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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Secret Nights with a Cowboy

A Kittredge Ranch Novel

Kittredge Ranch (Volume 1)

Caitlin Crews

St. Martin's Paperbacks

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


Rae Trujillo did not wake up on a regular weekday morning at the end of another one of Cold River, Colorado’s chilly Octobers prepared to turn her life inside out.

Again.

She woke up grumpy. Outraged that her alarm had jolted her out of another night of too few hours of sleep. And furious that, as ever, she was her own worst enemy, because why did she keep doing this?

It felt brutal every time. Like she kept punching herself in her own face, but did she ever learn her lesson? No, she did not.

But it was far too early on a shivery Thursday to think about the epic disaster that was her endless—and endlessly complicated—relationship with Riley Kittredge.

Besides, Rae knew by now that by the time she staggered outside and crawled into her trusty old pickup, she would be good to go. If not exactly singing a happy tune, certainly awake enough to handle the drive into town. But the waking up part never got any less shocking when she’d only gotten home a few hours before.

Because whatever else she was—and sure, there was a part of her that enjoyed it when people thought the worst of her, because the truth was a sharp little knife she kept to herself, and after all this time, she could admit she sometimes liked the cut of it—she was first and foremost an idiot when it came to Riley.

“And lying here brooding about it doesn’t help,” she muttered into her pillow.

She sat up and swung out of bed. Long years of experience in exactly this idiocy meant she’d laid out her clothes the night before. All she needed to do was stagger into them without making herself think about anything. Especially her life choices. Then she headed downstairs to perform a face dive into the strong coffee that was the only thing that ever made her feel remotely human at this hour. With or without her two whole hours of sleep.

Rae tiptoed through the dark old house, once a small farmhouse and now a collection of meandering updates various ancestors had made. At least one for each generation since the first Trujillo had showed up on this land, long before the English settlers came west. She moved silently down the stairs because her grandmother claimed she woke at the slightest sound, and the last thing she wanted to confront at this hour was Inez Trujillo in one of her states.

No one wanted Inez’s lacerating commentary on anything and everything but especially about the ways in which every person she’d ever met had disappointed her.

Especially Rae, who Inez had once called her favorite—but Rae had opened her big mouth and ruined that a long time ago. Now she tried to appease her grandmother like most people did, because it was easier.

Rae made it to the main floor and headed for the lit-up kitchen where her father, the earliest riser because he liked to be out in the greenhouses well before dawn, always left a hot pot of coffee behind him when he left the house. Things she was not thinking about included: Riley. Always and ever Riley. And the many choices she’d made about him and because of him that had led to her living in her parents’ house now that she was inarguably in her thirties.

Not adjacent to them. Not newly thirty. But in them.

But no morning-after yet had been made any easier by beating herself with the shame stick. And she was so busy trying not to do it today that it took her longer than it should have to realize that when she walked into the kitchen that smelled marvelously like her father’s preferred dark roast, she wasn’t alone.

“Good morning to you too,” rumbled her older brother, Matias, sounding obnoxiously alert.

Possibly he’d learned such things in the Marines. Where he had also learned how to transition from the sweet, funny boy she’d always hero-worshipped into the too-quiet man who’d come back changed, with too many secrets in his dark eyes.

Rae wanted to growl at him but restrained herself. Because she was a lady.

She shuffled across the floor to the coffee machine as if it were some kind of shrine and treated herself to a large, steaming mug, adding in an overly generous pour of cream. Then she savored that first sip.

Okay, she thought. I might live.

This time.

Only when her synapses were firing at last did she turn around, lean back against the counter, and allow herself to take in this strange appearance of her brother in the usually empty kitchen.

“What are you doing awake?” she asked in a far sweeter tone of voice than she’d been using on herself so far today.

“Long day ahead,” Matias drawled.

He lounged back in his chair, too big, really, for the kitchen table their mother mostly used as her office. Right there in the middle of the most-used part of the house, because Kathy Trujillo was not one to suffer or toil in obscurity. She and Inez had that in common.

Though they would both have acted deeply appalled at any suggestion that they were alike.

“It really will be a long day,” Rae agreed. “Since you’re starting it before dawn.”

Matias let a corner of his mouth drift up in a vague approximation of a curve. Rae and her younger sister, Tory, firmly believed he practiced that in his mirror. “You really do wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Just like when you were fourteen.”

That was maddening. Rae assumed it was meant to be. Accordingly, she smiled sweetly at her brother as if he’d said something marvelous, secure in the knowledge that he found that equally annoying. Balance was important.

She concentrated on draining her first cup of coffee as if she were on a mission, then went back for more. Matias was not drinking coffee. He was sitting in that chair that was on the verge of too small for his big frame, still and watchful.

More so than usual, if she wasn’t mistaken.

“But really,” she said when it was clear that he planned to keep that up, and because he normally didn’t get up for hours yet. Who would if they didn’t have to? “Are you doing a shift in the shop?”

It would be news to her if he were. And maddening in a whole different way, because if he were planning to go open the family floral shop in town, she wouldn’t have to and could still be asleep right now.

“I don’t have a shift today.” Again, a ghost of a curve on his mouth. “Do you see me wearing the red shirt of shame?”

This time, when Rae smiled, it was a real one. “I do not.”

She looked down at herself, representing the family business in the required uniform of the Flower Pot, the retail arm of the Trujillo plant and flower operation. It was, at best, frumpy. A trim red shirt with a collar, tucked into dull khaki pants, and aggressively comfortable shoes. Plus a green apron while actually in the shop.

No one wore the uniforms—the uniforms wore them.

But their grandmother claimed she loved those uniforms and had designed them especially, so the uniforms stayed. Who would dare complain? Certainly not Rae.

She waved a hand over her outfit. “My shame, on the other hand, is sadly all too evident.”

As she said it, she really hoped that was not the case. Or not all her shame, anyway. That would be awkward.

Matias rose then, as silently as he did everything else. “Have fun with that. Wrap it up in a bouquet and call it a seasonal special. You’re good at those.”

Rae did not care for his tone. She was more than good at putting flowers together, whether for bouquets or bigger arrangements. She was an artist, thank you, even if no one else ever used that word. Sometimes she thought the flowers were the only reason she’d survived her train wreck of a life so far. They saved her day after day. But even if her life had been perfect, she would have been sick of Matias and the rest of her family acting as if they did all the real work with the corporate and industrial clients while she played with flowers in the cute little shop in town.

Not sick enough to say anything about it, of course.

The squeaky wheel in the Trujillo family did not get the grease. It got in trouble if it was lucky, and if not, iced out.

She knew that all too well.

“Everybody likes a little shame in their bouquet. It’s the secret ingredient.” Her tone was light, but she frowned at him. “If you don’t have to go into the shop, why on earth would you be up at this hour? It’s inhumane.”

Her brother stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked back at her, stoic and stern suddenly. Great. That expression usually meant a lecture or some other form of his disapproval was incoming, the way it had been with regularity since he’d come home.

Rae braced herself.

“I’m moving out,” Matias said.

That was not what she was expecting. “What? Since when?”

“Since I spent the last eighteen months making my favorite outbuilding livable.” He nodded toward the darkness outside the windows. “By the river with a view, and best of all, a solid three-mile drive from here.”

“How did I have no idea you were doing this?”

Matias eyed her, and she wished she hadn’t asked. “Because you’re the expert on ignoring things you don’t want to see and pretending all kinds of things aren’t happening when they are. Aren’t you, Rae?”

Ouch.

But then, it wasn’t a surprise. Matias had come back from serving his country to find his little sister’s marriage to a friend of his in disarray and had not been happy when she’d refused to tell him why. When she was feeling charitable, she suspected his harping on the topic was how he expressed love.

She was not feeling charitable at why-do-you-hate-me o’clock in the morning. “Is that supposed to be a dig? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you don’t.”

Rae took a big pull from her coffee. “I’m happy for you that you’re moving out, I guess. Not really sure why that’s making you hostile.”

“I’m not hostile.” Matias’s dark gaze, unforgiving and shrewd—she blamed it on the Marines because she missed the boy he’d been—moved over her. “What I am is a grown man. Who’s been back home for just over two years and can’t handle living with his parents any longer. I would have moved out before the end of the first month if I hadn’t decided to work on the cabin.”

“Yay?” Rae offered, draining the rest of her mug and then taking it to the sink so she could wash it the way she knew her mother preferred. And could therefore avoid the otherwise inevitable tirade about how Kathy was not the family servant.


Copyright © 2020 by Caitlin Crews