Christmas with the Cowboy Excerpts
The bonfire roared, climbing all the way to the top of the woodpile, sparks flying like hundreds of fireflies dancing in the night. James saw them approaching and smiled, his eyes locking with Isabelle’s. His intense gaze launched a thousand butterflies fluttering in her stomach at once.
“Hi,” they said at once to each other, and then shared an awkward, huddled laugh.
“So, what was that about?” James asked nervously.
“We were totally talking about you. Were your ears burning?”
“As a matter of fact, they were,” he answered, rubbing an ear instinctively.
“They apologized for keeping a certain secret.” Isabelle angled an accusatory, though playful glare at him.
“As I intend to do…” James cleared his throat, gearing up for the apology.
Except a snowball hit James in the back of the head, knocking off his cowboy hat. His shocked expression, eyes goggled, mouth wide open, made Isabelle burst out laughing. As he turned around to identify the culprit, Isabelle could see Clint and Cole lobbing snowballs at everyone. Another snowball came flying toward James. He dodged it, but Isabelle was too busy laughing to notice it in time; it hit her clean in the face. Luckily, it was soft and didn’t cause any harm, but it had her spluttering in surprise.
“Ha, serves you right for laughing at me!” James shouted, balling up a snowball in his hands and threw it at her.
“How would you like one in the face, Mr. Fancy Pants?” Isabelle bent down and began wadding up snow.
“Fancy Pants?” James paused, hands on hips, and sniffed haughtily. “And here I thought you liked my suits, Queenie.”
“Queenie? Now, you’re just making fun of me.” Isabelle threw her snowball and it hit him square in the chest, exploding into his face.
“Oh, you’re in trouble now!” James shouted, chasing her.
Isabelle screeched and took off running. He caught her by the arm and tackled her. They fell into the snow, and James landed on top of her. Isabelle wriggled and squealed as James hovered, the two of them reeling in laughter, trying to control their jagged breaths. A broad smile teased at James’s lips.
“I guess this would be a bad time to ask you out on a date.”
“Some might consider this the perfect time.” She quirked a silly smile and winked.
His cheeks flushed a lovely shade of pink as he rolled into the snow and stood. He held his hand out to her and pulled her up. “Would you like to go on a sleigh ride with me, Isabelle?”
Isabelle hesitated. She saw the look of disappointment already filling his eyes. He’d worked hard to regain her trust and try to rebuild their friendship. He deserved a break and she wasn’t prone to hold grudges. She was in the mood for some Christmas fun, and hadn’t gone on one since she was a kid.
Besides, it’s just a sleigh ride, right?
“I really need to get my tractor up here and bust through the ice in that pond, so the cows aren’t in danger and have something to drink. And, uh, I guess I need to pay for my share of this fence?” Isabelle dug the toe of her boots into the ground and wouldn’t make eye contact with Will.
“We got this, Isabelle,” Will said, but gave James a meaningful look, clearly nudging him to participate. “Say something,” Will mouthed to James, a look of irritation on his face.
“May I have a moment of your time?” James asked Isabelle sounding far too formal. He cringed.
“Sure,” she answered sweetly and waved at him to follow her. “You can help me get my truck out of the mud.” A mischievous grin lit her face.
“Okay, I deserve this.” James planted a hand on his hip, scratched the scruff on his chin in thought, noting the thin tread on the tires and how deeply they sank into the mud.
“Yes, you do.” Isabelle winked and hopped into the truck.
“If I suffer this penance to your satisfaction,” James said, approaching the window. “Will you at least have a cup of coffee with me?”
“Make me a killer bowl of soup and you’ve got a deal.”
“Done.” James drummed his hands on the window sill a couple of times and then went to the back of the trunk to push it out of the mud.
Isabelle turned on the ignition, put it into gear, and pushed the gas. As the tires spun, they sunk at least three inches deeper, dirty snow and mud spraying out from under the tires.
“It’s not going to go without a couple of guys,” Will hollered, trudging toward the rear of the truck. “Put your back into it, and try to stay away from the spray.”
After a series of tries, the truck sunk deeper into the mud. Dirty, tired, and frustrated, James ran back to the UTV and grabbed some old plyboard he’d found on the way in. He tucked the pieces under the back wheels. Before he stepped away, Isabelle gunned the gas and the truck sped out of the hole. The force of movement made James fall backwards. He sprawled on the ground completely splattered in mud.
The truck screeched to a halt on firmer ground. Isabelle hopped out and ran toward him. When she saw him, her eyes and mouth widened, obviously at the shock of seeing him, and she doubled over in laughter. “You should see yourself! You look like you’ve been in one of those Dirty Dash races.”
“I’m glad to see my misfortunes entertain you so much.” James couldn’t help smiling grudgingly.
“Be grateful she’s laughing, partner,” Will whispered out of the side of his mouth as he pulled him up from the ground.
“I am glad about it,” he whispered back, “but I’d hoped it wouldn’t be at my expense. Just so you know. . .” He gazed at Isabelle over Will’s shoulder, addressing his comment to her. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life. First, flying donuts, and now this. The indignity of it is…” His voice trailed, then a bubble of laughter escaped his throat. He guffawed and his shoulders shook. He tried to stop, but couldn’t. The laughter rolled out of him like a tsunami hitting the shore.
After he finished the first verse, Isabelle’s face erupted into a dazzling smile, warming him to the very depths of his soul. He could spend a lifetime singing to Isabelle if she looked at him like that. But then her features crumpled and tears welled in her eyes.
A bit alarmed, James stopped playing. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” she laughed through her tears. “It’s so beautiful. You’re very talented at the guitar and your voice that sounds like it’s wrapped in warm silk. You know…” she said, meeting his eyes. “This is exactly what I never knew I needed. I love that song so much!” Then with a bit of mischief in her expression, she murmured, “Do you really want me to show you around town and take you to where I watch the snow come down?” she asked, quoting the song.
“More than you know,” James continued to strum chords as he stole glances at her.
“That’s so sweet.” Isabelle positioned the kitten in the crook of one arm and dabbed her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie with the other.
“There’s one more thing I’d like to know about you.” He stopped playing and leaned over his guitar, staring intently into her eyes.
“I’m not sure there is anything else to know. I’m a simple, home-town kind of girl.” Isabelle tried to force a smile, then looked away.
“What’s something you’ve dreamed about doing, but there’s not a chance in the world it will ever happen?” James was the most curious about this.
“Hmm…” Isabelle narrowed her eyes, tapping her chin in thought. “I’ve never shared this with anyone except Gracie, so you’d better keep it a secret or I’ll come after you with my six-shooter,” she chuckled, dropping her head in laughter over the precious kitten. “Like most little girls, I dreamed of being a princess.”
“Most folks around here would argue that you already are a princess, or more accurately a queen,” James said, quite seriously. “First runner-up to Miss Rodeo America is something everyone looks up to around here.”
“Oh, you know. The fairytale kind.” Isabelle’s eyes glistened suddenly. “As I got older, I just wanted someone who treated me like a queen, especially after what happened to Gracie and between my parents. I still fantasize about wearing a beautiful gown and tiara, and dancing with the love of my life under the stars.”
For a moment, James didn’t know what to say, his feelings for Isabelle welling up. “That’s all fine and good, Isabelle,” James whispered, cupping her cheek as he looked earnestly into her eyes. “But you don’t need to wear a gown or a tiara to have a man treat you like a queen.”
She placed her hand over his and lovingly looked into his eyes, an air of electricity pulsing between them. James knew then and there he’d move heaven and earth to make her dream come true.
“Hey, everybody! I’m home,” Isabelle hollered into the quiet of the house, and shrugged out of her coat, putting it and her hat and gloves on hooks near the front door.
Gracie flew out of the kitchen with her phone in her hand, a look of earnest relief on her face. “You have no idea how worried we all are were until James finally texted.” She pulled Isabelle into the tightest hug she could remember.
“I know. I’m sorry. He kept trying, but service was super sketchy.” Then she looked intently into Gracie’s eyes and asked, “Did you really think I was in danger?”
“Well, no.” Gracie grinned. “But it was one heck of a storm. So, uh, I guess Will put you up for the night?”
“That’s one way to put it.” Isabelle shot her a mischievous smile. “I curled up on the couch with James.”
“No way,” Gracie whispered in shock, her eyes widening. “Did he kiss you?”
“Oh, yeah.” Isabelle nodded once giddily, and winked.
“Sparks?” Gracie arched a brow.
“Massive explosions.” Isabelle raised her hands to her head and mimicked a volcano erupting.
“What’s that?” Gracie pointed at her neck, trying to suppress a smile.
“What’s what?” Isabelle asked, confused as she probed the area just above her collarbone. A sudden memory came back, one of James lingering a little too long in that spot, and she blushed.
Gracie convulsed with oncoming laughter, stifling the “pfft” sound by covering her mouth. “I’m happy for you,” she tittered. A sweet, genuine smile warmed her face. “What happens now?” she asked, plopping on the couch.
“What do you mean?” Isabelle asked with a shrug and joined her.
“Well, are you going to keep seeing each other, or is it a thing you two want to keep on the down-low for a while?”
Isabelle snorted. “The ranch hands woke us up, so that’s not really possible.”
Gracie clapped a hand over her mouth trying to contain another giggle.
Gracie’s laughter was always contagious, and Isabelle pressed her lips together, trying to suppress her own bubble of laughter. “Are you snickering at me?”
“Not yet.” Gracie then pinched her nose, but not before accidentally exuding a tiny snort. “I’m trying to imagine the looks on the faces of all those guys. What did they say?”
“Nothing, they just stood there gawking. It was the silliest thing ever. And James…” she paused, remembering his expression. “He looked so proud of himself.” Isabelle bit her lip on a laugh and shook her head.
After staring into his gorgeous green eyes throughout the ceremony and saying “I do,” Isabelle noticed James’s expression had changed from emotional to a little mischievous.
>“I love the way you look in this,” he said, fingering the veil and caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers.
The sensation made her stomach flutter, as if a thousand butterflies launched at once.
“But I need to reinforce an important point between us.” He took off the veil and tiara and handed them to Gracie. “I love you, Isabelle.” He cupped her cheeks and stared into her eyes. “You do not need to wear a tiara to have a man, to have me,” James whispered fiercely, “treat you like a queen. That’s my promise to you as your husband.”
Brushing a tendril of hair away from her face, he leaned down and kissed her once, ever so softly. Isabelle breathed in his wonderful scent, fresh and clean, sexy, masculine. His lips curved into a smile, promising a sultry future. Ripples of delight coursed through her, tingling from the top of her head, circling her palpitating heart, and pulsing deliciously down her spine. He brushed her lips with his thumb, a frisson of electricity surging between them, and kissed her again. So sweet and tender, she felt a little wobbly in her knees.