Monday, November 27, 2023

Christmas With A Cowboy by Pam Mantovani



The holiday spirit has wrapped up a cowboy just for her, but romance isn't in her plans.

Christmas With a Cowboy

Cowboys of Burton Springs Book 7

by Pam Mantovani

Genre: Holiday Romance


She’s all wrapped up in him . . .

Avery McClain is looking forward to her first Christmas in Montana with her little girl. But as soon as she arrives, she’s caught in an unexpected tug of war between two ranchers wanting to buy the land left to her by her favorite uncle. All she wants to do is make the holiday special for daughter. But instead, she’s overwhelmed with attempts to pressure her into selling. And she’s uncomfortably attracted to one of the men competing for her property.

Judson Ford wants Avery McClain’s land to expand his horse breeding operation. He didn’t anticipate his attraction to her, or his admiration for her courage. And her little girl is so damn cute! Before he knows it, he’s been swept up in her Christmas spirit. Suddenly, Avery and her daughter are filling all the empty spaces in his life.

But then, Avery is offered a job opportunity that would mean she’d have to relocate. And Judson realizes that everything in him is pushing him to ask her to stay and make a life—a family—with him.

Unfortunately, someone else has other ideas.

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Chapter One 

AVERY MCCLAIN didn’t cry when she signed the divorce papers. Tears, along with regrets, had disappeared as she’d fought her now ex-husband for what she wanted . . .what was rightfully hers. 

Since he was a prominent attorney from a long line of prominent attorneys, it had not been an easy battle. Still, despite all his slick tactics, all his demands, all his legal maneuvers, she’d refused to bend. 

When something mattered, when it was important, she fought to keep what had been given to her and her alone. 

Timothy had argued harder and longer for the ownership of the cabin in Montana—the cabin she’d inherited from her uncle—than he did over signing away any and all claim to their daughter. 

Walking out of the attorney’s office, she smiled for the first time in months. A dark limo waited at the curb. The driver nodded as he opened the door, offering a hand to assist her inside the luxurious interior. 

“You didn’t have to do this.” 

“Of course, I did.” Londyn Fitzgerald, her college roommate, wildly popular fantasy author, and Avery’s only constant friend, waved a hand. “What’s the point of being famous—and very, very rich—if I can’t do something for my best friend?” 

“He never even asked about her.” 

Londyn blew out a long breath as the driver pulled into traffic. “He never deserved sweet Brenna,” she said, naming Avery’s three-year-old daughter. “Or you.” 

“Well, now he doesn’t have either one of us.” She turned to peer through the smoke-tinted window. “I’m going to Montana.” 

“What? Why?” 

“It’ll be good for me and Brenna to have a fresh start.” 

“Come to New York.” 

“I love you for offering, but I feel like I owe it to Uncle Alex to use his cabin.” She looked at Londyn. “Maybe I’m just being stubborn. Maybe I’m going simply because Timothy fought so hard to take it from me.” 

“Can’t you just picture him, sitting there in one of his three-piece suits, in a hunting cabin?” Both women chuckled. “I’m sorry, Av,” she said. “But what the hell did you ever see in him?” 

“I was lonely. He saw that and used it for his own purposes.” She frowned. “I won’t let something like that happen again,” she promised. 

“And you think Montana is the place to start again?” 

She shrugged. “I won’t know if I don’t go.” A store sign caught her eye, and she pointed at it. 

“The Christmas sales start earlier and earlier,” Londyn commented. 

“In Montana I can give Brenna a traditional Christmas with a real tree, snow, and the magic of Santa. And maybe it’ll restore my faith in joy and goodness.” 

“Christmas shopping in New York could do that.” 

Avery laughed, wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulder. “I’ll call you every week,” she promised. 

It took time. She packed up and shipped out the few items she wanted to keep, along with giving her new contractor time to complete necessary renovations to the cabin before they moved in. Londyn, as only an understanding and the best of friends would do, postponed returning to New York and completing the final installment of her fantasy series to provide moral support. The day Avery dropped off Londyn at the airport, she and Brenna began their cross-country trip. 

She took her time driving. After all, a three-year-old could only stand sitting in a car seat for so long. She constantly talked to Brenna, warding off fatigue or restlessness until they stopped, either to run off energy or take in sights along the way. 

They stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast in Tennessee, then toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Brenna squealed with delight while Avery got nauseous at the top of the Arch in St. Louis. Londyn laughed when Avery told her about the experience later that night during their weekly phone call. When road construction got in the way, she changed routes. Crossing into Montana, beneath an eye-searing blue sky where she spotted her first eagle, the vast landscape ranged from rugged mountains, already topped with snow, to dense evergreen forests and more lakes than she’d imagined. 

Impatient to get to her new home, she skipped a drive through Yellowstone. “We’ll come back,” she promised Brenna, who played with the stuffed moose she’d become infatuated with at a truck stop. 

She took time to stop in the town of Burton Springs and pick up some basic groceries before heading to the cabin. People nodded in that friendly smalltown way she’d come across once or twice during her travels. This time, however, it felt different. These would be her neighbors. Still, she rushed through her purchases and headed out, following the directions. 

At the end of a long gravel road, she braked to a stop, shut down the engine and stared through the windshield, taking it all in. A hundred yards away was the cabin that held warm memories of an uncle who had welcomed her in the summers, given her the attention and love she’d so rarely known from her parents. 

“Mama,” Brenna cried from the back seat. “Out.” 

“Home,” she corrected her daughter. “We’re home.” 

“YOUR UNCLE WAS a heck of an outdoorsman, but a lousy housekeeper,” Harley Barker said as he signed his name to the final document. 

She’d arrived in Burton Springs two days ago and was now taking care of official business. Harley Barker, her uncle’s attorney, was the first stop. “Whenever I visited Uncle Alex, I always felt like I was going on a treasure hunt,” Avery recalled, thankful that the happy memories were starting to replace her guilt for having neglected him for so long. “I would find a bird’s nest, an old arrowhead, a collection of elk antlers, a turtle shell he used as a bowl to hold rocks and nuts, and, once, a bear claw.” 

“The place is cleaned and updated for you now.” 

“I appreciate you taking care of everything,” she said. The attorney had been helpful in so many ways since he’d informed her of her uncle’s passing fourteen months earlier. 

“I’m obliged to tell you I’ve been approached by someone to inquire if you might be interested in selling your property.” 

“No, I’m not.” 

“A hundred acres of land is a big responsibility for a young woman.” 

She smiled slightly. “You mean a young woman who’s lived her entire life in a city in Georgia?” 

He paused, glancing at the corner where Brenna talked toddler gibberish to a collection of stuffed animals. “I mean a single mother with a young daughter.” 

The reminder that she, and she alone, was responsible for her daughter’s welfare could have depressed her if it hadn’t been true since the day Brenna was born. Her ex-husband hadn’t attempted to hide his disappointment at being told he had a daughter instead of a son. His loss, she thought now as she watched Brenna put the stuffed animals in a basket, then laugh when she tipped it over so they spilled out. His very great loss. 

“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Barker.” 

“Harley,” he reminded her. “It’s a generous offer, one that could give you and your daughter a comfortable life.” 

“You know how hard I had to fight to keep this property.” He nodded. “I have fond memories of the summers I spent here with Uncle Alex. I’m not going to dishonor his legacy by selling it off before the ink is dry on the deed.” 

“Do you have any idea what you’re going to do with the land?” 

“No, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ll stay in Montana beyond Christmas.” She pointed at the wall calendar a month shy of turning the page to November. “But I am looking forward to spending the holidays here.” 

“The town does it up right. There’ll be plenty for you to do and see.” 

“I look forward to it.” 

Harley stood and offered his hand. “If you need anything, you know where to find me.” 

AVERY WAS USED to the stares. Although she had arrived seven weeks earlier, people in this small and close-knit community still looked at her as if she was a stranger rather than their newest neighbor. The bulk of those seven weeks she’d spent in the cabin, setting up house, acclimating herself and Brenna to their new surroundings. She’d had work deadlines to meet—she was just starting out as a graphic designer and knew that she had a reputation to keep up—and, she smiled a little, she’d also spent considerable time shopping for winter wardrobes. 

Today, however, the stares were for a little girl who was fussy and tired. Avery knew she was blessed with a child who willingly went down for naps. The problem today was, with Thanksgiving two days away–she’d spotted some businesses already starting on their Christmas decorations—Avery had needed to run errands. And they’d taken longer than she’d anticipated. She wouldn’t be preparing a traditional feast, or contacting a caterer to serve it for her ex-husband’s family and associates, but she did want to make the day as special for her and Brenna as she could. 

She glanced down into her cart. Most of the other shoppers had full ones, with the traditional turkey, stuffing, and other assorted items for big family gatherings. Tossed in with their discarded coats, her cart held a box of Breanna’s preferred macaroni and cheese and a frozen lasagna for herself. Along with a nice bottle of wine. 

“Brenna . . .” Avery rubbed a thumb on her daughter’s palm, a gesture that, since birth, always calmed her. Her eyes, green like her father’s, were heavy with fatigue and her full bottom lip, inherited from her mother, trembled against the urge to cry. “Okay, sweetie, we’re going.” It would mean a trip back to the store tomorrow, when it was likely to be a madhouse, but she would manage. 

“Uh, oh. Looks like someone missed their nap.” 

Avery watched as a man leaned down to smile at Brenna. “I know just how you feel, sweetheart. I get cranky myself if I don’t get enough sleep.” 

Maybe it was a small town, but Avery didn’t like the idea of a stranger being so close to her daughter. She unhooked the safety strap and lifted Brenna out of the seat . . .then gasped in surprise when Brenna flung herself into the man’s arms. 

“I’m sorry,” Avery said, reaching for Brenna. 

“No problem. Well,” he said, smiling as he leaned back when Brenna reached out for the brim of his caramel-colored cowboy hat. “Maybe one. Sorry sweetheart, but no woman, no matter how cute, gets her hands on my hat.” He removed it and tossed it into Avery’s cart. 

“She doesn’t usually go to strangers,” Avery said, nervously. 

“Then let me introduce myself. I’m Judson, Judson Ford. I own the New Horizon Ranch.” 

“’Udson.” Brenna said, earning a chuckle from him. 

He pointed a finger at Avery. “And who’s this lovely lady?” 


Maybe because this man held her precious daughter so carefully, charming her by making funny faces and earning delighted giggles, Avery couldn’t dismiss him outright, as she’d easily been able to do with every man who’d crossed her path in the past year. Still, she wouldn’t let down her guard either. 

Then, over her daughter’s head, his eyes locked with hers. She felt a shock, an intense streak of fire, race down her spine. She had no idea what had caused it, had no idea why she’d felt it. All she knew was it wasn’t entirely sexual in nature. 

“I was sorry to hear about Alex Mitchell’s death.” 

“Did you know him?” 

“Our paths crossed from time to time, since his property borders mine.” He paused. “Since it’s yours now, that makes us neighbors.” 

“I’ll keep that in mind in case I need a cup of sugar.” 

“That and a few other basics are about all I have in my kitchen.” 

Avery glanced down at her cart. “Maybe I should pick up some sugar to have on hand.” She smiled at Brenna. “And for when I make Christmas c-o-o-k-i-e-s.” 

“That doesn’t look like much of a Thanksgiving feast.” 

Heat rose on her cheeks. “Brenna’s too young to have turkey, and it hardly seemed worth the effort to cook for one,” Avery said. 

“Can’t blame you there.” 

Avery watched Judson’s gaze move over her shoulder and warmth softened the dark color of his eyes. 

“Audra,” he said, pleasure evident in his voice. 

Avery turned, surprised to find a woman pushing a cart. Inside it were two young boys, and another holding onto the cart handle. All three children were currently entertained with toy cars and action figures. 

“Hello, Judson. I’m surprised to find you here.” 

“Audra Montgomery, this is Avery McClain. She’s the new owner of the property next to mind.” 

“Oh, you’re Alex Mitchell’s niece. I didn’t know him, but I’ve heard good things about him. Welcome to Burton Springs.” Her features softened as she studied Brenna, who now had her head lowered to Judson’s shoulder. “What a beautiful little girl you have.” She sighed and stroked a hand over the small bump of her belly before reaching over to snag the car her three boys fought over. It took only a single look to stop the arguing. “I’ll be outnumbered five to one come July.” 

“Carter’s a lucky man,” Judson said. 

“No,” Audra corrected him, smiling at her three boys. “I’m the lucky one.” 

“Audra and Carter got engaged on Thanksgiving,” Judson said. “Since then, it’s become a tradition for them to open their house to whoever wants to come.” 

“Please join us,” Audra said. She nodded at Judson, a gesture of acceptance of what he’d been suggesting. “If you don’t, I’ll worry all day about you being alone.” 

“That’s very kind of you, and I appreciate the invitation. Really. But Brenna and I will be fine.” She hesitated. “We’re used to being alone. And, as you can see, she likes her nap time.” 

“You talk funny.” 

“Bradley,” Audra gasped with embarrassment. 

“Well, she does. I didn’t say she sounds bad.” The boy standing at the handle hunched his shoulders. “It’s kind of like music.” 

Avery leaned forward and tapped a fingertip to his nose, when what she really wanted to do was sweep him into her arms. “That, kind sir, is just about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” 

“Hey,” Judson protested. “Are you trying to steal away my reputation as the most eligible man in town?” 

“No, sir. You’re not ‘pose to steal. Aunt Kendall will arrest you if you do.” 

“My sister-in-law,” Audra said with a chuckle. “Is a deputy sheriff.” 

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just jealous because you’re so sweet,” Avery said, grinning when the two other brothers made kissing noises. She straightened, looked at Audra, then gave in. If she wanted to become part of the community, she needed to participate. “What can I bring?” 

“Nothing this year. It’s your first time, and we always have plenty.” 

“Enough for me to take home a leftover dish?” Judson asked. 

“Or two,” Audra agreed. She brushed a hand over Bradley’s hair. 

“Really, I can’t come empty-handed.” 

“A bottle of wine?” She looked at the boys. “Maybe something special for the kids?” 

The boys piped up with their favorites and Audra gave Avery her address before she led the boys away to complete their shopping. 

“I’ll take her now,” Avery said to Judson, holding out her arms, only to realize Brenna had fallen asleep. 

“You don’t want to wake her when she just fell asleep, do you?” 

“And you want to hold her?” 

“It’s called being a good neighbor.” 

Avery gave in and selected two additional bottles of wine, along with a bouquet of flowers for Audra, before picking out the drinks the boys had mentioned. Standing behind her as she paid for her purchases, Judson Ford kept up a conversation with the clerk, who bounced curious glances between him and Avery. When her transaction was complete, and her bags stored in the cart, she turned to Judson. 

“I’ve got her.” 

“But it’s cold outside,” Avery protested, holding up Brenna’s coat. 

“I’ll keep her warm.” 

Rather than make a scene in the front of the store, Avery said nothing and turned to push the cart toward her vehicle. 

“This time next year, you won’t even need a coat,” Judson said beside her. She looked over to find him studying her. 

“It’s a long way from Georgia. Or is it Alabama? Tennessee, maybe? C’mon,” he said when Avery looked at him. “Even before Bradley said anything, you knew we could all hear the magnolias in your voice. Or is it peaches?” 

“Peaches,” she confirmed as her lips twitched. “Atlanta to be specific.” Using her key fob, she opened the rear hatch of her SUV and unlocked the doors before turning to him. She had the added feature of the engine starting, and therefore the heater going as well. “I’ll get her strapped in the car seat if you don’t mind putting the bags in the back.” 

She had a hand slipped between Brenna’s body and his chest when she froze. It was, she realized, the first time she’d had to make this kind of transfer. Brenna’s father had never held his daughter, not even as an infant. 

“Are you okay?” 

She nodded, completing the transfer. But she held Brenna close a moment, before moving to place her in the car seat. It was nice to have an extra pair of hands, someone to take care of the groceries while she settled Brenna. “Thank you,” she said sincerely when he came to her door. 

“What time should I pick you up on Thanksgiving?” 

“I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather drive myself,” she said, clicking her seatbelt in place. “I need to do some work that morning, and if I have my own car, I can leave if Brenna gets cranky.” 

He stepped back. “Okay. See you then.” 

Hours later, after dinner, bath, and cuddle time with Brenna before she fell asleep, Avery poured a glass of wine and thought back over the day. A part of her questioned how she’d allowed herself to be railroaded into spending Thanksgiving Day with strangers but another part of her had been warmed by the invitation. Besides, how could she deny the sweetness of having a small boy tell her that she sounded like music when she talked? 

There’d been little sweet about Judson Ford. Oh, he’d been charming, but there’d also been a sharpness and intensity beneath that public layer. It reminded her, painfully, of why she was in Montana. She recalled Thomas’ pursuit of her back when they’d been dating. At the time, it had been flattering to be the center of his attention. 

Then again, Judson had made no effort to change her mind when she insisted on driving to the Montgomery ranch on Thanksgiving. 

She roamed the central room, with an unobstructed view of the eating area and kitchen. The master bedroom and bath were on the other side of the cabin, with two remaining bedrooms, split by a bathroom, lining the rear of the house. A wide deck, now covered in a foot of snow, extended the front length of the house and would be a great place to sit outside in warmer months. Maybe she’d speak to Jessica Thorne, the woman who’d handled the renovations, about building a swing set for Brenna. And a rocker for herself. 

It was a far different, more updated version of the house she’d stayed in while visiting her uncle. But the house had just been somewhere to be when they couldn’t be outdoors. She’d had a different freedom here than at home. There had been so much to explore and discover. Uncle Alex had shown limitless patience as he taught her about the environment and respect for the wildlife. 

He'd laughed with delight when she’d caught her first fish, had beamed with satisfaction when he taught her how to select and cut a thick branch to make into a hiking stick. She recalled the two of them sitting on the back porch, juice running down their chins from the first freshly picked tomato they’d grown together. He’d never been too busy to answer questions or explain something to her. He’d given her the attention her own parents had been too interested in their careers to offer. 

She vowed Brenna would never doubt her mother’s love. 

Taking her wine with her, she went into the bedroom she’d set up as an office. She’d take her mind off disappointments, heartache, and the surprising attraction to Judson Ford by concentrating on work. If she succeeded in winning the graphic design contract for a national cookie company, it could make all the difference in the world for her and Brenna. Not only would it give her more financial security, but it would ensure she could keep working from home and always be available for Brenna. 

Whether home ended up being here or somewhere else was a question to be answered later. 

An author of passionate, emotional romances with heart, Pam loves crafting stories about independent women and men who discover the thrill and joy of falling in love. After years of moving as both an Army Brat and corporate wife, Pam and her craftsman husband settled in Atlanta, close to family and friends. When not writing, Pam enjoys quilting, planting beautiful flowers, home improvement projects and spending time with her wonderful family.

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1 comment:

Pam Mantovani said...

Hello everyone, I apolgoize for not popping in more today but unfortunately I came down with a cold over the weekend and when my body is sick all it wants to do is sleep! Usually this would have been the weekend I decorated but I'm grateful we got a jump on things this weekend. How about all of you? Done? Almost? Haven't started?