The Last Real Cowboy by Caitlin Crews

The Last Real Cowboy

Book 1 in the Kittredge Ranch Series
Book 3 in the Cold River Ranch Series
HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

In Cold River, sometimes forbidden love is the sweetest of them all…

Perennial good girl Amanda Kittredge knows that her longtime crush on Brady Everett was never really supposed to go anywhere. But when Brady comes home to Cold River during Amanda’s first attempt at independence, well, who better to teach her about rebellion than her older brother’s bad-boy best friend?

Brady’s plans did not include being forced to work the family homestead for a year—and yet, here he is. And, to make matters worse, his best friend’s innocent little sister is making a menace of herself in the most grown-up, tempting ways. When Amanda begs Brady to teach her about men, he knows he should refuse. But could Brady’s greatest temptation be his salvation?

“Loaded with charming characters [and] wit….will win the heart of any romance fan.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A True Cowboy Christmas

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The Last Real Cowboy

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Brady Everett was the insufferable, patronizing, sadly all-too-gorgeous bane of Amanda Kittredge’s existence.

Because he was completely oblivious to it. Or rather, to her.

Cold River, Colorado, holiday potlucks were always the same, which could be a good thing, like the reliable appearance of Janine Winthrop’s curry chicken salad from Labor Day to New Year’s and back again.

Amanda found the sameness comforting, especially when she was hungry. But today, it all felt crushing in a way that made her want to upend her twenty-two years of polite behavior—along with the buffet table set out in the yard of the Everett ranch house to take advantage of the perfect early September weather.

And if she did, it would be Brady’s fault.

She was standing in line to get some of that chicken salad, along with far too much cornbread, and he’d taken it upon himself to load her plate for her because he had possession of the serving spoon. Not as if he were being a gentleman, which might have been okay, but like he thought she required assistance to scoop up chicken salad.

Unfortunately, she’d seen that look on his face before. Polite yet distant. It was the kind of look he aimed at geriatrics and preteens.

“How’s school?” he asked. Polite smile in place, the way it had been when he’d asked Whitney Morrow about her recent hip replacement while helping himself to her signature shepherd’s pie.

“School?”

He didn’t hear the astonishment in her voice. Clearly. “Having a good year?”

Amanda was not in college. If she’d gone to college like Brady had, she would have been the first in her family to go. That meant that even Brady, the Everett brother who’d moved to Denver rather than staying at the ranch like Gray, or riding bulls like Ty, would have heard.

More to the point, she would have graduated already.

With a mixture of horror and despair that his polite smile only made worse, she realized he probably meant high school.

Brady Everett thought she was in high school.

“Fun fact, I actually graduated from Cold River High.” Her jaw hurt from holding on to her own polite potluck smile when what she wanted to do was start flipping tables. “When I was eighteen. Which was over four years ago.”

He blinked, indicating he did not know that. He was her older brother s best friend, had known Amanda her entire life, was actually looking straight at her right this very minute, and he didn’t know she wasn’t in high school.

“Huh,” he said. Still polite. Still distant. Then he smiled the same way. “Good job.”

“Good job?” she repeated, painfully aware that her voice got way too squeaky. With outrage.

But Brady didn’t notice. He was too busy turning his maddeningly broad and sculpted back on her as he carried on down the buffet table. Making polite and patronizing conversation all the way.

She did not flip the table in front of her, an act of willpower and sacrifice she thought deserved a standing ovation or two. Nor did she throw things at him, and not only because it would be a pity to ruin that national treasure of a T-shirt he wore that made his shoulders look like poetry. But also because despite what he seemed to think, she really wasn’t in high school.

Amanda wasn’t sure when she’d started noticing Brady, since he was a solid ten years older than she was, but now she couldn’t stop. He was undeniably, unfairly gorgeous. He’d actually been places when most people around here thought a drive over the mountains to Aspen was a huge undertaking. And unlike every other person in this town, he wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of her brothers.

Because Amanda was twenty-two years old and she considered herself not entirely hideous, but she had been on exactly three dates. In her entire life. Two homecoming dances and her senior prom. And her four older brothers had ruined all three occasions.

Now that her oldest brother, Zack, was the sheriff, her brothers would probably use his job as an excuse to throw any man foolish enough to try to date her straight into a jail cell. had all that EMT training to help with his firefighting, but also, he’d said once—to Amanda’s prom date—that he knew exactly how to both hurt a person and bring him back for more. Add in ’s reputation as the most dangerous of the brothers plus Connor’s wildcard temper, and it made a man who wasn’t intimidated by them all the more intriguing.

It made him magic.

Also, those shoulders. Not to mention the dark green eyes that made her belly flip.

Maybe she was a masochist, because when she’d piled her plate high with enough food to feed three of her, all of which she intended to eat merrily, she didn’t go and find a seat near her mother or her friends. Or even with Abby Everett, who Amanda viewed as a surrogate big sister as well as her boss at the coffee shop in town—and who was almost the guest of honor at the Labor Day potluck today. The real guest of honor being her cute little newborn baby boy, Bart, who she’d just had with Brady’s oldest brother, the forbidding Gray. Who looked more besotted than forbidding today as he gazed at his wife and son.

Instead, she headed for the table where Brady sat with Riley and Connor.

Because if Amanda let a few infantilizing comments wreck her day, she would never get out of bed in this town, where she was universally seen as forever twelve. Amanda headed for the empty chair next to Brady.

“By the way, congratulations, Uncle Brady,” she said breezily, as if she was continuing their buffet conversation. “Bart is adorable.”

“He’s already an uncle,” Riley growled. Because Riley always growled, as if the words themselves offended him as he spoke them. All the words.

“Remember Becca?” Connor asked in that lazy voice he used when he was being a jerk, which was basically all the time. “Pretty sure she made Brady an uncle years ago.”

Becca was Gray’s daughter from his first, unhappy marriage that had ended tragically more than ten years ago. Amanda had babysat her, for God’s sake. But she didn’t bother to snap back at either one of her brothers, because Brady was smiling at her.

Not that polite, buffet line smile. A real smile.

And for a moment, the Labor Day afternoon seemed a whole lot sunnier than before.

“Looks like we’re keeping him,” Brady said genially, nodding over in the general direction of Abby and his brother and baby Bart.

Amanda knew he smiled at everyone in exactly this same way. He would smile at a tree or a horse just like this, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, as her grandmother liked to tell her. Regularly. She basked in Brady’s smile anyway, as if it were hers. As if he ever could be hers.

She would add it to her personal collection of Brady oments, like that conversation they’d had when he’d been a little bit drunk at his brother Ty and sister-in-law Hannah’s retying the knot ceremony last week, and she could have sworn he’d noticed she wasn’t a child any longer. If only for a moment or two, right here in this same yard.

Something she didn’t need to be thinking about around her brothers.

The youngest of her older brothers, Connor, was kicked back in his chair and staring at her, all six feet of him obnoxious. A mere eight years older than Amanda, he was the closest to her in age, which sometimes made them friends.

“The kids’ table is over by the porch, monkey,” he said.

So, not friends today.

What struck Amanda—hard—was that he wasn’t being mean. He wasn’t teasing her or trying to get in a dig, for a change. He didn’t even have that lazy note in his voice that indicated he was deliberately being jerky.

Connor was legitimately directing his twenty-two year old sister to the kids’ table. He was being helpful.

She snuck a look at Riley, but what Connor was saying was so unobjectionable, so normal to him, that Riley didn’t appear to be paying the slightest bit of attention. He was glaring across the yard instead, no doubt because his ex-wife, Rae—one of Abby Everett’s two best friends—was over there, cluttering up his line of sight the way people did in small towns whether you wanted to see them or not.

As usual, no one was here to save her from the helpfulness.

And y might think Amanda was in high school, but he still wasn’t as messed up in the head as all of her irritating brothers. He should know better, but instead, he kept on smiling. He looked perfectly polite again. And as distant as if she were grouchy old Lucinda Early with another complaint.

Amanda was having a Brady moment, and he clearly thought there was absolutely nothing wrong or weird about shunting her off to sit with a selection of loud toddlers, feral ten-year-olds, and a couple of actual surly teenagers.

Assuming she recovered from this indignity, she would never forgive him. She would never forgive any of them.

“The kids’ table,” she repeated. Flatly. “Where . . . the actual children are.”

Riley shifted his attention back to the conversation at hand and frowned at her.

“Right by the porch.” He sounded like he was trying to be helpful too. Or at least kind, which somehow made it worse. “I saw Becca over there.”

If they’d been home on the Bar K, their family ranch north of the Everett spread, Amanda might have lost it. Not that losing it would help. It would only lead to comments about ladylike behavior and why are you so emotional all the time, but maybe she would have felt better.

Sadly, they weren’t at home. This was a party, half the town was here, and Brady Everett was smiling at her. More importantly, her mother would not be pleased if Amanda caused a scene in public. Ellie Kittredge had been forced to accept that she couldn’t control the behavior of her four sometimes rowdy sons. Or, if the whispers Amanda had ignored her whole life were true, of her husband. She accordingly placed all her expectations for acceptable behavior on her only daughter, whether Amanda felt like being appropriate or not.

Amanda turned around without a word, leaving her brothers and beautiful, oblivious Brady Everett behind. She did not walk around to the front of the ranch house to find a place to sit with teenage Becca and the rest of the actual, honest-to-God children. She headed inside instead, because she needed to do something with her plate of chicken salad and cornbread, which now felt like a concrete block in her hands.

It was funny when an everyday thing turned into a revelation. Amanda had probably been treated like a child a hundred times yesterday too.

But here, now, today—she’d had enough.

Yet she still smiled at everyone she passed, because it was a reflex. It was one more way she was invisible right here in the middle of her life. Always and ever that little Kittredge girl. Always a child to everyone, no matter how old she was. She kept thinking she would magically reach a certain age and everyone would wake up and collectively notice that she wasn’t twelve any longer. She’d thought turning eighteen would do it. Graduating high school. Making her own money, getting promoted, all the things other adults around here did.

But it hadn’t worked.

On her twenty-first birthday, when she’d gone into the nice, respectable bar in town instead of the seedier and therefore more intriguing one, all of her brothers had been there. Ready and waiting. They had allowed her one and a half drinks, absolutely no fraternization with anyone male they hadn’t already vetted or intimidated, and then Zack had driven her home much too early in the sheriff’s department-issued Bronco he’d already

She understood now, like a lightning strike to the head, that it wasn’t going to change.

It was never, ever going to change.

She was going to be fifty-seven years old and still living, dateless, in her parents’ house. Her brothers would still swarm around her like living armor every time she tried to have a life. She would become one of the fixtures of this town, a part of the spinster scenery like that Harriet Barnett with all the cats or the fearsome Miss Martina Patrick, and would be forced to start appearing at parties like this one with her own signature potluck dish. Would she try a variation of her mother’s potato salad? Strike out the way the younger women always did and appear with strange dishes related to whatever diets they were on that no one wanted to touch—and then surrender to the inevitable taco cups or brownies? Or lose her head completely and attempt to compete with old Martha Douglas’s glorious pies?

“You are going to wither away and die, a husk of a woman, still treated like a child when you’re actually seventy-eight and fighting senility,” she told herself. Out loud.

Luckily, there was no one else in the Everett kitchen to hear her dire prediction.

And who was she kidding? If anyone had been there, they would have agreed. Then patted her on the head and told her to go play.

Amanda tossed her paper plate into the trash can and listened as it made a thudding sound, like a drum.

Like her own death knell.

Not that she was being dramatic.

Then again, was she? Because Amanda knew every single person at this gathering. And with the exception of Hannah, Ty Everett’s rodeo queen wife who was only a few years older than she was, each and every one of them treated her like a precocious toddler. And would likely continue to do so, forever and ever, amen.

Amanda kept waiting for things to change. For the people around her to change. For someone to notice she wasn’t a kid any longer.

And maybe ask her on a date too, while they were at it.

But the kids’ table incident today made it clear that no one in Cold River was going to notice her on their own. Ever.

She was going to have to go ahead and change her life herself.

***

Later that week, Amanda sat in her normal place at the usual Sunday dinner that Ellie had insisted on as long as anyone could remember.

She almost lost her nerve.

But it was already done. She reminded herself that her brothers were the main reason the rest of the town saw her as an infant. All four of them had their own spreads out here on Kittredge land. Which meant that if Amanda went and lived somewhere else, she could kill two birds with one stone. She could have a private life, unsupervised by any of her brothers. And that very act of independence might send the message that she really was all grown up, of legal drinking age, and more than ready to live her own freaking life at last.

It wouldn’t matter if they were convinced or not, because she would be off living said freaking life.

No time like the present, she urged herself, suddenly uncomfortably warm.

“I’m moving out,” she announced into the quiet that fell as everyone around the table tucked into the typically huge meal that Ellie had made.

There was a small, charged silence.

Then, to Amanda’s astonishment, everyone kept right on eating.

She set down her fork and looked around the table. Her brothers and her father were all big men. And Ellie always looked bigger than she was, because a woman had to have a presence to order five big, strong men around the way she did. At the moment, the six of them looked like a wall.

They were her family. Amanda loved them, she really did. Even if, right now, she wanted to throw things at each and every one of them.

She waited, but they kept on eating.

Riley stirred, and Amanda tensed. “Pass the bread?” he asked.

“Here you go,” Ellie said and passed it.

Then everyone got back to quietly eating.

Amanda had another unpleasant revelation. She’d spent the week since Labor Day taking steps to change her life, and marveling at how easy it was once she’d made the decision to do it. She’d also spent a lot of time wondering why she hadn’t done this before. Why she’d waited.

Now she knew. It was this wall of silent disapproval. Normally she wilted in the face of it because her role in her family was very clear. She was here to mend things, the way she had her parents’ marriage as their later-in-life baby, or so the stories went. She was supposed to keep everyone happy, not make things worse. She was glue, and glue stayed put by definition.

Maybe it’s time to make yourself happy, she told herself sternly, in case she was tempted to let this go.

Not that she could. She’d gone ahead and done a thing she couldn’t easily take back. Deliberately. So she couldn’t wilt.

“The silent treatment isn’t going to change the fact that I signed a lease on an apartment in town,” Amanda said tranquilly. “I’m moving in next week.”

That broke the wall into pieces. Loud pieces.

“Like hell you are,” Jensen said with a laugh.

“Language,” Ellie snapped at him.

“An apartment?” Zack gave her that assessing sheriff’s look of his. “What apartment building?”

“You don’t mean by yourself, do you?” Connor demanded. “That can’t be safe.”

Riley glared. “You already have somewhere to live. Why do you need an apartment?”

But Amanda watched her father, a man of precious few words. Donovan wasted none of them now. All he did was look down the length of the table toward Ellie, communicated something to her with one of their unreadable glances, then set his utensils down on his plate.

The sound rang in Amanda like judgment. Her stomach twisted into a knot, but she refused to show it. She could cry about it later. In her own place, with a lock on the door and none of her family around to see it and tell her she was being childish.

“There aren’t that many apartments in town,” Zack said. He shook his head. “And none of them are places I’d want my baby sister visiting, much less living.”

“Good thing it’s not up to you, then, isn’t it?” Amanda replied.

Very, very calmly.

Because one thing she knew all too well. If she showed the slightest bit of emotion, or temper, or anything at all but aggressive coolness under fire, they would dismiss her. Instantly. There was no crying in baseball, as Connor liked to say when there was no baseball of any kind taking place, and there was certainly no crying in the Kittredge family.

“Where is this apartment?” Ellie asked from her end of the table, matching Amanda’s calm tone.

Amanda couldn’t read the expression on her mother’s face. It could go either way, she knew. Ellie was nothing if not a mystery, especially to her own children.

“Up above the Coyote,” Amanda said.

Then she braced herself, because the Coyote was the seedier of the two bars in town. It favored simplicity and dim lighting over the craft beers, live music, and ever-expanding menu options offered in the more respectable Broken Wheel Saloon on Main Street. The Coyote was where the bikers who came through in the summers liked to drink the road away, and Zack had once said he headed over to the Coyote at closing time whether or not he’d been called, because there was always a fight to break up.

The explosion here at Sunday dinner was instantaneous. And loud.

All four of her brothers started talking over one another, each registering their varying degrees of dismay. There was no point fighting with them, so Amanda sat back in her chair, folded her arms, and waited.

“That’s absolutely no place for decent girl to go, much less live,” Zack thundered.

Amanda was tempted to inform him that she was old enough and decent enough to vote, thank you, then lie and tell him she’d voted for his opponent in the sheriff’s race.

“You can’t live there,” Riley kept saying. At her. And when she didn’t respond, he threw it out to the rest of the table. “She can’t live there.”

Jensen let out another laugh. “This must be a joke.”

“Come on, monkey,” Connor said in disgust from beside her. “This is ridiculous. If you want your own place, we can fix up one of the outbuildings. You can have all the independence you want.”

“But without actually, you know, having any,” Amanda pointed out.

“You can have independence without putting yourself in danger,” Zack argued.

“What’s ridiculous is that all of you are talking to me like I asked for your permission,” Amanda said into the lull. She looked around at each of her brothers in turn. “I didn’t.”

Jensen turned to their father. “Obviously we don’t want Amanda in that kind of situation. You know the kind of people who hang around the Coyote.”

“You mean . . . you?” Amanda asked.

All of her brothers stared at her as if she’d grown seven heads.

She smiled.

“I didn’t ask Mom and Dad either,” Amanda told them, matter-of-factly, pleased that she sounded so certain when her stomach was still in a tangle. “Because I know this will come as a big surprise to everyone, but I’m not twelve. I’m twenty-two. I can afford rent, and I certainly don’t need anyone’s permission to pay it.”

“How can you afford rent?” Riley demanded. “You work in a coffee shop.”

“It’s called savings, thank you,” Amanda replied, then pulled herself back before she got too testy. “And I’m not an idiot. I have a new part-time job too. Just to make sure I’m covered.”

That wasn’t the only reason. But she wasn’t going to get into that part of things with them. If she told them how she planned to spice up her social life, they would make one of the outbuildings into a prison cell and toss the key. The way they’d locked her in her room so she couldn’t go to her sophomore dance with a boy they didn’t like. Jerks, all of them.

“That sounds like a reasonable plan, Amanda,” Ellie said quietly from her end of the table, still expressionless.

Amanda had to blink away the heat in her eyes at the unexpected show of support. From such an unlikely source.

But she knew she wasn’t done. Not yet.

“Where did you get a part-time job when you already work full-time in the coffeehouse?” Zack asked suspiciously. Or maybe this was him in full interrogation mode.

Amanda decided that since this was happening, and they were all being idiots, she might as well enjoy it.

“Didn’t I tell you?” she asked brightly. And smiled wider. “It’s how I got the apartment. The Coyote needs a new bartender.”

Then she sat back and enjoyed the show.

End of excerpt

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Jan 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1250295279

The Last Real Cowboy

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