The Cowboy Charm


Sinclair Jayne

All work and no play is not how this cowboy intends to spend his day…

Former special forces soldier Ryder Lea has dedicated his life to serving others. Now honorably discharged, he’s looking to return to his cowboy roots to work as a rodeo stock contractor and travel the country he’s spent years protecting. But first, he has an obligation in Marietta, Montana to his fallen commanding officer. Surely completing a few hours of community service won’t be that challenging?

Physical therapist Edison Martin is short-staffed and underwhelmed when the tall, broad-shouldered cowboy with the ‘awe shucks’ smile swaggers into her clinic as her latest community-service volunteer. She needs trained help, not eye-candy. And Ryder reminds Edi of everything she’s lost and every man who’s done her wrong.  

Bound by duty and compassionate by nature, Ryder dives into his temporary role with humor and enthusiasm. His motto: make a difference. But what will it take to get statuesque, super serious Edi to smile and remember that each day is a gift?

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The dying sirocco screeched and wailed at awkward intervals like a grieving mother. Ryder Lea winced. He rarely indulged in melodrama and never self-reflection, but today just might be the exception.

Warily he eyed his Coyote Cowboy Special Forces brothers. Were they waiting for him to crack a joke to ease the tension that clawed through them all? It was a role he’d adopted since childhood, but making light of this moment, this reality felt sacrilegious. All of them stood at attention waiting for the command to load the flag-draped coffin of their team leader, the best man Ryderhad ever known, on his final journey home.

He’d been proud to call Jace McBride friend, and had yearned to emulate him, but he couldn’t indulge his grief. He was the light. Quick with a joke, a prank, or a throwaway line designed to recenter the team. Bond them.

He was the man who took nothing seriously.

Or so they thought.

But Ryder felt trapped alone in this new dark, and none of his brothers—waiting to pick up the remains of Jace’s body—presented any better.

Cross looked like an old man about to puke out his large intestine and wrap it around his neck to hang himself.

Huck’s eyes remained closed, perhaps in prayer that had gone unanswered.

Reluctant and temporary new team leader Wolf Conte looked more isolated than usual.

Rohan Telford was grim as the grim reaper shuffling home with his final soul of the night.

And Calhoun—the Big O Miller—looked like Duke, the Belgian Malinois he’d worked with for six years: focused, smelling trouble and poised to alert or attack. But the beautiful beast was not by his side. Maybe he never would be again. The loyal soldier had been injured in the firefight that had killed Jace. Calhoun had saved Duke’s life long enough to get the warrior evacuated to medical care, but his career was over, and Calhoun looked like he’d had a limb amputated.

Shame rushed over Ryder. He hadn’t been with his team. He’d been benched because he’d been stupid. And a beer over his limit on the unexpected night off when he’d finished his mission early. His easy success should have made him suspicious, not heady and definitely not relaxed. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d loosed his control. He’d lived his life on the edge.

Wolf growled the first command, and all six of them grabbed a brass handle. Again, on Wolf’s command, they lifted as one and walked Jace from the hangar to the conveyer belt that would carry him deep into the belly of the cargo plane. They all watched the slow progression of Jace’s flag-draped coffin into the dark and then they ducked back into the safety of the hangar. There was a break in the storm—only hours before another would bellow heat, sand and doom down their necks, but no, Rohan had a six-pack of beer—ridiculous logo—a moose in a ski suit or something like that. It was tradition. When a team member mustered out, or transferred or died, they were saluted with their favorite beer. Moose Drool was Jace’s although Jace, a master brewmeister as far as the Coyote Cowboys were concerned, had likely just been messing with them. One last laughing middle finger to his devoted team.

A moment like this was when Ryder would usually take a swig of beer and make a joke. He’d developed his jokester persona as a kid, hoping to dodge fists and kicks and protect his sisters from the stepdad of the moment. Sometimes it had even worked, and when he’d entered the service after struggling through his GED, he’d excelled at cutting tension.

Until today.

One more way he’d failed Jace and his team.

“It’s time,” Wolf intoned and pulled Jace’s bloodied helmet out of his duffel. There were scraps of paper inside. They were to each pick one. A task. Or an amend. And complete it in Jace’s honor. No matter what it was. No matter how long it took. No matter how impossible.

Dread pooled in his gut, but like everything hard, he took a step forward, willing to go first.

No matter how much he wanted to rewind time, he couldn’t save Jace, but he could have his death mean something. He could take Jace’s advice. Make a goal. Live his life. Invest finally in himself. Let someone in. Trust someone.

Ryder picked the folded piece of paper and waited for his brothers. As one, they looked down and read.

Ryder pocketed his slip of paper unread. He’d intended to follow Jace to Marietta, Montana, in a few months after his last stint was up, but that was before Jace’s brutal death. Jace had spoken about his hometown so reverently. He’d made the town sound magical, like it was frickin’ Disneyland. Not that Ryder had ever been to the theme park. But Jace had implied miracles could happen in Marietta. Redemption. Resurrection. Like a man could become anyone he wanted.

And Ryder had always wanted to be someone else.

Jace was maybe the only person who’d seen through him and had welcomed him anyway. He’d made him promise to join him in Marietta, and Ryder always kept his promises.

“Hey,” Calhoun busted up his glum thoughts. “Need a solid.”

His voice was barely a whisper. They’d all trained to be as noticeable as wraiths, a whisp of candle smoke in a dark room, but Calhoun had been better at it than most.


Calhoun handed him something metal on a chain. “Guard it for Jace ’til I’m stateside.”

Ryder didn’t even look at the object, just tucked it in a small, zippered pocket in his combat pants where he kept his extra Ka-bar 5020 Fixed Blade Knife.

“With my life,” Ryland said, but didn’t have the stomach to meet Big O’s intense golden-brown gaze.

“I might need another solid.”


Absolutely. Anything.

“I’m tapped for something with Wolf.”

Ryder did look at Calhoun then, but he asked no questions. He may have miscalculated on his last assignment, but need-to-know was ingrained in their bones.

“I’m mustering out later than I thought due to a mission that might have more legs.”

Ryder nodded. Sometimes missions went south. Other times they extended, and you only thought you saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m approved to keep Duke.”

Ryder caught his breath, his heart leapt, and though he thought he’d never smile again, he did and gripped Calhoun’s shoulder.

“Good news. The Duke pulled through.” Best news in a long time. The dog was a soldier and part of their team, though Calhoun had been his handler.

They’d all felt sick when Duke had taken a hit alongside Jace and Huck. He was one of their own. It wasn’t uncommon for a handler to get to adopt his dog after their service was completed, but it also wasn’t guaranteed. The dog was considered a noncommissioned officer and property of the Department of Defense.

“A former soldier in Texas is rehabbing him, retraining him for civvy life. He’ll keep him for me until I’m out and ready, but if and when Duke is healed up and graduates his program before I’m out or if I…”

Ryder suddenly didn’t know where to look.

“I’d prefer him to be with you, with family.”

His eyes burned. Family. The word just busted open the bottomless well in his empty heart. He’d always envied Calhoun having Duke. He and the soldier had had a mystical connection, and the soldier had saved them and hundreds of civilians over the years.

“If something happens…”

“Yes. Absolutely,” Ryder interrupted, not giving his brain time to process the words or form an image of Calhoun on the ground, bloodied, never again rising up.

“Life’s better with a dog,” he quipped, something Calhoun always said. “Especially when we’re the dogs.”

Calhoun stared him down, and Ryder forced himself to face Calhoun, expecting to see blame. Anger. Resentment. He hadn’t been at Jace’s six.

Instead he saw trust and felt gutted.

‘Let go of whatever happened and take the first step forward and then another,’ was something Jace used to say.

Jace wasn’t the only one needing to make amends.

End of Excerpt

The Cowboy Charm is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-961544-78-9

February 20, 2024

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