The Cowboy’s Christmas Family
THE COWBOY’S CHRISTMAS FAMILY
HIS CHRISTMAS PRESENT
Madison Wallace is determined to make this Christmas extra special for her twin boys. Money is tight, but at least Maddy can do something about that…unlike the rumors of her late husband’s infidelity. So the part-time job at Cole Hudson’s ranch is a perfect solution, and kind, sexy Cole is darn near perfect, too. Unfortunately, Maddy can’t trust her heart—or a man—ever again.
Cole only intended to help Maddy out with the holidays. But the moment she and her boys arrive at his ranch, they capture his heart completely. Convincing Maddy to give him a chance won’t be nearly as easy. He’s got the Secret Santa presents covered, but the gift Cole really wants to give Maddy is his love. Will Maddy be brave enough to accept it?
“Alward’s latest is a heartwarming story that’s perfect for the holidays.” –RT Book Reviews
“A sweet Christmas story with two adorable twins.” –Mixed Book Bag
There were days when Madison Wallace felt like a single-mom Cinderella.
She blew at a few strands of hair that had escaped her messy ponytail, then tucked them behind her ears for at least the tenth time in the last half hour and checked her watch yet again.
Six twenty. The library closed at eight. The meeting was due to start in ten minutes and she didn’t even have the coffeepot going yet. The boys were in a playpen in one of the smaller meeting rooms, and her brain was on the verge of shut-down, with her body not far behind.
Whoever came up with the idea of Snowflake Days needed their head examined.
Oh, right. That would be her.
Of course, she’d put forth that proposal last winter, and the mayor and council had loved the idea. She’d thought she’d have tons of time to help with the planning committee. The babies would be a little older, she’d be back at work, Gavin would be home at night to lend a hand, and life would be back to normal.
And then everything had changed.
She couldn’t think about that now. She didn’t have time. And playing the game was a waste of energy anyway.
The meeting room where the twins were was quiet except for the odd babble, so she rushed around as committee members started arriving and gathered in the foyer, chatting. There were twelve altogether, a blend of male and female, young and old, business owners and retirees and anything in between. She put tablets of paper at each spot at the conference table as well as pens that said Gibson Public Library on them. A separate table held coffee, now dripping merrily into the pot, ice water, and an array of muffins and breads, which she’d baked just this morning while the boys were napping rather than taking from the library’s petty cash, which was always pretty tight.
“Maddy, this is just lovely, dear.” Pauline Rowe stopped and patted her arm. “Thank you for setting it up. Now that Thanksgiving is over, we’re really going to get into the nitty-gritty of the planning. Lots of coffee required.”
Maddy smiled at Pauline, who owned the town’s only dry cleaning and alterations shop. “Thanks, Pauline. Let me know if you need anything else, okay?”
An ear-splitting scream punctuated the relative quiet and Maddy winced. “Sorry. I’ll be right back.”
She rushed to the meeting room and found Liam and Lucas in the playpen. Liam was hanging on to the edge for dear life and crying, while Lucas whimpered softly in the corner, big crocodile tears on his cheeks.
Her boys. Best friends one moment, fighting like cats the next, and at a year old, with no verbal skills to tell her what was wrong. She hadn’t been prepared for motherhood, let alone times two. And going it alone? Since Gavin died, she’d really had to fight against despair at times. Like tonight, when she was bone weary.
“Hey, sweetie. Mama’s here.” She picked up Liam and settled him on her arm. He burrowed into her neck and stuck his thumb in his mouth, his wet face sticking to her skin. Her heart melted just a little bit. He was such a snuggle bug.
“You had to bring the twins?” Pauline asked gently. Without missing a beat, she went to the playpen and lifted out Lucas, who stared at her with owlish blue eyes and sucked in his lower lip as he fought against crying.
“Mom’s down with the stomach flu as of this morning. It was…short notice to find a replacement.”
Short notice was her excuse. The truth was, she didn’t have the money to pay someone for child care today. It had come down to food and lights as far as priorities went. Filled tummies and running water were pretty important, and the holidays were coming.
She gave Liam a bounce and smiled, and he placed a chubby, if damp, hand on her cheek. Despite the troubles and challenges, she wouldn’t trade her babies for anything. Things would work out the way they were supposed to. When times got rough, she found it difficult to remember that, but it was what she truly believed. Something good was around the corner for her. It was going to be okay. How could it not be?
“Hello, is the meeting in here?”
Maddy looked up and went dumb for a few seconds.
Cole Hudson, all six feet of him, stood in the doorway. He’d taken off his hat and held it in his hand…of course he had, because he had impeccable manners. His dark hair was cut short, just long enough for his fingers to leave trails as he ran his hand through it, in what Maddy assumed was a gesture of tidying it but really gave it a mussed look. And blue eyes. Blue with little crinkles at the corners. Like the Texas bluebells she’d seen once on a trip she’d taken with her parents.
A girl had to be blind not to get a little tongue-tied around Cole Hudson.
“Sorry,” she said as she found her wits again. “The meeting’s across the hall.”
In her rush to get to the boys, the door to the meeting room had closed and locked, so she dug in her jeans pocket for the keys on one of those stretchy wrist things all the librarians used. She fumbled and Cole reached around, took the key from her hand and put it in the lock. He was standing awfully close to her, and she suddenly found it difficult to take a full breath.
“Allow me. You have your hands full,” he said kindly, swinging open the door.
She adjusted Liam on her shoulder. “Let me get a door stopper so you don’t get locked out again,” she said, looking around, feeling unusually flustered. Pauline still held Lucas in her arms and he was starting to squirm, wanting to get down. Both boys were walking now, but unsteadily, which meant they were an accident waiting to happen when let loose.
She put the stopper in the door, committee members started filing in—still chatting—and she took Lucas from Pauline, so she held a child in each arm.
“Is there anything more you need?” she asked the group at large, holding tight as Lucas twisted and fussed.
“We’re fine, Maddy. Truly.” Lacey Duggan came forward, a smile on her face. “This is wonderful. And you have your hands very full. We’ll come find you if we need something, but really, don’t worry about a thing.”
“Thanks, Lacey.” Lacey was new to Gibson, Montana, and new wife to Quinn Solomon up at Crooked Valley Ranch. Maddy let out a small sigh. “I was kind of hoping to be involved, but…” She let the sentence trail off and gave a small shrug with her aching shoulders.
“Your boys are adorable,” Lacey added, ruffling Liam’s hair.
“Thanks. I’m not usually this discombobulated.” She boosted Lucas on her hip, getting him in a better position. “Work and babies don’t go together very well.”
“Everyone understands,” Lacey offered sympathetically.
Yes, they did. And it burned Maddy’s biscuits that she was reminded of it so very often. As if she could forget what had gotten her in this position in the first place.
Gavin had been a cheater. And a liar.
“Well, I’d better get back to the desk. Holler, okay?”
She pasted on a smile and went back to the room where she’d set up the boys. She dug in her bag and pulled out a sleeve of arrowroot cookies and two sippy cups of milk that had been sitting against an ice pack. “Okay, boys, please be good for Mommy. Please. I have to check the front desk and then I’ll be back.”
For the moment, the promise of a cookie and milk pacified the children and Maddy zipped out to the front desk. The library was quiet; other than the meeting there were no other special activities tonight, thank goodness. Two or three people browsed the stacks, and Maddy quietly went to them and told them to ring the bell at the circulation desk when they were ready to check their books out.
A quick breath and back to check on the boys.
And so went the next hour and a half. A quick check, back to the front. Change a diaper, back to the cart to put books back on the shelves. Slipping the twins into their pajamas, and then back to the drop box to scan the returned books into the system. She could hear the committee laughing behind the door and her shoulders slumped. She should be in there. She wanted to help. Last Christmas the boys had only been a month old. This year they were old enough to be excited at the bright lights and the sound of ripping paper, eating a real Christmas dinner even if half of it had to be mashed.
Maybe she could make next week’s meeting. As long as her mom could babysit…
At five minutes to eight, the conference room door opened and the noise got louder, just as Liam had nodded off and Lucas was finally starting to settle, curled up with a blanket and rubbing his eyes. The sudden change in volume startled them both, and Maddy closed her eyes for a second, let out a breath. It was nearly done. She could close up the library and take the boys home and maybe, finally, get some sleep.
And for right now she was going to let the boys fuss and whimper for two minutes while she saw everyone out and locked the damn doors.
The place was nearly empty when she turned from the circulation desk and saw Cole come around the corner, a very grouchy Lucas on his arm. She felt a definite pang in her chest, seeing her fussy boy being held by a strong man, like a father would. Only Lucas didn’t have a father. He was going to miss out on all of that.
Then there was the impact of seeing Cole Hudson holding a baby. Men and babies…Maddy didn’t know if there was an evolutionary, biological reason for finding it so attractive or not, but there was no denying her heart softened just a little bit and her pulse started beating just a little faster.
“Cole, I’m sorry. I was going to get back to the boys as soon as I locked up.” She gave a small smile. “It doesn’t hurt them to fuss for a few minutes, you know.”
“The other one’s back to sleep. I thought I’d get this little guy out before he woke him up again.” Cole smiled, and her heart went all mushy again.
, she reminded herself. And Gavin had been darned pretty. He’d given her pretty babies. And in all likelihood he’d fathered another one that was due any day—Laura Jessup’s baby.
She had a long way to go before she trusted anyone ever again. Even Cole, who had such a stellar reputation in the community that it seemed he could do no wrong.
“Thanks. I’ll take him. You probably want to get going.”
But Cole didn’t move. “You’re not leaving right away, are you?”
Her cheeks heated. “Well, I have to spend a few minutes tidying up. It won’t take long.”
Cole shifted Lucas’s weight, and to Maddy’s consternation, Lucas’s eyes were drifting shut, cocooned in the warm curve of Cole’s arm. “It’ll take you longer if you have him in your arms,” Cole reasoned. “I can stay for a few minutes. Give you a hand.”
“That’s generous of you, Cole, but…”
“But nothing.” He chuckled. “I heard you were stubborn. Accept the help, Maddy. It’s no big deal.”
It felt like a big deal to her. “I’m perfectly capable of handling it. Thank you.” She moved forward and took Lucas out of Cole’s arms, close enough to Cole that she could smell his aftershave and feel the soft cotton of his shirt as her fingers brushed against it. The last thing she wanted was more pity. More sympathetic looks. All it did was remind her of how stupid she’d been. How duped. She’d been an inconsolable wreck when she’d gotten the news about the car accident. Three days later she’d gone to Gavin’s funeral as the grieving widow, devastated that they’d never have the chance to fix their marriage, that her boys would grow up without their father.
And two days later she’d heard the rumors. And remembered that Laura had been at the funeral and offered her condolences…
Maddy brushed past Cole and left him to exit the library on his own, and she went to the conference room and began putting muffins back in the tin with one hand.
No one would make a fool of her that way again.
Cole sat at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of water and reading one of his latest cattle magazines. He knew he should go to bed. Tomorrow was an early start, and there were things he wanted to get done before snow hit, as it was forecast to do tomorrow night. He turned another page and realized he hadn’t really been reading. He’d been thinking about Maddy Wallace, how tired she’d looked, how she tried to cover it with her work face, and how defensive she’d gotten when he’d tried to help.
And then he’d called her stubborn and that had been the end of any assistance he might have offered. That really stuck in her craw. He’d make a point of not saying that again. He was certain to see her, as the meetings for the committee were always at the library. Besides, Gibson was pretty small. Their paths crossed now and again.
And as such, Maddy’s story was pretty common knowledge. Her husband had been killed in a car accident several months before, leaving her widowed with the twins. Which would have been bad enough, but rumors had spread that Gavin Wallace had been having an affair. He didn’t blame Maddy for being defensive. It wasn’t nice having your dirty laundry hung up for everyone to see.
The exhausted, hopeless look on her face tonight had reminded him of someone else, too. Someone he tried not to think of much anymore…
He hardly noticed when his mother came into the kitchen. It wasn’t until the fridge door opened that he jumped and spun in his chair, looking over his shoulder at her.
Ellen Hudson was still a beautiful woman at fifty-seven. Her gray hair was cut in a wispy sort of bob and while she had crow’s-feet at the corners of her eyes, they still twinkled as blue as ever. She gave a light laugh at Cole’s surprise and took a carton of milk from the fridge.
“You’re up late. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Just reading. Winding down.” Thinking too much.
She went to the cupboard and got a mug. “Me, too. I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d try some warm milk.” She poured the milk into the mug and put it in the microwave. Cole watched as she took it out again, added a splash of vanilla and a spoon of brown sugar, and took a sip.
“I don’t know how you drink that disgusting stuff,” he commented, closing his magazine.
She grinned and sat down opposite him. “I drank it when I was pregnant with Tanner and was off the caffeine.” She cradled the mug and looked up at him. “Something on your mind, son?”
“Not really. Probably just too much coffee at the meeting tonight.”
“How’d that go?”
“Good,” he answered, leaning back in his chair. “Things are coming together.”
“I’m sorry we’re going to miss it,” his mother said. “We’ll be in St. Thomas by then.”
Cole grinned. “You’re not that sorry. You and Dad have been waiting for this trip for years.” They were flying to Florida to spend a week, and then taking a two-week cruise through the Caribbean. “Besides, you’ll be back for Christmas.”
“Of course we will. With a suntan.” She laughed a little. “I’m not sure if my sleeping problems are from excitement or anxiety.”
It was Cole’s turn to laugh. “Mom, I promise Tanner and I aren’t going to throw any ragers while you guys are out of town.”
“Smart-ass.” But she laughed, too. “You both are grown men. And good men. Still, I hate leaving you to manage both the ranch and the house.”
“We’re big boys. We know how to clean and cook. You go and don’t worry a bit about us. We’ll eat steak every night. It’s Tanner’s specialty.”
If Tanner was ever home, that was. He always seemed to find somewhere to go, something to do. And when he wasn’t being a social butterfly, he was putting in hours as a volunteer EMT. Maybe it was because Tanner was younger, but he had an energy that far surpassed Cole’s. Or maybe Cole was just more of a homebody.
“You know, if you’d hurry up and get married…”
“I know, I know. You and Dad would downsize and you wouldn’t worry about me so much. And while I’m at it, get to work on some grandkids for you to spoil.”
It was a well-worn refrain. And one he understood, but he didn’t need to have it mentioned quite so often. It wasn’t that he had anything against settling down. He just hadn’t met the right one yet. Every girl he dated seemed great for a while, but then the novelty fizzled out.
Lately he’d started to wonder if the problem was that he was afraid of getting too close to someone. When Roni left him, he’d felt like such a failure. He’d tried over and over to help her, but nothing had worked. He had no idea where she was now, or if she was even okay. Truth be told, he hadn’t been in love with a woman since she’d trampled on his heart. And that had been eight long years ago.
His mind went back a few hours to Maddy and the way she’d shut him out so quickly. She was living proof of what happened when a marriage went wrong. The last thing he’d want to do was rush into a marriage and end up making a mess. “I’m not in a big hurry,” he replied, frowning into his water glass. “I take marriage seriously, Mom. Isn’t that what you want?”
“Of course.” She reached over and touched his hand. “You know we just want to see you happy. You’d be such a good dad, Cole. A good husband. You’re a good man.”
Ugh, she made it sound as though he was such a paragon, when he knew he wasn’t. He supposed she was looking at him through mom goggles.
“Hmm,” he answered, thinking again of Maddy and how stressed she’d seemed. It had to be hard at the best of times, handling twins. Doing it on her own must be an extra challenge. He remembered what she was like before. A hard worker, always with a smile, with an extra glow once she met Gavin and they got engaged. In Gibson everyone pretty well knew everyone else, even though she’d been a few years behind him in school. It sucked that her vibrancy, that glow, had disappeared.
“Thinking about anything in particular?” his mom asked.
“Just Maddy Wallace. She was working at the library tonight and her babysitting fell through and she had the twins. She was run ragged.”
“Maddy’s had a rough time, that’s for sure.” She nodded. “Losing her husband, finding out he was cheating. She’s one strong girl, picking herself up the way she has. But the whole situation has to be hard.”
“I got the impression that she doesn’t appreciate a lot of pity,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“Would you?” his mom asked simply. “If your dad had stepped out on me, and the whole town knew about it? I’d be humiliated. And really angry. Honey, Maddy hasn’t got anyone to be angry with anymore, except herself, really. I’m sure she’d rather forget all about the whole thing.”
He hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before. The one person she’d probably like to ask most about the affair couldn’t answer. And as far as he could gather, Laura wasn’t talking. Which was to her credit, really. But it didn’t help stop the gossip.
“Son,” she said, taking the last drink of her milk, “this is one time I’m not going to do any urging or matchmaking. Maddy has a truckload of baggage to sort through. But if you ended up in a position to give her a helping hand, that wouldn’t be amiss, either. The holidays are coming up and she has those two babies to think about. Maybe your committee can think about that, too, amid all the festival stuff.”
It wasn’t a half-bad idea, though the idea of Maddy accepting any form of charity was ludicrous. She wouldn’t even accept his help in cleaning up the room tonight, which was just dumping some garbage cans and emptying the coffeemaker.
It would have to be something secret, something she wouldn’t expect, something that seemed random.
What in heck would that be?
“I’m a guy. I don’t do well with this sort of thing.”
His mom laughed, got up and put her mug in the sink. Then she came over to him and dropped a kiss on top of his head. “You’re probably better at it than you think. And now I have to get to bed. I have a lot of packing to do tomorrow. I’m not letting your father anywhere near those suitcases.”
After she left the room, Cole fussed with the corner of the magazine pages, thinking. It wasn’t a bad idea, actually, helping one of their own. Besides, up until the last few months, Maddy had always been active in Gibson, helping out with fund-raisers and activities with a smile.
Life had handed her some huge lemons. Maybe it was up to them to give her the lemonade. It was the season of giving, after all.
What could go wrong?