All Night Long with a Cowboy
Book 3 in the Kittredge Ranch Series
If you play with fire…
One of the most notorious cowboys in Cold River, Jensen Kittredge always has willing women with sweet smiles vying for a place in his bed. So when the prissy high school librarian sidles up to him in the most disreputable bar in town with a scowl on her face, he has no idea what to make of it. Much less the attraction he feels toward the bespectacled creature who wants something from him… but not that. Yet.
Someone gets burned…
Harriett Barnett doesn’t care for dens of iniquity— or the insolent cowboy she certainly shouldn’t find attractive. But one of her students needs her help, and if she needs to corral the infamous Jensen to save him, she will. Trouble is, the town’s favorite Kittredge brother is a lot more than she bargained for. Harriett’s happy little life is orderly and neat, just how she likes it—until Jensen blows it all apart with his particular brand of addictive passion. Can a modern-day schoolmarm really tame the wildest cowboy in town? Or is Harriet headed for a terrible fall?
All Night Long with a Cowboy
Jensen Kittredge was kicked back in his favorite booth in the most disreputable bar in town, enjoying the usual spoils of a fine Saturday night.
The blonde was named Candace, the redhead was calling herself Trixie, and the two brunettes were too busy taking pictures of themselves to offer any biographical information. But the night was young and really, who needed a biography? This was the kind of bar that prided itself on its commitment to anonymity—even when a person was a regular, like he was.
He had eased into the bright, long summer evening with a few beers over a burger at what had once been the only family-friendly bar here in Cold River, Colorado. The Broken Wheel Saloon with its truffle fries and live bands had been the local watering hole since Jensen was a kid. These days—this very day, in fact, if the GRAND OPENING signs festooned over one of the old barns down by the river were any indication—there was a brand-new microbrewery in the mix that Jensen had been reliably informed planned to serve excellent beer and good food too, but he hadn’t gotten around to finding out for himself. Not tonight.
Because it was a Saturday and after a burger and a beer or two, when the summer sun finally made its lazy way toward the horizon, Jensen had headed over to the reliably dark Coyote on the other side of the river, where the booths were too dark, the music was too loud, and trouble was always brewing.
Jensen liked himself a good helping of trouble.
But the apparition that suddenly appeared at the end of his booth, looming over the brunettes with a frown on her face, was not the kind of trouble he liked.
He was a big fan of the no-last-name, don’t-call-me, but-let’s-get-sweaty variety.
The woman standing there like she had a ruler running down her back—like maybe she’d appeared in a puff of prim-and-proper smoke and was feeling crabby about it—made him remember other kinds of trouble. The far less entertaining kinds. The kinds that had involved humorless authority figures, detention, and the parts of high school he hadn’t enjoyed as much as he had the stuff he was really good at. That being girls, football, and more girls.
And Jensen might have been a native of Cold River, surrounded at any given time by folks who knew his mama better than him and could recite every last stunt he’d pulled in middle school from memory—not to mention an alarming number of statistics from the high school football career he had gotten over a long time ago—but that was the point of the Coyote. He might know perfectly well that the lovely, blonde Candace was a nurse over at the hospital with two kids from her no-account ex, but tonight she was no more and no less than a pretty woman in a low-cut top who was tossing back shots and giggling while she did it.
You could be anyone you wanted at the Coyote.
Jensen couldn’t figure out for the life of him why the pinched-face woman in her buttoned-up cardigan and ugly glasses that hid half her face wanted to be . . . that.
“Jensen Kittredge?” she asked.
She didn’t really ask. She said it the same way they’d said his name in all those detentions back at Cold River High. With all that persnickety intent that always led to discussions about the ways in which he was a big ole disappointment to all and sundry.
Jensen took his time knocking back his whiskey, not sure why he couldn’t get high school out of his head when normally he wasn’t the type to sit around waxing nostalgic about his teenage years. He’d had a fine time in high school, insofar as a person could be fine when forced by law to attend a series of boring classes every day, but he greatly preferred being a grown-ass man. Coming as it did with his own money, his own space, and all the women and whiskey he could handle.
Turned out he could handle a whole lot.
“Are you Jensen Kittredge?” the woman asked, her voice a little sharper, like she wasn’t used to being kept waiting. And certainly not by the likes of him.
Something in Jensen kicked into gear at that tone. He knew that tone.
Because it turned out that another thing he was real good at was being ornery—especially when folks seemed to think he was a little too simple, a little too brawny, or a little too much. Which was most of the time, but Jensen didn’t care. He smiled wide, laughed too loud, and they never saw him coming.
He did all of the above and watched the woman stand even straighter as if his laughter was an affront. He sure hoped it was.
“Darlin’,” Jensen drawled, his own tone much too knowing, “I think you know who I am.”
He expected her to deflate at that, so that she was no longer holding her giant purse shoved half under one arm like it was a weapon. Or a security blanket. He thought she might flush, shuffle her feet, and do any number of the flustered, silly things that women usually did in his presence. Whether they were twenty-two or eighty-five.
Instead, this woman’s eyes sharpened. He noticed they were a pale blue, and he had no idea why the noticing made him almost . . . tense. She did not get silly. It had to be said, she didn’t look like she was capable of silliness. Instead, she held his gaze with an uncomfortable directness that might have made him sit up and take notice if he hadn’t been so deeply committed to the lazy way he was currently lounging there.
Then she surprised him even more by shifting the force of her attention to the other women in the booth.
“Ladies,” she said in a brisk, matter-of-fact voice that managed to cut through the haze of jukebox music, bad decisions, and questionable behavior that were the Coyote’s main selling points, in Jensen’s opinion. “If you’ll excuse us, please.”
To Jensen’s astonishment, all four women looked up and seemed to freeze where they sat for a moment. And then actually slid out of the booth, one after the next, as commanded.
When they’d all staggered away, Ms. Prissy Cardigan perched herself in the booth across from him without touching anything but the banquette. And somehow managed to wrinkle her forehead in such a way that he was fully aware of her thoughts on the relative hygiene of the tabletop, the Coyote itself, and not to put too fine a point on it, him.
Again, not the reaction he usually got from women. Especially not women who sought him out in places like this after dark.
“No need for all the theatrics,” Jensen said mildly, amping up his drawl a little because it felt right. “There’s enough of me to go around.”
The woman opposite him, sitting there so primly and looking at him as if he were some kind of specimen beneath an unappealing microscope, smiled.
A wintry, crisp sort of smile.
Not the kind of smile Jensen normally had aimed his way. Especially not here, in this rowdy bar, on a Saturday night.
“I’m sure that kind of boastful statement goes over beautifully with a great many of your usual . . .” And she actually pursed her lips like some kind of Old West schoolmarm. If he recalled correctly, Cold River High still had a few. “Friends.”
“I’m a friendly guy.”
“How charming.” She did not look charmed. “I’m not here to become a member of that . . . brigade.”
Jensen laughed. “That breaks my heart, darlin’. I have it on good authority that I have the best brigade in town. Ask anyone.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” She went as if to fold her hands before her on the table, thought better of it, and dropped them to her lap. Still folded neatly, he was sure. “I’m here on different matter altogether.”
“You do know it’s Saturday night, right?” He shook his head at her sadly as if she really were breaking his heart. “And you’re sitting in a bar. Not just any bar. The Coyote used to be a good old-fashioned, authentic Western house of ill repute. People don’t come here for different matters. They’re here to get their sin on.”
“That’s as may be. I’ve left you a number of messages. None have been returned.”
“I appreciate that, darlin’. I do. But I’m pretty sure I’d remember if I’d given you my number.” He didn’t give out his number to women as a rule. He’d need a new number. But he didn’t see the need to tell her that.
Another wintry smile. “That seems unlikely, given your . . .”
He didn’t lean forward. He sprawled, grinning. “My . . . ?”
It was possible he was goading her.
She adjusted her glasses on her nose. And sniffed. “Your enthusiasm for your friends.”
His grin widened. “I’m known for my enthusiasm, that’s for sure.”
She blinked, a lot like she was recollecting herself, and there was no reason he should be paying such close attention, surely. No matter how much he might enjoy suffering a fool when one appeared, even if it was here.
“The outgoing message claims that it is the official voice mail of the Bar K ranch. You are an employee of the Bar K, are you not?”
Jensen laughed again, louder, and only partly because that was a little bit of a sore subject. Like all family things tended to be in one way or another. “Do you know what the K in Bar K stands for?” But he didn’t wait for her to answer that. “It’s for Kittredge. I’m not so much an employee of the Bar K as a member of the Kittredge family. It’s a messy line, I grant you, but it’s a line all the same.”
“I take that to mean that you are, in fact, employed by the ranch.”
Jensen could have broken it down for her. The Bar K had been in his family since way back when his ancestors decided to hightail it out of the stuffy east and over some mountains—but not all of them—to settle down here in the Longhorn Valley. Where they’d been fighting with the Colorado weather, sometimes with their neighbors, always with the Rocky Mountains, and pretty much daily with the horses they’d been training and breeding since an enterprising ancestor had decided he didn’t much care to run a large-scale cattle operation. He could have told her his thoughts on the stewardship of the ranch and his family’s longtime commitment to the land, bred into him so it felt like a part of his bones. He could have talked awhile about the tension between his grandfather and his father growing up and how that had trickled right on down to the way he, his brothers, and his sister interacted with and second-guessed his parents even now.
But there was no getting into that without further discussions about the current management of the ranch, which shouldn’t have concerned him at all. And wouldn’t have, normally. Because normally, Jensen spent his summers fighting the wildfires that chewed up the western United States year after year. Particularly his beloved Colorado. Jensen hadn’t been around Cold River in the summertime since that first, brutal summer after high school.
And that was where the Bar K was less an employer and more a family concern, like it or not. Because if Jensen had been merely an employee, he might have offered some thoughts and prayers when his father had experienced what everyone was calling a cardiac event, but he would have carried on as normal.
Instead of what he was doing, which was his part of the necessary all-hands-on-deck now that Donovan Kittredge was laid up and driving everyone crazy. Even crazier than he drove them when he was being his usual remote, inaccessible, angrily silent self.
Too bad, his younger brother Riley had said when it was clear how things were going to go this year. No vacation for you.
Jensen had wanted to take Riley’s head off, but only partly because of his comment. Mostly because he just wanted to take Riley’s head off as part of his personal policy as second oldest.
And also because what he did with those fires had nothing to do with a vacation.
His penance was his own business.
But none of his business was up for discussion with this strange woman who was still observing him like he was in a zoo. And on the wrong side of the bars.
“Sure,” Jensen said, slow and easy, her snippy tone still echoing in his ears. I take that to mean that you are, in fact, employed by the ranch. That in fact about killed him. “I work there.”
And he knew something about the woman sitting across from him, then.
Because she didn’t laugh at that, or point out that she knew perfectly well that he was a functioning member of the Kittredge family, which anyone from the Longhorn Valley—or anyone interested in the Bar K for business purposes—would have done. Clearly, she didn’t know what it meant to be a Kittredge. And that could only mean that she wasn’t from here.
Jensen looked at her more closely, but he still didn’t recognize her. Not even in the saw her across a potluck buffet table somewhere way that comprised most of the folks who lived in this hard-to-reach part of his favorite state. And while he was no stranger to women seeking him out, especially on a weekend night at the Coyote, they usually didn’t come dressed like this one was.
As if she’d gotten lost on her way to church.
There was the cardigan that looked as if it doubled as a blanket in cold weather. It was buttoned up over a fussy sort of shirt that was also done up, all the way up her neck, as if she wanted to teach her breasts a lesson by keeping them caged up good and tight. Then again, nothing about that frumpy cardigan or that bizarrely ruffled shirt indicated that she thought even that much about her breasts in the first place.
Which was a pity. Jensen was pretty sure he’d spent his entire fifteenth year thinking about nothing but breasts.
She was blond, though she had her hair coiled around and pinned up in a manner he could only describe as distinctly old-fashioned. She had those clunky glasses perched on her nose, and not in a come-hither kind of a way, like she was trying out a sexy librarian thing. Sadly. And if he recalled correctly, she was also wearing what he’d heard his little sister refer to, and not in a complimentary fashion, as slacks.
Women who tended to spend a lot of time in the Coyote preferred bare skin as a fashion statement.
The only thing this one was flashing was irritation. She was positively vibrating with it.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.
He watched as the woman across from him bristled. “I fail to see what that has to do with anything.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, and I don’t know what it has to do with anything, because I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t even know your name.”
She smiled, but it was pure impatience. “My name is Harriet Barnett.”
And she announced that in the same crisp way, like she expected him to sit up straighter at the sound. He would have to decline. Jensen preferred to live down to low expectations wherever possible.
“I can’t say I recognize you, Harriet.”
Of course that was her name. She looked like she could be anywhere from thirty to sixty, and the name matched. Although, as he gazed at her, he kind of doubted she was much past thirty. It was something about her mouth, far plumper than it had any right to be when he doubted he’d be getting a taste.
“I prefer to be called Miss Barnett,” she informed him, her gaze serious. “And I don’t expect you to recognize me. We’ve never met.”
And to his astonishment, something happened as Jensen gazed back at her, waiting for her to tell him what she wanted from him—which he suspected wasn’t going to be the usual thing women wanted from him. Almost against his will, he found himself . . . intrigued.
Jensen wasn’t a hard man to please most of the time. He liked to work hard and relax harder. He liked sex with no strings, because he already had too much family and that was more relationship nonsense than any man needed. And more than he deserved, because he’d made his vows a long time ago. Most years, he liked his life well enough. But this was already a strange summer. It made him feel edgy that he wasn’t out there fighting fires the way he was supposed to be doing—because that had also been a part of the promises he’d made when he was eighteen. Turned out, even his favorite, no-strings forms of entertainment seemed a lot less fun because of that. Something he previously would have declared impossible.
Yet here was Miss Harriet Barnett. And she was completely different, for good or ill.
“What exactly is it you think I can do for you?” he asked. Mildly enough that it set her to frowning again, so mission accomplished on that. “Here in Cold River’s favorite den of iniquity?”
Her frown did not go away. “A date.”
Jensen really laughed at that. “I’ll admit it. I did not see that one coming.”
Harriet looked even more annoyed, and Jensen accepted the strange and somehow glorious fact that he was enjoying himself.
“I take it neither you, nor anyone else, listens to the voice mailbox at the Bar K,” she said.
With great censure.
Jensen couldn’t stop grinning. Maybe he also wasn’t trying too hard. “I can promise you that you have already given more thought to the voice mail situation at the ranch than I ever have in all my days on this earth.”
“The existence of a voice mailbox suggests that messages can be left there, Mr. Kittredge. And there would be no purpose in that if no one ever listened to them, would there? That’s the bare minimum. At the very least, I’m sure we can agree that a business should do the bare minimum, shouldn’t it?”
“I’ll be sure to take that up with the secretarial staff,” Jensen assured her. Meaning he would take time out of his busy day tomorrow to give his youngest brother, Connor, a hard time about not listening to those messages, simply because he could, because he was older. Although it was less fun to needle his baby brother these days, now that Connor had gone ahead and shacked up with his woman. He was far too revoltingly satisfied to take the bait, most days. “But you should probably know that women don’t usually use the ranch voice mail to ask me out.”
“To ask you out?” She looked as if he’d lapsed into a different language.
“And to tell you the truth, Miss Harriet, I don’t date.” He smiled, letting it get hot and edgy, just for fun. “But I might be convinced to make an exception for you.”
Harriet Barnett blinked. The glasses perched on her nose seemed to call more attention to her eyes, which meant that he couldn’t help but notice she happened to have just about the longest eyelashes he’d ever seen. They made her blue gaze even prettier.
It almost outweighed the way she was still frowning at him.
“You misunderstand me,” she informed him. A bit severely, in his opinion. “I’m not attempting to ask you out, heaven forbid.”
Jensen wasn’t sure if he was entertained or insulted at that point. Or both.
One of her hands rose to her throat, and he thought that if she’d been wearing pearls, she would have been clutching at them just then. “I won a date with you, Mr. Kittredge.”
“It’s much more likely that I knocked you up,” he said idly, with a grin that made her fingers tighten around those imaginary pearls. “I don’t make a habit of raffling off dates.”
Jensen would never call his social life dating. It was usually a little too naked, intense, and happily temporary for that. Besides, he had his hands full without throwing any formal dates into the mix.
“The Harvest Gala takes place every year the night before Thanksgiving,” Harriet told him. Sternly.
“It sure does.” He eyed her lazily as they headed down this tangent. Still game, apparently, though he couldn’t have said why. “My little sister organized it last year.”
“One of the things that were raffled off were nights with various men in the community, and not in a romantic sense. It was all in good fun, for charity.”
That did ring a bell. Jensen recalled sitting in his best suit with his cowboy hat on, laughing uproariously as some of his friends—the ones who hadn’t figured out how to say no to his remarkably tenacious little sister—paraded themselves around onstage so that the rapacious women of the Longhorn Valley could throw money at them.
Luckily, Jensen was generally immune to his younger siblings, to their usual dismay.
“I considered bidding myself,” he told Harriet now, smirking a little. “Just so I could make my brother Zack take me out to a nice meal and call me pretty, but my grandmother did not approve of me wasting the good sheriff’s time like that.”
And besides, it had been even more fun to watch Sheriff Zack get bought by the president of the Ladies Auxiliary, who had been after him to sit down and defend his recent decisions for months.
“Three firefighters were raffled off that evening,” Harriet continued in that same prissy voice of hers. A lot like Jensen was having no effect on her whatsoever. Which was so unusual that once again, he found himself more intrigued than he should have been. “I personally bid on Buddy Spears.”
“Buddy Spears moved out of the county this winter.” Jensen knew Buddy. He was pretty sure Buddy had coached him in Little League approximately a million years ago. The Spears family had lived in town instead of out in the fields like the Kittredges, and Buddy and Elaine had moved away so they could live closer to their grandchildren. Who were presumably being raised somewhere with less intense winters.
Information Jensen possessed because people told him things without him asking or had conversations he couldn’t help overhearing. That was Cold River. There was no such thing as private business. There was only the town and the valley, and everyone in it was part of the same old story.
“As I was duly informed when I called the fire station,” Harriet told him.
“I don’t know why Buddy was auctioning himself off, anyway. Unless he expected Elaine to bid on him. Though to my recollection, Miz Spears did not exactly have the kind of personality that would find a bidding war on her own husband all that amusing. No matter if it was for charity.”
“He was standing in as a proxy, it turns out,” Harriet Barnett informed him. She did not speculate on the Spears marriage or Elaine’s potential thoughts on her husband taking bids, once again proving that she was not a local. “The fire chief said he had always planned to nominate someone to take his place. But I don’t mind telling you, as I told him, I found that false advertising.”
Jensen settled back against his seat. “I just want to make sure we’re on the same page here, Miss Harriet. We’re sitting in the Coyote, without a drink between us, discussing your hurt feelings that you didn’t get to go on a date with Buddy Spears. Who, decent guy though he was, was also what my mama would call no oil painting. And old enough to be your grandfather. And, not to put too fine a point on it, married.”
“I’m not talking about a romantic date, Mr. Kittredge,” Harriet said, a little snap in her voice as if he were being ridiculous. As if he were the problem here. “I’m the librarian at Cold River High. I intended to give money to charity, which is the entire purpose of the Harvest Gala and the Heritage Society that throws it, but not only that.”
“You do know that a large part of the heritage celebrated by the Heritage Society has to do with my family, right?” Jensen grinned widely as if he were doing her a favor. “If you’re that excited by the history around here.”
Harriet ignored that—also novel. “I think it’s incredibly useful for the children to understand primary sources. I wanted to use the date I bought with Buddy as a learning opportunity for the students.”
“It’s summer. Shouldn’t your students be off on summer vacation?”
“Some of them, yes. Others find themselves compelled to take summer classes.”
“Summer school. Ouch.”
Over by the bar, he saw the brunettes again. And this time, without their phones in hand. They both pouted in his direction.
It occurred to him to wonder what he was doing. As entertaining as this woman was, he did not intend to spend his Saturday night talking to the high school librarian. Not because she was a high school librarian, but because he doubted she was here to get her sin on.
And because another benefit of being a grown-ass man was that Jensen didn’t waste his time trying to convince people who didn’t like him that they should. He figured it was their loss.
Even if she did have pretty blue eyes.
Which suggested to him that she wasn’t exactly the dried-up old spinster she clearly wanted to be mistaken for. Not like the long-term high school secretary, the terrifying Miss Martina Patrick, whose very name was enough to make any teenage boy’s blood run cold. Harriet dressed like his memories of that famous local dragon lady, but a closer examination made it clear that though Harriet dressed like an old woman, she really wasn’t one.
Jensen couldn’t help but find that interesting. Interesting, sure. But certainly not as compelling as two young women of deliciously loose morals sending him come-hither glances from across the bar.
“I appreciate you seeking me out to discuss your Heritage Gala bid from last Thanksgiving,” he said, uncurling himself as he pushed his way out of the booth and stood. “I’ll give you this, Miss Harriet. It’s not the usual conversation we get around here. Good luck with your primary sources.”
He wasn’t surprised that she stood with him, once again clutching the bag on her shoulder as if she were either protecting her worldly goods or was fully prepared to take measures should any ruffians attack her.
In fairness, this being the Coyote, there were ruffians aplenty.
“You’re not understanding me, Mr. Kittredge. The proxy that the fire chief selected was you.”
“Me?” Jensen laughed at that. “I’m afraid old Howie’s putting you on, ma’am. I’m a smoke jumper, not a local.”
“I don’t know what that has to do with the date I won.”
“Howie Duncan isn’t the boss of me.” Though Jensen had always liked him well enough. But proxy dates and the feelings of the librarian involved weren’t his problem. He shrugged. “You’re going to have to find a different date.”
Harriet lifted her chin. “He said you might say that.”
Jensen was a big man. He was used to looking down at women—and other men, for that matter. But there was something about this faintly agitated little hen before him that got to him, and not only because she was so tiny even as she stood there before him, looking defiant. Something about her made him want to . . . mess her up.
Just a little. Just for fun.
And it was disconcerting. He knew what to do with a regular old urge to get naked. This was something else.
He concentrated on that surprisingly belligerent chin.
“He told me to remind you that you owe him a favor,” Harriet said.
Jensen considered. “I do owe him a favor. But I don’t date.”
He watched, definitely growing more entertained by the moment despite the brunette duo waiting at the bar, as Miss Harriet Barnett in her layers of church clothes looked at him in pure exasperation.
Jensen was used to bringing out the worst in folks. He was big. He was loud. He’d played football in high school, and whether men slapped him on the back as they counted his triumphs on the field or women clucked over the same, it was usually couched in words they expected a dumb jock to understand. He was good at geniality. It served him well on the ranch where he was in charge of business affairs, though he liked to pretend that he was a little too simple to fully understand what he was doing—right before he went in for the kill.
He was well acquainted with the way Harriet Barnett was looking at him.
As if she greatly resented that she was being forced to contend with a man who was as dim as he was.
Normally he found moments like this hilarious.
“Don’t consider it a date, then,” she was saying, looking like she resented having to explain herself to the likes of him. Also a common theme in people’s reactions to him that he usually thought was fun. “Here’s the situation. For whatever reason, you are held up to be a role model in this town. I’d like to give you the opportunity to use your position as said role model for good. That’s all. If you had answered even one of the seven messages I left, I wouldn’t have had to come find you in this . . . place.”
“I’m not a role model.” Jensen wasn’t amused any longer. He held her gaze until she blinked, and he didn’t smile while he did it. “I’m not your date. And if you’ll excuse me, there’s a whole lot of sin calling my name, and I don’t intend to ignore it.”
He walked away from her and her big blue eyes then, not sure if he was focused on the girls at the bar or the bottles behind it, because they were the same thing, really.
Because the other option was remembering, and he didn’t do that. Not if he could help it.
When he got to the bar, he found his smile again and found the pair of brunettes far more receptive.
But for some reason, as the night wore on and sweet oblivion beckoned, it was Harriet Barnett’s direct blue gaze that he couldn’t seem to shake.
End of excerpt
All Night Long with a Cowboy
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