After putting all her savings—and then some—into purchasing a vintage clothing shop in downtown Three Ridges, Wyoming, Ashley Webb is determined to succeed come hell or high water. Problem is, she’s never been good at long-term commitments. And when Ashley crosses paths again with the incredibly sexy cowboy she got cozy with at her brother’s wedding, she can’t help being distracted.
Tyler Reed isn’t looking to settle down—he tried that before and got burned. Not to mention that the new head wrangler at Mustang Ridge Dude Ranch has other things on his mind. Things that are far more important than helping out his boss’s pretty—but flaky—sister…even though there’s some serious chemistry between them. When Ashley turns out to be very different than he expected, he’s tempted to go against his better judgment. What’s a cowboy to do when the wrong woman lassoes his heart?
*New York Times Bestselling Author Jill Gregory
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I don’t always know which comes first for me—the chicken or the egg—but my life often imitates my story-art and vice versa. When going through a long-overdue breakup, I wrote about a relationship that was on life support and a husband and wife trying to decide whether or not to pull the plug. Sure, there were Mayan demons and an apocalypse in the mix, but the central question was universal: Do I stay or do I go? They stayed together. I split. Then, newly single, I wrote about a cop struggling to find herself in the aftermath of a shooting. And later, freshly in love and ready to write happier, more hopeful stories, I turned to a new pen name and a new series, and Mustang Ridge was born.
Five books and two novellas later, I’d like to invite you to turn the page and share Ashley and Ty’s story with me. It’s about how love can bloom when and where you least expect it—even between an artsy dreamer who’s out to prove herself, and a solid, practical cowboy who’d rather be alone than risk trusting his heart again. But more, this book is about fresh starts like the one I’ve been blessed with. And it’s about new beginnings . . . like the son I conceived while writing it, and whom I’m holding right now.
Thank you for being on this journey with me, dear Reader-Friend. Welcome back to Mustang Ridge, and I truly hope you enjoy Ashley and Ty as much as I do . . . and that maybe you see a little of your own story in theirs.
“Sign here and here, and initial wherever you see a yellow sticky arrow.” A thick stack of oversize papers came sliding across the glass countertop toward Ashley Webb, obscuring the costume jewelry that glittered in the showcase. When she hesitated, Penny Trueheart, lawyer extraordinaire, said, “Do you need a pen? I brought one with me.”
Fighting an image of her flinging the paperwork in the air and bolting for the shop’s back room—down, brain—Ashley nodded, then shook her head. “Yes, I’ll sign. No, I’ve got my own pen.”
There it was in her hand, bright blue and embossed with: ANOTHER FYNE THING ~ the best in vintage couture and thrift shop treasures, Three Ridges, Wyoming. And it was shaking, ever so slightly. Don’t freak. This was what she wanted more than anything else, ever, in her life.
It was also a buttload of money. Especially for someone like her.
“This is so exciting! I can’t believe you’re buying the shop!” Henrietta squeezed her arm, then danced away in a swirl of fabric.
Today, Ashley’s sole employee had paired a floaty green sundress with a pair of purple capris and yellow sandals that had big plastic happy faces on them. But, hey, it worked on a woman who wore her long blond hair in dozens of braids and claimed to have been conceived at Woodstock while Jimi Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Penny, on the other hand, wore a blue pantsuit with a starched white shirt, which made her pretty much the anti-Hen. Still, the savvy lawyer had been the perfect go-to for the paperwork when the shop’s founder, Della Fyne, had agreed to split the down payment into two installments that Ashley could sort of, but not really, afford.
If business stayed very, very good.
And she didn’t eat or use any electricity.
Oh, God. What was she thinking?
“Ashley? Are you okay?” Hen’s face came into view, eyes worried beneath a striped headband that might have started life as a sock. “Penny, I don’t think she’s breathing.”
Whooshing air into her lungs—what do you know; Hen was right—Ashley said, “I’m fine.” To prove it, she signed her name on the first line, making herself focus on each letter and not get distracted by the part of her that was going, This is nuts. It’s too much, too soon, too everything. What makes you think you can stick it out this time?
Hen beamed. “Hey, you’re a lefty. Me, too. Did you know we can see better underwater, and we tend to hit puberty faster than righties?” She frowned. “’Course, we also die younger. Oh, and there’s that link to insanity.”
“Exhibit A,” Ashley muttered, and signed next to a yellow arrow sticky.
I, Ashley Webb, do solemnly swear that, having just wiped out my savings for this first payment, I will make the second one in forty-five days. Despite dropping out of college and having never held a job for more than six months before this one—which is on month seven, yay me—I promise that I will be smart and responsible. I will keep up with the regular monthly payments to the bank, insure everything I can think of, do all the paperwork on time, file my taxes, turn over the inventory as fast as possible, make regular buying trips, update the Web site—
Turning the page, she initialed next to a sticky. Then another. Her head spun. She was really doing it. She was buying Another Fyne Thing from Della—the whole shoot and shebang, everything from the Armani sunglasses to the thirties-era Zelinka-Matlicks, plus the thousand-square-foot retail space, the warehouse out back, and the five-room apartment upstairs.
“Are you ready for me?” Henrietta buzzed back in, bumping Ashley’s elbow and turning her initials into a scribble.
“Almost.” Ashley dealt with the last few stickies, then handed over the papers. “Okay, witness. Do your thing.”
“Yippee!” Hen went to work with her pen, signing her name with a flourish in vivid purple ink.
Watching the lines appear on page after page, Ashley pressed a hand to her belly and regretted the cinnamon bun she had bought to go along with her coffee, even knowing she shouldn’t spend the money. She could do this. She could. The numbers worked, more or less, and she had been running the shop solo ever since Della moved down to the city to be with Max. Really, all she was doing was taking Della’s name off all the official forms and replacing it with her own. Nothing else was going to change.
Which was a total lie, but at least it kept her breakfast where it belonged. And as Hen finished witnessing the last few pages, Ashley managed to resist the urge to swat the pen cup off the counter and shout, “Wait! Stop! I changed my mind!”
“Okay, Ashley.” Penny made two neat piles with the contracts. “Moment of truth.”
“The checks.” They lay on the countertop, looking up at her with their fat round zeros, like little eyes. Lots of them.
She didn’t know which was scarier, the one from the bank with all the digits, thanks to the thirty-year commercial loan she had gotten by the skin of her teeth, and then only because it was a local bank . . . or the one she had written off her own account at the same bank, wiping out her meager savings plus the overdraft, and including a cash advance from her credit card.
You’re nuts. You know that, right? Utterly mental. The most expensive thing she’d ever bought prior to this was—what—A drum set for Kenny? New tires, maybe? She was still driving Bugsy, the pimped-out VW Beetle her mom and Jack had given her as a high school graduation present, all smiles because she was headed off to art school, the future bright.
Just do it. You can make it work this time. Pressing her fingers onto the checks, she trapped them against the cool glass of the display case. Then she slid them across to Penny. “Here you go.”
And, just like that, she was the new owner of a vintage shop smack in the middle of downtown Three Ridges, Wyoming.
• • •
“You did WHAT?” Wyatt loomed over Ashley, seeming to momentarily forget that he was holding his eleven-month-old daughter in the crook of his arm. “Are you out of your MIND?”
Little Abby let out a startled “Awoooo!” that reverberated off the rough-hewn log walls and overstuffed couches of the sitting-room-slash-reception-area in the main house at Mustang Ridge—aka the gorgeous dude ranch Ashley’s brother had married into last fall, and where Ashley had lasted six weeks as an employee before deciding that working there wasn’t nearly as fun as being a guest.
Thank God there had been a HELP WANTED sign in the window of Another Fyne Thing. Though Wyatt probably didn’t see it that way now.
He gave the baby a bounce, rearranged his face to a fatuous smile, and sweetened his tone to say, “Sorry, sweetie. Auntie Ashley started it.” With his hat off and his dark, russet-streaked hair standing up in agitated spikes, he looked like an irate porcupine.
A very large irate porcupine.
Ashley just folded her arms. “You’re the one doing the yelling.” Though she was pretty sure she was the only one capable of hitting her big brother’s bellow button.
“What did you expect?” he demanded, halfway losing hold of his baby-soothing voice, so he sounded like an irritated cartoon character. “Of all the harebrained, irresponsible—”
“Annd, that’s my cue.” Krista stepped in and scooped Abby out of Wyatt’s arms. “Come on, kiddo. We’re going to go find somewhere else to be.” Propping the baby on her hip, the pretty, fresh-faced blonde kissed Wyatt’s cheek, shot Ashley an encouraging finger wiggle, and whisked down the hallway leading to the kitchen.
“But—” Wyatt took a half step after them, then stopped himself with a muttered curse and took a couple of deep breaths. By the time he’d turned back to Ashley, he looked less like a furious porcupine, and more like a concerned patriarch of a porcupine.
Which was worse, really. She could deal with his bluster, but his disappointment always got to her. There was too much history there.
“I can do this,” she insisted. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. And aren’t you the one who was always telling me I needed to find something I love, something I’m good at? Well, this is it.” From the first moment she had stepped through the shop door into the bright, chaotic interior and heard the jingle of the little bell overhead, she had been in love.
“I was talking about you going back to school and getting a degree,” he grated. “You know, giving yourself a shot at a real future? Sound familiar?”
As usual, he didn’t even try to understand where she was coming from. “Seems to me you went right back to cowboying after college.” Sure, he was famous now—in a few high-dollar art circles, anyway—for the Wild West–themed sculptures he made from recycled farm equipment. But those successes hadn’t come out of any classroom.
“We’re talking about you, not me. And I’ve gotten plenty of use out of my degree. You would, too, if you’d just give it a try.”
“Too late. I’ve already signed on the dotted lines. All of ’em.”
Besides, she was allergic to school. Her brain was too quick, too flighty. Too ready to get distracted when things stopped being fun and started feeling like work. That was why Another Fyne Thing was perfect for her—the stock was always changing and the customers were a fascinating blend of locals and tourists. And as of today she could mix things up even more—the advertising, the sales, the window displays, all of it. Nothing at Another Fyne Thing would ever be boring again, now that she owned it.
Ohmigosh. She owned it.
Even though she and Hen had thrown an impromptu celebration after they finished the paperwork, inviting everyone up and down Main Street to stop by for cookies, coffee, and ten percent off, there was still a frisson of shock at the thought.
She. Owned. The. Store.
It was impossible. Incredible. Wonderful. Terrifying.
“Are you even listening to me?”
She blinked at Wyatt. “What?”
“You can’t afford this,” he said between gritted teeth. “What if you miss one of the payments? You’ll lose what you’ve already put into it, and destroy what little credit you’ve managed to scrape together since you left the Douchebag Drummer.”
Her chin went up. “I’ll make the payments.” She didn’t want to talk about Kenny. She could only say You were right and I was wrong so many times.
Yes, her ex had been a douchebag, and, yes, she had followed the family tradition—the female half, anyway—by staying way too long in a relationship that was going nowhere but downhill. That was over and done with, though, and just because she had made a whopper of a mistake in her choice of men didn’t mean buying the store was a terrible idea, too.
That was her story, and she was sticking to it.
Scrub went Wyatt’s hand through his hair. “You’re getting in way over your head. You don’t have the first clue how to run a business.”
“Della is going to help me. Not to mention Krista, Jenny, and the others.” The friends she had fallen into—married into, really—when she’d crossed the line into Wyoming with zero to her name but Bugsy, some clothes, and her boxes of art supplies.
He scowled. “What happened to starting small? I thought you were going to stay at the shop until Della sold it, then come back to work here while you got an online storefront up and running.”
That had been his plan, not hers. “I changed my mind.”
“Change it back.”
“No.” It was a single word, a complete sentence. But it was one of the hardest things she had ever said to him. Unable to leave it like that, she added, “Please, Wyatt. Try to understand where I’m coming from. I can do this without your support—I will if I have to. But it won’t be the same. I know I’ve let you down before, but this time it’s going to be different. You’ll see.”
“Ashley.” He sighed as some of the fight drained out of him. “Be—”
“Happy for myself?” she interrupted before he could say reasonable or logical or any of those other words he was so fond of. “I am. And I hope you will be, too, eventually. In the meantime, what would you say to making me a few mannequins? It’d be killer to have some F. Wyatt Webb originals in my window.”
“I’d say you’re pushing it.” But his scowl lacked the punch it had carried before. “Have you told Mom what you’re up to?”
“I’ll call her in a day or so. I wanted to tell you first.” And when it came to talking to their mother on the phone, she needed a dark, quiet room. Wine and chocolate would be good, too. She stepped in, gave him a hug, and said, “Love you, bro. Even when you treat me like I’m still ten years old.”
“Back then, I could take away your allowance.”
“Now the bank can do it for you.”
He winced. “Don’t say that. Don’t even think it.” A pause. “On second thought, do think it. Maybe knowing that you’re just a couple of missed payments away from having it all yanked away will help keep you on track.”
“I’ll keep myself on track, thank you very much.” And, yeah, the whole bank think gave her a definite twinge. Hiding that behind a saucy smile—flirting was one thing that had always come naturally, even with Wyatt—she patted his cheek, near where she had kissed. “I’m leaving before you decide to scare more babies.”
“Going back to the store?”
“That’s the idea.” It was closed to customers, but there was plenty to do. And it was all hers! Well, hers and the bank’s.
“Change of plans,” Krista announced, appearing in the doorway, carrying Abby, who was armed with a fat chocolate chip cookie and back to her usual smiling self. Popping the baby in Wyatt’s arms, she said, “You’re on kidlet duty, because Ashley and I are going out. I already called the others, and they’re going to meet us at the Rope Burn.”
He cradled the baby, looking offended. “Hang on there. Abby and I aren’t invited?”
“Nope.” Krista hooked an arm through Ashley’s and urged her toward the door. “Sorry, cowboy. Girls only. We’re going to celebrate Ashley’s big news!”
The kitschy cowboy bar outside of town was best known for having cheap beer, dartboards in the back, and food with silly breakup names like the Let’s Just Be Friends Spinach Dip and the I’ll Call You Burger. To Tyler Reed, though, it was the buzz of the Thursday night crowd that mattered, and the stage and speakers that were half visible through the cracked-open office door.
“Checking out the local talent?” The question came from the other side of the room, where Chase was sprawled on a thrift store reject of a couch, flipping through song notes. Wearing tight jeans, glossy black boots, and a silver-plated belt buckle the size of a paperback, the younger man looked like your typical lead singer at a small-town dive bar—the kind who would unbutton his shirt halfway through the set and let it hang open through the encore if there were enough women on the dance floor making eye contact. Supposedly the kid could hold a tune, though, and Ty figured that was good enough. Wasn’t like he had anything to prove. He just wanted to play for a crowd.
Looking beyond the stage to where the bodies stacked at the bar were a pretty good mix of blue collar and tight skirts, Ty said, “Go figure. I thought we were the talent.”
“Not the tunes, man. The babes.” Tossing his notes, Chase sprang up and came across the room to prop a shoulder on the doorframe, scanning the room like the two of them were at a stock auction. “Three Ridges might not be more than a pimple on the map, but it’s got some mighty fine fillies.”
Fillies? Ty was tempted to ask if he had ever swung a leg over anything four-legged other than a barstool. They were just playing together for the night, though; there was no point in knocking the kid down. “I’m not really in the market.”
“Nope. Just not looking to start something serious.”
“Who said anything about serious?” Chase shot out a bony elbow that completely missed Ty. “I’m sure you’ve had your share of road hookups, being out on tour with a band like Higgs & Hicks.” The kid was trying so hard to be cool about Ty backing him up, like it was no biggie that the owner of the ’Burn had found a real road musician to fill in when Chase’s usual guitarist decided to splurge on some gas station sushi and wound up splurging from both ends.
Ty snagged the old, mellow-noted Martin guitar he had propped nearby, and strummed a chord before saying, “Last I checked, this wasn’t the road.”
And thank Christ for that. His first year or so with the mega-successful country band had given him exactly what he had needed at the time—a break from small-town gossip and room to clear his head. By year three, though, the cracks in the band’s foundation had started wearing on him. Or, rather, the fact that A.J. Higgs had the impulse control of a flea, Brower Hicks was a drunk on a downward spiral, and their rat-faced manager, Weasley, didn’t give a crap what was going on backstage as long as they were making money. And when Ty tried to make him care, tried to go about setting things right, he got shown the door.
Which was for the best, really. It had been past time for a change.
Chase gave a restless shrug. “Sure, Three Ridges isn’t the same as being on the road, but if things get too complicated, it’s no big deal to bail. There’s always another little cow town looking for someone to sling hay and fix tractors, and there’s always another bar with pretty girls ready to throw their panties up onstage.”
Ty figured he had been that young once. Now, though, he settled back in his chair and picked out the opening to “Home on the Range.” “What do you say we go through the set list again? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
And he’d far rather talk music than women.
• • •
“I’ll have a Let’s Get This Party Started Cosmo,” Ashley said as she and the other four members of the Girl Zone settled around their usual high-top bar table.
“Sure thing.” The waitress poised a pen that had a miniature cowboy boot dangling off the end. “Do you want it in a light-up glass?”
“Absolutely.” Why not? They were celebrating.
“White wine for me,” Shelby said, then shot Ashley a wink. “A regular glass is fine.” With a slick manicure and a soft summer sweater, both in a deep, rich crimson that brought out the highlights in her dark hair, the big-city advertising-exec-turned-cowboy’s-wife didn’t need a glass that blinked red, white, and blue to make a statement.
Danny wrinkled her nose at them. “You two are such girls. I’ll have a Corona.”
“That’s not exactly a manly-man’s beer,” Shelby pointed out.
“Better than a cosmo. In a blinky glass, no less.”
“Tomboy,” Ashley said.
“Priss,” Danny fired back, and they grinned at each other.
The two were a study in opposites. Where Ashley flirted, Danny was no-nonsense. Where Ashley flitted, Danny kept her hiking boots firmly planted. And where Ashley rushed headlong, Danny planned everything out to the last detail. But despite their differences, they totally clicked.
“Can I get you guys something to eat?” the waitress asked. “The It’s Not You It’s Me Loaded Potato Skins are fun to share.”
“Sounds good,” Krista said from the other side of the table. “Plus a basket of fries.”
“The You Frenched My Sister You Bastard Fries?”
Jenny snorted. “With a name like that? Sold.” Although she was Krista’s identical twin, the professional photographer—and local vet’s wife—had short, dark hair and an edgier style, in tight black.
“Okay. I’ll put that order right in.”
As the waitress bopped away with a jingle of the fake roweled spurs attached to her Smurf-blue boots, Ashley said, “Is it just me, or do the names of things change like every week around here?”
“It’s not you,” Danny confirmed. “I think they do it to keep us on our toes.”
“That, and it’s good branding.” Shelby tapped the drink menu. “You’re having relationship problems? Head down to the Rope Burn and order whatever fits your mood. The Kick Him To The Curb Wings, maybe. Not having problems with your relationship? You can feel all superior when you put in your order, because you and your sweetie would never say something like, ‘Let’s just be friends’ or ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you.’ Single? Order a Come And Get Me Wrap and stick the flagged toothpick behind your ear, and everyone knows you’re looking for love. It’s brilliant, really.” And Shelby knew a few things about branding and market presence.
“Besides,” Krista added. “Since we just spent an extra minute or two talking about the menu, I’d say it’s mission accomplished.”
“Here are your drinks!” their waitress announced, arriving with a spur-jingle that somehow carried over the crowd noise. She offloaded the wine and beer, and then set Ashley’s tall glass in front of her and pushed the button on the bottom to activate the LED embedded in the stem, making red, white, and blue stripes move up and down.
As the waitress said something about being back in a minute with their food and jingle-jangled off, Shelby raised her wine, which looked classy and grown-up in its traditional housing. “To Ashley. Congratulations on being the new owner of Another Fyne Thing!”
Danny held up her beer. “To being your own boss!”
Jenny added her glass to the group salute. “To loving what you do.”
Krista raised hers. “To taking a leap of faith!”
“Hear, hear!” The four of them clinked, then looked expectantly at Ashley.
Who sat there, holding her blinky glass as she fought back a sudden wave of emotion. “I . . . You guys . . . Wow. I can’t breathe.”
Sometimes when she was out with her friends, it was hard not to feel like the little sister, even when Wyatt was miles away. The others were so educated, so accomplished, each of them a business owner in her own right. Now, suddenly, they were looking at her like she had done something important. Something they understood, even admired.
“So don’t breathe,” Jenny advised. “Drink.” That got another round of “Hear, hear!” and the five of them clinked and drank.
The first slug of cosmo tingled going down; the second spread a warm glow that eased the pressure in Ashley’s lungs and let the air back in. With it came some of the positive vibes she had been practicing. Della believes in you. The customers love you. The window displays rock. You can totally do this.
And she could. She would. Starting now.
“Speaking of the store,” she said, setting down her blinky glass, “I could use some brainstorming help.” Considering how many times she had helped the others spitball ideas for their businesses—everything from new theme weeks for Krista’s dude ranch or Danny’s adventure trekking business, to slogans and photo shoot locations for Shelby and Jenny—she got a buzz out of it being her turn.
Eyes lighting, Shelby beckoned. “Bring it on.”
“The second payment is due in forty-five days, and it’s going to be tight.” She had already filled them in on the financing. “The window display contest that Mayor Tepitt is running during the Midsummer Parade has a big cash prize, but it’s right before the money is due, and there’s no guarantee I’ll win.”
“I’d bet on it,” Danny said, lifting her beer. “Your windows rock. The way you linked the Easter egg one to a whole-town scavenger hunt? Genius.”
Jenny nodded. “I think my favorite was the one you did for the equinox, with the mannequins acting out how the sun, moon, and earth are aligned, with winter colors on one side and spring on the other.”
“That would be your favorite.” Krista rolled her eyes. “Geek.”
“Says the rodeo princess.”
“Anyway,” Ashley put in, raising her voice a little to interrupt before the twins got going, “Bakery Betty could give me a run for my money, especially if she does free samples again. I mean, really. Who doesn’t vote for brownie bites?”
“Bakery Betty?” Shelby asked, amused. “Do you call her that to her face?”
“Sometimes, especially when Fish and Chips Betty is there.” Ashley took a look around—you never knew who might be sitting a couple of tables down—and lowered her voice to confide, “When she took over the restaurant, I guess the Main Streeters agreed that Fish and Chips was better than calling her Clam Strips Betty.”
“Much better,” Jenny agreed. “Do you have a nickname?”
“Nope. I’m the only Ashley, and Feed Store Billy says I’m still too new. I’m working on them, though. One of these days, I’ll be Fyne Ashley, maybe, or Vintage Ashley, and you can say you knew me when.”
Krista’s laugh bubbled up. “Until you started at the shop, I had no idea that downtown Three Ridges was its own little world, with everybody up in each other’s business. And to think, you got claustrophobic at the dude ranch, with so many people coming and going all the time. Seems to me this is just another version of the fishbowl.”
“Maybe, but it’s my version. And at the end of the day, I can lock my customers out. You have to live with yours.”
Jenny lifted her glass. “To finding what’s right for ourselves, rather than letting other people tell us how it’s going to be.”
“Amen,” Ashley said, and clinked. “So, here’s the deal. I want to run a couple of special events at the store as a way to get customers through the door, and hopefully put product in their hands while they’re there. Which is where I could use some help. I was thinking of holding a sale and letting people spin a roulette wheel right at checkout to ‘win’ an extra discount. Or maybe having a fashion show. Or what about a handyman auction? Highest bidder gets stuff fixed around their house. I figure there aren’t enough eligible bachelors in Three Ridges for a sexier sort of auction, though that would tie in better with vintage clothing.”
Shelby whipped out her phone. “Hang on. Let me jot down a few notes.”
“What about a costume contest?” Krista suggested. “You know, sixties and seventies, that sort of thing. You could charge twenty bucks per entry, less if they buy everything from the store.”
But Shelby shook her head. “You don’t want the store to become a Halloween go-to, especially after Della did all that work for the Drama Club and helped out with the haunted house. Branding-wise, you need to focus on how you can make hip, trendy combinations with vintage clothes. That’s the message you’re trying to get out to your customers, right?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going for!” Ashley grinned, feeling suddenly like she was surrounded by a warm glow of friendship. Or was that that the cosmo? Probably a little of both.
“So no costumes.” Shelby hummed, tapping her lower lip. “But a contest isn’t a bad idea. Or the fashion show. You’ll want to make sure it stays really down-to-earth, though. None of that Fashion Week stuff of sending a model down the runway in a couple of Band-Aids and a skirt made out of twist ties.”
“Dang it, there went my signature piece.”
They bounced ideas back and forth for the next twenty minutes, through another round of drinks, and pretty soon Ashley decided she should totally claim the night as a business expense, because they were getting more planning done over drinks than she had in the past three weeks of sitting up late at night, moving numbers around on her laptop, and seesawing between I can totally do this and Eeek!
“Food!” Their server announced cheerfully, plopping down a couple of plates. “The It’s Not You Skins and the French My Sister Fries. Don’t they smell great?”
“Food.” Shelby snapped her fingers. “You could link one of these events to a can drive for the Three Ridges Food Bank.”
“Enough!” Jenny made a time-out with her hands. “Let’s eat. We should let some of these ideas percolate, anyway.” She raised an eyebrow in Ashley’s direction. “That cool with you, Miss I-Just-Bought-A-Big-Ass-Storefront-Downtown?”
Ashley stared at her—at all of them—with her throat tightening, and not in a bad way. Growing up, she hadn’t had that many friends—she had lived on the wrong side of town, wore the wrong clothes, grew too tall, said the wrong things, and always felt like she should be doing something to make up for her mom and Wyatt scrimping for everything . . . And even once she outgrew that awkwardness, her pool of friends had stayed small, limited to Kenny and his bandmates, who had been loud and self-involved, and hadn’t had much interest in her until it came time to pay the delivery guy for their pizza.
It was crazy, really, how much things had changed in the past year and a half.
“Yeah.” Her lips curved. “Thanks, guys. I mean it. Thanks for the ideas, for coming out tonight, for being happy for me, even though some people—cough-cough, Wyatt, cough-cough—think I’m completely nuts for jumping in like this . . . for all of it.”
“Well, we kind of think you’re nuts, too, but that’s why we love you.” Danny lifted her glass. “To Ashley!”
“To Ashley!” the others chorused, then clinked and drank, with Shelby giving Ashley’s glass an extra tap and adding, “We’re here for you, girlfriend.”
Forcing back a surge of emotion that the others might not understand—they had been friends for years, after all, and Krista and Jenny had spent their whole lives having each other’s backs—Ashley surveyed the heaping plates. “Did we really get potatoes and grease to go with an order of greasy potatoes?”
“See?” Shelby said. “Branding. They totally got you.”
“They got us,” Ashley corrected, sectioning off one of the loaded potato skins. “And I’m not sorry in the slightest. I’m celebrating.” She bit in with a moan. “God, are these good.”
“Was that a sex noise?”
“With a potato? Sounds uncomfortable.”
“Well, you did just say that pickings are slim in Three Ridges.”
“It’s not the pickings, slim or otherwise. This is the post-Kenny era, which means I’m focusing on myself, and now the store. Heck, I haven’t even kissed a guy since I crossed the Wyoming border.” Except for that one incident, but she wasn’t about to bring that up. “I don’t have time for kissing.”
Danny narrowed her eyes speculatively. “Hmm . . . Methinks the lady doth protest too much. And if you ask me, a girl can always find time for kissing, if it’s with the right guy.” To Krista, she said, “How about your new head wrangler? I heard he—”
“Stop!” Ashley ordered, holding up both hands. “Don’t even.”
“What? You don’t like cowboys?”
“I like cowboys just fine.” Almost as much as she liked musicians. “But I’m not dating the new head wrangler. I’m not dating anybody, thank you very much. I’ve got a store to run, events to plan, and a big, scary payment to make.” Besides which, she was pretty sour on the whole crappily-ever-after thing right now, and had zero faith in her own judgment when it came to men.
She was too much like her mother. And wasn’t that a terrifying thought?
“Hello?” The hail came from the stage, where Jolly Roger—the bar owner’s name was actually Roger Jolly, but he lived up to the nickname with his long, dark hair, grizzled beard, and the patch-and-peg-leg routine he pulled out for special occasions—stood at the mic and did a tap-tap. “Is this thing on? Testing, testing. Are we ready for some live music?”
The crowd buzz dimmed for a second, then burst out in applause.
“Awesome.” Ashley turned in her chair. “I could dance.” It would be a good way to burn off the potato skins, and grooving to the beat should quiet the jitters that came from having had a Very Big Day.
“I’d like to introduce tonight’s performers, who are guaranteed”—Jolly drew it out like the three-syllable word had become a dozen—“to get your boots tapping and your booties shaking. Let’s put them together, folks—your hands, I mean, not your booties—for Chasen Tail!”
The door behind him opened up and a guy came out, giving a big wave to the crowd. “Howdy, folks!” In his mid-twenties, with handsome features and sandy hair that brushed the collar of his shirt, he looked like someone had taken one of the cowboys from the crowd and turned the volume up a couple of notches.
“Oh!” Danny said. “I’ve seen him before. I like him.”
“Meh.” Shelby shrugged. “If a guy’s going to pop the buttons on his shirt halfway through the show, his abs should be required to be seriously ripped. And his stage name sucks. I mean, really? Chasen Tail? Ew.”
“I like his music,” Danny clarified. “I agree that the name is dumb. And the shirt thing doesn’t do much for a girl who’s got a better set of muscles waiting for her back home.”
“Now that’s just mean.” Ashley turned her back on the stage to complain across the table: “Some of us are living vicariously, you know.”
“I can already see this is going to be a killer crowd,” Chasen said behind her. “How about we give a round of applause to my boys?”
As the crowd whooped and hollered, Krista’s eyes went beyond Ashley, and lit. “That’s no boy. And speak of the devil. There’s my new head wrangler in his very fine flesh!” She waved. “Yoo-hoo, Tyler! Hey, Ty. Over here!”
Ashley froze, the name going through her like a bolt of hot lightning—searing and paralytic.
No. It couldn’t be.
Setting down the blinky glass with calm precision, she turned in her seat. Looked up at the stage. And stopped breathing while her brain sproinged back and forth between Oh, hell and Oh, my, with a bit of Wow thrown in.
Then back to: Oh, hell.
A drummer and a guitarist had set up behind the lead singer. The drummer was a cutie—young, flushed and nervous-looking, as if playing at the Rope Burn was the high point of his life to date. The guitarist was his exact opposite—thirtysomething, solid, and totally chilled out as he bent his head and strummed a couple of chords that should have gotten lost in the crowd noise, but thanks to some acoustic quirk of the room carried straight to Ashley.
She didn’t need to see the face beneath the shag of sun-streaked brown hair—she knew him by the mellow undertones and upper twang of the old Martin. And by the way his hands moved on the strings—slow and steady, but with an underlying strength that said here was a man who always hit the note he was going for.
His head came up and his eyes locked on hers, as if she had said his name out loud. His gaze pierced her, brown eyes so dark they were almost black, putting a hot-cold-hot shiver in her belly.
Behind her, the others were talking about how he had come back to Mustang Ridge after spending the past few years touring with a country band, their voices sounding normal, as if the world hadn’t just shifted on its axis. As if it didn’t shift again when she got a good look at his face, with its high Viking cheekbones and the strong slash of a nose, bumped across the bridge where it had been broken by what he had called “a short dive off a long bucking bull.”
Last fall, at Krista and Wyatt’s wedding. Where they had totally hooked up.
Ty stilled, staring at the woman sitting not thirty feet away at a high-top with his boss and three of her besties. And, just like that first moment he’d laid eyes on her eighteen or so months ago, the others might as well not have been there.
Close to his height in heels, with a model’s bone structure and a great laugh, the violet-eyed knockout had captured him, captivated him. Now the honey-blond hair that had been swept up at the wedding was down around her shoulders, and the pale green dress had been replaced by a pair of long, trim jeans and a soft blue shirt, but she was no less a knockout . . . even with her mouth hanging open and her eyes channeling a whole lot of What the hell?
Well, that made two of them, as his fingers stumbled on the strings and the air heated up a few degrees. Because, damn.
Ashley. Her name was right there, even though he had tried to forget it once he was back out on the road. Hadn’t worked, though, and when he decided to come back to Mustang Ridge and take the promotion Krista had offered, maybe he had figured his boss’s pretty bridesmaid friend from LA might visit one day. Had even thought it’d be nice to see her again.
He hadn’t figured on that happening on week one of his being back in town, though. And he damn sure hadn’t figured on it feeling like he’d just come out of the gate on a world-class bull that had taken two jumps out into the arena, then dropped a shoulder and started to spin.
“What do you say, folks?” Chase hollered, and got a roar from the crowd in return. Flicking a quick glance back at Ty and the baby-faced drummer, he led them in with “And a one, two, a one-two-three-four!”
Ty was half a second late jumping in on the first song and might’ve missed a few notes in the intro if his fingers hadn’t done him a solid and taken over for his brain. Knowing that wouldn’t work for long, he tore his eyes off hers—shocked violet framed by milky white skin and golden hair—and focused on making the old guitar sing, weaving point and counterpoint, and shoring up Chase’s lower register when it wanted to flatten out.
Wasn’t easy, though. Not when he was fighting for balance on a barstool that felt like it was thinking about reversing the spin and throwing in a couple of back-cracking bucks for good measure. Not when she was sitting halfway across the room.
• • •
As the music kicked into high gear—a country song that Ashley didn’t recognize, with breakup lyrics that sounded like the singer was going down the bar’s menu—she reminded herself to breathe. Keep breathing.
And not stare. Much.
She didn’t want the others to notice, didn’t want them to ask things she couldn’t answer when she was having a hard time believing her eyes. She had thought he was just a hired guitar, maybe a friend of a friend who had been flown in for the wedding. How could he be Krista’s new head wrangler?
The others were talking about a midseason special Danny wanted to advertise, two-for-one on a hike up into the mountains, living off the land. Ashley, though, couldn’t focus on anything except the man up on the stage.
Should she say something to her friends? If so, what? It wouldn’t be easy to rock the whole I’m turning over a new leaf thing if she let on that she had sneaked out of her brother’s reception to hook up with the guy who’d played the wedding march. A hot flush flooded her cheeks at the memory. At the time, it had felt exactly right, like she was striking a blow for her own independence—See, Kenny? I’m totally over you. Now, though, she found herself wishing she had kept her hands—and lips—to herself.
Okay, that was a lie. Because whoever he was, he was a hell of a kisser.
When the conversation behind her lulled, she said, “I hadn’t realized you guys hired a new head wrangler.”
Shelby’s husband, Foster, had held the position at Mustang Ridge for going on a decade, but he’d been building up his own training business at his family’s ranch, and had given Krista and Wyatt the heads-up last year that they needed to find a replacement.
“Ty isn’t really new,” Krista said. “He was Foster’s second-in-command for years until Jenny posted a video of him leading a campfire sing-along, and it got some attention online. The next thing we knew, he got an offer to play with a country band. Have you heard of Higgs & Hicks?”
Ashley nodded, though she had only looked them up because her wedding hookup had mentioned the name. Country wasn’t really her thing. “They’re good. Popular.” Though with a shaky reputation offstage. “Why did he leave?”
“He hasn’t said, and I haven’t pushed it. I’m just grateful that’s he’s back. So is Gran. He was always a particular favorite of hers.”
“So that’s how he ended up playing at the wedding. Friend of the family, and all that.” She played it cool. Nothing to see here. Not even remotely freaking out.
“That’s right. Did you meet him?”
“I recognized the guitar.” The long line of his body. The width of his shoulders. The way his hair fell forward as he played. The air of concentration, like nothing else existed except the song—until those dark, dark eyes met hers and that focus shifted, locked on.
Heated agitation pooled in her belly, making her feel like she had swallowed the whole blinky glass, not just its contents.
Onstage, the band finished the first set—had it been that long already?—and the singer leaned in to say, “We’re going to take a quick break. Be back in ten.” He gave the front row a slow smile and toyed with the bottom button of his shirt. “Stick around, ladies. The show’s just getting started.”
The whoops and hollers coming from the dance floor mostly drowned out Shelby’s shout of “Keep it on. Keep it all on!”
“Shh!” Danny swatted at her, laughing.
Ashley watched out of the corner of her eye as Ty put down his guitar and headed for a door that led off behind the stage.
Heart drumming, she set her half-finished drink—her second, she thought, or possibly her third—on the table and slipped off her chair. “I’m going to hit the ladies’ room, maybe talk to Jolly about renting his sound system for one of these store events we’ve been talking about.”
As the stage crowd split like the Red Sea, one half heading for the bar, the other for the restrooms, she ducked through the door Ty had taken, hoping to catch him alone.
The rear hallway was empty save for two sun-starved potted pines and a trio of framed rodeo posters, but a back exit was cracked like a smoker had just gone through. Or a guy who had a feeling someone might follow him. Ashley hesitated for a beat, wishing that she was wearing something snazzier than the basic jeans, boots, and shirt routine that she had hoped would make Wyatt think she was taking things seriously, but now just made her feel bland and colorless.
Oh, well. There was no hope for it now, and she needed to talk to him before he said anything to the others. To Wyatt. Taking a deep breath, she pushed open the door and stepped out.
The sun had set, darkening the mountains and purpling the sky, but she saw Ty instantly. He stood silhouetted at the edge of the parking lot, next to the post of a light that hadn’t yet come on—tall, broad-shouldered, and staring out across the craggy Wyoming horizon.
He turned as the door creaked closed behind her, and a shiver of awareness said he was looking at her from the dark shadows beneath the tipped-down brim of his hat.
She had intended to walk across to him and do a “Hey, cowboy.” Instead, her boots planted themselves on the last step leading down and her mouth went dry as the scene burned itself on her retinas, made her wish for a palate and brush, or grease pencils in vivid purples and dark, brooding black. She could capture him there, a lone cowboy at the edge of civilization.
If she did, though, nobody would believe the scene was real. She barely believed it herself. Because, damn, he was something to look at.
Then he moved.
Boots crunching on gravel, he came toward her slow and steady, like he was afraid she might bolt. Or maybe because, like her, he felt the sudden electric tension in the air. She couldn’t tell, couldn’t see his face or read his expression—not even when he got up close and personal, the two of them eye-to-eye even though she was a step above him on the short flight of wooden stairs.
His height was one of the things she had liked most about him that night. That, and the guitar. And the fact that he was just passing through.
Or so she had thought.
“Ashley,” he said in a raspy baritone that sent tingles along the backs of her hands, making her want to reach out and touch. Except that he might have remembered her name, but he didn’t know who she really was.
Excerpted from "Coming Home to Mustang Ridge"
Copyright © 2015 Jesse Hayworth.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Mustang Ridge Series:
“Jesse Hayworth continues to make us feel like home at Mustang Ridge.”—The Reading Café
“A superb read: a gorgeous setting and a beautiful love story.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Catherine Anderson
“Plenty of laughter, charm, and emotion.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Jill Gregory