The Comeback Cowboy

Book 4 in the Jasper Creek Series
Satisfyingly Spicy

They may not have been friends when they were younger but now, they’ll work together to save the camp that saved them and, maybe, even find love in the process…

Caitlin’s novella, The One with the Locket, is Violet’s story.

The alumni of Camp Phoenix, a summer program for at-risk youth, went their separate ways, but now they’ve been called back to help the camp reopen for a new crop of kids. Now successful adults, the four women pledge to restore the grounds to their former glory, if long-standing rivalries and old flames don’t get in the way first…

Bree White fought hard to get away from her criminal family and all of the reminders of her past until Sheriff Flint Decker brings all those feelings back and more. Attorney Violet Cook owes her life to Camp Phoenix and is determined to save the camp…but who’s going to save her from the temptation of long-time crush US Marshal Lincoln Traeger? Kinley Parker never left Camp Phoenix, dedicating her life to it, and has no time for pushy cowboys like Jackson Hart until butting heads leads to sparks. The daughter of the camp’s founder, Clementine McClain, has always wanted to follow in her law-abiding father’s footsteps, but her father’s protégé and former bad boy Duke Cody has her breaking all the rules.

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The Comeback Cowboy

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Lincoln Traeger was not easily riled.

Generally speaking, he was as quick to anger as the average vat of molasses, only slower, but Violet Cook was proving to be more of a challenge than he’d anticipated.

Truth was, he hadn’t expected any challenges at all.

Much less one in tiny female form.

A thick skin had been required to survive his childhood. And an easygoing nature, at least on the surface, was an asset in his chosen career of hunting down all manner of assorted villains and ne’er-do-wells for the United States Marshals Service. He might have started out as an angry young man, like every other teen boy he’d ever met, but he’d grown. He’d evolved.

Lincoln considered himself downright laid-back these days.

He might have been quick on the draw when necessary, but he hadn’t imagined that returning to the summer camp that had saved his life back when he was said angry kid—on a swift and terrible road to the kind of future he delivered to all kinds of criminals himself these days—would require any drawing of the weapon he never went anywhere without.

Figuratively or literally.

“You’re not listening to me at all, are you?” she demanded, like she already knew all his weapons and might actually draw hers quicker.

This was highly unlikely.

But still, the notion smarted.

“I beg your pardon?” he drawled through the sweet, fresh air of this May morning, because in his experience, laying his Kentucky drawl on thick was an effective countermeasure all its own.

Especially here in Oregon, where the accents never ran like a good syrup, the ladies seemed to take a particular pride in their most serviceable shoes, and the locals moaned about hundred degree weather when there was nary a speck of humidity to make the air dense enough to use as a pillow.

“I apologize,” replied the object of his unusual ire. As ever, tiny Violet Cook wore a big smile. As usual, it did nothing to change the fact that she didn’t sound the least bit apologetic. “Do you need me to talk slower?”

It took Lincoln a good, long moment to recognize the sensations he felt charging around inside him, so unusual were they.

But there was no getting around it.

Violet Cook, a little bit of a thing who was as pretty as she was decidedly unimpressed with him, had managed to lodge herself right up under his skin.

Lincoln had a mind to find that impressive. He was halfway there.

In the meantime, he rocked back on his heels and looked down at her. All the way down to where the top of her head barely made it to his shoulder, though he was fairly certain that she was marching around Camp Phoenix today the same way she did every day. In the same ridiculous wedge heels he’d heard her claim five or six times already, with a wave of a careless hand, were as comfortable as a pair of tennis shoes.

He didn’t like the fact that he’d already spent entirely too much time imagining her out of those wedges that no one would ever call serviceable. And while he was at it, out of any one of the voluminous sack-like affairs she called dresses that should have made her look like a tent, but somehow drew attention to how slight she was, how delicate. She was otherwise all jet-black curly hair, flashing black eyes and the kind of eye makeup that should have looked out of place here in the woods. At a summer camp that wasn’t even open yet.

But this was Violet.

So it only made her look all the more shockingly beautiful.

“That’s mighty good of you, Miz Cook,” Lincoln drawled, and he leaned into that drawl. The more hick he put into it, the more he could use it like another weapon. He relied on it as much as he did the lean athleticism he’d been born with and the trusty Glock sidearm he considered an extension of his body. Out here in Oregon, most offenders heard only the drawl and missed the fact that he was usually tying them up in knots they’d have trouble unwinding. Legally speaking. Lincoln enjoyed that. But he couldn’t say he also enjoyed the patronizing sort of look Violet seemed to get whenever she heard him do it, not that it stopped him. “I reckon you’d better slow it right on down if you want me to understand you.”

Violet sighed, and made a meal out of it. She looked all around, as if for deliverance, but there was no one else here outside the dining hall but the two of them. It had been a typical morning in any Camp Phoenix summer, even though it wasn’t quite summer yet. Since there were no campers. Not yet. Lincoln and Violet had gone ahead and volunteered to help get the camp ready for its new season, after it had fallen into disrepair.

Lincoln, because the camp had changed his life, so much so that he’d bought in with his buddy Jackson, the camp’s new owner and current commandant. Violet was here…for reasons that Lincoln couldn’t make out. Particularly when her favorite pastime appeared to be glaring at him stonily from across rooms or from up close as if she’d seen more appealing specimens on the bottom of her shoe.

Not the reaction Lincoln was used to engendering in the fairer sex, he could admit.

While she put on her little performance of patience sorely tried, Lincoln tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans and breathed in the sweet air. It smelled like the best days of his life here. It also smelled like a much-needed leave of absence—some folks called it vacation—from a job that ate up more of him all the time.

He was lucky enough to live down an hour or so south in the pretty Rogue Valley for the past few years. He’d grown to love that little slice of paradise, nestled between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Coastal Range to the west. Though he spent too much time handling the seedier side of human nature, due in large part to the valley’s location right there where the interstate came on in from California, he took care to find his way out of the mess of felonious behavior when he could. He loved the crystal clear rivers and lakes, the rolling pear orchards, and the vineyards that made a patchwork quilt of pretty fields and hillsides from gritty Grants Pass to the north all the way to the Shakespeare festival in the southernmost college town. He lived outside a Wild West monument of an even smaller town, in the foothills of the mountains, and considered himself just about satisfied.

But there was nothing like this place. Camp Phoenix, where Crow Lake—really more of a sprawling lake with the usual Western nonchalant naming conventions—gleamed through the trees and the sun seemed to shine even when rain threatened. Where everything smelled like sunshine and evergreens, and the spring wildflowers were enough to make a man come over all poetic.

Camp Phoenix was magical. Lincoln had known that from the start, when he’d gotten off the bus in Jasper Creek, surly and scared at thirteen—yet fully aware that this stupid camp that he hadn’t wanted to go to in the first place was his only chance to get out from under the weight of his family’s freedom of expression, as his granddaddy liked to call it, that had made all his relatives targets of various law enforcement agencies for as long as anyone could remember.

Lincoln had told himself he’d give it one night. One night, then he’d take off and find his own freedom somewhere, seeing as how he’d gotten out of Kentucky. No need to rush back. He’d had vague daydreams about big cities like Seattle.

But one night had turned into a whole summer. Then every summer after that, all the way through college because he got the chance to be a counselor and give a little back. Something he tried to do whenever he encountered angry kids like the one he’d been, out there in his line of work. Just like the US marshal who had warned him about the life he had waiting for him and had told him about Camp Phoenix all those years ago.

Lincoln liked to pass it along.

Because this place still smelled the same today. All these years later, like nothing had changed, even though everything had. Now that he was the kind of man he’d been so sure he was genetically incapable of becoming. These were things he still couldn’t quite believe and would never, ever take for granted.

It looked like Violet was finishing up the amateur dramatics, so he tuned back in to find she’d gone ahead and folded her arms making her look even more unimpressed with him than usual. She wore dark, oversize sunglasses and she’d taken the time to push them to the top of her head, allowing him to enjoy the full force of her disapproval when she glared up at him.

The thing of it was, he really did enjoy it, when he’d have said he’d left the masochistic tendencies back home in Kentucky with all his locked-up kinfolk.

“It’s really not that difficult,” she said, and she was speaking very deliberately. Very slowly. Very much like she found him a bit simple—though he figured both of them knew that if she really did, she’d have been a whole lot kinder. “You and I have been tasked with getting the chapel ready. I hope you remember the chapel. Out in the woods. Open to one and all, but last I heard, the trail there hasn’t been walked in some time and no one’s seen the actual chapel itself for at least a few summers. That means we’ll need to do a little bushwhacking. A lot of hiking. And a whole lot of brush removal. Do you think you can handle that?”

Lincoln blinked. “Can you?”

A slow head tilt. “Do you think that a woman is incapable of those tasks?”

“I think that you’re dressed for a garden party, princess. Maybe a cotillion. Not so much with the bushwhacking when it looks like you have a full manicure.”

“I have a manicure and a pedicure. And I was unaware that there was a uniform for this kind of work. Someone should have told me that T-shirts and cowboy boots were what all the camp counselors here in Oregon were wearing. I would’ve stocked up.”

“I like cowboy boots, not that you asked. It puts me in mind of my misspent youth. And a cowboy boot isn’t most people’s first choice for a hike through the woods, or any other forest-type activity, I grant you. But they are work boots all the same. Not sure your high heels count.”

“I have an idea. Why don’t you let me worry about what’s on my feet? Seeing as how I’m a grown-ass woman and all.”

“I can leave you to all the worry your little heart desires, Violet.”

“That’s a great comfort, Lincoln.”

They were standing closer together, but he hadn’t noticed making any such move himself. It would have been flattering to assume she’d done the moving, but he couldn’t be sure. And that was the trouble he’d found in the weeks since he’d come back to Camp Phoenix and found Violet here, scowling at him as if he was responsible for the death of her family pet.

He couldn’t remember.

He had no recollection of seeing her before, but she sure knew him. It made him uneasy. At the very least, it suggested the possibility of some distinctly ungentlemanly behavior, and while he’d certainly had his moments, he was pretty sure he remembered each and every time he failed to live up to his mama’s “do as I say, not as I do” directives.

Lincoln aimed a smile her way. “I do have one question.”

“Of course you do.” Violet Cook, he’d learned, was a fancy lawyer off in Baltimore, where she had a passion for helping kids in trouble. This should have made them allies. Yet as far as he could tell, all it had really done was give her the kind of edge to her tongue that made every word she uttered a knife. He might’ve admired it if those knives were ever directed at someone other than him. She smiled with great forbearance. “I’m all ears. And when you’re finished asking it, maybe we can actually do the job that we’ve been asked to do today and avoid incurring Jackson Hart’s wrath. Just a thought. Seeing as how everyone else has been at work for half the morning already and I’ve already had to scrub latrines this month.”

He could have taken exception to that characterization. He could have reminded her that cleaning latrines was no one’s fault but her own.

But instead, he studied the woman before him. She was so pretty, and that was the problem. And wrack his brain as he might, Lincoln couldn’t recall ever seeing her face before. He didn’t understand how he could have missed her.

Because there were two things on this earth that Lincoln Traeger liked collecting. One of them was malefactors,garden-variety crooks and villains of all descriptions—especially if he happened to be related to them.

The more pleasurable collection was beautiful women, who he was happy enough to offer a drink and nothing more. Because pretty things were often better gazed upon than explored. That was a truth. Though it was also a truth that every time he indicated what might be his preference, the beautiful woman in question tended to take things in another direction.

And for all he liked to lounge around and pretend he was entirely too lazy to put the right number of consonants in a word or remember a name, Lincoln’s memory was formidable. It served him well in his chosen profession. It had allowed him to rack up an impressive number of wins, tracking individuals who would prefer to disappear no matter how they tried to change their appearance.

He killed at Jeopardy, too.

But he still couldn’t remember Violet Cook.

“Well?” He reckoned she used that very voice in a courtroom while interrogating unforthcoming witnesses for the opposing side. “Will there be a question? Or will we just stand around staring at each other for the rest of the day, making it a certainty that Jackson will assign us unpleasant duties for our sins of sloth and laziness?”

She didn’t have to make it clear that those were his sins, not hers.

It was less an implication than an undercurrent and, really, more of a riptide at that.

“There are a lot of questions I could ask, now that you mention it,” he told her, and she wasn’t the only one who could put on a little show when she had a mind to. “But let’s you and me focus on the most important one. I’m going to need you to help me out here, Violet.”

“That is the least surprising thing you’ve ever said.”

“Because here’s the thing.” And he hit her with the full force of his laziest smile. “I can’t quite remember when exactly it was I got you pregnant and left you by the side of the road.” He tipped his head to one side but kept his gaze trained on her. “You want to clue me in?”

End of excerpt