Jack Watson doesn't want anything to do with the dating scene in Painted Barrel, Wyoming, but when his sister-in-law guilts him into joining a bachelor auction, Jack can't say no to a charity event. He's not totally heartless. And if all the winner wants is an extra ranch hand for a few days, he can do that. Of course, Jack changes his mind as soon as he meets the winner, shy Layla.
As the local accountant, Layla isn't used to being noticed by men. She's sure not the type to bid on a bachelor. But when she tells her mom she’s bidding on someone she has a crush on—and her mom shows up to check—she has no choice but to offer for the gruff cowboy. It's for a good cause after all…
Neither one of them thought the auction would be a success. But Layla finds it hard to keep her hands off the cowboy, and Jack falls for her sweet smile and wild sense of humor. True love should run smoothly, right? Except Layla's got a secret, and Jack's right in the line of fire. Does she risk everything for her Valentine cowboy or does she betray those closest to her?
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Bachelor auction?" Jack stared at his sister-in-law as if she'd grown another head.
They stood in the middle of the kitchen at the Swinging C Ranch. Jack had come inside to grab some water . . . and immediately, he'd been accosted by his sister-in-law.
Now he was trapped.
"Please, Jack? Please? It's for charity and Sage says she's down a bachelor. Come on. You love women. This is perfect for you!" Becca Watson was the tiniest slip of a woman and nice as could be . . . most days. She was also darn stubborn and knew how to get what she wanted from any of the Watson brothers, Jack suspected. She had his older brother Hank wrapped around one of those pretty little manicured fingers.
And Hank probably wasn't the only one. Because when Becca shoved the bright pink paper at him again, Jack sighed heavily and took a look at it. Sage was almost as bad as Becca when it came to wheedling for things. The sweet-natured mayor never took no for an answer when she wanted something. She'd just smile and talk until you somehow found yourself saying yes.
So he glanced down at the paper handed to him. The headline read:
BACHELOR AUCTION. COME AND BID ON YOUR FAVORITE BACHELOR!
ALL OF THE PROCEDES GO TO BUILDING PAINTED BARREL'S ANIMAL SHELTER.
"What do you think?" Becca asked, clasping her hands under her chin.
He pointed at the paper. "Someone spelled 'proceeds' wrong."
His sister-in-law smacked his arm. "You know what I mean, Jack. Will you do it?" She grabbed the plate of fresh-baked cookies off of the counter and held them up to him, her expression pleading.
Damn, but she was good. Cookies and the sad eyes? No wonder Hank never stood a chance. He looked around the kitchen, desperate for someone to save him, but both of his brothers and his elderly uncle were making themselves scarce like the cowards they were. There would be no escape from a well-meaning sister-in-law. Jack bit back a sigh and took three of the cookies offered. He crossed his arms over his chest so he wouldn't look like he was giving in too easily. "What's it entail?"
Becca gave a happy little squeal, hopping with joy. "You're the best, Jack!"
"I know, but I didn't agree to nothin' yet," he teased. "You gotta tell me what it's about first." Still, he liked seeing her happy. Jack had a soft spot for women, even if she was married to his big, rock-headed brother.
"Okay, well, it's going to be super cute," Becca gushed, and inwardly, Jack cringed. There were hearts all over the pink flyer, so he could only imagine what this was going to entail. "Cute" had better not mean him dressing up like a fool. "We've asked for volunteers around town to show up as our bachelors, and we're going to auction you off to the highest bidder. All the ladies of the Painted Barrel Animal Helpers Committee are going to be there, bidding on the men, but of course it's open to the public."
"The what what what?"
"Painted Barrel Animal Helpers Committee. PBAHC. It's the committee Amy and I and some of the other girls in yoga made to help out with the animal population. You know the city doesn't have an official shelter, but if we can raise ten thousand dollars, Sage is going to put in a request to have the back of the city hall converted to make a shelter big enough to hold ten animals. It's a great cause, and it'll make you look like a great guy." Becca pushed another cookie his way as he polished his off. "And you're the only one that's still single."
"Doc's single," he pointed out over a mouthful of chocolate chips.
"He's busy that day, unfortunately," Becca told him. "We actually had a bunch of guys lined up, but with scheduling conflicts, we moved down to twelve. Then Mr. Hammond had heart surgery and so he can't volunteer."
Jack tilted his head. "Did you say Hammond? Tom Hammond?" The man was eighty if he was a day, and skinny as a nail. "He's doing this?"
"Like I said," Becca repeated slowly. "It's for a lot of the club ladies and some of the women in yoga. You should expect the average age to be geriatric. Like, bingo-and-retirement-home age." She hesitated and then added, "Though it is open to the public."
Jack bit back another groan. He knew all about the public in Painted Barrel. For all that the town was bigger than most of the ones he'd been in over in Alaska, there didn't seem to be a ton of single women. They all seemed to be married or ancient. Becca had a cute friend that wore glasses, and he'd tried to get her name . . . but every time he'd looked in her direction, she'd given him an utterly disinterested glance, so he figured she wasn't into cowboys. Jack knew when he wasn't wanted, so he hadn't pushed things.
Even so, he had a limit. "I'm supposed to date someone?"
"No, not exactly." Becca shook her head a little too quickly to make him comfortable. "Like I said, it's for charity. You show up in your cowboy gear and anyone that bids on you is bidding on your services. You can mend fences or milk cows or whatever it is cowboys do." She waved a hand in the air.
Milk cows? He tried not to laugh. Jack wondered if Becca even knew what Hank did all day long. "You . . . do know we have beef cattle here, right?"
She shrugged. "It's for charity, Jack. And you're so cute. The girls will eat you up." She set the cookies down and clasped her hands under her chin again. "Please? Sage is desperate."
He pointed down at the paper. "This says it's a Valentine auction. You sure it's not supposed to be romantic?" Much as he liked women, he drew the line at a twenty-year age gap. Or thirty. Or fifty. He shuddered at the thought.
"Like I said, they're buying a big hunky cowboy and his services. That's all."
"So why can't you get Caleb to do it?" His brother was serious with his girlfriend, Amy, but it wasn't like they were married. And if it was true that it was just an auctioning of skills, he didn't see why it had to be him.
"Because Caleb will say the wrong thing," Becca exclaimed, snatching the paper back from him. "You know how he is."
That he did. Jack still liked to tease Caleb about all the ways his tongue seemed to trip him up when it came to women. Or people in general. Or the public. Caleb was just . . . shy. Which made no sense, but there it was. He still liked to tease his older brother about how he'd accidentally called one of Jack's old girlfriends "loser" instead of "Louisa" because his tongue just didn't work right when Caleb got shy.
It was amazing that the man had found someone as understanding (and pretty) as Amy.
Now Jack was the lone unattached Watson brother and it wasn't a situation he was used to. Normally he was the one with the endless string of girlfriends, the one that always had a phone full of numbers and plans for a Friday night. Even in the remote wilds of Alaska, he always had girls waiting for him to come back to town, and he was never lonely.
Painted Barrel was different, though. Jack had been so focused on helping Uncle Ennis get the ranch running that he hadn't really spent too much time in town this past year. Wouldn't do any good to get attached to town life-not that Jack was the type to get attached anyhow-when they'd just be heading back to Alaska in a few months. But then Hank had met Becca. And Caleb had fallen for a schoolteacher.
And suddenly no one was planning on going back to Alaska except Jack. But seeing as all his family was here, going back to the lonely, one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere seemed pointless. Jack was a people person, and if there were no people, he'd go stir-crazy in a week. Before, he'd always had his brothers.
So now Jack was looking at staying in Painted Barrel and in Wyoming.
He wasn't sure how he felt about that just yet, but he'd given himself some time to think, and he was thinking maybe he'd get a little land of his own, start ranching on his own. Hank and Caleb were content to work with Uncle Ennis and run the Swinging C, but Jack liked the idea of having his own place. He'd eyeballed some land in the area but hadn't come to any decisions yet.
It seemed like a big move to make, and he wasn't sure he was ready to do it just yet. He supposed it'd be smart to get to know the townspeople, and he guessed that showing up at an (ugh) auction and volunteering might be a good way to do it.
"You owe me," he told Becca.
Her eyes widened and she clapped her hands together. "If you do this, I will totally owe you. We just really need twelve and having you as our hottest bachelor will be a total coup, I promise."
Jack wasn't so sure about it being a coup, but he'd take the compliment. He pocketed the flyer. "So what, you just need me to show up in some chaps and swagger around? Romance the ladies?" He grabbed her hand and mock-kissed the back of it.
Becca giggled and let him kiss her hand. "I'm going to tell Hank you did that."
"And let my brother kick my ass into next week? Why, Becca, I'm hurt. I thought you liked me." He clutched his chest.
"Oh, I do. I just like Hank more." She beamed at him. "And thank you so much for doing this. I promise I really do owe you."
"I already know how you can pay me back."
Jack nodded. "You still cut the hair of that real estate lady? Gimme her card. I've got some questions."
He might as well see what was for sale around Painted Barrel.
Annnnnd we're going to ease into pigeon pose," the yoga instructor cooed to the class in a smooth, easy voice. "Let's stretch those hips, ladies. Get them opened."
Layla was such a dork, she always snickered quietly to herself at the double entendre of "opening her hips" every time she came to the pigeon pose. Not that she was great at the pigeon pose. Her hips did a lot of things-banged into walls, squeezed into too-tight jeans-but they did not open like the instructor's did. Instead, Layla's pigeon pose was more of a dying pigeon. Possibly a turkey. She chortled at the mental image.
"Shhhh," Amy hissed at her from the mat at her side. Amy, darn it all, was able to do a remarkable pigeon pose. "Everyone can hear you laughing," she whispered.
"Sorry," Layla said, though she wasn't all that sorry. She tried to lean forward to force her muscles to open up a bit more, but all it did was remind her that she had a bit of a tummy roll and her workout pants exacerbated the issue. "I think my hips aren't very open. They're more 'Fort Knox.'"
One mat ahead of her, Becca giggled.
Amy put her finger to her lips, but she was twitching, trying to hold back a smile. It was like this with every class. Layla was absolutely terrible at yoga and all things physical, so she tended to cut up and make jokes through the class so she wouldn't feel so very awkward. Plus, she liked making her friends laugh. She'd have quit the class weeks and weeks ago if it weren't for Amy and now Becca. It was nice to have friends. Layla had been in Painted Barrel for three years now and it had taken her this long to make friends, and how sad was that? But she just wasn't good with people.
Like the yoga instructor, who was glaring quietly at her and not looking very Zen.
Layla closed her eyes and tried to sink into the pigeon pose-she really did. When they switched legs, she gamely did so, even though she accidentally kicked Amy in the side. She knew she was hard to take in sometimes. She was an accountant, which wasn't exactly a thrill-a-minute career. She lived in a small town, alone. And most of her hobbies were, well, they were dorky compared to what most women her age liked. Single women in their late twenties liked dancing and going out to clubs, didn't they? Or shopping and getting their hair and nails done. Layla liked crafts-the more ridiculous the better-and video games. And board games.
Basically, she was a nerd, and it was awful hard to meet other nerds sometimes. Nerds didn't run in packs. Nerds were lone wolves. Thus, Layla had been lone-wolfing it around Painted Barrel for far too long.
But she'd met Amy, and Amy was the sweetest-and somehow most clueless-woman the accountant had ever met. She'd come out of a bad, controlling marriage without a clue of how bank accounts or finances worked. Layla had felt sorry for the schoolteacher and gave her her personal cell phone number so she could ask questions without coming in to Layla's office, and though most of the questions had started out with things like "How do I pay my water bill?" it had turned into a genuine friendship. Through Amy, she'd spent more time with Becca, too. Funny how she'd done Becca's taxes for her hair salon for two years now but they'd never talked for more than five minutes. Now they were friends, going to yoga classes and getting drinks together twice a week, and Layla no longer felt like the saddest lone wolf alive.
Her mat squeaked as her foot moved across it, sounding like a fart, and Layla snort-giggled again.
Less lone wolf and more rabid, mangy mutt, she decided.
They moved from pigeon pose into a few resting poses, and then the class was done. Layla immediately leapt up. "So, are we going for drinks? It's my turn to buy."
Amy lay flat on her back on her pink mat, her cheeks flushed and her thick bangs sweaty. "We doing alcoholic drinks or coffee drinks? Because I definitely want something cold."
"Becca?" Layla asked. "What do you prefer?"
Becca had a crafty look on her face. "Let's go down to the café and get some iced cappuccinos. Amy and I have to talk to you anyhow."