Candy Canes and Cowboys

Available EXCLUSIVELY in Christmas Wishes & Cowboy Kisses, available 10-25-22. You’ll get this novella and 22 other novellas from your favorite clean/sweet cowboy authors. Preorder now!

Chapter One

In the middle of a field sat an old, rusted pickup truck. Grass had grown up around it, but from the road, rust and faded blue paint were visible.

Poppy Webster pulled her own old, beaten-up white sedan onto the gravel next to that field and stared at the truck. There was something almost artistic about it. If she were a photographer, she’d find a way to angle the shot so that it made a statement about dying ranches.

Shaking her head, she shifted the car back into drive. Speaking of dying ranches, she was here to photograph one. Not because she was some sort of professional photographer, but because it was her job.

“Snowy Canyon Ranch,” Poppy said to herself as she pulled back onto the highway.

She glanced over at her GPS screen and frowned. It said she was almost there.

“In point two miles, your destination will be on the right,” the pleasant robo-voice told her.

Point two miles. That meant it should be right up ahead, but she only saw tall grass and a long wooden fence. As she drove, she passed a large section of the fence that was broken.

“This can’t be right,” she said.

Maybe she should pull off to the side of the road and call her boss. No, the last thing she needed to do was bring attention to her insecurities. She had a hard enough time proving herself as the new location scout as it was.

Sighing, she flipped on her turn signal and tried to see the turnoff around the overgrown shrubbery. Was this even safe? Where was she?

Suddenly, a road appeared to her right. Or was it a driveway? Poppy couldn’t tell. She slammed on her brakes, glancing in the rearview mirror. Good thing nobody was behind her. She might have been rear-ended.

Moving slowly, she took the turn and was relieved to find it was a driveway, not a road. That meant a house should be not too far up the road. Any minute now…

Poppy had been working as a location scout for the film commission for a total of two months, not including the internship she’d done the previous summer. This was only the second week she’d been on her own after following one of the senior location scouts around to learn the ropes. She was determined to rock this assignment and show everyone she didn’t need any more training.

It would be fine. She’d pull up to the destination, take some pictures, get in her car, and head off to track down a hotel for the night. Tomorrow morning, she’d return home and upload the pictures of both locations. Her director would pick the first one. It was perfect. This one…wasn’t looking too good.

Poppy was so lost in her thoughts she almost missed the turnoff for the house. There was a small wooden sign with the word “house” scrawled on it and an arrow pointing to the left.

“Are they kidding with this?” she asked nobody in particular.

She slowed to a stop and grabbed her camera, rolling down her window and snapping a picture from the driver’s seat. She had a feeling this would come in handy for showing her boss exactly what they were dealing with at this particular property.

Sighing again, she flipped her turn signal on, checked the rearview mirror—still no traffic behind her, of course—and turned into the dirt drive that was surrounded by brush on either side.

She had to shut off that voice that told her this might not be safe. As the only female on the team, she had an uphill battle, proving to the female director that she could handle this job, even when it meant going to sketchy locations. If she even hinted that she was concerned, they’d just send one of the men and leave her back at the office, taking calls and helping track down photos from their online archive.

Suddenly, she emerged through the clearing, and the sight in front of her made her jaw drop. This was definitely not going to work.

Shaking her head that her boss hadn’t done a little more research than this, Poppy pulled to a stop right in the middle of the narrow dirt driveway. She put her car in park, not even bothering to shut it off, and grabbed her camera. She could zoom in and take a few pictures and get out of here. There was no way a production crew would want to do the work necessary to get this property in shape.

Through the camera’s viewfinder, the house didn’t look quite as bad. It actually had some charm to it. It was white with light blue shutters and a cozy front porch that was like something out of an old movie. Yes, it could stand a fresh coat of paint—or at the very least a good pressure wash—but it clearly had character.

Glancing around, confirming nobody was nearby, Poppy stepped a little closer. There were no cars in sight, so chances were nobody was around. She walked over to her car, opened the door, and got in, putting her foot on the brake so she could pull the keys from the ignition. Before she got out, though, she grabbed the pepper spray from her purse. A girl couldn’t be too careful.

Camera positioned in front of her face, she crept up the driveway, snapping photos as she went. The house told a story. It intrigued her. Why was it abandoned? Who had lived here?

Why was the lawn so well cared for?

The thought brought her to a halt, the camera lowering, as she looked around. Yes, someone was taking care of the lawn. The shrubbery near the house was in good shape, too. This house wasn’t abandoned. Someone was living here.

Suddenly, a strange sound pierced the silence. It was a high-pitched squeal accompanied by a deep rumble. She spun to face her car at the same time she identified the noise as belonging to a vehicle. A truck was lumbering toward her, moving as slowly as an overfed elephant.

She’d been busted. Her car was there, she was there, and she was clearly holding a camera. What choice did she have? She just had to tell the driver the truth about why she was here.

The truck shut off suddenly, but the sound still seemed to echo around her. Poppy sidled up next to her vehicle, standing awkwardly beside it. Should she put her camera behind her back? No. The person might assume it was something more dangerous than a camera. So, she held it protectively in front of her, staring with a smile at the truck’s windshield, which was impossible to see through.

The driver’s door opened, and she held her breath. Who would emerge? She braced herself for a confrontation while doing a quick personal inventory. The pepper spray was in her left pocket. She could get to it in a heartbeat.

Below the driver’s door, a boot slammed against the dirt, the bottom hem of a pair of blue jeans just visible there. And then she saw the cowboy hat, which rested atop a head of dark hair. The driver stepped around the door, closing it and turning to look at her.

That was when she saw the smile. And her heart melted.

Had she really been afraid of the driver? It seemed absurd now. The guy looked left, then right, as he started toward her, reaching up to take the hat off his head. He was only a few feet away when she realized she was gawking like some sort of weirdo.

“May I help you, ma’am?” he asked.

He stopped just in front of her, and she immediately forgot everything. Her name, why she was here, where she was from… It was just that perfect jawline and those brown eyes that seemed to see right into her soul.

“I’m…um…Poppy Webster,” she said, realizing she’d left her business cards in the car. Standard protocol was to hand one over. The state seal tended to act similar to a law enforcement badge. It verified that she was there on official government business.

Well, sort of.

“Poppy.” He smiled. “That’s an interesting name. Christian Snow.”

It took her longer than it should have to realize he’d given her his name. Christian Snow. Was that a real name?

Somehow, she managed to pull herself out of her thoughts. She stepped back and turned to look at the house behind her.

“Is this your property?” she asked.

“Sure is,” he said. “Well, sort of.”

Sort of? What did that mean?

She decided to just open up about why she was here to hopefully move this along. “I’m from the state film commission,” she said. “I was sent to take some pictures. There’s been…some interest from a production company that wants to shoot all their Christmas movies in one location. Preferably a place they can set up to look like it’s December when it isn’t.”

Somehow, she managed to get all that out before getting lost in those melty brown eyes again. But by then, his brow had furrowed and he was staring at the house behind her.

“You’re here to make a movie on my property?” he asked.

She definitely hadn’t explained that correctly. “No, not really,” she said. “We’re just taking pictures of a couple of places. Sugar Cookie Productions ultimately decides.”

“Sugar Cookie Productions.”

A smile tugged at both corners of his mouth. He was trying not to smile, not to show any signs of how amusing this was. Yeah, she got it. A strange woman showed up on your property talking about Christmas movies and sugar cookies. It wouldn’t make much sense to her, either.

“I’m a location scout,” she said. Had she said that already? She was pretty sure she had. “I shoot a few pictures, then we send them to the production company. They ultimately decide. If you—if the property owner agrees to all the terms, you’ll be paid a daily fee.”

“How long are we talking about?” he asked.

The question threw her for a second. It was a reasonable question, but someone else usually hammered all this out before she showed up. She wasn’t used to having these discussions.

“They shoot them all back-to-back.” She shifted the camera again and looked around. Squinting up at him was making her feel a little dizzy, and not just because she got breathless every time she looked at him. It was bright out here. “August to November, I’d say?”

His eyes widened. “Three months?”

“Maybe longer.” She shrugged. “I’ve never worked with Sugar Cookie Productions before.”

That made it sound like she worked with other production companies. She’d visited a few sets last summer while she was an intern, but she’d always been a guest. Everyone thought her job sounded glamorous, but her government-issued cubicle and state-issued sedan were about as far from Tinseltown as it got.

“And you say they pay a daily fee?” he asked.

Poppy nodded, shifting again. She felt so awkward, standing here in his driveway in the summer afternoon heat, the sun beating down on her. As nice as he was to look at, she was eager to finish the job and get to the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel room.

“There are some decisions that have to be made,” she said. “I just need to grab some pictures—”

“I’ll show you around,” he said, his words catching her by surprise. “Come on.” Without waiting for her response, he took off around her, heading straight to the house. Poppy hesitated only for a moment. She had to see where this gorgeous cowboy was taking her.

Want more? Be sure to preorder Christmas Wishes & Cowboy Kisses, available 10-25-22. Get this novella and 22 others for only 99 cents!

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