October 1, 2017

Cowboy Christmas Blues

(A Gold Valley Novella)

Note: This book will be released individually in ebook, and will be out in print in the back of Christmastime Cowboy 10/24

He didn’t want to come home for the holidays—but can an unexpected reunion with a woman from his past make this cowboy’s Christmas merry and bright in this sweet and sizzling novella?

When Cooper Mason left Gold Valley, Oregon behind him eight years ago, he told himself he wouldn’t be back. But when a Christmas promise sends him home to face his demons, he’ll find that not everything is as he remembers—especially family friend Annabelle Preston, who’s somehow morphed from childhood pest to full-grown, hot-blooded and oh-so-tempting woman.

Growing up, Annabelle had built a lot of dreams around the ruggedly gorgeous Cooper—dreams she’s long ago learned to put behind her. Until a chance encounter with Cooper leads to a night neither can forget, and all the old feelings come blazing back to life. Now, Annabelle has a week to prove that they’re more to each other than a no-strings holiday fling…and with a little Christmas luck, she just might encourage Gold Valley’s favorite cowboy to come home for good.

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Gold Valley at Christmastime hadn’t changed at all since Cooper Mason had left town eight years ago. Every streetlight was wrapped in white Christmas lights, and wreaths and more white lights covered the redbrick buildings, window displays reflecting the season in each little shop.

He hated it. All of it.

And sure, he had come to terms with Christmas since Lindsay’s death, because you couldn’t exist in the world and not figure out a way to survive the season. But he had deliberately avoided this little corner of Oregon since then.

Because the last thing he needed was to be inundated with memories of his older sister and the joy she had taken in celebrating. The joy she had taken in everything, in spite of her illness.

Gold Valley was the same now as it had been eight years ago, and the same eight years ago as it had been when they were children. So it was easy now to envision her, rosy-cheeked and standing in front of the antique-toy store, her face pressed against the glass as she exclaimed over dolls and blocks, books and art supplies. Before sickness had stolen so much of who she was.

She’d been sixteen when she’d gotten sick, already dating Grant Dodge, who married her as soon as it was legal. Knowing she wouldn’t live long. Their love story had made national headlines. A love story that was doomed already, which the public found so much more romantic than a love that might last a lifetime.

God knew why.

Cooper knew there wasn’t a hell of a lot that was romantic about death.

He shouldn’t have let his parents talk him into coming home for the holidays.

He always felt a little bit guilty about the way his visits home went. He avoided his old friends. Avoided people he’d been close to before. His football buddies from high school, Nate and Jason, who had wives and kids now. He hadn’t seen Ben Preston in years. The older man had been his dad’s mechanic and friend, and had been like an uncle to Cooper. Ben’s chubby little girl, Annabelle, had always trailed around after him on the farm when they’d come to visit.

He didn’t even know if Annabelle lived here anymore.

There was a time when she’d almost been like another sister to him. Now, he just tried not to think much about the past.

Cooper had lost touch with this place, and he’d done it mostly on purpose. Normally, he could outpace the guilt just fine. But sometimes…

He shook his head and went into the saloon, which was where he had spent most of his time this week. At least inside the Gold Valley Saloon there was some respite from the seasonal cheer. Some respite from the family home that was a shrine to Lindsay and all that she had been.

Here, it was just the bar. Just alcohol and people coming together for their own reasons. To escape real life, to visit with friends. To hook up.

Cooper snorted. He wasn’t about to hook up anytime soon. He hadn’t come back to this small town to cause trouble. He was way better off waiting until he left. But he couldn’t deny that a little sex to take the edge off would be welcome.

But the gossip line in town was like a vine and rumors grew on it like grapes, and there was no way he wanted to get enmeshed in that. He had extricated himself. He had gotten out. He spent his days moving cattle around the country from ranch to ranch, never staying in one place very long. And that suited him just fine. He lived on the road, occasionally stopping  to visit his parents. But never for that long. And never at this time of year.

He should have stuck to his guns on that one. But he couldn’t resist his mom when she got emotional, and she’d been filled with conviction that he needed to come home for Christmas this year. Because it had been too long since he had. Because it had been Christmastime eight years ago when Lindsay had taken a sharp turn for the worse and passed away just before New Year’s. And the memories were all oppressive now, even more than they usually were.

Cooper didn’t want to think about it. Cooper wanted a drink.

He went up to the counter and took a seat, waiting for the bartender, Laz Jenkins, to come over and take his order.

And that was when she caught his eye. Standing over at the jukebox, looking down, caramel-colored hair falling over a face he couldn’t see. A curvy figure, and a pretty delicious ass highlighted by the tight-fitting skirt she had on.

Not here to hook up, remember?

Yeah. He was not here to hook up. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t check out a good-looking woman.

“Can I get you something?”

Laz hadn’t been the owner of the bar back when Cooper had lived in town, but the two of them had gotten acquainted over the past week. “The usual,” Cooper said.

“Whiskey and lots of it coming up,” Laz said.

That was another reason that Cooper felt comfortable at the bar. Laz didn’t know his life story. That was another thing about coming back to town. He didn’t know how his parents coped with it. Didn’t know how Lindsay’s widowed husband managed. To stay here in town where everybody was so keenly aware of the loss all the time. Every moment of every day. It was all they thought about when they looked at his family, he knew. When he or his parents walked out of a room, it was the thing they whispered to their friends.

That’s Connie Mason. Her daughter died. Isn’t that sad? So young.

Too damned young.

Right on cue Laz produced the promised whiskey, and Cooper took it down in one slug. Then turned his attention back to the pretty girl over at the jukebox. Yeah, he really would like a distraction. Particularly an hourglass-shaped one.

The woman turned then, and treated him to a view of what was a damned spectacular rack and a pretty face, as well.

She looked vaguely familiar, but then, living in a town this size most people looked familiar. Could be a clerk from a store he’d gone to earlier in the week, someone he’d passed on the street.

She looked up, her brown eyes clashing with his, and she bit her lip. It was a cute gesture. Seductive, and not accidental, he had a feeling.

Well, maybe Pretty Jukebox Girl was looking for a night of distraction herself.

It might be worth exploring. For a night. Nothing else. He left a twenty on the bar top and began to walk her way.

He was coming toward her. Cooper was coming toward her. She had come here tonight for him, so she supposed she should be excited. That she should be triumphant, because she had been working up the nerve to approach him for the past week, and she had spared absolutely no effort getting herself ready for a seduction tonight. Which was hilarious, since Annabelle Preston had never seduced anyone in her life.

Being in a relationship was one thing. She’d been in one for a long time. Too long. It wasn’t like she didn’t have experience. But setting out to a bar with the express purpose of seducing a man? That was…yeah, that was outside her scope.

Cooper had always been the most beautiful man. She had thought so for as long as she could remember. Back when her father had serviced the heavy machinery on the Mason family farm, she had often tagged along and taken the opportunity to stare at the brooding boy who captured her attention with such intensity.

Cooper had always been sweet to her. But like an older brother or something. Their dads were good friends in addition to having a professional relationship, and so they’d seen each other quite a bit when he lived at home and she was a child.

He hadn’t ever noticed her noticed her, of course. She was seven years younger, and had definitely been a kid in his eyes.

She’d been so hungry to matter. Her father had always been so good to her, but he was all she had, and attention from someone like Cooper had been thrilling.

He had looked sad sometimes, and she’d known it was because his sister was sick. And even if she didn’t understand everything when she’d been nine or ten years old, she’d delighted in making him smile. Or even laugh. Running around the ranch, while the poor guy was tasked with chasing after her.

She’d climbed apple trees in their front yard, filling her arms with as many as she could. And he would always shine them with his shirt and hand her the best, brightest ones.

One time he’d taken her to the barn so she could look at a box of kittens one of the barn cats had just given birth to. Seeing those strong hands, so gentle and tender, on such tiny creatures had made her feel… She hadn’t really understood it.

She’d been thirteen then and he’d been twenty. He’d made her ache. Made her feel so much longing she hadn’t fully comprehended.

At fifteen, she’d had a fight with her father and run away to the Masons’ farm. She’d climbed into the loft and fallen asleep and hadn’t realized she’d worried everyone sick. Then she’d awoken to a husky, masculine voice and had opened her eyes to see Cooper looking down at her. He was angry, because of how she’d frightened her dad, but…but seeing him look down at her like that…

She’d wanted him to be the one to wake her up forever after that.

The last time she had seen him she had been seventeen and all rounded puppy fat, to his chiseled twenty-four.

Even if she hadn’t been a child to him then, she wouldn’t have expected him to notice her that day. Because the last time she’d seen him had been at Lindsay’s funeral. It had been a blur of tears and grief for her, so she knew it had been much more so for him. He’d been so still and stoic, all grim-faced and hard. She remembered hugging him, offering what little comfort she could.

He’d wrapped his arms around her and held on tight, the slight hitch in his breathing the only real show of emotion she saw from him that day.

She thought of that day far too often. Of how much she wished she could take his pain away. Of how much she wished she could be in his arms again, even though that was messed up because he’d been grieving and it shouldn’t have affected her to be held by him while he was grieving.

He had been back intermittently since he had moved away, but never for very long, and he’d never sought her out. In fact, it felt like he deliberately avoided talking much to anyone in town other than his parents whenever he came back for a visit.

Then last night she had been in the Gold Valley Saloon, meeting up with a group of friends, and there he was. He had walked in and her entire world had stopped.

She’d been in a T-shirt and jeans, looking about as plain as paper, because she’d just gotten off work, and he’d never once looked her direction.

And that was when she had made a decision. She was single, had been for almost a year, and she was ready. Ready to do something bold. Ready to make a change. Ready to stop settling.

So she’d decided she would come back to the bar looking…sexy. And she would get his attention. Because yes, she was ready.

Ready to be the kind of woman that Parker had said she could never be. Parker, who thought that she needed to make sure she wore outfits that didn’t show muffin tops and who felt that most lingerie didn’t suit her figure.

Parker, who thought that she was too doughy to ever be a sex kitten.

And yeah, tonight she was wearing Spanx. Which she knew could become an issue later. But she had to get the man into the bedroom before she could worry about how she would take the Spanx off gracefully with him in residence, and what he would think when he found out she wasn’t quite as sleek as she appeared.

Yes. That was a problem for after she passed this first hurdle.

But he was coming toward her. And his gaze was hot, so she was hoping she was on the right track.

He was as beautiful as ever, and had actually gotten better-looking with time, in her opinion. He had filled out more, the shadow on his jaw darker than it had been back then, that jaw a bit more square. His forearms were thicker, his shoulders broader. He was bigger all over, really. More heavily muscled. She had heard that he did something with livestock, and she imagined that contributed to his physique. Whether he was eighteen or twenty-six, he appealed to Annabelle. She had a feeling he would appeal to her when he was forty. Fifty. Beyond. He was her special brand of catnip, and whatever the reason why, it was true.

She wanted her catnip.

She’d walked herself into a safe, settled life that had been a direct route to nowhere. A boyfriend of five years who’d done nothing but eat all the yogurt the day she bought it and criticize everything she did in that slow, subtle way that was like death to her self-esteem by a thousand paper cuts.

It had taken her time to figure out what she wanted after Parker had ended things—–he had ended things with her, that had been another blow straight to her soft underbelly (very soft, according to Parker)—and now that she had…

Well, her revelation was shaped like Cooper Mason.

She wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, and God knew Cooper wouldn’t be either. He wasn’t that kind of guy. At least, he gave no indication of being that kind of guy, not in all the years he had lived in Gold Valley, and his rumored lifestyle certainly didn’t conform to that idea either. But she needed excitement. She needed to seize something for herself.

She needed to stop acting like she believed that she was everything Parker thought she was.

She had started changing her life last year after the breakup. When she had gone ahead and bought the Western clothing store, Gunslinger, on Gold Valley’s main street, a store she had worked at for most of her adult life. She had always dreamed of having her own store and it had fallen into her lap when her boss had informed her she was retiring.

She’d talked to Parker about that dream before. He’d told her—couched in concern, because his sharpest words were always wrapped in something soft, so that it took days to fully realize they’d had the power to cut her—that he didn’t think it was the right move for her. That she was far too wishy-washy and she wouldn’t want to be anyone’s boss and she’d hate being in charge actually and on and on.

But she was pulling it off. Without him. Happily.

The business was going well, her professional life nicely improved. But there was the little matter of her confidence in herself as a woman. And fulfilling a long-held fantasy.

It was then she realized that she was standing there staring at Cooper while she engaged in a complex internal monologue.

“Hi,” she said.

It was a far cry from a saucy opening line or a casual how have you been? Which would have been better. But oh, well.

“Hi,” he returned, that voice rough like gravel and even sexier than she remembered.

“I’ve seen you in here a lot lately,” she said, stumbling over her words.

“Yeah,” he said, looking a little surprised. “I’m in town visiting my parents.” He lifted his hand and pushed his cowboy hat back slightly, leaning up against the jukebox, directly across from her. The planes and angles of his face had gotten more chiseled in the past eight years, too. His jaw sharper, covered in golden whiskers, the hollows in his cheeks more pronounced. But his blue eyes were the same.

“Not here to stay, then?” She had assumed as much, but part of her had hoped.

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “No,” he said. “My job keeps me on the road most of the year, so I don’t really have a permanent residence. Suits me just fine.”

She should have known that the rumors she’d heard were accurate. The telephone game in Gold Valley was pretty unerring.

“That sounds exhausting,” she said.

“I like it,” he said. “Get a chance to see a lot of new places. Meet a lot of new people.”

“I suppose,” she returned. “But you must get lonely.”

A slow smile curved his lips upward, the kind of smile that Cooper Mason had certainly never directed her way before. “I’m never lonely.”

“Oh,” she said, the breath pushing out of her lungs, her stomach tightening.

Of course he wasn’t lonely. She imagined all he had to do was direct that smile to any woman he encountered in any bar in any town, and she would turn her panties right over to him.

Suddenly, her mouth felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

All she needed was to get a drink in her and do something dumb. She was on edge enough as it was, and while she knew that most people liked to use alcohol as a social lubricant, she felt like she needed to keep herself from getting too socially lubricated. She wanted to keep herself from being an idiot as well as a long shot.

“Are you waiting for someone else?”

“I was waiting for you,” she said, the words far too honest, far too sharp, scraping her throat dry on the way out.

His smile widened. “I think I might have been waiting for you, too.”

Oh. My.

He was waiting. For her. For her. Annabelle, who he’d always seen as a kid. But not now.

He did see her as a woman now. And he wanted her. And oh, holy night, she wanted him, too.

She knew it then. She knew it in her soul. That her Christmas present to herself—Cooper Mason—was about to get given to her.

It was working. It was happening.

Screw you, Parker.

“Sounds like we were waiting for each other then,” she said, cringing internally, because she was really bad at this flirtatious back-and-forth.

“You want to get out of here?”

Well, that was quick. Granted, they weren’t strangers. She knew Cooper, had known him for her entire life, even though she hadn’t talked to him in eight years. She knew that he was a good guy. Knew that he wouldn’t hurt her or anything like that. She trusted him.

Still, it was moving a little too smoothly. She hadn’t anticipated him being right into it right away.

“We haven’t even kissed yet,” she pointed out.

Her heart was thundering so hard she could hardly hear his response, because her brain was simply echoing with the rhythmic sound of her pulse.

“I can fix that,” he responded.

He braced one hand on the top of the jukebox, and curved his arm around her waist.

A man hadn’t touched her in over a year, not since her breakup. And she had only ever kissed two men in her entire life. So, having Cooper stand so close to her, his large hand resting on her waist… It was a lot to process. A lot to take in.

And then, before she could think any deeper, Cooper brought his lips down on hers.

His whiskers were rough, his mouth firm, and the whole thing a sensual assault that left her scarcely able to breathe.

This was it. This was what she wanted. This was need that went beyond settling. This wasn’t just a kiss because she wanted a guy’s kiss. This was a kiss because she wanted to kiss this particular man. In this particular moment.

She wasn’t with him because she was afraid of being by herself. Because she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to do better. This had nothing to do with a relationship, with hoping for marriage one day.


This was about desire. Real, deep desire. About a lifelong fantasy, not just vague general needs for sex or closeness.

And that fantasy was finally about to be fulfilled.















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