The Forest Ranger's Christmas

A Small-Town Christmas

Josie Rushton’s in Camlin for the holidays—but not for long. She has just a few weeks to persuade her ailing grandfather to leave his small Nevada town and move closer to her Las Vegas home. But after seventy-five happy years in his house, Gramps isn’t going anywhere. Josie can’t imagine what’s so great about Camlin. When she meets single dad and forest ranger Clint Hamilton, she quickly begins to see the appeal. Clint shows Josie the joys of living in a close-knit community, especially at Christmas. She’s soon falling for the town, Clint’s charm and his adorable daughter. Can Clint convince her that love and family are the best gifts of all?

A flush warmed Josie’s face.

Clint took a sip of sparkling cider, but he didn’t meet her eyes. Since they’d confided so much to each other at the hospital, he hadn’t been the same. It was as though she couldn’t reach him anymore.

Oh, why pretend she didn’t understand? She’d be leaving soon. Going home to Vegas. She had a challenging job, but no one to share it with. As much as she’d like to stay here in Camlin, she couldn’t. She had to earn a living, and help provide for Gramps.

But leaving Camlin wouldn’t be easy.

Their meal ended all too soon. Gramps sat in his recliner beside the Christmas tree, with Gracie in his lap. Wearing expectant grins, they cast a conspiratorial gaze at Josie and Clint.

“What are you two up to?” Clint asked.

Gramps pointed over their heads. In unison, they looked up. A sprig of mistletoe hung directly above, tied with red curling ribbon.

“Now you have to kiss her, Daddy,” Gracie ordered with a laugh.

Books by Leigh Bale

Love Inspired

The Healing Place

The Forever Family

The Road to Forgiveness

The Forest Ranger’s Promise

The Forest Ranger’s Husband

The Forest Ranger’s Child

Falling for the Forest Ranger

Healing the Forest Ranger

The Forest Ranger’s Return

The Forest Ranger’s Christmas

LEIGH BALE

is an award-winning, multipublished novelist who won a
prestigious RWA Golden Heart in 2006. More recently, she was a finalist for the
Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. She is the daughter of a retired U.S. forest
ranger, holds a B.A. in history with honors and loves grandkids, spending time
with family, weeding the garden with her dog Sophie and watching the little
sagebrush lizards that live in her rock flower beds.

Married in 1981 to the love of her life, Leigh and her
professor husband now have two wonderful children and two grandchildren. But
life has not always been rosy. In 1996, Leigh’s seven-year-old daughter was
diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In the dark years that followed, God
never abandoned them. After six surgeries, 284 stitches, a year of chemo and a
myriad of other difficulties, Leigh’s daughter is now a grown woman and
considered less than 1 percent survivorship in the world for her type of tumor.
Life is good!

Truly the Lord has blessed Leigh’s family. She now transfers
the love and faith she’s known into the characters of her stories. Readers who
have their own trials can find respite within the uplifting message of Leigh’s
books. You can reach Leigh at P.O. Box 61381, Reno, Nevada 89506, or visit her
website at
www.leighbale.com
.

THE FOREST RANGER’S CHRISTMAS

Leigh Bale

Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.

—Psalms
37:7

This book is dedicated to Rose and Angie,
two bright lights in my life.

Many thanks to Mike Fritz, RPh, for taking the time
to answer my questions about pharmacies. And
thanks also to Julie Muhle for her medical expertise.

Chapter One

J
ocelyn Rushton decreased her speed and switched on the windshield wipers as she entered the sleepy mining town of Camlin, Nevada. Home for the holidays. Or at least the only place on earth Josie had ever considered a real home.

As she turned down Garson Way, a siren sounded behind her. She peered into her rearview mirror at the squad car coming up behind her. Great! Just great. A speeding ticket to welcome her home.

The deep-throated noise escalated to a shrill whine. She slowed her compact car, the tires slicing through furrows of slush covering the black asphalt. Inching her way over into a drift of snow, she hoped she didn’t get stuck in the frozen mud.

Red lights flashed and she shook her head. She hadn’t been speeding. Not on these slick roads. Maybe she had a taillight out. Maybe...

The patrol car zipped past and Josie expelled a breath of relief. Then her mind went wild as she thought about where the police car might be headed. Her grandfather’s house was on this street. He’d lived here most of his life. A cul-de-sac, with no outlet. What if...?

A blaze of panic burned through her chest. Glancing in her rearview mirror again, Josie pulled her car back onto the icy pavement and drove steadily toward Gramps’s house. Forcing herself not to speed. Anxious to see Gramps and know that he was all right.

Rows of quaint little homes with spacious yards covered in pristine snow flashed past her window. Fresh wreaths of pine boughs and holly decorated almost every door front. The late afternoon sunlight illuminated strings of red, yellow and green Christmas bulbs hanging along each roof.

Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel as she forced herself to remain calm. To take deep, even breaths. In these slippery conditions, it’d do no good if she ended up sliding into the shallow irrigation ditch bordering the narrow road.

Finally she saw Gramps’s white frame house. A bevy of ice-crusted vehicles sat parked out front. The squad car dominated the scene, perched at an odd angle in the driveway. It blocked a green Forest Service truck.

Josie pulled up in front of the house. Two elderly women wearing heavy coats scurried through the snow toward their cars. The siren still blared and they clapped their hands over their ears to shut out the deafening noise. No doubt they were eager to vacate the premises, now that the police officer was here.

Hearing the siren, neighbors came outside and perched on their front porches like gawking fowl. They crossed their arms against the chilly temperature and crinkled their noses at all the commotion.

Josie killed the engine and clicked off her seat belt. She scanned the area for an ambulance, then remembered this tiny town didn’t have one. Just a volunteer fire department, with the nearest hospital sixty-eight miles away in Bridgeton. One more reason for her to worry about Gramps. If he ever needed quick medical care, he could be in real trouble. And who would drive him to Bridgeton? With her living ten hours away in Las Vegas, Gramps was all alone. Something she hoped to change very soon.

She threw her car door open wide. Stepping out in her tennis shoes, she skirted a pile of slushy snow. She glanced at the roof of the two-story house, searching for smoke or some sign of a break-in. Except for a cluster of missing shingles on the west side, nothing looked out of place. No obvious reason that would warrant a cop.

Maybe Gramps had collapsed.

Lengthening her stride, she hurried toward the driveway. Her gaze scanned the yard...and screeched to a halt when she saw Gramps. In a flash, she took in his ruddy cheeks, lumpy coat, orange knit cap and black floppy galoshes. At the age of seventy-eight, he seemed perfectly strong and healthy. He stood beside another tall, muscular man Josie immediately recognized from her previous visits to her grandparents’ home.

Clint Hamilton. The local forest ranger.

His drab olive-colored shirt, spruce-green pants and bronze shield lent him an air of authority. Even his broad shoulders couldn’t withstand this intense cold. He jerked a heavy coat out of his truck and pulled it on, zipping it up to his chin. He towered over Gramps and the policeman, his muscular legs planted firmly beneath him. As he lifted his head and stepped closer to Gramps, he dominated the scene, strong and in control. But what was he doing here? And what did he want with her grandfather?

Josie’s gaze shifted to Officer Tim Wilkins, one of her childhood friends. Another one of her failed relationships. If you could call a school dance at the age of sixteen a failure. They’d gone out twice, but she’d broken it off when he’d asked her to go steady. As a teenager, she’d tried not to hurt Tim’s feelings, but she had. Her parents’ nasty divorce, followed by her father’s death a year later, had made her wary of falling in love. She’d promised herself she’d never get married if there was any chance it wouldn’t last. If she didn’t involve her heart, she wouldn’t get hurt. It was that simple. Yet since that time, she’d been engaged twice. Her two ex-fiancés made her realize those relationships had been based on something other than love and respect. She’d wanted to be engaged, to feel normal and safe.

So she wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Shaking off those somber thoughts, Josie refocused on the present. Tim was a grown man now with a family of his own, and she hoped he wasn’t the sort to hold a grudge. In comparison to Clint, he looked rather silly, with his officer’s hat perched at an odd slant and his hands resting on his thin hips.

Slogging through the foot-deep snow, Josie made a mental note to shovel it off the sidewalk before she unloaded her suitcase from her car. Her breath puffed on the air with each exhalation. As she bustled up the path, she surveyed Gramps’s house one more time. A single strand of colored lights hung from a protrusion of rusted nails that edged the front porch. A skimpy showing compared to the rolls of bulbs Gramps normally stapled to the house every December.

This wouldn’t do. Not at all. Josie had never hung lights on a house before, but she would learn how. And soon. No matter what, she wanted this to be the best Christmas ever. Because it might be their last here in Camlin.

A rivulet of meltwater ran from the gutters. Her gaze scanned the peeling paint and missing shingles. Without repairs, the moisture might soon invade the interior. Further proof that Gramps could no longer keep up the place on his own. He needed help. He needed her. She couldn’t stand the thought of him collapsing on the floor of his house and lying there for days on end until someone found and helped him. But asking a man like Frank Rushton to leave his home and move with her to Vegas might ruin Christmas. Regardless, she had to do it. Because as much as she loved her job, she was tired of being on her own. If Gramps lived nearby, she could check in on him often. Neither of them would be alone anymore. It’d be good for Gramps. And good for her, too.

She hoped.

She shielded her eyes against the blare of red lights emanating from the squad car like the beacon of a lighthouse. The men were talking and gesturing, but she couldn’t make out their words over the piercing squeal of the siren. It was so like Tim to leave it on. Even as a kid, he’d been loud and obnoxious. Always hanging around when Josie was in town to visit her grandparents.

She sighed inwardly, admitting she wasn’t very good at relationships.

Tim’s voice escalated as he shook a stern finger beneath Gramps’s nose. When he reached to unsnap the leather tab over his holster, Josie’s breath hitched in her throat.

She broke into a run.

“Officer Wilkins, I didn’t expect you to come over here today.” The forest ranger’s voice boomed over the keening howl.

“Just helping to keep the peace,” Tim said.

Ha! Not with all the racket his squad car was making.

Clint jutted his chin toward the neon orb flashing on top of the black-and-white vehicle, his brow furrowed in frustration. “Can you please turn off the lights and siren on your squad car? I can’t hear what everyone’s saying. And no guns will be necessary.”

Tim’s eyes crinkled in disappointment as he yelled his response. “Sorry about that.”

He trotted back to his police car, puffing for breath as he passed Josie along the way.

“Hi there, Josie. Good to see you home,” he shouted with a wave.

She nodded, too distracted to speak right now, her composure rattled. Her father had grown up in Camlin, where everyone knew almost everyone else, including a granddaughter who’d been visiting here all her life. That had good points and bad. The good was that most people here cared about her. The bad was that everyone knew her personal business, no matter how hard she tried to keep it private.

It didn’t help that Gramps had a penchant for gossip.

He gestured to the side, where at least two dozen fir and spruce trees leaned against the chain-link fence that edged his driveway and bordered his front lawn. “I haven’t done anything wrong, Ranger. I just cut fresh Christmas trees like I’ve done every year of my life since long before you was even a gleam in your daddy’s eyes.”

Trees? This was about Christmas trees?

The harsh sound of the siren died abruptly, and everyone in the yard exhaled with relief. Finally Josie could hear herself think.

“Gramps! What’s going on?” She squinted at her grandfather until the red orb on the police car was shut off , then she blinked.

“Why, Josie. I didn’t expect to see you here.” Gramps engulfed her in a tight bear hug.

The scents of peppermint and arthritis cream assailed her nostrils. When Gramps released her, she drew back and gazed at his gruff face, looking for signs of distress. He wasn’t a young man anymore, but he appeared strong, his cheeks flushed from the cold winter air. His steely gray eyes twinkled with joy and she couldn’t help smiling back. How she loved him. How glad she was to see him again.

“Remember I called you last week to tell you I was driving in today?” she said.

He blinked and gave her an absentminded frown. “Oh, yeah. That’s right. When did you get into town?”

“Just now. Are you okay?”

He waved a grizzled hand in the air. “Sure, I’m fine. How was your drive? Did you get caught in any snowstorms along the way?”

“No, but I—”

“How long can you stay?”

“About five weeks. But I want to talk—”

“So long? Why, that’s wonderful news. We’ll have so much fun. But we better go shopping. Ma always made a big ham for Christmas dinner, but maybe you’d like something else this year. What about prime rib? We can have whatever you like, as long as there’s pumpkin pie and homemade rolls. You know your grandma made the best—”

“Ahem.” The ranger cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt your reunion, Frank. But we’ve got to clear this matter up.”

Josie gazed at Clint, recalling what Grandma had once told her about the man. A single father, with a cute little girl he was raising. Tall and well-built, with a blunt chin, short brown hair, and a dazzling smile that sucked the breath right out of her lungs. When he smiled, that is. But he wasn’t smiling right now.

From her peripheral vision, Josie was conscious of Officer Wilkins joining them again. Without the wail of the siren, they automatically lowered their voices to a rational level.

“Can you tell me what this is about?” she asked, trying to calm her jangled nerves.

“Honey, you remember Clint Hamilton, the local forest ranger,” Gramps said.

How could she forget? They hadn’t said more than a handful of words to each other in the more than three years since he’d moved to town, but Josie would have to be a saint not to notice his slightly crooked smile and dark good looks. And she was definitely no saint. Not in this life, anyway. But since her broken engagement with Edward had been a mere eight months earlier, she wasn’t interested in another romance. At least, that’s what she told herself.

“Clint and his little daughter, Gracie, are members of my church congregation,” Gramps continued. “You’ve met them a few times over the past years. They were at Ma’s funeral back in September.”

Ma. The affectionate name Gramps used to refer to Viola, his wife of fifty-seven years. When she’d died three months earlier, something had changed inside Josie. She loved her job as a pharmacist, but suddenly work wasn’t enough anymore. She wanted more, but wasn’t sure what that might be. And so she’d decided to take a break and figure things out. Already, being here made her feel lighter inside. As though her presence really mattered. To Gramps, anyway.

She nodded at Clint. He’d been one of the pallbearers for Grandma’s casket. And following the service, he’d shaken Josie’s hand and offered sincere condolences for her loss. She’d looked into his caring eyes and felt her sorrow melt away. Then he’d stepped aside and she’d been blown back to her lonely reality.

“Clint, you remember my granddaughter, Jocelyn Rushton.” Gramps bumped the ranger with his elbow and gave a sly grin. “She’s sure pretty, isn’t she? And a good cook and seamstress, too. Viola taught her.”

Clint’s gaze darted Josie’s way. “Yeah, glad to see you again.”

Momentarily distracted, Clint stuck out a hand for her to shake. While her cheeks heated up like road flares, he shot her a guarded look, his warm brown eyes sweeping across her face.

“Hi.” Her voice sounded small and uncertain, not at all like the professional woman she tried so hard to portray. Then she realized she was staring. Oddly fascinated by the hint of stubble across his masculine chin. “Can you tell me what this is about?”

“Your grandfather is in a lot of trouble, Josie.” Stepping near, Tim hitched up his waistband. The pepper spray, ammunition pouches, flashlight and radio on his police belt jangled.

Clint interceded. “I’m terribly sorry for all this trouble, Frank, but I’ve had a report of stolen Christmas trees.”

Josie’s gaze darted over to the row of spruce and fir. She didn’t understand what was going on yet, but a twinge of alarm tugged at her stomach and she couldn’t help feeling as protective as a mother grizzly. This was Gramps, after all. Not a stranger to these men. And certainly not a criminal.

“My grandfather would never steal anything,” she said.

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