The Cowboy’s Christmas Gift
Miniseries: Crooked Valley Ranch
Harlequin American Romance – November 2014
A CHRISTMAS AFFAIR?
Returning to Crooked Valley is more terrifying than the battlefield to ex-soldier Duke Duggan. Still, Duke has an important reason to be back—to take control of his late grandfather’s ranch. But being thrown headfirst into his old life makes Duke feel like a fish out of water. That is, until he sees Carrie Coulter again. Twenty years may have passed but the chemistry between them is stronger than ever.
When Duke threatens to sell the ranch, Carrie, the foreman, realizes she could lose her livelihood. But no decisions will be made until after the holidays. Until then, they have time to explore the feelings that draw them to each other. Together, can they come up with a way to keep the ranch and the burning love between them?
Duke Duggan turned the slightly battered half-ton up the dirt drive to Crooked Valley Ranch. Whorls of dust swirled behind him, clouding the frosty road as he made his way to the ranch house he remembered from childhood. It hadn’t changed a bit. The white siding and dark green window trim was definitely dated, but the wraparound porch he’d always loved still skirted the house, making it welcoming and cozy-looking.
Or it would look cozy, if not for the brown grass and nearly naked trees. November was a pretty bleak month—past the glorious splendor of fall colors but before the blanket of pure white snow that would soon fall in the small ranching town of Gibson, Montana.
Nerves twisted in his stomach. This homecoming hadn’t been in his plans. The letter from his grandfather, sent via the old man’s lawyer, was tucked securely in the breast pocket of his denim jacket.
Duke had still been in the hospital overseas when his grandfather had died, and he wished he’d been here to go to the funeral. Despite the tensions between them, Joe had still been family, and Duke had spent a good part of his early childhood at Crooked Valley Ranch. Those had been the years when his dad had still been alive, and as time passed, it felt to Duke as if the memories were slipping further and further away. He worried that sooner or later they’d disappear altogether.
That time hadn’t come yet, though. He clearly remembered the rolling hills in the shadow of the mountains, waving grass, horses and cows dotting the verdant pastures, and a bedroom decorated with rodeo wallpaper—his dad’s old room. His dad had taught him how to ride a horse before he rode a bike, and it was something he’d always enjoyed during the times he’d spent at his grandparents’ place.
Duke also remembered arguments between his mother and his grandparents, Joe and Eileen—particularly after his dad had died. Mom had never loved the ranch, and her mother-in-law and father-in-law had known it. Something Duke did remember clearly was his mother repeating that she only stayed at Crooked Valley because Evan had wished it while he was deployed.
Sgt. Evan Duggan—Duke’s father and hero.
Duke had only been eight when his dad was killed in Iraq. Twenty-two years ago now. With no further reason to keep her promise, Mom had moved them away from Crooked Valley and the small town of Gibson to Helena, where she took a government job and supported them all. Duke, along with his sister, Lacey, and brother, Rylan, only saw their grandparents occasionally after that. A week in the summer, and maybe once or twice during the year on holidays. Once they were teenagers and more concerned with friends and part-time jobs, they saw the Duggans even less.
Duke had liked the time he spent there in the summer. He’d been able to ride every day, hang out with the hands, most of whom had known his dad as a kid, too. They’d shared stories with him that helped Duke feel closer to his father—a man Duke really couldn’t remember all that well beyond a shock of red hair, a big smile and a uniform.
He’d liked it here, sure. What kid wouldn’t enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors? But that was a far cry from wanting to be a rancher himself. Especially when he wasn’t consulted and part-ownership was just thrown in his lap, piled on top of his other worries. He didn’t want the ranch to fall into a stranger’s hands, but that didn’t mean he and his siblings were equipped to step in. Nosiree. He knew how to be a soldier. He’d been damned good at it. He didn’t know anything about ranching.
One-third of this tired-looking ranch was his—if he wanted it. Trouble was, Duke didn’t really know what he wanted—other than a good dose of peace and quiet. Maybe the odd chance to blow off a little steam once in a while. Time to figure out what was next for him, because he’d only been home for two weeks and he had no idea what he was going to do for the rest of his life. He was out of the army and, without it, he wasn’t sure who he was at all.
Duke slowed the truck as he reached the sprawling yard that contained the house, several outbuildings in need of paint and shrubs that looked as if they hadn’t seen a trimmer all summer. He frowned. It didn’t look like the prosperous, well-tended ranch he remembered. Maybe he’d be better off going back to Helena and bunking in with Ricky Spencer. Spence had given Duke a place to sleep and an offer of a job at his auto repair shop after Duke had left the army behind.
Except working with Spence would just been a Band-Aid solution. He sighed. This probably would be, too. But maybe, once he’d been here for a few months, he’d have a better idea about the future. Like what he wanted to do about it. He was a soldier, period. Except he wasn’t, unless he wanted to be a desk jockey. Without a doubt he knew he’d go crazy doing that. With his hearing loss being permanent, his options were more limited than they used to be.
He felt like a puppet, at the mercy of whoever was pulling the strings.
Duke parked the truck next to the biggest barn, the one where he remembered disappearing to each day in the summer to spend time with the horses. He got out and stretched his arms over his head. The weak autumn sun felt good, though it did little to warm him. The air was clear and fresh, though. He let out a big breath, a cloud forming in front of his face. What did feel right since returning home was the big Montana sky, the sun, the smell of the air. There was nothing like it in the world—and he’d seen a lot of places.
Birds chirped in the skeleton branches of the scrub brush, but Duke had a problem telling where the tweets and burbles were coming from. Losing half his hearing had been a blow, but at least he could still hear out of his left ear, and he still had all his fingers and toes. That’s what he kept telling himself, anyway. The gash on his arm had healed to a pink scar and so had the bruises. But the hearing loss was permanent. He was damned lucky he hadn’t been killed by the IED and he knew it. That didn’t mean there weren’t adjustments that he had to make. Or that he deeply resented having to make them.
“Hey! I said can I help you!”
Startled, he spun to his right to see a man, much smaller than himself, marching toward him from the back of the barn. He squinted and realized it was no man at all—it was a woman, in jeans, dirty boots, a denim jacket similar to his own and a battered brown hat on her head. The words she’d hurled at him echoed in his head. “I said can I help you!” Clearly they’d been spoken more than once and he hadn’t heard. He clenched his teeth, annoyed at his disability once more.
“Jeez, I called out three times. What are you, deaf?”
He raised a surprised eyebrow as the words hit their mark. “Wow. That was rude.”
She huffed out a sigh as she came close enough he could see her face. “Bad morning. Sorry.”
He looked closer. “I’ll be damned. Carrie? Carrie Coulter?”
Blue eyes looked up into his. “That’s right. And you are?”
It only took a half second after the words were out of her mouth for who he was to register. “Oh my God. Duke Duggan?”
He hadn’t seen Carrie since what, third grade? Back then she’d had a space between her front teeth and freckles, and sandy blond hair that she always wore in a perky ponytail with pieces sticking out at her temples. Once he’d called her Freckle Face and she’d kicked him in the shin so hard he’d had the bruise for two solid weeks.
She still had the same pieces of hair sticking out and curling by her hat brim and the same freckles too, only they were a little bit lighter now and the space was gone from her teeth as she gaped up at him, mouth open. Huh. Carrie Coulter had turned out quite attractive when all was said and done, even dressed in dirty jeans and a bulky jacket that didn’t do her figure any favors.
“Well,” she finally said softly. “I think hell just froze over. Didn’t think you’d ever make it back here.”
He watched her lips as she answered. They were very fine lips, full and pink without even a touch of gloss or lipstick. “Your grandfather always wanted you kids to come back and you never did.” Her eyes took on an accusing look. “I think it broke his heart.”
“His heart broke when my dad died,” Duke stated dispassionately. “Don’t get me wrong. I liked my time here as a kid, but after Desert Storm…” He frowned down at her. “It was always about my dad. Wanting us to take over the place since my dad never would.”
Duke had heard it so many times as a kid, how his father had failed the family. It was no wonder that Duke had rebelled against the idea of joining the ranch, instead determined to honor his father by following in his footsteps and joining the army. But it hadn’t only been about rebellion. Duke had wanted to be a soldier and he didn’t regret that move in the least. Not even considering his injuries. He’d served his country and done it proudly. It was all he’d ever really wanted to do.
“You didn’t hear how much he talked about you,” she replied, a little tartly, he noticed. Clearly Carrie had been devoted to the old man.
“You knew him better than I did.”
“My point exactly. What are you doing here, Dustin?”
She was mad. That had to be the only reason she reverted to his real name. He’d been Duke for so long that he was surprised anyone would even remember that his birth certificate said Dustin. It felt as though she was addressing a stranger.
He made a point of hooking his thumb in a careless gesture, motioning toward the back of the truck where two duffels sat side by side. “I’m here. As one-third owner of Crooked Valley Ranch.” To prove it, he took the letter out of his breast pocket and handed it to her, ignoring the slight feeling of panic he got just saying the words.
She opened it, walked away a few steps as she read the words. Words that had caused several reactions within him when he’d opened the envelope. Anger, grief and, strangely enough, fear. After all the places he’d been, things he’d seen, danger he’d been in, it was the idea of taking over Crooked Valley that made him most afraid.
He could tell she said something because he heard the muffled sound of her voice, but couldn’t make out the words. He turned and took a few steps through the crackly grass until he was facing her again. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.
She held up the letter. “I had no idea. When Joe died, I asked Quinn what we were supposed to do and he said keep working until we heard differently from the lawyers. When did you get this?”
“Last week,” he confirmed.
“And your brother and sister?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them lately. They have commitments. I don’t. Not at the moment, anyway.”
She folded the paper and handed it back to him. “Well, I have to say I’m a bit relieved. We’ve all been wondering what was going to happen with the ranch. But what about the army? Are you just on leave, or what?”
It stung more than a little to have to respond, “The army’s in the past. By the way, who’s Quinn?”
There. He’d changed the subject. He’d rather not talk about the circumstances around his leaving his former life. It was still too fresh.
“Quinn Solomon. The ranch manager.”
“And you’re what, a ranch hand?” He couldn’t help but smile a little at the idea. Most of the girls he knew wouldn’t be caught dead with manure on their boots, dirt on their face and less than perfect hair. It seemed impossible that the cute little girl he’d teased in school was now working on his ranch. That would make her his employee…
All traces of friendliness disappeared from her face. “No sir,” she corrected him. “Quinn’s the manager, and I’m the foreman of the cattle side of the business. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work. We lost two heifers to coyotes last night. I need to bury the bodies.”
Bury the bodies? Coyotes and heifers?
Duke had had visions of riding the range, surveying his domain, moving cattle from pasture to pasture and some sort of idyllic, carefree life for a few months while he made some hard decisions. That vision hadn’t included predators and dead bodies and digging graves. That wasn’t his idea of stress relief. He’d had enough of that sort of thing during his deployments.
“You need some help?” he asked, knowing he couldn’t send her out there to tackle it alone.
She turned back to face him, which made it easier for him to understand her next words. “I’ve got a couple of hands who’ll help me. Why don’t you go get settled? You’d only get in the way anyway.”
She strode off before he could form a suitable reply. Ok, so he was a greenhorn. He admitted it. But he was part-owner of this ranch and she worked for him now, even if it was a formality. Her dismissive tone definitely grated on his nerves.
He turned away, hopped back into the truck and drove over to the main house. Once he figured out where he was going to stay, he’d deal with Carrie Coulter and her uppity attitude.
Carrie’s heart beat against her ribs the whole way back to her ATV.
She’d wondered what Joe’s plans for the ranch were. Wondered if she’d find herself out of a job and left with a mountain of bills still to pay and a winter’s worth of heating to come out of her bank account. It was an enormous relief to know that she still had employment and that she’d be able to keep the wolf from the door. And a pain in the ass to find that her new boss didn’t know ranching from his armpit. Duke Duggan had always had too high an opinion of himself in school. He’d grinned and teased and called her Freckle Face and pulled her ponytail. She remembered. It had been a relief when he moved away. Sort of.
And my, hadn’t he grown up. She tugged on a pair of gloves, swung her leg over the seat of the quad and fired up the engine. She gave the throttle a shot of gas that sent her lurching away from the barn and toward the twin tracks leading down the hillside to where the herd was grazing. She couldn’t banish the memory of his deep blue eyes staring down at her in surprise, or the intent way he watched her face as she spoke. Never mind he was now at least six feet tall and from the looks of it, all lean muscle. His hair was military-short and had looked naked without a hat. If it grew out, she imagined it would be a rich auburn, not quite brown and not quite red.
Son of a…
She bounced over a hard rut and gripped the handlebars tighter. Why the hell should she care what color his hair was, anyway?
If she was lucky, Duke would spend most of his time with Quinn. Quinn was the real boss here, overseeing most of the ranch operations, especially once Joe had gotten older and his health had declined. Duke could stay out of her way and just let her do her job. She had enough to worry about. Like paying off her mom’s medical bills. The estate hadn’t covered the expense and now, two years after the funeral, Carrie was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe in another year she could stop scrimping and saving quite so much as she got out from under the debt.
Worrying about money wasn’t going to solve the current problem, though. She had cattle to take care of…and a coyote problem to solve. She was just thankful that Duke was here to take over, no matter how annoying she found him on a personal level. Someone needed to take responsibility for the ranch. It wasn’t the perfect situation, but it was better than nothing.
“Come on, Carrie.” Kailey Brandt fell back onto the bed with her arms outstretched. “It’s Friday night. And I don’t want to go to the Wooden Nickel alone.”
Carrie tried not to laugh. The Wooden Nickel was the nickname Kailey had given the Silver Dollar Saloon, saying a dollar was far more than the old bar was worth. “I’m tired. I had a busy week,” she answered.
“Didn’t we all,” Kailey replied, undaunted. “Girl, you’ve been wrangling cows and coyotes. You need to blow off some steam. Have a beer. Flirt with a good-looking cowboy and have a dance or two. Maybe some mattress mambo.”
Now Carrie did laugh. “You just want to see if Colt’s going to be there.”
Kailey turned her head away and the grin slid from her face. “Colt Black can dry up and blow away for all I care.”
Carrie sat down on the bed beside her friend. She and Kailey were close, both being farm girls at heart. Kailey was in charge of the bucking stock over at the nearby Brandt place, and they were both used to working in a physically demanding, male-dominated industry. Once in a while they got together and decided to feel like girls for a few hours. Friday nights at the saloon usually fit the bill.
“What happened between the two of you?” Last Carrie had heard, Colt’s gaze had been fixed on Kailey just as much as hers was on him. The last time they’d been in a room together, Carrie had been certain she could light a fire with the hot looks passing between the two.
“I waited too long. He hooked up with some girl from Great Falls with big hair and bigger boobs.” Kailey looked down at her ample but not overly huge chest. “What is it with guys and breasts?”
Carrie laughed again. Kailey was like a breath of fresh air.
“Please, Car,” Kailey stared up at Carrie with big blue eyes. “If you don’t, I’ll end up spending Friday night at home with the old folks watching Thanksgiving Hallmark movies on TV.” She shuddered.
“Oh, all right. But I’m not staying late. I’m dog-tired, Kailey.” Never mind she’d spent the past few days trying to stay out of Duke’s way. Their paths had only crossed a few times since their initial meeting, and he’d been engrossed in conversation with Quinn, just as she’d wanted it.
So why had she felt so disappointed when he hadn’t answered her hello, but merely nodded and kept walking?
Because she was a damned fool, that was why. Truth was, everything she held dear was tied up in Crooked Valley Ranch. The fact that Duke had showed up had been nothing short of a blessing. He could be as crotchety as he liked, as long as he kept Crooked Valley running and her in a job.
She straightened her shoulders. “I guess I should get dressed then. And put on some makeup.”
Kailey sat up. “That’s the spirit! You should wear that red shirt with the V-neck. And I’ll fishtail your hair. You’ve got way better hair than I have for that. The braid makes your summer sun-streaks stand out.”
And so it was that less than an hour later, both girls walked into the Silver Dollar. It was busy already, and they had to wait for one of the tables on the perimeter of the scarred dance floor. The Dollar had once been an old barn that Cy Williamson had renovated. Right now the latest country hits echoed to the rafters, along with lots of chatter and laughter.
Carrie took off her coat and tugged at the neckline of her shirt. She’d let Kailey steamroll her and now felt conspicuous at the little bit of cleavage revealed by the V. She was wearing makeup, too, eye shadow and a bit of liner and mascara and lipstick, of all things.
Scott Johnson was staring over at their table and Carrie gave Kailey a kick. “You’re getting attention already. Jerkwad Johnson at two o’clock.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake.” Kailey forced a smile. “Let’s get a beer and forget he’s there. First round’s on me.”
Kailey got up and went to the bar rather than waiting for one of the waitresses to make her way over. Carrie watched as several eyes fixed on her friend’s attractive figure as she leaned against the old wooden bar to give her order. She wondered if Kailey really knew how beautiful she was. No matter how dolled up Carrie got, when she was with Kailey she always felt a bit like the ugly stepsister—without the bad temperament.
The double doors opened again and Carrie froze.
In walked Quinn Solomon—he must have got a sitter for his daughter tonight—and Mr. Prodigal Grandson himself, Duke Duggan. Jumpin’ Judas, the man was good-looking. He smiled at something Quinn said and it made his face light up. His jeans fit his lean body just right and he wore a brown coat with a sheepskin collar that made his shoulders look impossibly broad. His boots were clean but not new, and he’d hidden his buzz-cut look beneath a brown hat.
Kailey returned to the table and put down two bottles of beer. “Mother McCree, who is that?” she asked, nudging Carrie’s arm with the cold bottle. “Whoo eee.”
“My new boss,” Carrie replied dryly, blindly reaching for the bottle. “Duke Duggan.”
“What? No way. I don’t remember him looking like that.”
“He was eight when he moved away,” Carrie reminded her. “You were six. Your memory might be a little foggy.”
“Right. Well. This changes the evening significantly.”
There was no reason on earth that Kailey’s words should inspire a flicker of jealousy, but they did. It was ridiculous. Carrie didn’t like Duke and had absolutely no claim on him. Why should she care if Kailey was interested?
As if he could feel their eyes watching him, he turned their way. She could tell when he looked at Kailey, because his eyes twinkled a little and he raised an eyebrow just a bit.
But then he looked directly at Carrie and her breath froze in her chest. The twinkle disappeared from his eyes, but they remained warm, and a smile touched his mouth. And then he lifted a finger and touched the brim of his hat before turning away and following Quinn to the bar.
Her breath came out in a hot rush. Oh man. She was in big, big trouble. He was her boss. He was a pain in the butt. And he made her pulse race in a way it hadn’t in a very, very long time.