The Rancher's Christmas Proposal (Prairie Courtships)

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9780373283354: The Rancher's Christmas Proposal (Prairie Courtships)

Mother for His Children 

Single father Shane McCoy has his hands full trying to run a ranch while raising two-year-old twins. His children clearly need a mother's guiding hand. An encounter with a lovely stranger on a train platform offers an unconventional answer to his predicament when she suggests a marriage of convenience. 

Tessa Spencer needs a fresh start far from her con man father's schemes. His latest scrape has made her the target of a vengeful outlaw. Shane's isolated ranch provides refuge, and his children easily win Tessa's affections. But as her checkered past resurfaces, only honesty and trust will make this family Christmas the first of many...

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

A wife and mother of three, Sherri Shackelford's hobbies include collecting mismatched socks, discovering new ways to avoid cleaning, and standing in the middle of the room while thinking, “Why did I just come in here?” A reformed pessimist and recent hopeful romantic, Sherri has a passion for writing. Her books are fun and fast-paced, with plenty of heart and soul. Write her at sherri@sherrishackelford.com or visit her website: sherrishackelford.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Train Depot, Wichita, Kansas, 1886

For one brief, idyllic interlude, Tessa Spencer had believed her days of living on the run were behind her. That time was over.

Perched on her steamer trunk, she considered the list of cities chalked across the destination board, searching for inspiration. Her hasty exit had left her with few options and even less money.

Earlier that morning, a member of the notorious Fulton Gang had been asking some very pointed questions about her at the Harvey House café where she worked serving tables. She'd packed her belongings and set off for the train station before the outlaw's coffee had cooled. Since her regular shift began with the dinner service, she had until this evening before Dead Eye Dan Fulton discovered she'd flown the coop.

Her stomach pitched. Time was slipping away at an alarming rate.

"Ball," a small voice said.

She searched for the source of the interruption.

"Ball."

She glanced down.

A bright-eyed toddler with shiny blond hair smiled up at her. The boy was smartly dressed in a sky blue sailor shirt tied with a red scarf, his feet encased in gleaming black patent leather shoes.

Tessa frowned. "Where are your parents, little fellow?"

"Ball."

The wooden sphere he proudly displayed was obviously well loved, the painted stripes faded.

"Yes," Tessa replied. "That's quite lovely. Except you've gone and gotten yourself lost, haven't you?"

Most likely the boy's frantic parents had already begun their search. Keeping an eye out for stray members of the Fulton Gang, she studied the passengers milling beneath the awning of the train station, seeking any sign of a disturbance.

The boy tugged on her apricot-colored skirts. "Ga."

"You'd best be careful," she admonished gently. "Being lost is a lonely business."

The toddler extended his chubby hand, offering up his most prized possession.

Tessa waved off his gift. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly take your toy. Although I thank you kindly for the offer."

The boy grinned. He clambered onto the trunk, and she instinctively aided his ascent. He perched beside her and scooted close, pressing the warmth of his small body against her side.

"Best to stay put when you're lost," she said. "Or you only become more lost. That's what my dad always told me."

The boy tilted his head and stared at her. "Da-da."

"Yes, Emmett is my da-da." Tessa rolled her eyes. "He's a bit of a rogue. Not that he thinks of himself that way. Oh no. Emmett fancies himself a righter of wrongs, earning his living playing cards with folks who can afford to lose. Except lawmen don't appreciate that fine moral distinction, do they? And now he's run afoul of Dead Eye Dan and the Fulton Gang, which is even worse—I'll tell you that."

Heedless of her startling confession, the boy merrily kicked his heels against the trunk. She braced her hands on her knees and locked her elbows straight. Yep. She'd gone loopy, all right. At least talking to this little fellow was better than talking to herself, and she'd done plenty of that since Emmett's disastrous attempt at robbing a bank. He'd been tasked with concealing himself inside and letting the others in after closing. Except the bank vault had already been emptied when the Fultons arrived, leaving Emmett the only suspect.

"As you can imagine," she continued, "Dead Eye Dan is fit to be tied if he's come looking for me. I don't know where Emmett is hiding any more than he does, but I'm not sticking around to argue the point."

Obviously Dead Eye didn't know about her falling out with Emmett. Her throat tightened. She hadn't realized until recently how gloriously unsuited she was to a solitary life. The longing to see Emmett once more had become an almost physical ache. His love had been negligent, but as she'd learned over these past months, a slipshod sort of affection was better than nothing at all.

A nearby commotion snagged her attention. A towering gentleman in a cowboy hat and boots held a crying toddler—a girl, about the same age as the boy who'd taken up residence beside her. Though handsome, everything about the man was slightly askew. His hat sat at an angle, his collar was bent on one side, and the hem of his trouser legs was partially snagged on the stitching of his boot. He frowned and studied the area immediately surrounding his feet.

Tessa reluctantly stood. Though the boy's conversation was limited, he'd been a welcome diversion from her own difficulties. "Come along little fellow. I believe your da-da has discovered your absence. You will be my good deed for the day."

The boy eagerly took her hand. "Ga."

The distinctive word was obviously all encompassing. "Ga to you as well."

The gentleman's back was turned, although the woman beside him noticed the boy soon enough. From her sharp chin to the pointed tips of her black boots, she was about as welcoming as a barbed wire fence.

Her lips pinched, the woman extended her arm toward them, palm up. "The child is safe. There's no need to fuss."

Tessa narrowed her gaze and scrutinized the details. Emmett always said a good lookout needed to know who belonged where and why. Folks tended to pair up by status and temperament, and these two were opposites in both, meaning they were clearly not husband and wife.

The man whipped around. At the sight of the boy, his face flooded with relief.

He crouched and balanced on the balls of his feet. "Owen. You gave me a fright."

His obvious affection touched something kindred in Tessa, and she blinked rapidly. With her hopes of ever seeing Emmett again growing dimmer by the day, the sight was all the more poignant.

Everyone should have at least one person in their life who minded when they were lost.

The woman slanted a glance down the blunt edge of her nose. "Don't reward the boy. He'll only run off again."

Her tone pricked Tessa like a nettle. Memories from the year following her mother's death came rushing back. Only eight at the time, she'd been sent to live with distant relatives who begrudged having another child underfoot. Unaware of their simmering resentment, Emmett had arrived for a visit some months later. He'd discovered her huddled on the front porch, her arms covered in bruises.

Lawless or not, life with Emmett had at least been far more peaceful and far less painful.

"See, Alyce," the gentleman assured the toddler in his arms. "I told you we'd find Owen."

The two siblings greeted one another in a flurry of incomprehensible gibberish. They were a striking pair with their large, cobalt blue eyes and matching blond hair. Twins by the looks of them. The resemblance was even more pronounced by their clothing. Alyce wore a starched blue empire-waist gown cut from the same sky blue fabric as her brother's sailor shirt.

The children must have inherited their mother's looks, because the gentleman's hair was a deep, rich brown, and his eyes were the translucent green of a tender new leaf.

"Ball," Owen offered by way of explanation.

The gentleman flashed a boyish half grin, sending a little flutter through Tessa's stomach.

"The name is McCoy," the man said. "Shane McCoy. Thank you for returning Owen. He's quite the escape artist."

"Tessa Spencer," she replied, extending her hand.

The quick clasp of his fingers sent a stirring of goose-flesh up her arm.

He angled his body toward his companion. "This is the children's aunt, Mrs. Lund."

"Pleasure," Tessa replied, her tone clipped. The woman had her on edge.

As though addressing someone beneath her notice, Mrs. Lund gave only a slight incline of her head. "God rest Abby's soul. She always did have a knack for leaving her troubles on someone else's doorstep."

Tessa absently rubbed her arms. The poor man was a widower. No wonder he was overwhelmed. Especially considering his sister-in-law hadn't offered any additional help. Without a word of explanation, Mrs. Lund had set off in the direction of the ticket office.

"You must excuse her," Mr. McCoy said. "She's still in mourning."

Tessa smothered a snort. Not hardly. She'd seen people express more grief over the loss of a wooden nickel.

Unlike his acerbic sister-in-law, the bleak look on the widower's face mirrored her own despair. As much as it shamed her to admit it, she'd gladly assist Emmett with one of his swindles if only to see him once more. She'd taken for granted how much her world had orbited around caring for him. Oh, he was a capable grown man, certainly, but of the two—she'd always been more of the parent. Maybe that was why the haunted look in Mr. McCoy's eyes resonated with her.

At a loss, she gestured toward the heap of bags and coats at his feet. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Thank you for the offer," he replied, his light tone not quite ringing true. "But as you can see, I'm beyond help." He nuzzled the top of Alyce's head. "Isn't that right, my dear?"

Alyce bussed his cheek with a delighted squeal, and something inside Tessa melted a little. "I don't believe that for a moment."

Mr. McCoy flashed his boyish grin once more. "Perhaps not."

Certainly it was the early fall sun warming her cheeks. If only her own troubles weren't quite so overwhelming. The little family was obviously in need of a good deed, and good deeds were her new stock-in-trade.

The previous year, she and Emmett had attended a tent revival on a lark. The edifying experience had set her on a path of atonement. While she hadn't been completely sold on the itinerant religion, the preacher's words had given voice to the nagging unease in her heart.

That little voice had turned out to be her conscience. Each day with Emmett, that pesky voice had grown louder until she'd realized there was only one way to silence the clamoring. Since Emmett's moral compass had never been set to true north anyway, he'd taken her desertion badly.

Tessa squared her shoulders. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. McCoy. I wish you all the best on your journey."

She wasn't certain if he was coming or going, and she didn't suppose it mattered.

"Likewise," he said. "What about you? Are you on the first leg of some grand adventure?"

"Actually." She let a small, self-indulgent sigh escape. "I'm not certain where I'm going."

"You're all alone, then?"

His innocent question had her eyes burning once more. If only her last words with Emmett hadn't been harsh. Her change of heart concerning his dubious activities had driven a wedge between them, and she should have tried harder to make him understand. If they'd been on better terms when the Fultons had approached him, she'd have talked him out of consorting with the dangerous gang.

The Fultons.

Her heartbeat picked up rhythm and her gaze darted around the platform. "Being alone isn't such a bad thing."

She'd been standing here like a dolt instead of keeping an eye out for trouble. A dangerous mistake.

Satisfied her lapse hadn't been fatal, she assumed her most serene smile. "I believe I'll go wherever the wind takes me."

She sure hoped the wind picked up soon.

"I miss those days," Mr. McCoy replied a touch wistfully. "Enjoy the freedom."

Alyce snatched his ear and tugged, replacing his melancholy expression with an indulgent chuckle.

Tessa's gaze lingered on his face. My, but he had striking eyes. She gave herself a mental shake. What sort of woman mooned after a widower? Quite a few, judging by the admiring gazes he received from several female passengers strolling past.

Bending to Owen's eye level, she smiled. "Stay out of trouble."

"Ga."

Unable to resist, she ruffled his hair, prolonging the moment. Her gaze locked with Mr. McCoy and they remained frozen, cocooned among the porter's calls and the shouted greetings tossed toward departing passengers. Never in her life had she felt such an immediate connection to someone. Or was her continued solitude simply taking its toll?

"I'm in your debt," Mr. McCoy said, breaking the taut thread of awareness stretching between them.

"Anyone would do the same." She tightened the ribbons on her bonnet and turned away. She mustn't leave her trunk unattended for long. As she knew firsthand, there were thieves lurking everywhere. "Perhaps we'll cross paths again one day."

Tessa tossed the last comment over her shoulder, wondering if he'd felt the same instant kinship. Probably not. Her shoulders sagged a notch before she straightened them. That sort of nonsense wouldn't do at all. She wasn't the sort of person who indulged in fits of melancholy. His obvious affection for his children had stirred up her guilt over Emmett, nothing more.

Mr. McCoy appeared lost and overwhelmed, emotions she understood all too well. Though the encounter felt unresolved, she resumed her seat on her trunk, retrieved her ledger and carefully searched out an offense.

Distracted shop owner while Emmett stole a hat.

In the opposite column she wrote "Returned lost toddler to his father."

Tapping her pencil against her bottom lip, she considered her admiration of the children's father and then discarded the lapse as an offense. He was a fetching gentleman and she'd always been drawn to kindness. No harm in that. Maybe someday, after this was all over... She shook her head. No. That was a foolish thought.

Love always came with expectations, and if one fought against those expectations, life was a misery. Her mother had expected a child would domesticate Emmett, but he'd left all the same. Emmett had expected her unwavering loyalty for his rescue, though he conveniently forgot he'd left her with those awful people in the first place.

While there were things about her years with Emmett that she'd genuinely enjoyed, her ledger of offenses was thick and her bank balance thin. She sensed Mr. McCoy was someone who lived by a rigid code of honor. A man who'd expect the same in others.

She closed her book with a snap, blocking out her pages of dishonorable deeds.

After tucking away her ledger, she studied the chalked destinations once more. Her spotty schooling had left her without much knowledge of geography, and she was at a loss. She'd settled in Wichita only because she'd liked the sound of the name.

"If You're up there..." she began, lifting her face to the warming sun. "If You're up there and You have any ideas, I sure could use one now."

A distinctive wooden toy struck the base of her trunk.

"Ball," a familiar small voice declared.

Planting her hands on her hips, Tessa leaned forward. "You are a troublemaker, aren't you?"

Looking inordinately pleased with himself, Owen grinned. "Ga."

Tessa squinted at the sky. "You and I need to work on our communication."

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