Only one more week until Savoring Christmas is here! Yay!
I thought you might enjoy reading the first chapter today, just to get you in the mood for the book’s arrival November 10!
“Like this, Mr. Lucas?” An eager child with blonde braids fastened her adoring blueberry-hued gaze upward, seeking approval.
Troy Lucas smiled and nodded as his young charge practiced showing her 4-H beef project. “Yep. You’re doing that exactly right, Bethany. Good job.”
When Troy’s grandmother had rousted him out of bed before four that morning, he’d been worried something disastrous had struck the ranch or her. Instead, she’d told him to hustle through his morning chores because she had things for him to do.
Unfortunately, her to-do list had included him and his cousin, Truitt, volunteering at the Umatilla County fairgrounds in the Eastern Oregon town of Hermiston. Not that Troy minded. He enjoyed working with the children and animals. But Grammy didn’t need to know that.
Longing for a strong cup of coffee, Troy knew it would be another hour before any of the vendor booths opened for business.
He and Truitt had already drained the thermos of java their grandmother had handed to them when she’d shooed them out the door at six, not even letting them sit down for a breakfast. She’d given them each two breakfast burritos while telling them to have a fun day, like they were still twelve instead of in their mid-twenties.
When they’d reported for duty at the fairgrounds, Grammy’s friend Doris had sent them to help 4-H students get their animals ready for the first day of the fair.
Troy’s glance drifted to Truitt as he guided a boy and girl who looked like twins in the best way to hold the heads of their sheep while they were in the show ring.
Truitt had always liked showing sheep better than beef, saying they were easier to handle. Troy had never been that fond of sheep, preferring his market steers that generally earned top dollar in the sale held on the last day of the fair. He’d used his fair winnings to buy his first run-down pickup when he’d turned sixteen so he and Truitt could drive themselves to school.
He well remembered the excitement and fun of staying at the fair to show animals and hang out with friends. Only the fair he and Truitt had attended was almost an hour away in Kennewick, Washington. The fair had been one of the rare times when he and Truitt were allowed to run wild and free without any responsibilities hanging over their shoulders.
Mentally slamming the lid on his memories, he realized something was amiss when he heard frantic shouts and loud banging from the far end of the beef barn.
“Stop, Bucky! Stop!”
Troy’s head whipped around and caught sight of two teenage boys in blue FFA jackets chasing after an enormous steer that looked intent on making a mad getaway. The steer jumped a wheelbarrow, upending it, then took off in the direction of the carnival.
Without a moment of hesitation, Troy ran after the boys, knowing Truitt would join him.
On his way through the barn, he snagged a coil of rope hanging on a stall door and continued outside without slowing his pace, hoping to catch the steer before it caused any damage or injured anyone.
Women screamed, and people jumped out of the way of the animal determined to escape as it bucked and kicked, while the two boys raced behind it, shouting for the steer to stop.
A jogger yelped and dove over a garbage can to avoid being trampled, while a woman pushing a cart full of vegetables spun around and loped the other direction like she was practicing for an Olympic track event, spilling zucchini and tomatoes in her wake.
“Think we can hold it when we rope it?” Truitt asked as he caught up to Troy and shook out a length of rope.
Troy grinned at his cousin who was closer than any brother might have been. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The steer poured on more speed as it ran through the carnival area and headed toward the parking lot. If they didn’t stop the animal soon, he’d be out on the open road, where the possibility of catching him would involve a lot more work as well as danger to the steer and anyone driving near the fairgrounds.
Troy looked ahead and saw a young woman directly in the steer’s path. She had a phone pressed between her ear and shoulder, and three boxes stacked on a big cooler emblazoned with the Tundra logo.
Thick red hair looked like the sun had set it aflame as springy curls bounced around her shoulders, framing a lovely, fresh face.
“Hey, you!” he yelled, hoping to snag her attention, but she was looking down at the load she carried, appearing engrossed in a conversation that left her thoroughly distracted. “Lady! Hey, you!”
As though it happened in slow motion, he watched the steer kick his back feet as he charged past the woman, connecting with the cooler in her hands. The force of the kick knocked her off her feet, while the cooler as well as the boxes she carried landed on top of her.
“Sorry, ma’am!” one of the boys yelled as he dashed after the bovine. The steer took time to charge into a straw bale, scattering it in every direction before making a beeline toward a gate.
Without a second to spare, Troy jumped over a fence and came at the steer from the direction of the gate. He swung the rope over his head, tossed the loop, and caught the steer around the neck. Troy veered around a nearby power pole, ducking beneath the rope to wrap it around the pole, then looped the rope behind his thighs for better leverage. He braced his feet and leaned back, preparing for the impact when the steer realized he was caught.
Troy grunted as the animal hit the end of the rope and jerked. The force of it made him feel like he was about to have both arms pulled out of their sockets, but he held fast. The animal had to weigh at least fourteen hundred pounds and used every ounce of it to tug against the rope.
Truitt grabbed onto the rope and helped tug out the slack while the two FFA boys worked to get a halter on the steer.
“Tru, will you escort Bucky back to the barn?” Troy asked as he handed the rope to the FFA advisor when he reached for it.
Truitt nodded as more help arrived in the form of livestock judges and concerned parents. The FFA boys wouldn’t have any trouble getting the animal back where he belonged.
Troy retraced his steps to the red-headed woman the steer had bowled over. She remained sprawled on her back in the grass. Although it had seemed far longer, it couldn’t have been a full minute since the steer had knocked her down.
From the way she drew in a gulp of air, Troy figured she’d had the wind knocked out of her.
He lifted the cooler off her legs, set it aside, and shoved the boxes onto the grass. He gave her prone form a quick glance, checking for injuries. No gaping wounds could be seen, so he studied her face.
Pale green eyes, the color of frosted moss, stared up at him. Mesmerized by the color and the soft hint of her fragrance, he looked her over a second time, taking in the fact she was a shapely woman.
When his gaze connected with hers, he saw a hint of humor twinkle in the depths of those incredible peepers and couldn’t hold back a smile. It seemed the damsel in distress possessed a sense of humor. A feeling of relief swept through him to discover she wasn’t a female who erupted into hysterics as a default setting. He released the breath he’d been holding as he waited for her to dissolve into tears.
Troy studied the freckles that sprinkled her nose, then allowed his gaze to momentarily linger on rosy lips that were purely made for kissing. Thoughts of kissing her made Troy want to lean down and see if her mouth tasted as sweet as it looked.
Lest the urge overtake his good sense, he forced himself to focus on the matter at hand. “Get the wind knocked out of you?” he asked.
She nodded, drawing in another big breath, as though starved for air.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, hunkering down beside her, not wanting her to feel rushed to move. He’d had the air knocked out of him often enough to know it was an uncomfortable, unsettling feeling.
When she didn’t answer, only inhaled a third breath, he started to worry. “Should I find a medic?”
She shook her head, sending that mane of finger-tempting hair into a lively dance. Troy kept his hands pressed to his thighs when he experienced a sudden, inexplicable need to brush the hair away from her face. With the verdant grass providing a sharp contrast to her red hair, it was all Troy could do not to snap a picture of her to make him smile on a lonely gray day. The woman could be her own festive decoration with her alabaster skin and red hair standing out in stark contrast against the green background.
Despite comparing her to holiday décor, he could see she really was a beauty, even with her hair in a tangle and no makeup on her face.
“Just take your time. No need to get in a hurry to move. If you need assistance, I’ll go find someone.” Troy wasn’t certain if her pale skin was natural because of her red hair or if she was injured and trying to make light of it.
She pushed herself up into a sitting position. “That won’t be necessary, even if that was an exciting way to start the day,” she said in a mellow voice that flowed over him like rich honey warmed by the sun.
“Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” he asked, rising to his feet, then offering her his hands.
“Just my pride.” She latched onto his hands, and Troy almost jumped back, feeling something charged, like a current of electricity, shoot up both of his arms. It was like grabbing onto an electrified wire. Instead of letting go, though, he tightened his fingers around hers and hauled her upright.
The woman appeared of average height for a female, not too tall or too short. She had a nice figure he tried not to ogle as he observed her bright blue T-shirt and a pair of dark gray cotton shorts with pockets on the legs. His gaze slid down the length of her to her blue sneakers, then started back up when he noticed blood trickling down her leg and over her knee.
“You’re hurt,” he said, reaching for the cuff of her shorts that fell just above her knee, hiding her injury from his view. He stopped before his fingers connected with the cloth and dropped his hand to his side. Touching a stranger that way seemed rather inappropriate. He certainly didn’t want her to wrongly assume he was a pervert who preyed on women who’d been bowled over by belligerent bovine running amok.
She winced as she opened one of the pockets on the side of her shorts and pulled out a sharp paring knife. The blade glinted in the sunlight before she tucked it back into the pocket.
“Occupational hazard,” she said, as though she regularly fell on knives she kept in her pockets.
Confused, he merely nodded his head, uncertain what he could do to help her. “Can I get something for that cut?”
“I have a first-aid kit.” She started to pick up the heavy cooler, but Troy lifted it before she could.
“I’ll carry this for you. Why don’t you pile the boxes on top?”
She shook her head, causing the curls to dance around her face again. “I can get them. Are you sure you don’t mind packing the cooler?”
“My pleasure, miss.” He glanced to where she’d been prone in the grass and tipped his head in that direction. “You might want to grab your phone.”
“Oh, thanks. I’d be lost without it.” She snatched up the phone, dropped it into one of her pockets, and gathered the boxes. “My food truck isn’t far.”
“Food truck?” Troy always looked forward to sampling the variety of food available at the fair. He wasn’t into all the deep-fried crazy stuff, like candy bars that had been dipped in goo and soaked in grease, but he did enjoy good barbecue and burgers, even the occasional corn dog. “Is this your first year here in Hermiston?”
“It is. I opened my food truck last summer, but I was too late to sign up for this event. The first six months I was open, I view as a learning experience. I found out a hundred things you should never do if you want to run a successful food truck business.”
Troy nodded, not knowing what to say. Truitt was the gregarious one who could talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Troy preferred to be the silent one on the sidelines, observing and listening more than talking. He and his cousin were both a little hard to ignore, though, since they stood on the other side of six-three and were brawny men with muscles honed by hard labor on the ranch they helped Grammy run, not to mention Troy’s farrier business and their many hours of roping practice to compete in local rodeos.
“I couldn’t see all the action, but did I assume correctly that you roped the steer?” the woman asked as they walked toward the food vendors.
“I did. I’m just sorry I didn’t catch that critter before he knocked you down.”
She shrugged as though it was something commonplace. “Not the first time I’ve had a steer take me out. Probably not the last.”
Curious, he stared at her, hoping she’d say more about herself. He realized he probably should ask a question if he wanted to continue to hear her voice. “Did you show steers when you were younger?”
“No. I was more into the 4-H and FFA projects that kept me inside and out of the scorching sun. My fair skin burns so fast, it is ridiculous. My brother showed steers, though. His first year in FFA, he had a steer that was way too big and wild for him to handle. He hadn’t even made it into the arena to show it when the steer took off running, dragging Jay behind him through the dirt and manure. It was hilarious and scary. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed the whole time I helped him get the steer back under control.”
She glanced over at him, and Troy felt his heart skip a beat. Man alive, that smile of hers was something.
He gave his brain a mental kick to keep the conversation going. “I take it he recovered enough to show again the next year.”
“Sure did. Jay took first place two years running.” Her honeyed voice held a note of pride.
Troy scrambled through his thoughts for something else to keep her talking. “Are you close to your brother? Does he live around here?”
“Yes, and yes. At least for now. He’s home from college for the summer. He’ll return to Washington State University for his senior year in a few weeks. Jay and his girlfriend have been working for me, so I’ll miss having them around.”
“That’s great, that you’re close, I mean. Does your husband help with your food truck?”
“Nope. Never been married, and I don’t have time for dating. My one and only focus right now is my food truck and saving money to open a restaurant in Portland. According to my older sister, I’m going to die alone with a house full of kitchen equipment.”
Troy grinned. “How many siblings do you have?”
“Just the two. Robin is the oldest and thinks she knows everything about everything. She never hesitates to express her opinions on any given topic. In fact, she was the one I was talking to when the steer caught me by surprise. He saved me from having to hang up on her.” She blew out a long breath. “Sorry. I sometimes say things that are better kept to myself.”
“Don’t give it another thought. My cousin is the same way about saying whatever pops into his head. In fact, my grandmother is constantly telling him he needs a filter.”
The woman laughed, and the sound rang in his ears like Christmas bells—a joyous sound that seemed both precious and wondrous.
Disturbed by his thoughts and his interest in the fascinating female, especially when he didn’t have time for the nonsense of dating, Troy tried not to inhale her enticing scent or notice the way she seemed to exude spunk as they neared the food trucks.
“This is me,” she said, motioning with her elbow to a food truck that bore a retro-appearing logo that read “Bud’s Spuds.” The restored vintage truck with its pale blue and white color scheme, red wheels, and offset headlights looked like something that might have once delivered milk or bread way back in the 1950s.
“No way. You’re the tater tot lady?” Troy blurted as his mouth watered, thinking of the delicious food he’d eaten from her truck at the Kennewick fair last year.
She grinned at him as she set the boxes on an upended milk crate and unlocked the door. “That’s me. Have you eaten at my food truck before?”
“Yeah, I have,” Troy said, wondering who had waited on him the previous year. It certainly hadn’t been this gorgeous woman with the unforgettable smile. “Last year, in Kennewick. The thing you made with chocolate ice cream and candy was out of this world.”
She grabbed the boxes and slid them inside the truck, then stepped back so he could set the cooler on the floor. “Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I should warn you, it’s not on my menu this year. That was one of my dozens of mistakes. It was far too labor-intensive to make and hard to serve, and I only made a few pennies of profit on it. I’ve totally revamped my menu.”
“So, no ice cream?” Troy tried not to sound disappointed, although he’d hoped to come across the food truck with the outrageous ice cream treat again this summer.
She gave him a long look, then grinned. “I do have ice cream, just not that dish. Come back this afternoon, and I’ll give you a sample on the house as a thank you for helping me.”
“You don’t have to do that, miss. It was my pleasure.” Troy took a step back, but the woman grabbed onto his hand and held it between both of hers.
The electrical shock was still there, leaving him pondering what was happening to him. Maybe he was coming down with something, although he was never sick. Maybe he was having a heat stroke, although it was still early and not even yet up to eighty degrees.
“Please come back later. By the way, I’m Lark. Lark Gibson.”
Lark. Somehow, the name fit her to perfection. She looked like a free spirit—one who could fly circles around him.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Gibson. I’m Troy Lucas, although I often answer to ‘hey you’ too. If you need help, just ask around. Most of the fair volunteers over by the animals know me.”
“I’ll be fine, but thank you. Please, call me Lark. I’ll look forward to seeing you later, Troy.”
He tipped his hat to her and strode away, wondering how his world could shift off-kilter in just a matter of minutes. If he closed his eyes, would it right itself?
Somehow, he instinctively knew meeting Lark Gibson had changed everything.
There’s still time to pre-order your copy of the book on Amazon!