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The oil well blowout did it.
At thirty-five Cole Walker had believed he had plenty of time to settle down and have a family. Right?
Wrong. Or possibly wrong, anyway.
He hadn’t been on the rig when the blowout occurred. He’d driven up just in time to see the well explode into flames of red and yellow, with black plumes of smoke billowing out from it. To see the men and women running away, to hear the screams and curses. It was a scene of madness and chaos. And it was only by the grace of God in the form of a flat tire that Cole hadn’t been on that rig when it blew.
He’d reacted instinctively, calling 911, but once he did that, he was at a loss over what to do. There was no getting near the rig, even if he’d thought he could help the survivors. Oil, or possibly natural gas, turned into flames immediately upon hitting the surface. He couldn’t help thinking that it could have been him, caught up in the disaster. Him, dying from severe burns. He didn’t know why he’d been spared, but he was grateful as hell that he had been.
Three people had died that day and the day following. His company, Craftsman Mechanic and Repair, maintained and repaired oil rigs, primarily in Texas. They’d had no part in the explosion, as they hadn’t begun work on the well yet.
Cole was there to start the process and evaluate what they needed. Now it would have to wait until the fire was put out and the damage assessed, and that could take a while. That, of course, was the least of the problems, compared to people being injured and dying.
He found out later that the explosion had occurred when they were upgrading a wellhead at the surface. That could just as easily have been a Craftsman crew involved in the blowout. And him.
Cole had been in dicey situations before. He’d been working on oil rigs in some capacity his entire adult life. He’d worked his way up from a roustabout to a roughneck, and after that had run the gamut of oil field jobs, all while getting his degree in petroleum geology. Eventually he’d started his own company. Anything related to the oil field could be dangerous. It wasn’t as if he’d never been in danger, or had friends badly injured or even dying. But he loved the work and had built his company from the ground up and now did a booming business in Texas.
The blowout and subsequent fire had started him thinking about his life. Reevaluating what his needs and desires were. He admitted he was a workaholic. He’d been okay with that for a long time. Until the disaster.
Why that particular disaster—known now as the Litchfield blowout and fire—had brought his mortality home to him, he didn’t know. He’d seen accidents and death before and while they always affected him, never before had something caused him to have major doubts about the direction of his life. Maybe it was just time.
Maybe it was the fact that he was the last holdout of the Walker family. Every one of his siblings was married or about to be. Even his sister Jedidiah, who’d been a holdout like him. He hadn’t been serious about a woman since his early twenties, when he was a roughneck and had fallen like an oil rig in a hurricane for Micki Kennedy, the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen, who had somehow fallen for him too. Or so he’d thought. Until she got back together with her ex-boyfriend and married him, leaving Cole heartbroken and swearing off love.
He didn’t swear off women, however. In the years following, he managed to meet a lot of women who weren’t any more interested in commitment than he was. Until now. Not that he knew anyone he could imagine falling in love with, but then, he hadn’t been looking until now.
In November he’d begun putting his plan into place. He’d made Curtis Cartwright, his right-hand man and good friend of many years, a partner in the company. It was a small company, very small, with him and Curtis being the only two full-time employees. They hired crew for each job, since the jobs and location varied each time. Curtis was single and liked nothing better than traveling. They worked out a deal where Curtis would do the majority of the traveling, leaving Cole to work out of Whiskey River in a more administrative position. Cole would still need to travel some, especially when his expertise was needed for a thorny situation, but Curtis could handle most everything requiring travel.
He managed to get home for Thanksgiving Day, the day of Jedidiah’s and Trevor’s wedding, but had to leave immediately after that. The wedding of his youngest sister had convinced him even more strongly that he needed to settle down. All of his siblings were happy and almost all had begun popping out babies. Gabe and Chantel had had twins a few months before, Chase and Ella had a two-year-old little girl, and Jedidiah and Trevor were expecting. His brother Marshall and his wife Jaclyn hadn’t started a family yet, and neither had his sister Damaris and her husband Nate. But he expected it wouldn’t be too long before they succumbed to the baby urge as well.
By December Cole decided things were going well enough to allow him to go back to Whiskey River and begin looking for office space. He owned a nice condo in the Wildcat Tower and while in the past he’d worked from there, he didn’t intend to anymore.
His family, all five of his siblings and their various spouses and kids, were happy he’d finally come home to stay. Happy, but curious as to why. But there was no way Cole planned to tell his family the real reason he’d come home. Yes, it was true he was tired of living on the road. Tired of working nearly nonstop. But those were far from the only reasons.
He wanted a family. He wanted a wife and kids. And that wasn’t likely to happen if he continued living out of hotels all over Texas.
Now he just had to find a woman to fall for. He didn’t want just any woman. He wanted someone special, someone he could love and who would love him. Hopefully forever. He was ready to put the past behind him. He wanted it all. Love, marriage, a baby carriage. Yeah, call him a sap. Whatever.
His sisters would help, he knew. They couldn’t wait to find him the perfect woman. They’d already started, and he hadn’t even told them why he’d decided to change his work schedule. They needed no encouragement, which was why he didn’t bother telling them. He wanted to do the looking, not have someone else do it for him.
Why now? he wondered. His age? The fact that he was the last single Walker? Or had the Litchfield blowout and fire simply made him aware that he might not have all the time in the world to find love? To have a family?
Whiskey River, Texas, went all out for Christmas. Since he was a native son, Cole knew this, but every year the decorations and festivities amazed him. Here it was, only days after Thanksgiving, and Christmas on the Square was in full swing.
The Square was decorated with lights strung across edifices and hanging from the covered walks. Garlands were wrapped around the lampposts, and the shops all sported a Christmas-themed window dressing the town council had decided on. One year it was boots. A nod to Kelly Boots, the famous bootmakers whose main factory was in Whiskey River. Another year it was horses, since the area was known for raising horses as well as farming. Another year was toys. This year the theme was Christmas characters. There were a few stragglers who hadn’t put up their window decorations yet, but most of the shops had.
Not just the retail shops either. The Diner, Baron’s Steakhouse, Riva’s Java, Cookies and S’more(s), the new wine shop, the new ice cream parlor, the movie theater, the bank, and the Wild Horse Art Gallery all had decorated their windows. The Methodist church on the Square had a full-size nativity scene in their front yard.
Cole had spent many Christmas seasons in Whiskey River. Of course, he’d also missed a bunch of them, particularly since starting his own business several years before.
He had a bird’s-eye view of all the goings-on whenever he used the elevator on his floor of the Wildcat Tower. The nearby windows faced the Square. Curious to see the Square’s window decorations up close, he went the long way around to get to Kelly Boots.
Next door to the Wildcat Tower, the bank’s window sported the traditional Christmas village and train setup. One of the houses in the miniature village was prominently displayed as Ebenezer Scrooge’s house, with Scrooge sitting on his porch and Tiny Tim nearby. The wine shop had Rudolph the reindeer with his red nose handing out glasses of wine while the owners, Mia and Angelica Rossi, were decked out in red velvet mini dresses, ankle boots and Santa hats. The cookie place hosted Santa with a big plate of cookies as well as a large gingerbread house with gingerbread men and women scattered around. The shop windows on the Square ran the gamut from angels, to elves, to the Grinch and Whoville.
Eventually he reached the Wild Horse Art Gallery, which exhibited a lot of his brother Gabe’s metal artwork. Sometimes it was hard to imagine the younger brother he’d known and occasionally fought with was now a world-famous metal artist. And married with kids. Gabe had told him that this year one of his friends, a woodworking artist named Will Reynolds, had carved a set of characters from the Nutcracker for the display window. Usually Gabe came up with something, but he said he hadn’t slept enough since the twins, now three months old, were born to make something for the gallery’s window. Cole decided to go inside to look at the exhibit more closely and also see what pieces of Gabe’s were on display.
He was facing the window display, his back to the rest of the gallery, looking at the woodworking more closely when he heard someone approach. The gallery owner, Marla, probably. “Can I help you?” said a voice with a soft Southern drawl, reminiscent of moonlight and magnolias.
Except it wasn’t Marla’s voice. It was a voice he hadn’t heard in years. A voice belonging to the woman who’d broken his heart into a thousand tiny little pieces, and almost made him swear off women for life. Unable to believe his ears, he turned around.
Holy shit. It was her. Micki Kennedy. Looking every bit as beautiful as she’d been more than ten years earlier. No, she was, if anything, even more beautiful now. Her caramel-colored hair was still a mass of waves, although it stopped just past her shoulders now instead of going all the way down her back. Her distinctive blue-green eyes were staring at him, and judging by their expression, apparently she was as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
She was dressed simply and classically in a pair of khaki slacks and a green silk shirt. Her skin was the same milky smooth complexion that had always made him wonder if she ever went out in the sun. He remembered he used to tease her about slathering on sunscreen until she covered every inch of exposed skin. Same classic cheekbones, same luscious mouth that made him want to taste her for hours.
“Micki? Micki Kennedy?” She’d gotten married but he’d forgotten her married name, if he ever knew it.
“Cole. I didn’t realize—No one mentioned—No one told me you’d be in town for Christmas.”
“I usually am. After all, I live here. What are you doing here?” Here, in Whiskey River, looking as cool, elegant, and untouchable as ever. It made him want to mess her up, to see her with her lips plump and wet from his kisses, her hair wild because he ran his hands through it while he—
“I live here now too. I’m taking over the Wild Horse gallery for Marla.”
WTF? That shook him out of his daydream. “Marla’s leaving? I haven’t heard anything about that. Does Gabe know?”
“Of course he knows. Marla’s going to open another gallery in San Antonio. But she’ll still be a partner in this one with me. I’m taking over the day-to-day operation so she can concentrate on the new gallery.”
“Your husband is okay with moving to Whiskey River?” So sue him. He wanted to know what the prick thought about this move.
“We’re divorced. Several years ago now.”
Divorced? She was free?
Oh shit. You don’t want to do this again.
“You look good.” That was a tame word for how she really looked. Here he was, hadn’t seen her in years, hadn’t been with her more than ten minutes and already he was thinking about having her again. And again.
Good God, what kind of fool was he?
“Thank you. So do you.” They stared at each other, neither speaking. “Cole, about before when—”
“Oh, you mean when you dumped me to marry the rich guy? Don’t worry about it. I got over it.”
“I didn’t marry him for his money.” Cole simply raised an eyebrow. “I know you’re still angry but—”
“I’m not angry. I’d have to care to still be angry. I moved on a long time ago.”
Yeah, that was a big, fat, hairy lie.
“Can we start over?” she asked. “Leave the past where it belongs?”
“I don’t know. Probably not.” Which, of course, didn’t jive with his claim of moving on but what the hell. He didn’t doubt she knew that for a lie anyway.
“There’s nothing I can do except tell you I’m sorry I hurt you. And I am truly sorry.”
“Yeah, okay.” There was no point being mad at her. Shit, they’d been what, twenty-two, twenty-three? Young enough to be stupid. Apparently not old enough to know better. “Why Whiskey River?”
“Marla and I have known each other a long time. I wanted to leave Houston. I’d been looking around, putting out feelers when Marla told me she wanted to build another gallery but didn’t want to completely give up this one. So here I am.”
Here. In Whiskey River. Where he’d see her all the time. She’d be getting to know Gabe and Chantel. Which meant she’d be getting to know all of the Walkers, since they were all supportive of Gabe—and while he didn’t own it, Gabe was very involved in the success of the gallery.
“How long have you been here?”
“About three weeks now.”
Very close to when the Litchfield blowout occurred. To when Cole had started thinking seriously about settling down. Something he hadn’t done since Micki Kennedy had crushed his dreams more than ten years before.
He hoped that wasn’t some kind of weird-ass sign. The last person he’d pick to settle down with was Micki Kennedy. Even if she was still the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen.
End of Excerpt