James Landry needs Tess' love and a Christmas Miracle to help him out of a troublesome situation.
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With a winter storm threatening to blanket the land in snow, James Landry boards a train to Denver two days before his Christmas Eve wedding to Tess Weston, despite her misgivings that the storm will hinder his return trip home. But James has to go to the big city to replace the worthless ring he mistakenly bought for her with a band of real gold, and assures her nothing, not even snow, will keep him from arriving at the altar on time. But James doesn't count on finding himself stuck in knee-deep drifts, with a Colt .45 staring him in the face.
Tess has had an eerie feeling that something bad is going to happen to James since the moment he told her of his trip. With fat, flakes of snow falling steadily from the sky, images flicker in her mind of him stranded in a hotel room, or on a cold train car. But for some reason, the snow piling up outside her window doesn't lend weight to her fear that James is in grave danger. Determined to help him, Tess sets out on a course to find him, only to have one obstacle after another deter her from reaching him.
Coyote, Colorado December 1874
James Landry brought the wagon to a halt alongside the train depot. He set the brake and hopped down from the hard seat then grasped his fiancée, Tess Weston, around the waist and lowered her to stand on the hard-packed ground beside him. Behind him, a horse snorted. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Russ and Bear dismount and go inside the depot. The aging cowhands from Wooded Acres, the Westons' sprawling ranch north of town, would take Tess home once he boarded the train.
"I still don't understand why you have to be the one to go to Denver," Tess complained while smoothing her skirts. "Pa has twenty men working for him. Let him send someone else."
"No one else but me can go." He looked toward the jagged mountains in the distance. "Those storm clouds have been gathering since last night. Your pa sent the others out to herd the cattle closer to home. There was no need to move them until now. Weather has been mild for months."
"I don't care about the cows." Tess grasped his forearms. "Our wedding is in two days. What happens if it does snow and you get stranded in Denver?"
"I'm not gonna get stranded in Denver," he assured, cupping her cheek and caressing her soft skin. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon. We'll chop down that pine tree I promised you and have it up in our house to decorate Christmas morning. Okay?"
Tess wrinkled her nose, a trait he recognized as annoyance. Not with him for showing affection in public. She liked that. She didn't like being left behind. Or having her objections overruled, especially this one. Truth be told, he didn't favor leaving her behind. Or not being able to give her something she wanted. But he didn't have a choice. He had to go. And she had to stay here.
"I thought you wanted snow on the ground for when we say our I do's?" He tried to soothe her ruffled feathers. "Isn't that why you've been planning a Christmas Eve wedding all these weeks?"
"I do want snow. And I want you at the alter beside me, not stuck in some hotel room miles away from here."
James chuckled and enfolded her in his arms. "Nothing's gonna keep me from that alter and you." He kissed the top of her head. "I grew up in Baltimore. Storms blew in from the harbor and pelted the city with snow almost every winter." He leaned back and gazed down at her. "I know how to fend my way through the drifts, even when they're as high as my knees."
Tess sighed, aggravated. "Maybe so. But Pa should've sent someone else to settle his business with the Denver merchants. I need you here. Why couldn't he understand that?"
James stepped back, removed his battered Stetson and combed his fingers through his hair. Plopped the hat back on his head. Lying to her didn't sit well in his gut. But he had no choice. "I'm happy your pa asked me to go. It means he trusts me. Not because you say he should. Because I earned his trust on my own merit." And he had. Long ago. Before he'd asked Tess to marry him. Only she didn't need to know that at this moment.
She averted her sea-green gaze and looked to the cropping of pine trees past his left shoulder. "I know earning pa's trust means a great deal to you. So does your building our home with your own money, not mine. I just…" She lowered her gaze and scuffed the toe of her boot in the dirt. "I'll miss you. And I'll worry about you."
He smiled at her admission. "No need to worry. I made it from Baltimore to here without injury." He tucked his finger beneath her chin and lifted her gaze back to his. "I'll miss you, too. Be good while I'm gone."
"I will. Aunt Racy finished sewing my dress. I'm to try it on this evening for any final adjustments."
"Are you spending the night with her and your Uncle Creel?"
Tess nodded. "She insisted."
A shrill whistle split the air, signaling the afternoon train from Pueblo approached. Russ and Bear exited the depot and walked toward them, with Russ waving a slip of paper in the air.
"Got your ticket," he said, handing the paper to James.
"And a return one for tomorrow." Bear handed him another piece of paper. His beady gaze slid to Tess for a brief moment and then back to James. "Don't woolgather while you're in the big city. You got a job to do. See that you do it right."
"I ain't likely to err," James snorted. Not a second time. He kept that thought to himself as the train chugged into the station and came to a stop. "Walk with me to the passenger car," he said to Tess, offering her his arm.
"Miss Tess, I'll wait here with the wagon while you see him off," Russ said.
"Thank you," she said.
James led the way, noticing a man and a woman descend the steps at the back of the seating car. They crossed the space between the iron horse and the depot and went inside the squat building. At the same time, the heavy door to the baggage car slid open and a burly man tossed a trunk to the ground.
"All aboard!" A male shouted from the front of the train. "Train leaves in two minutes."
James halted their steps at the foot of the stairs the man and woman had descended. "I'd best get on and find a seat." He took her in his arms, lowered his head and kissed her soft on the lips. "Don't give your pa a hard time about sending me to Denver. I want to do this." I have to do this.
She wrinkled her nose again while fingering his sheepskin coat. "Promise you'll be careful? And stay in a nice hotel? And eat a good supper?"
"I will." He cupped the back of her head and again lowered his mouth to hers, kissed her long and hard and then set her away from him. He thundered up the steps and into the car before he had a change of mind and spent the afternoon rummaging through the mercantile. But the store didn't have what he needed, and he slid onto the seat with a heavy thump. Looked out the window and waved to his bride-to-be, searing her blonde hair and pretty face into his memory.
The whistle blew again. The train gave a lurch and pulled away from the station. He continued to wave until the car rounded the bend and Tess disappeared from sight. It was going to be a long night without her; not taking the evening meal with her. Not holding her in his arms in her pa's hayloft. Not tasting her sweet kisses.
"Damn that little weasel!" He shoved his hand into his coat pocket, pulled out a round object and held it up to the window. The gold band with the diamond chips was the reason he had to make the overnight trip to Denver, not settling Lucas Weston's accounts as he'd led Tess to believe.
"Err," he seethed, his thoughts traveling back to a crisp, autumn morning. He'd been helping Tess' uncle haul supplies from the depot to the clinic when he'd spotted an old-timer climbing down from a cart overflowing with goods in front of the mercantile, a burro braying at the reins. Among the assortment of household items, the man had baubles in every shape, size and color; vivid reds, blues and purples set in silver or gold.
When asked, the peddler claimed he’d gotten the gems at an estate sale in Philadelphia. A rich woman had passed, and with no one to leave her cache of jewels to, they were sold at a cheap price. James hadn’t believed the tale, figured the man had taken possession of the jewelry in an underhanded way. But he’d liked the band and had purchased it, because Tess wouldn't be expecting a ring, not after he'd stressed to her that money was tight. And because his conscience wouldn't allow him to marry her without giving her a ring.
Yesterday morning, he'd taken the band out of his pocket while thinking about the look of surprise on Tess' face when he gave it to her and had discovered the gold had tarnished. The old-timer had sold him a worthless piece of tin. Luckily, Tess' pa and Russ and Bear had agreed to support the lie he had to tell her so he could go to Denver and get her a new ring. Her pa had even told him which jeweler was the most trustworthy.
James closed his fist tight around the band, vowing if he ever saw the old-timer again he'd wallop the man good. Lying, scheming, causing Tess sadness and worry; this wasn't how he wanted to start his life with her.