The Cowboy's Homecoming Surprise

By: Jennifer Hoopes

To Lee: Your friendship means the world to me. Thank you for being a travel partner on this crazy writing journey.

Chapter One

“Em, I’m not sure this was a good idea.”

Peyton Brooks glanced around the bar, tugging her T-shirt down with a frown. It was sex on a stick masquerading as Friday night dancing. Women in tight jeans or daisy dukes, tank tops curving around their ample bosoms. Men in jeans molding to their asses while shirts caressed defined biceps. Good lord, was everyone in Fly Creek in rutting season?

“Nonsense, Peyton. This was a fantastic idea. When’s the last time you were out on a Friday night?”

“I’m out every Friday night.” Just not exactly how Emily meant…

Emily looked at her and sighed. “Okay, when’s the last time you were out on a Friday night that didn’t involve your daughter and the ice cream parlor or a campfire at Sky Lake?”

Peyton pursed her lips, and Emily smiled in triumph. She wasn’t going to answer her best friend, because the truth was, she hadn’t been out on a Friday night alone in years. Not since—

She cut the thought off quickly. Thinking of him only brought heartache.

Taking a swig of beer, Peyton let her eyes sweep the room again. She knew some of the furtive glances and conversations were about her. Everyone in Fly Creek knew her. They also knew her story. She was fine with that. And she was fine with them talking about her appearance tonight. Emily had talked her into it, and although uneasy about being in the middle of a meat market, she was grateful, too. If she hadn’t come out, she would be home alone for the first time in forever, having dropped Mel off at camp that morning. And that seemed like the harder of the two things to conquer.

“Do you want to dance?”

Peyton looked at the dance floor. Several familiar faces were lining up for a group dance. Dan Rigby, the head ranch hand at Sky Lake and her good friend, slid in beside Becky Jane, the local vet, and waved a hand. Glancing back at Emily, Peyton took a deep breath, then smiled and hopped off the stool. Her friend followed and together they stepped onto the wood floor.

Two dances in, and Peyton’s body was loose, and a smile was permanently attached to her face. She was surrounded by her town, her people. Other than by her daughter’s side, there was no place she would rather be.

“I’m thinking I was right. This was a great idea,” Emily shouted.

They were hiding in the back, giggling their way through the steps when suddenly a ripple of silence filtered across the room. The music stopped and like a wave, the rows of heads in front of Peyton and Emily all turned toward the entrance.

She followed their gazes to the tall, imposing man standing with his hands in his pockets. It can’t be… She let out a string of curses and her knees started to buckle.

“Who’s that?” Emily asked, looking back just in time to catch Peyton as she made her slow descent to the floor. She knew what Emily saw. All six foot three of sinfully handsome swagger. But the truth was he was Lucifer on the outside and the inside. A devil who cared about nobody but himself. Who would use and discard every woman who crossed his path.

“Peyton? What’s wrong? Should I get help?”

Peyton managed to straighten with Emily’s support and she tugged her friend to the far wall and the pub tables lined against it. Dropping onto a stool, she steadfastly avoided looking at the front door. The silence was still pervasive, but she caught the hushed tones. “Ryder Marks is back.”

She scratched a fingernail on the pitted table and a sliver of wood pierced her skin. Good. Pain was good. She knew how to handle and focus on pain. What she didn’t know how to do or handle was the man standing in the door. Making his grand entrance. One infinitely more loud and showcasey than the exit he made ten years ago.

“Why is everyone looking at you?”

Peyton peeked through lowered lashes and, yes, blatant gazes were bouncing between her and him. The curse of living in the same town your whole life was your history was written in the town manual. The one stored in everyone’s memories that could be recalled at a moment’s notice.

Oh God.

She swallowed and whispered, “Is he looking at me?”

Emily glanced over and back, shaking her head. “No, he’s at the bar being slapped on the back and offered drinks. A circle of women are hovering just around the perimeter.” She snorted. “God, it’s like a hero’s welcome.”

“Ryder Marks is no hero,” Peyton said, unable to contain the contempt and fury she’d held bottled up over the years.

Emily’s eyes widened. Her friend tilted her head, scanning Peyton’s face over and over until the eureka moment hit. “Oh my God. That’s Mel’s father?”

Top Books