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Cowboy Christmas RescueCowboy Christmas Rescue

Rescuing the Witness by Beth Cornelison 

Bullets are fired at a ranch wedding in Texas and the only witness to the unknown sniper's identity is wedding guest Kara Pearson. When the rifle turns to her, Kara runs for her life. Her only hope for survival? The man who broke her heart years ago. But Sheriff Brady McCall vows to protect Kara—and right old wrongs. 

Rescuing the Bride by Colleen Thompson 

After being jilted and having gunfire erupt at his wedding, bull rider turned rancher Nate Wheeler fears his pregnant bride is the intended target. But as he and April Redding try to track down the shooter, Nate uncovers the secret reason April refused to say "I do" at their ceremony.


"Solidly written characters and plentiful action make this two-in-one story an exciting tale." -- Melanie Bates, RT Book Reviews


She'd known seeing Brady today was inevitable. He was, after all, one of the groomsmen. She'd also known seeing him would be difficult. One didn't fall out of love with a man like Brady McCall easily. She'd just never imagined it would be this hard.

Kara Pearson pressed a hand to her stomach, trying to calm the swirl of acid gnawing at her and hoping to avoid his detection as she wended her way through the crowd at the wedding. Despite reasons to be "jolly," like Christmas being a week away, and her good friends' nuptials, Kara was finding it hard to feel festive this year. Not only had Christmases been difficult for her since her parents had died, but this year she was mourning her broken relationship with the man she'd hoped to marry.

"There are a couple seats on the back row," she said to Hannah Winslow, her "plus one" and moral support for the wedding.

Hannah gave her a withering glance. "The back row? Really? How long are you going to hide from Brady?"

"Until I die or until it doesn't feel like I'm being gored by a bull when I talk to him. Whichever comes first." She tipped her head toward the back corner seats and tugged on Hannah's sleeve. "Come on. Before someone else takes them."

The Wheeler Ranch bustled with more activity than Santa's workshop on Christmas Eve, especially in light of the last-minute change of venue for the wedding festivities. The water pipes in the restroom for the ranch lodge, where the ceremony and reception had been set to take place, had sprung a massive leak that morning and flooded the building.

At first light today, Kara had responded to a frantic text from her friend April, the bride, to help relocate chairs, flowers and sound equipment as water gushed under the bathroom door and soaked the carpet of the lodge.

A few crazy hours later, the reception had been moved to Sal's Diner, the only place available at the last minute in tiny Rusted Spur, Texas, that could accommodate the caterer. The ceremony itself had simply been shifted outside to the ranch yard. Thankfully, the Texas Panhandle was enjoying one of the unseasonably warm December days that Southern states boasted on occasion.

But the balmy warmth came with a price. The pleasant temperature was the result of an encroaching cold front, compacting all the warm air in its path as it bulldozed into Texas. A line of violent thunderstorms was creeping in from the west, and the ceremony was on the clock. The groom's mother, in a dither to finish before the storms hit, waved her hands, hurrying people to take their seats.

Around the ranch yard, guests assembled, many of whom she recognized as clients of the large-animal veterinary clinic where she worked as a vet's assistant. Near the front, musicians tuned up, and behind her at the barn, ranch hands decked out a pair of first-class cutting horses with black-and-white ribbons and satin drapes in preparation for the bridal couple's departure from the ceremony. "You okay?" Hannah asked.

"I've been better. The drama this morning didn't help my nervous stomach."

Hannah gave Kara's hand a quick squeeze. "You can do this. But…if you must toss your cookies, please remember these are new Kate Spade heels. Clearance sale or not, they still cost me my grocery money for the month."

Kara met her friend's crooked smile with her own. "I'll keep that in mind."

Hannah shoulder-bumped her. "Hey, you got this. And you look quite eye-catching, by the way."

Kara draped her coat and purse on the back of her chair, then tugged discreetly on the skirt of her red patterned maxi dress. It might be in the seventies now, but by the time the reception was over, the temperature was supposed to be closer to thirty-five. "Thanks. But eye-catching wasn't what I was going for. I was hoping for simple, trying to blend in. If April and Nate weren't such good friends, I'd probably be home now."

Closing her eyes, she mentally steeled herself and willed her queasy stomach to settle. She could have skipped the wedding, sure. But April Redding had been her friend since high school. More recently, Kara had grown close to the groom, Nate Wheeler, primarily because of the rodeo accident that had ended his bull-riding career. He claimed she'd saved his life—and maybe there was some truth to that—but she'd only been doing what rodeo clowns were supposed to do. She'd been well-trained for her weekend job as a bullfighter. She'd distracted the seventeen-hundred-pound beast that had crushed Nate while the medics swooped in to help the injured rider.

Kara heaved an agitated sigh. She'd rather go up against that injured and angry bull again than face Brady today. And didn't that beat all? Being more intimidated by the man you'd once planned to marry than a raging Brahman?

"Everything looks so pretty," Hannah said, her tone as bright as the white ribbons, twinkling Christmas lights and red poinsettias that graced the trellis backdrop to the makeshift altar. "You'd never know the whole setup was moved here three hours ago."

"Mmm-hmm." God bless her, Hannah was trying to keep her calm and upbeat.

"I hope they start soon, though. I'm not sure how much longer that storm will hold off." Hannah cast a wary eye toward the black clouds bearing down on the ranch. "It'd be a shame to see the decorations ruined."

Kara wished they'd begin soon as well, but not because of the decorations. She simply wanted the service over before—

"Kara?" Brady's deep, powerful voice sent a bittersweet pang to her core.

—before Brady spotted her.

Rats! Of course he'd seen her. He had a sixth sense when it came to her. A homing beacon or internal Kara-GPS. It had been kinda nice when they were dating. But now, almost ten months after their breakup, his uncanny knack for tracking her down, whether around town or at a crowded ranch wedding, was becoming annoying. Okay, maybe not so uncanny. He was the new sheriff of Trencher County, Texas, so he probably had all sorts of gizmos and training he could use to track her.

How was a girl supposed to heal her broken heart and move on when the object of her affection seemed to be everywhere she turned?

Taking a deep breath to quell the emotion that knotted in her throat, she faced the cowboy-turned-sheriff and tried not to let the sight of him in his tuxedo jacket, black Stetson and Tony Lama boots remind her of the wedding they'd never have.

"Hi, Brady." Damn the catch in her voice! She wanted him to believe she was fine in her new life without him, that she was moving on and had no regrets over what she'd thrown away when she left him. Kara squared her shoulders and pasted on a stiff grin. "Don't you look handsome!"

He tugged at the neck of his tuxedo shirt and gave her a lopsided smile that shot liquid heat to her core. "Glad you think so. This collar's choking me. I feel like a damn penguin." Lifting a shoulder in a dismissive shrug, he added, "Oh, well. Small price to pay to support Nate on his big day."

She nodded. "True. We can stand any discomfort for a short while when it means being there for our friends." Like engaging in awkwardly polite conversation with your ex when he corners you.

She introduced Hannah, her new neighbor, and he acknowledged her with a smile and a friendly greeting before shifting his gaze back to Kara and squatting beside her chair. "You look good. How have you been?"

"I'm fine." She grimaced internally at the inane and stilted conversation. Next they'd be talking about the weather.

"Good turnout today."

"Mmm-hmm. April and Nate are well-liked. I'm happy for them."

"Yeah. I'm glad people didn't let the change of location or threat of rain deter them." He nodded to the same ominous clouds Hannah had just remarked on.

Kara gave a wry laugh. Called it.

"Something funny?" he asked with a dented brow.

"We've resorted to talking about the weather?"

He opened his mouth as if to deny her claim, then clamped his lips shut with a scowl.

Ten months ago, this man had been half of her very being—her heart and soul and breath—and now they were reduced to banal formalities.

You have no one to blame but yourself. Breaking up with Brady was your choice. A fresh wave of guilt and remorse rolled through her belly. She knew her choice had been rooted in fear, but she couldn't see any way around the scars left by her father's death. Brady had made his choice—to take the appointment as sheriff—and she'd made hers. She couldn't, wouldn't bear the stress of knowing her boyfriend could be killed in the line of duty any day he reported to work.

"What I want to talk about is us. Later. Will you give me some time after the ceremony?" When she frowned, he added, "Please?"

"There's nothing to say. Nothing's changed."

"There's plenty to say, if you'll not shut me out."

"I—" The speakers screeched with feedback for a second, and the horses in a nearby pasture whinnied and tossed their manes… Then soft music flowed over the assembled guests, indicating the ceremony was starting.

"That's my cue." Brady squeezed her arm as he stood.

"Later, then?"

She flashed an uncommitted grin, which seemed to satisfy him, and watched with her heart in her throat as he strode down the center aisle to escort the mother of the groom to her chair.

"Wow. You didn't tell me how hot he was," Hannah said, fanning herself with her wedding program. "Black hair, blue eyes and a body straight out of a Hunks R Us catalog? Sweet."

Kara gave her friend a sidelong glance. "Not helping…"

"Sorry."

"I know he's gorgeous. And he's sweet and polite and witty—"

"The pig! No wonder you broke up with him!" Hannah gave her a teasing wink.

"Hannah!" she grated under her breath. "You're supposed to be supporting me today, not shoving me back into his arms. I told you why I left him. He took the interim sheriff position without any consideration of my feelings. And when I explained my concerns about the job, he dismissed my reasons as trivial. But my fears aren't trivial! My dad died in the line of duty."

She suppressed a shudder as the dark memories clawed at her. With a firm shake of her head, she shoved the bleak images down. "I don't want to live like my mother did, always wondering if her husband would come home safely at night, jumping every time the phone rang…and eventually having her worst fears realized." She swiped at the tears that bloomed in her eyes. "I can't do it."

Hannah rubbed her arm. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I didn't mean to minimize your pain. It just…seems like there should be a way for you two to work things out. If only—"

"Shh!" the lady behind them hissed.

Hannah scowled at the woman, but before she could retort, the processional music started. The first bridesmaids in their stunning red dresses started down the aisle. The assembled guests stood for the procession, and a pang of regret plucked her heart. April had given Kara the choice of being a bridesmaid or not, understanding her situation with Brady. Kara had declined, knowing that as part of the wedding party, she'd have been thrown together with Brady time and again throughout the wedding activities. On top of her anxiety and heartache seeing Brady today, her chest clenched with disappointment and guilt, knowing she'd let her friend down.

But perhaps more important, she'd let herself down, allowing her emotions to control her life and sway her choices. She didn't want her decisions going forward to be guided by her heartache over Brady or her grief over her father.

She was roused from her morose musings as the bride glided gracefully past her. April's auburn hair was swept up in an attractive hairdo, and she was a vision in her wedding dress with Christmas-red trim. The dress was a perfect choice, adding a Christmassy feel to the ceremony while the A-line shape discreetly covered the secret April had only shared with her closest friends and family. She was having Nate's baby.

April looked beautiful, but a nervous tic tugged at the corner of her friend's lips. Had Kara not known her as well as she did, she might not have noticed the stiff discomfort in her smile. Earlier in the week, April had expressed her dismay over how the invitation list and reception plans had grown, but she'd granted her future in-laws their requests in a spirit of cooperation and good will. Add to that the last-minute crisis of burst pipes and a hasty relocation for the whole affair, and it was no wonder April looked stressed.

Kara turned her attention to the makeshift altar, to gauge the groom's reaction to his bride. But rather than Nate's expression, her gaze locked with Brady's. His eyes held hers with an unwavering, soul-piercing intensity that sent a tremor to her core. His face reflected not joy for the wedding couple, but a deep sadness and longing. His eyes told her exactly where his thoughts had gone. Their own canceled wedding. Had she not broken up with him, they would have been married this month in a similar Christmas wedding. She would have been wearing ivory silk and carrying poinsettia blossoms and baby's breath.

When April reached the front row and took her place beside her groom, Brady, standing beside the best man, blinked hard and discreetly wiped the corner of his eye. Kara's heart jolted. Dear God, was her tough and fearless lawman tearing up? She knew he had a soft heart under his alpha-dog demeanor, but seeing this display of emotion from him, knowing she'd caused his hurt, rattled her.

"Be seated," the minister said.

A rumble of distant thunder rolled across the pastures to the west, and a nervous twitter rose from the congregation as the people took their seats.

The minister tipped his head to look toward the sky and said, "Yes, Lord. We see the storm coming, but we want to give this blessed union the ceremony it calls for."

The people chuckled, and Kara was relieved to see April crack a brighter smile.

But like the encroaching storm, Kara's gut roiled darkly. She couldn't keep her eyes from straying over and again to Brady. To his square-jawed profile, to his ebony hair curling slightly around the stiff collar of his tuxedo, and to the devastated look in his piercing blue eyes.

He tried to hide it. And to the casual observer, he probably seemed fine. But she knew this man like her own reflection. She'd broken his heart along with her own when she'd left him, and her guilt gnawed inside her with vicious teeth.

"Marriage is a joyful and sacred institution, not to be entered into lightly, but with reverence and discretion…" the minister said, and Kara curled her fingers in her lap.

She hadn't taken her breakup with Brady lightly, but every day she had new regrets. She missed him deeply. A constriction like a fist squeezing her lungs clamped Kara's chest. She couldn't breathe. A panic attack.

Damn it! She'd been prone to them since witnessing her father's death as a teenager. She'd had several in recent weeks. It didn't take a genius to know why, but she hated them all the same. Hated the feeling of powerlessness.

"E-excuse me," she gasped to Hannah, who gave her a curious frown.

"Kara?"

Waving a hand for Hannah to stay put, she rose quickly from her seat. Kara hurried down the center aisle, fleeing the ceremony, fleeing Brady's penetrating and heartbreaking gaze. She just needed a moment alone to put her head between her knees, to catch her breath and center herself.

More thunder rumbled, and to Kara, it sounded like mocking laughter. Foolish girl! You're a mess! Brady's better off without your drama and baggage.

Hot tears pricked her eyes as she hurried toward the nearby barn, famous in the county for the giant Texas flag painted on the roof. She stopped just inside the barn door where the bride and groom's horses were tethered, awaiting the couple's departure for the reception.

She stroked the nose of the dapple gray mare, bridal ribbons woven through her mane and tail, and struggled for a calming breath. The soft snuffles of the gentle horse nuzzling her hand soothed her frayed nerves. "Good girl," she whispered to the mare, feeling her pulse settle and the tightness in her lungs loosen.

A tingle of awareness pricked her neck, a sense that she was being watched, and she turned to glance back at the wedding party. Sure enough, Brady's gaze was locked on her, a frown darkening his expression. Her heart kicked like a mule, and she spun away.

 

Rescuing the Witness/Rescuing the Bride
November 2015
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
ISBN 978-0-373-27942-5

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