True-Blue Cowboy Christmas
Big Sky Cowboys #3
(Summer Shaw & Thank Lane)
Big Sky Christmas
Thack Lane has his hands full. For the past seven years, he’s been struggling to move on from his wife’s tragic death and raise a daughter all by his lonesome. He doesn’t have time for himself, much less a cheerful new neighbor with a smile that can light up the ranch.
Christmas spirit? Bah, humbug.
With Christmas right around the corner, Summer Shaw is searching for somewhere to belong. When her neighbor’s young daughter takes a shine to her, she is thrilled. But Thack is something else altogether. He’s got walls around his heart that no amount of holiday wishes can scale…and yet as joy comes creeping back to the lonely homestead, Summer and Thack may just find their happily ever after before the last of Christmas miracles are through…
Other Books in This Series:
Praise for True-Blue Cowboy Christmas:
“Helm’s credible dialogue and deft, deliberate pacing effectively develop the plot, the characters, and their relationship. The building romantic aspect of this story would be alluring enough on its own, but Helm adds bonus elements of mystery and suspense as Summer reveals why she left and returned to Montana, making for a delightfully intriguing and enticing story.” -PW Starred Review
4 stars from RT Magazine: “a sweet romance with wonderfully complex characters and a Christmas backdrop that will leave readers eager for the approaching holiday season. Helm is able to connect with her audience in a way that readers can relate to her characters and express empathy for them. True‐Blue Cowboy Christmas contains a good combination of sexy moments, humorous moments and emotionally tender ones where the main characters share their painful pasts. With never a dull moment, this is a perfect story for cozying up to a fire.”
For Summer Shaw, happiness was made of simple pleasures—a place to call her own, a little patch of land, the big open sky, and food in her stomach. All that was why the Shaw Ranch wasn’t just happy, it was heaven. Here, she also had family—as evidenced by the tiny week-old niece she held in her arms.
“She’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“So you’ve said, approximately three hundred times.” Mel sighed, closing her eyes and sinking into the living room couch. “Today alone.”
“Why don’t you take a nap? I can handle Lissa for an hour or so.”
“No, I’m fine.” Mel yawned, curling her legs onto the couch. “I’ll just close my eyes for a few seconds.”
“Of course you will,” Summer placated, cradling the baby in one arm while she draped an afghan across Mel with the other. “Your mama needs to learn that she can’t do everything,” Summer whispered to the bundle in her arms.
“I heard that,” Mel mumbled without any heat.
Summer tiptoed out of the room. With any luck, Mel would relax and sleep—at least until Lissa needed to eat again. Mel and Summer’s tentative relationship still had its moments of awkwardness, and had since Summer had showed up on the ranch’s doorstep over a year ago. But the changes that came with Mel’s pregnancy and Lissa’s birth had smoothed over those last pockets of distance.
They finally had something to bond them together, so they could get past being so wary of each other.
Summer hummed to the beautiful baby girl, walking her to the den at the end of the house. It was a cluttered, messy room that smelled of old magazines and dirt. Summer liked how it held the distinctive signs of the most recently married Shaw couple: her brother Caleb’s ranch magazines and her new sister-in-law Delia’s gardening tools stored for the winter.
This space had everything Summer wanted—comfort, the evidence of family, and the big window that looked out over mountains, barns, and so much of Shaw.
Winter held Montana in its grip, the mountains heavily snow-peaked, the world around her white and glittering. She missed the warmth of summer, but she couldn’t bring herself to miss California, even as she entered her second Montana winter. It would be harsh and long, but the upcoming holidays would warm up this interminable season. Her family would gather, and they would celebrate.
A family who treated her as though she were a person instead of a belonging. Maybe a person they didn’t know what to do with, but it was hard to push. It was mainly just keeping his distance at this point.
He’d apologized, after all, for treating her with silence when she first showed up. For knowing that Summer’s mother had been pregnant with her when she left him and Montana, and doing nothing to stop it. He’d even explained that he’d had to let her mother go, to keep Mel safe and with him.
Even so, Summer wasn’t one hundred percent sure what to do with that apology, or with the dread that lived in her heart. Because who knew which of her mother’s stories were true? She might not belong here. Summer winced at the little prick of conscience she felt. She had been at Shaw for almost a year and a half, and she couldn’t let that possibility ever take this away.
The Shaws were her family. They never needed to know that there was doubt.
Summer took a deep breath. She’d spent a lifetime—short though twenty-three years might be—learning to soak up life’s good moments. She’d learned every deep-breathing, positive-thinking, centered-life meditation and practiced them with every fiber of her being. She breathed day and night, through thick and thin, happy and sad.
That had kept her going, all through the unpredictable prison that had been her life with Mom, and the new freedom she’d found in Montana and at Shaw.
Still, nothing was perfect. Even in moments like this one, holding this newborn—her niece—in front of the most beautiful landscape she’d ever seen, the joy could be jarred. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. Tiny at first. A little pebble. But eventually it would grow until she had a boulder sitting on her chest.
Because a life spent collecting these few-and-far-between perfect moments had taught her one thing: Just when she thought she was on the right track—happy, peaceful, home—life would have other plans.
She closed her eyes against the certainty. Please don’t take Shaw away from me. I can handle anything but that.
Anything but that.
A beat. A breath.
Summer opened her eyes, and her gaze drifted toward the tree line around her little home. An odd structure built onto the back of an old truck, she always referred to it as her caravan. Well, that was something no one could take away. Her home. Her ability to survive. Those were all hers.
Lissa fussed, and Summer began to sing one of the slow country love songs the regulars at Pioneer Spirit tended to drift off to.
At her second glimpse of the caravan way off in the trees, she didn’t pay much attention to the little dot of red. The vehicle was a colorful thing as it was. She’d repainted the outside this summer, a vibrant purple and blue to mimic the sky at dusk.
But that red was off. She squinted, noticing the dot of color was moving. It was too big to be a bird, too red to be…well, anything else, but so far away it was impossible to make out clearly.
Her stomach dropped with the sour fear she thought she’d gotten over, except for in her dreams. Surely it wasn’t big enough to be her mother. Surely, surely Mom wouldn’t have followed her here. But that bright, vibrant red had always been one of Mom’s favorites.
Panic bubbled up in Summer’s chest, and she backed away from the window. She couldn’t let Linda get up here, especially couldn’t let her talk to any Shaws. Linda would turn them against Summer and ruin everything Summer’s life had become. Who knew what damage she could inflict on the Shaws, on this place Summer was finally beginning to think of as home.
She turned on her heel. She wasn’t going to run. She’d promised herself she would never run away again. So, she’d fight.
It was not her mother.
After settling Lissa back with Mel and failing to stay calm or nonchalant, Summer dashed across the snow-packed land that separated the Shaw house from her caravan. She arrived breathless and near tears, only to find a little girl. A little girl dressed in red. Red coat, red boots, even her pants were red. She had a shock of unruly, curly blond hair, and she stared at Summer with big, blue eyes.
Summer wasn’t great at guessing ages, but the girl had to be old enough for elementary school, though probably not much older than that.
“Hello,” Summer offered once she could breathe almost normally. “Are you lost?”
The girl continued her wide-eyed staring.
“Are you okay?” Summer pressed, taking a few uncertain steps toward her. She didn’t know of any neighbor children. A few families around the ranch made sure not to associate with any of the Shaws. There was a lot of not-so-pleasant history there, mainly involving Caleb being a bit of a ne’er-do-well as an adolescent.
“Are you a fairy?” the little girl whispered.
Summer’s eyebrows shot up. Maybe the girl was really lost—days lost and delirious. “No, sweetheart. Are you cold? Hungry?”
“Are you an angel?”
“No, just a human.” Summer carefully knelt in front of the girl. She knew what it was like for strangers to approach you, touch you, speak to you, and leave you uncomfortable.
Summer swallowed a lump in her throat, swallowed away old, bad memories, and resisted the urge to touch the girl to see if she was shivering. It was far too cold for a little girl to be left wandering around.
“Is that yours?” The little girl nodded toward the caravan.
“It looks like a fairy palace.”
Summer smiled. Fairy palace might not have been the aesthetic she was going for, but colorful and free meant different things to different people. Maybe that description was about right.
“It’s a little cold to be walking around alone. Can I help you get back to your house?”
“I got a little lost.” She bit her bottom lip, the downy, pale slashes of her eyebrows drawing together. “Daddy will be mad.” The little girl’s big, blue eyes filled with tears.
The chill in the air was no match for the chill in Summer’s heart. Angry fathers weren’t something she had any experience with, but angry parents or adults who scared children… She knew them, and the memory was disturbing.
She felt immediately protective of this lost and scared little girl. Poor thing. She needed a friend.
“I’m Summer. What’s your name?” She held out her hand. An offer, if the girl felt so inclined to take it.
The girl opened her mouth, but before any sound came out, a man’s voice bellowed through the trees. “Kate!”
Instinctively, Summer stepped between the trees and the girl. The little thing didn’t need an angry man yelling at her when she was lost, teary, and scared, whether he was her father or not. Parentage wasn’t a get-out-of-being-a-monster-free card for anyone. “If you want to hide—”
But the dot of red darted around her.
“Daddy! I’m here!” Kate waved her red mittens and jumped up and down, then got distracted by the snow puffing up in drifts as she jumped. She giggled, kicking the snow in powdery arcs, any threat of tears gone.
“Katherine.” The man burst through the tree line. He was obviously furious and frustrated, but the predominant emotion on his face was neither of those things.
He was terrified.
Summer knew she should soften. A man who felt terror as he searched for his missing daughter was more than likely not the kind of man who would hurt her as well.
Or so one would hope.
But Mom had been loving and thoughtful one minute, quick to raise her hand the next. Everything inside Summer coiled into a tight, tense ball. It took a great feat of strength not to reach out and grab the bundle of red away from the man. A lot of people were very, very good actors, after all. She had found people who were honest and good as well. She just had no idea which one he was.
The father sank to his knees in front of the girl, grabbing her shoulders. “What are you doing? You can’t keep doing this to me.” He ran his gloved hands down her arms and over her face, as though he was checking for an injury. Once he was satisfied, he pulled the bundle of red against his chest. For a few quiet minutes, he simply held her there, his eyes closed, some of the tension in his shoulders draining away, clearly moved and relieved that she was unharmed.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. But look.” She pointed at Summer, a bright smile showing off two missing front teeth. “I found a fairy palace.”
For the first time, he looked at Summer. He got to his feet, his mouth tightening into a frown. He was a tall man, a broad man, and neither the puffy work jacket nor the cowboy hat that now shadowed his face could do anything to hide the obvious—that he would be far stronger and more powerful than her.
“Who are you?” he said. No, that was too kind—his tone was all demand as he stepped in front of Kate as if he could shield her from Summer.
Summer wanted to shrink away or hide, but she’d learned something about standing up even when it was the scariest thing imaginable. “Maybe I should be asking you that.”
“Why are you talking to my dau—” Kate grabbed the hem of his coat and he stopped.
“Daddy,” she whispered, tugging on his coat. She grinned up at Summer. “She’s a fairy queen. Just like in the bedtime book.”
“We’re going home.” He moved his daughter by the shoulder, steering her toward the trees that separated Summer’s clearing from a fence she’d never crossed. She’d never even given a thought to what lay beyond it, because Shaw had been enough. Shaw felt safe.
For some reason, nothing beyond that fence ever had.