Tina Leonard, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Baby At Christmas

Read the Excerpt

Last week Jill McCall had thought her world was in a fairly secure orbit. Today, she felt like she’d been hit by Halley’s comet.

What a shock to discover that she’d been downsized by the company that had hired her fresh out of college. Downsized, as her boss kindly explained, meant that the company was laying off workers in an attempt to become more financially stable.

Tell that to her apartment manager. Being laid off right after Thanksgiving meant it was going to be a very slim Christmas for her. So much for that bonus she’d been counting on.

To add to the feeling of being torn loose from the universe, she had broken off her engagement to her fiancé. The relationship, she’d realized, was comfortable, but missing something. It was sadly lacking in fire, and in passion, she had decided. At least it had seemed that way before a note had been dropped on her desk at work, revealing that Carl had enough passion to go around—and around and around.

He hadn’t even bothered to deny it when she’d questioned him about his apparently popular stamina and expertise. This was a side of Carl she personally had never experienced.

Well, she had plenty of excitement in her life now. No job, no boyfriend. Jill eyed the newspaper she had laid out in front of her on the kitchen table. If the cosmic forces of life were telling her anything, it was that she needed to make some changes. However, making changes could be difficult when there were no funds in one’s purse. Her gaze roved over the paper one last time, discounting the unappealing ads she’d circled.

Then, a small box caught her interest.

WANTED: HOUSEKEEPER FOR RANCH HOUSE. Cleaning and meals for a man, young boy, and an elderly woman. One hundred miles away from nearest big city; mall-dwellers need not apply. Good salary, three-thousand-dollar bonus one year from hire date. 1133 Setting Sun Road, Lassiter, Texas.

Jill quickly scanned the words again. Country life would almost certainly be a positive change from her not-so-exciting routine. The bonus was tempting, and she could be gainfully employed while sending out resumés for another corporate position. Jobs like hers as a marketing manager didn’t grow on trees. It would take time to explore the market.

Surely this rancher couldn’t be very demanding, Jill mused. He was probably out a lot, tending to cattle or whatever it was that ranchers did. Nor should an elderly woman be too great a problem. Handling a young boy might prove to be a challenge, but she’d had siblings as well as having done tons of babysitting. It couldn’t hurt to call and inquire about the position, could it?

She started to circle the phone number, then realized there was only a mailing address. Jill checked her watch, then reached for a map out of a kitchen drawer. Lassiter, Texas, was located a little over a hundred miles north from where she lived in Dallas, and her mother’s house was thirty minutes in the same direction. She could journey to Lassiter to check out the ranch and see if she could glean any information from the locals about the owner, then she could drive back to her mother’s for the night. It was a lot of travelling for one day, but it would also give her a chance to decide whether she really wanted to apply for the job.

If she didn’t like what she saw or heard about the ranch inhabitants, she could move on to searching for employment in the city. These days, a woman couldn’t be too cautious. Without further hesitation, Jill called her mother and set the plans. Throwing a few things into an overnight bag, Jill took one last look around her apartment before walking out the door.

There was an old saying that a man could not serve two masters. Wryly, Dustin Reed acknowledged that this was true. The cattle herd he had started building two years ago—replacing the dairy cows that had been on the ranch since his parents had owned it—took all of his time. Since the ranch made him a lively income however, perhaps it was only fair that it should be a demanding master.

Still, the anger Dustin kept burning inside him was a draining and unforgiving master. There was no release from the rage he felt at the speeding drunk driver that had killed his wife, Nina, leaving him to raise their son, Joey, now three and a half. Like a slow-burning torch growing steadily hotter, Dustin was angry that Nina’s parents had filed a custodial suit for Joey, and he feared they just might win. The judge who was presiding over the case was sitting squarely in David and Maxine Copeland’s silk-lined pockets. Though his lawyer had filed for a change of venue, the request had been denied.

But the greatest anger burning inside Dustin was that it was the start of the Christmas season, the first since Nina had died, a fact which time was pushing inexorably into his mind. Now it was only a matter of days until either he or the Copelands won custody of Joey, and though he was going to fight like hell, something inside him was frozen when it came to his son. Maybe it was that he didn’t have any practice with small children and had let Nina do most of the rearing.

Of course, that was when he’d been living under the assumption that he had all the time in the world to learn to be a good father.

Time had run out on him.

The frozen part of him couldn’t thaw for the wrenching fear that Joey was going to be taken from him. Dustin hadn’t expected Nina to be taken. Now he couldn’t seem to relax around his son, knowing that in a few short days, they, too, might be separated.

The anger grew, becoming Dustin’s master and selfishly, perhaps, he found he needed to ignore the marching of time, and so this year, he was having nothing to do with the spirit of the season. It seemed the only way he could take the edge off the anger was to ignore Christmas. There would be no festive lights in his home this year, no Christmas tree. To wake up on Christmas morning, with no pattering of small feet in the house, to face a tree that needed no presents because the child wasn’t there—Dustin feared the agony of it would kill him. So it would be a small spiritless gathering for holiday dinner, just him and his mother, Eunice, who lived at the Regret Ranch, too. Until the judge made his decision, Dustin was going to protect his emotions. But if the judge ruled in his favor, Dustin was going to launch a major decorating assault on his house. Until then, it simply didn’t feel safe.