This cowboy will keep her very warm... After serving in the air force, cowboy Jesse McAllister has returned to the Montana countryside where he grew up. But the Sundance Dude Ranch just doesn't feel like home anymore. That is, until Shea Monroe arrives for the holidays...and sends him for a tailspin. Desperate to escape her family-and the human race-the ranch is sweet relief for a loner like Shea. But hot cowboys... What was she thinking? Worse yet, she's having delicious thoughts about one who seems just as alone as she is! All it takes is one night-and one very blustery blizzard-for their attraction to ignite big-time. One night where the only thing to do is give in....
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Debbi has written over 50 books for Harlequin since 1994, in several different lines including: Harlequin American, Harlequin Intrigue, Love & Laughter, Duets and Harlequin Blaze. She lives in rural, beautiful Utah with far too many rescued cats and dogs. Although she hasn't lived there for years, she still misses her home state of Hawaii. She's currently working on a western Blaze series, one of her favorite genres.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The brisk December air smelled like snow. None was forecasted for the next few days, but when it started getting dark this time of year, the Montana temperature invariably dropped.
Jesse McAllister pulled up the collar of his leather bomber jacket, hunched his shoulders against the cold and finished fueling his truck. This week he was using Leo's gas station, which was situated at the edge of town. Next time he'd fill up at Earl's, Blackfoot Falls's only other station, five blocks north on the other end of Main Street. Jesse had gone to school with both men's sons so he was careful to spread the business.
The multicolored Christmas lights twisting around the flagpole and arching over the tiny town square blinked on just as Jesse climbed behind the wheel. He smiled when the giant elm tree lit up and knew that it was Miriam Lemmon who'd flipped the switch. Tomorrow evening it would be Mabel's turn. The elderly twins had been in charge of seasonal decorations since before Jesse was born.
The familiarity should have been comforting. But in the year and a half since he'd returned home, there'd been no solace. His family's fourth-generation ranch was struggling. It didn't matter that the poor economy was affecting everyone.
Hell, he'd crossed an ocean to fight for his country, learned how to fly everything from large planes to small helicopters, and yet there wasn't a damn thing he could do to pull the ranch out of the red.
He'd been eager to come home after his air-force duty, but since then it seemed he'd been nothing but dead weight. Sucking in oxygen yet contributing nothing.
Winter made everything worse. During the spring and summer months, with the calving and roundups and irrigation constantly going haywire, there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day. But since the final cut of hay, work was sparse and they had a bunkhouse full of hands who needed steady paychecks. Like Cole and Trace, Jesse still pitched in, made himself useful the best way he knew how. But his brothers, they belonged here, not him.
Not feeling like heading back to the Sundance just yet, he decided to cruise down Main Street to see if Noah was in his office. Even three blocks away, Jesse could see the sheriff's truck parked at the curb. That didn't necessarily mean anything. Noah could've walked home or over to Marge's diner for supper.
Jesse drove past the Cut and Curl, where his mother always got her hair done, past the hardware store, Ernie's barber shop and the fabric store. He slowed to a crawl when he got to the second residential side street and peered at the third house down. No lights on, so Noah wasn't home. The county provided the small two-bedroom house for him as part of the sheriff's compensation. But mostly he spent his free time out at the Sundance, just as he had when they were teenagers.
Noah had always been part of the family, and sometimes it was easier for Jesse to talk to him rather than Cole. Even though Jesse was only a year younger, his brother had been the one to fill their father's shoes when he'd died of cancer while Jesse was still in college. It was a McAllister tradition—the reins were handed to the oldest son...as they should be.
Jesse drove past the Watering Hole, where the usual Friday-evening crowd hung out after they'd cashed their checks. Then he saw Noah through the open blinds of the sheriff's office. Roy, one of the deputies, was on his way out the door, so Jesse parked his truck at the curb.
By the time he went inside, Noah was standing at the window, looking out and frowning. "Where's your Jeep?"
"Traded it in." Jesse went straight to the half-filled coffeepot. The brew was dark, which meant Noah had made it. Reminded Jesse of some of the joe he'd stomached in Afghanistan. So strong you could use it for diesel. "This stuff fresh?"
Noah nodded. "Why did you do that? You loved that Jeep."
Jesse hunted in the upper oak cabinet for a clean mug, found one and sniffed it for good measure. "It wasn't practical."
"Yeah, because you guys don't have enough pickups at the Sundance."
Jesse shrugged. "I got a good deal on the Dodge," he said. "It's secondhand but has only forty-two thousand miles."
Noah eyed him thoughtfully, likely wondering what had brought on Jesse's change of heart. He'd wanted a Jeep since before he'd learned to drive. The first thing he'd done after returning from Afghanistan was find a dealership and drive the latest model off the lot. It wasn't until later, when he'd seen the disrepair of the ranch, that he'd realized what a selfish bastard he'd been.
But that probably wasn't the only thing Noah was wondering about. Jesse wasn't himself and everyone, including Noah, thought the war had changed him. Jesse knew the war had nothing to do with his restlessness.
Sure, he'd seen things no human being should have to witness. War was never pretty. And yeah, even though he'd been a tanker pilot and not one of the fighter jocks, he'd flown some damn hairy missions, but he hadn't experienced anything like the men with boots on the ground. As far as deployments went, he'd had it fairly easy.
No, his problem was pretty basic. After living in Montana most of his life, being completely sure that his duty and his destiny were bound up in the Sundance, he didn't belong here anymore. Ironic that it had about killed him to give the military all those years in exchange for teaching him how to fly. He'd even chosen a college close enough that he could come home most weekends. And now...each day his sense of belonging seemed to fade even more.
"Weren't you supposed to fly to Billings to pick up a pair of pit bulls?" Noah finally said, while he topped up his coffee.
"The neighbor of the woman who runs the center there adopted them."
"That was lucky."
"Yeah, people are too biased against pit bulls. They're good dogs as long as they're raised right." Jesse sipped his coffee and stared idly out the window, suddenly feeling foolish that he'd stopped by. It wasn't as if he needed advice. He knew what he had to do. Volunteering for animal search-and-res-cue had taken the edge off his discontent but it wasn't helping his family.
"Sit down." Noah indicated the sorry black vinyl-and-chrome chair, then sat behind his desk. "What are you doing in town, anyway?"
"I had to pick up some fencing wire and fuel the truck."
"It's quiet around here without Sundance guests coming and going. Rachel take any reservations for January?"
Jesse sighed. The family had agreed they'd close the dude ranch for the holidays, but his sister was a pushover. "She's got a woman coming in next weekend."
"A week before Christmas?" Noah frowned over the rim of his mug. "I thought she'd shut down for the month of December."
"She's making an exception. The woman is volunteering over at Safe Haven and was desperate for a place to stay." Jesse shrugged. "You know Rachel. Couldn't say no. You still going to New York to see Alana?"
Noah grinned like a ten-year-old with a new puppy. "I leave next Thursday. My sisters are coming with their families to spend Christmas with the folks."
Jesse managed a smile. Not that he wasn't happy for his friend. It was the holidays he was dreading. He hadn't heard anything about the annual open house his mother usually hosted, but he knew it had to be on the calendar. Even if they did have to shell out a few bucks for the food and beer, no one would deny her the McAllister tradition.
"Which airport you flying out of?" Jesse asked.
"Billings. Anything closer was either booked or involved too many layovers."
"Need a ride?"
Noah's brows furrowed with curiosity. "I thought you'd be looking forward to spending the time with the family. This is what...only the second holiday you've been home?"
"Jesus, it's just a ride."
Noah leaned back, a self-deprecating smile pulling at his mouth. "Thanks, I'm taking my truck." He took another sip, his probing eyes staying on Jesse. "How've you been, buddy?"
"You know.. " He shrugged. "Good. I've been doing a lot of flying for different shelters." Nothing new, and not what his friend was asking. Jesse let out a gushing breath. "I'm thinking about reenlisting."
Noah's mouth opened, and he quickly set down his mug. "You gotta be kidding. Shit," he said when he clearly realized that Jesse was dead serious. "What do Cole and the rest of the family say about it?"
"They don't know." Jesse looked him square in the eye. "This stays between you and me."
"Why reenlist?" Noah shook his head. "You hated being away from Montana."
"I'm no good here. At least with an officer's salary I can send home money, plus the bonus I'll get for committing to another ten years."
Noah frowned, looking so troubled Jesse was sorry as hell he'd opened his mouth. "You talked to someone from the air force about this already?"
"Just enough to know what's what."
"Big mistake, buddy. Especially if it's just about the money. You'll break your mother's heart."
Jesse stared into his cold coffee. "Yeah, well, I gotta do what's best for everyone."
Noah muttered a curse. "If you think tearing yourself away from the ranch and your family to make a buck is the right thing, you've got a hell of a lot more thinking to do."
Wasn't that the problem? The more thinking Jesse did, the more lost he felt.
Shea Monroe stared out the large plate-glass window of her San Jose office, the phone pressed to her ear as she listened to her mother complain about her new stepchildren. The older one...
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