2019 HOLT Medallion Finalist!
A True Cowboy Christmas
Book 1 of The Cold River Ranch Series
“Full of emotion, humor and small town charm. Caitlin Crews delivers everything I want in a cowboy!” – Maisey Yates
“Caitlin Crews writes cowboys you’ll swoon over, heroines you’ll root for, and families that will grip your heart.” – Nicole Helm
From USA Today bestselling author Caitlin Crews comes a sensational series debut about a cowboy, a farm girl, and the greatest gift of all…
Gray Everett has a heart of gold, but that doesn’t mean he believes in the magic of Christmas. He’s got plenty else to worry about this holiday season, what with keeping his cattle ranch in the family and out of the hands of hungry real estate investors looking to make a down-and-dirty deal. That, plus being a parent to his motherless daughter, equals a man who will not rest until he achieves his mission. Now all Gray needs is the help of his lifelong neighbor… who happens to have grown into a lovely, spirited woman.
For Abby Douglas, the chance to join forces with Gray is nothing less than a Christmas miracle. Much as the down-to-earth farmer’s daughter has tried to deny it, Abby’s been in love with stern, smoking-hot Gray her whole life. So when Gray proposes a marriage of convenience to save their land, Abby can’t refuse. But how can she convince Gray that sometimes life offers a man a second chance for a reason… and that their growing trust and mutual passion may be leading to true and lasting love?
A True Cowboy Christmas
Everetts had been going to their eternal rest in the same remote plot of land with its breathtaking view of the same range of gorgeously unforgiving Colorado mountains for at least three generations. And counting.
Gray Everett had always understood that sooner or later, he’d follow suit.
Today was one of those bright and blue November days that seduced a man into pretending he couldn’t feel winter kicking there in the snap of the air against his face, sweeping down from the snowy heights to tug at his bones and make him feel every one of his thirty-eight years. It was the kind of sky that made Gray imagine he might be immortal. Colorado sunshine was nothing if not deceptive, even in an autumn that had already dusted the jagged peaks around the remote Longhorn Valley with a couple of teaser snowfalls, just to get the blood pumping and the snow tires ready.
And today it was Gray’s famously ornery father who was carrying on the inevitable Everett tradition. He was being interred into Everett land in the simple pine box he’d requested in the will he’d drawn up years ago, and had thereafter theatrically amended with a red pen at the dinner table any time he felt irritable or slighted.
And Amos Everett had pretty much felt nothing but irritable and slighted, every day of his miserable life.
Gray was the one who’d had to keep the ranch running, no matter Amos’s many feuds and grievances. He was the only one of his brothers who’d bothered to stick around and take care of what was theirs, so he’d long since stopped paying attention to his father’s dark mutterings and periodic pronouncements of who was in and who was out. He’d had actual fences to mend, calves to brand, colts to halter-break bulls to move from one pasture to another. Amos’s dark obsessions had been a distraction, nothing more.
The pine box was about the only thing the old man hadn’t changed in all these years of will amendments.
And there were worse things than an eternity spent in this pretty family plot, miles away from anything, draped in wind and quiet, snowstorms and summer breezes. Shaded by cottonwood trees overlooking the icy blue river that tumbled down from the higher elevations and had given the four hundred acres Gray’s ancestors had claimed its name. Cold River Ranch. The seat of the Everett family as long as there had been Everetts in Colorado.
His trouble, Gray thought as his reluctant family and the few neighbors who didn’t outright hate Amos gathered around the grave Gray had dug into the chilly, resistant earth the previous morning, was that it turned out he might want more from his life than the Everett family tradition being interred in front of him.
He’d come from this land and like it or not, he’d be returned to this land, sooner or later. Staring at his father’s grave brought that home to him with a kind of wallop.
Gray had spent his life deep in the harsh realities of running cattle, committed to handling Amos’s nonsense as best he could, and dedicated to the raising of his daughter the way he’d been doing since Becca’s mother had taken Gray’s truck and crashed it on the mountain on her way to see one of her lovers ten years back.
He stared at his father’s casket sunk deep in the ground and figured it wasn’t the worst idea in the world to see if he could enjoy his life before he found himself stretched out beneath an adjacent patch of grass. And maybe make Becca’s life easier than his had been while he was at it.
Everetts historically lived mean and more than a little feral, out here where the land had a mind of its own, cattle and weather wreaked havoc at will, and the pretty town of Cold River was an iffy mountain pass away. Everetts tended to nurse the bottle or wield their piety like a weapon, spending their days alone and angry until they keeled over in a barn one day. Gray’s grandfather had been found one morning slumped over his tractor. Amos, who Gray really should have been taking this opportunity to mourn in the way a good son surely would have, had staggered off to the barn to saddle up his horse on Halloween morning and hadn’t come out.
Gray’s grandfather Silas had been a tough man, but a good one. When he had died, the whole valley had turned out to pay their respects. To this day Gray couldn’t make a trip into town without some old-timer gruffly reminding him he had the look of his grandpa about him. He was fairly certain it was a compliment.
Amos, on the other hand, had been as bitter as he’d been spiteful and had taken it out on anyone who’d happened near. He’d run off a pair of wives, a series of girlfriends, not to mention two of his three grown sons. He’d also gone out of his way to alienate just about every resident of this cold, protected valley a world away from Colorado’s fancy, glittering ski slopes and a solid few hours of hair-raising driving from the city lights of Denver.
Gray wasn’t given to dramatics, but he could see his future as well as anyone if he didn’t change. He didn’t have to like it or the way it was mapped out right there in front of him to accept it.
Today’s grumpy hermit is tomorrow’s bitter, old man, he told himself.
He didn’t love thinking about himself that way, and he wasn’t thrilled at how much he sounded like Amos inside his own head, so he frowned around the small graveside service instead. His two younger brothers stood to one side of him, looking solid and grounded as if they hadn’t gotten the hell out of Cold River at the first opportunity and left Gray to handle everything all these years. Across the way, loyal neighbors like old Martha Douglas and her capable, dependable granddaughter, Abby, stood with the sprawling Kittredge family who had land farther out in the valley. The longtime hands had lowered Amos’s casket into the autumn earth and now stood there, taking part in the moment of silence.
Gray didn’t know what anyone else was feeling, except for his daughter, whose muffled sniffles seemed to indicate she was actually mourning the bitter, old man in question’s passing. But then, Becca was fifteen and had tried her best to dote on her grandpa as if the mean, old geezer was some kind of substitute for the mother she’d lost way too young. The mother Gray maybe should have tried to replace, in some form or another.
Gray couldn’t say he or his brothers had tried all that hard with Amos. They’d learned better a long time ago.
When the simple service was finally over, everyone headed back toward the ranch house despite the fact there was supposed to be no gathering, “celebration of life,” or any of that nonsense, per Amos’s pissy wishes etched out in thick, red pen on that damn sheaf of papers he’d called his will. Becca gave him a hug before jumping in a truck with one of the Kittredges, but Gray decided to hike the mile back from the river with his brothers as if they were close.
They weren’t. Even way back when they’d been kids, it had been every man for himself in Amos’s version of family.
“Congratulations,” Brady said as the three of them settled into the walk at Gray’s brisk pace. “Dad’s dead, Gray. That means you’re free.”
Gray adjusted his collar against the biting wind that rushed down from the snow-topped mountains and tended to remind a man exactly how small he was. A feeling Gray had always liked because it put things into perspective. He knew Brady hated it, because Brady had complained about it pretty much constantly throughout his teen years. He eyed his baby brother, all polished and fancy like the city slicker he’d made himself in all his years down in Denver. Gray didn’t want to imagine what the fool had spent on those boots of his.
“No man with four hundred acres is free. Or maybe you forgot what ranch life is like.”
“I didn’t forget. That’s my point. This ranch is a cross no one asked you to carry. And one you can put down anytime now, in case you wondered.”
Gray didn’t want to have this conversation. Ever. And certainly not with Brady, who’d never made any secret of the fact he hated not just Cold River Ranch, but the town of Cold River and the entire Longhorn Valley too. Brady, who had never sacrificed a thing, was filled with all kinds of opinions. And yet had done nothing but run away.
Which was fine by Gray. But it wasn’t him.
“I’m not selling,” he said gruffly, to end the discussion.
Brady glared at him. “Not sure that’s up to you, big brother.”
On his other side, their middle brother Ty threw back his head and laughed, hard enough that the wind couldn’t snatch it away and long enough that Gray and Brady stopped glowering at each other and turned it on him instead.
“Let’s really get into it,” Ty suggested when he fully had their attention. “Throw a few punches, leave a few bruises, and roll into the house with enough blood to horrify the neighbors and make sure we’re the talk of the valley. Isn’t that exactly what Dad would have wanted us to do to mark his passing?”
Gray’s mouth curved despite himself. “The old man did like to cause a commotion.”
Brady shook his head. “He could pick a fight with a tree. And win.”
“He was banned from every bar from here to Vail, repeatedly.” Gray almost sounded . . . nostalgic. “Lately, though, he liked to hole up at home with a bottle of whiskey and list his enemies.”
“Did ungrateful sons count as enemies?” Ty asked lazily. He sounded as cool and unbothered as the hotshot bull rider he was, and was exhibiting only the vaguest hint of a limp to remind anyone looking at him that the last bull he’d tried to ride had stomped him good on the way down.
Amos had pretended not to be aware that Ty rode bulls on television, because he’d always refused to acknowledge anyone who’d wronged him by leaving, from the ex-wives he’d bullied to the sons he’d chased away. But when others mentioned the famous Ty Everett, he’d certainly always seemed to know everything there was to know about his superstar middle child’s career.
“We were disappointments, not enemies,” Gray assured his brothers.
Brady scoffed. “How are you a disappointment? You’re just like him. You might as well be a Cold River wet dream.”
Ty snorted. “I definitely don’t want to hear about your wet dreams, baby brother.”
Gray didn’t want to hear from either of them. He tuned out their bickering as they hit the crest of the hill, because there was his life’s work laid out before him. In every direction, as far as he could see, there was nothing but Everett land. Sweet Angus beef, Colorado mountains, and the sweat and tears and stubborn dreams of all the family who’d come before him.
He took a deep breath, then let it go, his gaze fixed on the ranch house where he’d lived most of his life. He remembered his brothers grousing about it way back when. They’d each called the place claustrophobic, in their own ways, and each of them had made tracks out of the mountains as soon as they’d turned eighteen. Ty to the rodeo, Brady to school.
Only Gray had stayed. Only Gray had endured.
Because what Gray saw when he looked around wasn’t the ball and chain Brady imagined or the chokehold Ty had never wanted.
He saw his home.
The place he’d raised his daughter. The place he planned to stay until it was Becca walking down this hill from the family plot, leaving him behind.
“This is the loneliest place I’ve ever seen,” Brady muttered from behind him.
“Lonely is as lonely does,” Ty replied, all drawl and the sound of his famous smile. “Which in my case is usually a whole lot of whiskey until I fancy myself a pool hustler.”
Gray didn’t turn around.
“I’m not selling,” he said again, more seriously this time. “It’s not happening.”
He could feel his youngest brother’s impatience. And he was sure he could feel the two of them exchanging glances back there, behind his back.
“Then tell me your plan,” Brady said, using the rational, corporate voice he probably got a lot of mileage from down in the city. It made Gray want to swing on him. Which he didn’t do, of course, because he was a grown man who was supposed to have a cool head on his shoulders.
“Same plan as always,” he said instead. “Run cattle. Sell beef. Nothing changes here, Brady. Isn’t that the reason you never come home?”
“What kind of life is that?” Brady demanded.
Gray cut his gaze to the side to find Ty there, a lot less belligerent than usual. A lot less swagger and a lot less of his typical showy crap too, now that he considered it. Maybe that last bull had actually stomped some sense into him.
“It’s my life,” Gray told Brady quietly.
“You could live an entirely different life if you wanted to.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You could sell this land and never have to work another day in your life.”
Gray shook his head. “What kind of man doesn’t want to work?”
“There are developers from here to Grand Junction and back who would kill for this kind of view.”
“And I’d kill them all with my own hands before I’d let them turn our family legacy into a sea of tacky condos. Forget it, Brady. Dad didn’t want to sell and neither do I.”
“He left the ranch to all three of us.”
“He did.” Gray would turn the supreme unjustness of that over in his own head, in his own time, likely while continuing to be the only one of the three who actually put any work into the land that now belonged to all of them. That had been a kick in the gut. But Gray wasn’t accustomed to showing the ways he hurt. “But it requires a unanimous vote to sell.”
Brady looked frustrated for a moment, but then he blinked and his expression turned canny again. Like the slick finance guy he’d turned himself into. “What about Becca?”
“What about Becca?” Gray growled. “You have a sudden interest in my kid’s well-being? I’m real happy to hear it, but you better break it to her gently. You’re nothing but a face in a photograph to her.”
That wasn’t entirely fair, but Gray was okay with that. He was a lot less okay with that edgy, uncomfortable feeling in his own chest, making him restless and far meaner than he wanted to admit.
Maybe you’re not as different from Amos as you like to think, that spiteful voice in his head chimed.
And maybe he needed to pay more attention to his daughter’s well-being himself, and figure out ways he could make her life on the ranch better, though he didn’t plan to admit that to Brady.
“You might have bought the legend of the Everetts hook, line, and sinker, but that doesn’t mean she has,” Brady replied, uncowed. “What if she wants to go to school and learn a few things, instead of spending her life neck-deep in cattle and dust and endless drudgery?”
“Whatever my daughter decides to do,” Gray said, very distinctly, not touching the “drudgery” remark because if he did, he really would give his kid brother a bloody nose like he was thirteen again, “it has nothing to do with you.”
“Just like the ranch has nothing to do with you, Brady. That was what you wanted. That was what you got. Don’t think you can come back here because the old man is gone and start acting like you care what happens to the land, or Becca, or me.”
Gray started down the hill toward the house, his stride longer than before, not just annoyed that he’d taken the bait in the first place—but that he’d imagined he could actually have a conversation with his brothers without wanting to smack them upside the head.
Apparently he wasn’t going to grow out of any time soon. Even if his brothers were grown strangers now instead of the snot-nosed brats Gray had always had to corral while their parents were busy fighting.
“Brady’s just trying to point out that there are options,” Ty said, reasonably enough, matching Gray’s pace a touch too easily for a man who’d sustained injuries bad enough that he’d had to drop out of the bull-riding circuit in the spring.
But Gray didn’t feel reasonable. About any of this. He was a thirty-eight-year-old man who’d poured his heart and soul and entire adult life into this land. He’d lost his wife to it. Oh, sure, he knew Cristina had cheated on him, just like he knew that some people weren’t suited to marriage in the first place—especially not with a rancher who could never take those extended vacations she’d longed for or ever leave the land long enough to buy her the pretty things she’d been so sure would make her happy.
But he also knew that if he hadn’t been more married to his land than he’d ever been to his woman, he might have prevented her from taking his truck that night and skidding over the side of the pass on her way into town.
If he had to live with that, he’d rather do it out here where there was nothing but the wind and the evergreens bristling on the sides of the mountains, his cattle in the distance, and his land beneath his feet.
He didn’t expect Brady, who’d never stuck with anything or thought much beyond himself, to understand that.
Sometimes he wasn’t sure he understood it himself.
But he knew one thing. If he didn’t want to end up as bitter and twisted as Amos, and he didn’t, Gray was going to have to figure out a way to live this life without drowning in his own darkness out here like so many of his ancestors had. And he had to believe the way to do that was to make sure Becca didn’t succumb to it either. That the legendary Everett tendency toward wholescale self-destruction ended with Amos.
The brothers walked in what Gray held to be blessed silence the rest of the way down to the house. Despite Amos’s clear instructions—delivered to get out ahead of the decided lack of interest in celebrating his miserable carcass, in Gray’s opinion—there were trucks and a few SUVs parked in the yard. He recognized almost all of them, and the ones he couldn’t identify he figured were his brothers’. Otherwise it was a showing of Kittredges, Douglases, and Everetts, the way it had been almost a hundred and fifty years ago when the three families had come to settle these mountains from different points back east.
There was something about that he liked. It settled in him like a long pull of the whiskey he enjoyed as much as every other man in his family, but preferred to limit so he never behaved like any of them. A good, warm weight of the history here, bound up in all of those who stayed.
“Listen,” Brady said when they made it to the yard, a kind of warning in his voice that put Gray’s back up.
“Not real interested in listening to you lecture me on ranch life, Denver,” Gray drawled.
“Hilarious.” Brady squared his shoulders when he faced Gray, reminding both of them that he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was built more like a quarterback, and not all of it came from the weird gym he was obsessed with, where they flung tires and carried bags of sand around in the middle of a city as if that was more worthwhile than an honest day of backbreaking ranch work. “It’s going to be just you out here, Gray. Becca’s going to leave you sooner or later.”
“So you have what? Three years? Then she’s off. And there’s going to be nothing here but the Everett legacy, too many freaking cows, and you.”
“And the quiet, Brady. Don’t forget the quiet. That’s sounding pretty fantastic right about now.”
Ty laughed at that. Brady didn’t.
“It drove Grandpa crazy, in the end,” he said with a certainty that made something Gray refused to call dread or foreboding knot in his gut. “He got weird and you know it. And God knows this place never did anything good for Dad. It poisoned him. It scared Mom so badly she ran off to California and never came back.”
“I’m pretty sure Dad made that happen all by himself.”
“And what about Cristina?”
“Jesus Christ, Brady,” Ty interjected then, sounding slightly less lazy than usual. “You’re relentless.”
“What you are is out of line,” Gray said, cold and sure. “There have been Everetts on this land for more than a century. That’s not going to change on my watch. But rest easy, little brother. It doesn’t have to be you saving the ranch. No one’s expecting it to be you, least of all me.”
“Great,” Brady replied hotly. “Die of loneliness, bitter and mean and crazy, like all the rest of them.”
And they’d put their father in the ground less than an hour ago, which was the only reason Gray kept his fist out of Brady’s face. The only reason he bit his tongue and stood there while Brady shouldered his way into the house. Amos might not have been much of a father to any of them, but that hardly mattered. They’d had to bury him all the same. The world was going to feel wrong without the old man in it, whether they’d liked Amos all that much or not. And Gray pummeling his uppity younger brother until he shut his mouth wouldn’t help anything.
Not today, anyway.
The back door slammed behind Brady, leaving Ty and Gray standing there in all that brightness with the cold right there beneath it.
“He’s only trying to help,” Ty said after a minute or two.
“And maybe sell our birthright to fatten up his bank account,” Gray agreed. “Sure.”
“I think he actually just hates the ranch.”
Gray turned his scowl on Ty then. “Do you?”
He expected one of Ty’s usual careless replies, tossed out for a laugh or adoration. But instead, his brother looked back at him with an odd expression on his face. Gray couldn’t quite place it. He was used to that faint scar at Ty’s temple and the loose way he carried himself, all cowboy swagger and bravado, which he guessed a man needed if he was going to fling himself on the back of a pissed-off bull. Repeatedly. For sport. What he wasn’t used to was Ty, of all people, looking . . . thoughtful.
“I don’t know,” Ty said after a moment. His smile seemed longer in coming than usual. “What’s home supposed to feel like?”
“According to Brady, a kick in the gut.”
“I don’t think I’m that emotional.” Ty nodded toward the ever-watchful mountains that rose all around them, catching the light and casting shadows and making Gray’s chest feel tight. “Besides, I like the view.”
Gray nodded at that, and didn’t say anything when Ty walked into the house too.
That left him alone, which was how he preferred it. He had a hundred chores to do, dead father or not. He always did. There was a part of him that liked it that way. He didn’t feel tied down here—he never had. He felt needed.
The land didn’t take care of itself. Neither did the cattle. That was Gray’s job. And Brady was right—Becca would leave, sooner or later, whether she went to school or married one of those punks down at the high school in town. The very idea gave Gray indigestion, but that was reality. Kids left and many of them stayed gone. Look at his brothers.
Gray breathed in the only home he’d ever wanted. The change of seasons in the wind, smelling like fresh snow from the higher elevations. The rich scent of the livestock mixed with the sharp slap of the pines. Cold and clear, sunshine and cedar.
He’d tried marriage once, but for all the wrong reasons. He’d been young and hot for Cristina, and had made the cardinal sin of confusing his hormones for something more. He was still paying for that mistake, but two good things had come out of his reckless, doomed early marriage. Becca was the first and most important thing, of course, hands down.
But the second was the fact he would never, ever be that stupid again.
Gray didn’t mind being on his own. But that didn’t mean he’d ever intended to live his life lonely. Much less keep Becca from the kind of family she’d clearly always wanted, or she wouldn’t have tried so hard to make Amos the cuddly, sweet old grandfather he wasn’t.
That was the piece he was missing. And unlike Amos, he didn’t plan to endlessly repeat his mistakes until he keeled over of his own sheer orneriness one day.
He’d always intended to fill this house with a family and hope that he made at least one child who got bit by the ranching bug the way he had and grew to find he or she didn’t want to leave. It had worked for Amos, despite what a misery the old man had been to live with, so why not Gray too?
What he needed was a practical woman. A solid, dependable woman who understood reality and could commit as much to the legacy of this land as the man who worked it, instead of making demands and dreaming of far-off cities Gray would rather die than live in. Or even visit. A woman who knew who she was and didn’t set off to find herself in every smile a cowboy threw her way. A woman who wanted the things he did, would work beside him to get after them, and help keep his obnoxious brother from pretending to be concerned about him when what Brady really wanted was his third of the profit from any sale of this land.
Better still, a woman who could be the kind of mother to Becca that Cristina hadn’t been. And Gray hadn’t either, these past ten years.
The back door opened again, and when Gray turned, Abby Douglas was standing there in the wedge of space between the screen and the doorjamb.
“I’m heating up some chili,” she told him, sounding perfectly comfortable in his kitchen. “Do you want some?”
He’d never really paid much attention to Abby Douglas because she’d always been there, as familiar to him as the long drive from the ranch house to the county road, or the mountain pass that wound its way into town.
Abby Douglas, whose roots stretched back as far into this valley as Gray’s did. Abby, who was a year or so younger than Brady and lived with her grandmother in the old Douglas homestead out there on the road into town, making her Gray’s closest neighbor.
Plain, sweet, easygoing, and helpful Abby, who had stuck close to home despite having a flighty mother folks still whispered about. Solid, practical Abby, who’d worked in the coffee shop in town through three or four owner and name changes, so long people had started to call it Abby’s instead.
Abby Douglas, who was nothing if not steadfast and pragmatic.
She blinked at him, and Gray didn’t know why he’d never noticed her eyes were that shade of hazel before, nearly gold in the light. It had to be all that bright November sunshine, dancing over both of them and presenting him with the perfect solution to a problem he’d only just realized he needed to solve.
As soon as possible.
“If you don’t want chili, that’s fine,” she said. “I threw together a few sandwiches too.”
And this time when Gray’s mouth curved, it felt a lot closer to a real smile than anything he’d plastered on his face since he’d found Amos in the barn on Halloween.
It felt real.
And it held the promise of a much, much better life than the one he’d just buried.