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Christmas at Home
Author: Carolyn Brown

 

Chapter 1


   “Dammit!”

   Sage’s favorite cuss word bounced around inside her van like marbles in a tin can, sounding and resounding in her ears.

   She had slowed down to a snail’s pace and was about to drop off the face of the earth into the Palo Duro Canyon when two men dragged sawhorses and a “ROAD CLOSED” sign toward the middle of the road. She stepped on the gas and slid between the sawhorses, slinging wet snow all over the highway workers.

   The last things she saw in her rearview mirror were shaking fists and angry faces before the driving snow obliterated them. They could cuss all they wanted and even slap one of those fines double where workers are present on her if they wanted. She didn’t have time to fiddle-fart around in Claude waiting for eight to ten inches of snow to fall and then melt. She had urgent business at home that would not wait, and she was going home if she had to crawl through the blowing snow and wind on her hands and knees.

   She’d driven all night and barely stayed ahead of the storm’s path until she was twenty miles from Claude and got the first full blast of the blinding snow making a kaleidoscope out of her headlights. If she was going to stop, she would have done so then, but she had to get home and talk her grandmother out of the biggest mistake of her life. With the snowstorm and the closed roads into and out of the canyon, Grand wouldn’t be making her afternoon flight for sure. Maybe that would give Sage time to talk her out of selling the ranch to a complete stranger.

   “Dammit!” she swore again and didn’t even feel guilty about it. “And right here at Christmas when it’s supposed to be about family and friends and parties and love. She can’t leave me now. I should have listened to her.”

   What was Grand thinking anyway? The Rockin’ C had been in the Presley family since the days of the Alamo. It was one of the first ranches ever staked out in the canyon, and her grandfather would roll over in his grave if he thought Grand was selling it to an outsider. Had the old girl completely lost her mind?

   “Merry freakin’ Christmas!” she moaned as she gripped the steering wheel tightly on the downhill grade. The van went into a long greasy slide, and she took her foot off the gas pedal and gently tapped the brakes to hold it back. She didn’t have to stay in her lane. The roads were closed and no one in their right mind would be driving in such a frightful mess with zero visibility.

   Sage could find her way to the Rockin’ C with her eyes closed, and she might have to prove it because she couldn’t see a damn thing except white. From the inside of her house, it might have been beautiful, but from the inside of her van, it was eerie.

   Sage laid her cell phone on the console, pressed the button for speakerphone, and hit the speed dial for the landline at the ranch. Nothing happened, which meant the snow had already knocked out the power for both the landline and the cell towers. Grand kept an old rotary phone that worked when the electricity was out, but if the phone power was gone, nothing worked.

   Neither surprised her. The next to go would be the electricity. She just hoped that Grand had listened to the weather report and hooked up the generator to the well pump so there would be water in the house.

   She was crawling along at less than five miles an hour when she turned into the lane leading to the house at the Rockin’ C, and the van still slid sideways for a few minutes before it straightened up. She slowed down even further and crept down the dirt lane, the engine growling at the abuse.

   “Don’t stop now,” she said.

   The quarter mile had never seemed so long, but if the van stopped she could walk the rest of the way. She’d even ruin her brand-new cowboy boots if she had to. A warm house and her own bed were right up ahead and she was meaner than the storm anyway.

   She kept telling herself that until she came to a greasy stop in front of the porch. She unbuckled her seat belt and clasped her hands tightly together to make them stop shaking, but nothing seemed to help. The adrenaline rush had brought her almost twenty miles into the canyon and now it was fading, leaving jitters behind.

   Sage Presley was not a petite little woman with a weak voice and a sissy giggle, so she shouldn’t be sitting there shaking like a ninny in a van fast losing its heat. She was five feet ten inches tall, dark haired and brown eyed, and there wasn’t one small thing about her. But Sage didn’t feel like a force right then. She felt like a scared little girl.

   The small, two-bedroom square frame house was barely visible even though it was less than ten feet away when she stepped out. Her feet slipped and she had to grab the van door to keep from falling square on her butt. She found her balance and took short, deliberate steps to the porch where she grabbed the railing and hung on as she climbed the three steps one by one.

   If the storm really did stall out over the Palo Duro Canyon for three days, it was going to be one helluva job just digging out. It was a good thing she’d blown by those highway workers because Grand was going to need her help. She pulled her key ring from her purse and finally found the right key and got it into the lock. How on earth could anything as white as snow make it so dark that she couldn’t even fit a key into a door lock?

   Stepping inside was similar to going from an air-conditioned office into a sauna. She dropped her purse and keys on the credenza right inside the door and flipped the light switch.

   Nothing happened. The electricity had already gone out.

   The only light in the house came from the glowing embers of scrub oak and mesquite logs in the fireplace. She held her hands out to warm them, and the rest of the rush from the drive down the slick, winding roads bottomed out, leaving her tired and sleepy.

   She rubbed her eyes and vowed she would not cry. Didn’t Grand remember that the day she came home from the gallery showings was special? Sage had never cut down a Christmas tree all by herself. She and Grand always went out into the canyon and hauled a nice big cedar back to the house the day after the showing. Then they carried boxes of ornaments and lights from the bunkhouse and decorated the tree, popped the tops on a couple of beers, and sat in the rocking chairs and watched the lights flicker on and off.

   She went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, but it was pitch-black inside. She fumbled around and there wasn’t even a beer in there. She finally located a gallon jar of milk and carried it to the cabinet, poured a glass full, and downed it without coming up for air.

   It took some fancy maneuvering to get the jar back inside the refrigerator, but she managed and flipped the light switch as she was leaving.

   “Dammit! Bloody dammit!” she said a second time using the British accent from the man who’d paid top dollar for one of her paintings.

   One good thing about the blizzard was if that crazy cowboy who thought he was buying the Rockin’ C could see this weather, he’d change his mind in a hurry. As soon as she and Grand got done talking, she’d personally send him an email telling him that the deal had fallen through. But he’d have to wait until they got electricity back to even get that much.

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