Love and Hope
This 3 book anthology includes C. J. Carmichael’s romantic novel, Devoted To Her Cowboy
When rodeo champion Blake Timber returns home as the star attraction of the Sheep River Rodeo Days he doesn’t expect to find his nerdy high school friend Shelby Turner looking so beautiful and so not nerdy. He also doesn’t expect to find his grandmother, frail and wearing a headscarf. When Grams reveals she has ovarian cancer, Blake is shocked. He’s thankful that Shelby, who works in his grandmother’s flower shop, has been there for her. But he wants to take over the reins and get his beloved Grams the best care money can buy. In spite of his best efforts, his well-intentioned plans are met with stubborn resistance from both women. Adding to his frustrations is his ex-girlfriend Kelli-Jo Calhoun, who is the Sheep River Days organizer. Unhappily married and with a son, she seems hell bent on roping him into something that could put everything he cares about at risk—especially his growing feelings for Shelby.
Proceeds from sales of Love and Hope are being donated to Ovarian Cancer Canada to aid in the research for treatment and cure of Ovarian Cancer.
I want to thank Joanna D'Angelo who invited me to this project and provided a guiding editorial hand throughout. And LeeAnn Lessard who initiated this project at Lachesis Publishing. Thanks as well to Brenda Gayle and Kayla Perrin for gracing this anthology with me. I’m honored to have worked with all of you. I’d also like to thank my late mother, Kay Daum, whose love of plants and flowers was my inspiration for Twigs & Sprigs.
When I had my hysterectomy over ten years ago, I shared a hospital room with a young woman who’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had to have her ovaries surgically removed. She spent the night crying and though I didn’t know her prognosis, I do know she was facing a future without children, at the very least. This book is for her, and for all the other women who are fighting.
Enjoy an Excerpt
Everything about the silhouette of the cowboy standing outside the front window of Twigs & Sprigs was familiar to Shelby Turner. The low set of his hat shading his eyes. The outline of his lanky body. Even his posture, self-assured but not cocky.
She fumbled the sprig of tansy she’d been about to add to a flower arrangement. She could imagine him collecting his thoughts—and emotions—as he prepared to enter the shop. Was he trying to squash his guilt for not coming sooner? If she were him, that’s what she’d be doing.
“Louise, your grandson is here. Shelby picked up the tansy and poked the stem into the floral foam at the bottom of a large glass vase.
Something in the back room clattered to the floor. “Darn it,” Louise muttered.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine. I just knocked over that box of ribbon we had delivered this morning.”
Shelby turned her attention back to the cowboy. “Blake’s here,” she repeated unnecessarily, just before the door chimes gave their welcoming tinkle.
Dark gray eyes, eyes she hadn’t seen in six years, regarded her. “Hello Shelby.” His voice went down like a shot of whiskey. Smooth and rich and laced with fire.
He’d been nineteen the last time she’d seen him face-to-face. Though still slender, he seemed much broader across the shoulders, stronger, more rugged. Blake Timber had the squarest jaw of any man she’d ever known. And a sexy divot right in the center of his chin. She lowered her gaze to the Western-style shirt sculpted to his chest and tucked into his trademark True Grit blue jeans. And there it was. The gold buckle he’d won, against all odds, at this year’s National Rodeo Finals in Vegas.
An amazing accomplishment. If he’d put his ambition ahead of his grandmother’s wellbeing, at least he had something to show for it.
“You did it, Blake. Congratulations.”
He blushed and nodded his thanks. “I wore this to show Grams. Is she here?”
Shelby was surprised her boss hadn’t come rushing out to greet her only grandson. They’d been expecting him, but not until tomorrow. Blake was this year’s guest of honor for their town’s Sheep River Days, which would begin with a Friday dance, followed on Saturday with a parade, a two-day rodeo, and a Sunday night barbecue.
“She was a minute ago. Let me go back and check.”
He stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Hold up . . . It’s been a long time, Shel.”
“That’s true.” She was very aware it was a man touching her now . . . Not a high school boy. She lifted her chin as he studied her hair, her clothes, before coming back to her eyes. No doubt he was cataloguing the changes. They’d been high school seniors when they’d last seen each other. Since then she’d learned to control the frizz in her honey-blonde curls, replaced her wire-framed glasses with contact lenses, and figured out what colors looked good with her light blue eyes and sun-kissed complexion.
“Damn, but you look good, Shel . . . You’re all grown up,” he grinned.
She wished she didn’t care what Blake thought of her, but she couldn’t deny the swell of pleasure at his words. He’d grown up too—from a cute, outgoing boy to a good-looking, self-assured man. But the changes in him came as no surprise. She’d followed every step of Blake’s rodeo career, purportedly for the benefit of Louise, but Shelby had been equally fascinated watching the YouTube videos of his rides, and reading the numerous articles and interviews with him.
After his big win in Las Vegas in November, he’d scored a national sponsor—True Grit jeans. And now his sexy butt was featured in magazine adverts for American Cowboy and Western Horseman.
Unfortunately, his success with the rodeo circuit meant that he hardly ever made it home to Sheep River. She checked the urge to chide him for neglecting his grandmother. Louise wasn’t the type to lay guilt-trips, so she shouldn’t either.
“I was surprised to hear you were working with Gram. You were so brainy. Always figured you’d go to college.”
“I did. Studied floral design at Mount Royal.” The college had been in Calgary, close enough to travel home for the weekend whenever she felt homesick.
“Well.” He eyed the arrangement she’d been working on. “Obviously you aced it.”
She shrugged off the compliment. What was a pretty floral arrangement compared to winning the saddle bronc event at the NRF?
“Shortly after I graduated, your grandmother offered me this job. I was thrilled to get it.”
“Whenever we Skype, she can never say enough nice things about you.”
Now it was Shelby’s turn to blush. Louise had made a few comments over the years implying Shelby would make a perfect match for her grandson. The older woman didn’t seem to realize Blake ran in different circles now. He could have his pick of beautiful women, a different one every night of the week, if he wanted.
And according to some of the gossip rags, he did.
“Your grandmother is very good to me.”
“I heard your folks moved to a bigger ranch around Missoula a few years ago?”
“My grandpa passed away, so they’re managing the ranch and looking after my grandmother.”
“Grams told me . . . I’m sorry about your grandpa.” He said shoving his hands in his pockets.
She recalled him as a teenager doing the same thing when he was uncomfortable or upset. “Thank you,” she said around a lump in her throat, meeting his solemn eyes with her own misty ones. She missed her grandfather. He’d taught her a lot about flowers and nature.
He cleared his throat. “So your parents left you alone on the Rocky Knoll?”
“It’ll always be home to me. Dad sold most of the cattle and working horses. Leased out all but the home quarter to our neighbors, the McCrumbs. But I’ve kept a few horses, including Nancy Drew. And my dog Bordeaux. And, of course, the barn cats.”
He smiled. “Good old Nancy Drew. The two of you made quite the pair.”
His expression grew serious then. Almost wistful. “We had some fun trail rides together didn’t we?”
The times she’d spent exploring the ranch and foothills with Blake were among the happiest of Shelby’s life. But she was surprised he even remembered. “Pretty tame compared to the bucking broncs you ride these days.”
“Those are work.” He leaned an arm on the counter that separated them. Met her gaze squarely. “I’d rather go trail-riding with a beautiful girl like you any day of the week.”
She felt like she was a teenager again, heart fluttering because the guy she liked had actually spoken to her. She fussed with the flower arrangement in front of her. She was too mature and confident to be turned inside out by a sexy cowboy from her past. Wasn’t she?
Besides, he ought to be thinking about his grandmother, first.
She made her voice firm. “Are you flirting with me, Blake Timber?”
“I’m serious, Shel. You got any other horses out at the Rocky Knoll? Maybe we could do some riding together while I’m in town.”
“And how long will that be?” Sheep River Days would be over in three days. August was a busy month in the rodeo world. Shelby had no doubt he’d be moving on to a new town and rodeo by next weekend.
He cocked an eyebrow. “As long as it takes for you to say yes.”
Her heart wanted to say it right then. But what was behind his offer? An interest in rekindling a childhood friendship—or something more?
“That’s very flattering, Blake, but I should see what’s keeping your grandmother. After all, she’s who you’re really here to see.”
He straightened. Looked amused. “I do want to see Grams. But why are you stalling? Got a jealous boyfriend or something?”
“No boyfriend, jealous or otherwise. Just like to look before I leap.”
“That doesn’t sound like the girl who used to ride Nancy Drew with such confidence.”
“We’re not kids anymore, Blake.” She took a step back, putting both a physical and an emotional distance between them. “Hang on a minute while I get Louise.”
* * *
Shelby found Louise in the far corner of the stock room, sitting on a stool with her hands clasped in her lap. At sixty-six years of age, Louise was a hardworking, talented businesswoman, who ate well and exercised regularly.
Louise’s healthy lifestyle made her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, three months ago, all the more difficult to accept. But she’d handled her surgery and first two cycles of chemo with surprising resiliency, losing all her hair, but none of her gumption.
“Are you feeling okay?” Shelby asked. “Blake’s here.”
“Yes—yes.” She waved away Shelby’s concern. “I’m steeling myself.”
Louise put her hands to the beautiful silk head wrap she was wearing. “He hasn’t seen me since I lost all my hair.”
“You look as lovely as ever,” Shelby assured her, surprised at Louise’s lack of confidence in her appearance. Louise was one of the least vain women she knew.
“That isn’t the problem.” Louise took a deep breath. “Blake doesn’t know I have cancer.”
“Whoa! Are you serious?”
“So many doors opened for him after his big win in Vegas. I didn’t want to slow him down.”
“Oh my God, Louise.” Shelby’s anger toward Blake melted away. He hadn’t known. How was he going to react when he found out his grandmother had been keeping such a big secret?
Now she understood why Louise was hanging back.
But putting off the moment of truth wouldn’t help anything.
Shelby gave Louise’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Go. Tell him. He loves you. He’ll understand.”
“I hope so.” Louise’s eyes, without benefit of eyelashes or eyebrows to frame them, gave her an atypical appearance of vulnerability.
A moment later she squared her shoulders. The old Louise was back. “I’m acting like a silly old woman, aren’t I?” She raised her voice. “I’m coming, Blake—”
At that same moment, Blake burst into the room. “What the heck is going on here? Where’s my—”
He stopped short when he saw Louise.
At first he simply looked puzzled as he took in her altered appearance. Louise had lost about twenty-five pounds along with her hair.
She used the few seconds of silence to her advantage, going to her grandson, reaching up to cup his cheeks, and giving him a kiss. “Welcome home, my boy. I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks Grams.” He gave her a hug, then pulled back and studied her again.
Shelby could tell the exact moment he figured it out. As the lines on his forehead disappeared, his eyes widened and his mouth hardened.
“What’s wrong, Gram?”
Louise took a deep breath.
Blake’s gaze shifted to Shelby. “She has cancer, doesn’t she?”
After a moment, Shelby nodded. “Ovarian cancer.”
In the stunned silence that followed, Louise was the first to speak. “The good news is we caught it early. I’ve already had my first two rounds of chemo and have tolerated it quite well.”
“When?” Blake’s voice sounded dry and raspy, as if he’d gone a day in the desert without water. “When did you find out you had cancer?”
Shelby wished she could quietly exit and leave them to talk. Unfortunately Blake was standing between her and the door. So instead, she picked up the box Louise had knocked over earlier and began checking the spools of ribbon against the packing slip.
Try as she might, however, she couldn’t block out their conversation.
“I first noticed discomfort in my pelvic area during a yoga class. I mentioned it at my annual check-up in April. By the beginning of May I had my diagnosis.”
“So when we Skyped on Mother’s Day—you already knew?”
“It wasn’t the sort of news you want to tell someone on Skype.”
“Then why not ask me to come home?”
“Blake if you want to make it to Nationals again this year—”
“Screw Nationals! I should have been here for you.”
“I wasn’t alone. I had my good friends.” She shot a grateful smile at Shelby. “And my doctor found me an excellent surgeon.”
Blake’s face paled. “You had surgery?”
“Yes. They think they got all of the cancer. Like I told you, we caught it early.”
“What if it hadn’t gone well?” Blake took off his hat and gripped the brim until his knuckles went white.
“I’m serious Gram. What if something had gone wrong during your surgery? What if I’d gotten a call while I was in Wyoming, or Colorado, or some other place a thousand miles from here, that my Grandma was gone? How do you think I would have felt? Not to have seen you . . . ” As his voice trailed off, he turned his back on them.
Louise gave Shelby an anguished look, then placed her hands on her grandson’s back. “That didn’t happen, though. I pulled through. I’m strong. You don’t need to worry.”
Before Blake could respond, the door chimes sounded and a woman’s voice rang out through the shop, reaching all the way to the back room.
“Yoo-hoo! Blake? You in here, cowboy?”
Shelby recognized the voice right away. She and Blake had gone to school with Kelli-Jo Calhoun, nee Abbott. Back then Blake and Kelli-Jo had been hot-and-heavy. But right after graduation Blake had gotten his pro card and left town, following his rodeo dreams.
After that, Kelli-Jo had lost no time hooking up with Harvey Calhoun, a rich oil man from Calgary in his mid-thirties. Harvey had just bought himself two thousand acres of the prettiest land in the county—not far from the Rocky Knoll.
The two of them had a son, and then set about building an expansive ranch where Harvey could entertain and impress his various business contacts.
For years Kelli-Jo had dedicated herself into making The Lazy C Ranch a picture-perfect show place. She’d finished all the renovations and decorating last year—which had prompted her to volunteer to organize the town’s Sheep River Days.
It was she who had invited Blake Timber to be the guest of honor.
“Blake? Louise?” Kelli-Jo’s voice sounded closer. A moment later she was at the open door to the stock room. “Whatever are you all doing back here?”
Louise gave her grandson’s back a final pat. “Just catching up on news. But we’ll talk more later. I’m sure you have lots of business stuff to go over for the parade and the rodeo.”
Blake’s mouth was set stubbornly, but he gave his grandmother a quick nod and a, you-bet-we’ll-talk-more- later look, before extending a hand to Kelli-Jo. “Nice to see you again.”
Kelli-Jo looked as if she’d spent the last four hours in a beauty salon. Everything was perfect. Her sleekly styled strawberry blonde hair, fancy manicure, and sultry eye make-up. She was wearing the best cowgirl duds and accessories money could buy. From her turquoise-colored suede boots, to her clunky turquoise and silver necklace, jangly bracelets and earrings, every detail of her outfit struck the perfect note.
The only thing missing was her mega-carat wedding band. That’s odd, Shelby wondered. Its huge size made it impossible to miss.
Kelli-Jo ignored Blake’s hand and wrapped her arms around him instead. “Feels like just yesterday we were all in school together.” She flashed a cooler version of her smile at Louise, and then an almost frosty one at Shelby.
Linking her arm around Blake’s she asked, “Mind if I steal this guy away for an hour or two? I promise to bring him back when I’m done with him.”
“You make it sound like you’re planning to eat him for lunch, Kelli-Jo.” Louise did not look impressed.
Kelli-Jo giggled and snuggled closer to Blake. “Oh, Louise. You’re such a tease. But lunch is a good idea. How about it cowboy? Can I buy you a burger at the Crazyweed?”