Authors: Shawna Gautier
After losing his mother to cancer, Colton Tayler flees his dismal Dallas life and heads straight back to the country to reclaim the family ranch. There he falls deeply in love with the beautiful yet stubborn Gabrielle Sinclair, and the happiness he so desires comes within grasp. But unfinished business in Dallas may risk everything he’s worked so hard to attain, including the life of the woman he loves…
Unable to leave her grieving alcoholic father, Gabrielle Sinclair’s dream of a bigger, better life in Dallas withers away. When ruggedly handsome Colton Tayler strides into town and sweeps her off her feet and into his strong arms, Gabrielle discovers that happiness isn't a place after all. However, she discovers Colt has secrets that threaten their newfound happiness, and that make her question the honor of the man who holds her heart…
Under the Midnight Stars copyright © 2015 by Shawna Gautier. All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or to actual places, events, or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all products of the author’s imagination.
Cover design copyright © SelfPubBookCovers.com/SilverhorseInk
Editing and ebook production by Williams Writing, Editing & Design,
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Signing on the bottom line of the last page, Colton Tayler finally got his freedom back. He had wasted thirty days of his life behind bars, but none of it mattered. To his family, friends, boss at the auto shop, he would be recognized from here on out as a criminal. The one person who knew better was his mother. But she’d been dead four weeks now after losing her long battle with breast cancer during his second night in the county jail.
Colt swallowed hard to suppress the tears as he recalled the day of his mother’s funeral. His sympathetic judge had allowed him to go to the cemetery to pay his last respects. Escorted by two police officers, his hands and feet in shackles, he had said good-bye to his beloved mother. He ignored the shocked gasps and snide remarks from her upper-class relatives. Why they had even showed was beyond him. None had approved of his farmer father, and the day his mother had married him, they turned their backs on her.
The ringing of a telephone snapped Colt back to the present. With a heavy sigh, he set the pen on the stack of forms and pushed them across the counter to the petite, dark-haired woman behind the desk.
“Congratulations.” She smiled. “Where are you headed now that you’re free?” She handed him a clear plastic bag holding his personal belongings.
To rebuild my life,
he added silently. He dug his fingers into the bag and tore it open. Retrieving his wallet, he skimmed through its contents and counted his cash. Pleased with the amount, he shoved it into the back pocket of his faded blue jeans. He grabbed his cell phone and stared at it for a moment, running his thumb over its smooth surface, wondering what use it would be for him now. All the names and numbers inside were but a page of the past, one he’d just as soon rip out and set afire. He slid the phone into the front pocket of his blue plaid shirt.
The woman leaned forward, motioning him closer. She said in a whisper, “I charged your phone for you. I have the exact same one.” She held up her phone. “Figured it’d be nice for you to be able to contact people as soon as you were out of here. But we’re not allowed to do that sort of thing, so shhhhh.”
Colt smiled uneasily. Usually he didn’t mind the extra attention women gave him. This morning, however, he wasn’t up for anything but leaving Dallas far behind. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re welcome.”
Without another word, he left the jail and headed straight for the bus station. And within the hour, he was finally on his way home to the country where he belonged.
As the Greyhound made its way through the busy streets of Dallas, Colt stared out the window. A sudden heaviness filled his chest as he passed the street sign named Fourth Avenue, where he usually turned off. Once there he’d make a left onto Oak Street, where his mother had rented a run-down, two-bedroom house. A house with a rickety front porch, worn yellow linoleum, musty kitchen cupboards, and two boarded-up windows. Almost unfit for habitation, yet affordable. He loathed that house. But if his mother were still alive to greet him, he would have run all the way back without a second thought.
Colt clenched his jaw to fight back the tears. When he left the family farm he was only sixteen. He had a spot on the varsity football team and a girlfriend he was crazy about. But the sudden death of his father shattered his perfect world, and before he knew it they had lost the farm and were forced to find jobs in the city — a place where he never seemed to fit in. And though he’d often pretended to be happy for his mother’s sake, on the inside he was homesick.
He shook the images from his thoughts. Sprawling comfortably in his seat, he propped his head against the window, ready to leave the city and all of its burdensome memories behind him.
The bus entered the on-ramp and merged into the thick traffic of the interstate, heading for home…
Every muscle in Gabrielle’s body tense, she threw her eyes open and stared at the picture of her mother on the nightstand. It had been two years since Katherine Sinclair died, and Gabrielle still dreamed about her almost every night. And though she welcomed the warming dreams, once she had awakened, her mother’s absence haunted her for hours.
Tears swelled in Gabrielle’s eyes, fuzzing her mother’s picture into a blur of dark brown wavy locks and creamy skin. The white-gold necklace her mother wore over her favorite summer dress was a streaky glimmer. The day after her mother’s funeral she’d asked her father if she could have the necklace. He informed her regretfully that it had already been buried with her mother. He tried to make amends by letting her have any other of her mother’s belongings, but the necklace had been dearly adored by her mother and was the only item that truly mattered to Gabrielle. And though she would never admit it, a part of her resented him for not offering her the necklace in the first place.
Outside her bedroom window, the pale blue sky was just beginning to break in the orange-streaked horizon. She sighed heavily, tired of beautiful mornings being marred by melancholy. Her zest for life disappeared with her mother’s passing, and she wanted it back — she needed it. She was finished dwelling. Adamant that this day was going to mark a new start, she was finally going to follow her dreams of moving to the city — just as soon as she worked up the heart to leave her still-grieving father. It would crush him if she left now.
Torn on what to do, she shook the disheartening dilemma from her thoughts, threw back her comforter, and climbed out of bed to get ready for another monotonous day.
Unmotivated, Gabrielle dawdled in readying for work. A glance at the clock startled her. She was already running late. Dreading a scolding from her boss — or worse, his wife — she picked up her pace and donned her uniform, a white button-up blouse tucked uncomfortably into jeans. Then she rushed downstairs to the kitchen to grab a bagel before she headed out the front door.
Ten minutes later she found herself in the middle of the gravel parking lot, staring at the rectangular building lined with gray-trimmed windows. A red neon sign with the words
buzzed irritatingly. She’d thought the fresh coat of white paint and planters overflowing with petunias would’ve brightened up the place, but they didn’t. Nothing could. Not for her anyway. It was a dead-end job in a dead-end town, and she felt trapped there.
Dreading another long repetitious day, she debated quitting… After a few seconds she sighed glumly and made her way inside.
The steady buzz of conversation snapped Gabrielle from her gloom and reminded her why she was here in the first place — to make money.
She made a beeline for the counter along the back wall, surprised to see that the worn slate-gray carpet had been replaced. It was now a lively blue. She glanced over her right shoulder to scan the modest yet open space. The tables were also new, topped with marbled gray laminate and surrounded by padded black chairs.
Her enthusiasm dulled when she noticed the booths lining the windows along the front and adjacent walls were already filled with customers. Mimi’s customers. Which meant that she would have to wait on the empty tables in the middle of the room. The ones that no one wanted to sit at. Which meant fewer tips.
Mimi turned from her customers in the corner booth and raised a disapproving eyebrow at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle cringed, dreading her scolding for being late. She paused briefly when she noticed the long counter along the back wall and the eight stools lining it also matched the color scheme of the tables.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?” The sheriff smiled as he took a seat on his usual stool — the furthest one, next to the window.
She smiled back at him as she headed for the swinging door to the kitchen. “It sure does, Mr. Collins. I have a couple of days off and come back to a new diner. I hardly recognize the place. I’ll be with you in just a minute. Should I have Emmit start the usual for you?”
“I’d appreciate that, Gabby.”
“I’ll be right back to pour you a cup of coffee then.”
She entered the kitchen. The aroma of bacon teased her senses, making her stomach grumble. Emmit was busy cooking along the far right wall.
Okay, let’s get this over with.
She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Good morning, Emmit. The sheriff wants the usual.”
“You’re late, Gabby!” Emmit barked. As he threw slices of raw bacon on the oversized flat griddle, he glared at her. His dark brown eyes reflected the florescent lights above, making them appear to have the same gray streaks that his hair did. He wiped his greasy hands on the white apron covering his beer belly.
“Yeah, Emmit, I know. I’m sorry.” Gabrielle tied her dark blue apron about her waist and went to the stainless steel sink along the back wall to wash her hands.
Mimi added snidely as she entered the kitchen. “Either you’re oversleeping or you’re daydreaming.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes, placing a hand on her ample hip cocked to one side. “Honey, your hero ain’t gonna swoop in and whisk you off to some dreamland full of unicorns and rainbows, so you’d best just be happy with what you’ve got.”