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A TEXAS COWBOY'S CHRISTMAS by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Also available in this Anthology Reissue

A TEXAS COWBOY'S CHRISTMAS

Chapter One

“I blame you for this, Chance Lockhart!” Molly Griffith fumed the moment she came toe-to-toe with him just inside the open-air bucking-bull training facility of Bullhaven Ranch.

Chance set down the saddle and blanket he’d been carrying. With a wicked grin, he pushed the brim of his hat back and paused to take her in. No doubt about it—the twenty-seven-year-old general contractor/interior designer was never lovelier than when she was in a temper. With her amber eyes blazing, her pretty face flushed with indignant color and her auburn curls wildly out of place, she looked as if she were ripe for taming.

Luckily for both of them, he was too smart to succumb to the challenge.

His gaze drifted over her, taking in her designer jeans and peacock-blue boots, before moving upward to the white silk shirt and soft suede blazer that cloaked her curvy frame.

Damn, she was sexy, though. From the half-moon pendant that nestled in the hollow of her breasts to the voluptuous bounty of her bow-shaped lips.

Exhaling slowly, he tamped down his desire and prompted in a lazy drawl, “Blame me for what?”

Molly propped her hands on her hips. “For telling my son, Braden, he can have a live bull for Christmas!”

Somehow Chance managed not to wince at the huffy accusation. He set down the saddle and narrowed his eyes instead. “That’s not exactly what I said.”

Molly moved close enough he could inhale her flowery perfume, her breasts rising and falling with every deep, agitated breath. “Did you or did you not tell him that Santa could bring him a bull?”

Chance shrugged, glad for the brisk November breeze blowing over them. Still holding Molly’s eyes, he rocked back on the heels of his worn leather work boots. “I said he could ask Santa for a bull.”

Molly harrumphed and folded her arms beneath her breasts, the action plumping them up all the more. “Exactly!”

Working to slow his rising pulse, Chance lowered his face to hers and explained tautly, “That doesn’t mean Santa is going to bring it.”

Chance picked up the gear, slung it over one shoulder and stalked toward the ten-by-ten metal holding pen, where a two-year-old Black Angus bull named Peppermint was waiting.

One of the heirs to his retired national championship bucking bull, Mistletoe, he bore the same steady temperament, lively personality and exceptional athletic ability of his daddy.

After easing open the gate, Chance stepped inside.

Aware Molly was still watching his every move, he proceeded to pet the young bull in training. Once gentled, he set the saddle on Peppermint’s back.

Swallowing nervously at the thousand-pound bull, Molly stepped back. With an indignant toss of her head, she continued her emotional tirade. “You really don’t have a clue how all this works, do you?”

Chance sighed as he tightened the cinch and led Peppermint into the practice chute, closing the gate behind him. “I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.”

Molly watched him climb the side rails and secure a dummy on the saddle via electronically controlled buckles.

Feeling the unwelcome extra weight, Peppermint began to snort and paw the ground within the confines of the chute.

Even though she was in no danger, Molly retreated even farther. “A child writes a letter to Santa, asking for his most precious gift. Then Santa brings it.”

Chance plucked the remote control out of his pocket. “That wasn’t how it worked in my home.” He signaled to his hired hand Billy to take his position at the exit gate on the other side of the practice ring. “I remember asking Santa for a rodeo for my backyard in Dallas. Guess what?” He shot her a provoking look that started at her face and moved languidly over her voluptuous body before returning to her eyes. “It didn’t happen.”

Molly rolled her eyes, still staying clear of the snorting, increasingly impatient Peppermint. Digging her boots into the ground, she fired back, “I cannot help it if your mother and father did not appropriately censure your wishes in advance.”

Chance hit the control. Immediately, the sound of a rodeo crowd filled the practice arena. He released the gate, and Peppermint, tired of confinement, went barreling into the ring.

For the next few seconds, he bucked hard to the right and came down. Went up and down in the middle, then bucked to the left.

And still the crowd sounds filled the air.

Adding to the excitement, as Peppermint bucked higher and higher…and seeing the kind of athletic movement he wanted, Chance rewarded the bull with the release of the dummy.

It went flying. And landed face-down in the dirt.

Billy whistled.

Peppermint turned and followed the waving Billy out the exit gate and into another pen, where he would receive a treat for his performance.

Chance cut the crowd sounds on the intercom system. Silence fell in the arena once again, and Chance lifted a hand. “Thanks, Billy!”

“No problem, boss!” he replied before going off to see to the bucking bull.

Molly said, looking impressed despite herself, “Is that how you train them?”

“Yep.”

“Too bad no one can train you.”

“Really? That’s juvenile, even for you, Molly.”

He knew where it came from, though. She brought out the irascible teenager in him, too.

Chance went back into the barn, checking on his thirty bucking bulls, safely ensconced in their individual ten-by-ten metal pens, then took a visual of those in the pastures. Finished, he strode across the barnyard to a smaller facility, where his national champion was kept.

Mistletoe’s private quarters, his ranch office, veterinary exam, lab and breeding chute, and equipment facility were all there. All were state-of-the-art and a testament to what he had built.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Molly said, dogging his every step. “But I’m trying to help my son be realistic here.”

Chance paused to pet Mistletoe. The big bucking bull had a little gray on his face these days, but he was still pleasant as ever to be around. “Is that what you’re doing for Braden?” He gave his beloved Black Angus one last rub before turning back to Molly. “Helping him temper his expectations? Or censuring all his dreams?”

Molly muttered something he was just as glad not to be able to understand, then threw up her hands in exasperation.

“I want my little boy to grow up being practical!”

Chance spun around, and she followed him back down the center aisle. “Unlike certain idiot cowboys who shall remain nameless.”

There she went with the insults again, but it was better than dealing with the smoldering attraction they felt whenever they were together.

Chance paused at the sink in the tack room to wash and dry his hands, then walked out to join her. Saw her shiver in the brisk, wintry air.

Aware the day looked a lot warmer than it actually was, he turned away from the evidence of her chill and drawled, “I think I might know who you’re talking about.” Rubbing his jaw in a parody of thoughtfulness, he stepped purposefully into her personal space.

Watching her amber eyes widen, he continued, “That rancher brother of mine, Wyatt, down the road. None too bright, is he?”

Molly made a strangled sound deep in her throat. Rather than step away, she put her hand on the center of his chest and gave him a small, equally purposeful shove. “I’m talking about you, you big lug.”

Delighted by her unwillingness to give any ground to him, he captured her hand before she could snatch it away and held it over his heart. “Ah. Endearments.” He sighed with comically exaggerated dreaminess.

Temper spiking even more, she tried, unsuccessfully, to extricate her fingers from his. “You’re playing with fire here, cowboy.”

So he was. But then he had to do something with all the aggravation she caused him. And had been causing, if truth be known, for quite some time.

He let his grin widen, surveying her indignant expression. Dropping his head, he taunted softly, “The kind of fire that leads to a kiss?”

“The kind that leads to me hauling off and kicking you right in the shin!”

It was good to know he could get to her this much. Because she sure got to him. The pressure building at the front of his jeans told him that.

He lowered his lips to hers. “Didn’t your parents ever tell you that you can catch more flies with sugar than spite?”

Abruptly Molly’s face paled.

Too late, he realized he should have bothered to find out what kind of life she’d had as a kid before hurling that particular insult.

She drew a deep breath. Serious now. Subdued.

Aware he’d hurt her—without meaning to—he let her hand go.

She stepped back. Regaining her composure, she lifted her chin and said in a solemn tone, “I want you to talk to Braden. Tell him you were wrong. Santa doesn’t bring little boys live bulls.”

At that particular moment, he thought he would do just about anything for her. Probably would have, if she hadn’t been so socially and monetarily ambitious and so out of touch regarding what really mattered in life, same as his ex.

But Molly was. So…

Exploring their attraction would lead only to misery.

For all their sakes, Chance put up the usual barbed wire around his heart. “Why can’t you tell him?” he asked with an indifferent shrug. “You’re Braden’s momma, after all.” And, from all he’d seen, misguided goals aside, a damn good one.

Molly’s lower lip trembled, and she threw up her hands in frustration. “I have told him! He won’t believe me. Braden says that you’re the cowboy, and you know everything, and you said it was okay. And that’s what he wants me to write in his letter to Santa, and I cannot let him ask Saint Nick for that, only to have his little heart broken.”

She had a point about that, Chance realized guiltily. He’d hate to see the little tyke, who also happened to be the spitting image of his mother, disappointed.

Sobering, he asked, “What do you want Braden to have?”

Molly’s features softened in relief. “The Leo and Lizzie World Adventure wooden train set.” She pulled a magazine article out of her back pocket that listed the toy as the most wanted preschool-age present for the holiday that year. Featuring train characters from a popular animated kids’ television show, the starter set was extremely elaborate. Which was no surprise. Since Molly Griffith was known for her big ambitions and even more expensive tastes.

It made sense she would want the same for her only child.

Even if Braden would be happier playing with a plastic toy bull. Or horse…

Sensing she wanted his approval, Chance shrugged. Wary of hurting her feelings—again—he mumbled, “Looks nice.”

As if sensing his attitude was not quite genuine, she frowned. “It will bring Braden hours of fun.”

Enough to justify the cost? he wondered, noting the small wooden pieces were ridiculously overpriced—even if they were in high demand. He squinted at her. “Are you sure you don’t work for the toy company?”

She scowled at his joke but came persuasively closer, even more serious now. “Please, Chance. I’m begging you.”

This is new, Chance thought, surprised.

He actually kind of liked her coming to him for help.

She spread her hands wide, turning on the full wattage of maternal charm. “Braden just turned three years old. It’s the first Christmas holiday he’s likely to ever remember. I really want it to be special.” She paused and took a deep breath that lifted the lush softness of her breasts. “You have to help me talk sense into my son.”