A Christmas Cowboy with a Joy Filled Heart
Joe braced his arms and closed his eyes as his pickup truck spun. It slammed into a snowbank with a thud, the impact stalling the engine. Both his head and left shoulder struck the steering wheel. What happened to his air bag? He reached for his phone, which he’d thrown on the passenger seat six hours earlier. It wasn’t there. Most likely it was on the floor. Searing pain shot through his head as he leaned over, trying to feel for it.
This hadn’t been a planned trip. He’d received word that his brother Mark had defaulted on a surprise second mortgage he’d taken on the ranch. The bank had called, not Mark. Something wasn’t right. Without hesitation, Joe had tossed a few changes of clothes in a bag, along with his toiletries. He’d thrown the bag and his guitar into the truck and sped off.
Looking back on it, he probably should have tuned in to the weather reports. Not that bad weather would have stopped his trip. He’d learned to drive when it was snowy. But he should have taken more care. It just hadn’t occurred to him there would be a problem. Then the roads had become harder and harder to maneuver as the snow accumulated rapidly.
His mind was focused more on what might have happened to the ranch and less on the condition of the roads. He was less than ten miles from home, or what he’d once called home. Finally snagging his phone, he called Mark, but his brother didn’t pick up. Joining Triple A would have been a good idea. His best ideas seemed to occur in hindsight.
A knock on his window startled him. He turned and gasped as knifelike agony speared his shoulder. That couldn’t be good. He squinted through the window at the shadowy figure outside. He didn’t know who he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t Iris Collins. He’d recognize her sky-blue eyes anywhere.
Her lips formed an O. She probably never thought to hear from him again. She probably never wanted to hear from him again.
“Joe, are you all right? Are you injured? Should I call an ambulance?”
He stared at the flakes being driven from the sky by a relentless wind. An ambulance would never make it with the amount of snow that was falling.
“I’m fine. I’m just going to push my truck out of the bank and keep moving.” The truck was stuck but a person could hope.
“Let’s get you out of the truck first.” She struggled to open his door, but it was wedged closed. Before he could slide over to the passenger side, she was already opening that door. “Come on, bring your things. My car is halfway down the drive. I was afraid of becoming stuck, so I didn’t drive it all the way.
He grabbed his things as he climbed out and stood, staring down at her. He’d forgotten how tiny she was compared to him. A smile tugged at his lips, but he suppressed it; she didn’t want his smiles.
“Come on, before we freeze!” She strode past the snowbank and turned.
Of all the places to crash. He shook his head. Hopefully, he’d be able to leave quickly. For the last six years, he’d replayed their breakup in his head, over and over, and he never looked good. He’d been mean and harsh, and he regretted it more times that he wanted to admit.
With his long stride, he easily caught up to her. The wind was howling savagely, and he speculated on how she was still standing. Then again, she was the strongest woman he’d ever known.
They both hopped into her rusted pickup and quickly closed the doors.
“Another few minutes and I would have had to scrape the ice off the windows,” she stated as she set the truck in motion. She watched the drive intently, which allowed him a moment to study her.
Wisps of hair had escaped her hat, and it was as fiery red as he remembered. Her lips were as red and the sprinkling of freckles… He glanced away. He’d once kissed each freckle on her beautiful face. She wore gloves and he couldn’t tell if she wore a wedding ring.
“Thank you for coming to my rescue.”
She hesitated. “I heard the crash. I would have done it for anyone.” Still, she stared out the window.
It was hard to tell under all the snow, but the house looked in need of a handyman. Where were all the cowboys who worked the ranch? The closer they got, the more rundown the house appeared.
“I’ll call for a tow truck when we get to the house.” He waited for her to say something, anything.
She drove into the garage and got out of the truck. “Come on, it’s warm inside. I’ve been waiting for the power to go out. We were without power for two weeks last year.”
Two weeks? Where were her generators? He grabbed his bag and his guitar and followed her inside.
“Mama!” A little girl rushed to Iris and gave her a hug. “Brrrr.”
“You’re right. Brrrr it is. Carrie, this is Mr. Douglas.”
The little red head grinned. “Hello Mr. Dog.”
Joe chuckled. “That’s one of the better names I’ve been called.”
“Carrie, could you show Mr. Douglas where the wood-burning stove is while I put on a pot of coffee? I’ll be right there.”
“Call me Joe.”
Carrie nodded and ran down the hall, with Joe following.
Iris clutched the edge of the table until her knuckles turned white. He shouldn’t be here. He couldn’t be here. Panic filled her. She took a few deep breaths and let go of the table. Keeping busy might help. She prepared the coffee and poured two cups, adding milk to his. Then she placed blueberry muffins on a plate. She placed it all on a plastic tray, along with a small glass of orange juice for Carrie.
Lord, I need Your strength. I can’t think of a good way this will turn out.
After picking up the tray, she sighed. There were bound to be questions. Questions she wasn’t ready to answer.
When she entered the great room, Joe rose and took the tray from her. He set it on the table and picked up his cup of coffee and inhaled the strong aroma. He grinned. “You remembered how I like it.”
“Are you warm enough? What about your head? You have quite the bump forming on your forehead.”
“No need to fuss, I’m fine.”
She stiffened at his words. Old maids and grandmothers were fussy. She didn’t have a choice but to go with the changes.
“Daddy passed over four years ago. It’s just me and Carrie now. I miss him. He was always my rock. Carrie, bring me your tablet. I want to make sure it’s charged.”
“Okay, Mama.” She unfolded her long legs and dashed out of the room.
“She’s beautiful. She looks just like you.”
“She’s my joy.”
“Do you need help to fill the generators? I’d be glad to do it for you.”
She shook her head and glanced away. “We don’t have enough propane to run the generator.”
“I could feed the stock if you like.”
She met his gaze. “I had to sell off the stock. It’s been hard going for most ranchers the last few years.”
She nodded. “He was the best horse I ever had. He was the finest gift…” She couldn’t go down memory lane with him. It hurt too much to sell her horse.
“Where is your husband?” His brow furrowed.
“I never married. Running a ranch doesn’t allow much time for socializing.” Her face heated. She’d planned and strove so hard to succeed as a rancher, but things had fallen apart. She was lucky she could manage the taxes on the place.
“I get that. My life doesn’t lend to relationships either. Carrie doesn’t know her father?” He took a bite of a muffin.
“It’s not something I talk about.” She changed the subject. “Mark finally called you for help?”
Joe sat back in the ancient armchair. “The bank called. Mark and I haven’t been close for a long while. I didn’t realize he’d taken a second mortgage. I was counting on speaking to the mortgage holder before they auctioned the place.”
“I hope you can get it back. Lots of builders want to turn the land into housing developments and strip malls. I could sell and be set for life, but I just can’t force myself to do it.” Iris stared at the fire and then got up to set a log on. She closed the doors to the stove to make the room warmer.
“I’ll bring in more wood,” he offered.
This is Chapter One of The Christmas Cowboy with a Joy Filled Heart by Kathleen Ball
Copyright Kathleenball 2022
This will be one of the 22 books in the Spectacular Christmas Collection
Christmas Wishes and Cowboy Kisses
Available for Pre-Order https://books2read.com/u/br1Vwk