National bestselling author Sara Richardson kicks off her Star Valley series with a charming cowboy romance perfect for the holidays!
Release date: October 11, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
Reader says this book is...: emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (1) heartwarming (1) realistic characters (1) satisfying ending (1) sex scenes (1)
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Wishing on a Christmas Cowboy
What the hell had Kenny been thinking when he left Star Valley Springs to this woman?
Aiden snuck another look Kyra. When he’d first seen her standing on the bank of the spring, he’d been sure he was dreaming. It wasn’t so much her wavy blond hair—he usually preferred dark—or her curves that had commanded his attention, though they didn’t have him complaining. What had really stunned him was her face—all perfect contours and softness. And her blue eyes…soulful and bright. Now, though, everything about her seemed…rigid. From the way she sat so tall and straight to the way she’d fashioned her hair into a tight, neat ponytail to the way her mouth had pulled into a thin, straight line when he’d mentioned her father, whom she clearly didn’t want to talk about.
Funny, because that was all he wanted to talk about right now. Aiden had never once questioned the man’s judgment. Kenny had moved to Star Valley Springs fifteen years ago, purchasing the ranch adjacent to the one Aiden’s brother-in-law’s family owned. Times were hard then. Rising taxes, drought, supply cost increases. You name it, all the ranchers and businesses were taking hits left and right. But Kenny had made it big as a consultant in the oil business and started buying up all the land in town to preserve those spaces—to protect them. The second a developer bought in anywhere near Star Valley Springs, land prices would shoot up, taxes would rise again, and big chains and box stores would push out all the hardworking local businesspeople. Like his sister. Aiden couldn’t let that happen.
“So, have you been to Star Valley Springs before?” he asked in a sorry attempt to make conversation. What a lame question. She’d already told him she hadn’t known her father. Why, though? He hadn’t known the man long, but Kenny treated people in town like family. He’d looked out for everyone. How did the man not know his own daughter?
Aiden shot Kyra a sideways glance. Asking her dumb questions wouldn’t get him more information. What could he say? He was out of practice. It’d been a while since he’d had the luxury of speaking with a beautiful woman. He’d had a few other things on his plate, namely keeping his sister’s ranch afloat while he tried to run a construction business to help pay his own bills. Life in Star Valley Springs kept him too busy to think much. He’d moved here with his SEAL team buddies two years ago. They’d lost Jace—his brother-in-law—on their last mission, and when they’d joined up, the four of them had made a pact. If anything ever happened to one of them, the other three would take care of the family he’d left behind, whether it be parents, siblings, or, in Jace’s case, a wife and two young daughters.
His brother-in-law had used his dying breath to remind Aiden of the pact, and he’d sworn to Jace that Tess and the girls would never have anything to worry about. Especially losing their home. And he’d kept that promise. He wasn’t about to let this woman come in now and ruin everything.
“No. I’ve never been here before.” Kyra seemed inclined to stare out the window while they crossed the bridge over the river. “It’s pretty.” She delivered the words somewhat begrudgingly, as if they were hard to admit.
Pretty? “It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” he corrected gruffly. Aiden stared out ahead of them at the town that looked so small tucked in between two awe-inspiring peaks. Gold and green dotted the mountainsides, with most of the leaves still barely hanging on. “Star Valley is pristine and untouched.” Unlike the large city to their south. Jackson had become an abomination with its overpriced amenities and celebrity vacation homes. “It’s real Wyoming.”
Kyra uttered a noncommittal grunt, and he almost laughed. She was trying to deny the beauty of the place even though it was spread out right in front of her. That could only mean one thing. She was a stubborn one. “Where are you from?” he asked, pausing longer than he needed to at the stop sign on the outskirts of town.
She still wouldn’t look at him. “Fort Myers.”
So maybe she preferred the beach to the mountains. “It’s pretty there.” But not breathtaking like the Tetons.
“It’s okay.” Her eyes seemed fixated on the mountains. “But I’m hoping to move to London after the first of the year. I applied for a job there.”
This time she stared directly at him. Must’ve been his horrified tone.
“What’s wrong with London?” Kyra demanded.
Why did he find it so easy to look into her blue eyes? “Nothing.” He’d been to London more than once. In his previous line of work he’d traveled the world on missions. And sure, London was a cool city to visit, but he wouldn’t want to live there. “It’s crowded is all. Too confining.” Maybe at one time in his life he would’ve been fine there, but these days he needed space, room to wander in the opposite direction of his ghosts.
Kyra looked away first. “Well, I love it there. The history, the sights, the people.”
Aiden stepped on the gas again, heading down Main Street en route to Kenny’s place on the west side of town. Driving through, he couldn’t deny that the actual town of Star Valley Springs wasn’t much to look at. There were only a few establishments on the main drag—the Meadowlark Hotel and Café, a souvenir shop, the ancient town hall, a small market, and Star Valley Feed and Supplies, the store his sister owned to keep her ranch land afloat. But as an old mining-era town with square brick buildings and plank walkways lining the streets, the place did have a certain charm.
“We passed the gas station,” Kyra informed him, craning her neck to peer down a side street.
“We’re heading to your dad’s house.” He increased his speed as the neat rows of small bungalows thinned to larger acreages. “His ranch is out here on the west side. Not too much farther.”
“I thought we were going to get gas so we could pick up my rental.” A high-pitched ring gave the words a panicked tone.
“It’ll be too dark to get back there tonight.” Aiden turned onto Kenny’s driveway. For being so wealthy, the man had built a simple log structure to call home. That had been Kenneth Fowler, though—never showy, always down-to-earth and easygoing. He glanced at Kyra. Evidently the apple sometimes did fall way far away from the tree. “I thought you’d want to stay at his house tonight. Isn’t that why you grabbed your luggage?” He’d assumed she didn’t want to try to navigate her way to town in the dark.
“I grabbed my luggage because I don’t need someone breaking into my car to steal the only clothes I have with me.” Instead of looking at him, she seemed to be studying her father’s house out the passenger’s window.
“Yeah, I’ve heard bears really like Samsonite suitcases.” Aiden couldn’t help but tease her. “Seriously I can’t remember the last time I locked my truck in Star Valley. You don’t have to worry about that kind of thing around here.”
“Well, I always operate under the assumption that you never can be too careful,” Kyra said stiffly.
He’d felt the same way before moving to Star Valley. “I can pick you up first thing in the morning and take you to your car. I promise that’ll be a lot easier than trying to drive through the woods in the dark.” He parked the truck in front of the porch, but Kyra stayed buckled in her seat as though she was afraid to get out.
“I don’t have anything to eat.”
“Sure you do.” Aiden killed the engine. “Your dad’s freezer is stocked with casseroles. Everyone in town knew you were coming.” What they didn’t know was that she’d apparently come to ruin things for them all.
“Casseroles?” Kyra still stayed put and stared out at the house, but Aiden had to get things moving along here. He had an agenda to see to.
“Yep. That’s what people do here. They take care of each other.” He got out of the truck and pulled her suitcase from the bed, rolling it over to the passenger’s door.
Kyra finally climbed out slowly, hesitating. “I don’t even have a key.”
“The door’s never locked.” He carried the suitcase up the porch steps for her. “I think the Star Valley Ladies Aid Society cleaned for you too yesterday.” Those women had been tight with Kenny’s wife before she moved away. They’d been chattering about Kenny’s long-lost daughter for a week now.
“The what?” She still hadn’t come up the steps.
“I like to think of them as the matriarchs of the town.” Aiden tried not to sound impatient, but he didn’t have time for this. “Each of the members have lived in Star Valley forever and they’re the ones who coordinate help when people need it the most.”
“Oh…kay.” She made her way up the steps, warily eyeing the front door. “But I don’t need anyone’s help. I can handle things on my own.”
Coulda fooled him. “I’d wait to say that until you try Minnie Vitten’s chicken pie if I were you.” Aiden nudged her suitcase closer to her and then trotted down the steps. “They all left you phone numbers on the counter in case you need anything.” He slid into the driver’s seat of his truck again. “I’ll be back at eight o’clock tomorrow,” he called through the open window before peeling out and cruising down the driveway. Instead of heading for his cabin down the street from Tess’s ranch, he drove back into town and parked in front of the Meadowlark Café and Hotel.
The café was the place to be in Star Valley Springs on a Friday night. Technically, it was the only place open past seven o’clock, which made it a hangout for everyone.
True to form, he found Silas and Thatch sitting at the bar, along with the other regulars who didn’t like cooking for themselves most nights. “We’ve got a problem.” Aiden claimed a stool on the other side of Thatch.
“You’re tellin’ me we have a problem.” His friend gestured to his plate, where a half-eaten burger sat. “Lean beef is all Louie had left for my burger. He’s not gettin’ the good stuff in until the Monday delivery.”
“Quit your gripin’,” the man grouched from behind the bar. Louie Vitten and his wife, Minnie, had owned the Meadowlark Hotel and Café ever since he’d inherited the relic from his grandfather. Both in their late fifties, they were staples in this town—rough around the edges like most of the people here, but their hearts were pure gold.
“Lean beef.” Silas shook his head. “Crying shame. Burgers weren’t meant to be lean.”
“Bunch of whiners.” Louie slid a frosty glass of Aiden’s favorite pale ale across the bar to him. “They wouldn’t have even known if I hadn’t told ’em.” The man’s brown eyes seemed especially sharp tonight, and most of his graying hair had come out of his long ponytail. “They say the lean stuff is better for your heart. You can’t even tell the difference.”
“Yes I can.” Thatch poked at the burger with a knife. “It’s not greasy enough. And my heart is top-notch. I don’t need lean be—”
“We have a real problem,” Aiden interrupted. Though he appreciated the warning on the beef. It looked like he wouldn’t be ordering a burger until Monday. “I was at the swimming hole earlier and a woman showed up.”
Silas, Thatch, and Louie all froze.
“I’m gonna need another beer for this story,” Silas said, signaling Louie.
“Sounds like a good one,” the man agreed, filling another glass from the tap.
“It’s not that great of a story. Trust me.” It wasn’t some sordid rendezvous with a stranger. Kyra was hot, don’t get him wrong, but he wouldn’t be getting tangled up with her. “It’s Kyra Fowler. She’s in town to settle Kenny’s estate.” He explained how she’d gotten lost and that he’d dropped her off at her father’s house. “She wants nothing to do with Star Valley Springs,” he finished. “She wants to sell to a developer. And you know what that means.” What it would mean for all of them.
“Those damn millionaires she’s gonna sell to will push us out of our homes and jobs.” Louie slung a towel over his shoulder while murmuring curse words.
“Turns out she didn’t even know Kenny.” Aiden still couldn’t fathom why the man would’ve put their town in jeopardy by leaving everything to her. He should’ve talked to Kenny about his plans. But no one could’ve known a heart attack would take the man down without any warning. One day he was having a beer with them at the café, and the next he dropped dead in his barn.
“Star Valley Springs should’ve gone to Lyric.” Silas pushed away his plate. “She loves this town.”
Lyric was Kenny’s stepdaughter. Though her mother had moved to Arizona to live with her sister after Kenny’s death, Lyric still lived a few blocks away and ran a yoga studio and holistic health store out of her home. “I can’t imagine why he would leave this place to an outsider.”
“According to Minnie, Lyric knew her stepsister before their parents got married.” Louie filled himself a glass from the tap. “Sounds like it was kind of a messy situation. Like Kenny had an affair with Lyric’s mom and then left his ex-wife and Kyra behind to move here.”
Yikes. So maybe Kyra resented her father for leaving. She sure hadn’t made it sound like she’d kept in touch with Lyric. “I can’t understand why he would leave her the town, then.”
“He must’ve had his reasons.” Thatch shrugged. “Kenny was a planner, a smart businessman. He always knew what he was doing. Maybe you’re misjudging Kyra.”
Leave it to Thatch to play the devil’s advocate. “She told me she’s staying through Christmas to fix up the place like her dad outlined in his will, and then she’s going to sell and move to London.”
“Why would she move there?” Silas asked, wearing the exact same expression Aiden had.
“I don’t know.” He’d spent less than thirty minutes with the woman. “I don’t know much about her. But I do know she is determined to sell this place as soon as she can.” And they should all be plenty worried.
“You can’t let that happen, Aiden.” Louie leaned into the counter. “You have to find a way to stop her.”
“Me?” Since when had he become this town’s savior? “We all have to stop her. Together.”
“You already have a plan.” Thatch studied him. After working counterterrorism operations with him, Thatch and Silas could both read his thoughts. And he could read theirs.
“It’ll be like another mission,” Aiden told them, the plan taking shape as he spoke. “We’ll get everyone in town in on this. Operation Save Star Valley Springs.”
“I like it.” Silas had his game face on—every bit as serious as he’d been when they’d found themselves in the deserts of Afghanistan.
“We have to turn her,” Aiden went on. “Show her what makes this town unique and desirable. We need to make her fall in love with Star Valley Springs.”
“Or with someone in Star Valley Springs,” Thatch quipped. “As long as she’s single. And I think you’re the right man for the job. Out of all of us, you’ve landed the most dates.”
That had been in a different time, though, a different life. Before he’d lost Jace. In those days he’d never gone home from a bar without a woman, but that last mission had changed everything. “I’m assuming she’s single.” He hadn’t seen a ring on her finger, and she’d said she was moving to London. There hadn’t been a we involved. “But I’m not talking about seducing her. I’m talking about helping her see the heart of this town.”
Louie was slowly nodding along. “That’s exactly what we gotta do. Give her the star treatment. Show her that she could find a family here the same way her dad did.”
“Exactly.” A family. Aiden couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t seem like Kyra had many connections.
“I’ll get Minnie working on things with the Ladies Society,” Louie offered. “They can befriend her and help her out with stuff. And I can start spreading the word here.”
“Perfect.” That meant everyone in Star Valley Springs would know the situation by Sunday. Aiden turned to Thatch and Silas. “And all of a sudden Cowboy Construction is going to be too busy to take on any projects.” As they were the only contractor in town, Kyra would need to enlist their help to complete her projects.
Thatch finished off his beer. “We’ve got the cattle drive coming up at the ranch anyway. That’s the perfect excuse to delay taking on any other projects.”
The cattle drive. He’d almost forgotten that next week a group of volunteers from town would move Tess’s stock from the high pasture to the low meadow for winter. They usually made a weekend out of it, enjoying camping along the way and cowboy cuisine throughout the trek. Aiden laughed. “I wonder if Ms. Fowler has ever been on a cattle drive. This might be her chance to have a new experience.”
The more they could involve her in the events around town, the more she would see the value in being part of their community.
The distinct aroma of coffee made Kyra bolt upright in bed. How could it possibly smell like coffee when she was still in bed? Unless…
She held her breath and, sure enough, there were voices downstairs. Female voices. More than one, which shouldn’t have been possible considering she’d locked the door before she’d gone to bed last night.
Throwing off the covers, Kyra scooted out of bed and hastily dressed. There couldn’t be any dangerous intruders down there. What kind of criminals would break into her father’s house to make coffee?
Before going to find out, she made her way into the en suite bathroom of what appeared to be the guest room. After finding herself alone in her father’s house last night, she’d chosen to sleep in the room that had the fewest personal touches. Mostly she’d tossed and turned in the queen-size bed that had magically been made up with crisp, clean sheets.
It was eerie being in a stranger’s house that she now owned. She’d made it a point not to open one closet or cabinet door—except in the kitchen, when she’d had to search for a plate to eat a few bites of the lasagna she’d found in the freezer. She’d found a note attached to the pan.
Welcome! We’re so happy you’re in Star Valley Springs. This lasagna was made with love especially for you! Heat it up at 350 degrees for an hour and enjoy! —The Star Valley Springs Ladies Aid Society
Weird. This was all so weird.
Leaning over the sink, Kyra splashed water on her face and then rose to pull her hair into a ponytail. A shower would have to wait until after she investigated who might have invited themselves into her father’s kitchen at seven o’clock in the morning.
The whole house seemed to creak as she made her way down the wooden staircase, and the voices in the kitchen hushed.
“Do you think she’s up?” someone whispered loudly.
“Should we go check?” another woman asked.
“I’m up,” she announced, turning the corner.
Three women wearing aprons stood near the stove and the sink, their hands busy with various tasks. The shortest one dropped a spatula she’d been holding on to the counter and rushed forward. “Kyra, welcome to Star Valley Springs!” She ushered her fully into the kitchen. “I’m Minnie. And this is Doris.” She pointed to the woman who had long black hair threaded with silver. “And that over there is Nelly.” She gestured in the direction of the woman who’d paused from doing dishes.
“Such a treat to meet you!” Nelly sang. Judging from her fleecy white hair, she might’ve been the oldest in the group.
“Um, nice to meet you too?” Or at least it might’ve been if they hadn’t broken into the house. “I’m sorry. How exactly did you get in here?”
“Oh, your dad always left a key underneath the welcome mat.” Minnie withdrew a key from the pocket of her paisley apron. “He always said, ‘the door’s open for anyone to walk through.’” Dimples accented her smile. “That was one of his favorite phrases.”
“Okay.” She wouldn’t know any of his favorite phrases because she hadn’t talked to the man in eighteen years. Kyra did her best to maintain a polite, albeit tight, smile. “But what are you doing here?”
“We’re making you breakfast.” Doris opened the oven and presented a pan of blueberry muffins, each bigger than Kyra’s fist.
“Why are you making me breakfast, exactly?” She wasn’t trying to be rude, but couldn’t they tell they were overstepping? Seriously. Who broke into a house to take over the kitchen?
“Kenny was like family to everyone in this town, which means you are now too.” Nelly filled a coffee mug and brought it to a place setting that had been laid out on the kitchen island. “Now sit, sit. We have quiche and muffins. Oh! And bacon. We can’t forget the bacon.”
“Oh, I don’t eat many carbs.” But she would drink the coffee. She was going to need a lot of coffee to get through the next three months.
Kyra sat on the stool while the three women served her more food than she would ever be able to eat this early in the morning. Back home, she ate exactly two hard-boiled eggs before leaving the house for her twelve-hour shifts.
“We want you to know we’re here to help whenever you need us.” Doris added a couple of slices to bacon to her plate.
“With whatever you need,” Minnie added, refreshing her coffee even though she’d only had a few sips. “That’s the thing you need to know about Star Valley Springs. We take care of each other around here.”
“I can see that.” Kyra clutched her coffee mug, unsure of how to tell them she didn’t need anyone to take care of her. Thanks to her father, she’d learned how to take care of herself a long time ago. “I appreciate all of this.” She pushed her plate away. “But you should know that my father and I didn’t have any kind of relationship.” She had no idea what stories he’d told his friends about his former life—or even if he’d mentioned he had a family that he’d up and left for something better. “I’m only here to deal with his estate and do what he required me to do in his will.” And she didn’t want them to get any ideas about her staying.
“Of course, sweet pea.” Minnie patted her hand. “We know you have quite the career back in Fort Myers. Your daddy was so proud of you becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner. It was all he could talk about.”
. . .
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