Plus Sweet Nights With the Cowboy, Connor Kittredge's story, as a bonus!
Secret Nights With a Cowboy
Book 2 in the Kittredge Ranch Series
USA Today bestseller Caitlin Crews returns to Cold River, CO, and cowboys, with an emotional second chance romance in Secret Nights with a Cowboy, the stunning second installment in her new Kittredge Ranch series.
A man holding on…
Riley Kittredge has always known exactly what he wanted. His land, his horses. His woman. He met and married Rae Trujillo far too young, and their young love combusted right after they said their vows. But their passion has never managed to burn itself out. Yet when Rae shows this time, it’s not a night of pleasure she demands, but a divorce.
A woman letting go...
Rae should have moved on a long time ago. She knows she and Riley just don’t work. They might make great lovers, but that doesn’t make a marriage. And now Rae wants a new life, complete with a baby. But when her husband offers to be a father, to give her the family she’s always secretly desired, she and Riley will both have to face demons from their past, and choose love over fear at last.
PLUS look for Sweet Nights with a Cowboy, a bonus novella in the back of this book, in which the youngest Kittredge brother, Connor, finds his happy ever after with ex-girlfriend Missy Minton – infamous in Cold River for her teenage shenanigans with the high school boyfriend she was afraid she felt much too much for…
Secret Nights With a Cowboy
Rae Trujillo did not wake up on a regular weekday morning at the end of another one of Cold River, Colorado’s chilly Octobers prepared to turn her life inside out.
She woke up grumpy. Outraged that her alarm had jolted her out of another night of too few hours of sleep. And furious that, as ever, she was her own worst enemy, because why did she keep doing this?
It felt brutal every time. Like she kept punching herself in her own face, but did she ever learn her lesson? No, she did not.
But it was far too early on a shivery Thursday to think about the epic disaster that was her endless—and endlessly complicated—relationship with Riley Kittredge.
Besides, Rae knew by now that by the time she staggered outside and crawled into her trusty old pickup, she would be good to go. If not exactly singing a happy tune, certainly awake enough to handle the drive into town. But the waking up part never got any less shocking when she’d only gotten home a few hours before.
Because whatever else she was—and sure, there was a part of her that enjoyed it when people thought the worst of her, because the truth was a sharp little knife she kept to herself, and after all this time, she could admit she sometimes liked the cut of it—she was first and foremost an idiot when it came to Riley.
“And lying here brooding about it doesn’t help,” she muttered into her pillow.
She sat up and swung out of bed. Long years of experience in exactly this idiocy meant she’d laid out her clothes the night before. All she needed to do was stagger into them without making herself think about anything. Especially her life choices. Then she headed downstairs to perform a face dive into the strong coffee that was the only thing that ever made her feel remotely human at this hour. With or without her two whole hours of sleep.
Rae tiptoed through the dark old house, once a small farmhouse and now a collection of meandering updates various ancestors had made. At least one for each generation since the first Trujillo had showed up on this land, long before the English settlers came west. She moved silently down the stairs because her grandmother claimed she woke at the slightest sound, and the last thing she wanted to confront at this hour was Inez Trujillo in one of her states.
No one wanted Inez’s lacerating commentary on anything and everything but especially about the ways in which every person she’d ever met had disappointed her.
Especially Rae, who Inez had once called her favorite—but Rae had opened her big mouth and ruined that a long time ago. Now she tried to appease her grandmother like most people did, because it was easier.
Rae made it to the main floor and headed for the lit-up kitchen where her father, the earliest riser because he liked to be out in the greenhouses well before dawn, always left a hot pot of coffee behind him when he left the house. Things she was not thinking about included: Riley. Always and ever Riley. And the many choices she’d made about him and because of him that had led to her living in her parents’ house now that she was inarguably in her thirties.
Not adjacent to them. Not newly thirty. But in them.
But no morning-after yet had been made any easier by beating herself with the shame stick. And she was so busy trying not to do it today that it took her longer than it should have to realize that when she walked into the kitchen that smelled marvelously like her father’s preferred dark roast, she wasn’t alone.
“Good morning to you too,” rumbled her older brother, Matias, sounding obnoxiously alert.
Possibly he’d learned such things in the Marines. Where he had also learned how to transition from the sweet, funny boy she’d always hero-worshipped into the too-quiet man who’d come back changed, with too many secrets in his dark eyes.
Rae wanted to growl at him but restrained herself. Because she was a lady.
She shuffled across the floor to the coffee machine as if it were some kind of shrine and treated herself to a large, steaming mug, adding in an overly generous pour of cream. Then she savored that first sip.
Okay, she thought. I might live.
Only when her synapses were firing at last did she turn around, lean back against the counter, and allow herself to take in this strange appearance of her brother in the usually empty kitchen.
“What are you doing awake?” she asked in a far sweeter tone of voice than she’d been using on herself so far today.
“Long day ahead,” Matias drawled.
He lounged back in his chair, too big, really, for the kitchen table their mother mostly used as her office. Right there in the middle of the most-used part of the house, because Kathy Trujillo was not one to suffer or toil in obscurity. She and Inez had that in common.
Though they would both have acted deeply appalled at any suggestion that they were alike.
“It really will be a long day,” Rae agreed. “Since you’re starting it before dawn.”
Matias let a corner of his mouth drift up in a vague approximation of a curve. Rae and her younger sister, Tory, firmly believed he practiced that in his mirror. “You really do wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Just like when you were fourteen.”
That was maddening. Rae assumed it was meant to be. Accordingly, she smiled sweetly at her brother as if he’d said something marvelous, secure in the knowledge that he found that equally annoying. Balance was important.
She concentrated on draining her first cup of coffee as if she were on a mission, then went back for more. Matias was not drinking coffee. He was sitting in that chair that was on the verge of too small for his big frame, still and watchful.
More so than usual, if she wasn’t mistaken.
“But really,” she said when it was clear that he planned to keep that up, and because he normally didn’t get up for hours yet. Who would if they didn’t have to? “Are you doing a shift in the shop?”
It would be news to her if he were. And maddening in a whole different way, because if he were planning to go open the family floral shop in town, she wouldn’t have to and could still be asleep right now.
“I don’t have a shift today.” Again, a ghost of a curve on his mouth. “Do you see me wearing the red shirt of shame?”
This time, when Rae smiled, it was a real one. “I do not.”
She looked down at herself, representing the family business in the required uniform of the Flower Pot, the retail arm of the Trujillo plant and flower operation. It was, at best, frumpy. A trim red shirt with a collar, tucked into dull khaki pants, and aggressively comfortable shoes. Plus a green apron while actually in the shop.
No one wore the uniforms—the uniforms wore them.
But their grandmother claimed she loved those uniforms and had designed them especially, so the uniforms stayed. Who would dare complain? Certainly not Rae.
She waved a hand over her outfit. “My shame, on the other hand, is sadly all too evident.”
As she said it, she really hoped that was not the case. Or not all her shame, anyway. That would be awkward.
Matias rose then, as silently as he did everything else. “Have fun with that. Wrap it up in a bouquet and call it a seasonal special. You’re good at those.”
Rae did not care for his tone. She was more than good at putting flowers together, whether for bouquets or bigger arrangements. She was an artist, thank you, even if no one else ever used that word. Sometimes she thought the flowers were the only reason she’d survived her train wreck of a life so far. They saved her day after day. But even if her life had been perfect, she would have been sick of Matias and the rest of her family acting as if they did all the real work with the corporate and industrial clients while she played with flowers in the cute little shop in town.
Not sick enough to say anything about it, of course.
The squeaky wheel in the Trujillo family did not get the grease. It got in trouble if it was lucky, and if not, iced out.
She knew that all too well.
“Everybody likes a little shame in their bouquet. It’s the secret ingredient.” Her tone was light, but she frowned at him. “If you don’t have to go into the shop, why on earth would you be up at this hour? It’s inhumane.”
Her brother stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked back at her, stoic and stern suddenly. Great. That expression usually meant a lecture or some other form of his disapproval was incoming, the way it had been with regularity since he’d come home.
Rae braced herself.
“I’m moving out,” Matias said.
That was not what she was expecting. “What? Since when?”
“Since I spent the last eighteen months making my favorite outbuilding livable.” He nodded toward the darkness outside the windows. “By the river with a view, and best of all, a solid three-mile drive from here.”
“How did I have no idea you were doing this?”
Matias eyed her, and she wished she hadn’t asked. “Because you’re the expert on ignoring things you don’t want to see and pretending all kinds of things aren’t happening when they are. Aren’t you, Rae?”
But then, it wasn’t a surprise. Matias had come back from serving his country to find his little sister’s marriage to a friend of his in disarray and had not been happy when she’d refused to tell him why. When she was feeling charitable, she suspected his harping on the topic was how he expressed love.
She was not feeling charitable at why-do-you-hate-me o’clock in the morning. “Is that supposed to be a dig? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t.”
Rae took a big pull from her coffee. “I’m happy for you that you’re moving out, I guess. Not really sure why that’s making you hostile.”
“I’m not hostile.” Matias’s dark gaze, unforgiving and shrewd—she blamed it on the Marines because she missed the boy he’d been—moved over her. “What I am is a grown man. Who’s been back home for just over two years and can’t handle living with his parents any longer. I would have moved out before the end of the first month if I hadn’t decided to work on the cabin.”
“Yay?” Rae offered, draining the rest of her mug and then taking it to the sink so she could wash it the way she knew her mother preferred. And could therefore avoid the otherwise inevitable tirade about how Kathy was not the family servant.
Better to do the things that made the loudest people in the family happy than suffer the fallout if you didn’t. Another Trujillo family truth Rae had learned the hard way.
Was there anything she hadn’t learned the hard way?
“Meanwhile,” Matias said from behind her as if he could read her mind, “you’ve been hiding out here for how long now?”
Rae froze, only realizing that she’d gone too still when the hot water became uncomfortable. She slapped the faucet off and took much too long examining her skin to see if she’d managed to hurt herself. And wondered how her brother had zeroed in on the very thing she’d been thinking already this morning. “I’m not hiding anywhere.”
“You have your own house. Why don’t you go live in it? And if you don’t want to move back in with your husband, why are you wasting away here? Get a life, Rae. Seriously.”
That was hideously direct. No one referred to Riley as her husband anymore. Not in her hearing, anyway. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had dared.
Rae felt . . . winded.
“The question isn’t why I’m moving out.” Matias’s voice was dark and condemning and aimed straight at all those messy places inside her. As if he knew that he was setting off a seismic event, deep where she kept the sharp blade of the truth. It took every scrap of her self-control to keep from showing him how much it hurt. “It’s why you don’t seem to want to move out.”
“What is wrong with you?” she managed to ask. “Did you wake up this morning and think, I know, I think I’ll take a swing at my sister? What did I do to you?”
“The real question, Rae,” Matias said in a voice she might have called something like sad if he wasn’t being awful, “is why are you so comfortable here? Is this really what you want for your life?”
Rae was still turning that over—and over and over—in her head hours later.
She’d fumed all the way into town. First on her drive out through their property to the already-bustling greenhouses, where she’d loaded up on the day’s fresh-cut flowers. Then the solid thirty-minute drive into town that provided a person with entirely too much time to think. No matter how loudly she cranked up her music in her rattly old death trap of a truck.
She’d tried to lose herself in the best part of the day, saying hello to the plants and flowers inside the shop while arranging the day’s new flowers in the windows to best catch the eye of anyone happening by. Sketching out the daydreams she’d had about the centerpieces she’d make for the town’s Harvest Gala the night before Thanksgiving, because even though she hadn’t heard from the organizers yet, the Flower Pot always provided the gala with gorgeous pieces its attendees could bid on. And then she settled into the day’s orders, many of which needed to be ready for deliveries starting at nine.
Normally, it was her favorite part of the day.
The Flower Pot was an institution in the Longhorn Valley, and Rae took immense pride in being part of her family’s long history here. She also just really loved the flowers. She could always lose herself in the colors and scents. She could slip out of time and think about nothing but the shapes different flowers made together, or the way their colors blended, or the way the fragrance of the sweetest blossoms could come together to make a magical perfume all their own.
Flowers were pure joy on stems. People could come in, pick up a few flowers, and be happy.
Maybe flowers couldn’t solve problems. They sure hadn’t solved Rae’s. Still, they always made her feel as if, at any moment, they might.
But all she could think about today was her stupid brother. And his typically unsolicited commentary.
And your house, a voice inside her taunted her. And your husband.
Rae didn’t like to think about that house too much. And she had spent far too much of her life thinking about Riley already. Surely, at some point, it had to stop . . . didn’t it?
Not if you don’t stop it, that voice retorted.
Meanwhile, deep inside, the secret she kept and intended to keep forever seemed to burn hot and bright as if it were new.
She was still wrestling with it when her shift ended. She waved goodbye to the teenage employees who weren’t any younger than she’d been when she’d started working in the shop, but looked impossibly young to her, anyway. Babies, really. It was scary to think that she’d been their age and already planning her doomed wedding, God help her. She tried to shake the Riley-ness of it all off as she pushed her way out of the flower shop’s lovely, humid grasp and onto the street.
Outside, the October air was crisp with a hint of snow from the impressive Colorado Rockies that rose all around the little town of Cold River. Rae paused outside the shop to zip up her insulated jacket before the chill got too deep into her bones, then shoved her hands into the pockets. She loved fall. She loved the golden aspens and the sturdy pines that seemed to smell better with snow coming in. They’d already had the first few snows this season, leaving the mountaintops painted white and the briskness in the air that made it clear winter was coming in. And hard.
Rae had always found the slide into the dark and cold exhilarating. She loved the upcoming holidays. She loved the bright lights in all the windows that fought back the longest nights. She loved pumpkin spice everything, walls of shiny, bright red poinsettias, and the same Christmas decorations they’d been gathering to put on the tree on Christmas Eve in the old Trujillo house since before Rae was born.
And it helped that her favorite season was right here in Cold River, where she could walk up Main Street and see the holiday things she loved reflected in the window displays. Currently Halloween, soon Thanksgiving, and then all Christmas, all the time. Her hometown looked like a postcard. It was the perfect Western town, and she usually liked to remind herself as she walked that she was lucky that she got to live here, even if her ex—or whatever he was—did too. The Flower Pot was down near the frigid river that had long ago given the town its name, right by the road that wound its way through the mountains toward Colorado’s fancy ski resorts. Normally, Rae loved the walk up the length of the old street and its perfectly preserved, weathered brick buildings, many with the old galleries that cried out for a high noon.
But today, she couldn’t seem to concentrate on the familiar old places that had been here her whole life, mixed in with the new boutiques and restaurants that everyone agreed were a breath of fresh air in a town so remote. The more of that fresh air, the more often Cold River was a weekend destination from Denver, two hours of treacherous mountain passes and questionable roads away.
People who lived here didn’t waste a day with relatively mild weather when winter was on the way. Everyone was outside. Rae smiled and nodded as she passed folks she knew along the street—which was almost everyone, to some degree or another. The colder it got, the more the weekenders faded out and the locals remained. That meant Rae either personally knew everyone or she knew of them, and it was always easier to smile when passing them on the street than it was to handle the fallout of anything that could be construed as rude.
She was not always extended the same courtesy, because people knew her too and had their opinions.
And maybe she took a little bit of pleasure in smiling the widest at the people who she knew judged her the most harshly, like Lucinda Early, reigning town dragon.
Still, she was grateful when she finally made it up to Capricorn Books, Cold River’s only bookstore that was currently run by her friend Hope, and Hope’s sisters. The Mortimer family had been selling books here for three generations.
Rae pushed through the door, the entry bell chiming above her. She expected to find Hope where she usually was, half hiding behind the mountains of books she liked to keep stacked on the counter as a barrier and an ever-expanding to-be-read pile. Instead, her friend’s voice floated from farther back in the store, indicating she was engaged with a customer.
But this bookstore was Rae’s second home. She, Hope, and their other best friend, Abby, had spent half their lives here. When they’d been younger, Hope’s mother and aunt had run the place, and the three girls had whispered their secrets into each other’s ears in the depths of the stacks. Both Abby and Rae were from longtime Cold River families who lived outside of town in opposite directions. That made afternoons after school here in the bookstore convenient for everyone. Their families could pick them up at their leisure, later in the evening, and the three of them took their firm school day friendships and made themselves more like sisters.
Because she considered herself family, Rae rounded the counter—taking care not to accidentally tip over any of the stacks of books—and made a beeline for the big, oversize armchair that sat behind the desk. It was currently occupied by Orion, a cat of enormous size and what Rae assumed would be a fearsome temper. If he could ever stir himself to display it.
Instead, he merely gave her a baleful glare and refused to move from the high back of the chair.
That was where Hope found her when she walked back to the front of the store with her customers in tow and a small armful of books. Hope began ringing up the books with a single raised eyebrow in Rae’s direction, but Rae knew it wasn’t because Hope was surprised to find her here. It was never surprising to find Rae here.
When the bell jangled behind her customers, Hope came and dropped down onto the wide arm of the chair. And then all that was missing was Abby, who would historically have taken the other arm. The three of them had spent years jumbled up like this. Lying there like a heap of puppies, Hope’s mother had said.
But Abby had a different life these days. Though she was still a manager at Cold River Coffee, just around the corner, she didn’t spend the kind of time she’d used to hanging out in town with her oldest friends in the world. She had a husband now. A teenage stepdaughter.
And a baby who’d turned one at the end of August.
A baby Rae loved so much it hurt.
It actually hurt.
“Your mood is way too loud,” Hope said after a while.
“Matias is moving out of the house,” Rae informed her. “Apparently, this whole time he’s been home, he’s been remodeling one of the outbuildings to his specifications. Whatever that means.”
“How enterprising. If I wanted to renovate an outbuilding, my only option would be that terrifying shed out back. Not really worth braving the inevitable spider situation.” Hope shuddered.
“Living in town cuts both ways, I guess. No agricultural chores or barn duties, depending on what the land is used for. But no outbuildings to choose from, either.”
“Better still, when winter comes, no getting snowed in on the wrong side of the pass.”
“Is that in the plus column?” Rae asked. “Because I seem to remember you complaining that it wasn’t fair when Abby and I would miss school when the passes were closed, but you still had to go.”
“That was sheer injustice,” Hope shot back.
Rae reached up and tugged out the tight, professional ponytail she wore at work, rolling her shoulders while she let her hair down. And the longer she sat in this familiar chair, in this place where she’d always felt far more comfortable than in the house where she still lived, that gnawing, insistent knife-edged thing inside her seemed to throb.
“Abby has her own family now,” she said softly, pretending to study her close-cropped nails that she always meant to spice up with a manicure, but never did. There was no point when she spent so much of her time with her hands in dirt. “She spent her entire life mooning around after Gray Everett, with literally zero hope of him ever noticing. Much less marrying her. Now she has his baby.”
Hope sighed happily. “It never gets less amazing, does it?”
“But what are we doing?” Rae asked, swerving her head around so she could really look at Hope. And too aware she was talking mostly to herself. “It’s a big joke, I know. You’re eternally single. I have a complicated past. But here we still are. Alone. Both of us still living in our mothers’ houses.”
“My mother does not live in said house, thank you,” Hope said indignantly. “It’s completely different.”
“But your sisters do. It’s not like it’s your house, is it?”
“I’m not the one in this chair who’s living with her parents, that’s all I’m saying.”
Rae rubbed at her face. “My baby sister lives all by herself in an apartment in Austin. Matias apparently built himself his dream house. I was the responsible, grown-up one, once upon a time. Yet I still live at home, forced to endure the endless hundred years’ war between my mother and grandmother. It’s against the natural order of things.”
Hope shrugged, her expression carefully blank. “Then move out.”
Because Hope wouldn’t call Rae out the way Matias had. They’d passed that point years ago. Rae had made it clear what she would and wouldn’t talk about, and her friends had acquiesced. But today, it was like this pretending—just like Matias had accused her—had infected her pulse. And was pounding around inside her limbs, making her feel edgy and uncertain and wrong.
“I could do that,” she said quietly. “But if I move out of my parents’ house and I don’t move back into his house . . .”
Her stomach knotted, her throat was much too tight, and she couldn’t finish the sentence. She felt winded again, the way she had when Matias had walloped her with this in the kitchen.
Beside her, Hope’s eyes widened almost comically. “Are we . . . talking about him? For the first time in more years than I can count?”
Rae wanted to tell her everything. But then, she always did. One of the reasons she didn’t like to talk about Riley was because she always wanted to unburden herself, at last. To take that sharp-edged weight she’d been carrying all this time and share it. When she couldn’t.
If she hadn’t told him, how could she tell anyone else? The more time passed, the less she could imagine ever telling anyone. And the more she took it as a badge of honor, really, that people made all their assumptions about her when they had no idea what had really happened.
Not her friends, who loved her unconditionally and staunchly, even if they didn’t understand. But Riley’s family, who she’d loved so much, who no longer spoke to her when they could avoid it. Her family, who had also stopped asking why, but had never quite treated her the same, either, and were always so disappointed. The whole freaking Longhorn Valley, who were more vocal and openly judgmental about the things they didn’t understand, like Lucinda Early and her pointed sniff on the walk here today.
Threaded through it all were those secrets she’d decided to keep a long time ago. And the newer ones she told herself she regretted in the light of day.
What if you told them at last? a voice inside whispered.
But if Rae knew anything, it was that telling secrets was a risky business. And mostly not worth the trouble.
As far as the world was concerned, pretty much nothing Rae had done since she’d married Riley Kittredge a month after she graduated from high school made sense. She’d decided she could live with that.
That didn’t mean she had to live like this.
“Okay, then,” Hope said mildly as the silence dragged on. “We can maintain the silence for another ten years, no problem. Whatever you want. You know I’m fully ride-or-die in this and all things.”
Rae cleared her throat. “I’m not actually sure my personal life can be salvaged. Or solved. Or . . . anything, whether we talk about it or not.”
And Rae was sure that she could see, swirling between them, all those things they never talked about. The suspicions she knew her friends had about her actual relationship with Riley these days. Their real opinions about how Rae had handled herself then and now, and no doubt a great many theories about what she should do about it all.
But Hope didn’t say any of that. She waited.
And when Rae didn’t say anything else, she leaned in and pressed her shoulder against Rae’s. “Maybe it’s time to fix it, Rae, whatever that looks like. Maybe it’s finally time.”
The shop door opened, and Hope got to her feet, already smiling at whoever had come in.
Rae stayed where she was. She wished Abby were here, because Abby was always so calm. Filled with the kind of quiet strength that made you think, if you were next to her, that it was actually your strength, too. Rae could use all the strength she could get, since she apparently had none where it counted.
And the more she thought about Abby, the more she thought about Abby’s sweet little Bart. It had been getting consistently harder to think about anything else ever since he’d been born, but now he was less a squiggly baby and more of a person.
Yesterday, Abby had come into the flower shop with Bart to preview his Halloween costume, an adorable lion that made him so happy he’d screamed with delight, and something inside her had shifted. And ached.
Oh, how it ached.
And now it seemed to bloom, straight on into something sharp and bright.
I want that, something in her declared.
Loud and clear.
Cutting straight through the mess.
Not Bart himself. Not Abby’s rancher husband, as remote as one of the mountains. But her own version of those things.
She wanted the same things she’d always wanted. A crowded, cheerful house filled with family who loved each other as passionately as they argued with each other, one never overpowering the other, so it was all part of the same bright tapestry.
As bright as all the flowers that filled her days.
The opposite of her own family and their endless battles and silences, in other words.
But if she wanted those things, if she was finally ready to move on the way she should have, a long time ago, she knew what she had to do.
The trouble was, she had never wanted to do it.
“Why do you look like you’re plotting a war?” Hope asked when her customers had left with cheerful bags of books.
“Just a little war,” Rae said softly, though it made that knife buried deep inside her slice at her. Deep, then deeper still, when she would have sworn there was nothing left to cut. “Just a tiny little war, hardly worth mentioning.”
Hope smiled back at her, big and brilliant, but Rae had the feeling that neither one of them believed that. Not for a second.
And later that night, she gathered up her courage and headed out into the foothills to face her demons.
Just the one demon, really.
Riley Kittredge, the boy she’d married, then left a hundred times, yet couldn’t manage to stay away from.
Until now, because Matias was right.
It was high time Rae let go, moved on, and got herself a life.
End of excerpt
Secret Nights With a Cowboy
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