Date Published: Mar 2022
The town of Cursed, Texas, came by its name honestly.
Droughts, pestilence, dust storms, floods, tornados, Indians, and outlaws beset the first settlers. That was just in the first year. A large percentage of the pioneers gave up and moved on, hoping to find a more welcoming place to settle. Only the hardest, toughest, and most stubborn folks stayed. Honest folks who believed in calling a spade a spade. They weren’t about to call their unlucky town Blessed.
Over the years, things didn’t get much better. It became a badge of honor to live in Cursed. The townsfolk were quite proud of being the type of people who could survive anything.
Not only survive but thrive.
Although as Lillian Leigh Daltry drove through Cursed, it didn’t look like her hometown was thriving. The old gas station had only one working pump. The restaurant was in a crumbling building with a faded sign on one wall that said Good Eats. And Nasty Jack’s bar still had no sign at all, blacked out windows, and a hitching post in front. Even with the storm brewing overhead, there were three horses tied to the hitching post—and more than a dozen dusty trucks parked in the lot.
The post office, feed store, and small grocery store weren’t as run-down, but they were in need of renovations. Only the business at the end of the main street looked prosperous. The rambling farmhouse was painted a pristine white with pretty navy-blue shutters and a bright red door. In the living room window a neon sign hung: Fortunetelling and Palm Reading. In a town that was cursed, fortunetellers and palm readers were an absolute must.
As was a church.
Holy Gossip with its sky-high bell tower was the biggest building in town.
Just not the biggest building in the county.
Kingman Ranch held that honor. While the town was cursed, the Kingmans had been more than blessed. They owned one of the biggest ranches in Texas and had built a castle to prove it. The townsfolk of Cursed referred to the huge mansion in many different ways: Bucking-Horse Palace. Kingman’s Folly. Western Camelot. Cowboy Castle. And One Big-Assed House. But Lily had always thought of the massive house with its multiple turrets in only one way.
Not that Lily had ever lived in the sprawling stone structure with its cultured marble bathrooms, dining room table that could seat half the congregation of Holy Gossip, and its basement with the bar bigger than the one at Nasty Jack’s. But she had lived in the gardener’s cottage just a short distance from the main house. She’d lived there with her loving parents, who’d been the Kingmans’ gardeners until her mother passed away. Then she’d lived there with her father . . . until she’d turned eighteen and completely humiliated herself.
Lily’s face still heated with embarrassment every time she thought of that night. But she wasn’t a naïve teenager anymore. She was a successful, mature woman who was no longer starstruck by a handsome prince cowboy who lived in a Texas castle.
Which didn’t explain why her heart added an extra beat and her sweaty hands clenched the steering wheel of the rental car as she turned off the highway and drove under the stone entrance to the Kingman Ranch with its two sculpted rearing stallions. When she rounded a bend and the castle came into view, her anxiety increased tenfold.
The mansion didn’t look like a fairytale castle tonight. Angry, black clouds completely obliterated the moon and stars. The pitch-black night, lit only by the occasional bolt of jagged lightning, made the house look less like Cinderella’s castle and more like Dr. Frankenstein’s. It had yet to rain. But Lily knew the skies were only moments away from releasing a torrent, so she wasted no time driving over the pond bridge and circling around the large house to the cottage in back.
While the Kingman house was big and grand, the cottage was small and quaint. Her mother had designed the river rock house and it looked like it belonged in the English countryside rather than on a Texas ranch. The roof was steep and shingled with cedar and the windows were multi-paned with brightly painted boxes beneath that held a flourish of spring flowers.
Grief consumed Lily at just the sight of her beloved home. Or maybe what caused her grief was that Gwen Daltry was no longer inside to greet her with a tight hug and warm English biscuits straight from the oven. She was no longer there to tenderly brush Lily’s hair and tell her she was the most talented, beautiful girl in the world. She was no longer there to hear about her daughter’s greatest accomplishments . . . or her worst fears.
While Lily loved her father, they had never had the close connection she and her mother had. Theodore Daltry was a quiet man who kept his thoughts to himself. Similar to Lily. Gwen had been the outgoing and gregarious one in the family. The one who made every day sparkle. With her gone, the cottage had lost all its life. Now it was just a place Lily had once lived.
A boom of thunder split the night, startling her out of her thoughts. She quickly pulled next to the cottage and got out. Since it was so late, she didn’t expect her father to be waiting up—especially when he was on painkillers for his broken leg. But she had expected him to leave a light on and the door unlocked. The cottage was dark, and both the front and back doors were bolted tight. Which was odd. The doors had never been locked when she’d lived there. There was no need. Everyone who worked on the ranch was trusted.
She knocked on the door. “Daddy? It’s Lily.”
When her father didn’t answer, she began to grow concerned. She grew even more concerned when she called his cell phone and it went straight to voice mail. Another clap of thunder had her jumping. A second later the skies opened, and rain poured down. She had wanted to avoid the Kingman family as much as possible while taking care of her father, but now she had no choice. They would know where her father was or have a key to the cottage. Hopefully, her father wasn’t inside and unable to answer the door or phone.
With rain pummeling her, she hurried along the brick path that led to the back door of the Kingman castle. One of her spiked heels got caught in a crack between bricks and she went down hard, ripping her dress and scraping one knee. By the time she reached the door, she was a hot mess. So much for returning home looking like a mature, successful woman. But worry for her father overrode her ego, and she pounded on the sturdy oak door with its bronze Texas star. When minutes passed and no one answered, she tried the doorknob. Thankfully, it was unlocked.
As a child, she’d been scared to enter the house at night. The high, echoing ceilings and long, dark hallways had her imagination running wild with images of ghosts and ghouls. Now, the only fear she had was for her father.
“Hello?” she called as she stepped into the mudroom. “Anyone home?”
She flipped the light switch, but nothing happened. The flashlight on her phone didn’t work either. She couldn’t even get the screen to come up. She’d obviously broken it when she fell. She placed the phone on a bench by the door and moved into the dark kitchen. A flickering light drew her across the grand foyer into the main living area.
A fire burned low in the massive floor-to-ceiling Austin stone fireplace. No one seemed to be enjoying the deep orange glow of the dying embers, but it looked as if someone had been. A half glass of amber liquid and an open book sat on a table next to a huge chair made of cowhide leather.
The Kingman throne.
The patriarch of the Kingman family, Charlie Kingman, or King as he’d been called, had sat in that very chair while presiding over family gatherings. Lily had been too little to remember much about the man. All she remembered was that he’d been big, mean, and bossy. After he’d passed away, his son, Douglas, had presided over the ranch. But Douglas had never sat in the chair. Maybe because he’d been a much smaller, nicer man who had felt uncomfortable sitting in the pretentious piece of furniture.
But when he passed away, his son Stetson had no problem taking over the Kingman throne. Or filling his grandfather’s boots. Stetson was just as much of an arrogant beast as his grandfather had been. And just another reason Lily had stayed away from the ranch until now.
Turning from the fire, she headed down the hallway to the grand staircase that led to the bedrooms. She hated to wake the entire house, but she was willing to do whatever it took to find her father.
As she climbed the curved marble stairs, a chill of remembrance ran through her. She had followed the same path on her high school graduation night. But she hadn’t been looking for her father that night. She’d been looking for Stetson’s brother Wolfe Kingman, the boy who had starred in all her fantasies since she was old enough to feel the first stirrings of sexual awareness. Wolfe, whose handsome face made her heart beat faster and her knees turn to water. Wolfe, who always had a wink and a smile to give the gardener’s shy daughter.
The soft click of boot heels on marble stairs startled her out of her thoughts. She whirled and the wet soles of her shoes slipped. She might have plummeted to her death if she hadn’t been stopped by what felt like a solid brick wall.
But the arms that encircled her weren’t made of brick. They were made of hard muscle and warm skin. They easily caught her and lifted her against an even harder chest. It was too dark to see his face. But she didn’t need to. Her body had only reacted this way to one man.
Anger that a man she hadn’t seen in close to eight years could make her heart flutter and her pulse race had her stiffening in his arms and speaking sharply. “Put me down.”
He didn’t answer. His arms tightened and he carried her down the stairs as she tried not to notice the flex of his muscles and the warmth of his bare skin. When they reached the bottom, she expected him to set her on her feet. Instead, he carried her into the living room and placed her in King’s chair.
When he stepped back, she drew in a sharp breath. He wasn’t the prince charming she expected.
He was the beast.
The shadows cast by the dying embers emphasized the hard angles of his face, his deep-set eyes, and the faint white scars that covered his left cheek. Lily didn’t know how the oldest Kingman had gotten the scars and she’d always been too terrified of Stetson to ask.
And with due cause.
“What the hell are you doing sneaking around in the dark?” he growled. “If you had fallen down those stairs, you could’ve broken your fool neck.”
When she was little, she’d always burst into tears and run away whenever Stetson got after her. But she was no longer a scared little girl . . . at least, that’s what she kept telling herself.
She stiffened her spine and met his hard gaze head on. “I wouldn’t have startled and almost fallen if you hadn’t snuck up behind me. And I wasn’t sneaking around in your house. I knocked on the door, but no one answered.”
“So you just came right in?”
“Your father made sure everyone knew they could always come right in. Obviously, you don’t put out the same welcome mat.”
Stetson leaned closer, the glowing embers reflecting in his polished onyx eyes. “Sometimes it’s not a good idea to walk into people’s houses without an invitation, Goldilocks. I thought you would’ve learned that the night you tried to sneak into Wolfe’s bed.”
Her face flamed with embarrassment. She had hoped Stetson would have forgotten that night. She should’ve known better. He wasn’t the type of man who forgot things . . . or let them go.
She pushed down her humiliation and got to the reason for her visit. “I’m looking for my father. I went to the cottage, but the doors are locked and he wouldn’t answer my knock or the phone.”
“Because he’s here. When the power went out, I thought he’d be safer in the guest room.”
Her shoulders relaxed and she leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes. “Thank God. I worried he was lying inside the cottage unable to move or wandering around in this storm delusional from the pain medication the doctor gave him.” A snort had her eyes flashing open. Even in the low light, it was easy to read the contempt on Stetson’s face.
“You were worried? Since when do you care about your father, Lillian Leigh?”
Disbelief and anger had her sitting straight up. “Excuse me?”
He cocked his head and stared down at her. Had he gotten even taller and more muscular or was it just a trick of the shadows from the glowing firelight? “Do I have it wrong? Have you been secretly visiting your daddy and I wasn’t aware of it? Because I haven’t seen you anywhere around for the last eight years. You weren’t here when he caught the flu and was in bed for a week. You weren’t here when he cut his hand sharpening his hedge trimmers and had to have twelve stitches. You weren’t here when he fell off a ladder and broke his leg in two places. And you sure haven’t been here for any holidays, birthdays, or your mother’s birthdays and the anniversary of her death when your father takes flowers to her grave . . . alone.”
Lily hadn’t known about her father’s illness or his accident with the hedge trimmers. Both upset her. But what caused a hard lump of emotion to form in her throat was the thought of him going to her mother’s grave site. Alone.
“And yet all he does is brag about you,” Stetson continued. “He bursts with pride every time he shows me a book you just released or a children’s writers’ award you won.”
Her father was proud of her? Why had he never told her? Probably the same reason he hadn’t told her about his accidents, illnesses, and visits to the cemetery. She wouldn’t have known that he broke his leg if the doctor hadn’t called her because she was listed as his next of kin. And yet, it seemed he had no trouble talking to Stetson. That hurt. It hurt a lot. But Stetson had always known exactly what to say to hurt her.
He wasn’t done yet.
“What makes absolutely no sense to me is that you have all the time in the world for your writing, but you can’t make time to come see your own father. In my book, that’s nothing but selfishness.”
She wanted to argue, but the truth of Stetson’s words cut right through her. Tears of guilt filled her eyes. She tried to blink them away. When she couldn’t, she jumped up and headed for the door.
It seemed that things at the Kingman Ranch hadn’t changed after all.
Stetson could still make her cry. (Charming a Texas Beast Excerpt by Katie Lane)