Book Series: Howelton Texas

Cowboy Refuge

Title: Cowboy Refuge
Series: Howelton Texas #1
Release Date: April 7, 2020
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A fragile heart, damaged from a devastating loss, must build walls for protection. The threats of an ex-con drive a mother to extremes to protect her son. With two souls hesitant to trust, will they find the forgiveness and freedom to love?

The last thing Ward Ramsey expects to find is Jayme Bonner on his doorstep, applying for his ranch hand position with her young son in tow. The complicated situation makes him want to turn her away, but the desperation in her eyes reaches him in an unexpected way.

Jayme never thought she'd be fleeing for her life and the safety of her son. Ward’s North Texas ranch could be the sanctuary she needs, and she throws herself into the job with all of her ranching knowledge and skills. As the two work closely together, feelings neither expected grow, and a passion hot enough to heat the cool nights ignites.

As love blossoms and long-held barriers fall, danger creeps into their newfound happiness. When Ward is injured by the ex-con hunting Jayme, the determined ranch hand decides it's time to take the battle to the hateful man out to kill her.

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Chapter One

With her son, Dusty, asleep in the bedroom, Jayme Bonner picked up the forgotten mail and shuffled through it, her gaze freezing on the last, unexpected envelope sporting the logo of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Collapsing on the couch, mind in lock-down, she feared what this might mean.

Hands shaking and tensing her muscles for impact, she ripped opened the letter, growing instantly lightheaded as blood drained from her face. Dirk Blacke still had six years left on his sentence, and they’d let the man out of prison. When she was notified of the hearing, she’d been assured there was little chance he would be released because of his list of infractions inside. Blacke had attacked her and tried to kill her. Unable to face being in the same room with the hateful man, she hadn’t attended. Now that he was free, he’d keep his promise to finish her off. She had to protect Dusty. She had to run.

Two weeks later, Jayme opened her grit-filled eyes to the first light of dawn. Dew dappled the windshield and she rubbed her cold hands together to warm them. Dusty lay across the seat with his nest of golden curls in her lap. Even after sleeping another night in her old truck, her boy never complained. He tried so hard to make things easier on her. At eight-years-old, he cared more for her needs and feelings than any grown man ever had.

After leaving her last job in the middle of the night, without giving the foreman more than a note in the darkened barn, she’d run fast and hard from the hateful convict on her trail. Dusty was her life—she’d do whatever it took to protect him. Against this threat, running was her best and only option.

In the rear-view mirror, the dark circles under her eyes were testament to her exhaustion. She massaged her temples. They’d traipsed from one small North Texas town to another, stopping in at every feed store and gas station asking for leads on work. There were three more months of school left this year and Dusty was falling behind. Every day lost increased the pressure.

She was a ranch hand, but being a woman looking for a man’s job was no easy thing. A tip the day before had seemed promising, but it turned out to be an offer for more than ranch work after the guy had gotten an eyeful of her. And she damn sure didn’t want a job like that.

Lord, please let me have some luck today. My boy needs to be in school. She was down to her last fifty dollars and that didn’t go far when you were driving an old Chevy truck. She hated that Dusty had been living on the cheapest food she could buy for the last couple of days. She clenched the steering wheel until her knuckles cracked. Something had to change.

Starting up the truck, the engine loud in the quiet of the sleepy town, she patted Dusty’s soft cheek as he turned over and lay on his side.

She drove out of the little parking lot of the saddle store in Throckmorton and headed down Highway 380. There were some sizeable ranches up thataway in Haskell and Stonewall counties. Surely, Howelton, where she was headed, held more promise than the other towns they’d been through recently.

After thirty minutes of driving past green wheat fields running into the flat horizon, she came to the small farming community. The donut shop coming up on her left was more than she could resist. Her son needed a treat and he loved donuts more than anything in the world.

The truck’s engine stopped and the constant vibration from the old engine stilled. In the silence, Dusty sat up and knuckled his face. He spied the display through the picture window and turned wondering eyes her way.

She nodded her head and grinned.

Throwing his slender arms around her neck, he squealed like a baby pig and jiggled his short golden curls.

She laughed and tickled him. Her son had a way of lifting her heart, even on the toughest days.

He shrieked, “You’re going to make me wet my pants.”

“Come on in, honey. Use the restroom while I get your donut and some coffee.”
“I’ll be quick.”

He hauled his cute little butt into the store and asked where the bathroom was. She shut her door, her own rear end sore from having slept sitting upright night after night, and walked inside.

A plump woman with kind, gray eyes stood behind the ancient wood-and-glass display. As Jayme came up, she said, “Good morning. How can I help you?”

The aroma of coffee and fresh, hot bread filled the warm air. Jayme’s empty belly rumbled loudly. She reached for it. Had the store clerk heard?

The woman grinned. “Sounds like you got here just in time, hon.”

She’d eaten very little in the past few days, after giving Dusty most of what she could afford. It was no wonder her stomach was complaining. Jayme smiled tentatively and pointed at the fluffy glazed creations. “I’ll have a large black coffee and one of those donuts, please.”

The woman poured her coffee, snapped a tight lid on the tall cup, then slipped a donut in a bag and gave them to her. Dusty skipped back into the room with an excited smile.

Jayme paid for her purchase and gave him his breakfast. “Here you go, buster. Enjoy.”

Dusty peered inside the small brown bag and frowned. “What are you going to eat?”

She swiped his hair out of his eyes. “I’ll have something later.”

He stared at the old hardwood floor, all the joy in his treat gone. “You’re hungry, too.”

Her little man, always looking after her, trying to be the man of the house. “Just eat your donut, hon. We’ll find something for me soon. This town has great vibes. There’s bound to be work here.”

He stood still, his face stubborn.

Oh, hell. She turned toward the counter to order another donut.

The lady handed her a bag. “No charge. I swear you deserve one for raising such a sweetheart.”

Tears burned Jayme’s eyes, and she lost track of what the woman was saying.

Dusty tugged on Jayme’s sleeve. “Mom, did you hear that?”

“What, honey?”

“She wants to know what kind of work you’re looking for.”

Jayme quickly wiped at the corners of her eyes. “Thanks for asking, ma’am. I’m a ranch hand and I’m desperate for a job. We’ve been looking a while, and that old truck drinks gas like a drunk on Saturday night.”

The woman sighed and shook her head. “My name’s Noreen. I’m telling you now so’s you’ll know who to cuss when you leave this job in your rear-view mirror. You’ll find work out at Ward Ramsey’s place. That ornery son-of-a-gun can’t keep help for nothing.” She tore off some register receipt and wrote down directions to the ranch.

Jayme thanked her for her kindness as her belly worked its way into a knot. She didn’t have it in her to trust men much, but her managers had never been jerks. No matter what this Ramsey was like, though, she had to try.

A half-hour later, Jayme and Dusty passed the cattle guard under the wrought-iron sign of the Double R Ranch. Peering down the road, she didn’t see anything like a ranch house in the distance. After driving a mile or so past wheat fields and grazing Black Angus cattle, she came to a mesquite pasture. Eventually rounding a bend, there appeared an old, fort-like, adobe-and-rock ranch house. She hoped they would end up at a barn. Soon they took a hard right at a thick copse of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus. A well-built steel barn came into view with a dark-blue Ford truck parked in front.

She pulled up next to the truck and ruffled Dusty’s hair. “Stay here and don’t make a peep. You know the drill, right, hon?”

“Yep. Nobody wants a kid problem. I’m not here until you say so.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but yeah, you’ve got the idea.”

He wadded up their night-time blanket into a pillow, lay down on the seat, and closed his eyes.

Happiness swelled her chest for the first time in a while. He really was a great kid. She got out and stood for a few seconds, composing herself and saying a little prayer. The morning sun was kind to her skin, not yet blazing as it would be later in the day. God, she needed this job so badly. With a deep breath, she strode into the barn.

Though the doors let in the sunlight, no one was inside. Pitch forks and shovels hung in an orderly row, and boxes and bottles were stacked neatly on shelves—signs of a well-run ranch. She breathed in the light manure scent of healthy cattle and a whiff of the round bale of coastal hay near the rear.
Heading down the aisle, she eyed the dark cows in some of the stalls to her right. The double doors in the back were open.

A clear, masculine voice came from the small pasture behind the barn.
She exited the building and laid eyes on the source of the sound. Goose bumps ruffled the hairs on her arms. If this was Ramsey, he couldn’t be further from the cantankerous old coot of Noreen’s description. Jayme stared at a strikingly handsome man armed with a stock whip, moving some cows and calves toward a corral.

Her gaze roamed over his lean, broad-shouldered frame. His sculpted, sun-browned jaw clenched, leading to a frown on full, sensual lips. He tossed dark hair from his forehead. She caught her breath at an unwelcome ache in her core. Closing her eyes, she blocked his sexy body from her sight.

As soon as the cattle were in the corral, the gate slammed. She backed inside to the cool shade of the barn, waiting for him to enter.

Walking in, he hardly spared her a glance, though that frown of his was firmly in place.

She came toward him, her heart beating like a drum. “Mr. Ramsey?”


“I’m Jayme Bonner. Noreen, in town, said you might be looking for a hand. If you are, I’d like to talk to you about the job.”

He grabbed a pitch fork and pulled hay from the round bale then turned and looked her up and down. “For who?”

With a gulp, she steeled her resolve. This was always the hard part. “Me. I’ve been working ranches for years. I’m a damn good hand.”

He turned his back to her and forked more hay. “Don’t need a woman here. I need someone strong, who can work hard.”

She fidgeted from one foot to another and then caught herself. Please, let him see through his prejudice and give me a chance. “Well, that’s me. My old bosses gave me reference letters. Call them. They’re in Texas. They’ll tell you how hard I work and that I’m dependable.”

Without turning around, he shook his head. “You’re just not big enough. Can’t lift what needs lifting. Now, git.”

Stepping closer to him, she kept a note of desperation out of her voice. At least, she hoped so.” Please, just try me. I’ll prove I can do the job. Or take a minute to read one of the letters. It’ll tell you that I’m up to anything you put me to.” Oh, God, this has to work. I’ll beg if I have to. Dusty deserves better than what he’s been getting. I’ll do whatever it takes—well, almost.

She held out a reference letter, the paper crisp against her fingers. Take it, come on. Give me a chance.

Pausing, he turned around, his piercing stare shooting straight through her. He reached for the letter and read in silence. Finally, he looked up and studied her.
Warmth stole through her insides as he stared. Damn, the man was good-looking.

Then he grimaced, aiming that gaze of his over her shoulder.

She stood still, begging God to please help her land the job.

He shifted his hard gaze back to her. “I’ll give you a try for two weeks. Then we’ll talk. There’s a cabin. It needs some cleaning. Last assh—hand was a nasty son of a—” He puffed out a sharp breath and shook his head, muttering, “I’ll regret this. I know I will.”

Her knees went weak. Her mighty God had come through again. And not every ranch job came with a place to stay. Without it, the truck would have been home for her and Dusty until she could afford the first month’s rent somewhere.

She threw her hand out. “I promise, you won’t.”

Ignoring her hand, he stepped past her. “Follow me.”

Trailing Ramsey outside, her pulse racing with elation, she snuck a peek at her truck. Little smarty pants was still tucked away. The blue Ford backed out as she started hers.

She tailed Ramsey, her hands gripping hard on the steering wheel, as he followed the drive around and down about a half mile. A small, old-fashioned, faded-white house overrun with scruffy grass and weeds appeared. Behind it and down below glimmered a stock pond which would also provide water for the house since wells were rare in this part of the country.

Ramsey pulled up to the little house and got out.

She parked and walked over to stand near him.

He motioned to the house. “This has a key. It’s not locked since I didn’t clean it yet. Payday is every other Saturday.”

She nodded then headed toward her truck and opened the door. Heart in her throat, she said, “I need to mention something.” Dusty sat up, and she helped him out.

“Dammit! You didn’t say anything about having a kid!” Ramsey hollered.

Before she could speak, Dusty shouted, “Don’t yell at my momma! It’s mean!”

The man jerked his head back and blinked then took a closer look at Dusty, eyeing his thin little frame up and down. Ramsey nodded his head slowly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have yelled at your momma.” Tipping his hat to Jayme, he climbed into his truck, backing up and heading down the road toward the barn.

She let out a long breath and squeezed Dusty’s shoulder. “Thanks for standing up for me, son.”

The house had good bones with wood floors and a large picture window in the small living room. The place held very little furniture, but she could live with that. She’d learned not to acquire more than would fit in the back of her truck. She couldn’t very well search for work paying for a U-Haul. Taking whatever a bunk house offered was something she accepted. This house was a pig sty, though. They’d have to clean it before bedtime.

There was something else they needed to do first. Loading Dusty up in the truck, they went by the school to register him. She was thinking positive thoughts about her new job and the rancher who set her pulse to racing.

They got back to the little house and she started to work, first unpacking their clothes into the dresser in the bedroom. Her prized possession, Dusty’s current school photo, went on top. It was the only decoration that traveled with her wherever she went.
Thankfully, there were some cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink and she spent the afternoon scrubbing the house clean. A quilt her mother had made before Jayme’s birth went over the back of the worn couch, finally making the old cabin feel like home.

That night, sleep evaded her. Noreen had been right. Her boss was a hard man—just like her father. She fiddled with the covers and turned over for the second time. Remembering working with her cold, dominating father, she bit her lip. This job could be painful.

A loud sound woke her. Her head shot up. What time was it? She checked the clock on the bedside table. Eleven-thirty. Her cell phone pealed again. Hoping Dusty didn’t wake, she punched the green button and whispered, “Hello?”

“Hi there, bitch.”

Blacke! She gasped, cold terror racing through her limbs.

“That’s right. It’s me. You think you can hide? Think again. I’ll find you. And jail gave me lots of time to think about what I’ll do to you when I do. You and me? We’re going to have some fun. Sleep good now.” He hung up.

She lay there, clutching the phone and unable to move. Prison hadn’t changed him at all. He was coming for her. She shivered, suddenly icy cold and vulnerable.

She moved to the couch and covered herself with the quilt her mother had lovingly made. Its usual calming magic held no sway tonight. How could she protect herself? How could she protect Dusty? The man was brutal, insane when he was angry. His attack was proof of that. She’d never felt quite as alone as she did right this moment.

She needed a plan. She’d get rid of the phone. It felt tainted now that his horrible voice had come through it. Running her hand through her hair, she clenched a handful, pulling it tight. But, wouldn’t it be smarter to let him call her? He might slip and give her clues to his whereabouts or what he was planning. God, could she bear to hear his voice again? Let him threaten her?

They’d never spoken on the phone before. And in the years since he’d been in prison, she’d never considered that, as senior hand at the ranch, he might have had access to her phone number. She’d tried to put all thoughts of him and her rape as far from her mind as possible. That had been a mistake.

Ward Ramsey reached into the refrigerator for a cold beer. After being fidgety all afternoon, now he couldn’t sleep. A house over 150 years old was never truly silent. It creaked and popped and whispered all night long. He sat down in his recliner, needing the comfort of the room with its smoke-stained rock fireplace and worn leather furniture. How in the hell did he offer the woman a job?

The antique mantle clock ticking was the only real sound once he settled in at night, unless Skippy snored. His Australian Shepherd, asleep near the sofa, lifted his head and looked at him.
He heaved a sigh. He’d told the woman no, he didn’t need her, and the next thing he knew, he’d shown her the cabin. Shaking his head, he groaned. He had actually hired a female ranch hand.

When he’d walked in the barn and gotten a clear look at her, a hot jolt of desire surged through every inch of him. She was the first woman to get his blood pumping in a very long time. The direct way she stared at a man with those wide, green eyes surprised him. He felt the heat from that gaze pulsing all the way to his boots. She must have found being gorgeous wasn’t a bonus while working on a ranch.

Hell, she had a kid. He took a long swallow of beer. How had he not seen that coming? He expected her to let some kind of dog out. He couldn’t have that boy running around this place. A weight landed hard on his chest as he glanced at the photos on the mantle. Something he rarely did.

One was his wedding picture, taken all those long years ago. Elizabeth had been so beautiful and carefree that day. He shut his eyes and breathed deep, shuddering breaths.

He looked up again—apparently this was a night for scourging himself—and gazed at the other photo. His three-year-old son, Caleb, laughed at him, reaching out with his little palm open. Panting, he leaned forward and put his face in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. The accident should never have happened. He should have been with them.

He clenched his fists and groaned softly. If he were driving, he could have prevented the wreck. But he put the damn ranch ahead of his family one too many times. Elizabeth and Caleb had paid the ultimate price.

No, having the woman and her son here wouldn’t work. However, she had two weeks. As a man of his word, he’d keep it. Then she was out of here.

Jayme, jittery from lack of sleep, was at the school when the doors opened the next morning and sat with Dusty while he ate breakfast. Then she walked him to his new class and met his teacher, leaving the woman her phone number for emergencies. Now she just had to get permission from her hard-ass boss to pick up her son from his afternoon bus.

It was eight o’clock when she drove up to the ranch. Ramsey skewered her with those brown eyes of his as she entered the barn.

“You’re late,” he snapped. “Don’t make it a habit.”

Shaky all over after the threatening phone call last night, she found it hard to face her boss. Resorting to a detested nervous habit, she tucked a bit of loose hair behind her ear. “I took Dusty to his first day at school.”

When he didn’t make a comment, she chewed on her lip then asked, “What time do you want me here in the mornings? You didn’t say yesterday.”

“Seven-thirty. Start the feeding if I’m not here yet.”

She could do that. Dusty’s bus picked him up at a little after seven. “Sounds good.”

“I guess you ride?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, and rope.”

“Pull calves?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

He grunted and scratched his cheek. “Any experience on tractors?”

She nodded again. “John Deere, yes, sir. I can run a dozer and a backhoe, too.”

He narrowed his eyes, sizing her up. “Guess you mend fence all right, too?”

“Yes, sir. I can string a damn tight fence, as well.”


“Yes, sir.” She frowned. What was this? Twenty questions? Was he trying to trip her up?

He kept on. “Done any well or pump work?”

“No, sir.”

“I was beginning to wonder,” he grumbled.

“What’s that?”


Sucking in her bottom lip, she kept her peace. This man, the one who revved her pulse, was exasperating. But, in truth, he had the right to grill her. Couldn’t he be a little less grumpy about it, though?

He threw his thumb over his shoulder. “Go hook up my truck to the flatbed. We’ll buy a load of feed this morning.”

The trailer was on the truck when Ramsey walked over and got in the passenger side. He'd checked the lights’ connection on the trailer first.

It was jury-rigged and she’d had to work out the wires. He must have figured she wouldn’t get it right. He figured wrong and the look he gave her had some respect in it.

He said, “Drive back out to the main road. I’ll tell you where to go when we get into town. I get my stuff at Howelton Feed.”

Jayme glanced at her boss. His silence on the twenty-minute ride to town had been fine, but she was all too aware of his tall, hard body blocking the sun on the other side of the truck.

Ramsey drew quite a few interested looks, which he ignored, on arriving with an unfamiliar woman driving his rig. He left her in the truck while he did his business, but when he came back, he tossed a new light connection for the trailer on the truck seat. “You know how to put that on?”

“Sure do.”

“Good. You can do it when you get some time this week.” After that, he ignored her.
Which was fine with her. She couldn’t imagine what kind of conversation this grouchy man would find interesting.

When they returned to the ranch, he had her reverse up to the feed room. Shoving open his door, he nodded at the trailer. “We’ll unload. I’ll toss them to you.”

“Sure thing.” Her boss was a man of few words, all right. Turning her head to avoid watching his muscular shoulders bunch as he hoisted the feed, she grabbed the bag he sent flying her way.

His gaze tracked her closely as she easily caught and stacked the bags in the feed room. What was he thinking? Was he realizing how capable she was of doing this job or was he sizing her up as a woman like other men had? She hoped it was the former. It wasn’t good to have the men she worked with thinking of her as female, especially her boss.

She tossed another bag into her pile. What made such a handsome man wear that cold, hard look, anyway? He was so unfriendly. She hoped he got that stick out of his butt soon.

With both of them working, the job wasn’t so bad. While she closed up, he pulled the flatbed over and unhooked it by the other trailers.

Ramsey strode into the barn where she awaited his next orders.

Being tall and strong for a woman, she usually felt like one of the guys. But something about this big, rock-hard man made her feel small and surprisingly feminine. Not exactly what she wanted while she worked. Clearing her throat, she looked into the pen beside her.

Hands on his hips, Ramsey frowned and pressed his lips into a thin line. “We’ll take an early lunch. Be back here in an hour.”

She nodded as she watched him stride off. What was this attraction? How could she feel drawn to the man when he obviously couldn’t stand the sight of her?

A few minutes later, standing in her tidy little kitchen, she drank four glasses of water, her stomach growling. That would have to hold her until this evening. Her cupboards were bare. The remaining fifty dollars in her wallet needed to last as long as possible.

No way would it carry her two weeks. She had to ask for an advance, but not on her first day. And how she dreaded the asking. Standing on her own two feet was something she prided herself on. Even growing up with her father, she’d always felt alone. Caring for herself was a habit and asking for help came hard. But taking care of her boy was the most important thing in her life.

Maybe after work she could stop and buy a few things at the little grocery store in town—beans, milk, eggs, and such. She qualified for free breakfasts and lunches at school for Dusty. Dinner was her only worry now.

She took off her boots and socks and lay on the old bed in the small, stark bedroom, thanking God for finding this job. Instead of resting, however, her heart ticked like an overwound clock. The menacing phone call haunted her.

Dirk Blacke, after his first violent attack, would finish what he started. Nowhere felt safe. With her stomach burning, she turned over, staring at the age-stained wallpaper and smelling an old house that had been damp too many times. She focused on one thought—she had to protect Dusty and keep herself alive.

Tamping down hard on her fears, she clenched her fists. She was doing all she could. Maintaining a low profile and staying here in Howelton, far away from South Texas where Blacke knew to search was a good first step. This morning she wrote to her last boss, telling him where to mail her final paycheck, and asking him to keep her location secret. He was a good man and she knew she could trust him.

Pulling the extra pillow to her belly, she squeezed her eyes shut. The weight of her responsibility crushed her into the lumpy mattress like a thick layer of concrete.
Sleep had been hard to come by since receiving the parole letter. Her meager precautions seemed meaningless in comparison to the destruction Blacke could rain down on her.

She needed to ask about meeting Dusty’s afternoon bus, but it had never seemed like the right time. A tough guy like her boss would not be thrilled. Time was running out.

She kept a close watch on the time and was back at the barn in an hour, dreading the talk she needed to have with Ramsey.

The blue truck arrived shortly after.

The early-afternoon sun glared into her eyes. Her hands were trembling, dammit. Taking a breath, she clenched her fists and met Ramsey as he headed toward her, locking gazes with him. “The bus will drop Dusty off at ten minutes after four down at the end of the lane. I have to be there to pick him up. He does his homework while I work.”

Ramsey stared, eyes squinted nearly shut. “What if you’re somewhere that you can’t be there at ten after four?”

Dammit. He isn’t going to make this easy. She hardened her mouth. “I don’t plan on being somewhere that I can’t get him at that time.”

He thrust his head forward, squared his shoulders, and parted his lips to say something.

I can’t back down. I have to make this work. She cut him off. “Look, you’re my boss, and I know you can tell me where to go and what to do. I’ll work long hours and do every hard, nasty chore you assign me at this place, but the one non-negotiable is that I pick up Dusty when he gets here. I’ll go right back to what I was working at afterward. None of my bosses have ever had a complaint. I hope you’ll give me a chance, too.” She looked into his eyes, searching for some give, a hint that he might understand her need.

He stared, a dark frown on his face, and then nodded slowly. “Two weeks.”


Also in this series:

Posted April 7, 2020 by janalynknight in / 0 Comments


Cowboy Promise

Title: Cowboy Promise
Series: Howelton Texas #2
Release Date: June 9, 2020
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Torn between the love of a handsome cowboy and a man-of-the-world wealthy lawyer, single mom Dallas juggles caring for Piper, her three-year-old daughter whom she cherishes, and working two jobs to make ends meet.

Dating two men at the same time complicates Dallas’s life exponentially. Though each man knows he is not her only passion, they both strive to be the best, the only one she will choose.

Pressure mounts as one date follows the next and her love for each man intensifies. Growing up poor entices Dallas to choose the lawyer as he can offer Piper everything she dreams of and an expensive college education. Yet the cowboy gives his heart freely, has a wonderful life on his ranch and loves spending time with her daughter.

Unable to choose and with time running out, will the men lose patience and leave Dallas with no one to love?

Praise of the book:
Janalyn Knight, author of Cowboy Refuge, returns with more hot cowboys in Cowboy Promise. Single mother Dallas Royle goes from being wary of men to being pursued by two hotties. The hard part of her dilemma is discovering whether the lawyer or the cowboy has truly won her heart. Another sweet romance with a bit of after-the-wedding-ceremony spiciness. - Suanne Schafer author of A Different Kind of Fire

Buy the Book: Amazon

Chapter One

Now that was some nice cowboy bootie. Dallas Royle was usually too busy to notice the patrons of The Last Cowboy Standing dancehall unless they were lined up in front of her ordering drinks. The handsome cowboy walking by was a treat for her eyes as she leaned on the bar in an unusual lull.

Ignoring the pounding beat of the crazy-loud Red Dirt country music coming from the stage, her gaze followed him to the small table he shared with two other cowboys. He chose a chair pointing in her direction. His face matched his sexy backside—strong, square jaw, and high cheekbones. He was a handsome devil, that was for sure.

She rubbed the back of her neck and grabbed a wet towel, sweeping it across the slab of polished mesquite that made up the bar top. Her three-year-old daughter needed her mother focused on the right priorities, and a man was definitely not one of them. Piper had run a fever all day, coughing along with swiping at a runny nose. Dallas poured a couple of antacids into her palm and popped them into her mouth. Now she carried the things with her everywhere she went. Pulling her phone out of her back pocket, she checked the time. Forty-five minutes until her break.

Dallas glanced at the dancefloor, its polished wood a perfect surface for the fast-paced boot scootin’ that went along with the rowdy songs the band usually played. A slow tune wafted through the air now, though. Cowboys held their girls close, swaying in a gentle two-step. Remembering what that felt like, she quickly shifted her gaze. Kneeling, she straightened some napkins and boxes under the bar. What was wrong with her tonight? Had she thrown her brain in the blender when she made that last frozen margarita? She had a plan for her life, and she was sticking to it.

The rare respite ended. Three people appeared at the bar at once. Straining to hear their orders over the new, much louder song, Dallas flitted from one to the other, efficiently handing out beers, mixing drinks, and making change. Other customers replaced them until she found herself face-to-face with the handsome cowboy.
He smiled and handed her a five-dollar bill, almost shouting, “Bud light, please, ma’am. Keep the change.”

Dallas pulled his longneck out of the ice, popped the top off, and returned to his place at the bar. As she returned his smile, she took in more details of his appearance. Amber eyes sparked with self-confidence. A sturdy, working-man’s hand received the bottle she offered. His strong arms and broad shoulders stretched the material of his shirt. No doubt he could manhandle a 300-pound calf to the ground.
Raising the beer in salute, he said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and turned away.

She had no time to watch him and his fine rear end walk away. Customers vied for her attention nonstop until a familiar face showed up. This cowboy had his arm slung over a young woman’s shoulder. Dallas frowned in surprise. Nearly every week, the man came up to her bar with someone new, but last time, he’d arrived with a girl wearing his engagement ring. How proud she was, even showing Dallas, saying the guy had just given her the sparkling solitaire. Now the jerk stood here with a different woman. Gut-sick, Dallas scowled at the asshole as the loud pounding music beat at her senses. She spun away, shoving her hair behind her ear. Let him wait for his beer. Moving down to the other end of the bar, she waited on the next customer. Men were such bastards. The words loyal and man should never go in the same sentence.

A few minutes later, still ready to chew nails, Dallas nodded to the waitress who came to cover the bar for her break. Grabbing her phone and car keys, Dallas strode out the saloon-style front doors into the parking lot. Like always, her car sat in the back, so she turned the corner into the deepening darkness on the side of the building. She hurried past the trucks parked on her right, focused on her car ahead at the end.

A step from her car door, she heard gravel crunching behind her. She grabbed for the handle as a tall, heavyset cowboy clutched her arm. Yanking back, she hoped to free herself, but he gripped her tightly.

“Hey there, pretty thing.”

His slurred, drunken voice sent chills through her. Far from the front lot where others might hear her yell, she had no hope for help.

“Let go of me!” She jerked hard on her arm again, shouting, “Leave me alone, you creep!” and aimed a kick for his groin.

She hadn’t noticed the good-looking cowboy’s arrival. The drunk’s head smashed sideways into the top of her car. The cowboy’s punch landed perfectly, and he shoved the other man to the ground, saying, “Go sleep it off in your truck before I call the police.”

The drunk got up, staggered to a Ford dually pick-up parked a few vehicles down the lot, and got in.

Dallas rubbed her arm where the man had held her and stared at the cowboy. “Were you following me?” Still angry at the unfaithful cretin at the bar, she didn’t come off as thankful as she should be.

“Nope. I’m parked over there, too. I was out here getting some fresh air when that bozo grabbed you. Figured you needed help.”

“Oh.” What a relief. He didn’t seem like a stalker, either. “Well, thanks. Wish employees didn’t have to park all the way back here.” Reluctantly, she reached out her hand. “My name’s Dallas, by the way.”

“Cash Powers. Pleased to meet you.” His clasp was gentle.

“I need to call my mom. That’s why I came out here. My daughter’s been sick, and I’m worried about her. So…” She glanced at her car door and back. “Thanks again.”

Tipping his hat, he backed up a step, turned around, and walked toward the front of the building.

Dallas narrowed her eyes. He was so darn good to look at, but that didn’t matter. Experience proved her decision to keep men at a long arm’s distance was the right one. Sliding into the seat, she locked all the doors before dialing her mother’s number.

At two-thirty in the morning, Cash drove through the darkness with his totally hammered friends, Jesse and Boone. He knew before they left home that his hands would be at the wheel, making sure they all got back safe to Howelton, so he drank very little at the club.

Boone turned thirty-three that day and figured it was a great idea to get roaring drunk. Obviously, Jesse agreed with him. They’d both given Cash hell all night because he didn’t dance and hunt up women the way they did. That just wasn’t Cash’s style anymore. He learned the hard way that party girls weren’t good wives. Misty, his ex, had made him miserable before they divorced. That was a mistake he wouldn’t make again.

Cash reached over and shoved Jesse, who slumped in the passenger seat. His friends frequented The Cowboy and should know something about the employees. Especially the pretty ones. “Hey, you know anything about that girl bartending tonight over by the front door? Blonde hair and blue eyes?”

Jesse picked his head up and stared blearily at Cash. “Yeah … Dallas. Don’t get your hopes up. She don’t date guys from the club. Word is she’s got a kid. What I hear, she only works weekends.” He leaned his head on the side window and closed his eyes.

Cash pursed his lips. What Jesse said made sense. While she waited on customers, Dallas smiled but didn’t flirt like a lot of bartenders did. It had been a long time since a woman had caught his attention. After his divorce, he’d kind of lost interest in women. He tried so hard to make his marriage work, despite the fact that he knew before their first anniversary that Misty was the wrong woman for him. What first attracted him to her in college turned into major problems as his wife. Accepting full responsibility for his poor choice, he did everything in his power to be a good husband. Her long absences from home and, finally, the knowledge that she was sleeping around had ended their marriage after four long years.

There was something about Dallas, though. It could be her fresh, girl-next-door looks, or her genuine smile, or maybe it was the confidence in the way she moved and talked. He didn’t know what it was exactly, but Dallas was different. He wanted to find out more about her. She didn’t date guys from the club? He smiled. He’d see about that.

Ethan Keys strode toward the break room, eager for his first cup of coffee. His $850 Brunopasso Espresso machine heaved its last splat of coffee this morning. He frowned. Could he stomach break-room coffee now? Women’s voices carried down the hall. One of them sounded like Dallas.

A few steps from the door, he overheard her say, “One punch, and he knocked him silly. Then he threw him on the ground. Thank God he was there. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Mandy, one of the paralegals, nearly swooned as Ethan walked in.

“A handsome cowboy came to your rescue. Wow! It’s like the movies.”

What? A cowboy rescued Dallas? Hold on there. He’d had his eye on Dallas for ages. No way was some cowboy horning in on his turf. “Hi, ladies. What’s up?” He moved over to the coffee pot and sighed sadly as he filled his mug with something very different from what his Brunopasso made him.

Mandy put her arm around Dallas. “The most handsome man in The Last Cowboy Standing rescued this damsel in distress Saturday night.” She went on to give him all the details.

Ethan frowned. “Were you hurt? That sounds awful.”

Dallas shook her head and rubbed her arm. “Just a few bruises. Thank God Cash was outside getting some fresh air, or I don’t know what would have happened.”

Though thankful the cowboy had been there to help Dallas, he didn’t care one bit for the excitement in her eyes when she talked about this Cash fellow. Working so closely with her for the past three years gave Ethan a proprietary feeling about Dallas. Dammit, he needed to do something about this cowboy business.

If the coffee was as bad as he thought, it would need lots of help to be palatable. He took his time adding cream and sugar to it.

Mandy started back to her desk.

When Dallas followed, he called to her. “Dallas, do you have a second?”

She turned around and smiled. “Sure, but just a sec. I need to get to my desk.”

“How about we go out to dinner this week? Maybe make this bad memory go away. Does Wednesday work for you?”

Dallas touched his sleeve. “Oh, thank you for inviting me, Ethan, but Piper was sick all weekend, and she’s still on the mend. I need to stay home.”

Damn and double damn. He forced an understanding smile and nodded. “Children need their moms when they’re not feeling well. Sometime soon, then, okay?” It had been a year since he’d asked her out. Back then, Dallas said that at two years old, her daughter was going through a stage where she got upset when her mother left her. So, he waited all this time to ask her out again. No way would he lose her now to a freaking cowboy.

She nodded. “Sure, Ethan, and thanks again for thinking of me.”

He chewed his lip as she walked out the door. With that handsome cowboy on the horizon, he had to step up his game. He wasn’t sure what it was about Dallas that made him so mad for her. For years, he’d watched her at the firm before deciding to ask her out. At thirty-five, he knew she was younger—in her mid- to late-twenties. It had been a long time since he’d dated anyone that young. In fact, in the past few years, he saw older, wealthy socialites whom he met at the functions he attended through work. Occasionally, his mother introduced him to someone in their social set in Dallas as well.

Though he enjoyed their company, Dallas was different—refreshing. She was honest and open. He loved her laugh and that she’d say just about anything. Dallas was beautiful without using a lot of makeup, and he was sure she was a natural blonde.

She was smart—way too smart to work as an administrative assistant for the rest of her life. One of her team’s paralegals had been out on maternity leave recently, and Dallas had shown herself to be so adept at research that her boss had encouraged her to become a paralegal herself. She should return to school. He didn’t like her working in that honky-tonk, though. She told him that the job funded her school savings. Her work here paid for her living expenses.

As a full partner in the firm, he did very well and couldn’t help but think that if it worked between them, he would make Dallas’s life much easier. She wouldn’t have to worry about money, and he would help with her school. He wondered if she ever thought about him in that way. Maybe it was time to drop some hints—to make sure she did. After all, he would offer her so much more than any cowboy could.

The following Friday night, Cash parked in an empty spot near the back of the lot at The Last Cowboy Standing. He let out a loud gust of air. This was a first for him. Two weekends in a row at a honky-tonk? And by himself?

He took the note out of his shirt pocket, reading it for the tenth time. When he finished, he sighed. It would have to do. Refolding the paper, he shoved it back in his pocket and opened his door. Reaching for his chest, he couldn’t believe the way his heart pounded. How long had it been since he was nervous about a woman? Ages, that was for sure. He clenched his hands to hold them steady. After the huge mistake he made choosing a wife, he had no confidence in his taste in women. I hope I do a better job this time. Beeping the locks on his truck, he squared his shoulders and strode toward the entrance.

It was nine o’clock, and the place was just beginning to roll. The band hammered out the tune of a rowdy North Texas Red Dirt country song, and dancers twirled around the floor. Dallas’s bar was busy. Standing back, he waited his turn.

As he stepped up to order his beer, Dallas looked at him, eyes wide with surprise. “Cash, you’re back.”

He smiled. “Yep, I am. How are you?”

“Fine. Um, thanks again about last Saturday night. I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome. Glad I was there to help.” He nodded. “Bud Light, please.”

When she brought his beer, he handed her a five, along with his note folded inside it. “Keep the change.”

She took the bill and note, a crease between her brows. “Thanks, Cash.”

Finding a seat not far from the bar, he was able to keep an eye on Dallas. Without knowing where she lived or worked, he didn’t know what else he could do. The woman was busy as hell in here. Her break was the only time she could talk to him, but he wondered if she called in about her daughter during that time. He didn’t want to interfere with that. So, the note was his best idea. It had to work.

The firm edges of the folded paper poked through Dallas’s pocket, reminding her that she couldn’t just forget that handsome Cash had come back to the club again tonight. What could he want? The bar had been too busy for her to take the time to read it yet. She glanced over to his table. He was still there, watching the dancers out on the floor. Before she could turn away, his gaze swung to her and he grinned. Pressing her lips together, she smiled uneasily, though her heart thudded in response.

A short time later, a pause between customers allowed her to pull the paper out of her pocket and scan it. She felt dizzy as the blood left her face. With trembling fingers, she refolded the note and slipped it back into her pocket. Looking up, and without meaning to, her eyes met Cash’s steady gaze. God, he’d watched her read it.
Heat rushed back to her cheeks and she spun around, grabbing a towel and drying the glasses the bar-back had washed earlier. Cash had asked her out to dinner. The worst thing about it? That flash of joy she felt before the stab of fear that had her hands shaking. He was the first man to truly tempt her in the past three years.

Thank God she could practically tend bar with her eyes closed. Dazed, her mind flew back to Saturday morning when she took Piper to the grocery store. She’d paused as she noticed a man and woman shopping together, each knowing their role, reading the list or taking items from the shelves, and calling the other honey. She’d blinked back tears as she passed their cart.

Dallas laid down the towel and opened a bottle of cold water, remembering Tuesday night when, after she put Piper to sleep, she’d caught an old rerun of Pretty Woman. She sobbed out loud at the sappy ending. That night, as late as it was, she’d called Sarah, hoping for a clue to her craziness.

Sarah’s answer had been as disturbing as Dallas’s behavior. Sarah said that Dallas should find a man who would give her unconditional love. She’d been scared ever since. Open her heart? Trust a man? Sarah was the crazy one. Yet, a tiny voice inside Dallas had agreed.

While the bar got busy again, Dallas searched her heart for an answer. Letting go of her fear of being hurt didn’t feel possible. How did a person just stop being afraid? Start trusting? The only trustworthy man she could think of was her father. He was old school. Young men didn’t seem to have the same capacity. She glanced over at Cash as she handed a woman her beer. Damn. He was looking her way again. Smiling tentatively, she turned to the next person at the bar.

Later, she pulled her phone from her pocket and checked the time. It was getting late, and she was no closer to making a decision than she had been when she first read his note.

The pace slowed around one-thirty. She had to decide. Cash didn’t dance and, throughout the evening, he bought his beer at the other bar, as though giving her time to think. She appreciated the consideration, another clue that he was a gentleman. Admittedly, something had been missing in her life for a while. As much as she hated it, Sarah may have hit it on the head. Maybe that tiny part of her that liked Cash’s smile wanted to say yes to the dinner invitation. But, hell, what if this went wrong? Could she handle it? She’d thought the pain from Piper’s father’s rejection would never go away. Some days it still stabbed at her. She couldn’t go through that again.
She looked at Cash’s table. He was draining his beer. It was last call, and her time had run out. Ripping a piece of paper from the register, she scribbled quickly as customers headed to the bar.

The Highliner bar was packed, per usual, as Dallas arrived during happy hour on Wednesday. She spotted her best friends Sarah and Kate sitting, like always, near the middle of the room where they could keep an eye on everyone coming and going. Dallas sat down and caught the busy waitress’s eye. She swung by the table to take Dallas’s drink order.

Kate leaned in. “Sarah and I had time to catch up while we were waiting for you to get here. Tell us what’s going on with you. All of a sudden you’re leading an exciting life.”

Dallas grinned. “Am not. One rescue from the clutches of death, and you think my life is exciting? Phooey.”

The girls rolled their eyes and waited for her to continue.

“Well, Ethan asked me out.”

Kate clapped her hands. “Yay! I was hoping he would. He’s a wonderful catch for you, Dallas. He moves in all the right circles, makes great money at the firm, and you said he’s really nice to you.”

“He is. I had to turn him down, though. Piper’s little tail was still dragging when he asked.”

Kate leaned in and covered Dallas’s hand with her own. “Listen, girlfriend, chances like this don’t come along every day. Let me remind you how you grew up. No new shoes ’til your old ones rubbed blisters on your toes. You never had nice clothes like the other kids. Hardly even had enough to eat. Do you want Piper growing up like that? You’re putting all your eggs in one basket, counting on finishing your legal degree. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just want a degree, instead of desperately needing one? Promise me you’re going to accept next time he asks.”

Dallas swallowed and looked down at her glass of wine, turning it in circles. She still remembered her first day of third grade. One of the bigger boys, who’d always been a bully, pointed at her old, beat-up tennis shoes with a separated sole. “You wore those things last year, loser. You’re poor.” Her heart still hurt for the sad little girl she was. She couldn’t let her daughter go through that. “I know. You’re right. Ethan really is a sweet guy. Monday he even asked how Piper was feeling.”
Sarah held her wine up and they all tapped their glasses. “We’re way too serious. I want to hear me some more about that good-looking cowboy.”

Dallas smiled and reached into her purse. “You won’t believe this, but he came back to the club Friday night. When he paid for his beer, he handed me this note.” Unfolding the half-page piece of paper, she held it up.

Sarah gawked at it. “Well, go ahead, crazy woman, read it.”

Dallas smoothed it a little more, and then read:

I’m here tonight to change your mind. Word is you don’t date men you meet at the bar, and I sure don’t blame you. Fact is, I wouldn’t date girls if I met them there, either.
But I think you and I are exceptions. I was there the night we met for my friend’s birthday. I don’t normally go to clubs.
I enjoyed meeting you though I wish it had been under better circumstances.
I’d like to spend a quiet evening together somewhere, get some dinner, and learn more about you. If you’re interested, just tell me.
Here’s hoping,

Sarah and Kate both whooshed out, “Wow.”

Sarah stared at Dallas and slapped her hand on the table. “Well?”

Dallas fidgeted in her chair. “I didn’t know what to do. He seemed so kind, but I never, ever see anyone from the club. You know I don’t date, either. But I knew he wouldn’t leave until I answered. He came up for his last beer, and I slipped him a note.” She took a sip of her wine.

Sarah shook her head, her lips jammed together. “Girl, speak now or I swear—”

Dallas giggled. “I gave him my cell number and thanked him for asking me out.”

Sarah threw her arms wide. “Finally, I can’t believe it. The girl makes some sense.”

“So, when are you having dinner?” Kate asked.

“Tomorrow night, since Piper’s feeling okay now. Speaking of my daughter, I gotta scoot. I have so little time with her, what with working and tending bar. Oh, you girls know how I feel guilty, even when I’m in the best of company.”

Leaving money for her tab on the table, she kissed each of her friends.

Sarah called, “Get a picture of that cowboy,” before Dallas got to the door.

Driving home, she considered Kate’s advice. Should she go out with Ethan? It felt weird even considering it. After being a loner for so long, it was hard to imagine that she could be the kind of woman who dressed up and went out on dates. Yet, Ethan had always been sweet to her. And he had a way of making the staff laugh when he dropped by the break room. Though he was hyper-focused with his clients, when he stopped at her desk for a chat, he was easygoing and made Dallas feel like she was the only person in the world. Perhaps if she got through the date with Cash without having a heart attack, she might accept an invitation from Ethan, if he asked again.
The only thing she hadn’t figured out with this whole dating thing was Piper. She had so little time with her daughter. How would she fit dating into her already hectic schedule?



Also in this series:

Posted June 9, 2020 by janalynknight in / 0 Comments


Cowboy Strong

Acacia has cared for her quadriplegic, cognitively impaired twin brother for two long years. Hope arrives in the form of Noah, the rocking-hot new cowboy physical therapist. Dumped by her former fiancé when her brother came back injured from Afghanistan, it takes several months for her to realize that Noah is the real deal. That is, until her second date with him.

With Noah’s goodnight kiss comes a terrible shock. Heartbroken, Acacia shuts the handsome cowboy out of her life.

But life is about to throw her a curve ball. Can she face the crisis and still care for Bobby alone? Or will she have to swallow her pride and call on Noah, the closest thing she has to a friend in San Antonio?

Author Janalyn Knight reprises her cowboy-based series with Cowboy Strong. Acacia Richards is in over her head caring for her quadriplegic brother, Bobby. When cowboy Noah Rowden becomes Bobby’s physical therapist, Acacia is attracted to him. Having been burned in a prior relationship, she hesitates to get involved. Noah must convince her that his heart is big enough for both Bobby and Acacia. A sweet romance with a bit of after-the-wedding-ceremony spiciness. - Suanne Schafer author of A Different Kind of Fire

Posted August 13, 2020