Excerpt: A Real Cowboy Always Trusts His Heart

Excerpt: A Real Cowboy Always Trusts His Heart

Book 7: Wyoming Rebels

The door of the café jingled, and Zoey instinctively looked over her shoulder. 

Four Stocktons walked in.

The oldest, Chase, entered first, tall and muscular. Then, behind him, was Travis. After him, Maddox, Ryder’s twin, then, behind him, last in line…Ryder.

She froze, her heart thundering. There was nowhere for her to hide. Nowhere for her to go. 

He wasn’t supposed to be in town. He wasn’t supposed to be here. 

But he was. 

He was in deep conversation with Maddox, and didn’t look over as they walked in. His cowboy hat was tipped back, letting her see his blue eyes, his whiskered jaw, and the way his lips curved in a smile. God, that smile had melted her heart so many times as a teenager. 

He was taller now. Broader. Just bigger. More man. His jeans were faded, splattered with mud, and his boots were heavy work boots instead of cowboy boots. His gray tee shirt had paint on it, ragged and worn, just like he’d always been.

But there was a presence to him that hadn’t been there before. He held himself like he belonged. Back when she’d known him, he had a swagger designed to tell the world to fuck off. He didn’t have it anymore, but there was a harder edge to him, a rough, untamed edge that made her belly tighten.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Lissa called out. “Did none of you notice we have a visitor?”

Zoey winced. “No, don’t—”

But it was too late. All four men looked over, but it was Ryder who she watched.

His gaze darted around the café, and then it landed on her.

He stopped, his face going utterly still.

Neither of them moved.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. All she could do was stare at him, at those blue eyes she’d dreamed of so many times, at the man who’d broken her heart more than she’d thought was possible. 

The man she’d never been able to forget.

***

Ryder Stockton caught his breath when he saw Zoey’s face for the first time in over a decade. She was back.

Her eyes. God, those eyes he’d dreamed of so many times. That mouth, the one he could still remember kissing. The last time he’d seen her, those green eyes had been full of tears and accusation, of hate that he’d completely deserved.

He’d let her go that day. He’d made her go. He’d sacrificed everything to give her what she needed, to free her to live the life she deserved.

And now, she was back. 

Here.

Twenty feet away from him.

She stared at him, her face pale, her lips pressed together in silence. 

He remembered the curve of her jaw, the slant of her nose, the flush of her cheeks. She was the same, but there was a wisdom and strength to her that hadn’t been there before. She seemed taller now, stronger, a woman, not a girl. But at the same time, she looked exactly as she had so long ago. It was his Zoey, the one he’d promised to protect forever, the one he’d failed.

The need to go to her was so strong, so visceral, that it took all his strength to stay still, but he didn’t go over to her. How could he? She hadn’t needed him back then, and she didn’t need him now. 

“Zoey!” Chase walked over to her and pulled her into a hug.

She dragged her gaze off Ryder and hugged his brother. “Hi, Chase.”

Ryder inhaled at the sound of her voice, and something deep inside him vibrated, almost violently. He’d missed her. Hell, he’d missed her so much that his chest actually hurt.

Travis pushed Chase aside to embrace her. Then Maddox. His brothers encircled her, welcoming her, asking her about her trip, when she’d arrived, where she was staying. 

He didn’t move. 

His feet were stuck to the floor, his legs frozen as he listened to her talk, letting the sound of her voice wash over him. He’d forgotten what her voice felt like, how deeply it touched him, how much he’d yearned to hear it. 

She looked over at him as she chatted with his brothers, her face pinched and tense. Because he was there? Was it his presence that was causing such pain and discomfort on her face?

Shit. He should leave. Give her space.

But he couldn’t make himself do it. 

He watched Lissa hand her a cup of coffee. Zoey grabbed it and then slid off the stool, waving off his brothers as she ducked past them. She hurried toward the door, her gaze sliding toward Ryder as she neared.

Jesus. 

She was so close. 

They met gazes, and for a moment, he thought she would say something, anything, to break the ice, to let him know he was forgiven.

But her gaze dropped, and she turned away, hurrying out the door.

The bell jangled, as he watched her scurry past the front window, heading down the sidewalk, away from him. 

He let her go. He had to let her go, just like before. She deserved it—

“Was she always that sad?” Lissa asked softly.

Ryder looked back over his shoulder at Lissa, who had moved up behind him. “She looked sad?”

She nodded. “Broken, even. From the moment she walked in.”

Shit. He glanced back at his brothers, who all nodded. “She didn’t even make eye contact,” Chase said. “She’s not the Zoey who left here.”

Son of a bitch.

Protectiveness surged through Ryder. No one messed with Zoey. Ever. With a muttered oath, he sprinted for the door, yanked it open, and ran outside. “Zoey!”

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