Rancher for the Holidays (Love Inspired)

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9780373879960: Rancher for the Holidays (Love Inspired)
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Her Could-Be Cowboy

Downsized from his corporate job, Ben Fisher's donning boots and a cowboy hat to try ranching through the holidays on his uncle's spread. The handsome city slicker turns heads wherever he goes—but he soon begins to fall for one special redhead. Marley Sanders has the work-obsessed bachelor doing the unthinkable—volunteering in the community and dreaming of wedding bells and babies. But his sweet country girl insists she's never leaving Alpine, Texas, and he's set to ride out with the first job offer. Unless Marley can convince him to take the job of her forever cowboy.

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About the Author:

Award-winning author Myra Johnson is a Texan through and through, but (except for the scarcity of real Texas beef barbecue) she now enjoys life in the scenic Carolinas. Myra and her husband proudly claim two daughters and two sons-in-law with huge hearts for ministry. Seven precious grandchildren take up another big chunk of Myra’s heart. The Johnsons also enjoy bird-watching from the back porch, singing in their church choir, and pampering their very special rescue dogs.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The end of the road—that's what it felt like for Ben Fisher.

Not literally, of course. Alpine, Texas, was some seventy or eighty miles from the Mexican border. Touristy chic in a Western, high-desert kind of way. Big Bend country, seasoned with the flavor of Mexico.

An interesting town, and a place Ben truly enjoyed visiting. He and his older brother, Aidan, had spent many summer vacations pretending to be cowboys and exploring their aunt and uncle's ranch outside town.

The only problem this time? A prolonged stay in Alpine, Texas, was not on Ben's current agenda.

Or it hadn't been until two weeks ago, when a memo from the Home Tech Revolution CEO changed the course of Ben's life.

He paused in the shade of a bright blue awning and gazed unseeing into a shop window along Holland Avenue. He'd already browsed through several gift shops, art galleries and specialty boutiques, none of which piqued his interest. Mucking stalls and hefting hay bales might be more therapeutic, but between Aunt Jane's concerned glances and Uncle Steve's penchant for handing out unwanted advice, Ben had needed to get away from the ranch for a while.

Except he'd slightly overdressed for a leisurely walk around downtown Alpine. When sweat threatened to soak through his maroon polo shirt, he decided to step in out of the September heat. As he pushed open the shop door, a blast of chilly air raised goose bumps on his arms. He dodged a string ofjangling brass bells, but one managed to slap him in the forehead anyway.

"Ouch." He rubbed the spot as he nudged the door closed with his elbow.

"Sorry." A young woman appeared from the back of the shop. She wore a dark blue apron over jeans and a T-shirt, her straight auburn hair pulled into a ponytail. "The bells are a new addition. Guess I didn't consider my taller customers."

At barely six feet, Ben didn't consider himself particularly tall for a guy. He arched a brow. "You usually cater to munchkins?"

"This time of year, yes." The woman was almost Ben's height, even in her sneakers. She nodded toward a nearby counter, where a placard announced an upcoming after-school photography class for children. "I take it you aren't here to enroll your child?"

"Uh, no. I mean, I don't have any kids. I'm not even—" Ben clamped his teeth together and forced an apologetic grin. "Truth is, I just stepped inside to cool off."

"Oh." She sounded so disappointed that Ben almost wished he did have a kid to sign up for her class.

Almost. Marriage and family remained way down his list of priorities—and would until he got his career back on track.

Barely disguising a sigh, the attractive proprietor stepped across the room and reached up to straighten a poster-size framed photograph of a little girl climbing onto a school bus. A long, black braid swung down the child's back. The photo had captured the girl as she peered over her shoulder with a wistful, world-weary smile.

Only then did Ben take a serious look at his surroundings—another art gallery. More accurately, a photography studio. A few cityscapes and landscapes were displayed, along with portraits of children and teens, family groups and wedding parties. Typical professional photography fare.

But as he browsed the wall where the picture of the little girl hung, Ben felt as if he'd stepped into another world. These photos captured real people doing everyday things. Kids swatting at a piñata. An elderly woman knitting. Two boys playing catch. And most of the subjects appeared to be Hispanic.

He stepped closer. As a promotion manager—okay, former promotion manager—he knew more than a little about photography and composition. Whoever snapped these pictures had talent. He slid his gaze to the young woman. "You take these?"

She offered her hand. "Marley Sanders, at your service."

"Ben Fisher. Pleased to meet you." He noted her confident grip. If he still had his job back in Houston, he'd have wasted no time asking for her portfolio so he could present it to the ad team. "Even if I don't have a kid to sign up, is it okay to look around?"

"Be my guest." Marley looked at her watch. "For fifteen minutes, anyway. I'm closing at four so I can get to a meeting."

"Ah, a woman with an agenda. Okay, I'll hurry." Hands in his pockets, Ben moved along the wall, each photograph more impressive than the one before. "Are these for sale?"

"Sure!" An eager response if Ben had ever heard one. She cleared her throat. "I mean, yes, anything you see here is available for purchase. I also have a number of photos on display at various businesses around town, so if you don't see anything you like—"

"I see plenty I like." Ben studied a photo featuring a bright red portable building shaped like a barn. The double doors stood open, and inside a young Hispanic mother with a baby on her hip perused shelves lined with canned goods and other grocery items. He doubted this woman ever shopped at Home Tech Revolution. He glanced at Marley over his shoulder. "Interesting subject. Is this somewhere around here?"

"It's a little town called Candelaria, about ninety miles west." A faraway look darkened her dusky brown eyes even more. Anticipation? Concern? Ben couldn't tell. "Most of the photos in this group were taken there. It's a special place."

"Must be, if you've spent so much time photographing it."

"It's not just the town. The people are amazing—" The chirping of a cell phone interrupted her. She slid an iPhone from her back pocket. "Hi, Pastor. On my way right now."

Ben started toward the door. "Guess you need me to clear out."

"Sorry. I didn't realize how late it was. Watch out for the—"

Too late. As Ben pulled open the door, the brass bells bounced off and beaned him again.

"Oops." Behind him, Marley tittered. "I really need to shorten those things."

"Or up your liability insurance." Shooting her a wry smile, Ben stepped onto the sidewalk. "Nice meeting you, Marley Sanders. You do good work."

She wiggled her fingers in a tentative wave before locking the glass door behind him. Pointing at the dangling string of bells, she mouthed, Gone tomorrow. Promise.

He gave her a thumbs-up and decided a brief stay in Alpine might be exactly what his bruised ego needed.

Wow, nice guy. Except why couldn't he have been a nice dad enrolling his kid in Marley's photography class. She needed at least four more registrants just to break even. The absolute last thing she wanted to do was go to her father again for another infusion of capital. His subsidies were always secret, naturally, since Missouri State Representative Harold Sanderson had a reputation to protect.

Exactly why she'd moved a thousand miles away to Alpine, where no one knew her as anyone but Marley Sanders.

How many years had she worked to make it on her own, to prove to herself and her parents that she could live a responsible, productive, meaningful life? Her messed-up past was marred by lousy high school records and too many appearances in juvenile court. But the one mistake that finally brought her to her knees was a tragic auto accident that left Tina Maxwell, her one true friend, in a coma for six weeks.

With so much going against her, Marley had had no choice but to let Mom and Dad pay her way through college. She'd chosen Sul Ross State University in Alpine because of its remote West Texas location, then fell in love with the area and the people and decided to stay.

During her college years she became interested in photography. After she graduated, her father continued to send money while she got her studio up and running. But income remained sporadic, and more than once her father had not so subtly suggested she might want to switch to a more lucrative career.

That is, if he contacted her at all.

Time to stop dwelling on the past. She couldn't change it anyway, so the most she could hope for was to live purposefully in the present and try to make a difference.

And make her business profitable enough so she could stop depending on Daddy's money.

Maybe the nice Mr.—what did he say his name was? Fisher. Maybe Mr. Fisher would come back tomorrow and actually buy one of Marley's photographs. He sure seemed interested. Even looked as if he could afford her prices, judging from his designer-label polo shirt and neatly pressed khakis.

Oh, and the trendy haircut. Short but spiky, like one of those intentionally messy movie-star dos, and an interesting shade of light brown mixed with hints of sun-kissed blond. His hair color looked natural, but Marley knew plenty of women who'd pay their stylists big bucks to get such attractively subtle highlights.

Yep, the dapper Mr. Ben Fisher was definitely an outof-towner, and since not many locals actually bought her stuff, all the more reason she needed to rely on income from her commercial photography and children's classes.

After flipping around the Closed sign in the front window, Marley turned off the lights, ditched her apron and headed out the back door. She jogged to the small parking lot at the end of the alley, then climbed into her ancient green Honda Civic and drove across town to the church.

By the time she sidled into the library and found an empty chair at the conference table, Pastor Chris's Spirit Outreach meeting appeared to be well under way.

"Glad you made it, Marley." Pastor Chris tapped a pen against his legal pad, which was propped on the edge of the table. "We're discussing ways to step up our outreach efforts."

Marley's friend Angela Coutu, seated across the table, spoke up. "Which isn't easy, considering the size of our congregation. We're doing all we can."

"We could do more," her husband, Ernie, said. "I'd like to see us affiliate with an organization like Big Bend Assistance Alliance. They're doing amazing work in the cities where they're active."

Marley tapped her nails on the tabletop. "Too bad they don't have a branch in Alpine."

"I hear they're looking into it," Pastor Chris stated. "But it'll be after the first of the year at the earliest, and we've still got two Candelaria trips to organize between now and Christmas. We need to think about fund-raising, getting supplies together and rounding up volunteers."

Straightening, Marley folded back the cover on her tablet computer. "We've got the next work trip covered for volunteers, right?" She had really wanted to go along but couldn't break away from the studio that week. At least she could look forward to the trip the week before Christmas, when several college students from a Texas Tech campus ministry would join them.

Discussion continued, and with the work trip details finalized, the committee talked more about their Christmas plans for Candelaria.

Running a hand across his crew cut, Pastor Chris checked his notes. "The Texas Tech group will be doing some fund-raising on campus between now and the end of November, and the director's counting on seven or eight students to sign up for the holiday mission trip."

"That'll be a big help." Marley typed the number 8 and a question mark next to "visiting mission team" in her planning list. "I think we should consider a major fundraiser of our own, though. I want to give those kids and their families a really special Christmas."

Judy Jackson, a silver-haired retired teacher, flipped backward through her spiral notebook. "In the past, we've done things like car washes, pancake breakfasts, and church-wide garage sales. Those are all fine and dandy, but if we want continued support from the community, we need to come up with something original."

An hour later, the Spirit Outreach committee had tossed out several ideas for possible fund-raisers, none of which the entire group could agree on. Some were too complicated, others too corny, and by the time Pastor Chris adjourned the meeting, Marley's frustration level had reached its peak. She'd grown so fond of the little town and its people, and all she wanted was to put an end to the haggling and do something tangible to help.

Pastor Chris walked Marley out to her car. "Hang in there. You know how committees work. We'll eventually get this figured out."

Marley answered with a smile and a shrug.

"How's your class sign-up coming?"

"Not good. I'd hoped for some return business from kids who took my summer classes, but I guess they lost interest."

"September's a busy time for parents. Maybe they'll get around to it once the kids settle into their school routines."

"Maybe." Marley didn't feel optimistic. She opened her car door and tossed her shoulder bag and tablet case across to the passenger seat. "Oh, well, if the class doesn't happen, I'll have more time to get ready for Candelaria." She gave a heartless laugh. "Not to mention I'll be saving money on utilities."

Pastor Chris leaned against the fender. A concerned frown creased his brow as he squinted against the afternoon sun. "You doing okay? Financially, I mean?"

Marley shrugged. "I'll make it." She climbed into her Civic, wincing as heat from the black vinyl upholstery penetrated her jeans. "Let me know when the next meeting is, Pastor. In the meantime, I'll work on the list of craft supplies the ladies asked for."

One hand braced on the door frame, Pastor Chris fixed Marley with a pointed stare. "Track your expenses, okay? We're taking up a special offering every Sunday this month, so we can reimburse you out of the donations."

"I will, I promise." Marley couldn't afford to do otherwise, but she looked forward to the day when she could give more than just her time and talent to the cause she cared so much about.

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9780373818754: Rancher for the Holidays (Love Inspired)

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ISBN 10:  0373818750 ISBN 13:  9780373818754
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