March 27


Charming the Grumpy Cowboy Preview

By Ciara Knight

March 27, 2024

bookstagram, christian cowboy family saga, cowboy romance, enemies to lovers, fish out of water, new Release, Romance

Charming the Grumpy Cowboy by Ciara Knight

Charming the Grump Cowboy

Chapter One

The aroma of coffee, burning embers, and attitude filled the wood-beam structure of the Buckin’ Bronco Tavern. Colton Clayborne shrugged off his coat, hung it on the only open peg lining the wood-planked wall, and eyed those in their Sunday best. Only twenty minutes ago, they surrounded all the Claybornes with hugs and condolences, but now they all waited for the reading of the eccentric Ford Clayborne’s will.

Colton adjusted his hat and took one step into the large, open room filled wall-to-wall with people.

He longed to return to the quiet of his work in an open field even in these frigid temperatures instead of being forced into a crowded restaurant full of a rowdy group alongside his lost and forgotten relatives. He’d had to show out of respect for Uncle Ford. That didn’t mean he needed to bother with pleasantries, because they wouldn’t stick around. Once the last words of the will were read, they’d take their money and run. Colton’s father wouldn’t even stay long enough to help Colton move his belongings off the property. The for-sale sign would be slammed into the frozen front pasture before the sun dipped below the Tetons.

That was if Uncle Ford hadn’t left the entire estate to charity like he’d threatened on more than one occasion when Colton, his brothers, or his cousins got out of line.

The door swung open, sending a blast of icy wind into his back.

Mrs. Margaret Walker shuffled inside and pulled the door shut then looked up at him. The woman didn’t stand to his chest, but she gripped his hand between both of hers with an iron squeeze he wouldn’t expect from a glass blower and retired actress. “It was a good service.”

“Thank you for attending his memorial.” Colton had said the words so many times in the last hour that it came out like he’d spent all morning rehearsing his one line.

She turned to Remy Sanders, the local blacksmith, and pointed to a long table filled with potluck at the far wall near the bar. “Put it there.” 

He offered a nod, and they went on to greet some neighbors two tables over.

Colton took in a deep breath to calm his agitation, but a familiar scent snapped him back to the memory of him and his brothers being abandoned on the doorstep of the family ranch. He didn’t have to turn his head to know his absentee father lingered nearby wearing his favorite ridiculously expensive spicy old-man aftershave.

Colton shoved his hands into his pockets to hide their shaking. All night he’d thought about what he’d say when he finally faced the man after all these years, but now, nothing could explain the resentment and disgust—not just for him, but for his brothers’ abandonment.

Men stood around with heads bowed and their Stetsons in their hands, as if still in church instead of the usually boisterous rancher hangout in town.

Despite the service and the solemn attitudes, this death stung extra in Colton’s heart. Uncle Ford was the last of his parental figures in his life. Everyone else was gone—his father and uncles to abandonment, his mom who passed not long after his dad left, and most of all Bob, the cow boss who doctored his wounds and hugged his sorrow away.

Needing to put distance between him and the vultures before his temper snapped like a winter-dried twig, he headed for the bar on the other side of the room.

He made his way between tables, where expectant gazes from Meadowbrook residents snapped to attention, waiting to witness the latest and greatest Clayborne gossip.

Already waiting at the scarred, mahogany counter sat Handle, the fastest gossip in the west, nicknamed for how he “handled” the news in these parts. His bright-orange whiskers made him look like an out-of-season Irish Santa Claus dressed in jeans and a vintage Meadowbrook High School polo team jacket.

Colton dared a quick scan of the rest of the room to discover his father wasn’t the only one to make a rare appearance. All of Uncle Ford’s brothers were settled into a table and chairs in the back corner. Next to his father sat Uncle William wearing an out-of-place city suit and magazine-style haircut, while the other, Uncle Nathan, sported a sleeve of tattoos and longer hair. None of them wore a downcast gaze or humble expression to show remorse for abandoning their own kids.

His seven cousins and three brothers lining the outer walls didn’t hide their displeasure at the faux show of familial support either. Not one of them took a chair, as if standing with their backs to the walls meant they could dodge any unexpected mental blows.

Colton quickened his pace. It was best to keep his mouth shut. The worry of what he’d do with himself, his brothers, and his cousins once his father and uncles inherited the property made every nerve in his body fire faster than a lightning strike ignited dry brush.

A sweet little lady behind the bar smiled, all sunshine and stars, lightening the grimness of this day. An invitation for a spark of hope beyond this lot. He could get lost in a woman like her, with her warm eyes and auburn hair that draped over her shoulders, resting stark against her green turtleneck sweater.

The fire roaring in the stone-stacked fireplace at the front of the room and the iron chandeliers overhead cast a golden glow over her milky skin.

Pure and flawless. Definitely out of place around these parts. He took his seat on a stool and tipped his hat down again, more to shield his gaze from the lovely distraction than to shield him from anyone else. It had been a minute since he’d spotted a beautiful woman. Not that he’d ever seen a woman quite as beautiful as her before. Of course, he didn’t get out much.

“What can I get you?” she asked, her voice as soft as a mountain breeze on a spring afternoon.

An escape hatch. “Coffee, black.” He kept his back to the room, not wanting to show a lick of emotion. Wouldn’t give any of them the satisfaction.

The coffee gushed into the cup, and she nudged it to him with her perfectly painted, unchipped nails. “Here for the reading of the will?”

Handle leaned in, cupped the side of his mouth as if Colton couldn’t hear him, and his eyes lit up like a flashing warning sign. “That’s Colton Clayborne, darling. Geesh, Alina, doesn’t your aunt keep you up-to-date on anything?”

Colton gripped the ceramic mug tight, willing his aggravation to remain at a simmer. He tipped his hat up, daring to catch a glimpse of the blush covering Alina’s thin neck and high cheeks.

“Good turnout. He must’ve been a very loved person.” She wiped a few coffee droplets from the counter.

“They loved his property and money,” Colton ground out. He cleared his throat and took a gulp of the steaming liquid that scorched its way down. Bitter and hot, the way he liked it.

“I’m sure not everyone here feels that way. Memorials can be emotional. Perhaps this’ll bring your family and neighbors closer and you’ll discover they care more than you think.”

He almost believed her, the way she spoke with authority in her voice, but she didn’t know his family.

“Ford, the patriarch of the Clayborne clan, refused to sell his parents’ ranch, and his brothers never wanted anything to do with it, so they’ve been waiting for him to pass so they can sell the land and take the money,” Handle said, rambling off the facts of their family saga.

“It’s the only reason they’re here.” Colton snuck a look over his shoulder at his father. The man had aged, and from what Colton could remember, the earring was new. But the rest looked the same. Funny how he could remember his father’s face, yet his mother’s, the one he clung to, had faded over time. “There’s no love lost between those brothers, so they aren’t here to pay their respects, I can assure you of that.”

Handle took a swig of whatever was in his cup then set it down and swiveled to face the room. “That family drama goes back years, from the time his grandfather was young…”

Alina eyed Handle but drifted from his ramblings to face Colton. “I’m sorry for your loss.” The first and last person in the room to sound like they truly cared. Even if it wasn’t someone who should. “Certainly, they’re grieving in their own way.”

“Doubt it,” he grumbled. His patience stretched to the edge of his limits. “Where’s this city loathsome lawyer who has to read the will? Don’t know why we can’t just read it ourselves.”

Handle turned to face them again then rubbed his hands together either to warm them or add drama to the conversation. Either were possible. “You know why. Your uncle’s been trying for years to wrangle all you boys together. Sad it took his death to make it happen. He probably paid that lawyer extra to be late.”

“Only way it would happen. None of my uncles nor my father cared enough to even send a card or make a call to check on him or the ranch all these years.” Colton clenched his teeth, chastising himself for airing his business in public. Not his style.

“Not even to check on you?” Alina asked but then busied with wiping some glasses and setting them in a crate.

“No. Not once.” Colten fisted his hands and swallowed his emotions. “Worthless overpriced lawyers.” He gulped another bit of bitter coffee, willing this charade to end.

A frigid blast to his back warned of more arrivals. He refused to look but prayed it was the lawyer. In a few minutes, none of them would matter because he’d be kicked out of the only home he’d ever known, leaving him with no other choice than to look for work as a ranch hand. Not that there were many jobs like that left in Wyoming.

He should’ve left years ago, like most of the Clayborne men, but he couldn’t. His life had been that ranch since the day his uncle took him in and gave him a roof over his head along with his three brothers. Colton owed him everything. And he wouldn’t leave now if given the choice because he wouldn’t follow in the Clayborne abandonment trail. He’d be like his uncle Ford and stay to help his cousins and brothers, breaking the cycle of neglect and dishonor.

“Have any clue what’s gonna happen?” Duncan settled in by Colton’s side. His cousin’s thin adolescent face looked out of place among the grown-ups.

Colton shot him his best scowl, warning him to leave. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“My life, too. My father’s gonna rip me from this place, and who knows where I’ll end up. No more football. No more friends,” he said, his eyes cast across the room at his own estranged father.

“I should’ve done more.” The weight of Colton’s failures added another pound onto his shoulders. As a sixteen-year-old sophomore, Duncan needed stability, not international parties and social climbing. He’d urged Uncle Ford to sign the ranch over to him to run so he could keep the others together, but nothing was ever easy when it came to Ford Clayborne.

“Nothing could or can be done. Not even by you, who can do anything,” Duncan said with that hero-worship tone to his voice that made Colton feel even worse. Some hero he’d been. The kid would be worse off with his father than working the land. Duncan didn’t belong in European society. He’d never fit in there.

Colton chugged the last few gulps of coffee and slammed the mug down harder than he’d intended, silencing the room for a breath before the rumble restarted.

Duncan put his hand on Colton’s arm. “Hey, least I can meet some new people and see the world, right? And no more getting up at the crack of nothing to do chores. Don’t worry ’bout me. I can find trouble anywhere.”

“He’s not wrong about that. Speaking of trouble, did you finish cleaning the dumpster out back of my store?” Handle asked. “Remember my deal with Principal Sterling. I promised you’d pay for your crimes.”

Colton stiffened. He’d been so caught up in Uncle Ford’s illness, he hadn’t been focused on keeping Duncan straight. Colton removed his hat and tossed it onto the bar to full on face Duncan. “What’d you do now?”

“Can I get you something else?” Alina asked, wringing the towel around her fingers. Her eyes urged him to keep his cool. It worked. He wouldn’t lose it in front of everyone. He’d vowed that to himself before he’d finished buttoning his shirt to leave the house this morning.

“No. Thank you.” He pulled out a five and dropped it on the bar. “What did you do now?”

“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be my guardian no more. Think of it this way. You’re free to go do whatever you want in life. Go meet a girl, marry, and have little Coltons. Stop being a spinster.” Duncan smacked him on the back and scurried away like a scared squirrel.

“Sounds like you’re free to do whatever you want in life. You’ve been obliged to care for that boy and your brothers all these years. Go do you for a while.” Handle stoked the idea Colton had mulled over every night since Uncle Ford passed. It wasn’t any more appealing today than it was last week.

Alina took his mug and slid his cash into her apron pocket. “Sounds like you have endless opportunities. You can travel the world, start a business you want, or maybe go climb Mount Everest. You’re young and strong and handsome.” She paused then rushed to clean the glass she’d just put back into the crate. “No reason you can’t start something new. Sounds like this is your chance to make your own choices. Maybe think of this as a new adventure.”

As adorable and alluring as the woman was, nosey didn’t sit well with him since everyone wanted to be in his business and tell him how lucky he was to be free. What if he didn’t want freedom? “Easy for a stranger to say. Don’t know how long you’ve been in Meadowbrook, but obviously not long enough to understand once a cowboy, always a cowboy. It’s in my blood, and there isn’t anything else I’d rather do.” He dared to look at her full on, from shiny hair to full lips to thin waist then back to her eyes that were a deeper green than any tree he’d ever seen. He lifted his chin, forcing his attention back to what mattered. Getting her and Handle to butt out of his business and let him face his failings. “I guess I could ask you the same thing. What’re you doing here tending bar? Why don’t you go climb your mountain? What’s stopping you?”

“You’re right. It’s easy for a stranger to say.” She shuffled to the end of the bar, pushed the swivel door open, and hobbled out with a cane to assist her every step.

He jumped from the stool, feeling a strike of regret shoot through him. “Listen, ma’am. Sorry. I didn’t mean no disrespect. I’m sorry for your injury. It’s just the lawyer’s late, and I just want this over with. I’m angry at him, not you. I’m sure you’ll be climbing those mountains as soon as you heal up.”

“I think he’s arrived.” She maneuvered around a few customers to the front of the room near the stone-stacked fireplace, leaned her cane against a table, picked up a manila envelope, and opened it.

Handle elbowed him in the side. “Way to make a first impression.”

“Excuse me, everyone. I’m Alina McKinnie, and although I’m not the overpriced, loathsome lawyer you expected, I am a mediator here to read the will and offer my services to help sort out a few details.”

Handle leaned in. “And that pretty much blows your chance at a date with the pretty lady.”

Colton had put his boot in his mouth, that’s for sure. Shame seeped in, but when his father crossed the room and offered his hand, the emotion scattered, leaving behind his familiar anger.

“Hey, son. Good to see you.”

The nerve of the man. Same Clayborne bluish eyes, same Clayborne chin and jawline, but not the same soul. Because the man had to be soulless to not realize his words were empty and unwelcome.

The room fell silent, and then the scratch of chairs drew Colton’s attention to his approaching brothers, so he took the man’s hand and shook, not wanting to cause a scene. The touch made his coffee gurgle in protest, but he kept it down and willed his hands not to shake. He didn’t need the man in front of him to be his father. Uncle Ford had taught him how to rope, fish, drive, and fix a fence, and Bob had bandaged his wounds and doctored his broken bones. Everything parents should do for their son.

“If we can begin. I know some of you are in a hurry,” Alina urged and held up papers in front of her face. She cleared her throat and read on through some legal jargon that Colton didn’t pay much attention to since this was all just for show.

If only Uncle Ford would’ve listened and put the Clayborne estate in Colton’s name, none of this would be necessary. He should’ve trusted me to do what was best for the ranch.

“And in the matter of the Clayborne Ranch. I will not be leaving it to my worthless brothers so they can sell it off and take the money to waste on nothing but booze and the next big thing.”

Colton’s father stiffened at his side and eyed Colton as if he’d written the words himself. Good. Maybe he’d leave now. Uncle Ford might have wanted to keep it a secret and not give his brothers a chance to fight his wishes, and that’s what all this was about. An iron-clad contract would be Uncle Ford’s style, with a touch of drama, of course.

Colton held his breath. Did this mean his uncle left it to him? If so, he’d work until his dying breath to keep the cattle business going.

Alina flipped the page. “The ranch, all the cattle, equipment, and buildings are to be left to all twelve of my nephews. They will agree together what is to be done with the ranch. Not one person will be the sole heir to the place.”

“What? That’s insane,” his father hollered at Alina, snapping Colton’s last thread of patience.

“Don’t yell at her. Forget your manners living in that big city of yours?” Colton faced his father. Frustration at the news didn’t help his mood, but the fact that his father couldn’t have the place improved his bitterness a little.

“Woot! That means I can stay,” Duncan shouted.

“That means I maintain partial ownership until Duncan comes of age,” William, Duncan’s father, called out in his faux European accent. It didn’t matter that he’d married some European socialite. He was still born a cowboy.

An uproar claimed the room. Not one word could be heard over the mass until the sweet, beautiful Ms. Alina placed two fingers in her mouth and whistled loud enough to put any cowboy to shame.

Everyone quieted. The petite auburn beauty achieved something no human had ever done. She’d rustled a room full of Clayborne men into silence.

“There’s a catch.” Alina eyed the paper then looked straight at Colton. “If all twelve do not agree, the estate will be auctioned and all the proceeds donated to charities outlined below.”

Ciara Knight

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