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Cathy Gillen Thacker

A Cowboy Under The Mistletoe

A book in the Texas Legacies: The McCabes series, 2010

Dear Reader,

For me, Christmas has always been a special time. But it isn’t for everybody…

Ally Garrett grew up as an only child on the Mesquite Ridge ranch in Laramie, Texas. Her parents did not believe in the foolishness of the yuletide holiday. For them, it was just another workday. There were no presents, no special meal, no tree. Just the relentless quest to acquire more land.

Hank McCabe is the third oldest son of Shane and Greta McCabe. The holiday festivities of his past were always spectacular, centered on giving, and filled with the famously loving, boisterous celebrations of the legendary Texas McCabe clan.

But for the ex-marine turned cowboy, it’s also more than just that. For Hank, Christmas is a time to reflect on the closing of one chapter of life, the beginning of another and the courage and hope and strength and love needed to survive the transformative change.

Unfortunately, his plans for the future are upset by Ally Garrett’s appearance. Her plans to sell the ranch out from under him just weeks before the best holiday of the year have a Scrooge-like sound that threatens to ruin the season. Convincing Ally of the folly of her ways, however, seems a herculean task. Until a lost dog enters the picture and finds a way to do the impossible-bring Ally and Hank together.

Suddenly, it seems, miracles do happen. And love can abound, even in the most untended places…

Happy holidays,

*

Chapter One

“You’re early.”

And not for good reason, Ally Garrett thought, pushing aside the memory of her unsettling morning. She stepped out of her sporty blue Audi, ignoring the reflexive jump of her pulse, and glanced at the ranch house where she’d grown up. The aging yellow Victorian, with its wraparound porch and green shutters, was just as she remembered it.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t say the same about the handsome Texas cowboy standing beside her. At thirty- three, the ex-marine was sexier than ever.

Ally got a handle on her mounting tension and turned back to the Mesquite Ridge Ranch’s caretaker. Looked beneath the fringe of rumpled, dark brown hair peeking from under his Stetson, and into his midnight-blue eyes. Aware that he was just as off-limits to her as ever, she paused as another thrill coursed through her. “I wanted to get here before dark.”

Hank McCabe tipped the brim of his hat back with one finger of his work-glove-covered hand. He regarded her with a welcoming half smile. “You accomplished that, since it’s barely noon.”

He was right-she should have been at work. Would have been if…

Determined not to let on what a mess her life was suddenly in, Ally bent her head, rummaging through her handbag for her house key. “I gather you got my message?”

Hank pivoted and strode toward his pickup truck, his gait loose-limbed and easy. “That you wanted to talk?” He hefted a bundled evergreen out of the back, and hoisted it over one broad shoulder. “Sure did.” As she headed for the ranch house, he fell into step beside her.

The fragrance of fresh cut Scotch pine was nearly as overwhelming as the scent of soap and man. “I’d planned to have the tree up before you got here.”

Which was, of course, the last thing she wanted on this last trip back home. Shivering in the bitter December wind, Ally ignored the stormy, pale gray clouds gathering overhead, and held up a leather-gloved hand. “I hate Christmas.” The words were out before she could stop herself.

Hank set the tree down on the porch with a decisive thud. “Now how is that even possible?” he teased.

Ally supposed it wouldn’t have been-had she been a member of the famously loving, larger-than-life McCabe clan.

Aware that her fingers were suddenly trembling, she paused to unlock the front door, then stepped inside.

The foyer of the 1920s home was just as plain and depressing as she recalled. “My parents weren’t big on celebrating any of the holidays. On this ranch, December 25 was just another workday.”

Hank hefted the tree over his shoulder again and followed her into the adjacent living room. His blue eyes flickered briefly over the sadly outdated thrift store furniture and peeling horse-and-hound wallpaper, which was at least forty years old. Then he plucked a pair of scissors from the scarred rolltop desk and cut through the webbing on the tree. “That’s sad.”

Ally shrugged. “That’s just the way it was,” she said flatly.

Hank shook out the tree and set it in the waiting metal stand. “It doesn’t have to stay that way.” He moved closer and briefly touched her arm, prompting her to look him square in the eye. “People have the power to change.”

Not in her experience, Ally thought.

Although in her own way, she had tried, by leaving Laramie, Texas-and the ranch that had been the root of all her troubles-as soon as she was old enough to do so.

Oblivious to her feelings about the property, Hank strode into the equally depressing kitchen and returned with a beaker of water. He filled the stand, then stood back to admire his handiwork. One corner of his mouth crooked up, as he pivoted back to her and continued his pep talk, with all the enthusiasm of a man who was used to accomplishing whatever he set out to do. “I’m pretty sure you’ve got what it takes to infuse Mesquite Ridge Ranch with the yuletide spirit it deserves.”

That wasn’t really the point, Ally thought, as she inhaled the fresh, Christmasy scent. What did it matter if this was one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen? “To tell you the truth, I’m not really into colored lights and presents, either.”

Hank knelt to make sure the tree was settled securely in the stand. He gave one of the metal pins another twist. “Christmas is about more than just giving gifts, and trimming a tree.”

“Let me guess.” Ally paced over to the white stone fireplace. She turned so her back was to the mantel and took in what otherwise would be a cheerful tableau. “It’s about family.” Which was something else she no longer had, thanks to the fact that she had been an only child, as had each of her parents. Ally’s only remaining link was to the house and the land, and soon that would be severed, too.

“And friends,” Hank added, grabbing a cranberry-red throw off the couch and settling it around the base of the tree, like a skirt. “And wrapping up one chapter of your life, celebrating the bounty of it, before moving on to the next.”

Unfortunately, Ally thought, she did not have much of anything positive to reflect on…especially this year.

“Although…” He paused, clearly thinking back to the events of last summer that had landed him here, in her absence. He straightened, then closed the distance between them, setting a comforting hand on her shoulder. The warmth of his palm penetrated her clothes, to reach her skin. “…I imagine it’s pretty rough for you now, since this is the first holiday since your dad passed.”

Ally didn’t want to think about that, either. She stiffened her spine and deliberately lifted her chin. “No need for pity.”

He studied her with a gentleness that threatened to undo her. “How about a little empathy then?” he insisted

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