One Lucky Cowboy

by

Kristine Lynn

Falling in love with a cowboy wasn’t part of the deal…

Jackson Marshall feels stuck, but with only one local rodeo success fifteen years ago etched into his buckle, he’s uncertain how to get out of his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself in Deer Creek. What’s more, the family needs him to make nice with city slicker Jill Henley to continue building their ranch’s brand—a merger with trouble stamped all over it.

Jill Henley is eager to prove herself with this multimillion-dollar project for her boss’s Steel Born company. She can handle the pressure, but the Marshall family’s request to partner with playboy Jackson to get the contract? It’s enough to set anyone’s stilettos on a path to the nearest city.

Then a teenager arrives at the ranch and upends Jackson’s life with his secret. As Jackson sacrifices his lifestyle to step up as a dad, Jill starts to see this small town—and her fiercely proud cowboy—in a different light. They might just find what they’ve been looking for all along—in each other’s arms.

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Chapter One

Jackson Marshall didn’t usually get mad. Frustrated at the Deer Creek traffic now that they’d added their first stoplight on Fifth? Sure. Peeved at the havoc the drought brought last summer to the ranch? Of course. But mad enough to see red? Never. His high school roping coach used to joke that Jax had the calm of a colorblind bull in front of a red cape.

So why did he feel like every nerve was on edge and his breathing might never level out again? Maybe because Bennett had interrupted what was supposed to be a productive afternoon in the sun before Jax kicked off a hard-earned long weekend.

It might also be the news his big brother brought with him that tinted Jax’s vision a hazy shade of crimson.

“I don’t see why we have to have a meeting with her,” Jax grumbled. Her being Jill Henley, his sister-in-law Maggie’s best friend and certified pain in his ass. He’d tried—and failed—to forget that the last time he’d been in the same room as Jill, he’d overheard her tell Maggie, Jax doesn’t seem responsible enough to trust him with a cattle run let alone Marshall Brothers Enterprises.

Jill hadn’t known he was standing there, but still. She also didn’t know a thing about Jax’s role in the multimillion-dollar business his brother had started fifteen years ago. If it weren’t for Jax, there wouldn’t be an MBE to run.

Still, his pride was a little sore from her blow. He didn’t trust himself to be nice if she made another quip about his ability to do the job he’d traded his dreams for.

“Not we. You. I can’t go.”

“Seriously? You won’t even be there? Why the hell not?”

Bennett sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. In that moment, Jax noticed the dark circles under his brother’s eyes. He swallowed hard; Bennett looked exhausted. Not just his eyes, but in the way his shoulders slumped, the wrinkles in his shirt.

“I’ll explain later. For now, can you just stop being an ass and do this one thing for me?”

This one thing. Jax’s jaw clenched. Bennett had said that just once before, a decade ago as Jax’s career in the rodeo was gaining momentum. His winnings, the team he’d built—all of it had come to a screeching halt when Bennett asked him to help get the ranch out of a bind. Jax had obliged—no way he could turn away a plea from his brother—and now ten years later, what did he have to show for his sacrifice? Bennett asking for more, again. Like Jax hadn’t already given it all.

So, forget Bennett’s tired eyes and slumped shoulders. When was his brother ever going to see him and what he was feeling?

Just get through the fall and winter holiday. January 1, your life will be yours again.

Jax exhaled, but his fists remained tight. Yeah, he had a lot to look forward to in the new year, but it wasn’t as easy as walking away from the ranch and starting over. For one thing, Bennett had no idea Jax was even looking for other work.

He deflected, guilt settling low in his chest. Two months remained until Jax’s new job started and he hadn’t told Bennett.

“Fine. But I won’t forgive you for scheduling this crap for a Friday evening. It’s criminal. People have been murdered for less.”

“You’ll live. And you know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need this.”

Another line from a decade ago. Each one stung—not because Jax didn’t want to help out, but because Bennett’s memory seemed pretty short if he forgot the other times those words had changed the trajectory of Jax’s life.

Jax kicked the dirt, which only served to cover his boots and the bottoms of his jeans with the fine dust that settled over everything out here. If he stayed here long enough, he’d become part of the land, unrecognizable. Which was why he had to get out now. Bennett would understand if he knew anything about his younger brother.

It doesn’t matter either way. You took the job.

“So, lay this out again for me,” he said. He could do it, this last thing for Bennett. Then he could walk away guilt-free in January. “What exactly do you want from me?”

“I want you to join Jill Henley for dinner at Steiner’s restaurant. It’s pretty simple, Jax.”

No, it wasn’t.

A bubble of mirthless laughter tickled the back of Jax’s throat.

Steiner Ranch Steakhouse was where he watched the rodeo queen, Nora Kellerman, walk away from him for the last time. Co-owned by none other than the Henleys, of course. And now he was heading back to the restaurant with a woman who dredged up all sorts of the wrong kinds of feelings in him.

“Dinner. With Jill, who works for Maggie. That’s it?”

It didn’t cover the emotions the simple request brought up. Jax didn’t date. Not ever, and for good reason. And this felt dangerously close to just that.

“Yeah. Well, that and making sure Steiner sees you. It’s the week before our biggest order with him goes through, and I want him to know we’re taking his business seriously.”

Okay, so it wasn’t a setup, at least not as far as Jax could tell. If his brother even attempted an idiot move like that—

“And you can’t make it because…” He gestured with one hand for Bennett to fill in the blank.

With the other, he grabbed a bridle and lead rope with the full intention of saddling up and leaving this conversation for Bennett to have with someone else. But Bennett took the rope from Jax’s hands and hung it back up. Jax’s fingers flexed and clenched again.

“Because I can’t, okay? I—” Bennett started. He bit his bottom lip, and if Jax didn’t know any better, his big brother was on the verge of tears. “I need to ask Maggie before I say anything.”

Jax raised his brows. Why would Steiner be worried if Bennett missed one Friday night dinner? Unless it was something bigger than that. “You guys okay?”

Since the two high-school sweethearts had been reunited last year, kicking their romance back into gear, they’d never left Jax out of the invites to dinner, drinks, or even supplier visits around the state. Jax didn’t really have anyone else, no friends outside the night or two he found company after drinks in Austin. His brother and Maggie were it.

Admit it—you’ll miss them when you’re gone. He would, but he couldn’t do this soul-sucking job anymore just to keep them close.

“Yeah, we’re good. Just got a lot going on.”

“Okay, good. Well, I’d better get moving, then,” Jax said. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Bennett frowned and rubbed his temple. “You wrapping up? Maybe we could grab a beer, catch up before tomorrow?”

Jax regarded the sun, hanging low over the barn with another hour of life left in it. The day had been long—made longer by the calves that had broken loose and needed to be reined in—but it didn’t end until nature said it did. Those were the ranching rules. Sunup to sundown. No exceptions.

As nice as beer sounded, if he was gonna give up his Friday night for work, he’d like to get a ride in that evening while the weather held.

“I wish. I gotta get this cleaned up and then file the equipment loss statements.” He gestured to the hundred head of cattle that grazed outside the fence line.

“Why isn’t Manny handling the calves?”

There it was again; Jax was only good for paperwork and managerial crap. Never mind the stuff that he loved, the outside work that made his heart thump a little faster.

“I offered to help.” Being outside, working with his hands? Yeah, he’d volunteer for that over meetings and P and L statements any day. “He had another crisis in the west fields he needed to tackle.”

Literally. Manny had to somehow find a way to get a new wild mare either away from their geldings or into a pen.

“Crisis?” Bennett’s cheeks pulled in tightly and his frown lines deepened.

“It’s fine. We’ve got it covered; that’s what you pay us for, you know.”

“Your face looks like you don’t, in fact, have it.”

“Oh, is that right? It doesn’t say, ‘My brother’s a nosy ass and likes to tell me how to live my life even though I’m thirty-two and have saved his backside more times than I can count?’”

Bennett’s face broke into a smile. No matter how they bickered, seeing his brother smile loosened a knot that had been building in Jax’s chest.

“Nope. My thing is right. Definitely my thing.”

Jax laughed, too.

Until Bennett added, “So what is it about Jill that gets your hackles up, anyway?” He grabbed a five-gallon jug and lifted it onto the water cooler they kept in the barn. It gurgled as the water filtered down, the sound punctuating the painful silence as Jax worked up an answer that would get Bennett off his back.

“Nothing. She’s just—” Annoying. Sexy, too, but mostly annoying. “Did you know that she told your wife I sucked at my job?”

That was the public-facing reason he disliked her, anyway.

“Was that before or after you called her a city slicker with red hair dye where a brain should be?”

Oh yeah. He’d forgotten about that little slipup before the wedding. “She left the gate open, and three cows got out. And besides, I didn’t know who she was when I said it.” Jax hated the whine that slipped out. But that hadn’t been the real reason he’d snapped at her. Bennett’s brow raised. “And no, I didn’t know the hair color was real.”

“Jax,” Bennett said. His voice took on the big brother baritone, usually a warning. “She’s Maggie’s best friend and the other half of Steel Born. And since you insulted her, you need to make it right tomorrow.”

“Is that what this dinner is about? Fixing my attitude with the finance woman from Maggie’s company?”

“Partly. Jill’s parents are the Kennedys of Austin, and we need them for some big things coming up with Steel Born and MBE. The Henleys are ranching, bud.”

“Big things you want to fill me in on?”

“I will after dinner Friday night. I just need to—”

“Talk to Maggie. Yeah, I know.” The frustration built. It might be just the three of them, but when push came to shove, Jax was just the brother on the outside. All the more reason for him to branch out on his own. “Can’t Maggie just apologize for me? Tell her I was having an off night or something? Because, if I’m being honest, I stand by the comment about her hair—”

“No, she can’t. You’re part of MBE, and you represent us. Which means you need to make nice with the woman who’s running our biggest distributor.”

The second mention of Jill’s ties to their world—but why now?

Her last name—Henley, Austin royalty, indeed; rodeo royalty was more like it—drummed up a reminder of the life he’d given up. It was enough to crush even the happiest guy. And he’d been that happy guy on the rodeo circuit, especially the last year when he’d ridden well enough to rope up some sponsors, Henley Apparel included. But then Matt, their oldest brother, had left and Jax had to step up and take on more responsibility on the ranch. Which meant the end of the rodeo and the end of his relationship with the only other woman to make it past Jax’s defenses.

And he had to sit across from the slicker, sassier version for a whole damn meal. At least the rodeo part he’d have a second chance with.

“Why’s she even down in Deer Creek anyhow? I thought she didn’t leave the city unless it was on fire.” She’d actually said that to a woman at Bennett and Maggie’s wedding, another snippet he’d overheard while he’d waited for a refill of his whiskey.

“Maggie needs her for something in person.”

“So, you’re pimping me out.”

Bennett’s arms were crossed over his chest, his I mean business stance.

The two of them used to not need words to communicate, which would have been handy right about now since Jax couldn’t make Bennett hear his side of things to save his life. Jax might be a playboy, a bit of a wandering soul, but he was a damn good rancher and sure as shit didn’t need a city woman telling him otherwise.

“Fine. I’ll be nice at dinner, but that’s it.”

Gander, the half-feral, full pain-in-the-neck barn pup, came waddling up with what looked like Jackson’s leftovers from dinner the night before—a T-bone with plenty of good eatin’ left on the bone.

Great. Now he had to figure out what to make for lunch along with making peace with whatever plans Bennett had made for him. The whiskey reduction sauce on the steak would have been good right about now.

Unreduced whiskey would be even better.

For so-called friends, this bunch was doing their best to ruin Jackson’s Friday night plans for a spin up the ridge to watch the sun set over their ranch with a cold beer.

Alone.

Yeah, alone because you made your way through half the women in Deer Creek and the next two towns over.

So what? There was no law saying every date had to end with a wedding ring. He ran a hand along his mare’s flank, wishing he could saddle up and leave this shit show behind. All of it.

It wasn’t like Jax didn’t want success for Maggie and Bennett and their companies they’d both hustled to make the best in the ranching business. But he didn’t want to be running any show, period. Was he supposed to feel bad for wanting a simpler life on his ranch, without the city pace? For insulting his sister-in-law’s best friend, sure. But the rest could get bent.

Inhaling deeply, he sighed out the lingering frustration this conversation had drummed up.

The weather was set to turn in the next six to seven weeks; he could smell autumn in the morning breeze that blew through the fields, even if it was a ways off. Part of living on the land meant knowing it as intimately as he did the feel of a woman’s body.

The hint of yellow along the edges of the maple and aspen leaves confirmed his prediction. That meant calving season was over and they could settle into the other duties that fell on a ranch their size—running the cattle through the early morning fog so they could feed, shoring up fence lines, and repairing any patches the hurricane weather they always got in late summer had torn down. It also meant he could take a ride up the creek bed or plateau behind the ranch house without worrying about rattlers encroaching on the trail.

This was the life he’d dreamed of after his other dream—rodeoing his way to fame and stardom—flamed out like a dying star. The high-octane stress of running Marshall Brothers Enterprises with Bennett was his responsibility, not his passion.

And life was short. He knew if he left now, the brothers part of the gig disappeared for Bennett. With their oldest brother Matt still estranged, there wasn’t anyone to replace Jax. But he couldn’t let that get in the way of the one life Jax was gifted, one he didn’t want to squander any more of. He’d signed on the dotted line with a rodeo team and didn’t have a single regret.

Well, save one. Two, if he counted those bags under Bennett’s eyes.

Nora. She-who-wouldn’t-be-named. Bennett had said her leaving Jax was a taste of his own medicine, but it was more than that to Jax.

“You know, meeting women isn’t always a bad thing. Even Maggie agrees.”

“Keep her out of it. I actually still like your wife. Jury’s out about you, though.”

Bennett punched him on the arm playfully. Jax wasn’t in a joking mood, though, which was rare.

“Fine. But am I wrong? It doesn’t have to be with Jill, but you should hang out with people other than us.”

“Listen, if having me around all the time is too much, I’ll back off. You don’t need to feel sorry for me—I actually like being alone.”

And he would be, soon enough.

“No. We like having you. But having friends isn’t a federal offense, Jax.”

“Speak for yourself, jerk,” Jax mumbled. Bennett’s friends didn’t call back night after night asking if he wanted a repeat of their friendship.

“I’m gonna ignore that. Just do me a favor and be nice to Jill at dinner and maybe a little longer while she’s in town. Then you can go back to being your grumpy single self.”

He wasn’t grumpy, not until this brotherly talk, anyway.

It’s just … why, of all the people he had to have dinner with, did it have to be Jill? He plain ol’ didn’t like the woman, no matter who her parents were or how much she meant to his sister-in-law. It wasn’t that she was polished where he was rough or that she spoke down to him every time they’d brushed past each other at Bennett and Maggie’s wedding. Hell, it wasn’t even that she drank white wine with ice for cryin’ out loud. It was that, with her fiery red hair and sea-green eyes, she reminded Jax way too much of she-who-wouldn’t-be-named.

Hell, no matter how hard he’d tried to ignore Jill after they met at the wedding, pervasive thoughts of her kept waking up stuff in his heart he’d rather stay sleeping.

Like the way she spoke, like everyone should shut up and listen. Or the way she flipped her thick, wavy hair out of her face when she was thinking. But her smile was the worst offender by far. Worse than Nora’s by a long shot. It turned up in the corner like Jill held a secret no one else was privy to.

It didn’t help that she’d filled out the pale jade dress with curves that kept him up every night since.

Dammit. When she’d gone back to San Antonio, he’d really been hoping to avoid her for, well, eternity.

What he needed more than dinner, or a good trail ride, was a proper roll in the hay to forget the way Jill put a hand on her hip when she yelled at him with perfect pouty red lips.

He raked a hand down his stubbled jaw, groaning as sand caught in his facial hair got in the small cut along his palm. Stupid calves and their stupid ability to skirt beyond razor wire fences.

Well, if he was gonna put up with someone who rubbed him all the wrong ways, he was also gonna make Bennett pay for it. The steak Gander had just robbed him of was nothing compared to the filet Jax was gonna order.

“I’m not grumpy, I’m just…”

A fly landed on his shoulder, and he swatted it away. He wouldn’t miss those come winter. As the strong sun lowered, he squinted. That, he would miss.

He let the rest of the sentence evaporate into the warm, Texas air.

But I’m not gonna like it.

“Great.” Bennett slapped him on the shoulder. “Maggie was right. You can be reasonable when it suits you.”

Jax’s laugh reverberated against the walls of the barn.

None of this suited him.

“What’s so funny?” Bennett asked.

“Oh, I’m not laughing ’cause any of this is funny. It’s freaking tragic.”

And the definition of irony. Because his date with Jill was a string of flagrant reminders of why he avoided relationships to begin with.

“Well, get over it. Go have a beer and trail ride and be ready to go tomorrow night.”

Jax hated that his brother had his number. Bennett started heading out of the barn toward the main ranch house. At the door, he turned back around. “Thanks, Jax. This means a lot. I know damn good and well I wouldn’t be here without you.”

Tell him. Tell him now before it’s too late.

His mouth opened, but all that came out was, “You’re welcome.”

And then Bennett was gone, and with him, Jax’s chances of coming clean about his upcoming move.

“I can’t stay, though. I need to do my own thing for a while,” he whispered into the stale barn air. What were the chances his words had carried on the breeze to his brother’s ears?

Slim. Like his chances of getting through tomorrow night without wishing he’d never come home all those years ago. Because maybe then he’d never have laid eyes on Jill Henley and he wouldn’t have the sinking feeling that for the second time in his life, everything was about to change.

Jill inhaled deeply, letting the smell of creosote and campfire snake through her nose, down her throat, settle in her chest. Echoing through the canyon was proof of life—water bubbling and chatting along its path, cattle and horses communicating in their own language of throaty whines and mumbling. Even the town a few miles away with its more modern, mechanical noises was alive.

Lily had her nose buried in a copse of local flora, her tongue wagging as much as her tail was in appreciation.

Huh. So Maggie was right. Life did exist outside the city. Slower, yes, but she didn’t mind it. Not for the couple days she’d be in the Austin and Deer Creek areas, anyway.

Get in, go to the stupid dinner with Jackson Marshall, hear Maggie’s big news, and celebrate at León’s in the city. A short enough trip that she’d enjoy it but long enough to make her dreams come true.

She allowed herself a moment to appreciate the land stretched in front of her, wide and breathing to its own rhythm. The trees that wove through the valley were bordered by the mountain stream; together they resembled a cluster of jade and lapis jewels running up the middle of a red rock tapestry. It was picture perfect, better than what the internet had drummed up for photos of the place.

The combination of smells and sounds and sights carried memories with it, not all of them bad, as she’d feared when she’d come for the wedding over the summer. No, it was the reminder of warm near-autumn nights just like this one, wrapped in the arms of her first love after his rodeo win, stargazing from the bed of his Chevy and sharing a few stolen kisses.

Of riding bareback up the rocky ridge above her father’s land with a tall, raven-haired ranch hand slash rodeo king.

Of cooking freshly caught fish over an open fire by the river, bundled up in sleeping bags and testing the limits of how much sleep a person actually needed.

It was also a not-so-gentle reminder of everything else she’d left behind when she’d said goodbye to the young man, and that lodged uncomfortably in her throat. Best not to let those particular mental souvenirs of her past cloud what she was here to do.

She walked carefully back to her rental car, her San Antonio uniform—a tailored pantsuit and Louboutin heels—making it hard to navigate the rocky terrain. Lucky for her, she’d grown up on land like this and could walk it blindfolded on her hands and be okay.

Her phone buzzed, and she exhaled, forcing a smile to her lips. Her dad could always tell when she answered the phone with a frown and never missed an opportunity to give her grief about it.

“I thought you and Mom had a date tonight,” she said by way of answering the call. “You know, since you’re newly retired and all.”

“Well, hello to you, too. I’m just checking in to make sure you made it okay.”

“Didn’t you get my text?” she asked. She knew the answer, though. Her dad still didn’t understand that when he started to reply, those three little dots appeared under her text, only to disappear and be replaced by a phone call. “Why are you really calling?” she asked, refusing him time to answer her first question.

“You got me, hon.” The laugh that came through the line was tight. “I’m just making sure you’re okay with your choice. Danny doesn’t sign the paperwork until next week.”

She swallowed a sigh.

“I am. Dad, we talked about this. I love what you’ve done with Henley Apparel, and I’m so grateful you let me consult and learn from you. But it’s time for me to make my own path.”

It was long overdue. She’d given them as much time as she could. She didn’t have any regrets about wearing herself thin working for both them and Maggie all those years, not especially now that Maggie had something big to tell her.

It was time to let that hard work pay off in support of her own dreams.

Lily came out of the bushes and collapsed at Jill’s feet, a blade of grass on her chin a dead giveaway about what the dog had been up to. Jill bent down to brush it off and scratch behind Lily’s ears. She no longer cared if her dog nibbled on grass; the vet had assured her Lily was only doing it to calm her canine version of morning sickness.

“You there?” her dad asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, standing. “Lily’s just being a ding-dong.”

“How’s my grandpup doing?”

“Still pregnant but other than that, she’s the same spoiled princess.” Jill was trying not to worry about Lily’s growing belly, about what it would mean in a month’s time when she had to figure out what to do about a brood of puppies. By her estimate, Lily was halfway through her pregnancy, thanks to some stray dog at the dog park. That was what Jill got for bringing her laptop to get some paperwork done at the picnic table that day. And for waiting to spay Lily until she decided if she wanted purebred puppies. Well, that decision was made for both of them, wasn’t it?

She didn’t even know which dog had defiled her sweet girl.

Her dad laughed, lightening the mood until he chimed back in, “Anyway, I was just saying nothin’ makes a parent prouder than their kid’s success. Believe it or not, we raised ya to spread your wings.”

She only half believed him. Her folks didn’t want things to change, and she couldn’t blame them. They’d grown close as a family as she dabbled part-time behind the scenes of Henley. But she’d always be their daughter, and if Maggie officially offered her half the company—something Jill had less-than-subtly hinted at wanting—she could run things from the city as she’d been doing all along. She and her parents could still do weekly dinners, concerts in the park, art galleries followed by brunch—all the things they’d only just started to enjoy together.

“I love you, Dad. And I promise things will be the same as always. It’s not like I’m moving here. It’s just a couple days to finalize some details for some pretty big shifts in the company and then I’ll be back to help you plant those squash seeds you’re procrastinating putting outside.”

What she didn’t say? A couple days from now and she’d be coming back to San Antonio with proof her tireless dedication and hard work for Maggie had paid off. It was a big enough blow that she hadn’t taken the mantle at Henley, her namesake and family’s company. That she gave it up for ownership stake in a company her friend had helped build, a company worth a tenth of what Henley was, would crush her dad.

Better to let him think what he wanted and keep the details to herself.

Still… The thought sent a shiver of excitement across Jill’s skin. Maggie’s request to come to Deer Creek had been a long time coming. She’d finally earned a seat at the table she’d designed.

“No, I get it, and no one’s faultin’ ya for choosing your own way. But—” Jill closed her eyes, bracing for what came next. Her excitement evaporated in the warm desert air. “You’ve still got a spot with Henley, and a good one at that. Danny said he’ll gladly keep you on as VP. Captaining a multimillion-dollar company’s nothing to shake a fist at, honey.”

And there it was. Nothing would ever be good enough if it wasn’t the family business.

Not her own multimillion-dollar deal she helped broker on behalf of Steel Born, not the company she helped build completely from scratch. Not even the fact that when Maggie signed her on as a partner, they would be at the helm of the second-largest ranching supply business in the country, the only one that was female owned and operated.

It was why she’d broken her connection to Henley, or so she’d thought. If she knew she had a tie there, who was to say she’d give Steel Born—her true love—her undivided attention? No, she needed to be on her own, without the safety net of her father’s work to keep her afloat.

“I love you, Dad. But Steel Born is my future.”

“It’s not even your company.”

She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Not yet it wasn’t, but wasn’t that why Maggie called her to Deer Creek rather than sending an email or setting up a video chat? To ask her to take her share of the company they’d more or less built together? Nothing her dad needed to know until it was done, though.

“You’re right, but I get creative input here like I never could with you and Mom. What you’ve built is incredible, but the rodeo life isn’t … it isn’t me.”

“I seem to recall it used to be.”

“Touché. Turns out your boyfriend spending more time in the hospital than with you is a quick way to fall out of love with the sport.” How many sponsored athletes had they visited in the hospital after a bad fall? The rodeo equaled danger and uncertainty and she’d had enough of that for a lifetime.

“What happened to Liam was awful, honey, but how’s ranching any different?”

“You know good and well that ranching and rodeo are as different as driving a car to get to work and racing in the Indy 500. Besides, I work in the city for a ranching company. Not at all the same.”

The sigh on the other end permeated the silence.

“I just wanna see you living your own life, not someone else’s. Your mom and I are worried you’ll look back after catapultin’ your friend’s company to fame and wish you’d done something for yourself.”

That was exactly what she was doing, but it was a little more complicated than her dad was aware of. She might have started as an assistant, but she’d proven herself to Maggie and it had paid off. They’d brokered a deal with Orin Mechanics that would set her up with her own branch of the company. Orin had the clientele, from multimillion-dollar operations like MBE to amateur ranches, while Maggie and Jill had a superior product to outfit all of them, largely thanks to Jill’s input. She’d made her own stronghold in Texas—without the Henley name.

Well, mostly. The name helped in getting the Deer Creek warehouse rezoned to house ranch equipment waiting to be delivered to clients, but she couldn’t help that part of her birthright, could she?

“Hey, sweetie. It’s Mom.”

Of course, her mom had been listening in.

“Hi, Mom.”

“I told your father about the conversation you and I had the other day, about you finding your own way and wanting more than Henley Apparel and Gear.”

“Okay, then why are you both—”

“So, what if—”

“Now, Ella, we said we would wait till she got back and talk to her in person,” her dad interrupted.

Stress accumulated in Jill’s chest like fallen snow—slowly at first but enough to build up and block traffic.

“Well, I’m changing my mind. What if you stayed on board as a consultant? Then you could still help your friend—”

“It’s more than help, Mom. This is a full-time job.” More than full-time most days. That would only worsen once she was an equal partner of Steel Born.

“Sure, sweetie. But as a consultant, you’ll just be holding your place. Danny could be flexible.”

Jill sighed. It would be the prudent decision to hedge her bets, but with one foot stuck in her old life, she’d never fully move into the one she imagined for herself. If she failed, she wanted to do it spectacularly on her own.

“Guys, I love your concern, and I appreciate it, I do. But I quit because this is the right move for me, and selling to Danny is the right move for you.”

“But…”

She smiled. Her father knew her better than anyone. Well, better than most people.

“But nothing. I’m confidently turning down a sound investment because it isn’t the right fit. Aren’t you the one who taught me that?”

“Doesn’t it figure you’d find a way to use my wise words against me?” He chuckled though, letting her off that hook. “So, what’s your plan? You gonna swoop in and take over now that your friend is married to the MBE CEO? Because that would make sense.”

How did her dad know—

“Dad…” she admonished while her folks bickered in the background. But was that what she’d done? Bullied Maggie into giving her a share of the company her friend had started from scratch?

No. You earned this. It was a reward for keeping the company afloat the past half a year while Maggie grieved and built back her father’s property from the brink of ruin. That and helping Maggie remember their pact to never let a man get in the way of their dreams. The thing was, Maggie hadn’t, not really. Bennett Marshall loved Maggie, supported her dreams to the letter, and was as sweet as a cowboy could be.

Unlike his little brother. She frowned. Jackson Marshall was the opposite of Bennett. Wings on his boots, a little too quick to laugh off the real issues facing the town regarding drought and fire danger, and arrogant as all get-out.

Cute, too. She ignored her subconscious, which was wrong anyway. Jax wasn’t cute. Handsome and rugged, maybe mischievous, even. But not cute.

And he’d called her an entitled city slicker with more fashion than business sense. Jerk.

Which was exactly why she didn’t want to go to the dinner Maggie’d asked her to attend with Jax while she was in town. But Steel Born’s first major deal with MBE—before the Orin Mech agreement—was an impossible proposition to turn down. Bennett had signed a multimillion-dollar deal that helped every ranch in Deer Creek; one lousy dinner was worth it, even if it came with Jax, who she couldn’t quite trust.

After her previous experience with rodeo cowboys, could anyone blame her?

Yes, but he had the strength to quit the rodeo when his family needed him.

She ignored the sassy tone her subconscious had taken today. Once a rodeo cowboy, always a rodeo cowboy.

And what about the adorable dance he shared with the flower girl at the wedding?

A one-off. Anyone could be sweet when they were plied with free champagne. At least she didn’t have to work with the guy after tomorrow night.

Yeah, but he didn’t have to drive that couple home who’d overindulged at the wedding—

“Shut up,” she whispered to her head.

“What’s that?” her dad asked.

She shook Jax from her thoughts. Lily snored at her feet. Another byproduct of being knocked up—falling asleep at will, anywhere. Oh, were Jill as lucky. She could use a good nap and reset.

“Nothing. Just talking to a bad driver,” she said, the white lie floating away with the dry breeze.

“Listen, I’m just teasing. You know, we could fly out there before your dinner meeting, see the place and offer you some advice—” he tried.

“Dad! You two are retired. So go relax. I’ve got this. I was trained by the best, you know.”

“Yeah, we know.”

“We just don’t want to see you get hurt,” her mother added.

She wouldn’t be. What she wanted, she worked for, and she’d worked her backside off for this deal. A potential run-in with Jax Marshall was a small price to pay.

What about working with him after that?

She’d cross that bridge when the one she was on flooded.

“Thanks, guys. But I need you to let this go, okay? I mean it. I’ve made my choice, for better or worse.”

“Okay. We said our piece, and you heard us; that’s all we wanted. Good luck, hon. But know we’re here as your parents if you ever need anything.”

“I know. I love you guys, and I’ll call you when I’m heading home this weekend.” She hung up and sighed out almost two decades worth of frustration.

Home. What a complicated word when she was standing atop a ridge that looked like a mirage of everything she’d once wanted—a life spent outdoors with a man she loved and a gaggle of children playing in the open swathes of ranchland, Texas.

But Liam had forced her hand, hadn’t he? He was never going to quit the rodeo, and she wasn’t going to stand by and watch it kill him ride after ride. His last injury, the one that had paralyzed him from the waist down, she’d seen coming from the first broken arm.

Her mother’s parting words echoed in the cavern that was her empty heart. I don’t want to see you get hurt.

It was a little late for that, wasn’t it? She’d chosen safety and security over love. And still, hurt inevitably followed. So did a lingering question—could she have prevented Liam’s paralysis if she’d just held out a few more years?

Don’t do that. Her subconscious was right. She couldn’t have given up her life for him any more than she could do the same for her father now. She’d never wanted to be a Henley, at least not on the employee end of things; her heart wasn’t ever in it. Sure, she could stick it out and make good money with a guaranteed career. But the company and her both deserved more, didn’t they? Steel Born made her heart race, made her want to stay at the office after hours. That was the career she wanted—one that didn’t feel like a job.

She wouldn’t mind a man like that, too, but one thing at a time.

Jill pulled a small, pink Post-it note from her pocket, the sticky part along the back long since worn off. The ink on front was fading, too, the paper soft as a tissue after all this time of being carried anywhere she went. She’d reinforced it with tape, but even that was tearing along the edges.

She ran her fingers over the scrawl, tracing the words she knew by heart.

WE WON’T EVER GIVE UP OUR FUTURE FOR A MAN WHO WON’T DO THE SAME FOR US.

Both Maggie and Jill’s names were at the bottom of the two-inch square, signing into contract their hopes for each other. She gazed over the edge of the lookout and smiled, watching a young woman wrangle a heifer at the base of the hill. That’d been her and Maggie when they’d met just after college, both wide-eyed, stubborn, and hell-bent on roping their dreams. The sticky note came just two years later, right after her break-up with Liam, and for Maggie, her decision to stay in San Antonio and build a business.

Neither young woman wanted to go back to where they’d grown up and neither had. Until last year when Maggie’s dad died. His death had made her the heir to his failing ranch, but it also propelled her back into the arms of her high-school sweetheart.

A small twinge of jealousy fluttered against Jill’s rib cage.

Maggie hadn’t broken their Post-it deal, but the happiness she’d found in Deer Creek and Bennett had left Jill to reconsider her own future.

The shift that followed wasn’t a bad one. She was on her way to owning part of a company she’d helped build from the ground up, a company her family had nothing to do with. She’d built a home in the city and found her groove. Jill Henley was making her own way in life.

She breathed in the moist summer air, smiling as a hint of honeysuckle teased her senses.

This. This is why I’m here, willing to face all my demons. Specifically, the Henley family name that led them into battle in her heart. She could do this without her parents or their help. She had to.

Because of another promise she’d made all those years ago. One that never made it on to a Post-it. Liam might’ve forgotten it under the crushing weight of his own dreams that had turned on him, but she hadn’t. Not for a moment.

All his other promises—that he’d quit the rodeo and come for her when she’d finished school, that they’d build a small, cozy cabin on the southern edge of his property line and have a slew of babies that would force them to add on to the cabin—he’d broken as cleanly as the accident had broken his spine.

But she’d held onto this. Her dignity demanded it, even if the words were more a contract with herself than a promise to any fragment of memory attached to Liam.

“I, Liam Walker, promise to love you, Jill Henley, for my whole life. I’ll help you chase your dreams as soon as I make enough money on mine.”

A rogue tear fell and caught on her lashes. That had been her flaw—allowing his dreams to matter more than hers. An ache welled up as big and deep as the canyon walls in her stomach. All she’d wanted was to believe in this promise and cash in on his love every day for the rest of their lives. Now, though, she supposed she had to settle for the life she’d reclaimed when, after three years of waiting, she’d stopped believing he was ever going to come for her.

He hadn’t, and never would. But she could still chase down the ghost of the dream, even if the deep love and cabin filled with kids was off the table.

She turned back to the car. The problems of the past were behind her. Time to steel herself for dinner with Jax. Guys like him—rodeo men at heart—were the reason living alone was fine by her.

She started her rental, not bothering to plug her destination into the GPS. For the first time in her adult life, she knew exactly where she was going. Despite her misgivings about a certain Marshall brother, she couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips or the optimism that pushed all the unwanted memories back where they belonged.

She’d prepared for this, and nothing—not her parents’ pleas, or even a good-looking neighbor—was going to distract her from her goal: take what was rightfully, contractually, hers. If she didn’t, she had everything to lose.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping July 23, 2024

One Lucky Cowboy is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-44-2

July 23, 2024

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