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Colorful strings of Christmas lights overflowed from the box. Melody was late for work, she'd said, and didn't have time to deliver the lights to the church secretary. That had been her pretense anyway, but Chance had no illusions about why she'd asked him to run the errand for her. It was the church.
She wanted him to be as near the church as possible. She had hopes that being here would fix "his problem"… if only it were that easy. He could have told her that seeing the church, being on the premises, wouldn't help him. Instead he'd done as Melody asked—it was easier that way. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about his problem.
And he didn't want to think about it either.
Pushing the dark thoughts aside he focused on delivering the lights. He'd get this done, then he'd head back to the ranch, back to the solitude he'd come home to find. Just him and his horse, and the land that had been in his family for six generations. He wasn't the first Turner to contemplate the state of his life riding in the sanctuary of the vast Turner family ranch. Sanctuary—not exactly something he deserved. Not when he couldn't see past the guilt eating at him.
Still, right now he needed what the solitude of the ranch offered him.
He wanted to ride across the pasture, just him and his horse…but, before he could saddle up, he had lights to deliver.
Hefting the box into his arms he strode toward the quaint white church he'd attended off and on for the better part of his youth. His boots crunched on the white rock and his spurs jangled as he headed down the sidewalk toward the office. The squeals of kids' laughter, shrill with excitement, rode the chilly November wind. Chance had just reached the door when, like bulls out of the chute, two small boys pounded around the edge of the building. Trailing behind them was a monster of a dog.
He tried to sidestep the first kid but he was already on a collision course, and the rest was a blur. One-two-three he was hit by the first kid, fighting for balance as the second kid tangled up with them, and the horse of a dog launched himself at the box of lights in Chance's arms. That was the kicker.
Boots up, head back, Chance sailed straight to the ground, landing like a hundred-and-eighty-pound sack of bad luck!
"Oh, my goodness," Lynn Perry gasped when she opened the door of the church office to find her twins and a long-legged cowboy sprawled on the grass. Rushing forward she grabbed Gavin by his belt and hauled him off Chance, setting him to the side where he stood giggling as she reached for Jack. The poor cowboy was on his own with Tiny, though. The big dog was all over him like butter on toast.
"Tiny, get off of him." Lynn grabbed the dog by his collar and tugged. Nothing happened. "Move, Tiny, you big bag of rocks. Come…on." The beautiful, slate-gray Catahoula had a pale buff face outlined in rich chestnut. The giant blinked his silver-blue eyes at her, clueless as to what he was doing wrong. After all, he was simply having a great time sitting on top of the new cowboy play-toy.
Looking less than pleased, Chance scowled as he pushed the dog off him.
"Are you all right?" Lynn asked, holding Tiny back when he flopped his tongue out and made a last-ditch effort to swipe the cowboy's face. "I'm so sorry," she said. The last thing she'd expected to find when she'd heard her kids squealing was Chance Turner, rodeo preacher, beneath the pileup of her twin boys and their dog. Poor man was covered in Christmas lights, too.
In the two years that she'd lived in Mule Hollow the handsome preacher had come home only recently to perform his cousin's wedding. But here he sat sprawled on the sidewalk, his serious green eyes looking through the curtain of Christmas lights hanging from his cowboy hat. Thankfully, those gorgeous eyes were crinkling around the edges as his lips turned up in a smile.
"We had a bit of a wreck," he drawled, instantly sending butterflies into flight in her chest.
Startled, she ignored the response. "A wreck?"
"Yeah, Momma," Gavin offered, grinning like an opossum. "We done run him down. Tiny didn't mean to do it."
Jack looked intently up at her. "It was an accident."
She had to smile and Chance did, too. His lips hitched to one side in that signature Turner grin he shared with his three cousins, a bit crooked with a hint of mischief. Her pulse skittered crazily when his eyes met hers in shared humor.
"Well." She swallowed hard, pushing Tiny out of the way and the frog in her throat, too. "I'm certainly glad it was intentional."
He wore a tan insulated jacket, cowboy-cut at the hips. Tall and lean with dark good looks and a strong jawline, he looked especially cute as he tugged the lights off him. At her words he cocked a dark brow.
"I mean, it wasn't intentional," she protested.
He chuckled as he rose to his feet in a smooth motion. "I know. I just got in their way when they came around the corner." He shook his head and lights slid to his shoulders—the boys giggled.
Mortified, she went into action and reached for the lights. "Here, let me help." She began untangling the strings of lights, without much success. "I still don't understand. How a big man like you ended up on the ground? I mean, they're little—" Her mouth was saying things her brain was trying to stop.
"Yup, I do tend to be clumsy. My momma used to say the Lord gave me two left feet when He passed them out."
"Oh, dear, I didn't mean to say that." If the man had a clumsy bone in his body her name was Reba McEntire!
He chuckled and the sound made her feel all warm and happy, like drinking hot cocoa—where in the world had her brain gone?
Gavin stepped up. "We just come around the corner, Momma, and boom, there he was." He used exuberant hand gestures to help explain the situation.
"We didn't mean to knock him down." Jack shook his dark head, his big blue eyes looking suddenly worried. "You all right, mister? Tiny's sorry."
Tiny was waltzing about them happily.
"I'm fine. But you two sure pack a punch. Are y'all football players? Or maybe your dog is." That won him a round of giggles.
A crimson tide of humiliation crept warmly up her cheeks when Chance's gaze locked with hers.
"I'm so sorry. I can't believe they knocked you off your feet. As big as you are—I mean. Well, you are a man." Most definitely a man, no doubt about that.
His eyes crimped around the edges and it seemed almost as though he could read her thoughts. Her cra-zy-unable-to-understand-them-herself thoughts! No mistake about it, despite not wanting to be, she was attracted to Chance Turner. Heart-thumpingly, breathlessly attracted. Okay, so she wasn't dead.
"Last time I looked in the mirror I was a man. But you've got two dynamos here. They took me out like pros with the help of their linebacker there."
Tiny sat on his haunches and cocked his big head as if he knew they were speaking about him.
She scanned the cowboy for damage. Though he was a bit rumpled there were no tears in his long-sleeved shirt, no rips in his jeans. "Are you hurt?" she asked anyway.
"My pride is stomped on, but I don't have any broken bones."
Lynn laughed with a mixture of relief and nervousness. "I guess for a former bull rider like you that is a little hard to swallow."
"You're a bull rider?" both boys gushed in unison. They loved bull riders. Something she wasn't thrilled about in the least. To Lynn, riding a bull was right up there with swimming in a shark tank.
"I was a bull rider," he said to the boys, then cocked his head slightly toward her. "Have we met?"
Lynn realized her mistake. "No, not exactly. I'm Lynn Perry. I saw you at Wyatt and Amanda's wedding but we weren't introduced. I heard though that you used to be a bull rider before you became a preacher. They need all the prayers they can get," she added, and realized she'd probably stepped on his toes a bit as he stiffened before taking the hand she held out to him.
She was instantly hit by the strength in his large hand as he wrapped it around hers. Warm pinpoints of awareness prickled across her skin at the touch of his calloused palm. In his eyes she saw a spark of recognition—as if he felt the same sensation—she pulled her hand from his as her pulse kicked up a notch.
"It's nice to meet you, Lynn. I'm Chance, but you already know that." If he was startled by her reaction, he hid it well, tugging a strand of lights from his shoulder as if he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. "I guess these lights are for the church? Melody, my sister-in-law, said I was to bring them here and give them to the secretary. Is that you?"
"That's me." Had Melody meant them for her? They hadn't discussed lights. "I didn't know we were expecting them though."
"Are they ours?" Gavin's eyes widened as he looked up at Chance in awe.
"We need some lights, for our house," Jack piped up, beaming at the assortment. "We don't got none do we, Momma?"
Any other time she would have corrected his English but not now. It had been a hard month getting moved from the shelter to the house she was renting. Settling in and making it a home had cost more than she'd planned, and with Christmas right around the corner money was tighter than ever. She'd been saving every penny she could over the last two years while they lived at No Place Like Home, the women's shelter from abuse. Most of her savings had gone toward rent, deposit and getting all the utilities turned on. Christmas lights hadn't been in the budget and yet the boys talked about them all the time. Trying not to dwell on what she couldn't give the boys, she focused on what she had accomplished and quickly moved past the tug of feeling sorry for herself.
She refused to give in to those types of feelings when they snuck up on her. Instead she smiled at the boys.
"Let's pick them up. We'll put them inside the office until I talk to Melody and find out what they're for."
Gavin and Jack whispered to each other, then stared up at Chance.
"You're a preacher?" Jack asked.
Chance hesitated before answering, which seemed odd to Lynn.
"I'm taking a break, but yes, I'm a rodeo preacher." Chance knelt and began rolling up one of the strands of lights into a ball.
Lynn did the same and each boy grabbed a strand of his own, imitating exactly the way Chance was coiling his.
"You boys are doing a great job." Chance flipped the overturned box upright and laid his coiled lights inside. The boys followed suit. They were all grins and eyes full of awe…she understood it. Despite her misgivings, she was attracted to this handsome cowboy. She dropped her lights into the box and gave herself a talking-to— she had no interest in men. Not yet. She'd come a long way since she'd escaped with her sons to the shelter over two years ago, but she hadn't come far enough along to think about bringing a man into the mix. She was building a life with her boys and that was all she cared about doing.
That was what she needed.
Gavin dropped another messy coil into the box, then put his hands on his hips and looked Chance straight in the eyes. "If you're a preacher we need one."
Jack nodded. "In the worstest of ways."
Lynn smiled at his word choice. Jack had heard Applegate Thornton, one of the more colorful older men, saying that at church on Sunday.
"Yeah, the worst," Gavin repeated. "Are you going to fill the puppet?"
Chance laughed in a rich baritone. "No, I'm not preaching right now. I'm taking some time off." The box was full and he picked it up. "Where would you like me to put this?"
She was startled by his answer. "In here." She led the way into the office and he followed her inside as the boys trailed in behind him. She couldn't remember them being so taken by a man before.
He set the box on the table and looked around the office. It was a cozy room with a dark oak desk that gleamed from the polish she applied to it every week. The double bookshelves were full of reference books for a new pastor, who would call this his office when he showed up.
She wondered what Chance thought about the room. He didn't quite fit here. He was too rugged, too masculine—not that a pastor couldn't be both those things. It was simply that rodeo pastor fit Chance Turner. "Thank you for bringing the Christmas lights to town," she said, not sure what else to say.
He swept his hat from his head, revealing jet-black hair with a hint of wave. "You're welcome." His gaze was strong and steady as it took her in, causing her pulse to drum faster—despite her will. There was a charge in the room between them that left her breathless. He broke the moment by letting his gaze drift about the office again.
Gathering her wits she took a deep, shaky breath. "It's a bit sad to me." She felt disconcerted by him but tried to seem unaffected. "It just seems wrong for this office not to belong to someone. Ever since Pastor Allen retired we've had a problem finding a pastor who feels called to fill our pulpit."
"That's what I've heard. The right man will come, though," he said, then added, "in God's time."
"Why cain't a rodeo preacher preach here?" Gavin asked, moving to stand right beside Chance so he could look straight up at him.
"They can if they aren't preaching a rodeo," Chance explained.
"Are you preaching a rodeo this week?" Jack asked. For nearly five he and his brother were pretty smart.
She didn't miss the troubled look that shadowed Chance's blue eyes. He shifted uncomfortably as if biding time while he searched for answers. Odd.
She decided to help him out. "Hey, guys, why don't y'all go back outside and play. I'll be out in just a minute. And don't run over any more visitors."