Today is the release day for The Christmas Kiss!
He’s a devoted single dad still grieving the loss of his wife.
She’s an outrageously fun female with a temper that runs as hot as a teakettle.
Will the two of them find a way to work together to give his son a Merry Christmas?
When Gracy Randall returns to Hardman after almost six years away, she can’t wait to see the look of surprise on her parents’ faces. But the surprises are for her, it seems, as everything she thought she could depend on turns out to be different than she expected. The family ranch? Sold. The fabulous job she lined up for her return? Gone. The life she left behind? Memories. Now what will she do?
Cord Granger has problems of his own. The ranch he bought to make a fresh start requires far more work and time than he’d anticipated. Until he can find someone to take care of the house and his son, Bodie, he struggles to keep up with each day’s demands. Yet, the thought of letting another woman into his home, even if she is hired to be there, feels like dishonoring the memory of his wife. But he has to do something. The work? Piling up. The grief he faces every day? Staggering. The life he left behind? Memories. Who can he trust to help?
After landing on the wrong foot the moment they meet, the last thing Gracy and Cord want to admit is that the other may hold the answer to their problems. Can a little holiday hope help Gracy bring fun and joy back into Cord’s world? Will Cord’s return to the land of the living break the heart she locked up six years ago?
Find out in The Christmas Kiss, a sweet historical holiday romance brimming with the wonder of the season, a town full of humorous characters, and heartwarming story of love.
Chapter One Excerpt:
“Whoa, boys! Whoa up there!” the driver called as the stagecoach rolled to a stop amid swirls of dust and jangling harnesses that sounded like discordant Christmas bells.
Gracy Randall glanced out the window. Home. She was finally home. Almost six years had passed since the last time she’d been at Juniper Creek Ranch, a place that had been in her family since her grandparents had started it more than sixty years ago.
The ranch looked the same, with cattle in the pastures and harvested wheat fields, and yet so different. Her parents hadn’t mentioned putting up a new ranch sign, but it looked nice, as did the fresh coat of paint on the house, barn, and outbuildings.
The letter she’d received last week hadn’t included any reference to the vast array of improvements. If the newly set towering poles marching up the lane like wooden sentinels were any indication, her parents had recently had a telephone installed.
Gracy could hardly set her mind to accept all the changes that had taken place. Perhaps her parents had kept it all a secret in hopes of letting her be amazed when she finally returned to the small Eastern Oregon community of Hardman.
If that was the case, she supposed they’d be equally surprised she’d returned. Although they’d been planning to make the trip to Grass Valley, where Gracy had lived and worked since leaving Hardman, she was ready to come back home. Not just for a visit but permanently.
Excited about returning, she’d been eagerly anticipating the expressions on her parents’ faces when she walked into the kitchen and greeted them.
Since the ranch was on the stage route into Hardman, she’d asked the driver to let her off there. The trunks with her belongings would arrive tomorrow on a freight wagon. For now, everything she needed was in one travel bag she could easily carry the short distance from the road to the home where she’d grown up.
With one more glance out the window, Gracy moved toward the door with as much poise as possible in the crowded stagecoach. She’d ridden all the way from Heppner crammed between two roughly attired men who’d both sprawled out their legs the moment they’d taken seats on either side of her.
“Pardon me,” she said, trying to step around the one closest to the door. The man offered her a lecherous grin and started to reach a hand toward her backside. Before he had a chance, she swatted him with her beaded reticule, causing the rest of the occupants of the stagecoach to laugh.
Gracy glowered at her fellow passengers as she pushed open the door and grabbed onto the frame to balance herself. It seemed not a single gentleman had ridden on the conveyance from Heppner.
“You sure you want off here?” the driver asked from his perch at the front of the stagecoach as she tried to keep her balance, discreetly hold her skirts out of her way, and heft her traveling bag.
“Absolutely certain,” she said, growing more riled by the second. One of the horses angrily switched his tail at a horsefly and took a step forward, causing the stagecoach to rock and throw her off balance.
A rough, calloused hand appeared in front of her face, but instead of accepting the belatedly offered assistance, she hopped off the steps and landed with an “umph” on both feet. Dust rose in a cloud and coated her already filthy traveling suit she doubted would ever come clean.
She knew it had been a dry year in the area from her mother’s letters, but she’d had no idea how dry until the dust had fogged into the stagecoach with every passing mile. She’d expected it to be cold, but even in mid-November, the weather was mild and warm, feeling more like a spring day.
Gracy adjusted the hat that had slid over one eye back into a fashionable angle, drew in a deep breath, straightened her spine, and started down the lane toward the house.
“She’s as fiery as her hair,” she heard one of the men comment before the driver snapped the lines and set the stagecoach into motion again.
Gracy had never been fond of her red hair and, in fact, had no idea from whom she’d inherited it. Both of her parents had brown hair, and so had her brother Rob. Her mother had assured her it was from a great-grandmother who’d arrived in America from Ireland nearly a century earlier, but it did nothing to help her feel better about the ginger hue of her locks.
As she walked up the lane, she thought of Percy Bruner, a boy she’d known all her life. His parents had owned the mercantile in town for as long as Gracy could recall. Percy had the brightest, reddest hair she’d ever seen. He’d left Hardman not long before Gracy had packed her things and moved to Grass Valley, but he’d returned and was now a well-known photographer in the region.
Unwilling to think of the reasons so many people had left—the reasons she’d left—she released a long breath and continued toward the house. Two dogs she didn’t recognize ran out of the barn, barking at her arrival. Her parents hadn’t mentioned getting any new canines. She wondered where old Bentley was hiding. He’d been a puppy when her parents had given the dog to her for Christmas when she was sixteen. She’d had such fun training him and teaching him tricks, but he was nine, so he likely wasn’t as spry as he once was.
The two dogs circled around her, tails wagging. Gracy tucked her reticule inside her traveling bag, then set the leather satchel on the ground, leaving two hands free for petting the dogs. They sniffed her gloved fingers and whined, so she rubbed them along their backs and scratched behind their ears. She could see what looked like a bit of collie in the mutts mixed with goodness only knew what. Regardless of their pedigree, the dogs were good-natured and friendly, two important characteristics in her opinion.
“That’s all for now,” Gracy said, wiping her gloves on her skirt before picking up her bag.
The dogs woofed and ran back toward the barn just as Gracy heard a loud thwacking sound. Curious about the source creating the noise, she hastened her steps and was nearly to the house when she noticed a child wearing dusty overalls. The boy couldn’t have been more than six or seven, making her wonder why he wasn’t in school instead of destroying ranch property.
The little menace swung a mallet, mercilessly beating the wooden hitching rail her father had installed just outside of the yard’s fence when Gracy had been eight. She’d helped her father set the two posts, then add the crosspiece. Now, an unruly monster was about to beat it into splinters with a mallet she was sure had once belonged to her grandfather.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked as she rushed up to the child. He had a mop of dark brown hair, brown eyes snapping with liveliness and a determined look on his impish face. If he hadn’t been possessed with pure mischief, she may have even thought him adorable.
As it was, he ignored her and continued to pound the rail with randomly placed swings.
Gracy looked around, but there was no visiting buggy or automobile parked anywhere she could see. Her mother hadn’t mentioned any children coming to visit or to stay. Heaven forbid the future degenerate refusing to speak to her had been left with her parents. They were far too old to keep up with a youngster like him. They’d been in their forties when she’d been born. The last thing they needed was a puckish youngster running amok on the ranch.
“Where is your mother?” Gracy raised her voice to be heard over the boy’s pounding.
The mallet stopped mid-swing and the child raised his gaze to hers. Rather than answer, his eyes welled with tears, then he returned to whacking the rail with renewed force.
Gracy thought about wresting the mallet away from him, but she feared being struck with it. “You need to stop that. You’ll turn it into a pile of splinters at the rate you’re going.”
The boy acted as though he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. What kind of misbehaving riffraff had moved to Hardman? Surely, she would have recalled her mother mentioning any new families with young children visiting the ranch.
“Cease your hammering!” Gracy yelled to be heard above the pounding.
He gave her a dismissive glare, moved beyond her reach, and continued to whack the rail.
Annoyed with the little hooligan, Gracy marched through the gate, across the stepping stones she’d helped her father set in the lawn ten years ago, and raced up the porch steps. The rocking chairs her parents used to sit on of an evening had disappeared. Had her mother finally decided to replace them, or had the boy destroyed them, beating the chairs into a pile of kindling?
Distraught, Gracy turned the knob on the door and sailed into the house. She was halfway across the entry area before she slid to a stop, gawking around with her mouth hanging open in shock.
The entry was no longer painted the sickly hue of mauve she’d long detested but a warm, buttery shade of yellow. A new oak floor gleamed from a recent polish, and new paned windows allowed sunlight to spill inside. How had she not noticed the windows earlier? Then again, she’d been so distracted by the miniature demon with the mallet, she had likely overlooked many details.
“Mama?” she called as she set her bag on the floor and stepped into the parlor. Gone was the dark plum wallpaper and the walnut furniture that was familiar. The walls had been covered in expensive embossed cream paper with tiny blue flowers and feathery vines. Three leather wingback chairs, one of them a rocker, were spread out around a long dark blue camelback sofa that looked comfortable and inviting. The end tables and lamps all appeared new. If she hadn’t been so taken aback by the changes, she would have found the room quite fetching.
She sucked in a gasp when she realized her grandmother’s piano was no longer there. Gracy had loved playing it, especially during the holidays. Her grandmother had taught Gracy to play when she’d been no bigger than the child still loudly wreaking havoc outside.
“Mama!” The volume of Gracy’s voice increased along with her confusion. She stepped into the dining room to find all new furnishings there. The cream wallpaper covering the walls featured pale yellow roses and sage-colored leaves nestled in vertical rows between stripes of light blue. A large mahogany china cupboard held an expensive set of china decorated with bright blue flowers and scrolls.
“What has happened?” Gracy muttered to herself, wondering if her parents had come into a windfall of money. She couldn’t begin to imagine from where it would originate, though. Her grandparents, all four of them, had passed away years ago. There were no wealthy aunts or uncles. How could her parents afford to not just redecorate the house, but to decorate it with such costly furnishings and goods?
Gracy walked into the kitchen. The room bore a fresh coat of white paint and new black and white tiles on the floor. The old walnut cabinets had been removed and new white cabinets, several with glass fronts, took their place. New windows, in need of a good wash, had been installed over a deep sink.
Beginning to feel lightheaded, Gracy turned to go out the back door, only to realize the doorway now opened into a hallway instead of outside. She stood on wobbly legs, contemplating if she’d tumbled down a magical rabbit hole that had deposited her somewhere other than the home where she’d grown up.
Grown up. That was it! She backtracked to the entry and charged up the stairs. Everywhere she looked, she saw changes in the paint, wallpaper, flooring, and furnishings. Perhaps she had gotten off at the wrong place, but the Juniper Creek Ranch sign had been out front, and it was the only ranch by that name in the whole county.
She half-jogged down the hall to the room that had been hers and ran her fingers over the doorframe where her father had marked her growth each year. The numbers were still there, along with her father’s notation of her age. She wasn’t crazy. It was her childhood home. But where were her parents? How could they have changed everything about the house without even mentioning it to her?
Her bedroom looked nothing like she recalled the last time she’d been in the room. Instead of her washstand, chest of drawers, and simple iron bed, a beautifully carved golden oak bedroom set filled the room. Gone was the quilt her grandmother had made for her. A coverlet with embroidered yellow and blue flowers now spread over the bed.
“Mama! Papa!” she hollered, growing more disturbed by the second.
No one answered her, so she rushed back down the stairs and into the kitchen, then stepped into the new hallway. At the far end of it, she found an exterior door and walked onto a back porch that had been added.
Outside, she dragged in a deep breath, trying to fathom what had taken place at the ranch. At least the big juniper tree that had stood between the house and barn her entire life was still there.
Gracy marched down the porch steps and returned out front, where she tossed a withering glare at the boy who had moved from the hitching rail to smacking the mallet against the stepping stones in the yard. If he were any bigger or stronger, there was a chance he’d split them in two.
Distressed and fuming, Gracy rushed toward the barn. She thought it odd none of the hired hands had noticed her arrival. Tug Tallman had been there for thirty years as the foreman and had always been like a second father to her.
“Mama? Papa?” she called as she sped into the barn. “Tug?”
Even the inside of the barn looked different, although she couldn’t say exactly why. Then she saw four horses she didn’t recognize in the stalls. “What is this?”
“What’s what?” a deep masculine voice asked from behind her, scaring her so badly she screamed and jumped a foot off the ground.
Uncertain who might be sneaking up on her, she snatched the long pin securing her hat from her hair and held it in front of her like a weapon as she turned to face the unwelcome intruder.
She hadn’t anticipated he’d be quite so young or good-looking with his heavily lashed hazel eyes, square chin, and snub nose. Tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular, he appeared to be a man who worked hard for a living.
He was dressed in worn denims with a blue flannel shirt, a dusty cowboy hat, and scuffed cowboy boots. From the chaps and spurs he wore, she assumed he’d been out riding. Something about him seemed familiar, but she had no idea as to what or why.
Involuntarily, she breathed in a whiff of his scent, one that smelled of horses and sunshine, and all man.
Annoyed with herself, with the child bent on demolition, and the cowboy grinning at her with a wide, easy smile that made the most charming lines pop out around his eyes and in the creases of his cheeks, she huffed in frustration. “I’m looking for Everett and Cleo Randall. Are they gone for the day?”
The cowboy removed his hat, ran a hand through his thick medium brown hair, and offered her a studying glance. Something in the way he looked at her, like he could peer into her soul and see every secret hidden in her heart, left her flustered and peevish. She could feel heat creeping up her neck and stinging her cheeks under his perusal. By sheer determination, she willed herself to remain calm even though she felt like stamping her feet and demanding the whereabouts of her parents.
“Where are Mr. and Mrs. Randall?” she asked in a tight voice.
The man shrugged. “I reckon they’re …”
A loud crack from the direction of the yard drew her out of the barn in time to see the child holding up a broken piece of stepping stone. Apparently, he was far stronger than she’d assumed to break one of the stones into pieces.
“That is the most ill-behaved child I’ve ever encountered. Do you know to whom he belongs? He’s nearly beaten the hitching post to death despite my instruction to leave it alone. Now he’s focused on obliterating the walk. His parents should take matters in hand and discipline the miscreant.”
The man’s smile disappeared in an instant, replaced with a harsh glower. “As a matter of fact, he’s my son. Bodie’s not hurting a thing. I’m planning to put in a new walk anyway.” He took a menacing step toward her, and she could feel the anger rolling off him like a palpable force. “You have no right to march in here and say anything to my son. You don’t know him, or anything about him, missy, so I’ll thank you to mind your tongue and your own business.”
“I have every right to be here. This is my home.” About to lose the tenuous hold she had on her rising temper, Gracy pinned the stranger with a frosty glare. “Who are you?”
The man returned the hat to his head, took a step back from her, and widened his stance. “Cord Granger. As of eight months ago, I took over as the owner of Juniper Creek Ranch.”
Gracy felt woozy. For a moment, she thought she might faint for the first time in her life.
How could her parents sell their home and not even mention it to her? If she hadn’t returned to town, would they ever have told her? And where were they? She’d still been sending letters to them at the post office in Hardman. Had they moved to a different town?
Mr. Granger sneered at her. “I’m gonna guess you’re Everett and Cleo’s daughter. I can see a resemblance to your mother, although she’s a much kinder and far less judgmental person. Frankly, after hearing your parents sing your praises, I expected … well, not you.”
Indignant, Gracy felt like she’d been handed a great insult, even if it had only been implied. Adamant that Mr. Granger not see any weakness in her, she forced herself to focus on one problem at a time.
“Where are my parents?”
“Hardman, as far as I know. They built a new house across the street from the Bruner family.”
Gracy frowned. “George and Aleta no longer live above the mercantile?”
Cord shook his head. “They’re still there. Percy Bruner and his wife bought Tia and Adam Guthry’s house.”
Gracy recalled her mother mentioning something about Percy having married Brynn Rutherford after he’d returned to Hardman last year. She’d forgotten that detail. If Percy could not only come back to a town he’d vowed to never set foot in again but also find happiness and love, maybe there was still hope for her.
Another loud crack drew Gracy’s attention back to the front yard. The boy grinned as he gleefully swung the mallet with frenzied, reckless movements. Mr. Granger would be fortunate if the child didn’t break a window before the afternoon was through.
“Isn’t he old enough to behave better than that? Perhaps if he weren’t being raised by a cavedweller he’d have better manners,” she said, unable to stop herself from speaking her mind. “At his age, why isn’t he in school? You’re fortunate a truant officer hasn’t been to pay a call.”
“He’s not yet five, and he isn’t doing anything wrong. It’s been unseasonably warm the past few days. A bunch of flies came out of hiding, and Bodie takes great pleasure in smacking them with the mallet that your father gave to him. As I already stated, he’s not hurting anything, so leave him alone.” The scowl he turned on her looked both intimidating and frightening. “Since the odds are high that you’re going to say something else I’m likely to take offense to, I’d appreciate it if you’d take your high and mighty attitude and haul it off my property, Miss Randall.”
Before she could utter a word of protest, the cowboy grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the lane. Still armed with her hatpin, she briefly considered burying it into his hand, but instead, poked it back into her hat.
“Unhand me!” She jerked away from him with such force, she had to take three quick steps to keep from tripping over her twisted skirt.
The look of amusement on Mr. Granger’s face only served to stoke the fire of her fury.
Regardless of how childish it was, she stamped both feet. “I do not find anything humorous about any of this, Mr. Granger! Not a thing!”
“I don’t rightly find much to laugh about in this situation either, Miss Randall. Now go. Until you can talk without screeching and treat my son with kindness, don’t come back.”
“Fine!” Gracy fisted her skirt in her hands, lifting it up a few inches so she could walk unimpeded.
Rage fueled her steps as she strode to the road, then turned toward Hardman. She was a mile closer to town when she realized she’d left her bag sitting in the entry of the house. She’d rather crawl through a pit filled with riled rattlesnakes than return to that man’s house. He’d made it abundantly clear she wasn’t welcome.
If she never again set eyes on Cord Granger, it would be just fine with her. Only the likelihood of that happening was close to impossible since he was no doubt related to the Grangers who lived in Hardman and had been pillars of the community for years.
Now that she thought about it, Cord did bear a resemblance to Luke Granger. She wondered if they were cousins, since she knew Luke and his sister Ginny had no other siblings. Not that she cared.
It would please her greatly if Cord Granger packed up and left before she had to encounter him again. The man was positively detestable.
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