Cowboy Don’t Go


Barbara Ankrum

Single mom, Shay Hardesty, thinks her life finally checks all the boxes: teenage son and semi-dysfunctional, but loving family, check. New ranch enterprise, check. Heartbreak free? Check. Then her brother hires her old secret crush, the sexy cowboy Cooper Lane to work on their Marietta Ranch. Uncheck! She fears the cattle rustling scandal that tore his family apart could hurt her fledgling business by association. Worse, his hard work and kindness toward her son are breaking down her carefully built walls, risking her cautious heart.

After years of exile training horses in Texas, Cooper returns to Montana to rebuild his life with his dad who’s finally freed from prison. Working on the Hardesty ranch is a blessing and crossing swords daily with the beautiful Shay is a challenge. Changing her mind about him won’t be easy, but he’s loved her since they were kids, and he’ll work hard for this second chance.

But when the ranch experiences break-ins and vandalism, Cooper wonders if the answers will bring him and Shay closer or snap the fragile trust he’s worked so hard to build?

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Chapter One

If anyone had told Shay Hardesty years ago that at thirty-one, she’d be a single mother, standing in a pen full of throw-away horses trying to rescue a horse for her son, instead of living the career-driven, happily-ever-after life in a big city that she’d imagined, she’d have laughed. Oh, yes, she’d had plans. Big plans. But as of today, pretty much the only thing about her life that came anywhere close to perfection was Ryan, the fourteen-year-old kid, currently hanging over the metal auction fencing, watching her like a mother hen when the other horses got too close to her.

“I’m coming in,” he threatened.

“No, you’re not. Stay right where you are.”

“That gelding over there’s got his ears back,” he warned. “Watch out.”

“I’m watching. I’m fine.” Shay elbowed her way past a pair of skinny mares, keeping watch on the bay gelding with the white blaze down his face.

Aiming instead at the Appaloosa filly they’d had their eye on for the last week online, Shay edged closer to the young horse who looked to be no more than two or three. This was no place for a horse that young, but so many of these unwanted horses ended up here, heading for worse fates. The whys were what concerned her now as she inspected the filly. But it was no real mystery. There were a thousand reasons for horses to end up here, but almost none of those reasons were fair or equitable. Finances were tight, people were too busy, or some injury happened that was beyond their means to fix. Behavior issues were often a direct result of those other issues. But neglect and even abuse were often seen here as well, which always broke her heart.

The horses in the auction pen moved restlessly in the small enclosure, bumping into one another, half-trampling the smaller horses and ponies.

Shay pushed against the nearest mare who spooked and ran from her until Shay neared the smaller filly who stared at her with white-eyed panic. She had nowhere to go, trapped up against the metal fencing of the pen. At a little more than fifteen hands, she looked sound, if quite thin, except for the superficial but nasty-looking cut on her left, back leg from some interaction with one of these horses, no doubt. Yes, she was wild, but young enough to be trained.

“Can you get her?” Ryan called from outside the gate. “Is she okay?”

“She’s just scared,” Shay replied. “I need to get her out of this pen and away from these other horses before we’ll know if she has any real injuries.”

The young horse let out a high-pitched squeal, head raised, backing away from Shay.

“Ssshhh,” Shay whispered. “You don’t know this, but I’m gonna help you, little girl.”

“Hey! You!” called a gray-haired old man standing on the grated catwalk above the pen. Shay recognized him as one of the auctioneers she’d seen at other auctions here in Bozeman. “Hey, you in there, little lady! You’d best get on out of there.”

Shay ignored him.

“I mean it. Don’t go near that one. That filly is dangerous. She tried to take my head off earlier. Bit my partner in the shoulder.”

Probably deserved it. Fear was what was driving this horse’s reaction. Not meanness from what she could see.

“You hear me, missy?”

“Thanks, but I’m good,” she said, undeterred. She’d heard this warning many times before, and given the situation, she might have just bitten him herself.

The man turned his attention to her son. “Boy? You gonna let your mama get trampled in that pen, for bein’ a bull-headed female?”

She caught sight of the restrained clench of her son’s jaw. Ryan directed his comments to her. “You got this, Mom.”

Times like these, she wanted to kiss that boy of hers for standing up for her. “Sir, please don’t talk to my son. If you have a problem, talk directly to me.”

“See here, that’s the thing,” the old coot said. “My problem is you, lady, and not wanting to call in the fire department here to pick up your broken pieces.”

The auctioneer gestured at another nearby man up there to come watch her fail. The second man was also an out-of-towner, a middle-aged cowboy who looked like he hadn’t been off the range in a good long while. “Oh, yeah,” he muttered just loud enough for her to hear. “I seen her before at some auction up near Flathead. What is it with girls these days? Thinkin’ they can just ignore the rules? Maybe she’s got a death wish.”

“That it, ma’am? You got a death wish?” the codger asked.

Shay paused, glaring up at the man and opened her mouth to retort, but another voice, from somewhere behind the man, spoke up instead.

“Leave her alone,” he said. “She’s doing just fine.”

Shay peered up into the sunlit skylight above and the halo-outlined form of the man who’d spoken. She couldn’t make him out, but his voice sounded sort of . . . familiar. Either way, she was sick and tired of men speaking for her, instructing her, when she knew exactly what she was capable of. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but I—”

“Says you,” the old coot replied to the stranger, ignoring her. “You wouldn’t be sayin’ that if you knew that filly she’s messin’ with.”

“I’ve seen her. Maybe if you weren’t flapping flags at her every other minute, she’d settle down,” the man in shadows said, and Shay wondered if he meant the horse or her. “Looks more like to me you’re having a little fun at Ms. Hardesty’s expense.”

Shock skittered across her skin. He knew her name? She peered up at him as he moved, for the first time, to where she could get a half-shadowed look at him. Definitely familiar. Dark hair, dark hat, etched features, handsome in a rough and tumble way. He was cowboy, through and through, all bone and muscle and sun-burnished skin, but she couldn’t place him. Maybe all those cowboys just blended together.

“If you three are done discussing the merits of me and my filly,” Shay said, “kindly bug off.”

That earned her an amused half smile from the stranger and a touch to the brim of his hat. The auctioneer and his cohort laughed.

Shay ground her teeth together, allowing the filly a good sniff of her palm before touching her neck. Fear caused the filly’s flank to quiver, and the animal snorted out a loud breath. All these horses were haltered—some maybe for the first time in their lives and dragging a lead rope that could get easily tangled up with the legs of other horses.

Shay took hold of the lead and spoke softly to the filly. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. Promise.”

The filly’s ears pitched forward for the first time. A good sign she was paying attention to more than just her own fear.

“Your funeral, lady,” the auctioneer muttered from above, before moving off with the older cowboy. Only the third man remained, watching her.

“Ryan, get the gate,” she said softly.

Her son obliged, cautiously opening the steel gate and allowing her to lead the nervous horse out without so much as a whinny.

“That’s right. Good girl. You can do it.” She rested her hand on the filly’s quivering neck which was damp with nervous sweat. “We’re gonna get you out of here.”

Generally, horses in these pens were terrorized into compliance, with men using long-handled flags, waving and slapping at them to direct them toward a chute, thus avoiding human contact inside the pens. As if they weren’t already terrorized enough.

For many, this auction was the last stop. This filly was likely headed to the kill pen next for bad behavior toward those same men who terrorized her. One could hardly blame her for biting. Or kicking. But Shay had a feeling about this one. She and Ryan had watched the pen live feeds for the last week and something about this filly just spoke to them. She needed a chance. Horses weren’t bad, intrinsically. They were reactionary creatures. Fight or flight creatures. Herd animals. And these horses had all been brutally separated from their family and from everything they’d known. Treated like the soulless numbers they wore attached to their flanks. They all deserved better than this from humans.

Outside the pen, Shay inspected the horse and found her thin, but sound. The cut on her leg would take time to heal, but it looked mostly superficial. She’d have a vet do a thorough inspection at the ranch.

She smiled up at Ryan. “We’re taking her,” she told him.

Ryan grinned back. He stroked the filly’s nose. That the horse allowed his touch was a good sign. “We gotta win the bid on her first. But she’s a pretty one, huh?”

“We will win.” She’d brought along plenty of cash to win the bid in the auction. Horses like her rarely fetched more than four to five hundred dollars.

This wouldn’t be Ryan’s first encounter with an untouched horse as he had watched her desensitize a few of the wild mustangs that pastured on their ranch for a couple of years now. But he was dead set on entering the Youth Horse Encounter contest this year, sponsored by the 4-H of Marietta. The kids had eighty days to gentle and train an untouched horse to be eligible to win a $500 prize at Marietta’s annual autumn festival in late October. The contest was right up his alley despite his new passion for football. Horses had long been his fascination, and Shay had watched him sit for hours watching them in the Hard Eight’s pastures, learning their habits and moods. Maybe the love of these gentle, magnificent creatures was genetic. At least, she hoped so.

A few minutes later, the filly’s number was called by the auctioneer. One of the handlers came to snatch the horse away from her to take her to the ring. Shay’s heart sank as the man rough handled her into the ring.

“Number twelve-oh-nine is a spicy two-and-a-half-year-old Appaloosa filly,” the auctioneer called. “Unhandled. The bidding opens at two hundred.”

Shay raised her bidding paddle, hoping the price would stay low. But the bid rose to two-fifty. Again, she raised her paddle, searching the crowd for the bidder going up against her. Three hundred. She bid again.

Four, countered the other bidder. This time she caught sight of him. It was the old cowboy who’d stood beside the auctioneer on the catwalk. Oh, no. She couldn’t lose that filly to him. He was just bidding to spite her.

Four seventy-five, Shay countered, hoping to put an end to it.

Five-fifty. The man grinned at her past the toothpick between his lips.

Six was her limit. She couldn’t go higher. She raised her paddle.

“Six, we have six hundred for the Appaloosa filly, lot number twelve-oh-nine. Do I hear six-fifty?”

No. Don’t do it.

“Seven,” the cowboy answered, looking very pleased with himself.

Ryan sent her a desperate look. “Mom—”

She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “I can’t. That’s too high.”

“But . . . Mom!”

“Seven. I have seven now. Do I hear—” The auctioneer pointed across the room at a new bidder. “Thank you. I have eight-fifty. Eight-fifty. Any more bids? Eight-fifty.”

Crushed, Shay looked at the old cowboy who was shaking his head, no. Her gaze swept the room. Who was the other one doing the bidding?

“Eight-fifty once, twice?” He banged his gavel. “Sold! For eight-fifty to bidder number four-thirty-one. Thank you, sir.”

Disappointment rushed through her as she caught sight of the bidder dropping his paddle and standing to exit the row of seats. The stranger she’d thought she recognized from earlier got to his feet in the sunlight pouring down from the skylight above. With his face clearly visible now for the first time, she finally recognized him. Cooper Lane. Of course, it was. That voice. She should have known it. But she hadn’t seen him in years. Not since a few years after high school. He looked . . . different. Handsomer. Maybe . . . harder? But then, that was no surprise, considering what had happened to him eight years ago.

Now he glanced up briefly as he exited his row. Again, he touched the brim of his black hat to her as he settled it back on his head.

Shay scowled back at him. He knew she wanted that horse. Now he was just gloating. “I’m so sorry. Ry. I’m sorry I couldn’t go that high. We’ll find another. You’ll see.”

Disconsolate, Ryan stared at the old man who’d been baiting her with the auctioneer. “That old guy who bid against us first didn’t even want her. He just didn’t want you to have her.”

When you’re right, you’re right. “At least he didn’t end up with her. Let’s go. We’d better get back home. We’ll try again at the Flathead auction next weekend. All right?”

Ryan just shook his head and headed down the bleachers.

Ryan was right. No one had wanted that horse before her encounter in the pens. The filly would have probably ended up in the kill pen. Nor was it the first time this had happened. Sometimes, she brought her brother, Liam with her just to avoid this scenario. Ranching was a good ol’ boys’ world and often they looked at her as an intruder. She knew that. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.

Outside, she and Ryan walked toward their pickup truck with its empty two-stall trailer attached, an infuriating reminder she’d failed to keep her promise to her son.

Ryan walked a few steps ahead, already taller than her at five nine, even though he was only fourteen. He was going to be tall, like his biological father. She squeezed her eyes shut again. No, she corrected. Tall like his uncle Will, her twin brother. Height was on her side of the family as well. She tried to shove away thoughts of Ryan’s father.

Lately, Ryan had been asking deeper questions about him, but Shay had put him off with vague answers. There were things she didn’t want to talk about yet, but things he deserved to know. The time was coming soon when real, hard answers would be unavoidable.

“Mom,” Ryan said, barging into that unpleasant thought. “What’s the Hard Eight’s truck and six-pack doing here?”

Confused, she looked where he was pointing. Sure enough, Liam’s big black F-150 with their ranch’s HARD EIGHT logo on the door sat across the parking lot with its six-horse trailer attached. But there was no sign of Liam.

“What in the world—”

The trailer was already half-full of horses from the auction and none other than Cooper Lane was walking her filly—Ryan’s filly, number 1209—up the ramp and into their trailer.

Ryan cast a confused look at her as she started toward the trailer.

“Cooper? Cooper Lane?” she shouted as she approached. “What’s going on?” When no one answered, she said, “I know it’s you. I saw you there snatching up our filly.”

There he was, settling the nervous horse into her stall.

“What are you doing with the Hard Eight’s truck?” she demanded.

Cooper closed the gate behind the filly with a look at Shay. “Hey, Shay. I wondered if you’d finally remember me.”

“Well, of course, I remember you.” She remembered his short-cropped dark hair, the way his eyebrows slashed in a hard line over those green eyes and how, once upon a time, all had been right in his world. And in hers, for that matter. But that had changed and so had he. Even at thirty-one, there was a touch of gray at his temples now and crinkled tan lines around his eyes. And the well-groomed scruff that covered his jaw was new, too.

Okay, so she had to admit he was good-looking in a careless kind of way. But that didn’t temper her confusion as to why he was even here. With their trailer and her horse! “What exactly is going on here?”

“Here? You mean”—he gestured at the trailer full of horses—“all this?”

She exhaled an impatient sigh. “Yes. This.”

“I work for you now. Technically, your brother Liam hired me to work on your ranch yesterday. He didn’t tell you?” His black hat was pulled low over his eyes, but she could just make out the hint of a teasing smile around them as he hopped off the trailer and latched the back gate, banging it for good measure with his gloved fist.

The blue denim shirt he wore, worn around the cuffs and collar, looked like it had been around the block once or twenty times. So did Cooper, by the way. The brainy, nerdy kid who’d left Marietta almost a decade ago was no more. In his place, this formidable man with sharp edges and grit, who didn’t seem to care what she thought of him.

“No. He didn’t tell me.” And she would have words with her brother about it. “So . . . what? You just outbid me with the Hard Eight’s own money?”

“Looks to me like I got her for you and saved her from landing somewhere less accommodating.” He pulled off his heavy work gloves and slapped the dust off on his thigh. “And by the way, I didn’t outbid you. I outbid that other guy.”

Fair point—that didn’t make it any less infuriating that she had lost in the first place.

“So, number twelve-oh-nine—” Ryan ventured, reaching up to stick his fingers into the open metal of the trailer near the filly. “She’s ours? I mean, mine?”

“Looks like,” he said. “I’d say you made a good choice. She’s got real potential. Once she settles in.”

“And these other horses?” Shay asked, still suspicious.

“Liam wanted me to pick up some riding horses to train up for future guests at your ranch.”

“He sent you to buy them?”

“Apparently so.” His expression darkened suddenly. “Look, if you don’t believe me, you can call him.”

She resisted the urge to do just that. Why else would he have her family’s truck? Surely, he hadn’t stolen it. Shay looked away, embarrassed for even thinking it. Just because his father was a convicted thief . . . “Fine. Then I guess we’re both heading back to the same place. You can follow me.”

She turned on her heel to go, but he said, “Or you can follow me. That way you’ll be certain where I’m going.”

Shay opened her mouth to—to what? Apologize for doubting him? But she decided against it. No point in opening that Pandora’s box. “Whatever you’d like,” was the best she could come up with.

“See you there then.” With a sardonic touch to the brim of his hat again, he swung into the pickup and took off toward the highway, a trailer full of horses in tow.

Shay turned to Ryan. “Well, that went well, don’t you think?”

Ryan shook his head and headed for their truck. “At least we got the horse. You know that guy?”

“Sort of. From a long time ago.” But did anyone really know Cooper Lane anymore?

They’d gone to school together, in Marietta, but he’d been gone for most of their twenties. What had brought him back? She had to admit, she was curious. He’d been dealt a bad hand by his father and the taint of what had happened had rubbed off on Cooper. The town’s inability to separate what was true and what was purely conjecture about Cooper and his father was mostly why he’d disappeared in the first place, she guessed. Personally, she’d never believed he’d been involved in his father’s misdeeds, but Liam’s hiring him felt risky just as they were trying to pull this whole guest ranch thing together on the Hard Eight. Reputation was everything and they couldn’t afford any scandal. Mostly, she couldn’t afford this whole guest ranch thing to fail. Her future and her son’s future depended on it. Struggling along on part-time accounting gig money would never pay for her son’s college or her own survival.

She got in the cab of her truck and pulled out her cell phone, punching in the number for her brother as she started the truck. It took four rings for him to pick up. But before he could even speak, Shay said, “You’ve made some bonehead moves before, Liam, but hiring Cooper Lane? That really might just—”

“Uh, excuse me,” he interrupted, apparently prepared with his argument, “but I seem to recall that you, as project manager, put me in charge of hiring all the—”

“Maybe so, but not Cooper Lane! We’ve got one shot to make this guest ranch thing go. And you know how folks around here feel about Cooper Lane and his father.”

“Who is safely ensconced in prison.”

“I know very well where he is and so does everyone else. You need to rethink this whole Cooper Lane thing. Now, before this gets out of hand. People talk, you know.”

“Shay, I think you’re overreacting.”

“Am I? I’m not so sure. And he outbid me for Ry’s filly. Eight-fifty. Did you authorize him to do that?”

“I would have if I’d been there.”

“But you weren’t here,” she said. “That’s a lot of trust to put in a brand-new hire.”

“You’re wrong about him.”

“Perception,” she pointed out, “is nine tenths of the law.”

“I think you mean possession.”

“Mark my words. Cooper Lane,” Shay said slowly, “is gonna hurt us.”

There was silence at the other end of the line for a long moment. “I’m willing to take a chance on him. I think he deserves that.” He waited another beat. “Anything else?”

“No.” Shay hung up on Liam before sliding a look at Ryan. “Not a word.”

Wisely, her son held up his hands in surrender. “I wasn’t gonna say anything.” But under his breath, he mumbled, “But he seemed like a nice guy to me.”

Shay stepped on the gas and headed home.

“I hear you ran into my sister at the auction,” Liam said by way of hello after Cooper had off-loaded all the horses and sequestered them in the quarantine paddock, away from the other stock.

Liam was smiling, so he relaxed a fraction.

“She called you I assume?” Cooper asked, hooking the gate closed behind the last auction horse.

“You know she did. And eight hundred and fifty for Ryan’s filly? She worth that?”

“I’d say so. But it was either pay that or lose her. Shay bid up to six. You can take the difference out of my pay.”

Liam snorted. “Nope. I won’t be doing that.” And under his breath added, “’Cause that’s what I would’ve done.” He perused the horses Cooper had brought back with him from Bozeman, in particular the one he’d purchased for Ryan. “Shay was dead set on buying that filly out of her own pocket for Ryan so he could enter the Youth Horse Encounter this year, not for lack of me trying to convince her that we—the ranch—could afford to get a horse for him to train, but because my older sister is stubborn as hell. Probably why she’s still single.”

It surprised Cooper to hear she wasn’t married up.

Liam lifted off his hat and wiped his forehead with a bandana he pulled from his pocket. “I thought she was going next week to the Flathead auction. I didn’t realize you two would run into each other or I would’ve warned you. Don’t get me wrong, I love her to death. But she can be prickly. You and Shay were in the same graduating class, weren’t you, at Marietta High School? And my brother, Will, too?”

“That’s right.” Cooper remembered Shay’s twin brother, Will Hardesty, the star of the football team.

The local kid who’d made it big in college ball and the NFL. According to Liam, Will was living in Marietta again with his girlfriend, but was off on some buying trip for the ranch this week. Cooper looked forward to seeing him again. With his sister, it hadn’t gone so well.

“I wasn’t sure she’d remember me.”

“A lot’s happened since you two saw each other last. For us all, I guess.”

That much was true. He knew he’d be running into her here on the ranch, but he’d been surprised to see her at the auction. Seeing her brought back memories of a time when everything lay ahead of him instead of behind.

He’d known her and crushed on her throughout their school years, as the school in Marietta was pretty small. Everyone knew everyone. Maybe that was the worst part of becoming a personal cautionary tale in a small town.

But Shay raising her son alone? Still? And living here at her mother’s home, instead of on her own? Not that he was judging. Because his life was about to look eerily similar.

“You happy with the horses?” he asked Liam.

Liam touched the quivery flank of a Palomino gelding. “You probably know more about them than I do. I’m a cow man, mostly. Although, the wild horses here on the ranch via the BLM are the pet project of myself and Shay. Shay mostly. She’s the horse whisperer here. She gentles them, but she’s not really a trainer.” He turned to Cooper. “By the way, so you know, I called your previous employer, down at the Four Sixes in Texas. Due diligence, you know. And they had nothing but great things to say about you. They were real sorry to lose you, in fact, and said you’d be welcome back anytime.”

“Good to hear.”

“I hired you for your construction experience,” he said, gesturing at the nearby land that had been readied for building. “It’s been a little bit of a road since we made the decision a year ago this summer to expand the Hard Eight to a guest ranch, what with architectural plans, getting infrastructure readied and getting set for construction. Now, all that’s in place, I guess we’re ready to build. But the Four Sixes said you’re a wizard with horses. With training, breeding, and selection. Which is why I sent you up to Bozeman. Seems you undersold yourself. Wizard isn’t a word people throw around very often. So, while I do need help with construction, we also need someone who can train this bunch. Maybe even some of the mustangs we’ve got pasturing here, young enough to be trained. Adopted out.”

“Today was a test, then?”

“Call it what you want.”

“I’m good with horses,” he admitted. “I like working with them. But I need the work. Any work. Whatever you need.”

Liam nodded. “Obviously, none of these auction horses are fully ready for that kind of training. We need them to put on some weight, get healthy. But we’ve got time for that. You did good. Thanks for going today.”

Cooper nodded. “Yeah, boss.”

Liam frowned. “No. It’s just Liam, okay?”

Personally, he preferred to keep business and familiarity separate, but he said, “Sure. Okay.”

“Good.” He shook Cooper’s hand. “I know you said up front that you’ve got something personal to do tomorrow. So, since it’s Friday tomorrow, you’ll officially start for us on Monday. That work for you?”

“Yessir. Yes. Thanks.”

“Okay then. See you Monday.” As Liam turned back to the barn, Cooper caught sight of Shay’s truck and empty trailer pulling into the driveway. For a long moment, he lingered beside the paddock, watching her park and head into the house. Her son, however, made a beeline to the paddock to see his new horse.

“Ryan!” Shay called from the doorway of her house when she realized he was not behind her. “Come inside!”

“In a minute!” he shouted back, sneaking a look at Cooper as his mom admitted defeat and went inside.

Cooper debated speaking to the kid at all, but Ryan spoke first. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? I mean, she will be when we feed her up a little. Get rid of that awful coat with some good grain and grooming.”

“She your first horse?” he asked.

“Nah.” Ryan puffed himself up, trying to look older and cooler. He climbed on the bottom rail and leaned over the top. “Well . . . kind of—to call my own. But I’ve been riding since I was a kid.”

Cooper hid his smile. “I hear you’ve got big plans for her.”

Ryan looked surprised that Cooper knew this, but he nodded. “The Youth Horse Encounter is in October at Marietta’s autumn festival this year. We get one hundred days, but I’ve already missed a bunch. I’ve got until the festival to gentle her, train her, and show her.”

An ambitious eighty days from now.

“But when I win,” Ryan continued, “I get five hundred dollars. And whatever the auction brings in for her.”

“When you win? I like that confidence.”

Ryan shrugged. “My mom always says you either find a way or you make one.’”

“Does she, now?” Cooper smiled at the boy. “Wise woman, your mother.”

“Mostly,” he admitted, staring at the filly. “Do you think she’s already got a name?”

He considered that. “She’s two. Maybe she does. But you should give her one that suits her. One you pick. Names are important. Animals are particular about such things. Give them the wrong name and they’ll learn to embody it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, give a horse a name like Chaos or Diablo and that’s pretty much what you’ll get. But Charmer or Baby? Like putty in your hands.”


“I’ve seen it. Speaking of names, I’m Cooper, by the way. My friends call me Coop.”

Ryan held out his hand to him. “Ryan. My friends call me Ry.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“And don’t worry about my mom. She’s not really mad. She just kind of likes to be in charge, even when she’s not. But that’s only because she’s always taken care of me and her on her own.”

“Yeah?” he answered, amused. “I’ll try to stay out of her way then.”

“Good luck with that,” he retorted. “Maybe you should date her.”

Shock made him laugh out loud.

Ryan grinned. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

He ran an invisible key across his lips. This kid . . .

“I’ll think about a name for the filly, then,” Ryan said, as a text buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to look at it. He nodded to Cooper. “I gotta go. My friends are starting a Fortnite session. Later.”

Too cool for school at fourteen.

“Later.” Cooper watched him go and caught sight of Shay watching him out the window. She ducked behind the window frame when he saw her. Date her. That kid’s fourteen going on twenty. But it wasn’t as if he’d never considered doing just that.

It felt like those days were long gone though, and Shay really seemed to want nothing to do with him. Fair enough. He would try not to take it personally.

“Is that Cooper Lane you’re watching out that window?” Shay’s mother, Sarah asked, casually rinsing a cup in the sink.

“What? No. I mean . . . Ryan was out there with him, is all.” Her mother had eyes in the back of her head apparently.

“Uh-huh. A good-looking man, that Cooper Lane.”


“I’m just saying. He reminds me of his father, if I’m honest.”

“You knew Ray Lane?”

Sarah moved to the window to look out at Cooper. “Oh, yes. I knew him. Once upon a time, I knew him.” At Shay’s curious expression, she said, “In passing, of course. He always kind of reminded me of Sam Shepherd. The actor? If memory serves.”

“He’s a convict, Mom. And Cooper was also implica—”

“Yes, dear. I think I hear the washing machine beeping.” And with that, she excused herself, leaving Shay alone in the kitchen.

Why was no one listening to her about Cooper?

She peeked out the window again to spot him walking toward his beat-up pickup truck, with long-limbed strides and a confidence she couldn’t remember from their days as classmates in high school. Or definitely after. So, maybe he had grown into his looks a little. A lot. But while she had sort of crushed on him for a while, way back when, nothing ever came of it because Shay had stupidly set her sights on the absolute wrong person—Ethan Bradley, an older, college boy visiting for the summer. A reality she’d acknowledged only after he’d left her eighteen, pregnant, and alone to face the consequences of what they’d done that summer.

Ryan’s father had never been in the picture for him. In fact, Shay had no idea where he was now. Oh, she’d told him about the pregnancy, but he denied it was his, advised her to get rid of it. Then he disappeared. Of course, Ryan was his. He looked just like him, with his light brown hair and blue eyes and that smile that said he was routinely cooking up mischief. Ethan’s parents had eventually tried to throw money at her to get rid of the problem for good, but she sent it back after getting their son to sign away any claim to Ryan. She was happy with that decision, but for a long, long time, resented him for so quickly washing his hands of the child they’d made together. But she’d come to realize that Ryan was better off with only her rather than a father who couldn’t love him. Ryan only knew what it was to have a single mother and it was only in the last few years that he’d begun feeling that hole in his life where a father should have been. But for her, it wasn’t Ethan’s abandonment that scarred her. It was that she’d actually believed his lie when he’d told her he loved her that summer. She’d been a fool to trust him and that had been the hardest part to let go. She’d be the first to admit she didn’t trust easily. Or well.

It also didn’t escape her that once she herself had been the focus of some judgment here in town when she’d become a single mother at eighteen. Her own father could hardly accept it. Tom Hardesty had taken his sweet time accepting his grandson, but eventually he had, mostly. But that was her father. Hard. The polar opposite of her mother.

Raising her son alone, aside from the help of her family, had been hard and lonely. But at least she had family. Cooper was alone in the world. Eight years ago, his father’s trial for cattle rustling had been the biggest crime Marietta had seen in years. Everyone talked about it and more than a few ranchers were affected by what he’d done. Hard feelings still lingered hereabouts and likely would forever. Cooper’s flight from Marietta years ago had been, perhaps, equally unfair, and she supposed she shouldn’t hold what his father had done against him. If there wasn’t so much at stake with the ranch, with her son’s future . . .

She sighed. She supposed she should try to be more generous. Besides, it seemed there was no getting around Liam anyway, so she’d just have to make the best of things.

Ryan came through the kitchen door smiling. “Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, Ry. You . . . were talking to Mr. Lane?”

“Coop? Yeah. He’s nice.”

Coop? “Oh?”

“Yeah. We were talking about names for the filly.”

That seemed doubtful, but Shay went along. “Do you have some names in mind?”

“Just one. Coop said names matter and horses try to live up to the name you give them. Even if they’re bad names.”

Cooper, Cooper, Cooper.

Her son looked out the window, considering the filly prancing around the pen near the others. She desperately needed a bath and a good brushing and that would have to happen soon. Baby steps. That was what this contest was all about, after all. Teaching patience and fortitude. And the kind of skills—working with sensitive creatures like these horses—that would translate in ways none of the kids training them could even imagine into their ordinary lives.

“I was thinking about Kholá.”

“As in Coca-Cola?”

He laughed. “No. K-h-o-l-á. You know my friend Jacob Whitetree from school?”

She nodded. They’d known each other since the sixth grade and had become close as teammates on the middle school football team.

“His family is mostly Lakota, and we were talking one day about how the Sioux are losing their old language and how he didn’t really know it very well at all, so we looked up words on the internet to try to learn some. And I found the word kholá which means friendship, like a really strong friendship. Like the never-ever-betray-you kind of friendship.”

Shay’s throat tightened. “That’s a really good word.”

“Yeah. And I was thinking,” Ryan went on, “that if I gave the filly that name, maybe she’d start to trust me a little more. Maybe she’d live up to that name.”

“I like it. Kholá. It’s a pretty name for a pretty girl.”

“Yeah.” Ryan grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter. “Okay, later.”

“Okay.” But he was already gone. “Nice talk.” Mostly about Cooper. She slumped down onto a kitchen chair and took a sip of coffee as the man himself got in his truck and spit gravel down their driveway on the way out.

She sighed. Okay, so he was nice. And helpful and, fine . . . good-looking. He’d grown into his looks—a lot. No longer the boy who’d gone to school with her, the gangly kid whose passion was horses and math and getting into an Ivy League college. He was a man now, fully grown and prematurely gray at the temples with a few more lines around his eyes.

But none of that meant he belonged here on the Hard Eight. She was scared. Not only of what she imagined his reputation could do to their upcoming guest ranch. No, what scared her most was how she reacted to him—with knee-jerk judgment and close-mindedness. But if she was right, then woe be it to him that hurts her family.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping September 19, 2024

Cowboy Don’t Go is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-964418-84-1

September 19, 2024

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