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Valentine Valley novella #2:
"The Christmas Cabin"
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All I want For Christmas Is a Cowboy
(an anthology available at online bookstores)
Novella "The Christmas Cabin"
by Emma Cane
What's better than Christmas? Christmas and Cowboys.
From Emma Cane, Jennifer Ryan, and Katie Lane come
three wildly romantic holiday stories featuring snowstorms, proposals, a sleigh
ride…and yes, cowboys.
THE CHRISTMAS CABIN by Emma Cane
Sandy and her five-year-old son Nate are Christmas tree hunting when a snowstorm strikes, and an old ranch hand points them to an abandoned cabin. Little does Sandy know, the hand sent cowboy Doug Thalberg to the same place. It’s a Christmas all of Valentine Valley will remember.
CAN’T WAIT by Jennifer Ryan
Before The Hunted Series began…Though she is the woman of his dreams, Caleb Bowden knows his best friend’s sister, Summer Turner, is off limits. He won’t cross that line, which means Summer will just have to take matters into her own hands if she wants her cowboy for Christmas.
BABY ITS COLD OUTSIDE by Katie Lane
Alana Hale hits the internet-dating jackpot when she finds Clint McCormick—he’s sensitive, responsible, gorgeous, not to mention, wealthy. When he invites her to spend the holidays on his family’s ranch, she readily accepts. But on the way there, a blizzard strands her with a womanizing, rodeo cowboy who could change everything…
(All I Want For Christmas Is a Cowboy will be available as an e-book December 10, and will be in paperback December 23 -- both available ONLY at online bookstores)~~~~~
"Cute, fast paced and funny...perfect for getting into the holiday spirit."
The Suburban Eclectic Review
"Three fantastic stories...each one gives you a great Christmas feeling. You get love, laughs, sizzle, and hot cowboys."
Racing to Read
"This story will make you
stop and appreciate the simple things in your own life
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
“That’s the perfect Christmas Tree!”
Sandy winced and glanced at her son Nate, his dimples framing his happy smile, five years old and convinced the best tree had to be the biggest. They stood in foot deep snow, in the woods at the base of the Elk Mountains. The falling snow that had looked so pretty when they’d arrived was now coming down a little steadier. But she could still see their boot tracks—just not so well, she realized uneasily.
“Nate, honey, that tree won’t fit in our apartment.”
“We can move back to our old house,” he said eagerly.
But they couldn’t move back—they hadn’t been able to afford it since Nate’s dad left them last year. Now they lived in a small apartment over her sister Marilyn’s garage while Sandy went to college.
“Someone else lives there now, honey. They have their own Christmas tree. So let’s go find a better one. Remember, I have to be able to cut it—and drag it!”
“I’ll help,” he said, so good-natured and understanding.
After everything he’d been through, it still amazed her that he hadn’t become a sullen, angry little boy. She wished she could tousle his adorable dark hair, but he was all snug in a hat and one-piece snowsuit.
She looked down at the hand saw she was holding, because her fingers were a little numb and she wasn’t sure it was from the cold or her Multiple Sclerosis symptoms. Numbness and tingling were how she’d first known something was wrong last year. Bruce hadn’t believed her at first, had sworn she pinched a nerve or something. Even the doctors took a while to diagnose it.
Gripping the saw tighter, she followed Nate, who romped through the deepening snow with delight. When he fell head-first into a drift, he turned his wet, laughing face up at her, eyelashes sparkling with snow, and her heart just swelled with love for him.
Soon they found a tree that wasn’t much taller than she was, and just the perfect shape. Using their hands, they dug away the snow from around its base so she could lie on the ground beneath the branches to cut the trunk. Nate called encouragement, even as she thanked God she still had her old ski pants and jacket to protect against the cold.
Maybe the saw wasn’t quite as sharp as it could have been. Sandy felt like she was sawing forever, occasionally stopping to stretch her tired hands. After awhile, Nate sat down cross-legged, watching for any sign the tree was about to go. When she was within a couple inches, arms aching, she leaned out from beneath the tree.
“Nate, stay behind me, honey. I don’t want our perfect Christmas Tree to fall over on you.”
He scampered behind her, eyes and mouth wide open with wonder as he looked up. The toppling of the tree started out slow, but it sped up and landed with a soft “woomph” in the snow.
“Yay!” Nate cried, jumping to his feet and practically dancing around the Christmas Tree.
Laughing herself, Sandy joined hands with her son and did an awkward shuffle around the tree in celebration. But the snow was making her nervous, so she wasted no time in picking up the saw with one hand, and the trunk of the tree with the other.
“I’ll carry the saw, Mom!”
“Uh, no, honey, it’s pretty sharp. I’ll be okay. You find our trail.”
She hadn’t realized how much running around Nate had done looking for the tree. It took her a few minutes of trudging before she was able to find their path to retrace. After about fifteen minutes, she realized she’d gone off track following a deer path or something, and had to backtrack to where she’d branched off. The snow was coming down harder now, and even Nate’s enthusiasm began to subside.
“How long will it take us to get back to the truck, Mom?”
She’d borrowed her brother-in-law’s pickup for the tree.
“I’m not sure, Nate. We did a lot of stopping and starting as we examined the trees.”
Me, too. A chill had settled in after lying in the snow. Her wet ponytail kept dipping under the jacket collar and dampening her turtleneck. Dragging the tree behind her, one-handed, was a growing strain on her shoulder.
It shouldn’t be this long to the truck.
She felt the first shiver of fear. Nate began to lag behind, and she slowed her pace for him.
“Just think how this will look in the corner of the living room,” she said, too brightly, her breath huffing as it formed a mist. “Uncle Tom and Aunt Marilyn offered to help us put it up.”
He nodded, but his little head was bent as if to watch his feet drag one at a time through snow that was occasionally up to his hips, where the wind had swept it into drifts.
Finally, he just came to a stop, and his voice was soft and plaintive as he said, “Mom?”
She let the tree fall, and hugged him hard against her body. “I’m sorry, Nate, honey. I’m so sorry.”
She was lost; somehow she had to face the fact and deal with it. She felt like the world’s worst, stupidest mother, taking her son alone into the woods to cut down a Christmas Tree.
She’d just wanted him to have the best Christmas ever, since the last one had been fresh with sorrow over his dad’s abandonment. They’d decorated their small apartment already, put fake candles in the window; they’d even found two red plastic bells hung side by side that when plugged in, synchronized their blinking to mimic a bell swaying back and forth.
But none of that mattered now. If she didn’t do something soon, they could die.
Fear became a lump of paralyzing terror in her stomach, and she clutched Nate to her, hard.
Please, God, please. My son has had to deal with so much. Please don’t let him die like this.
And then she heard the whinny of a horse.
Sandy inhaled sharply even as Nate lifted his head.
“Mom? Did you hear that?”
She could barely nod, so complete was her overwhelming feeling of relief. Her eyes stung, her breath came harshly as she fought back tears. “I heard, Nate,” she finally whispered, then cleared her throat and called out, “Hello!”
Her voice was muffled in the storm, so she tried again, louder this time, trying not to sound terrified and desperate.
They saw the horse’s head first, low against the snowstorm as he plodded forward. Like coming though a curtain, the rest of her rescuer slowly materialized, battered boots and scrawny legs beneath his chaps dusted with snow. He wore a big old sheepskin coat, his head sunk into the wool collar, with a cowboy hat perched atop. When he raised his head to peer at them, snow fell off the brim and down his shoulders like a white waterfall.
“You don’t need to shout, I heard ya,” he said, his voice quavering with age.
“And I’m so glad you did,” Sandy said, reaching for Nate’s hand.
Her little boy leaned tiredly against her hip.
“Can you point us in the direction of the road?” she asked.
He shook his head, his eyes bright in a maze of wrinkles. “You’ve gone too far in, girl. It’d be dangerous going back.”
She blinked at him in numb dismay. “Then…then do you know a place we can wait until the snow lets up?”
“Might not let up for days.”
Sandy swallowed and breathed deeply to remain calm. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore, could only imagine poor little Nate’s. She wished she could still pick him up, but he was big for a five-year-old, and she was exhausted.
“Do you live nearby?” she asked. “We have to warm up soon or—” She broke off, glancing down at her son.
“Naw, you couldn’t walk there, and I can’t take ya both on old Gretchen here.”
While her spirits sank again, she thought dazedly that Gretchen was a strange name for a horse.
“But there’s a cabin just through that line of trees,” he said, pointing his finger which was twisted painfully with arthritis.
Her shoulders lifted, the cold despair began to recede. “Really? A cabin? With people?”
“Naw, no people, but a good fireplace that’ll keep you warm ’til the storm’s gone. Mind you, don’t go tryin’ to leave too soon. Many’s a fool who was safe, but underestimated a snow storm.”
“Thanks, that’s good advice. Are you sure I won’t be trespassing?”
“You’re on Silver Creek Ranch land now—they’d want to help a lady in distress.”
Who hadn’t heard of the Silver Creek Ranch, living in Valentine Valley as she did? “Oh thank you! And I promise I’ll thank them. Where did you say the cabin was?”
He pointed again. “Keep walkin’ that way. I know you can’t see it yet but there’s a line of trees. The cabin’s right behind, not even a couple hundred yards away. I can’t stay, ’cause I got people who need me. Now go on, before you catch your death.”
He pointed again, and with a sigh, she turned and started to push her way through the deep snow, holding Nate’s hand.
“Walk behind me, honey, where I’ve made a path.”
“But, Mom, the Christmas Tree,” he said plaintively.
She briefly closed her eyes. The tree was the whole reason they’d come, her way to make Nate’s Christmas perfect, even though it really wasn’t.
“Okay, that nice man said it’s not far. I guess I can drag the tree.”
She turned back to where she left it, only to see the rump of the horse disappearing into the blowing snow. Damn. Hopefully they wouldn’t lose their way again.
Those final couple hundred yards seemed as long and exhausting as anything they’d done that day. Nate never complained, but he took to walking behind the tree, where the path was easier. She was forced to look over her shoulder every other step to make sure he was still there. Her face was numb and wet from the snow, a trickle of moisture running steadily down inside her clothes. She could only imagine how he must feel.
But at last they saw the long line of trees, and just behind the squat shape of a snow-covered log cabin. Though it was only late morning, the blowing snow and the trees combined to make it look shadowy and forlorn.
“That’s the cabin?” Nate said, sounding dejected for the first time.
“Oh, just wait until we build a big fire,” she said, fingers crossed behind her back as she prayed there was ample firewood and an easy way to light it. “Now let’s set our tree right up against the cabin.”
“Can’t we bring it inside?”
“Silly—of course not. We need to keep it frozen, so it lasts a long time at our apartment, right? Trees like the cold.”
“Christmas is only two days away—it doesn’t have to last a long time.”
She wondered if that was his subtle way of reminding her he’d been waiting a “long time” to get a tree. She’d had classes, and homework and her part-time job, not to mention enjoying his kindergarten activities—Christmas had snuck up on her this year.
As they walked the last few yards, she said, “Nate, I love to look at the lit Christmas Tree every night before I go to bed, with the living room lights off. I’ll keep it up long into January, until the needles fall off.”
He made a “hmph” sound, but even she was starting to run out of energy for talking. At the cabin, she leaned the tree upright, and the snow covering the needles did look beautiful.
“You picked out a good one, honey.” She touched the top of his wet hat.
She put her hand on the door latch, held her breath, and pressed down with her thumb. Inside, the latch lifted and the door creaked inward. A cloud of dust rose with the storm’s windy blast, and the room stretched into darkness.
But of course there was no one there. She cautiously stepped in, opening the door wide for light, just to make certain furry creatures hadn’t retreated there ahead of the storm. All she saw were some wooden chairs, a bench, a table, crates and wooden boxes, shelves and cupboards. There were windows, though, so after she guided Nate inside, she went out and climbed a few snow drifts to unlatch the shutters and open them wide. Once inside the house, she was able to close the door and at least see a bit through the grimy old window panes. She looked closer and saw that the glass rippled—these were really old windows.
And then she turned and saw Nate shivering, a puddle of melted snow forming all around him on the dirty wood floor.
“Oh, Nate, I know you want to get out of those wet things, but let me try to start a fire first.”
To her relief, someone on the Silver Creek Ranch had taken care to keep the cabin stocked with some essentials. Near the big stone hearth, firewood was stacked—not a lot, but maybe there was more outside—and wooden matches on the mantel. A stack of twigs would serve as kindling, and there were even a bunch of old newspapers tied with string. The wind howled and rattled the window panes, and she picked up her pace. Her dad had taught her to make a fire long ago, so she felt competent to align crumpled paper and kindling to form a teepee, even though her fingers were numb and clumsy with the cold. She lit a fire in a few places with a match, then tended it carefully, occasionally blowing, until she felt there were enough embers to lay on some bigger logs.
“Come on over here, Nate, and stand near the fire. Start taking your coat off.”
But his fingers were clumsy, too, and she had to help him unzip the long, one-piece snowsuit.
“I’m too old for this suit,” he mumbled, lips shivering.
She laughed, feeling giddy after everything they’d gone through. “It still fits you, Nate. I’ll buy you a brand new one next year, I promise.”
She brought over all the chairs and even the table, then began to hang their outer clothes over it. He was wearing a sweat suit, but it was damp through, and so were her own corduroys and turtleneck. Their clothes weren’t going to dry on their bodies.
“Stay near the fire, honey, and I’ll see if we can find something to wear.”
There were deep wooden bins, and shelves that took the place of a bureau. Besides canned goods—thank God!—she found old checkered blankets, dusty and mildewy by the smell of them. Holding them up, she looked for telltale holes, but bugs hadn’t gotten to them. She shook them out as best she could.
“We’re going to be Romans today and wear togas, Nate. You ready to play?”
His grin was back. “Sure. What’s a toga?”
She told him to strip out of his clothes. He’d gotten to that awkward stage of not wanting to be naked in front of his mom, so she held up the blanket while he took off his underwear. Then she wrapped the blanket around him and made a big knot at his shoulder.
His little nose wrinkled. “It smells.”
“I know, but as soon as your clothes dry, you’ll be able to put them back on.”
“Are you going to wear a gota, too?”
“Toga,” she said, chuckling. “And yes I will. Mind keeping your back turned while I change?”
“Sure. Can I poke the fire with a stick?”
She hesitated. “Why don’t you just look at the fire until I’m done? Then I’ll show you how you can stoke it, okay?”
He sighed. “Okay.”
“Don’t get too close. And don’t let the long blanket trip you.”
That kept him busy while she took off her clothes. She couldn’t make a knot on her own shoulder, so she wrapped herself up as if the blanket were a towel, tucking in the loose end beneath her arm. Nate was right—it did stink. She laid their clothing out on the table and hung across the chairs, closest to the fire, figuring those had to dry before their snow suits. After showing Nate the proper way to stoke the fire with the stick, she pulled up a chair and sat down as close as she could stand the heat. Letting out a big sigh, she held out her hands and rubbed them together.
She pushed away thoughts of anything scary, like when the snow would stop or how they were going to find their way home. Right now, she was just so thankful to be warm.
And then the door banged open, and she cried out. A man stood there, his broad shoulders spanning the width of the doorway, a long rifle loosely pointed at the ground. She grabbed Nate and held him against her. They both remained frozen—
Until the man staggered forward a step and fell to his knees.
|Copyright © Emma Cane|