The Sons of Dusty Walker Series, Book 9
With their wedding day fast approaching, Rori Hughes and Jackson Walker have much to do. Their red-hot courtship, swift and deep emotional bond, and Christmas engagement have proven the strength of their love for each other. But with real-life commitments just days away, they find themselves battered by serious communication challenges.
While one of them contemplates their unachieved goals, the other struggles to ignore the call of adventure. The sudden uncertainty of a future spent settling into a routine threatens to drive a wedge between the couple.
When their parents arrive for the wedding, bringing more challenges and unexpected opportunities for the couple, Rori and Jackson question whether their relationship holds the other back. Can Rori and Jackson find what they’re longing for in Red Creek, or is the town nowhere near large enough to hold them and their dreams?
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“You want to do what?” The voice blasted from the speaker phone in the company conference room where Jackson Walker sat at the large table with two of his brothers, Dylan and Killian. The question had come from their other brother, Rogue, who was out of town on business.
Their weekly meeting, held at the D. Walker Mineral’s building on Main Street, Red Creek, Kansas, had just come to a grinding halt at Jackson’s announcement.
Jackson waited a beat, shoving down a burst of nervousness caused by Rogue’s question and by the startled looks pointed his way from Dylan and Killian. Jackson repeated his statement. “I want to build a stadium. Outdoors. For rodeos.”
Dylan grinned, and Killian looked deep in thought.
“That’s what I thought you said.” Rogue chuckled. “So, are you going to be the star of this rodeo? And Rori gets to be rodeo queen?”
Now Killian smiled, too.
Jackson had been a rodeo bronc rider for ten years since he turned fifteen. He’d just settled down in this too-quiet town six months ago after his father had died, and he’d learned he had three brothers who’d been as oblivious to Jackson’s existence as he was to theirs. Now, the four of them managed the family business.
Relaxing his fist, he straightened the paper he’d just wrinkled in his hand. He silently re-read the reasons he’d come up with to back his cause, then set the paper aside. “There’s no rodeo ring anywhere in the region. We can bring in some big-name outfits. Use local rough stock.” He gestured toward Killian. “Maybe some of your appaloosas.”
“Raise bucking stock?” Killian lifted his brows. “That’s an option.”
“I’m all for it.” Dylan sat back and laid a booted ankle on the opposite knee. “Bring in a ton of revenue for town businesses.”
“One problem comes to mind right away.” Killian looked across the room at the map of the town that hung on the wall. “We have one motel, and it has ten rooms.”
Jackson stood and walked to the map, running his hand through his wavy brown hair to give himself a moment. Was this really happening? His brothers liked the idea? When he’d come up with it in a semi-dream during the night, he hadn’t imagined they’d be all for it. Then, this morning, when he left the bed he shared with his fiancée, Rori Hughes, in their tiny apartment above her computer store just down the street, she’d been sound asleep. It would have been good to bounce the idea off her, but she’d worked half the night on a big programming project.
“There’s this empty land here.” Jackson pointed to a spot on the map just north of town. “Still within walking distance of Main Street, but with room for hotels, stockyards, a parking lot, and rodeo grounds.” Excitement made him a little tense, but he turned to face his brothers. This was a good idea for the town, for him, for the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and bull fighters and rodeo clowns, and stock contractors. They’d hire locals to do the labor during the events, and just the construction of the arena would pump a lot of revenue into the Red Creek economy.
“What? Where?” Rogue’s voice came over the phone, and his three brothers laughed.
Jackson went over the location again for his benefit. “We can talk to the owners of the motel, see if they’re interested in jumping in on this. Otherwise, get chain hotels to franchise a few new ones.”
“You’ve thought this through.” Dylan stood and walked to the map. “How long have you been pondering on it?”
Jackson bowed his head. The first dream he’d had the night before had scared the shit out of him. He’d dreamt he was standing in the middle of Main Street, and from the bottoms of his feet, roots began to grow, fighting their way down deep into the earth. Rori stood a few feet in front of him, her hand out to him. He reached for her but couldn’t grab her.
In his dream, the shouts of a rodeo crowd came from behind him, the tantalizing sound of the eight-second buzzer, and the voice of the announcer reading the stats. Friends he knew from the circuit called his name, then grabbed hold of him and dragged him away with them. Under his feet, the roots began to stretch, then snap and break, one by one.
He’d woken with a jerk, and Rori had sat up, looking at him. “A nightmare?”
“No.” He’d tucked her back into his side. “Just indigestion from your cooking.” His heart thudded like a running herd of buffalo.
She’d chuckled and given his ribs a soft smack. “You cooked tonight, cowboy.” In seconds, her breathing grew long and deep again.
He’d snuggled up to Rori, wide awake in the dark room, wondering why he felt moments of unease now and again, like he was forgetting something important. He didn’t want to rodeo any longer, didn’t care to be gone every weekend, but he missed the excitement, the people, the lifestyle.
That’s when another vision had hit him. If he wanted to live the life, why not do it right here in Red Creek? He had the money to do it. Why not just go for it?
“Did we lose you there, brother?” Dylan snapped his fingers a couple times.
“Uh, sorry.” Jackson pointed to the paper with just six short sentences written. “I thought of it last night.”
“I think it’s a damn good idea and worth exploring.” Rogue spoke with enthusiasm. “Hell, we might even be able to get a national bus line to come through town.”
Killian let out a hard laugh. “That’s the marker of a booming town? The bus?” He nodded. “But I agree. It’s worth looking into. But….” He frowned at Jackson. “Is this something you want the company to diversify into?”
“No.” Jackson walked to his chair and sat. “It’s not like Rogue’s company. That fits right into D. Walker Mineral’s organizational directives.” Words he’d heard their attorney use more than once. He looked at Dylan, who still perused the map. “More like Dylan’s band camp. Supported by us brothers, but not using any of the company’s resources.”
“Then yeah, you’ve got my support. One hundred percent.” Killian picked up the printed agenda as Rogue and Dylan added their encouragement. Killian set down the paper. “This next item is not on the agenda, but the three married Walker men would like to make sure their last remaining unhitched brother is still planning to walk down the aisle February 29th.”
Jackson smiled. His Rori. Choosing to get married on leap year’s extra day. And holy shit, that was only twenty-nine days away. “Still engaged, keeping myself out of trouble, and helping with the wedding planning by repeating this aloud as needed: ‘Yes, dear. Whatever you and your mother want’.”
The brothers laughed, then got back to business. Jackson knew he’d found a perfect solution to his rodeo withdrawal. Now he just had to find a way to explain it to Rori.
“He’s doing what?” Rori sat in a big booth at Cubby’s restaurant at lunchtime, sharing a platter of fries with Lexie, Zoe, and Kit.
“Oh, shit.” Zoe, who’d just read aloud the info that Jackson was going to build a rodeo arena in town, slid her phone back into her purse. “Sorry, Dylan just sent me that text. I assumed you knew.”
Rori stared off past her friend’s shoulder. Jackson told his brothers he wanted to build a rodeo arena but didn’t feel the need to mention it to her? She tugged on a strand of her black hair, which she was growing long for her impending wedding.
“I’m sure it just slipped his mind.” Lexie dredged a long, hot fry through ketchup and popped it into her mouth. “You know how guys are.” She pulled a face, then turned it into a smile when she met Rori’s gaze.
“Yeah, he probably wanted to run it by the brothers first.” Kit shifted to accommodate her six months of baby belly. “Don’t sweat it. You know how much he values your opinion.”
The table went silent as Rori felt heat steal up her neck and over her cheeks. She’d just been telling her friends how well Jackson was adjusting to life in a small town, and now this. She must look like the biggest idiot in the county right now.
“So…bachelorette party.” Zoe put her hand on her tiny belly bump where her four months of growing baby rested. Her laugh came out a little awkward. “It’s not going to be much fun with three pregnant women.
“Yeah.” Lexie rubbed her own barely-there baby bump. “We’ll all three be competing to be the designated driver.”
Rori forced a laugh. “We can do something other than going to a bar.” She hadn’t planned on anything fancy. No shower, no party, just a get-together with a few of her female friends and family to talk and laugh and eat cake. But right now, she could use a shot of something real strong. Why hadn’t Jackson said anything to her about this rodeo thing? Was he having doubts? Again?
No. Jackson wasn’t having any doubts. She was just being paranoid. She shook her head, then looked at her friends, who stared and waited to see how she was going to handle this. “Stop looking at me like I wore my tinfoil alien deflector hat to lunch. Again.”
They laughed, letting Rori ease back into the conversation. They spoke of their jobs, their new house construction, and their new—and in Rori’s case, soon-to-be—mothers-in-law. Rogue’s mother had moved to Kansas and was living in Kit’s house on White Wing Ranch. “Jackson’s mom, Sapphire, will be here for a week during the wedding. Should we try to introduce the two of them?”
Kit lifted her brows. “I don’t know if that’s for us to do or for our guys. We can discuss it with Rogue and Jackson, though. See what they think would happen if two of Dusty Walker’s women collided.”
“The perfect storm.” Zoe sipped her water. “I think they all do have to meet someday, but keeping it to just two at a time sounds like the best way to avoid any major damage.”
Rori shrugged. “Or I could just invite them all to the wedding and let them duke it out there.” After she said it, she realized how stupid it sounded. “Sorry.” She hung her head.
“Sweetie.” Lexie grasped Rori’s wrist. “What’s wrong? And don’t say it’s just wedding jitters.”
Zoe rubbed her forehead. “Me and my big mouth. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything about the rodeo idea, but I—”
“No.” Rori attempted a smile for Zoe. “It’s just my natural awkwardness waving its freak flag today. I’m glad you mentioned Jackson’s rodeo plans because it’ll give me time to adjust to it before he tells me about it.” She paused a moment, considering how much to share. These were her friends. She could just say it. She tucked her hands under her thighs. “He’s what I call a lost cowboy. He wandered for so long that it’s been difficult for him to put down roots.”
Kit tipped her head. “But he’s committed to you, all the way, Rori.” The other two women voiced their agreement.
“I know.” Rori searched for the right words. “I’m just not as sure of my own allure for him, you know?” She sighed, looking at their confused faces. “You three are beautiful, seductive, self-assured. Me? I’m more comfortable with a one-way conversation with a computer monitor than I am with any humans.”
“No. You’re gorgeous and fun to be with.” Kit frowned at Rori.
Zoe nodded. “And you’re so smart and skilled with computers.”
Rori lifted her jeans-clad leg off to the side, showing her foot. “How many seductresses do you know who wear red high-top tennis shoes?”
Her friends laughed, and Lexie pointed a fry at Rori. “You may think you’re not the same as us, but you are. We’re all exactly the same when it comes to men. Especially men who we’ve fallen so deeply in love with that we can barely imagine breathing without them in our lives. So don’t you go thinking you’ve got some kind of special communication issue, because I know I’ve experienced the same damn thing with Killian.”
Zoe and Kit agreed, and Rori started feeling a little less edgy. But until she spoke with Jackson, she wasn’t going to take an easy breath. “Thanks for that display of sisterhood. It’ll work out. I know it will. But you remember how it was just before your weddings, right? The sleepless nights, the jittery bellies, the rush of pure panic that makes your knees buckle?”
The women talked about their pre-nuptial experiences as their sandwiches came. Rori half-listened and half-plotted. Should she wander over to the D. Walker Mineral building and talk to Jackson, or wait until they were home together tonight in their apartment above her store? And what if he didn’t say anything about it? A fist of panic gripped her heart. How could she even think that Jackson wouldn’t talk to her about it? As she bit into her sandwich, she felt something sharp scrape the roof of her mouth and pulled out the decorated toothpick Cubby had put into the thing to keep it from falling apart.
Zoe just shook her head. “Girl, what is going on in that genius brain of yours?”
Rori tossed the toothpick onto her plate and flopped back against the booth. “Absolutely, positively, not one damn thing.”