A Helluva Holiday

Nate Wolfe places the Lost and Found, Inc. team’s Christmas reunion on hold when a Navy buddy needs help.

Clay Hudson and Carol Penny have loved each other since high school. Time and circumstances placed them far apart over the years but now they’re back home, during the worst cold weather Eden Rock, Texas has ever experienced. Clay’s a successful vet and Carol’s just been fired from her TV anchor job. She’s come home to help her sister sell the family horse ranch, but when she discovers the buyer is actually a Mexican drug lord, she changes her mind.
 
The cartel won’t take no for an answer, so Clay steps in to protect Carol, and calls in his old friend from Lost and Found, Inc. The team will fight freezing weather, a freak snowstorm, and a ruthless killer to discover why this piece of property so important. Can the Lost and Found team unravel this puzzle in time to be home for the holiday? Will Carol and Clay learn old love can be new again?


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Chapter 1

Nate Wolfe hung up the phone, texted the rest of his team, and then went upstairs in search of his wife. Kay was standing in front of the fireplace. Their son, Kevin, watched from his playpen staring wide eyed as his mother put sparkly, bright colored objects on the mantel. Nate crossed to her, gently sliding his hands around her waist.

She leaned back against his chest. “Why do I think you have bad news?”

“Two more of our Lost and Found family members won’t be here for the reunion.”

“Jake and Holly Donovan aren’t coming.”

“Not this year; his aunt and her husband are joining them at the ranch.”

“That’s too bad.” Kay turned in his arms. “I didn’t expect Ty and Ana to fly all the way from Colombia but…” Kay left her sentence unfinished.

“They will be with us in spirit. The Christmas Day reunion will come off as planned.”

****

Page Parsons didn’t sneak anywhere and especially not into Eden Rock, Texas, with its population of 168,483. She was simply arriving late, not slinking in after darkness. Unless things had changed, the sidewalks had been rolled up and everyone was tucked in bed.

The two and a half hour drive west from San Antonio had put her in the heart of the little town right on time. Judging from the addition of a red light, increasing the number to three, Eden Rock had grown since Christmas five years ago, which was the last time she’d been home.

The friendly addition of red and green holiday decorations wrapped around the street lights welcomed passing strangers as they travelled through on their way to bigger, more affluent cities. A grin tugged at her lips when she discovered that two things had remained the same. The service station and the Dairy Dream were still the only businesses open at ten-fifteen at night.

The Dairy Dream windows displayed Christmas decals of a snowman eating a giant burger. Page’s stomach growled at the thought of food. She’d been too busy packing and getting out of town to eat. Tomorrow she had the interview of a lifetime, and good nutrition had taken a back seat to creature comforts such as regular meals.

She lifted her foot off the gas pedal and coasted slowly past her old hangout. The young girl behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than sixteen. Page was at least ten years older, which made her confident they’d never met. She made a quick U-turn and pulled up to the drive-through window.

The girl slid back the glass and asked, “What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. No onions and easy on the mayo.”

“Something to drink?”

A long lost memory slipped into Page’s brain. “I want a small chocolate-strawberry shake.”

“A small chocolate and a small strawberry shake?”

“No. Mix the two ice creams together in one cup, please.”

“Okay.” The girl’s eyebrows lifted as the window closed.

Page needed to get to the ranch and get a few hours sleep. She’d drive to Houston tomorrow and arrive in time to hit the hotel spa. She’d be pampered and poised for Monday morning’s interview.

A woman ran out the Dairy Dream’s side door waving her arms. The bottom dropped out of Page’s stomach. She remembered June Waller as being the worst gossip in town.

“Carol Ann Penny? Is that really you?” June slid to a stop at the hood of Page’s car. A wise grin spread across June’s face. “The minute I heard that drink order, I knew it was you. Get out of that car and come give me a hug.”

Page abandoned the name she’d picked for her career and slipped on Carol Ann Penny. It felt like a warm sweater in the middle of winter. She eased out into the narrow space between her car and the exterior of the building, walked to her old friend, and opened her arms. “June, what are you doing here this time of night?”

“I’m the night manager. I got a promotion six months ago.” June held Carol back and looked her over. “Woman, you look great. It’s you I want to hear about. Come inside.”

“It’s late. You must be about to close.”

“Nonsense. Park around front and come inside,” June insisted.

Carol surrendered and did as instructed while June waited. She caught Carol by the hand, pulled her inside and into a booth. There was no doubt about what was about to happen. June was going to want to know everything that had happened in the five years Carol had been gone. She wasn’t used to being on the opposite side in a Q & A session, but she’d also learned how to avoid answering questions.

“Manager? Congratulations.” Carol tried an end run to avoid being quizzed.

“That’s nothing compared to you. Our very own Carol Ann Penny on KWTA television. Everybody in town watches.” June paused. “I’m sure Clay Hudson watches.”

“I hadn’t heard he’d moved home.” Carol bit back the urge to ask more about the guy who she’d never been able to replace in her heart. “He’s probably married with four boys by now. If he watches, it’s for the news.”

“He’s been back a few months. Set up his veterinarian practice right next to the feed store. I heard he never married. Lord knows it couldn’t have been for the lack of women trying.”

Carol’s heart fluttered at the thought of seeing Clay again. He’d gone off to college and then joined the Navy. No doubt, he’d come home a decorated hero. She, on the other hand, had attended college and worked her way to anchor the six o’clock news. Now she was coming come home with her tail tucked between her legs. Neither Clay Hudson nor anyone else in town needed to know she’d been fired. 

The young girl brought Carol’s dinner out on a red plastic tray. The aroma of the greasy burger sent her appetite into overdrive. She removed the paper wrapper and took a bite, closing her eyes to wallow in pure unadulterated flavor.

“Still the best burger around?” The pride in June’s voice rang true.

“Yes. I think my taste buds cried.” Carol washed down the bite with a sip of the most amazing shake ever. “I’m glad I stopped.”

“Does this mean the sale of the ranch is about to be final?”

“Looks like it.” Carol wasn’t surprised at June’s question. The ranch had been on the market for a long time. “Sue Ellen and I both have to sign the contract.”

“What’s she going to do with herself?”

“She’s taken a teaching position in Waco.”

“I hadn’t heard that. It’s probably best for her. Losing Dan was a tragedy for sure.”

“She tried, but after the accident I think it became too much. The company that’s buying the place has agreed to keep the place going.” June’s expression changed as her eyebrows drew together. Carol waited for a comment. When June remained quiet, she finished her meal and polished off the shake. After a short but awkward silence, Carol said, “I’d better get moving. She’ll be worried about me if I’m not there soon.” She dug out money to pay for the burger.

“Your money’s no good here. That was on the house.” June walked Carol to the car. “You stay in touch.”

“Thanks for dinner.”

Carol drove away wondering why Clay had never married. Minutes later, she checked her rearview mirror and watched the Christmas lights fade. The scene with her news director played through her memory. Things had gotten ugly after she’d delivered a story that she’d taken the word of a particular political figure to be true. Not to verify and check out her source was the kiss of death in journalism. It had been a stupid move and had cost her the job she loved. Her boss had fired her on the spot.

She shook off those memories when she realized she’d driven past her turn. A quick U-turn took her back to the cut off. She drove down the familiar farm-to-market road that would take her to the Four-Penny Horse Ranch. Page Parsons ceased to exist out here. Carol Ann Penny would soon be home.

A boulder grew in her chest because in reality, it was the Two-Penny Horse Ranch, soon to dissolve to zero. She had been six years old to Sue Ellen’s eight when their father had died in an oilrig accident. How her mother had kept the ranch, even growing it into a prosperous business was a miracle. She and Sue Ellen had helped, but Carol would always believe her mother’s heart attack was caused from overwork.

That the outside lights were bright enough to use as a runway didn’t surprise her. It was the barn doors standing open, lights on, and a pickup parked in front of it that scared her. Something was wrong if her sister was out there this late at night. Carol parked and hurried inside.

“Sue Ellen?” Carol called out.

“We’re back here.”

She ran to the back stall where her sister and Clay were kneeling by the rear end of a mare about to give birth. Carol slid to a stop. Her jaw dropped and her heart pounded painfully against her ribs.

“Go around to her head and try to calm her down. Sit on her neck if you have to but keep her down,” Clay barked instructions without lifting his head from the job at hand.

His voice snapped her out of her trance. The horse was in distress and needed help delivering the foal. Carol started talking softly to the mare as she moved up the side of the stall away from the horse’s hooves. The past became the present as she dropped to her knees without

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