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Christmas at Henderson's Ranch

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-a Henderson’s Ranch romance story-

Chelsea Bridges’ first trip to Montana lands her at Mark Henderson and Emily Beale’s family ranch. In the past she pursued adventure from hiking the Continental Divide Trail to trekking in Nepal, but a horse ranch provides whole new world of wonders.

Doug Daniels spent three tours in the Navy before he became foreman at the ranch. He has finally found his home.

Nothing prepares them for the surprises that await during: Christmas at Henderson’s Ranch.

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1

“This isn’t right!”

Chelsea Bridges leaned forward to see what Emily Beale was looking at. Chelsea didn’t see a thing wrong, but then she’d never been to central Montana before. Out the small plane’s front windshield were miles and miles of rolling green prairie. Streams crisscrossed the grassland in a bewildering maze. The backdrop was the foothills of the Rockies breaking the skyline with their snowy peaks and conifer-clad sides. The westering sun silhouetted the hills, but lit their tops with gold.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous!” Then she clamped her mouth closed. She was trying to reel it in. Emily was always so even-keeled and understated that Chelsea was constantly stumbling to be less…Chelsea. Emily was this perfect woman with a drop-dead handsome husband and about the cutest kid on the planet. Chelsea had only been their daughter’s nanny for a few months, but she’d seen the deference and respect that everyone at Mount Hood Aviation’s firefighter airbase paid Emily. In return, the woman was kind, courteous, and utterly terrifying. Chelsea wouldn’t mind being all of those things.

Her husband Mark, who sat up front in the other pilot seat of the small plane, wasn’t much more effusive—except around his daughter. At least he had a sense of humor, though not as much a one as he thought he did; an observation Chelsea kept carefully to herself.

Chelsea looked over at Tessa who was strapped in beside her. She had her tiny version of her mother’s elegant nose pressed up against the window. “Green,” she announced. Out her window was nothing but the rolling grasslands of eastern Montana.

“It’s wrong,” Mark agreed solemnly but turned enough to wink at Chelsea, or at least she presumed that’s what his cheek twitch was indicating at the lower edge of his mirrored Ray-Bans. “Not much snow in the hills. Means another drought year next summer.”

“That’s not the problem,” Emily responded. “Okay, drought is a problem. But that’s not the real problem.”

“What is, Emma?” Again the sassy wink that said he already knew what his wife was talking about. It was amazing that the man had survived this long. Chelsea would never dare tease Emily Beale; she could probably kill with a glance if she ever took off her own mirrored shades.

“It’s December,” Emily took one hand off the plane’s wheel—if she was on board, she was the one doing the flying—and waved it helplessly at the stunning scenery before them. “We came to Montana for a white Christmas.”

“I thought it was to see Mom and Dad.”

“It’s still supposed to be white,” she grumbled and set up to land the plane. It was as much emotion Chelsea had seen in her entire two months with them. Emily Beale was never unkind, but she was cold. Or at least chilly. But that wasn’t right either. The woman was frank and forthright, as much with her daughter as with her husband. Yet Tessa was often in her lap, welcome not as child to adult, but rather as a piece of Emily that was simply back in the place where it belonged. The mother and daughter weren’t close; they were simply one when they were together. It was about the most incredible thing Chelsea had ever seen. It made her ache for a family of her own; not a familiar feeling.

Again Chelsea strained up against her seatbelt to look down. A herd of horses startled and looked up at them as they passed by. They didn’t scatter and run, but they eyed the low-flying plane carefully.

“Horsies!” Tessa declared delightedly when Emily shifted her flightpath so that the herd was visible outside her daughter’s window. Not cold at all, just…inscrutable.

“Yes,” Chelsea encouraged the toddler. “Those are horses. Aren’t they pretty?”

“Pretty!” Tessa burbled, and they laughed together with delight.

Chelsea had never seen a whole herd of horses before. There were at least fifty in the group of every shade imaginable: grays, browns, whites, blacks, and mixes in patchworks, dapples, and who knew what all. They were gone behind the plane too fast to distinguish more. She tucked away the trail mix snack they’d been sharing to make sure Tessa’s blood sugar was up.

Even after two months, Chelsea wasn’t quite sure how she’d ended up in this situation. Not that she was complaining, Emily and Mark were great parents and it showed in their total sweetheart of a daughter. And flying with Mark over forest fires was often very dramatic.

It had started with Aunt Betsy who was a cook for the Mount Hood Aviation helicopter and smoke jumping firefighters. When Chelsea’s degree in psychology hadn’t led to any kind of a useful job, her aunt had asked if she liked to fly. She’d shrugged a yes because she’d flown in passenger jets any number of times to visit grandparents, and a trip to Nepal for a backpacking gap year.

She’d now spent most of the last two months sitting in tiny planes of six or eight narrow seats and been paid to enjoy the scenery and play with a baby girl. Best job she’d ever had by a long way.

Tessa was a fixture in Mark Henderson’s plane when he was flying as the Incident Commander high above the fire. What was surprising wasn’t that they’d added a nanny, but rather how he’d done the job for so long without one. Tessa was a pretty low maintenance kid, but she was also eighteen months old and quite intelligent.

It was a late fire season, Mark had said, and MHA had still been flying fire in the Southwest. But, finally released from the summer contract, they’d come north for a vacation and brought Chelsea along with them. She sure as hell wasn’t going home. They’d known that.

As they flew closer to the ranch, more and more fences became visible, cutting the prairie into smaller pastures and training rings. There were several barns, smaller residences, and cabins surrounding the main residence.

Emily flew once over the grand log-built ranch house and waggled the plane’s wings in a friendly wave.

Chelsea pointed to out to Tessa, “Isn’t it amazabiling?”

“’mazbling!” Tessa called out happily. Emily sighed audibly as she circled wide of the barn.

Chelsea wondered if Mark’s habits were rubbing off on her, but she couldn’t resist messing with Tessa’s rapidly developing language set. They landed on a gravel strip that ended close beside the house and a large out-building that turned out to be a hangar.

A big man strolled out to meet them, still buttoning up his sheepskin jacket. He was an older version of Mark; just as tall, just as broad-shouldered, his light hair going silver. But Mark’s face was different. Darker, broader, and his hair was thick, straight, and almost midnight black, sharing only his father’s gray eyes.

The clouds of mist puffing about with each breath of Mark Senior—Mac, she reminded herself, they’d said he liked to be called Mac—had Chelsea bundling up Tessa before the plane came to a halt in front of a hangar. The ground might be snow free, but it was far colder here than Oregon where they’d boarded the plane.

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