A Brand of ChristmasMaggie Shayne
A BRAND OF CHRISTMAS
Copyright ? 2015 by Maggie Shayne
THE LITTLEST COWBOY
First Published 1996
Copyright ? 2014 by Maggie Shayne
THE BRANDS WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS
First Published 2000 by Margaret Benson
Copyright ? 2014 by Maggie Shayne
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Littlest Cowboy
The Brands Who Came for Christmas
Excerpt: The Baddest Virgin in Texas
Excerpt: Brand-New Heartache
About the Author
The Texas Brands
The Littlest Cowboy
The Baddest Virgin in Texas
Badlands Bad Boy
Long Gone Lonesome Blues
The Lone Cowboy
Lone Star Lonely
The Outlaw Bride
Garrett Brand awoke in a cold sweat, some foreign kind of dread gnawing at his stomach. Heart pounding, he sat up fast and wide-eyed, his fists clenching defensively before he got hold of himself. Blinking the sleep haze from his eyes and taking a few deep breaths, he let his tense muscles relax and unclenched his fists. There was nothing wrong. There was no reason for that panicky feeling that had slipped through him like a ghost slipping through a wall. No reason at all.
And still he couldn't shake it. It hadn't been a bad dream. Far as Garrett could recall, he'd been sleeping like a bear in January until that odd feeling had jerked him awake.
Okay, he'd just take stock.
He sat in the middle of his king-size bed and scanned the room. Red sunlight spilled through the open window, but the curtains hung motionless. No breeze. Already the early-morning air grew heavier, hotter. He listened, but didn't hear anything he hadn't ought to. A horse blowing now and then. A handful of songbirds.
Still, the feeling that something was wrong remained. Garrett had never been much for ESP or any of that nonsense. But stories he'd heard about mothers knowing instinctively when something was wrong with their kids floated through his mind now. He was no mother to Wes, Elliot and Jessi. No father to them, either. But he was as close to a parent as they'd had in almost twenty years. He'd only been seventeen when Orrin and Maria Brand had been killed in that car accident, leaving him as sole caretaker to his five younger siblings. And when he thought about anything happening to any of them?
An odd sound reached him then, a sound that made the hairs on his nape prickle. Soft and faint, but out of place, whatever it was.
Garrett pulled on his jeans, socks and boots in the space of a couple of seconds. He didn't bother with a shirt. But he did yank the revolver out of his top dresser drawer and gave the cylinder a quick spin to be sure it was loaded. On the way out, he snatched the black Stetson from the bedpost and dropped it on his head. It was a gesture so automatic it was done without forethought. Like breathing.
Softly, Garrett moved along the hallway to the next bedroom. He was glad of the braided runner covering the hardwood floor. It cushioned and muffled his steps. He stopped outside the door. Elliot's room, though if you looked inside, you'd think it belonged to a ten-year-old boy, not a man of twenty-five. Lariats and spurs decorated the walls, along with a collection of hats and framed photos of champion cowboys. His closet was an explosion of fringed chaps and hand-tooled boots. Only the sizes had changed over the years. Elliot's dreams never had. He'd lived for the rodeo since he'd been old enough to say the word.
Garrett held his Colt, barrel up in his right hand, and pushed the door open with his left.
The hinges creaked loudly when Garrett stepped through, and Elliot's sleeping face twisted into a grimace. "Whaddya want?" he muttered, still half-asleep.
Relieved, Garrett stifled his sigh. "I thought I heard something is all. Go back to sleep." He backed toward the door.
Elliot sat up, his rusty hair so tousled he looked like an angry rooster. "What the hell you doing with the gun, Garrett?"
"I told you, I thought I heard something."
"So you're gonna shoot it?" This as he climbed out of bed in a pair of baggy pajama bottoms with rearing mustangs all over them.
Garrett shook his head, not ready to discuss the odd feeling that had awakened him. "I'm going to check on the others."
"I'm coming with you," Elliot said with a pointed look at Garrett's gun. "Just in case you've been so responsible and levelheaded for so long that it's finally driven you over the edge."
Garrett sent him a glare, but Elliot only returned a wink and a crooked grin as he grabbed his hat off the dresser and plunked it on top of his unruly red hair.
They slipped into the hall, and Garrett moved past the next two doors. Adam and Ben had gone their own way last year. Adam had hightailed it to New York City, ostensibly because of a job offer in some bigwig corporation. But everyone knew he'd really moved away because Kirsten Armstrong had left him at the altar to marry an older, richer man, and Adam couldn't stand being in the same town with her anymore. Ben, of course, was trying to find some peace. The hills of Tennessee, where he was living like a hermit, wouldn't heal him, though. Only time could do that, Garrett thought. Ben's young wife had died just about a year ago, and even though they'd both known she was terminal before they'd married, the blow of finally losing her had almost done Ben in.
Garrett and Elliot reached the next room. Wes's. If there were trouble, Wes was likely to be involved. Oh, he'd calmed down a lot since prison. But he still wasn't over the anger of being sent there unjustly. It was a rage Garrett supposed would eat at a man for a long time. And with Wes's temper?well, an explosion always seemed within shouting distance.
He tapped on the door, didn't walk in the way he'd done with Elliot. Wes was still pretty riled up over returning home to find his half brother wearing a badge. And he'd developed a real touchy attitude about privacy, too, while he'd been away. No sense pushing his buttons by walking in unannounced, gun in hand.
The door opened and Wes stood there looking more like a Comanche warrior than a Brand at that moment, despite the jeans and pale denim shirt. His dark hair hung to his shoulders-longer than a man of thirty ought to be wearing it, Garrett thought-and his eyes gleamed like onyx. His Comanche mother had named him Raven Eyes, and Garrett had always thought it incredibly appropriate.
"What is it?"
Garrett shrugged. "I'm not sure. Did you hear anything unusual just now?"
"No, but I was-"
A high, soft sound interrupted Wes, and he went rigid. It seemed to come from farther down the hall, and all three heads turned in that direction. Jessi's room. A second later, the three of them stampeded for their twenty-two-year-old baby sister's door. Garrett saw Wes pull that damn bowie knife of his from his boot with a move so quick and smooth and practiced, it seemed to have just materialized in his hand.
They stopped outside Jessi's door, and the sound came again. Not a normal cry. But obviously one of distress. Garrett's blood ran cold when he tried the knob and found the door locked. He didn't even think about it first.
He just stepped back and kicked it open. Three Brand men exploded into Jessi's bedroom at once, one holding a Colt, one wielding a bowie and the other poised with fists raised in a boxer's stance, though the effect was probably ruined by the horsey pajamas.
Jessi screeched as she whirled to face them. Then she just rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You idiots! You almost scared me right outta my slippers!"
"Sorry, Jes," Garrett told her, feeling more foolish by the minute. "I thought I heard-"
"Me, too," Jessi said. "But it's coming from outside." She jerked her head in the direction of her open bedroom window.
Garrett lowered his revolver, sighing in relief. "You okay, Jessi?"
She only smiled and shook her short-cropped head in vexation. "How could I not be with you three on duty?" Giving her bathrobe sash a tug for good measure, she shouldered past them, apparently on her way downstairs to investigate the noise.
It was Wes who gripped her shoulder and gently stepped in front of her without a word. She made a face at him, but stayed behind him as they headed through the hall to the wide staircase and started down it, Wes and Garrett in the lead, Jessi and Elliot behind them.
"I think you guys are overreacting. Sounds like a lost calf or something."
"Shh," Elliot warned, but Jessi had never really known when to shut up.
"Garrett, you haven't got the sense God gave a goat if you think anyone up to no-good would be lurking around the Texas Brand. Everyone knows you're the sheriff."
"Be quiet, Jessi," Garrett ordered. They'd reached the bottom of the staircase. The parlor spread out before them, but there was nothing out of place. The huge fireplace they used only rarely. A wide picture window on the far left side that looked out over the lawn and the driveway, and the one on the back wall that faced the barns and unending, flat green fields beyond. They gave no clue. The knotty hardwood walls had nothing to say. The golden oak gun cabinet stood silent, its glass doors still locked up tight.
Blue wasn't in his usual spot in front of the window, though. That alone signaled something wrong. That dog barely moved enough to breathe.
They continued on through the wide archway into the dining room and through that to the kitchen.
The front door loomed at the far end, and there was ol' Blue, poised beside it. Not growling, though. His tail was wagging. Wagging! Hell, he was about twenty dog years past his wagging days. He stared at the door, tilting his big head from one side to another. His ears as perked as ears that long and floppy could perk. The two black spots above his eyes rose in question as if they were eyebrows.
Garrett tried to swallow, but it felt as if his throat were full of sand. He knew his family-and apparently his dog-thought he was overreacting, but he couldn't shake this feeling, this ominous certainty that something drastic was about to happen. Something horrible must be awaiting him on the other side of that door.
"Stay here," he said. "Until I make sure it's safe."
"Always the hero," Jessi muttered.
Garrett ignored her and moved forward as his stomach tied itself up in knots. He unlocked the front door and opened it to step out onto the porch.
And then he just stood there, gaping.
A basket sat at his feet. A big basket. And inside the basket, rapidly kicking free of the thin blankets tucked around it, was a fat, smiling baby.
Garrett stared down at the infant, too stunned to do much more than push his Stetson farther back on his head.
From behind him, he heard, "Well, I'll be?" and "Who do you suppose?" and "What in the world?"
The baby, though, only had eyes for Garrett. Blue eyes, so blue their whites seemed to have a slight blue tint. It stared at him hard, and then it smiled again, a small trickle of drool running from one corner of its mouth to its double-no, triple-chin.
Blue pushed past the crowd in the doorway and stood two feet from the baby. He looked from it, to Garrett and back again.
"Gaa!" the baby announced.
Blue jumped out of his skin and retreated a few steps.
"Ooohh," Jessi sang, and then she was passing Garrett, scooping that baby up into her arms and snuggling it close to her.
"Garrett, there's a bag over there, and it looks like a note's attached," Elliot said, pointing.
Garrett saw a little satchel with blue and yellow bunnies all over it. A thin red haze of anger clouded his vision, and shoving his gun into his jeans, he turned to face his two brothers, ready to knock their teeth out. "So, which one of you is responsible for this?"
They just looked at him, then at each other.
"How many times have I talked to you about responsibility? Huh? How many times have I told you what it means to father a child? It means you take care of it, dammit. It means you marry the woman and you-"
"Not now, Jes. But pay attention. You need to hear this, too. Don't ever let any sweet-talking cowboy with no sense of honor, like either one of these two fine examples right here, talk you into-"
"Garrett, you better read this."
Something in her voice made him clamp his jaw shut. Wes and Elliot, though, both looked decidedly uncomfortable, and he could tell they were mentally going through their list of one-night stands to determine which of them might have resulted in this mess. Garrett wanted to scream and rant and shake them. He'd tried so hard to instill some ethics into them, to be a good example. He never drank, never whored around town the way some did. Hell, he'd been working so hard at showing them how to be men, he'd become known as the most morally upright, impeccably mannered, responsible, reliable, stand-up guy in the state of Texas. To think that one of his own brothers?
"'You were more kind to me than anyone I'd ever known,'" Jessi began, and Garrett came to attention when he realized she was reading from the note. "'Though it was only for one night, I never forgot you. And I knew I could count on you to take care of our son when I realized I no longer could.'"
"You ought to be pretty damned proud of yourselves," Garrett muttered. Blue sat down close beside him, staring at Wes and Elliot, as well.
Jessi read on. '"He's six months old this week. He hates strained peas, but will eat most anything else.'"
"Well, now, that much is obvious," Elliot joked. But no one laughed.
"'I named him after his father. I only hope he'll grow up to be half the man you are.'"
Garrett felt his two brothers tense beside him when Jessi looked up, her eyes round and dark brown.
"Go on, Jessi," he urged. "Read the name."
She blinked at him, eyes wider than a startled doe's before she lowered them to the page once more. "'His name is Garrett Ethan. But I call him Ethan. Please, Garrett, love him. Just love him, and I'll be at peace.'"
He'd been poleaxed right between the eyes. For a second, he didn't move, and nobody else did, either, except that Wes and Elliot seemed to sag just a bit. Relief would do that to a man. Then Garrett shook his head at the absurdity of it all and snatched the letter from his little sister's hand. His eyes sped over the lines.
"Hell, this thing isn't even signed!"
"What's the matter, big brother," Elliot chirped, thumbs hooked in the waistband of his baggy pajama bottoms, a lopsided grin pulling at his lips. "Been so many you can't remember her name?"
Garrett clenched his jaw and drew a breath. Calm. He needed calm here. "This is bull. I didn't father that kid any more than Sam Houston did. It's bull."
"Sure it is, Garrett." Elliot shrugged and glanced at the squirming baby anchored on Jessi's slender hip. "Well, I'll be damned?."
"He has your nose!"
Jessi joined Elliot in laughing out loud.
"Maybe the sainted Garrett Brand has more of his father's genes in him than we realized," Wes broke in, but there wasn't an ounce of humor in his voice.
Garrett flinched at the barb, and turned to his sloe-eyed brother. "Wes, I didn't speak to Pa for six months after I found out about
his affair with your mother, and that was before I realized he'd fathered you and left you behind to come back to us. I wouldn't do something like that."
Wes didn't answer, only lifted his black brows and slanted a glance at the baby as if its very presence proved otherwise.
Garrett groaned. "I can't believe you guys don't believe me."
"Oh, sure, Garrett! The way you'd have believed us if the little lady had scrawled one of our names on that note, right?"
Elliot had a point, the little bastard.
"Stop all this caterwaulin'. You're scaring the baby!" Jessi rocked the wide-eyed child in her arms and cooed at him. "Doesn't matter who fathered him, does it? He's here now and we'll just have to deal with it. Wes, that old wooden cradle is still stored up overhead in the toolshed, isn't it? Go on out there and bring it in, get it cleaned up. And Elliot, the baby quilt Mamma made for me is upstairs in my cedar chest. Bring it out here and hang it over the railing so it can air out some. Garrett, bring the bag and follow me. This son of yours could use a fresh diaper, and you can bet the ranch I'm not doin' it."
Wes and Elliot turned in opposite directions to do her bidding. Jessi reached for the screen door.
"Hold up a second, all of you."
Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at him-no, four pairs. One pair of baby blues fixed on him like laser beams.
Garrett swallowed the bile in his throat, cleared it and said what he had to. "We're not keeping this baby."
Jessi blinked. Elliot shook his head. And Wes just stared at him, condemnation in his black eyes.
"Look, I don't know whose child he is, but I do know this. He ain't mine."
"No buts, Jessi. Somewhere, his real family is out there waiting for him. It wouldn't be fair for us to keep him here. Now, I'm going inside and calling Social Services, and then-"
"Not on a Saturday morning, you aren't," Elliot observed. He lifted his hat and replaced it at a more comfortable angle with just the right amount of smugness. The horsey pajamas ruined the effort, though.
Again, the little bastard had a point. Quinn, Texas was a speck-on-the-map town in a county that wasn't much bigger. There wasn't a thing Garrett could do about this until Monday. Ah, hell, make that Tuesday. Monday was Memorial Day.
"I'll just go get that quilt," Elliot said, and he let the screen door bang closed behind him.
"I'll change little Ethan," Jessi offered, "this time. But don't you start thinkin' this is gonna become a habit." She bent to pick up the bunny bag with her free hand.
Garrett held the door for her. "He won't be here long enough for it to become a habit, Jes."
Blue jumped up and trotted into the house beside Jessi. His sister shot Garrett a few daggers as she passed. But they were nothing compared to the glare of Wes's eyes on his back. He felt as if his skin were being seared. He stiffened his shoulders and turned to face his silent accuser.
Wes leaned against the porch railing, eyeing him.
"It's not my kid," Garrett said, and the fact that he sounded so defensive made him as angry as the look in his brother's eyes.
"At least our father owned up to his mistakes, Garrett. When my mother died and he found out about me-
"When Stands Alone died, Wes, it was my mother who found out about you, not Pa. She was the one who went to the reservation to find out if her suspicions were true, and once she knew, there was no question about your coming to live with us. If our father hadn't done right by you, she'd have skinned him."
Wes straightened as Garrett spoke. "You saying Orrin wouldn't have acknowledged me if Maria hadn't forced him?"
"I'm saying who the hell knows what he would have done. He was no saint, Wes."
"And neither is his firstborn," Wes said in a dangerously soft voice.
"No, I'm no saint. I never claimed to be. But I didn't father that kid in there, and-"
"And you don't want him." Wes turned away suddenly, an act that made his careless shrug a second later seem false. "What the hell do I care? I don't even like kids." He banged down the three porch steps and started along the well-worn path to the barn.
Garrett would have gone after him, but changed his mind at Jessi's shrill squawk-at least he thought it was Jessi's. It might also have been a bald eagle caught in a blender, but he didn't think that very likely. Ah, hell.
He headed inside.
Jessi had one hand at her stomach and the other over her mouth. Behind her, the baby lay on the parlor floor, his diaper undone, his legs in the air. Garrett took another step forward before the aroma hit him full in the face and made his eyes water.
"I can't do it, Garrett," Jessi gasped, "and there's nothing you can say to make me. Gawd!" She headed up the stairs at light speed.
No use. She was long gone. He heard the bedroom door slam, then refocused his gaze on the kid. Damn shame Jessi hadn't laid some newspapers or something underneath him.
Grimacing, he squared his shoulders and strode the rest of the way into the parlor. Blue whimpered from his spot on the floor in front of the window, where he tended to bask in the morning sunlight. Then he lowered his head and put both paws over his nose.
"I know the feeling, Blue." Garrett snatched up the bunny bag and dug into it. Clean diapers, that horrible disposable kind that lived for ten thousand years in the dump. If he ever had a kid, he'd use cloth. Good ol' cotton, and?
Taking another look at the condition of little Ethan's diaper, he frowned again, seriously rethinking that position. Who'd wanna try to clean something like that? Hell, he'd swabbed out drunk tanks that had been more appealing than?that.
He took a diaper from the bag, and a box of pre-moistened baby wipes, which made him raise his eyebrows.
"Baby wipes, hell," he muttered. "I think you need a high-pressure hose, kid."
"Dababa," Ethan chirped. He wasn't looking at Garrett. Instead, he held one foot in his hand and eyed his own toes with fascination.
Garrett caught himself smiling like an idiot, checked it and dived into the bag again. This time, he emerged with a half-dozen mysterious items. Oil, ointment, powder. He wasn't sure what to use, but figured he could safely rule out the teething lotion.
"Yeah, I'm coming." He dumped his plunder on the floor, snagged himself about thirty or so baby wipes and wished to God he had a clothespin for his nose and a pair of rubber gloves for his hands. As he hunkered down beside the kid, he revised that wish. What he needed was a full-fledged space suit.
Despite the unpleasantness of it, though, the job didn't take all that long. Snatch the dirty diaper off, clean him up, dust him with powder, tape a fresh diaper firmly in place. Now the question was, what the hell did he do with the, uh, used one? The trash pail in the kitchen was out of the question. He finally decided on the big can out behind the house, though he'd rather incinerate the thing than can it. If this kid ended up sticking around the Texas Brand, they were going to have to invest in an asbestos tank and a flamethrower. Gathering up the diaper and the used baby wipes, he glanced down at Ethan. The baby had managed to pull his foot all the way up to his face and was gnawing on one of his own toes.
"Stunning good looks and talent, too," Garrett told him. "Will wonders never cease? Stay where you are, Ethan."
"Buhbuhbuh," the baby responded, a serious expression on his face.
"Okay. Bubba it is. I'll be right back, Bubba." And he turned to carry the toxic bundle down the hall and out the back door to the trashcan. When he came back inside, he stopped in the downstairs bathroom and scrubbed his hands almost raw. Then he sauntered back into the parlor.
Only little Ethan wasn't where he'd been.
"Hey, Bubba," Garrett called. "Where'd you go?"
No answer. What did he expect, an announcement?
Then he spotted the little pudge. He'd crawled over to where ol' Blue lay in that pool of sunlight and was sitting close beside him. Ethan grinned, lifted the prize he'd captured in his li
ttle hands and prepared to take his very first bite of hound-dog ear.
"Ethan, no!" Garrett dived in a way he hadn't done since high school football and managed to pull a fat little hand away from a drippy little mouth just in time.
Ethan just stared at him, big eyes all innocence.
Blue lifted his head and laid it down again across the baby's legs. This was nothing less than amazing to Garrett. This morning's activities added up to the most that lazy hound had moved in six months! And he was never this friendly. Meanwhile, little hands began smacking down on Blue's head as if it were a bongo drum. Ethan even tried to sing along.
Blue's head lifted again. He gave Ethan's chubby cheek a big swipe of dog tongue, then sighed in contentment, closed his droopy eyes and lay his head down in the baby's lap once more.
Garrett swept his hat off with one hand and rumpled his hair with the other. "Well, I'll be?"