Kesslyn Walker stared mournfully into her Jack and Ginger. She sat at the end of a bar in a honky-tonk in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. Okay, it wasn’t exactly nowhere. It was just outside of her destination of Walker Creek, Texas, where her legacy waited for her to claim it.
She supposed most people would be excited to learn they’d inherited a massive ranch and more money than she’d ever imagined having in her life, but Kesslyn wasn’t. This should have been her father’s inheritance. He would have known what to do with a ranch. He’d grown up on the ranch and would have known how to carry on. He at least would have had some clue as to how a ranch was run. That was, if he wanted to keep the property at all. Her father had never taken Kesslyn or her mother, Lara, to visit his birth place. Sadly, she’d never even met her grandparents and Kesslyn didn’t really know why that was. She only knew there was a disagreement between her father and grandfather that had lasted since before she was born.
She’d been working at her job as her best friend, Mitchell’s, personal assistant and office manager three fateful weeks before, when the call came from a lawyer with a thick Texas accent looking for the daughter and only child of Russell Walker, Jr. Just hearing her father’s name had brought tears to Kesslyn’s eyes. Her parents had been killed more than two years before in a car accident one snowy day on their way home from a skiing trip in Pennsylvania. A semi had lost control in the slippery conditions and crossed the double lines into the lane where her father was driving. That fast, her parents were both gone, and Kesslyn was left alone in the world.
Mr. Hodges Baird, Esq. was her grandfather, Russell, Sr.’s, lawyer. He’d been searching for her father to inform him of the passing of his parent’s, when he learned of Russell, Jr.’s untimely death. Claire Walker, her grandmother, had passed the year before, during her battle with breast cancer. Russell, Sr. passed eleven months later, ostensibly from a broken heart. So Kesslyn was needed in Walker Creek, Texas, to sign the appropriate paperwork and inspect her property and the business it supported.
Kesslyn’s father had also been a lawyer, so she understood the legal mumbo-jumbo. She’d worked for his firm until his passing, at which time, she found it too difficult to sit outside of the office he had occupied. They would have gladly kept her on to work for the new partner, but Kesslyn couldn’t do it. She needed a change. Her life was up in the air, and she had no idea where the piece would fall. So she’d gone to work for Mitchell, who was a very successful realtor. She put her business degree to work helping Mitchell build and run his company. Mitchell was overly understanding, in her opinion, and had told her to take all the time she needed to get affairs in order.
“You never know, Kess, this might be just what you need. Maybe it’s time for you to move on. You’re wasting your time her with me,” Mitchell had reasoned. “Don’t scowl at me like that. I didn’t expect you to work here forever. Honestly, I’m surprised you’ve stayed this long. I know you’re bored being my office manager. You have so much potential. This could be your fresh start.”
Mitchell was a great guy. They’d been best friends since high school, and she loved him. He was her family. The only family she had left. When he’d driven her to the airport, Mitchell made her promise to keep an open mind. She was to take the time she needed to learn about life on a ranch and every aspect of the business before she made a decision about the future of the ranch.
She knew he really meant she needed to make a decision regarding her future and where she would live it. Somehow she doubted it would be feasible to run a ranch and business long distance. Baltimore was a long way from Walker Creek. Even if it were possible, she was far too much of a control freak not to be on hand to oversee the business herself. The ranching bit, well that was another story. Kesslyn was a city girl, born and bred. She’d learned to ride a horse with her dad. She enjoyed riding, but that was far cry from living on a ranch.
The trip, itself, had been a nightmare. Her flight was delayed. In the middle of nowhere, on a country road after driving for two hours, her rental car began to sputter and smoke. She’d pulled to the side of the road with a sigh of resignation. She pulled out her cell phone to call Triple A, but of course, she had no damn signal.
There was no use in getting out to open the hood. She had no clue what she was looking at on a car. She owned a car, but being the city dweller she’d been raised to be, Kesslyn rarely drove. She lived and worked in downtown Baltimore. Her job was walking distance from the red-brick row home she’d grown up in in the shadow of Camden Yard. Most other places she needed to go could be reached on mass transit. So, no, she wouldn’t be fixing the car on her own. Until her parent’s passed away she hadn’t even taken her own car for scheduled maintenance. He father had done that for her. She could hear his voice in her head saying, “I told you you’d need to know these things one day, Peanut.”
Luckily, she hadn’t been as far off the beaten trail as she’d believed herself to be. After walking for a bit, a car stopped to offer her a ride, but Kesslyn was too wary of strangers to accept. The kindly old man told her he’d send the sheriff out to pick her up. She thanked him and kept walking. It was rude, she supposed, to turn down the ride, but she was a stranger in a strange land, and old habits die hard. Before too long, a patrol car came into view. The deputy pulled alongside her and rolled down his window.
“When Old Man Johnson told me there was there was sweet little filly,” the officer made air quotes when he repeated the other man’s description, “walking down the county road I thought he was into the moonshine again. I’m glad I decide to investigate, anyway.” He stepped out of the cruiser and tipped his hat to Kesslyn. It wasn’t your average police hat, though. It was a cowboy hat. He was a tall, lean man, and quite handsome with a wide, straight smile and the beginnings of little lines that crinkled at the corner of his blue eyes when he smiled. “I’m Sheriff Shaw, Walker Creek P.D. Most folks just call me Tate, though,” he said in a slow drawl that reminded her of her father when he was tired or angry, and his accent became thicker.
Kesslyn smiled and extended her hand, relieved to be close to the end of her journey and happy to see an officer of the law. He was younger than Kesslyn would have imagined a Sheriff would be. The man couldn’t be much older than thirty-five, if that.
“I’m Kesslyn Walker. Thank you so much for coming to my aid, Sheriff Shaw. My rental car called it quits down the road a bit.” She gestured over her shoulder toward the compact vehicle she’d picked up at the Dallas/Fort Worth International.
Sheriff Shaw looked a bit stunned as he took her hand. “You said your name is Walker? Would you happen to be any relation to Russell Walker?”
Again, the mention of her father’s name sent sadness coursing through her. Kesslyn smiled weakly. “Russell Walker was my father. He and my mother were both killed in an auto accident a couple of years ago.”
The sheriff’s face changed from curious to compassionate. “My deepest condolences, ma’am. And now both your grandparents are gone. I’m so sorry for your loss.” Kesslyn could already tell she would like this man. Sincerity shown in his eyes, and an air of upright authority radiated from him.
“Thank you, Sheriff Shaw. I miss them both very much. Please, call me Kesslyn. It seems I’m going to be around for a while.”
“Of course, Kesslyn. I’m sorry to look so surprised. The whole town has been buzzing about the return of Russell, Jr. The news of his passing hadn’t made it back to Walker Creek.”
That statement gave Kesslyn a pang of guilt. She should have contacted her grandparents directly. Her father’s firm had handled all of the legalities for her and arranged most of the funeral arrangements. Her parents’ final wishes had been spelled out in their will, so there weren’t really any major decisions to be made. She’d assumed they’d also be reaching out to her grandfather, but after a thirty year separation, he hadn’t come to the funeral. She didn’t really blame them. It now seemed that her grandparents had passed away without knowing their son was also gone. That explained Mr. Baird’s shock at learning the news. Her grandfather’s will left everything to her father. Her father had left his entire estate to Kesslyn, so she inherited it all. She didn’t want any of it. She just wanted her family back.
The sheriff gently ushered her to the passenger side and opened the door for her before trotting around to the driver side. He hopped in and took her, first, to her car to get her bags, before beginning the short ride to downtown Walker Creek. It was a quaint little town. Everything was spotless. People milled about Main Street, and judging by the stares as they passed, Kesslyn didn’t think anyone had missed the stranger in the sheriff’s car.
Her family’s ranch was on the outskirts of the opposite end of town, and it stretched for miles and miles according to the sheriff. It was weird that the town was named after her family, but the lawyer had explained that the town grew up around the ranch that had been there for generations.
Tate, as he insisted she call him, offered to take Kesslyn straight out to the ranch, but she wasn’t ready to face it yet. From what Mr. Baird had told her, the main house hadn’t been uninhabited since the passing of her grandfather. She had no idea what she’d find out there and it was getting late. The sun was just setting, and all Kesslyn wanted was a hot bath and decent meal. After calling the local garage to go retrieve her car, Tate dropped her off at the nicer of the two hotels in town.
On the way to the hotel, she saw a hair salon, an ice cream parlor, a gas station, and a general store, and only two red lights. One of the larger houses had a sign by the street proclaiming it a clinic. This was Hometown, USA, for sure. It reminded Kesslyn of Mayberry.
She was grateful to see Notcha Momma’s Diner located directly across the street from the hotel. After checking in and showering off the travel grime, she started to walk over for some dinner, but the neon red sign of Hooligans just down the road caught her eye. She could use a drink, or eight. The heat of the day had kind of turned her stomach. She was used to humidity. Baltimore could be suffocating in the summer, but the level of heat in Texas was something else. Something cold to drink was just what Kesslyn needed.
So there she sat, polishing off her third drink while she tried not to cry. She’d had a crap-tastic day. She missed her Mom and Dad so much, and she really wished they were there to give her some guidance. Her compassionate mother would tell her to go with her heart. Her father would have her reason out why she was so anxious over something she couldn’t avoid. It had to be dealt with one way or the other. So why avoid it? Why stress over what you can’t change?
In the end they would want her to come to her own conclusion, and they’d support whatever she wanted to do. She sighed, not really knowing why she was there. She was clueless and honestly still too heartsick over the loss of her parents to be any use to anyone. Her plan was to sell the ranch. Mitchell wanted her to give it a try before she made that move, but really, who was she kidding? She couldn’t do this. She just couldn’t.
She sighed deeply and tossed back the last of her drink before gesturing to the barmaid – a petite woman in shorts that didn’t exactly cover her booty and a spaghetti string tank top that read Walker Creek Eagles – for another drink.
When the barmaid smiled prettily and went to work on her drink, Kesslyn had a look around the barroom. It was quieter than she’d expected. The music was plenty loud, but the bar wasn’t full of two-stepping, whiskey swilling, brawling cowboys like she’d expected. There were a few couples dancing on the floor to a song about a neon moon. The tables dotted around the bar were about half full of an odd mix of people in western wear and others in fancier attire.
“Hi there.” The barmaid sat a fresh drink on a clean napkin. “My name’s Bitsy. Well, it’s actually Rebecca, but they’ve been callin’ me Bitsy my whole life.”
Kesslyn tried to smile for the friendly woman, but it fell short, she knew. “It’s nice to meet you, Bitsy. I’m Kesslyn.”
“Oh, that’s a right pretty name, Kesslyn.”
“Thank you.” Her parents couldn’t tell where the name had come from. They couldn’t find a name they both liked, and her mother had been labor when they finally settled on Kesslyn.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your ruminating. You just looked so sad. I thought I’d say hello, you know, in case you need to talk. I’m a bartender. That’s almost the same as a shrink. We hear everybody’s worries on this side of the bar.” Bitsy patted her hand kindly.
Kesslyn had to laugh. She bet Bitsy knew everything about everybody in Walker Creek. “Thanks, Bitsy. For now, just keep the drinks coming.”
Bitsy nodded and danced back down the bar, stopping to ask each customer if they needed anything on her way. Kesslyn turned her attention back to her drink.
Beau Knox stared down his pool stick and took a deep breath. The scratchy collar and confining sleeves of the white dress shirt he had worn aggravated him. He hated the damned monkey suit he’d been wearing all afternoon. Beau was a working man far more comfortable in jeans and boots. He rolled up the long sleeves of the shirt and loosened the collar a little more. He’d ditched the tie and jacket in his truck after his good friend Deacon’s wedding reception. He pulled back and shot the stick forward to hit the cue ball. There was a satisfying crack of the cue ball knocking against the other balls when he broke.
At least he’d gotten some use out of the suit he’d bought for his grandfather’s funeral several months before. It had been dry cleaned and hanging uselessly in his closet when Deacon Hughes came to Beau to ask him to be his best man in a wedding to a woman Beau didn’t know and Deacon had just met. In spite of Beau’s misgivings about the match, Deacon was sure Rissa was the only one for him. That had been a week ago. One week. Deacon was only willing to wait as long as it took Rissa to find a dress and plan a simple but elegant ceremony and reception.
Beau shook his head at his friend’s rash decision. Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Wasn’t that how the saying went? Deacon was at his leisure, now. Beau hoped his friend wouldn’t regret the head first dive into matrimony.
Beau’s own parents were married just days after they met, according to his grandpa, and look how that had turned out. It was less than a year later when his father left his mother eight months pregnant for another woman. He’d never come back again. Never even visited his parents again. His mother was so in love with her husband that she’d gone a little crazy. She’d dropped Beau off with his grandparents when he was just a few months old and went out to “find herself.”
His ma would show up from time to time and drag Beau off for another try at parenting. When she couldn’t figure out how to balance partying, working, and being a single mother, she would eventually deposit him back in Walker Creek. It was during one of what he’d come to think of as her mommy phases when he was ten years old that things had changed.
You see, the cops don’t take kindly to folks using their kids as designated drivers. He’d driven her home lots of times. It was the waiting in the car for hours while Ma went into the bar that he hated, but Ma had always let him have whatever kind of fast food he wanted on those nights. So it was cool. He took the books his nana sent him to read to pass the time.
It was about three in the morning, and the streets were empty when they left the bar. Except for that cop he hadn’t seen hiding in the shadows. Shit, Beau was a good driver, even at ten years old, but his ma had started vomiting on the bench seat next to him, and Beau had jerked the wheel in his surprise. That’s when he’d seen the red and blue flashing lights. After that, his grandparents hadn’t had any trouble getting permanent custody.
Yup. Marriage did bad things to people, but they insisted on doing it anyway. All of his friends were very married now. Beau didn’t begrudge anyone their need to be tied together for better or for worse. It was just that, statistically speaking, for worse was a far more likely outcome. Beau had no interesting in experiencing the devastation that came when the shine wore off those gold bands. He’d lived through enough of that shit already.
He could admit that there were times when marriage did work out. His pop and nana for example, had a long and happy life together, but now his nana was suffering. After fifty-five years of wedded bliss, to hear his nana tell it, she was alone in the big old farm house her husband had built for her and their family.
Beau tried to shake off his bad mood. It was Saturday night. Bitsy swung by and dropped another bottle of beer off at his high-top table. Hooligan’s wasn’t overcrowded for a change because everyone had gotten drunk at the wedding reception and went home early. He was going to relax and play a little pool.
He was just about to take another shot when his attention was drawn away from the table to a pair of ridiculously long legs as they passed him on the way to restroom. Who the hell was that? He got a glimpse long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, an Orioles t-shirt, and a nicely rounded ass in snug black shorts as she disappeared into the lady’s room. Orioles? How had he missed the news of a honey in town? He looked around the room to find that everyone else had just noticed her too.
Bitsy was grinning and shaking her head behind the bar. She’d obviously just been waiting for the rest of the bar to see the lovely long legged newbie. If she’d just arrived, the news would be all over town before the end of the breakfast rush at Notcha Momma’s in the morning.
Never one to miss the opportunity to be neighborly and welcome a new resident to Walker Creek, Beau laid down his pool stick and casually walked toward the restrooms for a little accidental run in. The first real smile in days split his face. This night had just taken a turn for the better. He was gonna catch him a redhead.
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