You could count on July being hot in Rancho Cordero, even first thing in the morning. Right next to the mountains there was a breeze—not that it really helped the temperature any.
Kelsie Mack rolled over in bed and stretched. It didn’t matter if it was going to be another hot day; there was work to be done and pretty much all that work was hers to do. Fortunately, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
A wet, black nose appeared at the edge of her bed, followed by one careful paw.
Kelsie laughed. “Morning, Cowboy. I promise I’m up.”
Her beloved border collie was an expert sheep and human herder. He made sure Kelsie was up every morning before he padded down the stairs ahead of her to slip out the dog door and do his morning rounds of the farmhouse yard.
Shoving the covers back, Kelsie put her feet flat on the floor, enjoying the feel of the cool wood beneath her toes. She stood and did a few stretches to get her body moving, a morning routine she’d had since she was a teenager. The movement helped wake her up and warmed her muscles. And, since there was no telling what might be waiting for her downstairs, she needed the minute to herself before the day kicked in.
Sure enough, by the time her teeth were brushed and she’d thrown on some loose cotton pants and a dark blue T-shirt, she’d heard Cowboy bark once, and then there was a knock on the door downstairs. She promised herself she’d get coffee and breakfast the first chance she had and ran down to answer the door.
Kelsie opened the door to find Mrs. Anderson holding her squirming four-month-old puppy in her arms. The older woman, dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt, simply held the dog out and sighed.
Kelsie tried not to laugh. “What did Toby get into this time?”
Mrs. Anderson shook her head. “I’m not even sure. It wasn’t chocolate or shoes again. The trash can was pushed over. Apparently, it’s child-proof, but not puppy-proof.”
Kelsie carried the brown and white ball of fluff into the smaller exam room. Five years before, she’d moved back in with her dad and opened her veterinary clinic on the first floor of her family’s old farmhouse. At first, she’d only taken up about a third of the space in what had been a guest room. The rest of it had been her dad’s office, a large kitchen, and a small living room.
Two years after that, after her dad passed away, Kelsie had moved the kitchen and living room up a floor and converted the whole ground level into her clinic. She’d kept her dad’s office as it was and made it her own. It was the place where she felt closest to him, at least when she wasn’t out on the land itself.
As the only vet in town, Kelsie divided her time between the clinic and making house calls. Most everyone knew that they could find her there first thing in the morning, so it wasn’t unusual for her to start the day off with an animal in need of some kind of help.
Fortunately, today was a good day. She looked Toby over and determined that whatever had been in the trash, it wouldn’t cause him any major distress. Mrs. Anderson went on her way, still carrying the puppy, who Kelsie could tell was enjoying the extra attention.
She laughed again as she whistled for Cowboy, who trotted around the corner quickly.
“Okay, boy, time for our breakfast.”
The large kitchen had been turned into a small galley area, but Cowboy had a food and water bowl there, and most importantly for Kelsie, there was a coffee pot and a tiny refrigerator she kept stocked with fruit and yogurt. She made coffee while Cowboy tucked into his bowl of food, then took her breakfast into the office so she could work on the books for a bit before someone else came by the clinic.
Just another day in Rancho Cordero, she thought to herself as Cowboy padded into the office and sat down on his favorite spot beneath the window to watch what was happening outside.
Frowning slightly, Kelsie realized that maybe it wasn’t such a typical day after all. From the window, she could see a giant moving truck driving up to the house down the road, followed by a smaller van. After parking, the doors to the truck and van opened, spitting forth a small army of people.
Movers, Kelsie assumed, given the truck. She wasn’t close enough to see exactly what they were moving, but it looked like big pieces of furniture.
Huh. Well, it was about time someone bought the old Atchison place. It used to be a stunning house, built back in the 1940s by a solider returning from World War II to marry his sweetheart, who had waited for him. They’d lived in the house until they’d both passed away, about ten years back. Having had no children, a distant nephew had rented the house out, but no one ever seemed to stay long.
Kelsie wondered if the person moving in had bought the house or was just planning to rent. And then she wondered exactly who was moving into their little town.
She leaned back into her dad’s old leather office chair and thought. Helen would know, most likely. And Kelsie did need a few supplies for the clinic. Her regular order wouldn’t be in for another week; she’d planned on picking up a few things from the store in town, anyway.
Making up her mind, she patted her leg at her dog.
“Want to go for a ride, Cowboy? Maybe engage in a little light neighborly interest?”
Cowboy gave a soft woof and Kelsie laughed at his commentary on her euphemism for gossip.
“I know, boy. But it’s for a good cause. We need to find out who our new neighbor is.”
The dog cocked his head at her and then got up to pad over. Kelsie patted him firmly on the side.
“Okay, then. Let’s go.”
Kelsie locked up the clinic while Cowboy waited patiently for her at her truck. She opened the door for him and he leapt in, then settled in the passenger seat. Kelsie climbed in after him and rolled down the windows for both their comfort.
The drive into downtown didn’t take long since Rancho Cordero wasn’t that big—it was maybe fifteen minutes from one end of town to the other, and that’s if you hit the stoplight.
Kelsie lived on the edge of town; her place was one of the last houses before the city limits. In fact, while the house itself was firmly in Rancho Cordero, the farm ran out past the city limits. The only thing out there was grazing land for sheep, and Kelsie loved having all that wide open space of her own.
She loved downtown Rancho Cordero, too. It was quaint and tiny, with a gas station, a couple of churches, the grocery store, a bank, and the post office. The closest school was in the next town over. Kelsie had never minded the early bus ride to school when she was a kid, since she’d be up to do chores anyway, but sometimes she wished that the few kids that lived in the town now had a closer school to attend.
The grocery store parking lot was about half full, which was good—surely someone there would know more about the person moving into the house next to her. Kelsie parked and then let Cowboy out of the cab and into the bed of the truck where he would wait for her while she went inside.
Polly Crandall was working one of the front registers when Kelsie walked into the store. She raised a hand in greeting.
“Morning, Kelsie. Heard there was a moving truck at the old Atchison place. You see anything?”
And that was exactly why she had come to town.
“Hey, Polly. There is indeed a rather large moving truck sitting out in front of the Atchison house right now.”
“Huh. Well, I guess they found somebody to rent it again.”
Shannon Porter set a basket of groceries down in front of Polly and brushed her long red hair out of her eyes. She nodded at Kelsie. “Or buy it, I hope. That old house needs some TLC.”
“Has anyone heard anything about who plans to live there?”
“They weren’t with the movers?” Shannon asked as Polly started to ring up her groceries.
“It just looked like movers to me, but it was hard to tell.”
Polly shook her head. “I hope it’s a nice family. Would be good to have some more kids in town.”
“It would be nice to have enough kids in town to open our own school back up,” Shannon said with a shake of her head.
Kelsie gave them an agreeable nod and left them talking about the state of education in general. Shannon was a retired teacher; she was also the town’s mayor.
It would be nice to have more kids in town, Kelsie thought as she got what she needed at the store. It would be nice if they had a few more people in town. She loved the small, tight-knit community—after having lived in Reno for college and veterinary school, she was done with cities and crowds of people—but the town did need some new blood. A little growth wouldn’t hurt them.
Kelsie turned a corner and almost ran straight into Oscar Ramirez. She laughed and apologized to the owner of the hardware store down the street.
He smiled at her and shook his head. “No worries. Good to see you, Kelsie. Heard you have a new neighbor.”
“I do, but I don’t know who it is. Have you heard anything?”
Oscar shook his head. “No. Seems we have a mysterious stranger in our midst.”
“Well, that ought to liven up the town meeting next week,” Kelsie grinned.
“I’ll bring the popcorn. Hey, would you tell Francesca that her order is in?”
“Yes, thanks, she’ll be thrilled to hear that. She’s been wanting to get that fence fixed so we can turn the sheep out into the new pasture.”
“Well, she can come pick it up anytime. Tell her to call me if she needs to run by after the store closes. Either Rosa or I can be there.”
“Thank you, Oscar. I’ll let her know.”
Oscar walked toward the front of the store and Kelsie turned back to the shelves. Oscar and his wife were two of her favorite people. She, Rosa and Francesca had all gone to high school together, Rosa had gone to California for college, and she’d brought Oscar back with her. Kelsie had never met two people more perfect for each other, and it gave her hope that one day she’d find the right man, too.
By the time she left the grocery store, Kelsie hadn’t learned anything else, so she stopped at one of the three restaurants in town to pick up a chef’s salad for lunch later. Marge Clark made the best sandwiches and salads; plus, her son was the local realtor.
“Kelsie Mack, as I live and breathe. What brings you into town today?”
Marge was in her sixties, with white hair that was cropped short and always covered in a bright bandana. Today, the fabric was a tropical blue covered in pink flamingos.
“Hey, Mrs. Clark. Feeling like a beach vacation today?”
“Always, sweet girl, always.”
“I had to run to the store, so I thought I’d pick up lunch while I was here.”
“Well, then. Your usual?”
“Yes, please.” Kelsie watched Marge as she busied herself making the salad. “Hey, Mrs. Clark, by any chance did Josh sell the Atchison place?’
Marge said, “He did, but I don’t know anything about the buyer. He said it was all done through lawyers.”
Kelsie sighed, frustrated. “Nobody’s heard anything else, either.”
Marge laughed heartily. “Tell me about it. This is the best business day I’ve had in months—everybody’s been in here to ask what Josh knows.”
Kelsie grinned back at her. “I’m glad that whoever it is, they’re already bringing some good to town.”
“I guess we’ll all find out soon enough.”
“If the moving truck was any sign, it’s either a large family or someone with a lot of stuff.”
“You want to get some cookies to take over as a welcome? You can tell them they’re homemade, if you like.”
Kelsie’s utter lack of cooking skill was well known in her tiny hometown. For the volunteer fire department’s annual bake sale, she was always tasked with organizing and setting up, never bringing anything. Some of her friends from college didn’t understand how she was comfortable with the whole town knowing everything about everybody, but that’s just how Rancho Cordero was.
So Kelsie took the offer for what it was: genuine and with good intent.
“Do you have any of your coffee cake?”
Marge nodded with an approving smile. “Fresh out of the oven. Will be just fine to take over tomorrow, too, in case you get busy today.”
“Thank you. As usual, you’re an angel among women.”
Marge laughed again and packaged up Kelsie’s food, sticking in a special treat for Cowboy, who was just as well known in town as Kelsie. The two women chatted about the upcoming town meeting while Kelsie paid, and then the vet headed back to her truck for the drive home.
Two patients and more paperwork later, Kelsie looked at the clock and decided that if she didn’t eat lunch then, she might as well wait for dinner. So, she went upstairs and got the salad out of the refrigerator, then took it out on her deck with a glass of iced tea.
The day was still hot, but at least a breeze had kicked up. Here on the deck, off the ground, the July air was actually bearable.
It was nice to sit outside and eat, and it gave her the opportunity to watch the goings-on next door. The movers were almost done, it looked like. The truck had been closed up and was being maneuvered carefully back down the driveway to the road. The smaller van was still there, and Kelsie guessed that the movers were all inside arranging furniture and such. It was surprising that the new owner wasn’t there to oversee everything.
Just then, Kelsie heard a low roar that got louder as she spotted a white sports car racing down the road. The car probably cost more than she’d made in her working life, and was definitely not a vehicle suited for high desert living.
The car screeched to a halt in front of the house, the brakes literally squealing as the vehicle slammed to a stop.
So much for the new owner being a family with kids.
The driver’s door opened and Kelsie unconsciously leaned forward to get a better look. The arm and leg that emerged first was clad in a light-colored suit, and the male body that followed made Kelsie wonder if the temperature had suddenly gone up a few degrees.
Tall and dark, definitely, Kelsie thought. Then, he took off his sunglasses and Kelsie sighed. Yep, and handsome. Maybe it was just the distance. He couldn’t look that perfect close-up. Nobody could look that perfect close-up. Thick black hair, dark skin that didn’t look like a California tan, and a body that, even in a suit, looked like it belonged in front of a sculptor.
He turned and Kelsie sat back, not wanting the man to notice the nosy neighbor ogling him from her back deck. She was sure he hadn’t seen her as he walked into the house. Even that walk had her fanning herself. He had coiled energy like a panther and a single-minded purpose that she could see even from afar.
Intrigued, Kelsie wondered what an obviously wealthy, exotic man was doing in Rancho Cordero, and what he was doing buying the Atchison house. For being such a small town, they had their share of diversity, but still, he was definitely going to stand out. She didn’t want to assume anything, but she definitely wanted to learn more.
Any investigation would have to wait, though, since there was work to be done. Kelsie put the thought of the handsome new man next door out of her mind and went to tend to her sheep.