THE COMEBACK COWBOY is a Western-themed anthology featuring four stories from bestselling authors Maisey Yates, Nicole Helm, Jackie Ashenden and Caitlin Crews!
They may not have been friends when they were younger but now, they’ll work together to save the camp that saved them and, maybe even find love in the process…
The alumni of Camp Phoenix, a summer program for at-risk youth, may have grown apart but, when they learn the camp has fallen into disrepair, they answer the call for help. Now successful adults, the four women pledge to restore the grounds to their former glory, if long-standing rivalries and old flames don’t get in the way first….
Attorney Ashlynn Cook owes her life to Camp Phoenix and is determined to save the camp…but who’s going to save her from the temptation of long-time crush US Marshal Oakley Traeger? The daughter of the camp’s founder, Cassidy McClain has always wanted to follow in her law-abiding father’s footsteps, but fellow alum Duke Cody might have her breaking all the rules. Bree White fought hard to break away from her criminal family and all of the reminders of her past until Officer Flint Decker brings all those feelings back and more. And Kinley Parker never left Camp Phoenix, dedicating her life to it, and has no time for pushy cowboys like Jackson Hart until butting heads leads to sparks.
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The One with the Hat by Jackie Ashenden
Bree White walked quickly over the gravel of the parking area and she didn’t look back. Time was of the essence.
She’d arrived at Camp Phoenix, the summer camp for juvenile delinquents that had changed her life back when she’d been fourteen, a full thirty minutes before she was supposed to, mainly so she could claim the best cabin before everyone else arrived—and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it.
It was a little surprising that Jackson Hart, the former DEA agent who’d bought the run-down camp and sent out the call for volunteers to help get it ready for a new season of campers, wasn’t here to greet her. He was apparently living in the shabby house near the camp entrance, but she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him.
Then again, she was early. And she didn’t mind not seeing Jackson. He’d been his usual drill-sergeant self, harassing her relentlessly to volunteer to help, and while she was all about helping, she wasn’t a fan of being told what to do. Never had been.
Even ten years ago, when she’d been sent to Camp Phoenix by Sheriff Bill McClain, the man who’d started the camp, she’d hated all the rules and regulations, and had chafed against them. Yet those same rules and regulations had given her a structure and routine that her chaotic childhood never had. They’d changed her life.
Camp Phoenix had basically been the best thing to ever happen to her. That’s why she was here. And it wasn’t anything to do with Jackson Hart, so much as it was her, wanting to give back. Perhaps help change a few lives the way hers had been changed, and for the better. She was looking forward to it.
Bree paused in front of the small cluster of buildings surrounded by a green lawn and bordered by tall pines. Everything looked…smaller than she remembered, not to mention a lot more neglected. There were a few dilapidated cabins that were the bunk rooms, and the big dining hall where Mrs. Zee, the cook, used to reign supreme. The showers and bathrooms were in their own building, and then there was the administration cabin. And over there by the dining hall, the art hall that was once run by Gale Lawson.
And…ugh. There was Hollyhock Hill, which all the campers had to climb at 6:00 a.m. every morning to raise the flag, and where the day’s chores were handed out.
She’d never been much of a morning person, but that, in particular, had felt like torture. Well, they were all adults now, and presumably, there would be no 6:00 a.m. wake-up calls this time around.
The camp looked deserted, which was good, so Bree headed over to the least-run-down-looking of the cabins, where the counselors used to sleep. Jackson had said at least one of the cabins was better than the others, so she was assuming it was this one, and that she could claim it for herself.
She assumed no one would be sharing like they once had, when it was ten to a room. At least, she wouldn’t be sharing; not these days. She’d come a long way from her past and her family of low-level criminals who expected her to follow the same path they had. Now she had her own place in Jasper Creek and a great job as a real estate agent. She didn’t have to steal for a living like her folks had.
And all thanks to Camp Phoenix.
Nothing at all to do with Flint Decker.
Bree scowled as she headed toward the old counselors cabin, trying to shove off the irritating reminder that Flint Decker had been her arresting officer back when she’d been fourteen. He’d caught her shoplifting from the local 7-Eleven, which was something she did not like to remember, if she could help it.
A bit difficult not to be reminded, though, when Jasper Creek had been virtually wallpapered with his handsome, arrogant face thanks to the sheriff’s elections a couple of months back. She hadn’t been able to get away from it. Even more annoying that he’d won the election. By a depressing margin.
She had nothing to do with him these days, determinedly ignoring him whenever they passed each other on the street. And she definitely didn’t look behind her as he went by, noting the breadth of his shoulders, his narrow hips, long, powerful legs, and—
Bree nearly tripped over a piece of wood that seemed to be lying randomly in the grass, and only just stopped herself from an ignominious face-plant.
Damn new sneakers. Nothing to do with thinking about stupid Flint. She’d bought them especially for tramping about the camp and they were already giving her blisters.
She took a quick look around to see if anyone else had turned up to witness her embarrassing stumble, but the place was still deserted.
Just as well.
Bree examined her brand-new, spotless blue jeans for any suspicion of dirt, but they seemed to have escaped. She brushed them off just in case, since she wasn’t a fan of dirt. She wasn’t a fan of jeans either, but the little business skirts she usually wore weren’t very practical, so she’d gone on a bit of a shopping spree.
She wasn’t that sullen, angry teen who had turned up at camp with nothing, not even a sleeping bag.
She’d come prepared this time.
She approached the cabin and cautiously pushed open the door.
It was one room with a wooden floor and three sturdy wooden bunk beds pushed up against the unlined walls. The floor looked clean, at least, but one of the bunk beds had no mattresses, which left four beds to choose from. It smelled a bit musty but nothing an open window wouldn’t fix.
Bree gave herself a moment to frown at the spiderwebs in the ceiling between the rafters, then directed her attention to which bunk to choose. One of the top bunks, of course, since those had always been the most prized. Back in the day, there used to be battles. There was one girl, Violet Cook, who Bree had taken an instant dislike to, and one day, she’d hung Violet’s sleeping bag from a tree before stealing her bunk. That had earned her toilet cleaning for a week, but it had been worth it.
Of course, she’d never do anything like that now. Now she loved her life and was no longer angry at the entire world.
Moving over to the bunk beside the window, she carefully examined the mattress on the top bed, since that seemed to be the least lumpy, and decided it would do.
She didn’t like being uncomfortable, but camp—as Sheriff McClain had always said—wasn’t about being comfortable, so she’d resigned herself to a bit of discomfort. Not that she had a choice, since her house was having its plumbing upgraded and she couldn’t be there anyway. Really, coming to camp was excellent timing in many ways.
Bree put her little suitcase onto the bottom bunk in preparation for unpacking.
Other people would be arriving, she assumed. Given Jackson’s insistence on the importance of getting the camp up and running before the end of June, and given how he was a bossy asshole, he’d probably called every single person who’d ever stayed here and guilt-tripped them into helping.
She hoped they would be nice people, not—
“Please don’t tell me we have to share. Goddamn Jackson.”
Bree froze. She recognized that voice. No. Did it have to be? Not Violet Cook, whose sleeping bag she’d stolen. Not Violet Cook, who’d treated every day at camp like she was auditioning for Survivor and had basically lorded it over everyone, trying to prove she was the baddest.
Surely, she wasn’t here. Surely not.
Yet the door was already opening and in came a small, stunningly pretty woman with long, wavy black hair, black eyes, and wearing the most ridiculously feminine and flouncy maxidress Bree had ever seen. She tottered in on sky-high wedges, towing behind her a huge bright pink suitcase, and the moment she spotted Bree, she stopped dead.
The world’s most awkward silence fell as ten years vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Great,” Violet said, scowling. “Bree White. What the hell are you doing here?”
Bree had an urge to scowl back, but she forced it aside. She wasn’t fourteen and feral anymore. She was twentyfour and a professional, with a reputation for being the nicest Realtor at her agency. Violet might not have changed, but Bree certainly had.
“Hi, Violet,” she said, smiling determinedly. “Nice to see you. We should definitely catch up later, after you’ve found your own cabin. I think the one next door is still free—”
“Unfortunately, we’re sharing,” Violet interrupted, obviously unimpressed. “None of the other cabins are habitable.” Bree blinked. That was not what Jackson had said. “Sharing? What? But I thought…” She trailed off as Violet, ignoring her, eyed the bunk bed Bree was standing next to before moving over to the bunk pushed up against the opposite wall.
Bree opened her mouth to try to make the silence more pleasant, when the cabin door opened again, and two more women came in.
This time she barely stifled a groan. Kinley Parker and Clementine McClain? Seriously? She hadn’t known Kinley that well. She’d been so shy and quiet she’d virtually blended into the wallpaper, but apparently lived in Jasper Creek, not that Bree had ever seen her around. Clementine, on the other hand, was Sheriff McClain’s daughter, and Bree remembered her as being the biggest tattletale ever at camp, treating every rule like it was handed down by God himself. No wonder she’d ended up as the sheriff’s deputy, or so Bree had heard.
Anyway, this was great. Just great. So, what? She had to share her cabin with all three of them? Unacceptable. She was going to need a word with Jackson.
Keeping her smile pasted on, Bree directed it to Kinley and Clementine. “Oh, wow, you guys are here as well? How great is this?”
Kinley clearly did not think this was great. Her brown eyes were woeful behind her large glasses as she looked at the bunk situation, and Bree found herself putting a possessive hand on the top bed of the bunk she’d chosen. “Sorry, this one’s mine.”
“And don’t even think about the top bunk here,” Violet said without turning around. “It’ll have my pillow on it in approximately two seconds.” She’d opened her giant pink suitcase on the bottom bunk, and had pulled out a softlooking pillow in a pillowcase embroidered all over with wildflowers, and… Were those fairy lights?
Kinley sighed, glanced at the third mattress-less bunk and sighed again. “I guess I’m here, then,” she said and shuffled over to the bunk where Bree stood. “Do you mind if I take the bottom?”
Bree gave her the biggest smile she could manage. “No, not at all.”
“Uh, hi.” Clementine gave a nervous-looking wave, an equally nervous-looking smile on her face. Her hair was still as red as Bree remembered, and she still had as many freckles.
She glanced with some trepidation at Violet’s bunk and the only other habitable bed. “Um, well, I suppose I’ll take this one.”
Violet had now put her pillow on the top bunk and was in the process of hauling out what appeared to be bed linens, along with what were definitely fairy lights.
“I don’t think we’re allowed those in here,” Clementine said as she stared at the bed currently taken up by Violet’s giant case. “The fairy lights, I mean. At least, I don’t think you can?”
“Too bad,” Violet said. “I’m not doing lights-out at nine. Especially not when I want to read. Plus—” she sent a challenging look to the room in general “—they’re pretty.” Her gaze settled on Bree. “This bed stays mine, okay?”
Bree’s smile became fixed. Dammit. It appeared Violet hadn’t forgotten the whole sleeping bag/bunk stealing incident. “No problem,” she said brightly.
Kinley, meanwhile, had sat down on the bunk underneath Bree’s, squeezing herself awkwardly between Bree’s case and the end of the bed.
And suddenly, it was too much. The room felt tiny and there were too many people in it, people she didn’t like and didn’t know, and none of this was anything like what she’d expected.
There had to be somewhere else she could stay. In fact, she’d take it up with Jackson right now.
Her smile felt fake and forced, but if she didn’t smile, she was going to end up growling, and she didn’t want to growl. She wasn’t a feral beast.
“I’m just going to…um…” She went over to the door and paused. “No one touch my stuff.”
It wasn’t until she’d gone through it that she realized what she’d said. As if she were fourteen again, hating the camp, and Sheriff McClain, and basically everyone who’d forced her here.
Ugh. She had to make sure she didn’t fall back into old patterns. That meant no growling or getting angry, or being generally unpleasant. She was Bree White, the friendliest, most professional, most successful Realtor in her agency, and sharing a cabin with three of her enemies from a particularly dark time in her life wasn’t that bad.
Still. It was worth checking other options, just to be sure. Bree stopped outside the cabin, looking around at the rest of the camp. Where the hell could Jackson be?
Then, from around the corner of the dining hall, came a man wearing a very familiar hat. A battered black cowboy hat.
And her heart sank all the way into her brand-new sneakers.
So. Not only was she bunking with her three sworn enemies, but he was here too?
Please not him. Anyone but him.
But the man striding over the grass toward her didn’t miraculously turn into someone else. He was tall, but then, he always had been. Even at twenty, his shoulders had been broad and his chest wide. The black cotton of the T-shirt he wore was stretched lovingly over a chest and shoulders that seemed even wider and more muscular ten years later. On the T-shirt there was a picture of a cabin in gold with a phoenix above it, wings outswept, and the words Camp Phoenix above, while underneath the cabin was the camp motto. Rise Up. Her brain had barely registered the T-shirt before it got distracted by the way the worn denim of his jeans clung to his narrow hips and powerful thighs.
Not that she was noticing his thighs. Not when eyes greener than the grass beneath her feet were focused on hers with magnetic intensity.
Flint Decker. Sheriff Flint Decker and his stupid hat.
Okay, if Jackson wasn’t around, then she’d have a few words about sleeping arrangements with the sheriff himself.
Bree lifted her chin and prepared to do battle.
Excerpted from The Comeback Cowboy by Jackie Ashenden, Caitlin Crews, Nicole Helm, Maisey Yates. Copyright © 2023 by Harlequin Enterprises ULC. The One with the Hat Copyright © 2023 by Jackie Ashenden. The One with the Locket Copyright © 2023 by Caitlin Crews. The One with the Bullhorn Copyright © 2023 by Nicole Helm. The One with the Trophy Copyright © 2023 by Maisey Yates. Copyright © 2023 by Jeff Johnson, interior illustrations. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
USA Today bestselling, RITA-nominated, and critically-acclaimed author Caitlin Crews has written more than 100 books and counting. She has a Masters and Ph.D. in English Literature, thinks everyone should read more category romance, and is always available to discuss her beloved alpha heroes. Just ask. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her comic book artist husband, is always planning her next trip, and will never, ever, read all the books in her to-be-read pile. Thank goodness.
Nicole Helm writes down-to-earth contemporary romance and fast-paced romantic suspense. She lives with her husband and two sons in Missouri. Visit her website: http://www.nicolehelm.com
Maisey Yates is a New York Times bestselling author of over one hundred romance novels. Whether she’s writing strong, hard working cowboys, dissolute princes or multigenerational family stories, she loves getting lost in fictional worlds. An avid knitter with a dangerous yarn addiction and an aversion to housework, Maisey lives with her husband and three kids in rural Oregon. Check out her website, maiseyyates.com or find her on Facebook.
Jackie Ashenden writes dark, emotional stories with alpha heroes who’ve just got the world to their liking only to have it blown wide apart by their kick-ass heroines. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with her husband the inimitable Dr Jax and two kids. When she’s not torturing alpha males, she can be found drinking chocolate martinis, reading anything she can lay her hands on, wasting time on social media, or forced to mountain biking with her husband.