Back in the Rancher's Arms (Trinity River)

By: Elsie Davis

As my debut novel, this story will always hold a special place in my heart. It was made possible through the endless support and love from family and friends, and from the many special people I’ve met along the way who took the time to help me learn how to write. RWA conferences, workshops, critiques, webinars, online classes, and editorial feedback have all been key components in my journey to realizing my dream. Thank you, everyone!

To my husband, Don, my source of inspiration and my own personal hero, thanks for believing and letting me chase the dream.

To one of my closest friends, Tricia Tyler, thanks for the endless hours of phone calls, our fabulous writer’s getaway, and your never-failing support and belief that this was “the book.”

To my fabulous editor, Heidi Shoham, thanks for believing in me and for falling in love with my story. Working with you has been amazing.

Chapter One

Kayla stepped out of her SUV and barely missed a steamy pile of horse manure. Too bad she couldn’t avoid the crap she would step into coming home. She couldn’t not come to her cousin’s wedding, even if it meant facing Dylan for the first time in years, and it was time to break the news of the partnership she’d been offered to her parents.

She popped open the rear door and picked up her bags, careful not to lean against the dusty frame. The wheels of the heavy suitcase kept catching on small pebbles as she dragged it down the driveway to the front porch, balancing the garment bag across her shoulder. She entered the old house, the screen door slamming behind her.

“Mom, I’m home,” she called out loud enough to wake the neighbors, even if they were a good half mile away. It was the only way to be heard above the noise of the oversize fan that sounded more like a John Deere tractor barreling through the living room.

Nothing in the room had changed since her last visit home at Christmas, but then, it never changed. Old furniture with faded fabric. Throw rugs covered scuffed and cracked wood floors. The baby cradle and wooden rocker handcrafted by her great-grandfather.

Three generations of Anderson family portraits lined up in a row, hung on the wall. Their calm faces judging. Always judging. Just like her parents.

And then there was her picture. The one who dared to leave.

“Mom. Dad. Anyone here?” she called again, this time from the base of the stairs leading up to the second floor.

“Kayla?” Her mother came through the kitchen door with a large bouquet of fresh-cut daylilies in one hand, the other arm wide and waiting.

Kayla inwardly chuckled when she saw her mother’s outfit. White stars the size of Texas duplicated themselves all over the bright-red pantsuit; the homemade eyesore one of Kayla’s least favorites.

“I can’t believe you’re here. And for a whole week. It’s been a long time since you’ve been home.” Her mother pulled her into a tight hug, but not before Kayla saw the mist in her eyes.

“It’s good to see you, too. You know how it is, school and work keep me crazy busy. And being the new assistant at the vet clinic means low man on the totem pole when it comes to time off.” Not to mention Riverbend, Texas, wasn’t on her list of favorite places.

“I’m looking forward to when you graduate and move back home. The distance issue will be a thing of the past when you open a clinic in town. I thought when you got into vet school I’d see you more often since it’s only a few hours away, but I understand.”

Her understanding wouldn’t last to the end of the weeklong visit. “Hmmm. Thanks.”

“Let me put these daylilies in water and get the Elephant Ears out of the oven. I made them just for you.” Her mother paused at the door and glanced down the hall before entering the kitchen.

Puzzled, Kayla followed. “Yummm. I can’t wait.”

“I wasn’t expecting you this early.”

The familiar smell of vanilla and maple filled the room. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation of her favorite pastry. It was a popular treat, especially at state fairs, but no one could make them as good as her mother.

“I told you I’d be home around one. I’m only thirty minutes early.”

“Perfect timing for a fresh, hot batch right out of the oven.” Her mother moved the baked flat dough from the oven to the baker’s rack. “Big and puffy, just the way you like them.”

“Great. They smell amazing. Where’s Dad?” Kayla asked, happy to have sidestepped the moving home comment.

“With the drought, nothing much makes him happy anymore. But finding out you were coming home for a week, well, that’s made him happier than I’ve seen him in a good long time. He’s probably still in the barn. I’ll send…” Her mother’s gaze darted over Kayla’s shoulder, toward the kitchen door. A flicker of guilt flashed across her face.