A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy

Book 2 in the Jasper Creek Series
Satisfyingly Spicy

Four best friends return home to find more than they ever dared dream of in this delightful quartet from bestselling author Caitlin Crews, Maisey YatesNicole Helm, and Jackie Ashenden.

Caitlin’s novella, How to Win Him, is Kit’s story.

When they were girls, best friends Hope, Charity, Pru and Kit made a pact that if, at thirty, they weren’t happy with their lives, they would return home to Jasper Creek, Oregon. And when Hope’s wedding implodes, they decide it’s time.

While Hope is uncertain she’ll find her way back to the man she left behind, Kit finds herself kissing the man of her high school fantasies, good girl Charity decides to have some fun with a bad boy and Pru develops feelings for the one man she shouldn’t touch – her brother’s best friend

All they wanted was to make their small-town childhood dreams a reality. But along the way, these best friends also have to contend with their very own good old-fashioned cowboys…

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Kit Hall had never had the slightest intention of returning to Jasper Creek, Oregon, for anything more than a quick holiday visit.

In fact, she’d always been actively opposed to the very idea. She’d assumed that the life she would be leading at age thirty would be so objectively brilliant that the topic of the pact she’d made with her three best friends a million years ago would never come up.

Or, if it did, that it would apply to her friends but not to her. Never to her.

She’d dedicated most of her life to making sure of it.

And on paper, she’d succeeded. Even her father thought so. And Lawrence Hall—who’d spoken truth to power (his take) as the editor of the local paper since before Kit’s birth yet preferred to be known for his true passion (his words), The Jasper Creek Chapbook, which featured seasonal volumes of poetry, vignettes, and worthy essays (all written by him, of course)—was the self-appointed arbiter of all things intellectual in this corner of rural Oregon.

Kit had departed this little town, which sat in a largely overlooked state that no one who wasn’t from here ever pronounced correctly, like a comet. She had started getting ready for greatness there and then.

She’d insisted on being called by her legal name, Katherine, before her plane had touched down on her way to Princeton. Because Princeton was serious and Kit intended to be serious right along with it. And after she’d gotten herself an Ivy League education, she’d taken it a step further. She’d followed up her summers of interning at Carriage & Sons, publisher of possibly the most nose-bleedingly literary masterpieces ever committed to paper, by becoming an editor of said masterpieces.

If anyone had told her, back when she’d first walked through the doors of the iconic Manhattan building where Carriage & Sons had been housed since the nineteenth century, that she would end up out of publishing, back in Oregon, and spending the summer in a farmhouse with her three best friends, Kit wouldn’t even have laughed. It would have been too absurd to laugh at.

But there was no denying that was exactly where Kit was.

Out on the front porch steps of this sweet old farmhouse, looking out over the deep green hills that could only mean she was home. With the three people who knew her best.

For better or worse.

She clutched the compass necklace they’d all worn since childhood like it was a talisman.

Because it was a talisman.

“I go by Katherine now,” she had told her friends in Chicago the last weekend in May, on the morning of the canceled wedding that had started all of this.

Because they’d apparently needed constant reminders.

“Do you, Kit?” Pru, who Kit thought should have been an ally, given how much she hated her full name, had smirked at her.

Kit had already been uncomfortable in her bridesmaid’s gown, in a horrific shade of lilac that made her look jaundiced. She obviously preferred her adopted Manhattan uniform of all black, all the time, with perhaps a gray T-shirt to mix it up when she was feeling spicy.

“Since college, actually,” Kit had replied, not exactly under her breath.

Charity’s placid doctor’s smile from within the embrace of her own lilac horror had not been remotely supportive. “I love how when people at the rehearsal dinner asked Kit where she went to college, what she said was, ‘I went to school in New Jersey.’ Then waited. Everyone else on earth names the college they went to when asked. Except Ivy League people. Why is that?”

“You know why,” teased Hope, their bride-to-be. The bride-to-be-that-wasn’t—though at the time they’d been in the last moments of not knowing that. Of not knowing that what should have been a happy occasion would instead see them all shacked up together in Jasper Creek , having tossed their old lives aside. “They don’t want you to be embarrassed that they are so finely educated.”

“Katherine is actually my name,” Kit had continued to murmur to the receptive audience of her lilac monstrosity. “It’s literally on my driver’s license.”

“Let me guess.” Pru had rolled her eyes, grinning. “Everyone in the city calls you Katherine on command.”

“They do. Because people in New York know that it’s my actual name.”

“You’ve been Kit since we met in the cradle.” Charity had waved a hand. “Everybody in New York City can call you whatever they want. You’ll always be Kit to us.”

In a way, that had been foreshadowing. And Kit had run with it.

Katherine Hall, a senior editor at the haughtiest of all the publishing houses in Manhattan, certainly couldn’t quit her job and break her apartment lease on a whim, move back to the Pacific Northwest, and decide to open what would certainly be considered the trashiest of all the trashy bookstores.

Kit, on the other hand, had started sneaking her grandmother’s romance novels when she was twelve. One of the finest days of her life had been discovering that her mother had long been doing the same. Theirs had always been a quiet rebellion, conducted under Kit’s father’s nose—which he would’ve lifted in disdain had he known that the literary halls of his home were thus polluted by popular fiction of any type.

But especially, especially, romance novels.

Everyone she knew either was or would be appalled to discover that Kit had, long ago, dreamed of opening a cute little bookshop that sold the books she actually liked. And that she was now, thanks to her friends, launching herself straight on into that dream. Kit couldn’t really believe it herself.

She heard the farmhouse’s screen door open behind her, followed by footsteps across the porch, and then Charity settled in next to her on the top step.

Kit lifted her coffee mug in tribute. Charity grinned sleepily and did the same, though her mug was filled with tea.

For a moment, Kit stopped thinking about her New York dreams and the fact she’d given up on them. For a moment, she sank into the easy, casual intimacy she’d missed.

Charity didn’t have to say anything. They’d been involved in the same long, comfortable conversation for most of their lives. All four of them had. It was tempting to say that they were like sisters, but Kit knew people with sisters. They never seemed to get along the way she and her friends always had, whether they chose to use her legal name or not. It didn’t matter how long it had been since they’d talked, or had seen each other. They all slotted right back into place again, the way they always did.

That was why all four of them still wore their compass necklaces.

And why, if she was honest with herself, they’d all felt they could admit they weren’t happy in their lives and had come back here—no matter how much they might have preferred to pretend it was all an act of solidarity with Hope.

So even though Kit could have said a thousand things, what she did was sit there, pressing her bare toes against the rickety top step of the porch until it squeaked. She and Charity watched the sun climb up over the rolling hills of a green Oregon summer, fresh and bright and bursting with flowers and birdsong.

“Who drank the last of the coffee but didn’t start a new pot?” came a grumpy voice from behind them. Hope.

Kit didn’t bother craning her head around. “Was it so fancy in Chicago that you forgot how to make coffee?”

“All I know is that you appear to have coffee, and I do not. No fanciness involved.”

“You snooze, you lose,” Charity singsonged.

There was the sound of even louder footsteps behind them, heralding Pru’s arrival. They called her Pru-ricane for a reason.

“Pru, there’s no coffee. Yet both Charity and Kit have some,” tattled Hope.

“I have tea,” Charity clarified.

“A clear and egregious violation of the house rules,” Pru judged.

Kit turned around, then stood to face her other two best friends through the screen. They’d added to the original house rules they’d made when they first arrived here, but she would have remembered if there was a coffee amendment. “You don’t get to randomly decide that something is a house rule just because you’re cranky in the morning.”

“I think you’ll find that house rules are house rules, Katherine,” Pru said loftily. “You agreed when we made our new pact. No cell phones, weekly meetings in the living room, being social, no unauthorized seafood and especially no salmon—”

“I swear the salmon is reproducing,” Hope said darkly. “Every time I look at it, there’s more.”

Charity frowned at her. “Why are you looking at the salmon?”

“Why didn’t you leave the salmon in Chicago with the remains of your wedding feast instead of transporting it across the country?” Kit asked at the same time. “That’s a better question.”

And,” Pru said as if none of them had spoken, “not being the kind of questionable roommate who leaves an empty pot of coffee sitting on a hot burner, like a taunt.”

Kit sighed. “I’ll remember this ruling, Prudence.”

“I would have made more coffee,” Charity offered as she got to her feet. “But I didn’t realize Hope and Prudence were baby ladies.”

“Didn’t you?” Kit asked.

She briefly wished she had her locked-away cell phone, because she would have loved to take a snapshot of the look on Hope and Pru’s faces, then threaten to post it. They’d all agreed to spend the summer without their phones, mostly because that way their previous lives couldn’t haunt them. Hope’s in particular.

What Kit found funny was how not awful it had been so far to be without the phone that was usually welded to her hand. Who knew she didn’t actually need it? And it also provided a handy excuse for why she wasn’t calling anyone now that she was back. Like her father.

They all cheerfully called each other shocking names on the way to the kitchen where Kit made a theatrical production worthy of Broadway out of putting on another pot of coffee. After which they moved into the living room to watch Kit accept her punishment.

This was part of the pact they’d made. They’d come to this farmhouse for the summer to make good on their childhood notion that the four of them would run darling little shops along the main street of Jasper Creek, like the games they’d played when they were little. With leases being practically handed out by the mayor, as long as the shops could be ready before the town’s centennial in early August, how could they refuse? They couldn’t. They hadn’t.

Charity had done all the research. The particular corner of Main Street where the shops stood had been derelict for ages. When the tourists had started to discover Jasper Creek, they’d found the old brick buildings charming despite their condition and were forever taking pictures in front of them. That was part of why Kit, at least, felt certain they’d be able to make a go of things. If the buildings drew in tourists without any shops in place, imagine what would happen if there were things there to buy?

But the summer was about more than darling dreams. It was about happiness. Hope’s happiness after her wedding disaster, specifically, which they’d decided meant she had to meet people and date…someone. And since they were all single—another reason they were all up for this adventure—they would date, too. Kit liked to tell herself that this was yet another example of what an amazing friend she was to Hope, but the truth was, she’d long since grown tired of what passed for dating in New York City. She was all app-ed out. And she couldn’t help thinking that the last time the idea of boys had really truly been fun had been in high school with her best friends. Why not re-create that?

Besides, she figured it was low risk. This was Jasper Creek. How many single men could there be? Much less, single men who didn’t find her too much.

They’d found some old magazines from 1945 in the living room of the farmhouse and had taken the husband-hunting tips in them as their guide. Pru had written out all the tips and thrown them in a jar, to use as punishments. And challenges.

But mostly punishments.

Because they were funny.

They were funny when it was happening to everyone else, that was. Kit found the whole thing significantly less amusing when it was her; but still, it was nice to have to walk around town with a reason for being an oddball. Instead of being one because she didn’t fit in with anyone but her three best friends.

Which was pretty much the story of her childhood.

Kit scowled when she read hers. “I can’t do this.”

“I believe that’s another violation right there, Katherine.” Hope blew on her coffee. Serenely. “Are you refusing to accept your slip?”

Kit rolled her eyes so hard they hurt, and found herself glaring around the pretty little farmhouse living room. Because that was better than looking at her friends’ smug faces. She glared so hard a book fell off one of the bookshelves and she was more than happy to go and pick it up while rearranging her not-a-team-player expression before she was called out on it.

Sometimes she thought this farmhouse was a little bit magical, but she didn’t dare say that out loud. The mockery might end her.

No matter how many times they got back from a day in town to find the ancient Victrola playing old Andrews Sisters songs, it was easier to pretend they thought one of them had done it instead.

“I accept the call of the slip,” she said when she could do it without rolling her eyes. “But I don’t see how I’m going to tell the guy I have coming today how to build my bookshelves when I’m supposed to be…” She eyed the slip in her hand again, but it hadn’t changed. And she counted herself lucky that she didn’t have to wear a wedding dress in public the way Pru had. This was much better. “Letting a single desolate tear fall down my face while standing in a corner.”

Pru snorted at that. Hope took the slip from Kit’s hand and cackled. “I like that it’s a desolate tear. As if a single but somehow happy tear would ruin the whole thing.”

“Are single tears ever anything but desolate?” Charity asked. “Because if you were laughing so hard that you started crying that would be a lot of tears, not just one.”

“I prefer no tears,” Pru muttered.

“And like you don’t know who that guy is, Kit.” Hope shook her head. “Like somehow, with all your time running around New York City, you somehow forgot Browning West.”

Browning West. A man who had always been his whole name, even when he was a kid.

“I didn’t forget him. But I didn’t remember him, either. Specifically.”

“That’s a lie,” Pru said. “Nobody doesn’t specifically remember Browning West.”

“Do you remember when he was dating Chelsea Mackavoy?” Charity asked dreamily. “And they would make out in the chemistry lab?”

“I don’t know that I would describe what Browning West did in high school as dating,” Hope countered.

“The way he would put his hand in the back of her jeans…” Charity trailed off.

They all sighed…because they all remembered. Kit certainly did. Browning West was one of a handful of brothers from a ranching family, all sons of the marvelously named Flint West, and all possessed of names relating to firearms. It was a story Kit had dined out on both at Princeton and in New York. The older West brothers had been either too stern or too taken or both, but Browning had been far too good-looking, as well as cheerfully promiscuous, as a teenager.

He’d been breathtaking. A car crash waiting to happen.

But oh, what a glorious ride first.

“Let’s get real,” she said now, because she had done no riding of any kind in high school and certainly not with him. “A guy like Browning West was on a downhill slope even back then.”

“But his hands,” Charity murmured.

Kit ignored that. “Look. He was a whole thing in high school, I grant you. But none of us are in high school anymore. Everybody knows that the kind of guy who peaks as a teenager has nowhere to go but down. And fast. Into despair.”

“That’s the saddest thing you’ve ever said to me, Kit Hall,” Hope declared. “The entire point of Browning West is the fantasy. I think you know that.”

“I’m just saying that we might need to adjust our expectations. I’m expecting a beer belly, a receding hairline, a face like a map of regret and, possibly, a slew of baby mamas. The prom king gone to seed, in other words.”

Pru eyed her. “You’re a ruiner.”

“If the hand situation is still stellar you can always take the rest on,” Charity said hopefully. “Like another renovation project.”

“The bookstore is more than enough,” Kit replied. Severely, because it was true, the hand thing had been epic and she needed to get her head out of that gutter.

They disbanded then to get ready for their mornings as shopkeepers—with shops that were still in varying degrees of disarray. Kit caught a ride into town with Pru, and they were too busy listening to music turned up far too loud, the way they always had in high school, to continue poking at each other. Both being their favorite pastimes.

“What are you doing with your face?” Pru asked as they parked around the back of their row of shops and climbed out of the car, coffee from the cute little coffee cart in hand.

“If you must know, I’m attempting to produce any moisture at all, much less one single, desolate tear.” She tried again. Harder.

Pru did not look impressed. “You look constipated.”

Kit did not dignify that with a response. Instead, she walked to the back door of her shop and forgot all about tears, desolate or otherwise, because there wasn’t much she liked better than pulling out the key to her very own shop.

Her shop.

She let herself in, switching on the lights and then smiling around at the walls and rooms that were now hers. Hers. She could fill this place with books she loved. And talk to others who loved them too and, like her, would have given anything for a shop that catered to their private addictions. No boxes of Gram’s books here, hidden out of sight, but all those bright and happy covers cheerfully displayed.

Kit was lucky because her shop, with its two big bay windows that looked out over the street, hadn’t been in quite the rough shape that some of the others were. All four shops shared a common basement—which housed the safe where they’d locked away their cell phones for the duration—but Pru’s feed store couldn’t even begin to take form until she finished clearing away all the old stuff that was packed in there. All Kit had needed to do was sweep and scrub, then throw out a few boxes of debris.

Which was why she was ready for bookshelves a week into her new life.

She could see it all so clearly in her head, as if she’d been doing nothing but planning to open a shop like this for years instead of shuffling back and forth between work and her tiny studio apartment, never quite taking advantage of all the magic and mystery New York was supposed to have on offer. It did, but there was never time. She was always tired. And there was always more work to be done. More manuscripts to read, more editing to do, more endless meetings to sit through.

The first time she could remember reading a book for fun in years had been on the plane back from the horror of Hope’s wedding. She’d agreed on the spot that it was time to activate the pact, but she hadn’t thought they’d all go through with it. Surely it had simply been talk to get Hope through. But then she’d grabbed a big, fat paperback romance from the airport bookstore and hadn’t tried to hide what it was from her seatmates. And she’d been so happily diverted all the way home that she hadn’t even noticed that air traffic control had them circling New York for an extra hour before landing.

She’d taken it as a sign.

Then acted on it.

The reality of an actual store that she had to fill with books she would then need to sell was a little more daunting. But Kit figured that as soon as she got shelves in and books to put on them, everything would fall into place. Because she knew what she would want if she walked into a romance bookstore, and she assumed that other readers would feel the same way.

She unlocked the front door, then opened the windows wide, letting in the sweet, cool breeze of the summer morning.

Sighing happily, she went into the back room, where she would put used books so folks could trade in books they didn’t want and try out new authors more cheaply. She was standing in the middle of the room—imagining it filled with books and happiness and possibly a cat of some kind because bookstores needed cats, obviously, or were they even real bookstores—when she heard the unmistakable sound of cowboy boots against her hardwood floors out in the bigger front room.

And despite all her talk about downward slopes and high-school peaks, Kit felt something in her belly twist.

Because Browning West hadn’t simply been the most dangerously charming boy in school. He’d been half-feral with it, so good-looking it should’ve been a crime, and that was before he’d flashed that wicked grin of his around. Long after she’d left Jasper Creek, Kit had spent a lot of time thinking about what she wanted in a man and it had always been the polar opposite of a Browning West type. She hadn’t spent all these years pining for the high-school Lothario; she’d just been using him as an example.

Of what not to look for.

Accordingly, she’d dated weedy, noticeably intellectual types in New York. Men with pointy wrists and unexciting hands who could talk at length about the latest exhibit at MoMA, debate arcane points of philosophy, and make erudite comments about the importance of things like eclectic jazz ensembles. Men who chose not to have televisions, called themselves aficionados of black-box theater, and were personally appalled by the gentrification of Brooklyn neighborhoods they didn’t live in.

Men who could never be confused for redneck country-boy cowboys.

Men who were not Browning West, the epitome of redneck, country-boy cowboys. Deliciously dirty, maybe, but not the kind of guy she could bring home to Dad.

Her mom, sure. But not her dad, who wanted better for his only child than rural Oregon, as he’d said approximately twenty million times a week while she was growing up. Another reason she was glad he couldn’t call her and force a conversation she wasn’t ready to have.

Kit was already mourning the loss of beautiful teenaged Browning, his cheekbones as sharp as his saunter was lazy, as she arranged her face into an approximation of a smile and walked into her front room.

And then stopped dead.

Because there was a cowboy standing there, all right. Sunlight poured into the room and bathed him in light as if it, too, was a silly teenage girl as obsessed with him as the rest.

There was no hint of a beer belly or any maps of regret. He wore a cowboy hat but Kit knew, somehow, that male pattern baldness was not a challenge this man faced. He was dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, plus the requisite boots, but it was the way he wore them that made her mouth go dry.

She felt a strange heat wash over her, so sharp and sudden that she dimly figured she was having some kind of heatstroke. Even if it was only June. And not at all hot.

He took another step closer, so she could see his face.

God help her.

The Browning West she’d known in high school—in the sense of having seen him from afar, like everyone else, since as an awkward younger girl who was more bangs and braces than the sort of beauty Chelsea Mackavoy flung about so easily, she was beneath his notice—had been lanky. Beautiful, yes, but still a boy.

This Browning West was a man. A grown man, and he’d filled out. His shoulders were wide, his torso a tapered wonder. His legs looked strong in a way that made that heat roll through her again.

And his face looked like a fallen angel’s.

A wave of some kind of impossible, unwieldy emotion washed over her then, and Kit was seized with the sudden, horrible fear that she was about to burst into tears.

But then she remembered that she was supposed to burst into tears.

So she let the odd wave of emotion and his face wreck her, told herself it was because she was one step closer to her dream coming true and it was fine, and cried.

When she never cried.

And not one single, desolate tear, but a whole lot of them.

“I’ll be damned,” came Browning’s amused voice in a drawl like whiskey that felt like a bonfire, and all that heat made her cry even harder. “That’s not the reaction I usually get.”

End of excerpt