The spring storm besieged the area with destructive force. Trees would be toppled, power lines down, and livestock drowned. The weather wasn’t all that unusual. May was notorious for weather such as this.
If he could sleep, he would. He was going to have an early morning. The pastures and fences were sure to be a mess.
Joe scowled at the torrential downpour. He hated springtime and for good reason. Before his legs could give out, he turned from his picture window and collapsed into a chair. Hanging his head, he huffed an anguished sigh and rested his elbows on his knees. Both hands raked through
his hair to cradle his head. Slowly, a tear tracked down his face.
Storms, like the one raging, always triggered memories better left buried. Scenes from that horrible night played out in his mind. Sirens screamed, disrupting the silence of his small Texas town. Emergency vehicles flashed a ghoulish light show. Every cop, fire and rescue team, and ambulance in the county gathered around the massive live oak that was the namesake of Oak Grove and the pride of everyone in the area. The last remaining live oak left from the original forest that provided lumber to build this town. Joe stepped from the café to see if he could help in any way. His feet froze mid-step. What used to be a car, but now resembled an accordion, was sandwiched between a semi and the tree.
His wife’s car.
I miss you so much, Janice.
Most mornings, Joe was in the saddle by daybreak. Today, daybreak wasn’t for another hour. He roused the ranch hands and headed out expecting them to catch up. The storm had wreaked havoc with the fences and scattered the cattle. They needed to round them up and repair the fencing before the herd wandered off.
“Morning, Joe.” Lucas trotted his massive stallion to the next downed fence post and dismounted. “That was one hell of a storm.”
“Yep,” was all he said as he righted his post.
“The crew should be here in ten minutes or so. Kensie insisted they eat breakfast before they headed out.”
“That was mighty thoughtful. You have a fine wife, make sure you keep her happy, or the guys will skin you alive,” Joe teased.
“Tell them not to worry. I plan to keep her very happy. By the way, did I tell you she has a friend moving here? They worked together at the Mayo clinic. Kensie hired her to manage the new medical center.”
Joe grunted his response as he wrestled a post back into position to string the wire. Hearing hoofbeats, he straightened and wiped a sleeve across his brow. “Here come the spoiled brats now.”
Roy stopped next to Joe and leaned a forearm on the pommel of his saddle. “Do you want us to take over for you here or move on to the next pasture?”
Joe assessed the stretch of fence. “Hank, you can lend a hand here. The rest of you can start on the next pasture. Once we finish repairing this, I have to head back at noon to get the kids off to camp. After the fences are secure, move the herd to this pasture before you knock off for the day.”
“You got it, boss.” Roy wheeled his horse and rode off with the rest of the crew.
Lucas removed his leather, work gloves, grabbed the reigns of his horse, and swung gracefully into the saddle. “It looks like you have things in hand. I have a few calls to make. Don’t forget. We have a load of horses coming in today.”
Joe put his shoulder to the next post. “I won’t forget,” he grunted as he forced it upright.
Determined to show patience, Joe tossed the last of his daughter’s bags in the bed of his truck. He had an hour to get the twins to church camp before he needed to be back. Lucas had a delivery of trail horses coming in, and he was expected to be there when they arrived. Troy had one large duffle bag. Exactly what Joe expected a ten-year-old kid would need for summer camp. Tracy seemed to think she needed every stitch of clothing she owned, plus the entirety of her bathroom.
She was ten for Christ sakes! Not one, or two, but three bags. How could she possibly need this much crap?
Troy barreled from the cabin, travel mug filled with steaming coffee in hand. “Here you go, Dad. You look like you need it. Are we ready to go? If we don’t get moving, we’ll miss the bus.”
“Thanks, kid. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Troy was ten going on thirty. He didn’t know of another kid his age that was as mature and responsible. His boy would be a great foreman one day.
Sighing, he opened the cab door. “Okay, kids. Jump in and let’s roll.”
Troy high-fived him, and Tracy squealed excitedly as she used his arm to swing up into his four-wheel drive truck. Like many working ranch trucks, his was jacked up to ford seasonal streams.
The kid’s chatter became background noise. Joe’s focus was centered on the storm damage. He eyed the fencing and herd as he drove the long winding road that served as a driveway. In the distance, he saw a large tree downed. That would have to be taken care of. From what he could see, the herd looked no worse for wear, but every foot of fence would need to be checked.
The day he had been told the ranch had been sold was the second worse day of his life. He’d heard story after story of ranch hands cut loose by new owners with new ideas. Thank God, Lucas wasn’t a rich wannabe cowboy set on changing the operation. Joe had called the ranch home his entire life. He planned to draw his last breath on it, too. Twenty thousand rolling acres of prime Texas land.
Convincing Janice to live with him on the ranch had been a challenge he didn’t have the energy or interest in repeating. Absently, he scratched his eyebrow with his thumb. He didn’t delude himself into believing he would ever be blessed with a second chance at love. What was the point? The few times he’d had an inkling of interest in a woman he felt like he was cheating on Janice. He knew it was ridiculous to feel guilty. His wife had been gone for nine years, but there was no telling his heart that.
Why was he even thinking about it? He hadn’t thought about dating in over two years. No, he’d given up on female companionship and concentrated on his kids and the ranch. He planned on keeping it that way.
Joe waved to Troy and Tracy until the bus drove out of sight. His children were in the capable hands of the camp counselors, and it was time to head for home. Without the twins talking a mile a minute, his truck was uncomfortably silent. Loneliness filled the cab like malevolent fingers of smoke creeping along the ceiling to smother its victim.
The pain and loss he kept locked away in a deep dark corner of his heart, reared its ugly head. Sorrow swamped him. Joe rubbed at the ache in his chest and blinked rapidly. An overpowering need to be near his beloved Janice overwhelmed him.
He bypassed his cabin, ignoring Lucas’s attempt to flag him down, and drove straight to the family burial plot. Thankful once again Lucas kept him on as ranch manager when ownership changed hands. He didn’t know what he would have done if he’d had to leave his home and Janice’s resting place.
Joe sank to his knees next to her headstone. It took several shaky breaths to ease his tight chest. “Hi there, sweetheart. You’ll never believe what the kids did today.”
By the time he’d told Janice all about the kids and their latest antics his sadness had lifted. Joe knew the ranch hands whispered behind his back. Many of them thought he was a few bricks short of a load. A sane person doesn’t talk to his deceased wife. But he didn’t care. Sitting quietly at the head of her plot, with only the sound of the birds and wildlife around him, brought him peace.
The pastor at his church reminded him every few months that a marriage was until death do you part. That he was free to find love again. But Joe knew a love like his and Janice’s only came around once in a lifetime, and that was if you were damn lucky. No, he would live his life for his children and then his grandchildren, and that would be enough. At least he had been given a few years of bliss before it was ripped from him. The memories would just have to sustain him.
As Joe stood and brushed his faded blue jeans clean, he stilled. “Janice?” He swore he just heard her voice like a whisper on the wind.
There it was again. He whirled around, searching for the asshole pretending to be his dead wife. Ready to teach the bastard a lesson in respect. No one was there.
“Joe, I love you, baby, but you need to move on. I want you to find love again.”
“Janice! Where are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m in your heart. I will always be with you, always watch over you. But you need to find another to love.” Her voice faded as if she was moving further and further away.
“Janice! Don’t leave me!” But he knew in his heart she was gone. He would never get her back. With his heart shattered into a million pieces, he touched her headstone with reverence and turned to go.
Carol Duffy slid her bankcard into the tiny slot and lifted the nozzle as she eyed the octane choices. “I sure hope I don’t regret this move.”
A man on the other side of the gas pump gave her a quizzical look. Crud, she must have said spoken aloud. She topped off her tank and quickly made a beeline for the lady’s rooms. Two café grandé’s and three hours of continuous driving had her bladder in fits.
She knew she was making the right choice following Kensie to Texas. That didn’t make it any less scary. Giving two weeks notice to the Mayo Clinic was one of the hardest things she had ever done. She loved her job at the prestigious hospital. But truth be told, working for Kensie was an integral piece to that enjoyment. Without her, the fun factor took a severe nosedive.
Besides, working at the hospital had taken on a distinct creep factor. The day before she gave notice, a sticky note had been left on her desk. Chills had run down her spine the instant she saw it. Another man used to do things like that to her. He’d leave notes on her saddle, tucked into the bit of Pretty Girl’s bridle, anywhere he was sure she would find it.
But that bastard was in jail. If he were released, she would have been notified. So, it looked like she had a new lunatic admirer on her trail. Scrawled across the bright yellow post it, in what looked like a man’s handwriting, were three words, “I’m watching you.”
Whoever the freak was, he or she didn’t grace her with their identity. The author of the lovely message could have been any one of a thousand people. So, here she was relieved to be leaving the stalker behind and apprehensive about the move. It was a long twenty-hour drive from Minnesota to God knows where, Texas, and she’d barely put a dent in it.
She hadn’t told Kensie, but this was the first time she had ever set foot outside her home state. She could do this, she assured herself. She could pull up stakes and move blindly to the other end of the country.
Carol fastened her seatbelt and checked her mirrors. When she caught a glimpse of her eyes in the rearview mirror, her right foot paused over the gas pedal. Good heavens! She was only thirty-five years old. When had she gotten wrinkles around her eyes and mouth? Sighing, she wondered where the years had gone. Wasted on her lying, cheating ex-fiancé, that’s where. The jackass not only broke her heart, he stole her dog, too. If she ever caught up to him, he wouldn’t stand upright for a month.
A flash of sunlight reflecting off something caught her eye. There was a sedan with darkened windows parked at the outer edge of the gas stations parking lot. For some unexplainable reason, a shiver ran through her. She could see someone sitting in the driver’s seat, but not make out their face. “He’s probably waiting for someone inside the store,” she mumbled under her breath.
She turned the key in the ignition, took a deep breath, and continued her quest toward a new, albeit frightening life. As she pulled onto the interstate, she swore she spotted the sedan again. “Stop spooking yourself, dang it. Not everyone is out to get you.”
Turning south off Interstate 90 onto 35W, she rolled down her window. In a few miles, she would drive past Myre Big Island State Park. There was no way she was going to miss her chance to enjoy the peace and calm of Minnesota’s forests one last time.
Six monotonous hours later, she was still on the road. When she hadn’t thought the drive could get any more mind numbing, she entered the desolate landscape of eastern Kansas. She needed to stop for a bite to eat and stretch her legs before she went batshit crazy. She’d lost the signal from her favorite classic rock station hours ago, and her butt was asleep. Tingling cheeks were definitely not a comfortable sensation.
A heavy sigh escaped as she wiggled from the driver’s seat to walk on numb legs and what felt like a non-existent backside. Maybe she should take breaks and stretch her legs more often for the rest of the trip.
“Look out Texas, here I come,” Carol mumbled as she pulled open the diner’s door.
The sun was high in the afternoon sky when Carol crossed the Texas state line on the second day. The huge welcome sign featured a red, white, and blue state flag with the lone star proudly displayed. Just a couple more hours and she would stop for the night in Hillsboro.
Feeling like a wilted flower, Carol took the Old Brandon Road exit. She needed a good night’s sleep, and the Hampton Inn looked inviting. Well fed and showered, she felt like a new woman. Now that she was only a few hours away from seeing Kensie again, her apprehension was fading, and she was finally getting excited about the move. It was time to make her nightly call. Kensie worried about her on the road alone and insisted on hearing from her each night. Carol grabbed her phone and tapped the screen.
“Hi, Carol. Where am I tonight?”
“I’m just south of Dallas. I should be at the Ranch sometime tomorrow.”
“Great. Have you had any problems?”
“No. Everything has been rather boring and uneventful.”
“What time to plan to be on the road tomorrow?”
Carol reached for her laptop, which still had Google maps on the screen.
“I just mapped out my route. According to the map, I only have a couple of hours on the road between here and the ranch. I think I’ll sleep in, so I’ll check out around nine or ten a.m. Does that work for you?”
She set the computer beside her on the bed. “Okay, I’ll see you for lunch. Good night, Kensie. Sleep well.”
Carol plugged in her phone to charge and shut her laptop down. Snuggling into the pillows she’d propped against the headboard, she fired up her e-reader and lost herself in the romance novel she was reading.
Carol saw Kensie and a man walking from the barn to the main house as she pulled in and parked. Unprepared for the midday heat, she opened her door and was immediately assaulted by a rush of hot, dry air. Good lord! It must be a hundred degrees.
Kensie rushed toward her and wrapped her arms around her neck. “Carol! How was the drive?”
She hugged her friend, and then checked out Lucas “It wasn’t so bad.”
“I’m sorry. Carol, this is my fiancée, Lucas Le Beau. Lucas, this is my friend and office manager, Carol Duffy.”
Lucas shook her outstretched hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Carol.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, too.” She turned and looked at Kensie and raised a brow. “Did you say, fiancée?”
She watched Kensie’s smile light up her face. “Yes, I did.”
Carol gave Lucas another once over. “You must be a very impressive man, Mr. Le Beau.”
He chuckled. “Please. Call me Lucas.”
“Let's get your car unloaded. Krystal, Lucas’s cousin, has assigned you a cabin.”
Lucas let out a shrill whistle, and several cowboys came running. “We can handle that ladies.”
Carol leaned closer to Kensie and whispered. “I like Texas men already.”
“I know, right? It took a while for me to get used to their southern manners. They don’t grow them like this in Minnesota.”
Before the cowboys could wander off with her belongings, another woman stepped from the main house and joined them.
“Hi there, I’m Krystal Le Beau.” She held out her hand, and as Carol shook it, she cocked her head as if listening to something. Then she turned to the cowboys emptying Carol’s trunk. “Hey guys, I think I’ll change her cabin assignment to the one on the far end. Can you set her bags inside the door and leave the key on the end table?”
“Sure thing, boss lady,” one of them called. Another who looked like he was barely legal drinking age winked at her as he closed the trunk. “I’m Chad Whaylen, ma’am. Welcome to the Rocking Double L Ranch.” Then he turned on his heel and walked away carrying her luggage like it was as light as a feather.
Carol chuckled and turned back to see Lucas giving Krystal an odd look. She wondered what that was all about.
The instant Lucas saw her watching he gave her a heart-stopping smile. “Would you like a tour?”
“I would love one. Could we stop somewhere for a cold drink along the way? I can’t believe how hot Texas is.”
Kensie nodded toward the big building they were standing in front of. “We can show you the main house first and grab a bottle of water in the kitchen.”
Carol walked into the great room and stopped short. “Wow! This is amazing.” The sheer size of the space was incredible. Massive beams supported the ceiling, two stories above her head. A Fieldstone fireplace encompassed an entire wall while the opposite end of the room featured bookshelves twelve feet high. Thousands of leather-bound books graced the shelves. This was a collection any librarian would kill for. And the furniture! Leather couches and chairs made up several conversation areas and reading nooks.
Lucas beamed at her praise. “Thank you. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. I did the same with Kensie.” He tucked her under his arm and kissed her hair. “This woman is the love of my life.”
Carol watched as her friend and Lucas made goo-goo eyes at each other. “Who knows, maybe now that I’m in Texas I’ll be as lucky. Lord knows I had shitty luck with men in Minnesota.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will be different for you here,” Krystal said as she gave her cousin a knowing look.
“I won’t hold my breath. Watching the two of you, I’m sure it’s just wishful thinking.” Then she smiled and looked around the room. “Is there a restroom? I’ve been on the road for a couple hours.”
“Sure. Right through here,” Kensie said as she led Carol from the room.
Carol returned to the great room, refreshed and ready to get acquainted with her new home. “What’s next on the tour?”
“How about the dining hall? We serve three meals a day, and you’re welcome to enjoy any and all of them.” Kensie beamed. “I’m so happy you agreed to move here and help me with the clinic. Living on the ranch and free meals are just two of the benefits you receive as my office manager and best friend.”
Lucas led the way through a set of doors that separated the gathering part of the main house from the dining area.
“As you can see, the meals are casual. Everyone takes a plate and chooses what they want from the hot bar and salad bar.”
“Sounds good to me,” Carol said, looking around at the stainless steel serving area and picnic style tables.
“Let’s show her the backyard,” Lucas suggested.
“Good idea.” Kensie turned to Carol. “We host a weekly barbecue and bonfire on Friday nights. They’re really fun, and it’ll be a way for you to get to know the ranch hands.”
They walked out of the kitchens door that led to the back yard.
Lucas motioned, as they walked passed a good-sized swimming pool. “Oh, we forgot to mention, this is where you will find the pool as well.”
Carol looked longingly at the cool water. “You have everything a girl could want.”
“Wait until you see the horse barn!” Kensie exclaimed. “I have a surprise waiting for you.”
Carol frowned at her friend. “You’ve already done so much for me. You don’t need to give me gifts.”
“Believe me, you’ll love my surprise, and it will come in handy on the ranch.”
Carol shook her head. She knew there was no telling Kensie no. She laughed at her friend’s exuberance when Kensie grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the barn.
Carol blinked, willing her eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the huge two-story structure. She drew in a deep breath and grinned. “I love the combination of horses, hay, and leather.”
“Throw in a few cowboys, and you have perfection,” a deep voice said from one of the stalls.
Carol turned to see who had spoken.
“How are you today, Roy?” Kensie asked as a tall, muscular man straightened, and appeared above the stall door.
“I’m well. I see you have a pretty lady in tow. Hi there, I’m Roy. You’ll see me around a lot. I manage the horses and barn.” He offered his hand over the stall.
She shook his hand and smiled. “Hi, I’m Carol.”
“The Carol from Minnesota?”
“One and the same,” she laughed.
“In that case, I think I’ll join y’all for the big reveal.”
She narrowed her eyes. Kensie simply laughed and walked further into the barn. She left her no option but to follow her down the row of stalls.
They walked to the other end of the building before Lucas stopped and opened one. She couldn’t believe her eyes. A beautiful paint mare blinked at her with the largest, most soulful brown eyes she’d ever seen. She was the spitting image of Pretty Girl, the mare she’d had as a teen. Lord, she’d loved that horse, but after what happened, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to enter the barn she was boarded in. Her parents had finally given up hope she would ever ride again and sold the horse.
She stared at the mare like she was seeing a ghost. Finally, she stepped forward with her hand out. The mare nuzzled her palm and nickered.
Carol looked from the horse to Kensie. “I only showed you the picture of Pretty Girl once. How on earth did you find a horse that looks just like her?”
Kensie shrugged, grinning ear to ear. “I guess it was fate. The breeder we’ve been buying trail stock from had her pastured in one of his fields. The instant I saw her I knew I had to buy her for you.”
Carol stroked her soft muzzle a minute longer. “What’s her name?” she asked quietly.
“Oreo. The rancher's daughter said she looked like the cookie with her black chest and rump sandwiching the creamy white middle.”
“Oreo,” Carol whispered as if trying out the name.
Kensie gave Carol a few minutes with Oreo, and then asked, “Are you ready to see your new home?”
She gave the horse one last pet and turned with a huge smile on her face. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Lead on, boss lady.”
“Come on. Your cabin is on the end, only two units from the barn.”
“Thank you, Kensie. Oreo is amazing. I never thought I’d own another horse, but I’m ready. You have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”
“You’re more than welcome. I want you to feel at home on the ranch, and a horse is vital to living on a property this large. Here we are. I think Krystal wanted to give you a little privacy by putting you on the end of the row of cabins. There will be less foot traffic down here so you shouldn’t feel like you are living among strangers as they come and go each week.”
“I’ll have to thank her when I see her again. I appreciate her thoughtfulness.” Carol stepped into the small but cozy cabin and sighed. “This is lovely. Did you decorate them yourself?”
“Krystal took on that challenge when they moved in. From what I understand, the cabins were empty and needed everything from curtains to furniture.”
Carol ran her hand along the five-foot counter top, then turned to look around the combination bedroom, sitting area, and dining space. A log-frame queen-size bed with a country quilt spread took up about a quarter of the room. There was also a six-drawer dresser tucked into that part of the space. Near the kitchenette, there was a little round two-person table to one side of the room and on the other was a loveseat and chair in front of a stone fireplace.
“I love it.”
“Whew, for a minute there you had me worried. You’ve been so quiet since we walked in I thought you hated the place.”
Carol chuckled and shook her head. “I’m just overwhelmed by your generosity.”
Kensie hugged Carol then headed for the door. “I’ll leave you to settle in. Dinner is at six p.m. I’ll save you a seat at my table.”