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A loud caterwaul rose from the backseat of Tess Dalton's rental car as she crossed over Cooter Creek.
"We're almost there." The tires thumped against the wooden boards of the old steel bridge, increasing her tabby's anxiety. "Oh! What in heaven's name is that smell?"
Ricky's stink bomb was the cherry on her already bountiful sundae. At least she'd had the foresight to pack a disposal kitty-litter box. Tess traveled the country over with her beloved feline and, never fail, he did it every time. She thanked the stars above it hadn't happened on the plane. They probably would've declared an emergency landing due to toxic warfare if it had.
The noxious odors filling her car added one more page to Tess's book of highlights for the week. Her swift, security-assisted escort off the aircraft the moment it touched down deserved its own chapter. Ricky's rendition of "Cat Scratch Fever" wasn't exactly the cabin crew's idea of in-flight entertainment. But did they really have to applaud when she exited the plane?
No matter the hassle, Tess wouldn't have it any other way. Ricky was the one constant in her life, and wherever she went, he went.
The fall foliage lined the narrow two-lane highway in brilliant shades of crimson and gold. The sun peeked over the corrugated roof of Slater's Mill, gilding the honky-tonk's parking lot in a warm glow. It always amazed Tess how beautiful the most mundane things appeared when bathed in the morning light. The luminous orb didn't drop by her New York City apartment until almost noontime.
"Everything's the same." She draped her arms across the top of the steering wheel, peering through the windshield at the old brick-front buildings, decorated for Halloween with bats and scary cats.
Change was inevitable in New York. You went to sleep with a deli on the corner and woke to a dry cleaner in its place. Not in Ramblewood, the land where time stood still.
A horn startled Tess.
"Whoops! Sorry." Tess waved to the man behind her. She drove another block and angled her car in front of the Magpie Luncheonette.
Located in the heart of town, the Magpie began as a bakery. Her mother wanted to call the place Maggie's Buns but Tess's father, Henry, put the kibosh on the idea the moment she uttered the words. Naming it "the Magpie" was his idea. It was appropriate, since her mother and her friends lived to chat and gossip and were downright busybodies. The townsfolk f locked to the Magpie for their coffee and quick meals while they caught up on who was involved with who and what was new in town. Henry never understood why Ramblewood still bothered to print a newspaper. You could get more information in five minutes at the Magpie than if you read the Gazette from cover to cover.
There was a chill in the fresh fall, cat-poop-free air.
She grabbed her sweatshirt from the passenger seat and stretched, stepping from the car. Shrugging the buttery-yellow fleece over her head, Tess felt the muscles in her legs throb from the red-eye flight and drive in from the airport.
Removing the offending care package Ricky had thoughtfully left for her, Tess pulled the carrier into the shade of the backseat with one hand, digging into her purse for a bottle of hand sanitizer with the other.
"I'll be right back." She tossed the Baggie into the garbage can near the curb.
Surveying the treats on display in the luncheonette's grand picture window made her feel like a kid again. Every day, on her way home from school, Tess played a guessing game to figure out which treat her mother had baked. Kentucky Sky-High Pie had been her favorite and still was to this day.
Maggie had started the patisserie when Tess was four, hoping to bring a little cultural flair to the town. By Tess's tenth birthday, the bakery had grown into the luncheonette. Maggie's little eatery was a favorite with the locals for a quick bite, but no matter how successful or busy Maggie was, she always found time for her only child.
A familiar cowbell sounded from above the door as heavenly aromas greeted Tess, causing immediate salivation. "One of these days that bell is going to fall off and clunk someone right on the head," she grumbled.
"Isn't that the truth?" A striking redhead stepped out from behind the counter. "Girl, it's been way too long!"
"Bridgett!" Tess hugged her old friend. "You look amazing!"
Bridgett spun around in the middle of the restaurant with the grace of a runway model. She stopped when a bell dinged from behind the counter, letting her know her order was up. "Meet me at Slater's tonight so I can catch up on your exciting life in New York and that cretin you almost married."
Her ex-fiance, Tim, hadn't really given her much of a choice. While Tess was home selecting flower arrangements with their wedding planner, Tim was in Las Vegas eloping with his assistant. What was it about that city? It wasn't the first time she'd been scorned by someone in Vegas, because despite the tourism commercial, not everything that happened there stayed there. At least Tim had had the courtesy to do it before the wedding and not leave her at the altar. The thought alone made her heart stop beating for a few seconds. Mortified would have been the understatement of the year.
"Hey, Bert," Tess called to the chef through the kitchen window. He was her father's best friend and an honorary member of their family. Tess even spent the first few years of her life thinking he was one of her uncles. "Give us a minute out here, will you."
"Well, I'll be!" Bert cried out. "Just arrived in town and already causing trouble by monopolizing my sole waitress today. Your mama's at Bridle Dance if you're looking for her."
"Excuse me, ma'am." A petite teenage girl squeezed past Tess and handed Bridgett the check. The word ma'am stung Tess like a hornet on a rampage. She was barely thirty-one, and even though she stood beside Bridgett, who was four years younger, she certainly wasn't a ma'am in her book.
"Your mom and Kay are testing some new pastry recipes for Jesse's wedding," Bridgett said as she collected the girl's money. "Maggie didn't expect you until later today."
"I caught an earlier flight."
Tess dreaded going to the Bridle Dance Ranch. She loved the LangtrysKay and her four sonsbut she didn't want to run into Cole. Friends since the day they were born, they were practically raised side by side like siblings. Once they'd graduated high school, he'd visited Tess in New York and she'd met up with him on the rodeo circuit. After years of flirtation, they gave in to their feelings and took a chance on romance. That is until the Las Vegas National Finals Rodeo in December two years ago, when the half-naked buckle bunnies that followed him from town to town kept throwing themselves at himcorrection, throwing their tops at him. He not only seemed to enjoy it, he appeared to have had intimate knowledge of more than one of his faithful followers.
Yes, her attraction to Cole had been undeniable, but Tess wouldn't lower herself to compete with groupies for his affections. She'd had enough of that in school when every female within a twenty-mile range fought to be on the receiving end of his megawatt smile. A long-distance relationship was an impossible proposition anyway. New York City didn't have much use for cowboys unless they were standing on the street corner with a guitar in their tighty whiteys, and she wouldn't give up the lifestyle she worked so hard to achieve just to traipse through cow pastures in Texas.
"I'll catch up with you both a little later."
Tess plucked a handful of cookies from the pink linen-lined basket on the counter. Walking toward the door, she pulled her shoulders backward until she heard a crack between them. A nice hot bath in her parents' antique claw-foot tub would ease the stiffness of the morning.
Settled in the front seat of her car, Tess looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror. A wild mass of auburn layers framed her face. Her one attempt at a trendy chin-length hairstyle earlier in the year was still in its growing-out phase. Pushing a few strands behind her ears and her face devoid of makeup, she braved another glance and pressed on the bags under her eyes, willing them to go away.
"Heard you were coming to town."
"Cole Langtry!" Tess fumbled for her sunglasses, trying in vain to cover the signs of her fatigue. "You scared me half to death."
"You sure are a sight for sore eyes." Cole tilted back his black Stetson, resting one arm on the open window.
"Aren't you as sweet as a slop jar?" Tess hissed.
"Don't go getting yourself worked into a lather." He gave her a mischievous wink. "Step on out of there and give me a proper hello."
Before Tess could respond, Cole opened her door and took her hand in his, leading her from the sedan.
"Ford Focus, huh? I figured you more the convertible or sports car type." He tapped on the side window. "Hey, Rickster. It's been a long time."
Tess released herself from his grasp. "Listen, I'm really sorry about your dad. How is your mom doing?"
"Better than she was." Cole jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "It was a shock to everyone and you knew my dadstubborn as all get-out. At the first sign of chest pains he should have gone to the hospital, but he ignored it and thought a good night's sleep would cure everything."
"I should have come sooner." Tess braved meeting his gaze.
"Yep, you should have." Cole pursed his lips, moving away from her. "Everyone thought you'd come to the funeral, especially me. But you're here now, so maybe we can talk about what happened in Vegas."
"What did my mother do, tell the entire town Tim married that floozy?" Tess shook her head in disgust. She prided herself on being a private person, not the subject du jour at the Magpie.
"I meant when you ran out on me two years ago." Cole removed his hat so she clearly saw his face. "Not how your boyfriend cheated on you."
"Fiancewe were engaged, and I didn't run out on you. I'm surprised you noticed, considering your hands were pretty full."
"Ouch!" Cole placed his hand over his heart in a mock attempt to appear wounded. "If I meant that much, you wouldn't have hightailed it back to the big city at the first sign of a couple of rodeo honeys. Jealousy never did look good on you."
If it were only that simple.
Cole was known for his penchant for the female persuasion, going through women like he changed underwear. If he wore any. Despite his string of trophy girls, it hadn't stopped Tess from thinking they'd had a chance at a meaningful and monogamous relationship.
The main reason she'd flown out to Vegas that week was to tell him how much he meant to her. The signs they were moving forward were there, or so she thought. In the end, Tess realized it was more than the buckle bunnies. It was the reality that neither one of them was willing to uproot themselves for the other. His groupies merely opened her eyes a bit wider.
"Let's agree to disagree and leave Vegas in the past."
Cole leaned against his truck and looked at her. "What happened to you?"
"What?" Tess glanced across the street toward the Curl Up and Dye Salon. A facial and a haircut were in order before the day was through. "I'm fine, Cole."
"I fully expected ten minutes of banter, five at the very least. Did New York suck out your soul? The Tess I knew wouldn't give up so easily."
"I'm sure I don't understand what you mean." She didn't have to look up at him to know he was still scrutinizing her.
"Since we're getting things out in the open, yes I heard about your ex-fiance, and if you don't mind me saying, you're better off without him."
"I do mind because it's none of your business, or anyone else's for that matter."
"Come on, Tess, this is Ramblewood. Everyone's in everybody else's business."
So much for reassurance that she'd survive the next few weeks with her dignity intact. Small-town gossip was something she'd learned to live without when she moved to New York. In a city that big, it was easy to become another face in the crowd. Everyone was so wrapped up in their own lives they didn't care what was going on in yours.
"I miss New York already." Tess slid into the ice-blue rental and started the engine. "Again, Cole, I'm really sorry. Your dad was an incredible man. I'm sure I'll see you around."
"I guarantee it." Cole stood firm at the window. "But I hope, when I do, you'll have found some of that old feistiness we love."
Tess saw an impish glint in his bourbon-colored eyes before he stepped aside. It wouldn't take much persuading to get caught up in them for a lifetime. Had he always looked this good?
"I, uhI need to get going." Shaking her head of the salacious thoughts that churned in her mind, she scrambled for an escape. "It was a long flight and I'm anxious to unwind a bit."
"Your mom's out at my place." Cole slapped his hand down on the hood of the Ford. "You know you're always welcome there and we have a few things to catch up on."
He tipped his hat, nodded and turned to walk into the Magpie. Tess peered over the top of her Ray-Bans. No man could possibly compete with the way Cole's jeans fit across his backside.
With the center of town and Cole behind her, Tess pulled into her parents' gravel driveway. A wisteria-covered arbor stood at the entrance of the slate walk leading to the two-story cream-colored farmhouse. The purple blooms were breathtaking in the spring, but this time of year, the vines had a more mysterious charm, which her mother enhanced with artificial Halloween cobwebs and festive scarecrows.
Spanish moss danced in the breeze as it swung from the gnarled boughs of the majestic live oak in the front yard. Throughout the sweltering Texas summers, the tree shaded the impeccable front yard. Tess never figured out how her mother found the energy to run the luncheonette and still accomplish the countless gardening projects she did every year.
Ricky caterwauled once again.
"Okay, little guy." She hauled the carrier out of the car along with the rest of her luggage. "Let's get you inside."
Tess climbed the pumpkin-lined porch stairs, reaching into her handbag for the key she'd carried since the day she left for college. She knew she should have taken it off her key ring years ago, but there was comfort in realizing she could always go home again. Stopping short of trying the lock, Tess turned the knob and the door opened.
Four dead bolts on Tess's New York apartment door gave her a sense of security. Her parents, on the other hand, had never locked a door in their lives.
The spacious living room and kitchen combination always reminded Tess of The Waltons. The stairs to the left displayed old-fashioned milk bottles on each step. When dairies began to phase out glass bottles in favor of wax cartons and plastic jugs, Maggie had started saving every one she found.