Date Published: Aug 2022
There was rich.
And then there was filthy rich.
As Shane Ransom stepped out of his beat-up Dodge pickup, he couldn’t help staring in open-mouthed awe at the huge stone castle with its turrets that stretched up into the dark Texas night sky.
So this was Buckinghorse Palace. When his brother had first mentioned the name the townsfolk had given the Kingmans’ house, Shane had laughed his ass off. But he wasn’t laughing now. This was a palace fit for a king. After growing up in a rusty trailer with one bathroom, Shane couldn’t help feeling envious. But one day, he’d have his own castle on a hill. Come hell or high water.
“Hey, Reverend Ransom!”
Shane turned to find a chubby teenager standing there grinning from ear to ear, the moonlight glinting off his braces. The greeting didn’t surprise Shane. Folks confused him for his twin brother, Chance, all the time. But he was surprised by the kid’s ten-gallon hat and gun and holster.
Noting his confusion, the kid whipped out the plastic gun and fired a few caps into the air. “It’s all part of my costume. I’m Hoss from the old TV show Bonanza. My grandma loves Hoss.”
Shane liked the kid on the spot. Not only because he was a Bonanza fan, but also because he had wanted to make his grandma happy.
“Grandmas should be catered to for the short time they are on this earth,” he said. Something Shane wished he’d learned sooner.
The kid slipped the toy gun back in his holster. “If you give me your keys, I’ll park your truck. The Kingmans don’t want people parking in front.” Shane tossed him his keys and the kid gave him a valet stub. As he hopped behind the wheel, the teenager shook his head. “I thought a preacher would drive something fancier.”
Shane quoted a Bible scripture his grandma had always quoted whenever he asked for something they couldn’t afford. “’For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’” When the kid looked even more confused, Shane laughed. “You’re right. It’s a piece of shit truck.”
The kid’s mouth dropped open in shock and Shane should’ve told him he wasn’t a preacher. But while Chance was a saint, Shane had always been a little bit of a devil. Pretending to be his brother was one of his favorite things to do. So he only winked before he headed toward the castle.
At the huge oak front doors with their intricately engraved K’s, Shane rang the doorbell, then stood back to wait. When several minutes passed, he figured the doorbell couldn’t be heard over the loud country music and laughter coming from the house, so he opened the door and stepped inside.
The inside was as impressive as the outside. The foyer had polished marble floors and a high ceiling with a domed skylight. From the skylight hung a glistening chandelier with gold prancing horses intermingled with the dangling crystals. The foyer was filled with people all dressed in western costumes.
There was no way Shane was going to find his brother in this crowd.
He pulled out his cellphone and texted Chance.
I’m here. Where are you?
A second later, his phone pinged with a reply.
Forgot to set the church alarm. Had to run back to town. Do NOT go inside until I get back. Dots appeared on the screen before another text came in. I mean it, Shane. I don’t want you causing any more confusion than you already have.
Shane smiled as he texted back.
You know I live to confuse people. He could almost see his brother gritting his teeth. Shane figured he’d screwed with Chance enough and quickly texted again. I’ll wait for you out front.
He pocketed his phone and went to leave when a woman’s voice stopped him.
He glanced over his shoulder to see a short, stocky woman in an old-fashioned women’s riding costume hurrying toward him. In the brown wig, it took him a moment to recognize Kitty Carson. When he did, he mentally groaned. Chance had wanted him to stay under the town’s radar until he could officially introduce him. Unfortunately, Kitty was the town’s radar. She not only delivered mail to the town of Cursed, Texas, she also delivered all its gossip.
He pinned on a smile. “Well, hey, Ms. Carson. How are you?”
She put a hand on her hip and flashed a bucktoothed grin. “I’m Annie Oakley tonight. I wanted to be Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, but the bridal attendants are all wearing saloon girl costumes.” While he tried to figure out how a wedding fit into a charity ball, she gave him the once-over. “Kayce from Yellowstone? Although that’s not an old western. And isn’t his character a little violent for a preacher?”
It looked like he was going to have to come clean. “I’m not really a preacher. I’m Chance’s—”
Before he could say brother, her eyes narrowed on something over his shoulder. “The gall of that woman! I’m glad you’re taking over for Reverend Floyd. The man refused to do anything about Hester Malone. But I know you’re not the type of man who will let a witch continue to practice her witchcraft in our godly town.”
Shane turned to see a tall, gray-haired woman in a flowing black dress talking with a man dressed like John Wayne. Hester Malone was the town fortune-teller and palm reader. While Shane didn’t believe in that kind of hocus-pocus, he had to admit the woman was intuitive. She was the only one who had seen through the twin switch Shane had pulled. Even now, when she glanced over, her eyes narrowed. Of course, that could have to do with Kitty. The two women did not get along.
“See what I mean?” Kitty said. “She’s trying to curse me with her evil eye right now. If that isn’t the sign of a witch, I don’t know what is.” Before he could figure out how to reply to such craziness, Kitty ducked into the large room off the foyer.
Shane glanced back at Hester. The woman did have a penetrating stare. When she started toward him, he figured now was a good time to duck out like Kitty.
Once outside, he glanced around. To the right of the castle was an elaborate garden with all kinds of trees, plants, and flowers, and a quaint cottage that looked like it came right out of a storybook. Granny Ran would’ve loved it. She might have lived in a rusted old trailer, but she had grown the most beautiful flowers and biggest vegetables at the trailer park.
With some time to kill before Chance got there, he decided to take a stroll in the garden. The path was lined with bronze statues of the championship horses raised on the ranch. There were quite a few. Shane stopped to read the names of each horse before he came to the stone steps at the end of the path. He followed them down to a hedge maze. As a kid, he hadn’t been able to afford expensive video games, but his grandmother had gotten him and Chance a Pac-Man game at a thrift store. Chance hadn’t cared for it, but Shane had loved getting that munching dot through the maze. So he didn’t hesitate to enter the labyrinth. He was somewhere in the middle when he noticed the sound of trickling water. He followed it to a break in the hedge. When he stepped through, the sight that greeted him took him by surprised.
It was a secret garden complete with a lush lawn, vibrant spring flowers, a beautiful tile fountain with cascading water . . . and a garden fairy.
Although the woman who sat on the edge of the fountain with her feet dangling in the moonlit pool of water didn’t look like a fairy as much as a siren. Her red saloon girl dress was hiked up to her knees, showing off shapely legs. Her dark curls fell around her shoulders, playing peekaboo with the soft swells of her breasts above the low-cut neckline.
As he watched from the shadow of the hedge, she tossed something into the fountain and paused for a moment. Then she reached for the bottle of champagne sitting on the ledge next to her and took a deep swig. She set the bottle down and released a long sigh.
“Some ball, Karl. I didn’t even get asked to dance once.”
Shane glanced around for a man, but all he saw was a mean-looking goat munching on some red roses.
The woman splashed her feet in the fountain. “I mean is it too much to ask for a man who has enough guts to ask me to dance?”
Shane moved out of the shadow of the hedge and took off his cowboy hat. “Beautiful women are intimidating.”
The woman startled and placed a hand on her chest. “Jesus!” He was about to apologize for scaring her when her eyes widened. “You.” He thought she had mistaken him for his brother . . . until she continued. “You’re the cowboy I kissed at Nasty Jack’s bar.”
Now he was the one surprised. He stepped closer and studied her features in the moonlight. “You’re the pool-playing cowgirl? The one who took all my money?”
She pulled her feet out of the fountain and stood. “I didn’t take it. You bet it.”
“After you conned me into it.”
She sent him the sassy smile that had haunted his dreams for the last few months. “All’s unfair in love and pool.”
Shane laughed. Suddenly, coming to the Kingman Ranch so his brother could introduce him to the townsfolk of Cursed wasn’t such a waste of time. He remembered the night at the only bar in town. He remembered it well. It wasn’t because a girl had bested him at pool. It was because after besting him, she had followed him outside and kissed him like no woman had ever kissed him before. He’d wanted more, but the old guy who ran the bar had chased him off with a gun. Still, Shane had thought about that night often and wondered what would’ve happened if the old man hadn’t shown up.
Now he had a chance to find out. If her smile was any indication, she was as happy to see him as he was to see her.
“So what are you doing here?” she asked.
“I was supposed to meet my brother at the Cowboy Ball, but he’s running late. So I thought I’d take a look around the infamous Kingman Ranch.”
“And what do you think?”
“It’s more over the top than I thought it would be. I mean who builds a castle on a Texas ranch?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe a man who can afford to.”
So she was just like the rest of the town. The townsfolk of Cursed thought the Kingmans could do no wrong. He understood. From what his brother had told him, the Kingman Ranch employed half the town and helped support the other half.
He held up his hand. “I didn’t mean any offense. A castle just seems a little odd for a ranch.”
She relaxed and reached out to pet the goat that now didn’t look mean as much as lovestruck. It looked up at the woman with big, adoring eyes as she spoke. “I guess it is pretty odd. And wasteful. The money could’ve been spent on better things.”
She laughed. “Yes.”
“So what are you doing out here when there’s a ball going on in a castle?” He hesitated. “I don’t believe for a second that no one asked you to dance.”
She turned the goat toward the break in the hedge and patted its butt. “Go on now, Karl. You shouldn’t be in here eating the roses.” When the goat was gone, she looked back at Shane. “It’s true. The only ones who asked me to dance were my brothers.”
He studied her features in the moonlight. Her hair was as black as a moonless night. Her nose had a cute little tilt on the end. She had the kind of mouth that easily smiled. And expressive eyes that couldn’t lie. Right now, they held a sadness that touched his heart.
“Then you have a town of dumbasses.” He set his cowboy hat on the fountain ledge and held out his hand. “May I have this dance, miss?”
She lifted her eyebrows. “With no music?”
He cocked his head. “There’s music. Don’t you hear it? The crickets sound a little off key, but the trickling water is as pitch perfect as any country ballad.”
There was a moment when he thought she’d decline. Then she took his hand. She wasn’t a small woman. Even shoeless, she was only half a head shorter than he was in his boots. But she seemed to fit perfectly in his arms.
She smelled good. Not like perfume or lotions and hair products. Her scent was simple. Clean soap and something earthy. If the tan on her arms was any indication, she spent a lot of time outdoors—at something that took physical strength. Her arms had definition. He started to ask her what she did for a living, but then stopped himself. The thought of keeping his mystery girl a mystery was titillating.
He waltzed her around the fountain. The fifth time around, he spun her under his arm before lowering her into a dip. When he set her back on her feet, she swayed and he placed a hand on her waist to steady her.
She nodded. “The spinning just made me a little dizzy.”
“Are you sure it’s not the champagne?”
“I didn’t drink that much. It was almost empty by the time I got here.”
He grinned. “So you’re only slightly drunk.”
“More like slightly buzzed. But not enough that I couldn’t lay you out if you tried something I didn’t like.”
His gaze locked with hers. At the bar, her cowboy hat had shadowed her eyes so he hadn’t been able to tell their color. Now he knew they were a startling blue that reflected the moonlight like twin mountain lakes. In them, he saw the exact need that ate at him.
A need for something more.
Shane lowered his head. “In that case, I’ll only do things you like.” (Charming a Fairytale Cowboy Excerpt by Katie Lane)