In the heart of the Rockies
One white Christmas can change everything.
When firefighter and single dad Steve Springfield moved his four kids to a Colorado Christmas tree ranch, he intended for it to be a safe haven. But he never expected danger to follow them to his childhood home…
Or that he would come face-to-face with the one girl he could never forget.
Folk artist Camille Brandt lives a quiet life. As the town’s resident eccentric, she’s used to being lonely—until Steve freaking Springfield changes everything. Brave and kind, he’s always had a piece of her heart, and it doesn’t take long before she’s in danger of falling for him again. But as mysterious fires break out across the sleepy Colorado town, Steve and Camille will have to fight if they want their happy family to survive until Christmas…
Rocky Mountain Cowboy Christmas (Rocky Mountain Cowboys #1)
As she started toward the store, Camille heard the jangle of sleigh bells and saw Steve jogging toward her, a draft horse that wasn’t Buttercup trotting next to him. She stopped, struck yet again by his rugged beauty and the picture-perfect scene of his strong form next to the huge, chestnut horse, their breath turning to steam in the clear, cold air. Even the sunny day seemed to exist just to be a perfect backdrop for Steve in this moment.
“Hey,” he said, not even breathing hard after his jog. “Glad I caught you before we had to head out to get another tree.”
The horse lowered his head to her shoulder and breathed puffs of warm air into her neck, making her giggle. “Who’s this?”
“Harry. He’s green, and we need to work on him respecting people’s boundaries, but he means well.”
“Oh, I don’t mind him breathing on me.” She rubbed the horse’s cheek as he lipped at her collar. “He’s very handsome.” But not as handsome as Steve, a wicked voice whispered. She firmly ignored it, knowing that she couldn’t focus on thoughts like that if she wanted to be able to have a conversation without blushing.
“He knows it, too. He’s like Ryan that way.”
When Camille let out a surprised laugh, Steve winced, rubbing his neck with the hand not holding Harry’s lead rope. “Sorry. That was rude.”
“Maybe,” she said, still amused, as Harry nosed at her pockets, probably checking for treats. “But it was also true.”
“Hey,” he said to Harry, giving the lead rope a sharp tug so that the horse backed up a few steps. “Quit trying to mug her for carrots.” He shot her a quick glance, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. “So…you and Ryan really aren’t…?”
“Aren’t what?” she asked, confused by the half of a question. As soon as she said it, though, she realized what he’d meant. “Oh! No. We’re not doing anything. I mean, he’s asked, a bunch of times, actually, which surprised me, since he’d pretty much looked right through me until you found me at the scrapyard—not that I was lost, of course—and he walked back with me and Sasha. Anyway, whenever he tries to drag me somewhere for lunch, I run away or tell him I can’t because I need to feed my cat.”
Steve gave his rare, booming laugh. “You turned him down because you needed to feed your cat? No wonder he’s so touchy when it comes to you.”
“He’s touchy about me? Why? I don’t think he’s all that interested.” Not really interested, the way she was in Steve. “I know he’s been persistent about trying to get me to go out with him—well for the last few weeks, at least—but I figured he asks out everyone he runs into, and most people don’t reject his offers, so I’m just a challenge.”
“It’s true he’s not used to being turned down.”
She shrugged. “He’ll need to get used to it with me. I’m just not interested.”
“Good to know.” Steve’s gaze seemed several degrees warmer than usual, and Camille found prickles of sweat beading under her coat as she tried to puzzle out his meaning. Why was it good to know that she wasn’t interested in his brother? The way he was eyeing her made her almost think that Steve was actually attracted to her.
Her breath caught at the thought, but she immediately doubted herself. Beautiful, kind, and strong Steve Springfield had to have just as beautiful, kind, and strong women falling at his feet on a regular basis. Why would he be interested in an almost-hermit who answered almost every question with a nervous monologue? Despite all that, she knew she wasn’t imagining the heat in his eyes when he looked at her.
Suddenly tired of not knowing what was going on in his mind, she blurted out, “Why is it good to know?”
He shifted closer, nudging Harry back when the horse took the opportunity to try to nibble on Camille’s coat again. With Steve this close, she could smell his evergreen and peppermint scent. His coat was unzipped slightly, showing his insulated flannel shirt underneath, and the urge to press her face against that soft-looking fabric was so strong that her breath caught. She jerked her gaze back to his. There was no missing the heat in his eyes now, especially as he tipped his head down so their faces were even closer. Her heart thrummed in her chest at his nearness, making it almost impossible for her to hear his words. “I wanted to ask y—”
“Steve!” Nate’s yell drifted from the store lot, cutting Steve off midword and smashing the perfect, crystalized moment between them. Closing his eyes for a moment, he let out a hard breath that stirred the strands of hair on her forehead before he turned toward his brother.
“What?” he called back, his voice a little growly.
Blinking as reality returned with a rush of cold air, Camille shifted back a step, needing some distance from Steve to get her thoughts working again. Even as she tried to tell herself that she’d imagined that moment, that he’d been about to ask her a normal, not-at-all-sexy question, she couldn’t keep the butterflies from tumbling around in her belly. Stop, she told them firmly. She should know better than to think that he’d be interested in her, and she needed to knock it off before she ended up embarrassed and hurt.
Despite the internal lecture, she still wanted to throw a pinecone at Nate’s head. Why did he have to shout right when Steve was getting to the interesting part? Now she was going to die of curiosity if she didn’t find out what he’d been about to tell her. She liked Nate well enough, but right now she wished he’d fall in a hole.
“You’re up!” Nate gestured toward a family clustered together by the edge of the lot. Even at a shout, Nate’s words sounded testy, and Camille felt a rush of annoyance. Couldn’t he have helped the family? Even as she thought it, she knew she was being unreasonable. This was why she shouldn’t indulge in daydreams about unobtainable firefighting ranchers. It stole all of her good sense.
Steve gave Nate a wave of acknowledgment before turning back to Camille.
“Duty calls,” he said with a slight, rueful grimace. His gaze lingered on her face for a charged second before he sighed and turned Harry around, being careful the horse’s oversized rump didn’t knock into her. As he started leading the gelding away, Steve glanced over his shoulder at her. “We’ll talk soon.”
With that completely unsatisfying ending to their conversation, he jogged back toward the family waiting in the lot. Realizing that she was staring after him like a lovestruck idiot, Camille forced her feet to move. She followed more slowly, watching as he greeted the parents and their three kids, tying Harry’s lead rope to the hitching post. As he put on the horse’s harness, he explained each step to the customers, letting the kids touch each piece with curious hands. When the smallest child toddled too close to one of Harry’s oversized hooves, Steve swept him up with the ease of long practice before handing him off to the boy’s dad.
Camille loved how he worked around the horse and the kids, calm and easy, but with a careful firmness that showed he wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. Although she wished they’d been able to finish their conversation, she enjoyed being able to stare at Steve to her heart’s content without him noticing. He stroked Harry’s thick, fuzzy neck absently as he listened to one of the kids, and she was transfixed by the movement of his hand, so firm yet gentle. As stupid as it was, she couldn’t keep her mind from dwelling on how that hand would feel against her skin.
As if he’d heard her thoughts, he looked straight at her, the corners of his mouth tucked in as if he were holding back a smile. Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she knew she had to be bright red. If he hadn’t guessed the direction of her thoughts before, her vivid blush had to be giving her away now.
Completely flustered, she lifted her hand in an awkward wave. His smile stretched more widely, and Camille lost what little ability she had to act normally. It was time to retreat. Turning away from the tempting man in front of her, she hurried the rest of the way to her car, not allowing her gaze to stray in his direction. Once she got into the old Buick, she closed her eyes and shook her head at herself. Why couldn’t she have even a smidgen of game? Why had she given Steve that goofy wave?
Carefully backing out, she ran through their brief encounter in her mind. What had he been about to say before Nate interrupted? From the way he’d prefaced the question, it had felt as if it was going to be important. She huffed out a breath. Between thinking about this, her spying neighbor, the creepy night noises, and the industrious mice who shared her home, she’d never be able to sleep that night.