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Originally appeared in the e-book anthology All I Want for Christmas Is a Cowboy.
Jennifer Ryan, author of the New York Times bestselling The Hunted Series and the upcoming Montana Men Series, takes us to the very beginning in this Christmas prequel about two people who finally receive the one thing they've always wanted ... each other.
Though she is the woman of his dreams, Caleb Bowden knows his best friend's sister, Summer Turner, is off-limits. He won't cross that line. Summer shares a connection with Caleb she's never felt with anyone else, but the stubborn man refuses to turn their flirtatious friendship into something more. Summer will have to take matters into her own hands if she wants her cowboy for Christmas.
Jack whistled, signaling their attack. Caleb came out from cover firing. Jack did the same, twenty paces away. Summer took the high ground and stood atop a large boulder with at least a dozen snowballs at her feet. She launched one after the other at him and Jack as they advanced on her. Her laughter rang out in the forest, setting what few birds remained to flight. Jack laughed along with her and he joined in. The most fun he’d had in … he couldn’t remember when.
He and Jack pummeled her. He got her in the gut and one to the chest. Shock widened her eyes when the snow went down her sweater between her lovely breasts. She shook it out, but Jack didn’t relent and hit her in the top of the head with another barrage. She stood to lob another at him and Caleb tossed another, hitting her in the thigh. She slipped on the icy rock, stood tall to gain her balance, but her other foot hit an icy patch and she fell backward, arms wind milling in the air. She disappeared off the back of the rock yelling, “Ow,” when she hit the ground with a thump that stopped his heart.
“Summer,” he yelled, and ran for her. He beat Jack and fell to his knees beside her. Without a thought, he wrapped his arm around her back and pulled her up to his chest and held her close, examining the gash on her head at her hairline. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
She grabbed his shoulders to steady herself and gave him a tentative smile. “I’m okay. A branch caught me on the head when I fell.”
“You could have been really hurt.” He crushed her to his chest and held her close, giving his pounding heart a minute to settle.
Summer wrapped her arms around Caleb and set her chin on his shoulder, loving the feel of him so close. She looked up and caught Jack watching them with a strange look on his face. Caleb’s concern for her touched her deeply, and she couldn’t hide how that made her feel.
“You sure you’re okay?” Jack asked, not coming any closer.
“I’m good.” Being safe in Caleb’s arms made her feel better than good. She felt loved.
Jack gave her a nod.
Caleb stiffened and pulled away, holding her by the shoulders at arm’s length.
“Caleb, put some snow on that gash. It’ll stop the bleeding and take down any swelling. I’ll go up and check on the horses. Meet me up there when you’ve got her squared away.” Jack turned to leave, but looked back at her and smiled. “You were right about sticking to our traditions. The snowball fight was a lot of fun. You’ve gotten better.”
“I know. I won.”
Jack headed up the short hill, laughing. “Yeah, you did.”
Caleb’s head fell to her shoulder. “I thought you were really hurt.”
Surprised he didn’t comment about Jack seeing them in an embrace, she slid her fingers through his hair to the back of his head and held him to her. “It’s just a small scratch. Nothing to worry about.”
“Jack’ll kill me for putting a mark on you.”
“Not your fault. I slipped and fell.”
Caleb raised his head and met her gaze. “You’re bleeding. I can’t stand to see you hurt.”
The moment stretched and his eyes narrowed. He swore and crushed his mouth to hers. Something primal sparked inside both of them and they dove at each other, their lips meeting in a frenzied need denied far too long.
His hands remained gentle, cradling her face, but his lips took possession and consumed. His tongue slipped past her lips to taste and slide against hers. Her fingertips dug into his shoulders, pulling him closer.
Caleb broke the kiss first, holding her head between his two hands. He didn’t open his eyes right away, but gathered himself. They gulped in deep breaths and let them out on wispy gasps into the cold, crisp air.
He brushed a soft kiss on her forehead, her temple, and the small cut at her hairline. He pressed his forehead to hers and held her close. She covered his hands on both sides of her head with hers.
“Caleb, honey, it’s okay.”
“Jack’s going to kill me.”
“I think he knows there’s something between us.”
“He suspects, but if he caught me kissing you …”
“What? He wouldn’t be your friend because you like his sister?”
“What I feel for you goes far beyond like, sweetheart.”
“Then shouldn’t he be happy for us, that we’ve found something special together?”
Can’t Wait by Jennifer Ryan is a Christmas novella that doesn’t shy away from hard issues. Often, a holiday story, especially a novella length story, tends to be more positive, upbeat or humorous. This story has characters that are back from the war in Afghanistan and are suffering from nightmares and having trouble adjusting to civilian life. Caleb is not sure how to go on with life outside of a war zone. He is sleep deprived and just feeling lost in life. Summer is his breath of fresh air, even if he refuses to acknowledge it at first. Her brother served with him and they are best friends, and Caleb doesn’t want to risk the friendship even if Summer is what he needs to survive.
I really loved this heart-wrenching, contemporary holiday novella. The characters are believable and well-developed. I felt myself transported to the ranch at Christmas time, wishing I could help Caleb (and Summer’s brother, Jack) quit being so stubborn. Can’t Wait by Jennifer Ryan is the perfect read for a snowy holiday afternoon. It is a quick but engrossing read that shows you a man who bares his soul and the woman who is strong enough to take care of him.