Disowned by her family, Tiffany Vickers faces a lonely Christmas and takes great comfort in the baby boy in her care. Her faith is in tatters, and she guards her heart against the baby's uncle, handsome cowboy, Bragg Martin. It's the season for forgiveness, and while Bragg longs to open his heart and family to the lovely nanny, he doesn't understand her interest in his arch enemy. Saving a man's life and saving Tiffany's faith bring the couple together...and home to Hearts Crossing Ranch.
A storm might be brewing, but all Bragg Martin had left to do on this Friday afternoon was chuck off his boots and settle in for a long winter’s nap. Horses ridden, cattle tended, chores done and year-end accounts worked on, and he’d even gotten the dreaded Christmas shopping over and done with.
After he threw on a load of logs, he sprawled happily on the couch in the ranch house’s big front room. The phone rang. Not a muscle moved. With the giant family he had, there was always somebody else to do things he didn’t really want to.
Like get up and answer it.
But the ugly thing didn’t shut up, and with a groan, he hauled his bones to the land line in Pa’s office. Well, it was his big brother’s office now, but Hooper and his new fiancée Mallie were off decorating her aunt and uncle’s Christmas tree. He sprawled all over this couch and mumbled into the receiver.
“Who is this? Bragg?” His sister Rachel came over the line, amped up, which wasn’t one whit like her. Her mannerisms were always cool, logical attorney.
“Yep. You OK?” For a flash, some alarm tweaked him.
“Yeah, I just need a favor.”
“All righty.” It was the season of giving, after all.
Relief rattled her voice. “Thank God. Ma and Mrs. Densmore are off on that one-horse-open-sleigh caroling thing with Ella’s kindergarten class.”
Bragg smiled at mention of his little niece.
“And I can’t find Scott.”
“Off shopping.” Bragg sniffed at the poor sap.
“Then it’s you. I need you to go babysit Matty.”
“What?” Babysit Matty? His five-month old nephew? Sure Bragg had been raised by equal-opportunity parents, but babysitting an infant wasn’t exactly stuff for a single guy.
“I’m stuck in Rustic Canyon at a deposition. We’re running late. Chelsea’s with him now, but she’s got a date.”
Their other sister Kelley wasn’t due back in town until Christmas Eve, but he had one more brother to ramrod into the task since the newlywed Pike was still on his honeymoon.
“You got the wrong dude, sis. Get Kenn. He and Christy’ll be having kids of their own someday.”
“No. They’ve got Kenn’s faculty Christmas party. It’s you. You’re the only one left. Please? It’s just until Tiffany gets back.”
He grunted. Last week Rachel’s new paralegal slash au-pair had flirted with him with great enthusiasm at Pike and Daisy’s wedding reception, but downright snubbed him when he asked her out. Not number one on his favorite person list, because things like that just didn’t happen to Bragg Martin.
“So where’s she now?”
“Tiffany asked for a personal day.”
A personal day already? What, after two weeks? He tried hard to wiggle out. “Can’t you find somebody from church? I don’t know how to change a diaper.”
Rachel laughed, so he reckoned she believed he’d caved, and she started her closing arguments. “Now, now. You put the little cloth tee-pee over his you-know-what so he doesn’t shower you. If it’s the other, there’s plenty of wet wipes. Then you tape up the sides of the dy-dee. It’s not rocket science.”
“And there’s plenty of breast milk in little bottles in the fridge…”
That did it. “Raaaaaache…” he wailed.
Rachel ignored him “…to put in the microwave for thirty seconds.”
He groaned. Nothing against nature, but…
His big sister went all attorney, now. “Grow up, Bragg. It looks and works like any other milk. Now, hurry. Chelsea can show you where everything is before she leaves. And sweetie, thanks. I owe you.”
“That you do.” Then he recalled where she was. The icy road from Rustic Canyon could be a hard one in rough weather. “Rache, be careful out there. I think we’ve got a storm coming in.”
He could hear her smile over the line. All his brothers protected their womenfolk no matter how loud the gals roared. “I will, little brother. Nick’s got me the best snow tires there are. And I’ve driven in these parts longer than you. Now, Tiffany should be there by six. You can handle it.”
Or not. Hanging up, spirits dark, he climbed back into his boots. Not that he didn’t just love the little guy to death. But what a time for all his siblings to have their own agendas.
Nobody locked doors around here, but he did switch on the Christmas lights, even though it wasn’t exactly dark yet. Just to welcome everybody when they finally made their way back. Plus, Hearts Crossing looked pretty, all lit up. Climbing into a thick wool jacket with fleece lining, he tossed on his Stetson and set off for Mountain Cove, about eight miles away. Driving his big truck under the post gate hung with its brand –two interlocking hearts with intersecting cross— always calmed him down. Today was even better, all strung with lights. This ranch was home, and he was blessed to live here.
No snow yet. Even with the deep gray sky, the ride to town pleased him like it always did. Mountains already wore snow, and foothills with white-tipped pine, spruce, and winter-brown aspen branches reached high toward God. Every half mile or so, wind grabbed the truck. Still, nowhere on earth was there a better place to live than smack dab right here, at Hearts Crossing Ranch.
He had time to think. His brother-in-law Nick had deployed to the Middle East just weeks before his son’s birth, and even a single guy saw how circumstances grated on Rachel. But she met every day with smiles and prayers. She and Nick had a fine, newish condo on the east side of town in a small group of about twelve townhomes built to match the western flavor of their historic ranching town.
Although his brother Kenn and new wife Christy lived on the ranch, Kenn spent time in town as a teacher at Mountain Cove High School. But this afternoon, he wasn’t here.
The irony didn’t escape Bragg, and he burst out laughing. Irony. He’d been in Kenn’s English classes long ago and obviously remembered at least one literary term.
His teeth clenched. Those years had seen him do some bad things, and these days, he tried hard to make up for everything. With God’s guidance, he was making headway.
Even if he had lost two clients who had trusted him completely. With a sigh, he knew he had miles to go. Figuratively.
Another literary term. Wow, was he back in high school? Well, there was Tiffany.
Sorry. I can’t go out with you. Pretty, but prissy, little mouth.
Got a boyfriend? She hadn’t acted attached. No ring. No nun’s habit. Flirted bigtime until he popped the go-out-with-me question.
No, but I don’t date. Anyone.
At least she’d looked a bit abashed. His teeth clenched again. In a couple hours, she’d be showing her face. Whew. His truck snarled into town, wrapped up tight against the chill. Strings of Christmas bells arched from one side of the street to the other, thrashing in the wind. Hopefully Ma had brought that sleighful of kindergartners in from the cold.
Hopefully Rachel would get home OK.
He parked the truck in her driveway and ran to the front door with stomping feet.
“Brrrrrrrr.” Chelsea let him in, and he grumped right away. “It’s only four. What are you in such a rush for about a date tonight?”
“Shhhhhh. Matty’s asleep.” She was already twisting a long scarf around her neck. “John’s getting me at seven. Everybody’s home from college. We have our first mini-reunion out at the Double D…”
Mini-reunion? What was that about? She’d been out of high school, what, six months?
“…and I’m heading toward the Bumble Bee for a manicure and highlights in my hair.”
“What’s wrong with your hair the way it is?” Bragg asked, frowning at her long curls wound tight like a scrub pad. Of all the kids, only she had gotten Grim-Gram’s dark red hair.
A big-time eye roll. “I gotta go. Matty’s been a real good boy. He won’t be a bit of trouble.”
“I hope not.” He noticed Rachel’s unlit fireplace. “I was all set for a long winter’s nap.”
“Then get back to it.” She grabbed her purse. “Get some shut eye in while he naps.”
“What?” News to him. Didn’t a babysitter watch out every second?
Chelsea shrugged. “It’s what mommies do. Catch some Z’s while the baby sleeps. You’ll hear him on the baby monitor.” She hugged him quick and pointed toward something he vaguely recognized from her babyhood. Ma and Pa’s little afterthought, there were sixteen years between her and their oldest brother Hooper, and seven between him, second youngest, and her.
“All righty. You take care out there. I think something wicked this way comes.”
Her eyes grew big. “Sounds like a horror movie.”
“Blizzard. Feel it in my bones.” He kissed her cheek and she left. After hanging his thick jacket and hat on a rack, then set to building a fire.
Snow started to fall. Well, Chelsea was no slouch driving in it. Tricks of the trade when you lived in these parts. The fire took hold quick after he lit the piped-in gas, and he guffawed, recalling campfires he started from scratch on the family’s city-slicker wagon train tours. Rachel had one of those silly blankets with arms hanging off the back of the couch, and he climbed in it and curled up. Ah, kinda cozy. Maybe it wasn’t such a silly thing at all. His eyes closed.
Suddenly he was jerked back into real life when freezing air blasted his face and a baby’s howls smacked his ears. But the fuzz of sleep still clogged him. Who was the dream angel bending over him?
Tiffany Vickers. His heart hammered—both from being startled and because of how pretty she looked. Brown hair paintbrushed by the sun, gray eyes flecked with gold like the dark of dawn giving way to sunrise.
“What…what’s going on?” He pushed her away and struggled to get up, all tied up in the yards of fleece.
“Just a sec.” She left in a whiff of perfume. “I’ll get Matt.”
Finally on his feet, Bragg started after her. The baby was his responsibility, after all.
“You know each other, don’t you?” She called out.
Then somebody shut the front door, and Bragg turned to see who. Whom. The man facing him had Bragg’s heart drumming now in beats of rage.
Tony O’Neal. The swim coach who had led him down the road of steroid temptation. Oh yeah. Bragg knew him. Tony O’Neal had also brought Daisy, Pike’s new bride, to heartbreak and ridicule.
What was Tiffany Vickers, who didn’t date anybody, doing with the worst thing ever to happen to Mountain Cove?