Sparks fly when a handsome cowboy and a strong-willed widow must work together, in this charming contemporary western romance from a national bestselling author!
Release date: March 9, 2021
Print pages: 368
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One Night with a Cowboy
Garth Brooks had it all wrong. The best sound at the rodeo wasn’t the roar of a Sunday crowd. It was the roar of the hometown crowd.
Weston Harding jogged into the arena at the Silverado Lake rodeo grounds, the familiar faces from his childhood serenading him with rowdy cheers. The way the audience carried on, someone might’ve assumed he was the main attraction instead of the bull riders who were getting ready to test their luck. He was no bull rider, though if you asked him, his job wasn’t any less important.
Wes took his position on the inside of the south fence, his eyes trained on the chute. It was time to tune out everything—including the loud, succinct chant of his name, which seemed to rebound off the metal roof. He’d always been popular in Silverado Lake—a hometown boy, born and raised. To hear the locals tell it, he’d overcome a lot—the grief of losing his father in such a tragic accident, the learning disability he’d struggled with since the day he’d opened his first book.
He’d had a hard time at school, and he’d had an even worse time after his father’s death, but now here he was, one of the most well-known rodeo clowns—aka bullfighters—in the world. Little did his friends and fans know, he hadn’t overcome the past so much as he’d ignored it. He’d escaped this town and the memories it held exactly one month after graduating from high school, intent on proving himself to the world—intent on living up to his father’s good name and making something of himself. And now he was finally back with something to show for all the blood, sweat, and injuries this gig had brought.
Once again, he wondered if his dad knew—if he was watching from some other world. It didn’t matter how many times he stood in arenas like this, he always wondered if he’d made his dad proud.
Wondering wouldn’t get the job done, though. Wondering brought on too many memories.
Shutting out everything else, Wes refocused on the arena. Adrenaline simmered along with the anticipation, but it wouldn’t fully spike until that chute opened and he approached the champion bull named Tantrum. Most people said you had to be one crazy SOB to provoke a lethal bull into a good foot chase, but Wes was there to protect the rider, bottom line. Once the rider hit the dirt, Wes and the rest of his team had a responsibility to protect the cowboy by keeping the bull as far away from him as they could. He took his duty seriously. Chalk it up to the fact that he felt a responsibility to protect these riders the way he hadn’t been able to protect his own father.
A hush finally fell over the crowd. Mikey Ruiz happened to be the first rider up, and Wes estimated it would take Tantrum T-minus two seconds to whip the man off into the dirt. For Ruiz—who was still pretty green—Wes always had to move extra fast.
The rider climbed up onto the fence and slid onto the bull’s back. Tantrum hardly flinched, though the animal’s powerful, sleek brown body did tense. Wes had learned to read the bulls, to detect how their muscles moved so he could anticipate how to move with them—and how to get away from them.
From the other side of the arena, Gabe—their team leader—gave the thumbs-up. Wes returned the gesture, retraining his eyes on Tantrum. The bull had given him more close calls than any of the others, but that’s what made him Wes’s favorite. You never knew what to expect; you didn’t have time to think, only to react; and nothing brought on the adrenaline rush like the thrill of the unknown.
The countdown went quick, and then the gate swung wide open. Wes closed in on the rider, along with Gabe and their other teammate Colin, confining the bull to the corner. Sure enough, Ruiz had hardly raised his arm in the air before he went sprawling off Tantrum’s back sideways.
Wes lurched into action, the cheers roaring in his ears. The bull jolted toward Ruiz, who still lay in the dirt, but Wes jumped between them, raising his arms and yelling who the hell knew what to distract Tantrum. The diversion worked. Instead of going after Ruiz, the bull lunged at Wes. He was ready for it, though. He jumped sideways and jogged backward while the bull charged him.
The cheers became deafening. Wes dodged the bull twice with his best moves and then turned and sprinted in the direction of Tantrum’s exit gate.
But instead of leaving the arena, the bull stayed hot on his tail.
Damn. Tantrum was extra feisty today.
Wes evaded him again and flung himself onto the fence, finding his balance with his boots positioned on the second rung so he could raise his arms and whoop for the crowd.
They indulged the dramatics, hopping to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
Seeming to give up on him, Tantrum did a lap around the arena before trotting through the exit gate for his postgame snack.
Wes did a backflip off the fence and landed on his feet in the dirt—a move he’d only recently perfected. If the crowd noise got any louder, it would shake those mountains outside.
“Thanks, man. You’re the best.” Ruiz walked over and swatted him on the shoulder. “You saved my ass again.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” Maybe one of these days, saving someone’s ass would make him feel something. Hell, he didn’t know what he should feel when the rider came to thank him. A sense of accomplishment maybe? As it was, he only felt something when he was running from the bull—the instinct, the adrenaline, the rush he’d come to live for. It didn’t matter how many saves he made, how many close calls he’d survived, nothing ever managed to fill the hole his dad’s death had left in his life.
The rest of the afternoon flew by in the same blur it always did. Wes stayed focused, diverting the bulls, joking around with the bull riders when he got the chance, and adding in some flair with more backflips off the fence for the hometown crowd.
After the last ride, he removed his protective gear and made his way down one of the chutes that led underneath the bleachers, high-fiving the fans who’d lingered until the end to say hello. All in all, it had been a perfect day—no serious injuries, a good solid lineup of riders. Hell, Wes wasn’t even as sore as he usually was.
And yet…he couldn’t quite shake the emptiness. Damn. What was up with him, anyway? All these thoughts creating noise in his head. He usually didn’t allow himself the time to think—to reflect on what he was feeling. All that self-introspection bullshit was dangerous territory. It had to be because he’d come back home. Being here was messing with his head.
“That was quite the show you put on out there.” Jane, his younger sister, stood at the end of the hallway. Every time he saw her lately, he had to do a double take. It still caught him off guard that his little sister was around seven months pregnant…if he remembered correctly.
“Gotta give the crowd what they want.” He leaned in to hug her, careful of her baby bump. “Thanks for hanging out all day. I know it’s not usually your thing.” Jane had always detested anything that involved danger. But then she’d gone and married a bull rider. Go figure.
“It was fun.” His sister’s smile brightened. “You’re really good at what you do, Wes. I’m impressed.”
“I’m impressed too.” He eyed her belly. “You sure you’re not carrying twins in there?”
Jane gasped in mock outrage and swatted him while he laughed. He’d always loved teasing her. “Kidding, of course. You look as gorgeous as always, sis.” Not only gorgeous, she looked…happy. There was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been there when she was younger.
“I don’t know about gorgeous, but I’ll take it.” His sister rested her hand on her belly and smirked up at him. “Keep the compliments coming if you want to stay in the running to become the baby’s godfather.”
“Oh, come on. I’m a shoo-in.” He slipped his arm around her and they walked side by side out into the concessions area. “Of course you’re going to pick me. We hardly ever see August.” Their eldest brother had been managing a winery out in Napa for the last several years and rarely made it home. Though Wes didn’t know what he had to offer as a godfather. Advice and wisdom weren’t exactly his specialty. Fun, on the other hand? That he could do.
“How’s Tobster?” he asked his sister as they passed the BBQ food truck and ice cream vendor parked in line on the outside of the arena. His sister’s husband had made it past the pro rodeos all the way to the Professional Bull Riders circuit and was away at some big event in Texas this weekend.
“Doing great,” she said dreamily. “He calls me about every hour to check in. Speaking of…” She dug her phone out of her back pocket and grinned at the screen. “Right on time. Give me a sec.” Bringing the phone to her ear, she backed away as though she didn’t want Wes to hear their lovey-dovey newlywed talk. Fine by him. He’d never been one for all that sugary sentimental crap. Though he couldn’t deny something about seeing his sister so happy—so fulfilled—made him wonder if he could make room in his life for something like what Jane and Toby had…
And there he went, thinking again. He didn’t have room in his life for a family. Not with the constant traveling. And then there was the fact that he faced off with bucking bulls on a regular basis. One wrong move and an animal like Tantrum could end him.
“Yo, Wes.” His boss, Craig, strode over from the line of trailers parked along the perimeter of the bleachers. “Hey, awesome job out there today.” The man took Wes’s hand in a firm shake.
“Thanks.” As Wes was the most junior member of the team, it used to be that Craig never acknowledged him, but lately he’d made a point to find him after each event. “I figure it’s always a success when the riders walk away.” There’d only been a few times on his watch that hadn’t happened.
“You got that right.” Craig removed his black cowboy hat and mopped sweat from his forehead. “You’ve got one of the best records of anyone out there these days. In fact, I want you on team lead next week.”
Team lead. Wes tightened his jaw so his mouth wouldn’t fall open. “Really?” That was a huge step. He’d started working in the rodeo world as an assistant handler for the bovine athletes, and it had taken him years to find himself in the arena, only to realize that each new position was like starting all over in the chain of command.
“Yeah.” Craig slipped his hat back on. “You’re hot right now, Harding. Careful, but also entertaining for the crowd. You’re exactly what they want out there. It’s time to put you at the top.”
“Great.” Wes made sure to punctuate the words with a casual shrug. No big deal. He was just getting a huge promotion. Maybe this was it—the step that would finally give him more than the fleeting rush of adrenaline. He was ready for this—for something bigger.
Of course, he had to play it cool with Craig. “I’m ready. Whatever you need.”
“I knew you would be.” Craig gave him a businesslike nod. “I have to go catch up with Gabe, but we’ll talk soon.”
Wes let him walk away before he grinned.
“Wow. Team lead, huh?” Jane walked back over. She must’ve been within earshot the whole time. “Look at you—” A gasp cut her off. His sister’s eyes widened with the sudden intake of air, and both of her hands cradled her belly.
“What is it?” Wes studied her face. She didn’t look so good. “You okay?”
Instead of answering, his sister hunched over and exhaled with a whimper.
“Jane?” Wes moved in front of her. Her face had paled. “Is it the baby?”
“Not sure.” She inhaled deeply and straightened back up. “That was a weird pain, but it’s going away now.”
Thank God for that. Pain during pregnancy couldn’t be good. “Where’s the pain?”
“My stomach.” She massaged her belly. “I’ve felt it a few times on and off today, but it always goes away.” She peered up at him with mild concern in her eyes. “Maybe it’s Braxton Hicks.”
Braxton what? He shot her a look. What the hell did that mean? He knew nothing about this stuff—about pregnancy and babies…
“False contractions.” She seemed to shrug it off. “From everything I’ve read, they’re no big deal.”
“I sure hope they’re no big deal.” He wasn’t equipped to deal with anything like contractions, and with Toby out of town, Wes was all she had. Lucky her. “Maybe we should go to the doctor—”
His sister’s squeal cut him off. She doubled over again, clutching at her stomach. “Oh God, oh God, oh, it hurts…”
Whoa. Wes’s heart bucked around his chest like one of those bulls back there. Panic brought on a totally different kind of rush. “Okay, okay.” He put his arm around her to support her. “Can you make it to my truck? We need to get you to the doctor. Now.” She wasn’t supposed to be in pain. She wasn’t supposed to be having any kind of contractions right now. Not for a few more months…
“I don’t need the clinic.” Jane stood and pushed him away. “It’s probably just Braxton—” She gasped again, and that was it. Enough messing around. Wes scooped her up into his arms and ran her to his truck in the parking lot. As carefully as possible he got her settled in the passenger’s seat and sprinted to the driver’s side. “Call your doctor.”
“I’m sure everything’s fine,” Jane said as he slid behind the wheel, but she was still breathing hard.
“We can’t take any chances.” Not with his niece or nephew. He shoved the keys into the ignition and gunned the engine. “Call your doc. We’ll get everything checked out to be safe.” It was either that or he was taking her to the closest emergency room.
“Fine,” Jane grumbled, but at least she took out her phone.
While he sped out of the parking lot and turned onto the main road, his sister explained the situation to the doctor.
“Okay. Sure. Sounds good. We can be there in about forty-five minutes.” She hung up and pocketed the phone. “We have to go to her clinic in Steamboat. She’ll meet us there.”
“Got it.” Wes made a quick left and maneuvered through town as fast as he dared, given the number of people out and about for the town’s annual Gold Rush Days. The weeklong festival was only just getting started with the rodeo kickoff, but the crowds had already come.
“Oh no.” Jane’s hands flew to her stomach again. She seemed to fold in on herself, her lips twisting with pain. “What’s happening?” She raised her head and peeked over at him. The fear in her eyes locked up his chest.
“I don’t know, but everything will be okay.” Panic gripped him by the throat. She couldn’t lose this baby. Their family had already lost too much. Images from his dad’s funeral flashed in front of him—the way he’d sat frozen in his chair during the graveside service, that final moment when the casket had been lowered into a hole in the ground. The back-bending grief came again, as heavy as it had been then.
He wouldn’t let his family endure another loss. Everything had to be okay. He took the exit to get on the highway that led out of town and increased his pressure on the gas pedal. Screw forty-five minutes. He’d have her there in twenty. “Maybe we should keep track of how far apart the contractions are.” Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do when someone was in labor?
“I can’t be in labor.” Jane raised her voice. “I can’t be! It’s too early! I’m only thirty weeks. The baby’s not big enough!”
“Okay. Shh. Everything’s fine.” He rested his hand on her shoulder but also glanced at the clock to note the time. “Maybe we should call Toby.”
“No.” Jane swung her head and shot down the idea with a glare. “He’s already worried enough. It has to be Braxton Hicks. It has to be.”
Growing up with one tough mother and sister, Wes knew when to argue and when to keep his mouth shut. He flicked on the radio, but the music didn’t take the edge off the adrenaline coursing through him. Nothing could happen to his sister. Or the baby. That was all there was to it. He had to make sure nothing bad happened to them.
“Ow. Ow, ow, ow, ow.” Jane’s whole body tensed again, flooding Wes with a sense of helplessness. He glanced at the clock. Only five minutes had passed since the last round of pain.
“It’s okay,” he murmured while his sister gasped and whimpered. “You’re okay.”
The rest of the drive went the same—with Jane writhing in pain every five to eight minutes while he tried to comfort her. Finally, Wes swung the truck into the empty parking lot outside the clinic. He ripped the keys out of the ignition and raced to the passenger’s side to help Jane out. Thankfully the waiting room wasn’t busy. The receptionist took one look at his sister and beckoned them both back. “I’ll get the doctor,” she said, leading them into a small room before hurrying off.
“I think I’m fine now.” Jane sat on the exam table while Wes paced.
He glanced at his watch. “The last one was ten minutes ago.” Not enough time to declare everything was fine, in his estimation.
Within a few more seconds, the door opened, and the doctor rushed in. “Jane.” She greeted his sister with a concerned frown. “You’re having pain? Can you tell me more?”
“She’s been having contractions every five to eight minutes for the last hour.” Wes butted in.
“This is my brother. Wes,” his sister said with a quick nod in his direction.
The doctor gave him a terse smile but didn’t greet him. He didn’t like the serious expression on the woman’s face.
She opened a drawer and pulled out one of those useless paper gowns. “I’ll need you to get undressed so we can check things out right away.”
“Of course.” Jane took the gown and raised her eyebrows at Wes, nodding toward the door.
Oh. Right. This would be a good time for him to take a walk. “Um…I’ll wait outside.”
Jane laughed, the sound a welcome relief in comparison to the gasps of pain. “That’s probably best.”
Wes led the way out of the room and the doctor skirted past him. She was definitely moving fast.
He paced up and down the hallway a few times and pulled out his phone. Should he call Toby? Their mother? Mara was currently on a monthlong cruise in Europe with some friends, so she wouldn’t be able to offer much help…
A nurse rushed past him, pushing a small cart with a computer. Maybe an ultrasound machine? The doctor followed behind, and they both disappeared into Jane’s room.
Shit. Things definitely didn’t look good. What was he supposed to do? Not knowing the answer, he clicked on Toby’s phone number, but the call went right to voice mail. “Hey. Uh…this is Wes.” As if he wouldn’t already know that. “You should give me a call when you can. I brought Jane to the clinic—”
The door opened and the doctor hurried out.
“What is it?” Wes hung up the phone. “Is everything okay?”
He could see the answer in her eyes. No. Everything was not okay.
“She’s in active labor,” the woman reported. “She’s already dilated. I’m having the nurse start an IV of terbutaline and I’m calling for an immediate ambulance transfer to Denver.”
Ambulance. The floor seemed to shift under Wes’s boots. “What does that mean? Will Jane be okay? Is the baby okay?” He’d promised her…
“She needs to be at a full-service hospital with a level four NICU,” the doctor said instead of answering his question directly.
“She’s having the baby? Now?” Every breath he took seemed to sear his lungs. This couldn’t be happening.
“We’re trying to stop the labor.” The doctor started down the hall. “Hopefully we can hold her off for a few more weeks at least. But she’ll likely be on bed rest while she’s monitored at the hospital.”
A few weeks? Jane would have to stay in the hospital for a few weeks? He plowed into the exam room, everything around him seeming to blur. Jane was on the phone.
“They’re bringing me to Denver,” she said. She was lying on the table still dressed in that gown, but they’d also given her a blanket. Wes surveyed the IV line a nurse was setting up. How could Jane sound so calm?
“Yes. I’m fine, honey. Please don’t worry. Just get to the hospital whenever you can.” She must’ve gotten hold of Toby. “I will. I promise. I’ll see you soon.” She hung up the phone and directed an earnest stare at Wes. “I need you to go back to the ranch ASAP.”
“No.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Hell no. I’m staying with you.” He’d ride in the ambulance with her. “You can’t be alone.” His dad had been alone the day he’d died. Because of him…
Determination tightened his sister’s frown. “I need you to go back to the ranch. Please. I have that Project Sanctuary group coming to stay in two days.”
Right. The group of veterans and their families the ranch hosted for a week every summer. “You have to go back to the ranch and get things ready,” Jane went on. “I can’t let Thea down.”
His confused expression must’ve spoken for him.
“Thea is my friend from college,” his sister said with exasperation. “Don’t you remember her? She visited the ranch a few times. You met her way back in college. And you probably saw her at the wedding too.”
“Well, I’m sorry if I can’t think clearly right now.” Keeping Jane safe. And the baby. That was his focus. How was he supposed to protect his sister if he went back to the ranch?
“Thea lost her husband in Afghanistan three years ago,” Jane reminded him. “She’s the group leader. They’re coming for a ten-day retreat, and I refuse to let them down. They’ve all been through so much. You’ll have to host them at the ranch for me. Take my place.”
He was supposed to head out to Oklahoma for an event in three days.
“Oh, wait.” His sister’s head fell back to the pillow. “You can’t stay. Your boss made you the team leader—”
“No, it’s fine.” He might not be able to stop her labor or promise her that the baby would be okay, but he could take this stress away from her. “I’ll stay. I can take over at the ranch for you.” Craig wouldn’t like it, but this was a family emergency. “You just focus on keeping that baby in place as long as you can.” He would take care of everything else.
She should’ve never gone with the soufflé.
Thea Davis paced in front of her polished stainless steel double oven, resisting the urge to open the door so she could peek. She’d turned the oven off approximately eighteen minutes ago, and opening the oven door to let colder air in before the soufflé had set could result in a catastrophic collapse. Twenty to twenty-five minutes was the optimal time to wait before pulling the confection out of the oven, according to Fine Foods magazine. So she had at least two more long, painstaking minutes to see if this dessert she’d tackled for the group’s last meeting just before their Colorado retreat would totally bomb.
“Is someone giving birth in there or what?” At thirteen, her daughter, Olivia, had recently perfected the art of sarcasm. “You look like you’re waiting for bad news.” Olivia reached for the handle on the oven door.
“No!” Thea stepped in front of her. “We can’t open it yet. It’s not time.” They needed between one and five more minutes…
“Sheesh.” Her daughter walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a sparkling water. “You’d think the president was coming for dessert or something.”
“I want everything to be perfect.” She winced at the word. No matter how hard she tried, nothing ever seemed perfect enough. Her eyes focused in on a smudge on the oven’s sparkling stainless exterior. Don’t do it. Do not grab the rag…
Oh, who was she kidding? Thea snatched the cloth she’d used to polish the oven not thirty minutes ago and worked at blotting out the smudge while her daughter shook her head.
“This is an important night for our group.” She’d started volunteering for Project Sanctuary during Dylan’s first deployment. She knew the strain that army life put on a marriage firsthand, and she’d figured leading retreats for military families was one small way she could help. Most of the families they served were still intact—soldiers coming back from long deployments, doing their best to integrate back into their families, who had learned to function without them. Planning these retreats at Silverado Lake Ranch each year had been a highlight of her life. Even after losing Dylan.
“No one’s gonna care if the soufflé turns out more like fudge,” her wise daughter insisted. “Chocolate is chocolate.”
Thea had to smile at that. “Well, I’m glad you’ve listened to something I’ve taught you.” She walked over and ruffled her daughter’s gorgeous black hair. She looked so much like her dad. “But still. I want this dessert to come out perfect. You know me.”
“Yes. I know you.” Her daughter smirked while she sipped her bubbly water. “The hostess with the mostest.” She pulled out a stool and sat down. “Do I have to stay for the soirée? I was going to meet Dallas and Casey at the park.”
Don’t frown. Whatever you do, don’t frown. Dallas and Casey were most certainly not her favorite thirteen-year-old boys, but she couldn’t let Olivia know that, or all her daughter would want to do was hang out with them. As a social worker, she’d witnessed all too often how kids felt the need to rebel when their parents overreacted, but reining in her emotions was still a challenge when it came to her own kids. “I need you to stay, sweet pea.” Not only because Dallas and Casey were obnoxious and disrespectful toward most adults, but also because… “We’re going to be spending ten days with these families, and it would be good for you to meet them.” Though the adults had gathered twice a month for the last three months, none of their kids had met yet.
“I don’t see why we’re still doing this stupid retreat when Dad is dead.” Lately, her daughter had seemed to latch onto blunt statements. Thea wasn’t sure if she wanted attention or if she really felt so matter-of-fact about Dylan’s death.
“I still volunteer with the organization.” She managed to say the words without a tremble in her voice. “And this is important to me.” Every year, she led a new group of families on the retreat, and she’d stayed in touch with each one. If she could help these families, maybe they wouldn’t walk down the road she and Dylan had been walking right before his death.
Guilt lodged itself painfully in her throat, bringing on the ache of regret. If she’d known he was going to die, maybe she would’ve tried harder to save their marriage. Maybe she would’ve found a solution. Instead, the last conversation she’d had with her husband before his ultimate sacrifice had been about divorce. No one knew that, though. No one could ever know that. Not her children, not her friends. She and Dylan had managed to hide their problems from everyone for years.
“What’s that smell?” Ryan, her ten-year-old son, came bounding into the kitchen.
“The soufflé!” Thea lurched to the oven and threw open the door, holding her breath. The fluffy confection had risen from the dish like a chocolate miracle. She slipped on her oven mitts and carefully pulled the dish out of the oven. “It’s so pretty.”
“Crisis averted,” her daughter muttered.
“What is it?” Ryan came over to inspect the dessert, wrinkling his nose.
“A soufflé.” Thea set the dish on a hot pad on the counter. Dust on a little powdered sugar, and it would look exactly like the one on Pinterest.
“It smells soooo good.” Her son leaned in closer, and she resisted the urge to back him up. She was really working on toning down her perfectionistic tendencies in front of her children. “We’ll all get to taste it soon.” She glanced at the clock. The rest of the families would arrive in ten minutes.
“I can’t wait to go to Colorado again.” Her son climbed up onto the stool next to his sister.
“I can’t either.” She loved her job as a social worker for the school district, but the last semester, her caseload had nearly doubled. She needed some time off, and there was no place here in Texas quite like Silverado Lake Ranch. Her friend Jane’s father had built the place on the shores of a glacier-fed lake decades ago, and it was the perfect place to escape. Thea snuck a glance at her daughter, who was busy tapping away on the screen of her phone. Now more than ever, she needed to reconnect with her kids. Olivia was getting older—and lately she’d felt more distant. And Ryan…well, he was too much like Thea. Her son always put on a smile, a good front, but she often saw glimpses of sadness and grief in him.
You’d think her career would’ve made her the perfect person to talk him through those feelings, but Ryan never mentioned his father. And if she did, he often changed the subject.
That didn’t mean he didn’t miss Dylan, though. Just the other day, she’d found him in his room looking through the picture album she’d made for him and Liv after the funeral. Tears were still stuck in his eyelashes, but when she’d asked if he wanted to talk, he’d insisted he was fine. Ryan was a brave boy, but she didn’t want him to grow up denying his pain and always pretending to be ok
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