Excerpt: A Real Cowboy Always Protects

Excerpt: A Real Cowboy Always Protects

Book 8: Wyoming Rebels

“Do I need to worry about you ruining your life and turning into a crazy, cat lady?”

“Maybe, but at least I’ll be well-caffeinated, so I figure that’s a win.” Skylar Jones grinned at her gray-haired, very stylish neighbors from down the hall as they exited the elevator that had just arrived on her floor. “I’m heading down to Charlie’s across the street for coffee,” she clarified.

Frances Stevens, a retired lawyer who still hosted many high-society soirees in their condo building’s sixth-floor private function room, eyed Skylar’s tie-dyed leggings, fleece slippers, and oversized sweatshirt. “It’s midnight on a Saturday night. A woman your age should be out making things happen. You look like a basket of dirty laundry.”

Skylar laughed as she stepped back to allow Frances and her husband, Howard, to exit into the hallway. “I’m working. I have a big project due.”

“You’re always working.” Frances stepped out, her black heels sinking into the thick hallway carpet. She was dressed in an elegant cocktail dress, and Howard was spiffy in a bow tie and gorgeous black suit. “What about dating? Romance? Sex?”

Skylar felt her cheeks heat up. “I’m taking a break.”

Frances eyed her. “It’s been a long break. I can’t remember ever seeing you in anything but sweatpants on a weekend evening.”

“Sweetheart.” Howard slid his fingers gently around his wife’s hand and squeezed. “Let Skylar take her time. She’s fine.”

Skylar’s heart turned over at the warmth in Howard’s voice as he spoke to his wife. He reminded her so much of her dad, with his smile, his humor, and his wit. Howard looked at Frances the way her dad had looked at her mom. Being around the gray-haired couple always made Skylar feel safe again, like she had before her whole world had blown up over the last few years. “I love that you care enough to harass me,” she said, meaning it.

Frances winked at her as she leaned into Howard. “Don’t let that pig of an ex-husband keep you on the shelf for too long, my dear. Sunshine heals all wounds.”

Sunshine. She never saw sunshine anymore. She was working too many hours for that. “I’ve heard that before. I think from you.” She stepped into the vacated elevator and pressed the button to keep the doors open. “It’s good advice.”

“One date,” Frances said. “Go on one date, or I’ll disinherit you from my will.”

Skylar raised her brows. “I’m not in your will.”

“Irrelevant. The point remains the same.”

Skylar laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Howard tucked his arm around his wife’s shoulder. “Frances is relentless, Skylar. You might as well give in, because she’s not going to back off until you do.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.” The elevator began to beep, so Skylar released the button. “Have a great night.”

“Take a shower at least!” Frances called out, just before the doors closed.

Skylar smiled as she leaned against the wall of the elevator, resting her hands on the brass bar by her hips. It always made her happy to run into Frances and Howard. They had to be close to eighty, and yet they were so full of fire and life. They were both always stylish and put together, no matter when she saw them.

Being around them made her miss the life she’d once had, the one she’d thought she’d had, and the one she’d thrown away.

Skylar eyed her reflection in the elevator doors as it began to tick down toward the ground floor. She looked comfortable. Cozy. Okay, maybe a little bit shlumpy, but she’d showered an hour ago, and her hair was still fluffy from the hair dryer. So, definitely at least two steps up from a basket of dirty laundry.

Granted, it wasn’t the outfit to wear if she was trying to seduce a guy, but since dating was off her agenda for at least the next couple decades, it was perfect.

The elevator dinged to stop on the fourth floor, which housed the building’s gym. Who worked out at midnight on a Saturday? Someone with as much of a life as she had, apparently. See? She wasn’t the only one.

With a surge of impatience, she looked down at her phone to check the time as the doors slid open. Only three minutes until Charlie would lock the doors to the store. He was never late, but she needed some of his dark roast to make it through the next three hours of work.

She needed to get better at prioritizing caffeine. Seriously. It was one of the basic skillsets of being a workaholic.

“Hey, Skylar.”

At the sound of the low, rough masculine voice with the western drawl, Skylar’s stomach jumped. She sucked in her breath as she looked up.

There he was stepping into the elevator. Her devastatingly hot, across-the-hall-neighbor, Logan Stockton. Instead of the jeans he usually wore, he was wearing a sweaty short-sleeved shirt and bike shorts that showed off thighs that were literally corded with muscle. All of Logan was corded with muscle, actually. His shoulders, his biceps, his calves.

Heat flushed her cheeks, and she dragged her gaze off his body and focused on his face.

His brown eyes were as intense as ever, loaded with shadows that never seemed to leave him. His dark, curly hair was cropped short, almost a buzz cut, and his light brown skin was as beautiful as ever. He shot her a smile, that same gorgeous smile that had nearly brought her to her knees the first time she’d met him two years ago when she’d moved in.

She’d thought she’d never smile again, but he’d gotten her smiling within five minutes of moving into the building. He still did, despite the fact that he was a completely sexy, irritatingly gorgeous, apparently single male god, none of which were on her list of things she wanted in her life.

As he surveyed her with his decadently dark eyes, she recalled her dirty laundry outfit. She had a moment of regret that she hadn’t decided to get coffee wearing only lingerie and stilettos, but almost immediately decided that looking like a slob was a much smarter plan, given her current dating goals.

But it did sting just a little bit that she’d run into him when she looked as unattractive as it was possible for her to look. Except her hair. At least that was clean. Bonus prize right there.

“Hi, Logan. I didn’t know you were back.” Not that she kept track of him. Well, she did a little bit. He wasn’t around much, and when he was, he pretty much kept to his condo and the gym. He didn’t entertain. He didn’t socialize. He didn’t go out.

Like her. Except he looked incredibly sexy in his Saturday night no-dating attire. So, not like her at all.

He nodded. “Got back a few hours ago.”

God, she loved his voice. That faint hint of a western drawl always made her get all dreamy. “How did it go? Your trip?” She didn’t know where he went or what he did, but whenever he returned from a trip, shadows seemed to cling to him. From the weight in his eyes, it didn’t surprise her that he’d been back only for a few hours. It always took time for the darkness to release its grip on him.

Logan studied her for a long moment. “Good,” he finally said. “My trip was good.”

He was lying. She could see it in the tense set to his jaw, in the way his eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “How bad was it?”

This time, his eyebrows went up, and a faint smile played at the corner of his mouth. A real smile. Not the one he reserved for polite company. “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Know when I’m bullshitting. No one else can tell with me. I’m a great bullshitter.”

She grinned and shrugged. “I’m crafty like that, I guess. Was it really bad?” As she finished her question, the elevator door slid open, and she realized they had reached the lobby.

Suddenly, getting a caffeine hit didn’t feel so important. Not when she could stand there, inches from Logan, with the full intensity of his gaze fastened on her like she was his only life-preserver in a hurricane.

Because that was exactly how he looked at her. How he always looked at her. He might not say much, but his intensity was so palpable, she could almost feel it against her own skin.

Logan held the door for her. “It was a shit show,” he finally said, his western drawl much more evident than usual in his answer.

Was it because he was exhausted and drained? She felt his weariness in his words. She suddenly understood Frances’s need to try to fix her life whenever she ran into Skylar, because she had the same instinct with Logan. A need to lighten the load he was carrying so stoically. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

He looked at her, and again, gave her a half-smile that was real. “I believe you mean that.”

“I do. No one deserves a shit show.” She grinned. “Not even you,” she teased.

His smile faded. “Don’t be so quick to assume.”

“What?” She set her hands on her hips. “That’s a bunch of crap right there. It doesn’t matter what secrets you carry. No one deserves a shit show, so don’t go all martyr on yourself.”

He laughed then, a faint, quiet laugh. “You’re a force of nature. You know that, right?”

Goosebumps prickled down her spine at the warmth in his voice, an affectionate warmth that seemed to wrap around her like an embrace. “My mom always says that about me. But she doesn’t usually consider it a compliment.”

His smile widened. “With me, it’s a compliment.”

A satisfied feeling settled inside her. “Okay, then. Then, thanks.”

He cocked his head. “How are you doing? You hear anything about that promotion at work?”

She couldn’t believe he remembered. She’d mentioned it in passing months ago, when they’d run into each other in the mail room. “It sounds like it’s going to happen after I turn in my current project.”

He smiled, a warm smile that seemed to light up his face. Suddenly, the darkness was gone, and he was back in the present, grinning at her in that way that made her get all giddy. He was handsome when he was brooding, but when he was smiling, he literally lit up the room. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “You’ve worked hard for it.”

“Thanks.” She smiled. “Frances believes I work too hard. She thinks I’m going to turn into a cat lady.”

He grinned. “She thinks I’m going to die old and alone with hair growing out of my ears.” His affection for Frances was obvious, which surprised Skylar.

Who would have guessed Logan, the mysterious, brooding cowboy, would fall for Frances like she had? “Maybe we should tell her we’re dating, and she’ll leave both of us alone.”

“What?” His eyebrows shot up so fast that she grimaced. “Us date?”

“I didn’t mean I actually wanted to date you.” He looked sort of shocked, so she stumbled onward, trying to recover. “I was just bonding over Frances. I don’t date, so you’re safe from me.” Crud. She was making it worse. “Unless you have a cat. Then I might date him. Start my cat lady future early.”

The corners of his mouth started to curve up, and he looked like he was trying not to laugh at her. “Sorry. I don’t have a cat for you to date.”

“Darn. Today is just one big disappointment, then.” Mercifully, the elevator began to beep at being held open, and she quickly stepped out in the lobby, taking advantage of the excuse to bail before she made things even more uncomfortable. “I’m going to try to get some coffee before the store closes. Want any?”

It looked like it took supreme effort for him to drag his gaze off her and look across the street. “Charlie’s is still open?”

“Maybe. I’m hoping.”

“I’m all set.” He released the door. “Skylar—” He stopped.

She paused. “What?”

He met her gaze, and she saw emotions etched on his face. The weariness was back. The exhaustion. But there was something more. Something brighter. Something that seemed to reach inside her and call her to him. She took a step toward the elevator. “Logan?”

He took a deep breath and shook his head, as if to clear it. “Nothing. Forget it. Have a great night.” Then he released the doors and let them slide shut.

Whew.

Skylar let her breath out as she turned and headed for the front door of their building.

Logan was always intense, but tonight, it had been more than usual. Something bad had happened on his last trip, something that had nothing to do with boardrooms or business deals. He’d been living under darkness, until that last moment, when things had suddenly shifted.

He’d almost laughed at her. She’d heard him laugh only a couple times, and it had never reached his eyes. But tonight, it had flickered in his eyes for that one moment when they were talking about dating and cats, which had been probably the silliest exchange they’d ever had. A small moment, but significant, maybe.

She had no idea what Logan did for a living, but it was something that mattered. To him, at least. Had he almost started to talk about it? Her loner, hot neighbor had started to reach out. She didn’t know what he’d been about to say, or why he’d changed his mind, but there’d been a moment of connection that had never been there before.

As Skylar jogged across the street, she saw Charlie walk up to the door of the convenience store. He was wearing his Chicago White Sox ball cap, but his gray hair was still visible peeking out. He told her he’d owned the store for more than fifty years, holding onto his legacy even when all the fancy buildings began to go up around him. The locals loved him, and he loved the locals.

It had taken a while to win over his friendship, but now? He took care of her. “Charlie! Wait! Let me in!”

He looked up, putting the key into the lock as she ran up, then shook his head at her.

She waved at him through the glass. “Please?”

He opened the door and gave her dramatic sigh. “Can’t you ever get here earlier?”

“I try. I lose track of time. Pretty please?”

He laughed then, and held the door open for her. “One of these days I’m not going to let you in,” he teased.

She planted a kiss on his wrinkled cheek as she slipped past him into the store. “You’re the best.”

“I know.” He locked the door behind her. “All I have is dark roast. One cup?”

“That’s perfect.” Skylar grabbed a bag of peanut M&M’s, then paused. “No, I’ll take two cups.” She was going to bring Logan coffee. Maybe he wouldn’t invite her in. Or maybe, for the first time ever, he would.

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