible, just extremely unlikely. He’d slept with women in his lifetime, but there hadn’t been many, and he’d always been careful. Very careful. Deke wasn’t a fool, and he didn’t sleep around. He was always certain to make sure the women he slept with were no more interested in having a family than he was.

Mrs. Trammell consulted her paperwork again. “Her name was Violet Ashton.”

“Violet?”

That was almost more stunning.

Violet Ashton had had his child? The Violet who’d climbed Everest? Who’d ridden camels to Marrakesh? Who’d spent a season at the South Pole?

For three years running, Violet Ashton had been named Adventure Photographer of the Year by one of the biggest trade publications in the outdoor recreation field. The same Violet had once confided to him that her primary goal in life was to go to as many places and do—and shoot—as many things as she possibly could. Not exactly Mom of the Year material.

In fact, in the dozen or so times Violet had breezed through his life in the past ten years, Deke had never heard her express any interest in having a child.

He’d always liked Violet. And one of the things he’d liked best about her—besides the fact that she approached sex with the same enthusiasm she approached kayaking down the Mackenzie or climbing Kilimanjaro—was that she’d never been any more interested in home and family than he had.

“What are you talking about?” he’d demanded of the woman standing on his doorstep. “Where the hell is Violet?”

Mrs. Trammell must have majored in patience. She took a slow, calm breath and answered his first question. She was, she told him, talking about a seventeen-month-old boy named Isaac Daniel Ashton.

His son. And Violet’s.

“You’re listed as his father on his birth certificate,” she told him, shuffling through more papers and finally pulling out an official-looking document. She handed it to him.

He stared at it.

In the meantime, Mrs. Trammell went on to answer his second question. Another slow, calm breath, followed by a sad smile this time. She was very sorry to have to tell him that Violet was dead.

Deke’s gaze jerked up to meet hers. “Dead?”

Mrs. Trammell nodded. “She drowned two weeks ago in Chile while she was there on assignment for some magazine.”

And Deke hadn’t heard because he’d been out in the back of the beyond himself, hiking and taking photos. It was his day job, and when he was out there, he never bothered to check news or social media. What was important was right in front of him. He’d been home in Santa Fe only two days, and it would have been old news by then.

“We just got Zack back,” Mrs. Trammell went on.

“Who’s Zack?”

“Isaac,” Mrs. Trammell explained. “Your son. Isaac Daniel. She—Violet—called him Zack.”

Deke had trouble taking it all in.

But eventually, of course, eventually, he had—because Mrs. Trammell hadn’t gone away. She’d come into the house, sat down, and laid all of her papers out on the table for him. The baby’s birth certificate. Violet’s death certificate. A sworn affidavit from a friend of hers declaring that, indeed, Violet had once told her that Daniel “Deke” Malone was the father of her child.

Deke had the birth certificate memorized now. Isaac Daniel Ashton had been born in San Antonio, Texas, on February twenty-fourth of last year at 1:13 p.m. He’d weighed eight pounds, five ounces, and had been twenty-one-and-one-half inches long. His mother was Violet Mary Ashton. His father was . . . Daniel Kevin Malone.

“Dad!” Zack affirmed happily now, tossing a foam block at his father’s ear. “Dad! Dad! Dad! Cookies?”

Deke glanced back once more to see Zack grin at him, then arch his back, as if he could push his way out of the car seat.

“Hang on a few minutes, buddy,” Deke told him. “Next rest stop.”

They’d have to stop soon. They’d been driving all day, and Zack didn’t do long stretches gladly. Deke had found that out yesterday two hours after they’d left Santa Fe.

Two hours in a car seat was pretty much the little boy’s limit. Then he needed to get out and run around. He needed to eat, to roll on the ground, to grab his father’s hands and scale his legs, then clamber up and ride on Deke’s shoulders as they explored the rest stop.

It didn’t matter to Deke. He was in no hurry.

They were in Wyoming now, near the Montana border. They’d passed the turnoff to the town near his sister, Dori, and brother-in-law, Riley’s ranch a couple of hours back. He hadn’t stopped because Dori and Riley and their kids were on their way to Livingston too.

Everybody was coming to the first—and undoubtedly, last—Malone family Thanksgiving dinner. The very thought made Deke’s stomach clench.

“Dad! Cookie, Da!” Zack demanded.

“You want to stop and eat lunch?” Deke asked. To Zack, everything edible was a cookie. “Guess we can do that.”

It would put off the inevitable a while longer.

They stopped at the next town. Deke bought Zack a carton of milk and made them each a cheese sandwich. He changed Zack’s diaper and then took him to a small local park, where he pushed him on the swing for ten minutes before they got back in the truck again and headed north, and the sense of foreboding returned.

Of course, he hadn’t had to come. No one was holding a gun to his head. His parents weren’t even expecting him. Why should they be? He hadn’t been home in fifteen years.

But Milly, his youngest sister, the family peacemaker, had called him last month and invited him.

“Dori and Riley are coming,” she’d said, “and the kids. You could meet Carrie.” Their daughter, she meant. “And mine.” Her twins, whom he hadn’t ever seen either. They were a couple of months younger than Zack.

“Well, I—”

“And, for that matter, you could meet Cash and Riley,” Milly went on relentlessly. His two brothers-in-law, whom he’d also never met.

Deke had missed both his sisters’ weddings, claiming to have photo assignments that prevented him from making it. In fact, he could have, but he chose not to.

He hadn’t wanted to make things even more tense than weddings already were by turning up on a festive occasion and creating family tension instead. He’d figured maybe Dori and Milly would bring their families and come see him, but so far, they hadn’t.

“And we,” Milly went on determinedly, “could finally meet Zack. We want to meet Zack, Deke.”

Milly knew about Zack. Dori knew about Zack. His mother knew about Zack. Probably most of Montana—even his father—knew about Zack by now.

But Deke hadn’t told anyone about Zack right away. He’d needed to get used to the idea of having a son himself first.

He hadn’t had the faintest idea how to be a father. Before Zack’s arrival in his life, Deke had never changed a diaper or spooned oatmeal into a waiting mouth. He’d never paced the floor with a crying child or felt parental panic at a spiking fever or gotten ill at the sight of blood.

Not then. But he’d learned. Fast.

He was on a first-name basis with a pediatrician now. He had been to the hospital emergency room with a teething child, been patted on the head and reassured by a trio of long-suffering nurses. He’d felt foolish after the fact—but had been so vastly relieved that teething was all that had been making Zack scream that he hadn’t cared about appearing foolish at all.

He loved being a father. It was astonishing, but true. He loved the little boy who wrapped his neck in a tight hug, who laughed at his animal noises, who wept tears on his shirt front, who peed on his bare feet.

And he found himself wondering at odd moments if his own father had ever felt any of those things.

Two of a kind—stubborn, hard-nosed men—John and Deke Malone had fought many a battle with each other while Deke was growing up. If Deke had been the apple of his father’s eye when he was young, all that had begun to change when he’d gotten a mind—and goals—of his own.

Deke had loved the outdoors, the wide-open spaces, horses and cattle, and the simple little camera his mother’s father had given him. It had given him a new way of seeing the world—and he’d seen at once that he didn’t want to spend it working in the family grocery store.

His father had disagreed.

The disagreements had escalated through Deke’s high school years. They’d worsened during his time at Montana State. Deke’s photography was the most important thing in his life. He had ideas, plans, goals, aspirations. So did his father—for Deke.

The last battle had taken place fifteen years ago, not long after Deke graduated. He’d told his father he was thinking about going to Paris to pursue his study of photography. He could remember it now. It was as if he’d said he was going to be an astronaut or president of the United States.

They’d been in the butcher’s section of the family grocery store, and John had stared at him over the side of beef he was carving, then he’d shaken his head and told Deke to stop talking nonsense and sort the brussels sprouts.

Brussels sprouts! It had been the last straw.

Deke had ripped off his butcher’s apron and stalked out.

He’d never been back. He’d left home that night, had taken jobs where he could find them, had taken photos when he could. He and his father hadn’t spoken since that day. And after those first few months, Deke had rarely thought of him until he’d held Zack in his arms.

When he did, he couldn’t imagine that his father had ever felt for him anything close to the intense love he felt for Zack. Or maybe he just hadn’t wanted to imagine.

Since he’d had Zack, he’d begun to wonder.

What had it been like for his father? John Malone had been barely twenty-one when Deke was born. He’d already been working in the store alongside his own father. When he’d held his son in his arms, what had he hoped for? Deke didn’t know. Couldn’t even guess.

Memories came back. Not just those of the later fights and arguments, but earlier ones, happier ones. Ones he had forgotten that pricked at him and made him wonder. What was the old man like now?

Would they understand each other any better than they ever had? Could they ever make peace? Did he want to?

Surprising himself, Deke took Milly’s invitation. “But don’t tell the folks we’re coming,” he’d warned.

“In case you chicken out?”

“I’m not going to chicken out,” Deke replied, stung, even though God knew he’d been tempted often enough to do just that in the month since he’d agreed. He told himself it was a very bad idea and still felt this compulsion to go. Probably it was both—a bad idea and a compulsion.

He glanced in the rearview mirror now. Zack’s eyes were closed. He was asleep, his worn stuffed dog, Beero, in his arms.

So they didn’t have to stop again. They’d surely make Livingston by nightfall now, and he’d come face-to-face with his father for the first time in fifteen years—the prodigal son come home.

But one thing he was damned sure of—as far as John Malone was concerned, there would be no fatted calf and no celebration.

The house looked just the same.

It was a wood-frame, story-and-a-half bungalow with dormers, built in the first quarter of the last century. It was painted white—there was no other color as far as John Malone was concerned—and had a deep front porch that spanned its entire width. His mother had hung a wreath of bittersweet and autumn leaves on the oak front door. In the dusk of a cold fall evening, the place looked warm and homey. Welcoming.

As he shut off the engine, Deke hoped to God it was.

“We’re here, buddy,” he said, lifting Zack out of his car seat. The little boy looked curiously at all the white stuff on the ground. They’d had only a flurry or two of snow in Santa Fe so far this year. Already there was half a foot in Livingston on the ground.

Deke scooped some up and held it so Zack could touch it. The little boy’s eyes widened at the cold on his fingers. He grinned, then poked his fingers in it again. “I’cream?” he said hopefully.

Deke shook his head. “Not ice cream. Snow. We’ll build a snowman.” Zack looked puzzled. “I’ll show you,” Deke promised. It was one of the wonderful bits of being a father—enjoying everything anew, treasuring the wonder on his son’s face. He would have liked to set the boy down right then and build the snowman for him.

But that would be postponing the inevitable. Postponing his father.

He mounted the steps.

“Da!” Zack wriggled fretfully in his arms, and he realized his grip on the boy had tightened as his stomach had. Deliberately, he eased his hold and balanced Zack on his hip. Then, taking one more deep breath, Deke knocked on the door.

He waited, shifted from one foot to the other, felt like a fool for knocking on the door of the house he’d grown up in, yet knew he couldn’t just walk in.

The porch light came on. Beyond the glass of the storm door, the front door opened slowly, and his mother’s astonished eyes widened as she stared at him.

Deke grinned faintly, hopefully. “Hey, Ma.”

For just a second, she didn’t move. Then she made a sound somewhere between a soft shriek and a moan, and she shoved the door open.

“Oh, my! Oh, my God, Deke!” She started to hug him, stepped back, and looked at the little boy in his arms. Her eyes filled with tears. “This is . . . Zack?”

“This is Zack,” Deke agreed. “This is your grandma,” he told his son.

Zack looked at her, wide-eyed, as Carol Malone gathered both of them close in a hard, fierce hug. And Deke knew that, regardless of how his father felt about his arrival, he was right to have come. He’d seen his mother only a handful of times since he’d left—when she and Milly, or she and Dori and Dori’s son, Jake, had come to visit him in Santa Fe. Then she’d put on her best face and acted as if it was all a wonderful holiday. Now he could see in her unguarded expression as she looked at him how much pain there had been.

She swabbed at her eyes and shook her head. “You just don’t know . . .” she began, then stopped and went up on tiptoe to kiss Deke’s cheek while she stroked Zack’s soft hair. “I never dared hope . . . You’re both so stubborn.”

His father, she meant. And him.

“We’re not,” Deke said flatly, his words encompassing himself and his son.

His mother didn’t reply, just drew the two of them into the house. “He’s in the den, watching basketball. He’ll be glad to see you.”

Deke raised a doubtful brow.

“He will,” she insisted. “Though he might not admit it.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Deke said under his breath.

“He doesn’t always show his feelings.”

On the contrary, Deke thought. John Malone had often shown his feelings far too well. “You don’t have to explain him, Mom. I remember what he’s like.”

But he wasn’t prepared for the man he saw.

It might only have been fifteen years since he’d seen his father, but he looked as if it had been fifty. Deke had often referred to his father as “the old man” without really meaning the adjective or thinking of his father as old.

But the man in the recliner was definitely that.

He wouldn’t be sixty for two more years, but his hair was snow white. He’d been broad shouldered and sturdy in the old days. Now he looked gaunt, almost frail, and far older than his years.

Deke knew his father had suffered a serious heart attack six years ago. But he’d bounced back, and within weeks, had insisted on going back to work full-time at the store, much to his daughters’ dismay. They’d told Deke repeatedly that it had aged him. Deke had thought they were exaggerating.

Apparently not, he thought, stopping in the doorway to the den.

“John,” Deke’s mother said brightly. “Look who’s here.”

His father turned his head, starting to smile. Then he saw who it was, and his expression became flat, shuttered, and remote—as if a door had been firmly shut. He didn’t speak.

“It’s Deke,” his mother said a little desperately. “And Zack.”

As if the old man didn’t know, Deke thought. He still hadn’t moved.

At the sound of his name, though, the little boy grinned and bounced in his arms. Thank God someone was impervious to the tension vibrating in the room.

“Da!” Zack said cheerfully and reached up to wrap his small arms around Deke’s neck. “Dad!”

John Malone’s gaze flickered again. A muscle ticked in his jaw. He looked from Zack to Deke.

“Dad,” Deke said after a moment, measuring his tone, aiming for polite, but not eager or desperate. His voice sounded rusty and his throat felt tight, but he was damned if he’d clear it. He simply stared straight ahead, meeting his father’s gaze, and wondering if the old man would say what he’d said fifteen years ago. Get out.

Deke could hear his mother’s nervous breathing. He seriously debated turning on his heel and heading back out the door.

But then, at last, his father dipped his head slightly. “Deke.”

It was the barest of acknowledgments. But Deke stopped holding his breath.

Then, before he could speak, his father cleared his voice and went on gruffly. “Don’t go expectin’ your mother to take care of that boy because you haven’t got a wife.”

Deke’s jaw dropped. Then he clamped his teeth together so it wouldn’t, but mostly so he wouldn’t voice any of a half-dozen furious retorts. How infuriatingly typical of his father to make that assumption. Don’t take advantage. As if that was the reason he’d come back.

“He isn’t asking me to take care of Zack,” Carol said, her fingers strangling each other. “They came for a visit. For Thanksgiving. Didn’t you, Deke?” She turned desperate eyes on him.

Deke had to work to get his jaw to move. When he finally did, he said stonily, “We came for a visit.” His voice didn’t sound rusty to his own ears now. Or pleasant. It sounded hard—like his old man’s heart.

Why the hell had he bothered?

“We’re so glad you’re here,” his mother babbled on. “Dori and Riley and the kids got here this afternoon. They’re out at Milly’s now. But you can have your old room and—”

“No,” Deke cut in swiftly, his voice harsh, then gentling. “Thanks, Mom, but no. Milly said we could stay there. We’ll stay with Milly and Cash.”

If he’d thought he would get an argument, he was wrong. His mother actually looked relieved.

That made two of them, Deke thought.

Carol smiled. “Well, that’s lovely, dear. You’ll be more comfortable there. There will be more room, I mean,” she corrected herself hastily. “And Zack will have the twins to play with. It would have been crowded here, but we would have managed. Wouldn’t we, John?” She shot a quick look in her husband’s direction, looking for agreement.

But John Malone wasn’t paying any attention to them. He had turned back to the basketball game.

Deke was halfway to the Joneses’ ranch before he realized what he was doing.

It was, of course, where he’d been headed, anyway—to spend the night with Milly and Cash in the small tenant house they occupied on the Joneses’ family spread. But he hadn’t been thinking about Milly and Cash at all when he’d kissed his mother goodbye and bundled Zack in the truck and headed out again.

He’d been thinking about his father, about the less-than-enthusiastic reception the old man had given them, and how he’d never understand John Malone if he lived to be a hundred.

It wasn’t as if Deke was a failure, for God’s sake, as if he’d turned his back on the family, only to bring them shame.

He might not be Ansel Adams, but he had a reasonable reputation in the photographic world. His work was published, admired, hung in galleries, homes, and business, occasionally even esteemed. He taught masters classes in half a dozen photography schools around the country and was on the staff of a prestigious art institute in Santa Fe. He’d fulfilled his dream of buying a ranch. It wasn’t a big one, but he ran cattle on a small spread.

Wasn’t that better than sorting brussels sprouts for the rest of his life? Wasn’t that better than wasting his talents?

Apparently not. The only thing John Malone seemed to value was blind obedience to his will.

Deke slammed his fist against the steering wheel and took a bend in the road a little too quickly—the same bend he always used to take too quickly when he’d been on his way to see Erin.

And that was when he realized what he was doing.

He’d had a battle with his father. He was angry and out of sorts. He needed someone to talk to, someone who would settle him down, listen to him mutter, steer him straight.

And that had always been Erin Jones.

He lifted his foot off the accelerator, took a deep breath, and smiled just a little as he remembered Erin now. From the day he’d met her in his last year of high school, Erin had been his confidante, his soul mate, his friend.

He’d always thought of her as the “kid sister” who was closer to him than either of his real sisters had been—even closer than Milly, who had followed him around since she’d been born. Because for all that Milly had hero-worshiped him and he’d basked in it willingly, he’d never been able to let down his guard with Milly. You didn’t with somebody who thought you were a hero.

Erin didn’t think that. She’d always been his biggest supporter—but she knew he was no hero. He’d been little more than a boy trying to be a man when he’d met her. Erin had helped him find the courage to do it.

He remembered the day he’d met her as if it were yesterday. She and her dad had come into the grocery store one afternoon just in time to catch him on the receiving end of one of John Malone’s “stop your daydreaming and do your work” lectures, which had left Deke both embarrassed and furious.

He’d wanted to sink through the floor when he recognized Will Jones, one of the biggest ranchers in the county, standing there with his pretty teenage daughter, both of them almost as embarrassed as he’d been at being forced to witness every word of the dressing-down his dad had given him.

But before he could bolt into the back room, the girl had said, “Aren’t you Deke Malone?”

His father, still glowering, had muttered, “As if there could be another one,” in a gruff, disgusted tone.

But the girl just said eagerly, “I saw your photos at Dusty’s place. They’re fantastic.”

Deke had been amazed. No one else had noticed the dozen photos of an elk hunt he’d hung at Dusty’s Art and Bait shop last week.

His father had snorted something about “showing off” when Deke had told him about it. “Gettin’ too big for your britches,” he’d said.

It seemed he might be right because no one had noticed. Until now. Getting someone else’s approval stunned him.

And it was that approval, Deke was sure, that had given him courage to follow Will Jones out to his truck to try to talk the older man into hiring him as a cowboy for the summer. It had been a brash, foolish thing to do. He could ride a horse. He could build a loop. But his skills with cattle were nonexistent. He had no experience—except selling groceries.

But he’d dreamed of cowboying almost as much as he’d dreamed of taking photos. And another summer spent inside the stifling grocery store under his father’s disapproving eye was more than he could stand. He’d known he couldn’t make enough money taking photos to support himself, but he had to get out of the store, had to be outside, had to escape.

“I’ll work so hard you won’t need to hire anybody else,” he’d sworn fervently.

Will hadn’t looked thrilled. He’d scratched his head and shrugged his shoulders. He hadn’t said yes. He’d said, “I’ll think about it.”

Deke had gone back inside, embarrassed by his eagerness and his father’s quick dismissal of the idea.

“What do you know about cowboying?” he’d challenged when Deke had come back inside.

“Not much,” Deke had admitted.

“Foolishness,” his father had said. “You’ve got responsibilities right here.”

Not ones he’d wanted, though. But he’d figured he’d be stuck with them, so he’d been stunned that night when Will Jones had called and offered to take him on.

“Not sure you’ll be the only hand I’ll have to hire,” Will had said with a smile in his voice. “But I like a fella who’s eager, and I reckon you’ll learn something.”

“Yes, sir!” Deke had said earnestly, still amazed at his good fortune.

It wasn’t until the end of the summer that he’d realized that Erin had been the one to talk her father into it. She had always been his advocate, his supporter, his friend. They had been on the same wavelength from the moment they’d met. Erin was a photographer, too, she’d told him. But she’d never been brave enough to ask Dusty to display them.

“Or desperate enough,” Deke had said drily.

Erin had laughed. “Maybe that’s it. Or maybe,” she’d said humbly, “I’m just not as good as you.”

But she was. Deke had learned that quick enough.

She was every bit as good with a camera as he was. While he focused on landscapes, Erin concentrated on people. They complemented each other, they challenged each other. They talked and argued and teased and supported each other.

It was a wonderful summer—the best of his life. Erin was talented and smart and compassionate. She worked long, hard hours all summer long. And after that, even though in the fall, he’d gone to college and to work in the store, and she’d gone back to high school, and they hadn’t seen each other every day, whenever he felt hemmed in, he went to talk to Erin.

She settled him, calmed him, gave him some perspective. She always listened. She made sense of things for him. He talked to her about everything—his hopes, his troubles, his old man, his dreams. He even talked to her about the girls he dated because she was so sane, so sensible, so unlike all of them!

“You have more girlfriends than my dad has cattle,” she’d told him once.

He’d grinned. “Safety in numbers.”

She’d socked him lightly on the arm. “You’re awful.”

He’d shaken his head. “I’m not! I’m trying to find one who’ll understand me.”

Erin had rolled her eyes. “Good luck.”

Sometimes, when Deke thought back on it, he thought that the only one who had ever understood him was Erin.

Apparently, twenty years later, he must still think so because, instinctively, he’d headed toward the ranch.

For all the good it would do him.

Erin was gone. Had been for years. Erin was the one who had actually gone to Paris to study photography at the end of her senior year of college. It was Erin who had suggested he come too. He’d been stamping cereal boxes at the time, still trying to balance his “responsibilities” with his “dreams.”

“Yeah, sure,” he’d said, annoyed that she made it sound so easy. “Like I can afford to just pack up and move to Paris.”

“You could,” she’d said, “if you—” But then, she’d stopped. Her expression had shuttered. The easy openness he was so used to was suddenly no longer there.

“If I what?” he’d pressed her.

“Nothing. Never mind.” And she’d pasted on the first artificial smile he’d ever seen on her face. “Whatever.”

It was the last thing she had said to him.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye. When he’d got some time off on the weekend and had gone up to see her, her mother said she’d already left. She’d been as surprised as Deke that Erin hadn’t come to say goodbye to him.

“Ah, well,” Gaye Jones had said with a gentle smile. “She probably thought it was best this way. She might have cried, you know. Erin gets a little sentimental.”

“Yeah,” Deke said, feeling out of sorts. But probably it had been better. For her.

And maybe for him. He’d had the blowup with his father soon after, and Erin hadn’t been there to blunt his fury. With no one there to calm him down or make him see reason, he did exactly what she’d done—for entirely different reasons—he’d left town.

And in the end, it was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Erin, too, Milly had told him later. A couple of years later, she’d married a French journalist. She’d stayed in Paris, had had kids there. Over the years, he’d seen a little of her work. She still shot people, capturing their emotions, their reactions, their hopes and joys and fears.

Every once in a while, when he saw one of her photos that he particularly liked, Deke had been tempted to drop her a note and say so. He never had. It seemed presumptuous. She might not even remember him.

Two years ago, her husband had died—the victim of a firefight in the Middle East while he was covering a story. Milly had told him that too. Deke had heard about the fighting, but he hadn’t realized it was Erin’s husband who’d been killed.

When he found out, he’d considered writing her a letter of condolence. He hadn’t done that either. Too many years had passed.

You can’t go home again. Wasn’t that what they said?

But apparently, some part of Deke’s brain had thought he could, had at least been determined to try. Tonight, in the aftermath of his encounter with his father, he had instinctively headed straight for the Joneses’ ranch, ready to pour out his frustration to Erin—to Erin, who wasn’t even there.

End of Excerpt

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

ISBN: 978-1-961544-45-1

November 2, 2023

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