Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy
Book 2 of The Cold River Ranch Series
A game of pretend with the highest stakes of all in the latest novel of breathtaking romance from USA Today bestselling author Caitlin Crews
Ty Everett ran off to the rodeo when he turned eighteen and has been riding bulls ever since. Until his last fall causes partial amnesia and Ty returns to Cold River Ranch to figure out what comes next. But how can he pick his next move when he can’t remember how he got here in the first place? Much less the beautiful woman who appears at the ranch, claims she knows him, and warms his cold heart for the first time since he woke up in the hospital?
Rodeo Queen Hannah Monroe gave up her crown for Ty Everett, and her innocence. What she wants from Ty now is a divorce. But Ty can’t remember her—or their secret wedding, or even the son she never meant to hide from him—and Hannah is torn. How can she leave the man she can’t forget and still loves despite herself? And even if she’s willing to start over, what will happen when the truth comes out?
“Caitlin Crews writes cowboys you’ll swoon over…and will grip your heart.”—Nicole Helm, author of Cowboy SEAL Redemption
Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy
Hannah Leigh Monroe—which wasn’t her actual, legal married name because she didn’t quite know if she was actually, legally married any longer—had been driving up and down the same county road in the Longhorn Valley outside of Cold River, Colorado, this pret summer morning for going on two straight hours.
It had been easy enough to keep up her courage all the way from her tiny little hometown in rural Georgia, hurtling along the highways with Miranda Lambert turned up loud for support and inspiration. It had been easy to sing along and pretend the singing was the same as grit. Or the working backbone she wished she’d had more than a year and half ago, though that was spilled and spoiled milk. Wishbones weren’t backbones, as her mother liked to say.
Hannah had opened her eyes this bright July morning in a roadside motel room, indistinguishable from any other, right down to the scratchy coverlet that left a rough pattern on her cheek. She’d woken up buzzing with that curious combination of stubbornness and bone-deep hurt that had been the bulk of her life for so long now, she was convinced she probably wore it all like jagged scars across her skin. Like that motel bedspread pattern on her face, only worse.
She wondered if the scars she wore these days—the ones the man she’d loved so much and so recklessly had put there over a handful of terrible March days almost eighteen months ago—would be visible to him when she found him. If he would notice them.
If he would care.
But then, if the rumors were true, there could be a reason for everything that had happened. A reason that wasn’t simply that he’d never been the man she’d imagined he was. A reason that wasn’t the unpleasant one she’d been living with since she’d last seen him—that men lied to get what they wanted and then threw it away when things got complicated, the way her mother had always warned her they did.
Maybe the last eighteen months were a mistake. And not what Hannah deserved for imagining she was different when she should have known better. Not what she’d brought upon herself for daring to imagine she could somehow outrun fate.
The rumors were why Hannah had gone looking for the husband who had discarded her so cruelly after all this time. Or more precisely, the ad campaigns she’d been unable to ignore or avoid in the rodeo magazines she should have canceled her subscriptions to, all breathlessly touting his one-night-only return to glory in the rodeo’s bull-riding ring. Plus, one throwaway comment about him that she’d let take over her mind. Until it was all she could think about.
Until she had to know for sure, one way or another.
Because stubbornness was an engine and righteous indignation was its fuel, and Hannah had been running flat out on both for a good long while. She was pretty sure she could keep going like that forever. But hope . . . Hope was a killer.
Hope stopped her dead. Hope made her silly. Stupid. As foolish as she’d been from the start where one, particular, no-good man was concerned, no matter how she despaired of herself. No matter how she wished she could make herself immune.
There’s no point hunting a man down and begging him to take what he doesn’t want, her mother had said, her mouth tight and her gaze glittering hard, the way it when she was talking as much about herself as to Hannah. You know better than that.
Hannah did know better. Mama had raised Hannah well aware of the lengths she’d personally gone to try to make Hannah’s father accept his paternal role. This, after her own parents had tossed her out for getting knocked up before she graduated high school. But preppy Bradford Macon Collingsworth III hadn’t wanted any part of Luanne Monroe or the mess he’d left behind him on his way to Duke. That mess being Hannah.
His slick, rich parents had paid off Luanne while relocating to their other house in Virginia. Everyone had washed their hands of “the situation,” and Mama had raised Hannah herself. With her iron force of will, sheer determination, and the enduring kindness of her older sister, the only relative who would talk to her following her fall from grace. Hannah had nothing but fond memories about the back room she’d shared with Mama in Aunt Bit’s house in sleepy, judgy Sweet Myrtle, Georgia.
Maybe someday Hannah would find it funny—or at least ironic—how dedicated Luanne had been to making sure that Hannah didn’t end up in the same situation. All those lectures about men and sex and how to avoid the pitfalls of each, until Hannah was half-convinced that so much as a sideways glance at the wrong boy could get her pregnant. She’d been so studious, so committed, and so determined not to end up like her mother. She’d been the town warning, and she’d made herself a rodeo queen.
Then she’d ended up right back where she’d started, as disgraced as her mama had been and then some. Because unlike Luanne, Hannah had actually made it out of Sweet Myrtle with a crown, a dream, and the grudging backing of all the locals who’d been so sure she was destined for a bad end. The fact she’d come back, crown tarnished and her reputation in shreds as her belly expanded, made it all worse.
It wasn’t every girl who could go from rodeo queen to the punchline of a joke at the roaring speed of a single bad decision, but Hannah had always liked to distinguish herself. That bad decision’s name was Ty Everett, bull rider and all around rodeo star, whose easy swagger and lazy, lopsided smile had made all the girls swoon for as long as he’d been on the tour.
Hannah had never dreamed she’d be one of those girls. She’d been certain she was too smart, too ambitious, too her to fall for a man like Ty.
How the mighty always fall, her mama had said, her arms crossed there in Aunt Bit’s kitchen the night Hannah had come home for good, especially when they think they have wings.
Hannah no longer had anything like wings. These days, she counted herself lucky if she made it through to another bedtime Wings were for other, smarter girls. Girls with shiny, gleaming futures that still belonged to them. Not Hannah, who had traded hers in for an adorable, red-faced tyrant of a baby boy who she hadn’t meant to have on her own, but loved beyond reason, no matter the circumstances of his birth.
And she had driven all this way, up into the towering Rockies and out to the ranch that had been in his family forever, to tell Ty the truths he hadn’t wanted to hear the last time she’d seen him. To see what he had to say for himself now that a good chunk of time had passed since the brutal fall that had put him out of commission for so long—and had broken her heart in the bargain. Though maybe the chronology wasn’t quite so cut and dried. He’d already crushed her heart into pieces before that bull had done the same to him.
Either way, Hannah was here to untangle herself once and for all from the cowboy who had brought so much misery into her life.
Don’t forget the joy, something in her piped up, right on cue. The way it always did.
Because there was always that thing in her that wanted to defend him. From herself, if necessary. Even after he’d proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man she’d fallen in love with had been a figment of her imagination right from the start. That she should never have trusted him. That she should have listened to her mama and her own intuition and steered clear.
The trouble was, all her stubbornness and righteous indignation had drained right out of her when she’d driven into the town of Cold River where—or so Ty had said back when she’d believed in him and had hoarded every detail he’d shared about himself like treasure—his family had lived since the pioneer days. She’d wound her way through the beautiful mountains from Aspen, carpeted in deep summer green and exuberant wildflowers. She’d had to order herself not to gasp and sigh as one spectacular view outdid the one before it. She’d come in on a meandering road from the south, following the narrow two-lane highway that cut through impressive rock faces, circled around soaring mountain peaks, and eventually deposited her in a perfect postcard of a western town.
There was a gleaming river, blue in the sunlight. Sturdy brick buildings stood proud on both sides of a tidy Main Street with flower boxes in the shop windows and lampposts hung with baskets of more bright, cheerful blooms. Cold River didn’t look real. It looked like an Old West daydream Hannah hadn’t realized she’d been longing for all her life.
She wanted to cry, but decided what she needed was a decent cup of coffee. It was clearly the lack of caffeine that was making her feel hollowed out and raw, nothing else. She drove past a diner packed full of hardy-looking working men hunched over huge platters of food, but parked her pickup outside an old western brick building with a sign that read COLD RIVER COFFEEHOUSE in fancy lettering.
She was dawdling. Because it was one thing to leap into a car and charge off to right wrongs, on fire with all the slights and injuries she’d been nursing. It was something else entirely to be here. In the town where Ty had grown up.
She could step through the coffee shop door and see him, right there in front of her, kicked back at a table without a care in the world. The possibility that she might made her chest hurt. It made her cheeks start to burn and sent her stomach into knots.
She honestly didn’t know if that was her temper, her enduring pain and heartbreak—or something far more shameful. Like anticipation.
As if he’d never abandoned her in the first place.
Hating herself hadn’t done a single thing so far except make things worse, but Hannah didn’t let that stop her as she pushed the coffee shop door open—maybe a little aggressively, she could admit—and looked around as if she expected Ty Everett to materialize right there in front of her.
A quick glance proved he wasn’t one of the men in cowboy hats lounging at the tables or waiting in line at the counter.
She assured herself she was thankful for that small mercy. Not the least bit let down or deflated.
Cold River Coffee was cozy and inviting, with distressed brick walls and battered wood floors. There was a fireplace on one wall and an old bookcase stuffed full with paperbacks, fat and bright and beckoning. There were cozy-looking leather couches tossed here and there, like a home away from home. Hannah bought a coffee drink, then picked a table near the door, wishing she had the time—or the life—to sink into an oversize couch and daydream the day away.
But she’d squandered her right to daydreams on a lazy smile. She didn’t get to indulge in them any longer. That was what her mother had told her, there by her bedside in the hospital when they’d placed newborn, squalling Jack in Hannah’s arms.
Your life is over, Mama had intoned, dark and dire, one hand on Jack’s back and her eyes boring into Hannah’s after ten hours of labor. This is his life now.
Because that was how Luanne Monroe greeted the birth of her first and likely only grandchild. An endless grim march of painful sacrifice. That Hannah knew that was how Luanne expressed love didn’t make it any better.
I appreciate the pep talk, Mama, Hannah had muttered. That should really help me figure out how to get a good latch.
Hannah had taken her point. And she was in Colorado now to clean up her messy life, not dream it away. She drank her coffee, enjoying the punch of sugar and caffeine more than she should have, given the price. Meanwhile, all around her, people who lived in this place and very likely knew Ty Everett carried on with their lives. Their conversations and laughter washed over her, while the pretty woman making the drinks delivered each order with a ready smile and a quiet efficiency, as if she were in no way uncomfortable with her big, pregnant belly.
Hannah sat there longer than she should have, conjuring up happy-ever-afters for the smiling, pregnant woman, because somebody deserved them. Hannah would have liked one herself.
When she was finished, and could reasonably delay it no longer, she took herself outside again. She climbed back into her pickup, punched the name of the Everett family ranch into her phone’s GPS—another one of the eight million details about Ty she’d filed away and couldn’t make herself forget, no matter how she tried—and did what she’d come all this way to do.
She'd driven out of downtown Cold River, which was nothing but another small town, no different from any other aside from its spectacular mountain setting. It wasn’t a postcard. It wasn’t a daydream. It was in no way magical, no matter all the dizzy summer sunshine spilling over the mountains as she drove. She followed a different road over yet another impressive mountain with even better views stretching out toward forever, then down into a wide valley that was all rolling fields with adorable farmhouses tucked between them.
Until she reached hat blunt, matter-of-fact sign at the end of a dirt road that read Cold River Ranch that she’d already driven past more times than she could count.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Because maybe Hannah didn’t want the answers she would find here. Or not find here. Maybe she didn’t want to know if it was really, truly as over as it had seemed in that hospital room in Kentucky.
You need to know what you want out of this, Mama had told her when she’d announced what she wanted to do. Where she wanted to go. And what you plan to do if you don’t get it.
But that had been the trouble all along, hadn’t it? Hannah didn’t know what she wanted. An explanation, if possible. A different ending to their story, whatever that looked like. Everything and nothing.
You already know he lies to your face, her mother had said. A wise woman wouldn’t give him another opportunity.
Luckily, Hannah had never pretended to be wise.
She cranked up the music in the pickup, wishing she felt half as dangerous as a Miranda Lambert song, and turned onto that dirt road at last. She bumped along as it cut its way into the land, her windows rolled down to let in the sweet summer air.
After a while, she found the sprawling ranch house at the end of the dirt road. It was timber and glass, built big and rambling to hold its place against the mountains all around, and its different parts cobbled together suggested the sweep of history. Yet for all that it was big and old, it struck her as unpretentious. The outbuildings were tidy and looked practical. There were cottonwoods everywhere, horses in the corral, and a bright, leafy vegetable garden to the side of the house on a bit of grass beneath lofty maple trees.
Her throat was so dry, it hurt. And the knots in her stomach were so tight, she was afraid they’d never come out.
She pulled up in the yard outside the ranch house and forced herself to open the truck’s door when really, she wanted to spin around and drive back to Georgia. Right now.
“Breathe,” she ordered herself.
Hannah had once been known for her calm under pressure. She could remember that version of herself from not so long ago, young and heedless. And so reckless because she hadn’t known then how much there was to lose.
She wasn’t the least bit calm today, but it didn’t matter if her heart was kicking at her or her palms felt damp, as long as it didn’t show. And it shouldn’t. Hannah had taken care with her appearance today of all days. She’d treated it like a competition. And she’d always been good at those.
Her cowboy boots hit the dirt. She slammed the pickup door shut behind her and ran her hands over hips that were wider than she’d like, now. But no matter the size, she knew how to wear a pair of jeans and a pretty western shirt as neat and sparkly as her blond hair was hair sprayed into place.
Perfect curls and waterproof mascara and Hannah was good to go.
She rounded the back of the pickup truck and stood there for a moment, trying to breathe. Trying not to bend in half because her belly was so knotted up. Trying to access that part of her that had loved queening so much. Nailing her interview, barrel racing, and then riding whatever new horse she was assigned to at each local rodeo, learning their personalities and habits on the fly. The part of her that had even loved falling right if she were going to fall, so she could get up with an even bigger smile on her face to win over the crowds.
It was all about the smile. And she fixed hers on her face like the armor it was as she looked around.
Cold River Ranch spread out on all sides, as pretty as it was vast. She found herself moving toward the barn and where a pair of horses watched, their clever gazes and quiet muttering making her feel lighter than she had in a long while. Because she recognized these horses. She’d gotten to know them on the sly as she and Ty had toured the country together. Together, but always in secret—like everything else. Hannah moved to the fence and stood there a minute, murmuring nonsense words as she stroked her palms down familiar silken muzzles, breathing in the rich scent of earth and these horses who were part of the life she’d left behind.
It was worth it. Jack was worth it.
But that didn’t mean she didn’t miss what she’d lost.
After a while, the heaviness in her chest shifted a bit and turned into something less raw and more . . . nostalgic. Eventually she turned around again, because she wasn’t here for the horses. That Ty’s horses were here meant she’d been right to come. He was here. Or he’d been here. But hard as she looked, there didn’t appear to be a soul around the place or any sign of activity. Not in the big house and not in the collection of outbuildings dotted around this part of the property.
Hannah hadn’t really thought past getting here.
She blew out a breath, shakier than she’d like.
And that was when she saw him.