Christmas Texas Bride

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“I’m never havin’ S-E-X.”

              Cord Evans almost choked to death on his own spit. After he finished coughing, he glanced over at the little blond-headed girl who perched on his brand new fence. Carrie Anne Buchanan’s face was serious and her hazel eyes were intense. Since the last thing he wanted to do was get into the can of worms she’d just opened, he kept his mouth shut and went back to spreading the load of coarse sand in his new corral. He hoped she would get the hint and move onto a more appropriate subject. But he was learning that six-year-old little girls rarely did what you hoped they would.

              “Do you know what S-E-X is?” she asked.

              Cord knew. In his heyday, he’d been quite the ladies’ man. Every town he’d traveled to had been filled with women wanting to take a ride with a real-life rodeo cowboy. And he’d always been happy to oblige. He’d been to bed with so many women that he couldn’t remember their names or their faces. Or maybe he couldn’t remember because he’d always been drunk off his ass. When he’d finally given up the bottle and realized what a shit-fest he’d made of his life, sex was the last thing he worried about.

              He continued to smooth out the sand and tried to change the subject. “How was school today, Half Pint?”

              “Okay. We got to draw a picture and talk about what we did on Thanksgiving break and I drew a mag-nif-a-cent picture of a wedding and told everyone about Coach Murdoch and Autumn getting married and about how I got to drink Sprite from a champagne glass when we made a toast and how I catched the bouquet and now I gotta get married.” She paused for a quick breath. “And my friend Becky asked who I was gonna marry, but I didn’t tell her ’cause my grandma—God bless her soul—said that sometimes girls need to have their secrets. But I did tell Becky that it wasn’t gonna be a deadbeat like my daddy. ’Cause we Buchanan women are through with deadbeats.”

              He cringed. According to what he could piece together, Carrie Anne’s father had been a rodeo bum like Cord. And like Cord, he’d chosen horses and bulls over his wife and kid. It was a bad choice, one Cord regretted and wished he could fix. Unfortunately, as much as he might want to, he couldn’t go back. His first wife had divorced him long ago and was now happily remarried. And his only son was grown, married, and starting his own family. Cord could only hope that he’d be part of that family. Which was exactly why he’d moved here to Bliss, Texas.

              “I’m sorry about your daddy, Carrie Anne. Sometimes daddies are just lost and think that running from their responsibilities is the way to be found. But running just makes you tired and even more lost. Hopefully, your daddy will figure that out like I did.”

              Carrie Anne scrunched her face in thought. “Mama says that once a deadbeat always a deadbeat.” Which probably explained why Carrie Anne’s mother didn’t care for Cord. She was always polite, but more than once he’d caught her looking at him like he was a cockroach she’d like to crush under her boot heel. Thankfully, her daughter didn’t feel the same way. She flashed a bright smile. “But now that I know you, I think my mama’s wrong.”

              He winked at her. “Thank you for the vote of confidence, ma’am.” He went back to raking. “So what else did you do in school?”

“We had a snack and went to recess where Jonas Murphy chased me on the playground and told me that he’d marry me. That’s when he told me about S-E-X. He said that husbands and wives do it at night in the dark when all their kids are sleeping. He found out about it ’cause he woke up one time and heard his mama moaning like she was in pain. And when he woke up his big brother, his brother said, ‘They’re just havin’ S-E-X, stupid. Go back to sleep.’ And I figure if something made his mama moan out in pain that it can’t be fun, so that’s why I ain’t doin’ it never with my husband.” She paused and when he glanced over, she gave him another bright smile. “And I just wanted you to know.”

Cord continued raking. On one hand, he was relieved that she didn’t know the particulars of sex, but on the other, he was annoyed at Jonas and his big brother for tarnishing her innocence even as much as they had. Carrie Anne was a sweet little thing whom Cord had gotten quite attached to since her mother had started working for him. She followed him around like a little lost lamb, and damned if he didn’t feel protective of her.

“Jonas Murphy, huh?” he said. “And he’s in your class at school?”

“He’s six like me, but he’s not in Mrs. Trammel’s class. He’s in Miss Jules. I wish I had Miss Jules ’cause she’s nice. Mrs. Trammel is a meanie. She talked with Mama and told her that I need to get better at reading because I don’t sound out words I just make them up. I don’t make them up. I look at the pictures and tell a story, and that’s exactly what reading is. But now mama feels all bad ’cause she drugged me all over the countryside this summer and didn’t teach me enough phone-tics.”

He had to bite back his laughter. “Your mama shouldn’t feel bad. I’m sure you’ll figure out phonics soon enough. It’s pretty easy. Every letter has a sound. Once you remember each letter’s sound, you can sound out a word. C-A-T spells cat.” He said the word slower, enunciating each sound. “Do you hear the three different sounds that come together to form the word?”

“CCC-aaa-ttt,” she mimicked.

As he continued to rake, he gave her a few more examples of three-letter words and sounded them out for her. After she finished sounding out the word bat, there was a long pause. “So what does S-E-X spell?”

Cord mentally cussed himself for walking right into that trap. Thankfully, before he had to figure a way out of it, her mama showed up.

Christie Buchanan was a good-looking woman. She had pretty hazel eyes that were greener than her daughter’s and wheat-colored hair that she kept in a braid that hung all the way down to her butt. She was petite and couldn’t weigh much more than a hundred-pound sack of feed. But he’d come to realize that inside the small package was the heart of a tiger. And he had to confess that he was a little scared of her. Which was complete nonsense seeing how she was closer to his son’s age than his.

“What are you two up to?” She asked as she rested her arms on the fence next to Carrie Anne.

Before he could say a word, Carrie Anne jumped in. “Me and Cord was just talkin’ about S-E-X.”

He cringed. Oh boy. This wasn’t going to be good.

Christie’s eyes flashed fire, and he watched her hands grip the fence railing as if she was about to vault over it and rip him to shreds. Before she could, he held up a hand.

“Now, Christie, it’s not how it sounds.” He looked at Carrie Anne. “Why don’t you run into the barn and give Maple a treat? When I was talking with her this morning, she told me how much she was looking forward to seeing you after school.”

Carrie Anne sprang down from the fence, her tattered tennis shoes sinking into the thick sand. “See, Mama, I told you that horses can talk. They talk to Cord all the time. And he said when I become better at listening, they’ll talk to me too.” She looked at Cord as if he were the best thing since Cracker Jacks.

It had been a long time since he’d gotten that kind of adoration from a kid, and damned if it didn’t make him feel ten feet tall. He reached out and ruffled her hair. “Horses do like listeners, but they don’t mind talkers either. Just keep your voice low and soothing. And stay away from Raise-a-Ruckus. He’s not ready for polite company just yet.”

“Will do, Cord.” She raced out of the corral.

When she was gone, Christie gave Cord the same look she always gave him. A look that knocked him down from ten feet to about two . . . inches. “Well, explain.”

He leaned on the rake handle. “I was not talking about sex with Carrie Anne. In fact, I was trying my darnedest to avoid talking about it. But Carrie Anne isn’t the type of little girl who lets you avoid anything. She’s as headstrong as her mama.”

“I’m not headstrong.” Christie’s brow crinkled. “If she didn’t learn the word from you, where did she learn it?”

“From a little boy at her school.”

Christie’s eyes widened. “Oh my God.”

Cord held up a hand. “Now before you go postal. All he told her is it’s something a husband and wife do at night in the dark.” He figured he could leave out the moaning part. This conversation was uncomfortable enough as is. “His older brother was the one who spelled the word out for him. I figure he’s the one who needs a good talking to.”

“Talking? He needs his ears boxed. And I plan to go up to the school first thing tomorrow morning and make sure the principal does something about it.”

He leaned the rake against the fence. “Now I don’t know if I’d do that. I think that might be pretty embarrassing for the parents to be called in front of the principal. I think it would be better if you talked with Jonas Murphy’s mother yourself. I’m sure she’ll handle it from there.” 

He thought his solution was a pretty damned good one, but Christie didn’t agree. “Thank you for the advice, but Carrie Anne is my child and I’ll deal with the situation as I see fit.”

He wasn’t surprised by the prickly response. He was learning that Christie Buchanan was one prickly woman. She reminded him of the abused filly he’d helped train when he was working at a ranch outside of Amarillo. The horse hadn’t trusted any human to get too close. If you did, you got bit, kicked, or bucked off on your ass. It had taken Cord months of soothing talk and gentle handling to get the horse’s trust. But it had been worth it. Best damned horse he’d ever worked with.

He handled Christie the same way he’d handled the horse. He kept his distance and his voice low and calm. “Of course she’s your daughter. I was just trying to help.”

“I don’t need any help raising Carrie Anne. I can do it just fine on my own. I appreciate all you’ve done for me in the last couple months. I appreciate the job you gave me and I appreciate the loan to fix my car. But your kindness doesn’t give you any rights to my daughter.”

“Neither the job or the loan was a kindness,” he said. “It was purely selfishness. I desperately needed someone to help me with my website and social media, and I didn’t want to have to go pick her up if I needed her to come out here and take pictures of an old rodeo cowboy’s”—he held up his hands and did quotation marks—“’ranch life.’” He lowered his hands. “So I didn’t do you a favor. You did me one. But you’re right. I don’t have any business butting my nose into things that don’t concern me. Especially where Carrie Anne is concerned. As everyone knows, I’m the worst father this side of the Pecos.”

Her shoulders visibly relaxed and most of the fire left her eyes. “Believe me, you aren’t the worst. You and Ryker seem to have a good relationship.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it good.”

His son still hadn’t completely forgiven him for deserting him. And Cord hadn’t forgiven himself. Late at night, when he was lying on his blow-up mattress in the big ole empty ranch house he’d built, he thought about all those years he’d missed with his son. All the time he and Ryker could’ve shared as father and son. He wasn’t a crying man, but he’d shed more than a few tears for those lost years. And what broke his heart even more was that he knew his son had too.

“I should’ve been there for Ryker when he was growing up,” he said. “I should’ve been there to take him fishing and play catch . . . and just to talk to about important things like S-E-X.”

A smile broke out on Christie’s face. The only word that came to mind was dazzling. Christie had the kind of smile that lit up the world. It was a shame she didn’t use it more often.

“S-E-X.” She shook her head. “Good Lord. What’s that child going to come up with next?” She paused and looked at Cord with those big hazel eyes. “I’m sorry for assuming the worst. I should’ve known better.”

“Don’t ever apologize for watching out for your daughter. Carrie Anne is lucky to have a mama like you.”

“I don’t know about that. Sometimes I feel like all I do is get after her. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s been quite a handful lately. I realize that her acting out has to do with starting a new school in a new town, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. And now that my babysitter, Mrs. Miller, has gone to spend the holidays with her kids and grandkids, I have to bring Carrie Anne to the bakery with me. I’m sure Summer isn’t happy about having a six-year-old around.”

When Christie wasn’t helping him with social media, she worked at the Blissful Bakery in town. He thought she worked way too much, but he wasn’t about to tell her that.

“Summer would tell you if she had a problem with you bringing Carrie Anne to the bakery. My daughter-in-law isn’t the type to beat around the bush. But if you want, Carrie Anne could always hang out here. Besides the occasionally uncomfortable conversation topic, she doesn’t cause me any problems.”

She shook her head. “Thank you, but you’ve done enough for us. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.” She pulled a cellphone out of the back pocket of her jeans. “Right now, I need to get a couple pictures of you working on your corral for today’s posts.”

“You want to post a picture of me raking dirt?”

“Yes. The picture I took of you shoveling horse manure got over twenty thousand likes on Instagram and even more on Facebook.” When he looked shocked, she laughed. “I know. I don’t get it either. For some reason, people like to see you getting dirty. Or maybe they just like to see that famous folks work just as hard as they do. Of course, you being shirtless in the last picture probably helped. Women love a hot cowboy with a nice, hard bod—” She cut off, and her cheeks flushed pink.

He felt a little flushed himself. Christie thought he was a hot cowboy with a nice body? Before he could even digest that piece of information, she quickly hurried through the gate of the corral. “Well, we better get that picture. Just go back to raking and act like I’m not—” The high heels of her city boots sank into the deep sand, and she stumbled. Her cellphone flew out of her hands and hit the ground, but before she could, Cord reached out and caught her.

It had been a long time since he’d held a woman. Too long. The libido he’d put into hibernation woke up like a hungry bear ready to feast. And what it wanted to feast on was the woman in his arms. She smelled like a mixture of ripe strawberries and fresh baked bread right out of the oven. Which didn’t help his hunger. Nor did the soft breasts that pressed into his chest or the trim waist his hands could almost span. And when she lifted her head, he got lost in twin pastures of brilliant green and earthy brown that brought up thoughts of springtime and picnics . . . and rolling naked with a woman in fresh-cut grass.

“You were right, Cord!” Carrie Anne’s voice broke through his misbehaving thoughts. “Maple missed me.” He quickly released Christie and stepped back just as Carrie Anne came tearing into the corral.

“And Raise-a-Ruckus missed me too,” she crowed as she stopped between him and Christie. “When I went by his stall, he stuck out his head and grinned at me. Just like this.” She bared her teeth. When neither Cord or her mother said anything, she looked between them. “What’s wrong? Why are you both all red in the face? Are you still talking about S-E-X?”

They hadn’t been talking about it.

But now Cord sure as hell was thinking about it.