(The Walkers of Coyote Ridge, #11)
A history of running…
When Rafe Sharpe was eighteen, he put Coyote Ridge, his family, and everyone he knew in his rearview in order to escape his past. When he returned three years ago, everyone thought he’d returned to face the horrors that had shaped his existence. What he didn’t tell anyone was that he’d been running then, too.
But settling in didn’t mean settling down because that wasn’t in the cards for Rafe, even if he was secretly pining for the beautiful, pure-hearted Bailey Weber. Despite being his greatest temptation, Rafe managed to keep Bailey in the friend zone, opting to be her confidante and protector, ensuring she believed her feelings for him weren’t reciprocated. After all, Rafe wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. Not after what he did.
The past and present collide…
It isn’t until a handsome man from his past rolls into town that Rafe realizes what he was running from and what he’s been resisting would soon come together, becoming a powerful pull on the heartstrings he didn’t even know he had.
Rafe Sharpe sat quietly at the bar, tucked in the corner, watching the room as he sized up the few people who’d graced this establishment with their presence. You didn’t need to be a mathematician to count the eleven people, including the bartender and the waitress.
Aside from those who worked here, there was a group of guys at the pool table bumping fists to celebrate the round they won against the guy they didn’t yet realize was a hustler. When they figured it out, those fist bumps would have a bit more power behind them and be aimed at a nose, not knuckles.
A couple of old-timers were at the opposite end of the bar, drinking beer like it was fine wine, sipping from time to time while fully engaged in a fascinating conversation involving a rusty well pipe and a couple of frolicking fillies. Horses, not women.
And, of course, the three stay-at-home moms who came in every Wednesday like clockwork to celebrate a few hours without heathens—the term they used to refer to their kids. Lovingly, of course. They were chatting it up over some not-so-fine wine but, based on the giggles erupting from their corner, enjoying themselves regardless of the vintage.
His destination had turned out to be his brother’s front porch.
And then there was her.
Bailey Weber, Moonshiners’ most tenured waitress and easily the most beautiful woman Rafe had ever laid eyes on. He’d been captivated from the moment he looked into those big hazel eyes and received a smile in return.
Being that it was Wednesday, there wasn’t a lot going on, but it was still active enough that Mack was willing to keep the place open. Rafe got the feeling the man purposely worked on nights like this to avoid the rowdy crowd that ventured in on the weekend. Rafe had been taking those shifts regularly for the past few months, offering because it gave him something to do and kept him out of trouble.
Trouble. He liked that word. Especially when it was used as an adjective to describe him. And while plenty of folks in this small town remembered him as such, it’d been a damn long time since he’d gotten in any. Did that mean he was getting old? Twenty-nine wasn’t old, was it? Or had he been running in the wrong direction all those years, and his wild youth had caught up to him?
If he had to guess, he would say it was the latter because his wild and rowdy days seemed to be behind him. He’d been back in Coyote Ridge for three years—two years and ten months, to be exact. A helluva lot longer than he’d intended to stay when he showed up on his brother’s doorstep that warm September day to find Rex remodeling the old farmhouse where they grew up, transforming it into a bed-and-breakfast, which was just a fancy name for a small backwoods hotel from what he could tell.
Since then, Rafe had somehow put down roots, although he damn sure hadn’t planned on it. Maybe not the roots you’d find from a walnut or a hickory tree. Nothing too strong or sturdy. More like pine or maple. Yet, they were roots all the same.
Hell, he’d even gotten a job. Right here. At Moonshiners.
It was the only bar in the small town, and as of three weeks ago, only one of two places you could get your grub on. Since Mack finally conceded to Rafe’s request to serve appetizers, they’d been seeing a different clientele moving through. Of course, the regulars weren’t gonna stray far. If you didn’t get your liquor here and weren’t looking for a forty-ounce at the Gas ’n Go or the box wine the general store recently started selling, you had to head down the road a good twenty minutes to get to a store that sold it. So here it was. And now they could get French fries and chicken wings to go with the cheap booze, bottled beer, or the few tap brews they served.
Rafe took a long pull on his beer, the one he’d been nursing for the better part of an hour now, while he waited for Bailey to finish her shift. She didn’t necessarily need him to stick around, but he did it simply so he could see if she needed a ride home. It was pathetic, he knew. One of two days he had off this week, and here he was, inhabiting the place he spent most nights working behind this very same bar he was bellied up to now.
Rafe looked over at the gray-haired man with the bushy beard behind the bar. Michael “Mack” Schwartz dried a glass and tucked it away before moving on to wipe down the lacquered bar top, careful not to disturb the old-timers. Rafe considered calling him over, pitching his idea to Mack for the eleven thousandth time. The one that would take Moonshiners from just a bar to something the entire town could enjoy.
Not that it was his place to suggest converting the small bar into something resembling a roadhouse, but during the year and a half he’d been working here, Rafe had gotten comfortable around Mack. The man had continued to give Rafe more and more responsibilities, now trusting him to open and close on his own while manning the bar several nights a week. Truth was, Rafe would be content to do just that for the rest of his days. It wasn’t a fancy joint, and Rafe appreciated it for that fact. However, he did see some potential. Maybe slap a coat of paint on the place and give the rest a little refresh, add a few things to the menu, and they’d be in real business.
Too bad Mack hadn’t committed yet. According to him, it was one thing to serve up fries and wings, something else entirely to give this place a makeover. It was long overdue, considering some of the decor was as vintage as the bartender. Like the ugly ass flamingo painting that was straight out of the 50s.
“You want good luck, might wanna hit on that,” one of the gloating assholes at the pool table said as he lined up for a shot and missed.
Rafe’s attention shifted to the guy chalking his cue stick and openly ogling Bailey’s ass. Rafe had been keeping an eye on them since they strolled in two hours ago. Looked like the hustler had amped up his game, throwing the other two off theirs in the process.
“Hey, honey,” one of the assholes called out as Bailey sauntered back with empty glasses from the chatty ladies who were gearing up to make an exit.
As usual, Bailey beamed them a radiant smile as she carried the glasses behind the bar and tucked them into the dirty bin.
“I’m about done here, Mack,” she told her boss. “You need me to do anything else?”
“We’re good. Gonna close it down in a bit.”
She smiled and grabbed the cleaning rag before heading back to the table to wipe it down as the ladies made their way to the door.
And then there were eight.
“Hey, girl, you wanna help a man out?” the asshole called out on Bailey’s return trip to the bar.
Bailey stopped, giving them her full attention, including a smile—the one she used in hopes of earning more tips.
“I think my buddy here needs some luck, sweet cheeks,” the drunk one said. “Maybe you’d like to help him out with a kiss.”
Rafe sat up straight, glared in their direction.
“She can hold her own,” Mack grumbled in that not-so-polite way of his. “She don’t need you fightin’ her battles.”
Rafe briefly cut his gaze to the bartender, then back to Bailey and the assholes.
Mack had a point, but that didn’t mean Rafe wasn’t ready and willing to do just that. And while he had no intention of starting any shit, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen anyway. Rafe was a magnet for shit. Had been his whole life. Didn’t matter if he was here at Moonshiners, at the diner, or hell, at the bakery, for that matter. Wherever he went, it seemed someone wanted to rag on him for something. The douchebags in this town thought he was an easy target. They generally learned their lesson with a bloodied nose, hand-delivered—pun intended—by him.
Over the past ten years, Rafe had learned there were only two ways to silence the chaos in his head. Fighting or sex. Never together, of course. The fighting was saved for the assholes who deserved it, and the sex was reserved for the women who could handle him. For the record, there weren’t all that many of the latter. Not these days, anyway.
Although he was abstaining from his promiscuous lifestyle, the anger was still a living, breathing thing inside him, churning hot, bright, and powerful. It had been that way for the past seventeen years. Ever since the night his crazy fuck up of a father forced Rafe to kill him. Even with the old man rotting in hell, Rafe still hated him with a passion.
Every time he thought about that night, he remembered how Rex had been chained to the bed, crying, terrified as Jolene Snyder, his father’s warped and twisted girlfriend, had dared to put her hands on him. Rafe remembered his brother’s sobs. Hell, he still heard them in his nightmares. They were what had woken Rafe from his hiding place in the closet that night. Without hesitation, he’d grabbed their grandpa’s shotgun, pushed to his feet, and squared his bony twelve-year-old shoulders. There hadn’t been any rage at that point, only single-minded purpose and a desperate need to save his brother from the hands of the devil.
“What, honey? Your bodyguard won’t let you have no fun?” one of the assholes crooned at Bailey.
Rafe didn’t move, but his gaze was honed on the fucker.
“Leave well enough alone, son,” Mack told him. “There’s no sense lettin’ ’em rile you up. They’re just tryin’ to get you to cause trouble.”
There was that word again. And today, it could very well be his middle name. That was what these pricks expected of him, wasn’t it? They expected Rafe to detonate with the slightest provocation because he was the outcast, the deviant who’d gone and killed his father. Didn’t matter that he’d claimed self-defense—which had been the truth—and the jury had agreed. It also didn’t matter that Rafe hadn’t spent any time in prison for ridding the world of the insane bastard.
Nope. They simply knew him from the bullshit story that had drifted through the grapevine: the spoiled brat who’d pulled the trigger because he didn’t like his father’s new girlfriend.
At least part of that was true. Rafe had hated Jolene Snyder with a fucking passion. If he’d been a homicidal maniac, he would’ve killed her that night, too. In fact, he should’ve killed her the first night she put her fucking hands on him. Rafe still had fucking nightmares about it. Had he taken her out then, she never would’ve had the chance to put her hands on Rex. That was his only regret. That he hadn’t done something sooner. And he’d lived with it for nearly two decades, unable to face his brother because if he’d been stronger, his big brother would never’ve been put in that situation.
Rafe hadn’t shed a single tear when Jolene overdosed just a month after Rafe had filled his father full of lead. The bitch could rot in hell right alongside Rafe’s old man for all he cared.
“You got a problem, boy?” the redneck at the pool table asked, glaring daggers at him from across the room.
Rafe didn’t say a word. He tipped his beer bottle to his lips and held that bleary-eyed stare.
Daryl Hogan was a piece of shit who deserved to get his ass kicked, but Rafe had been making strides lately. He’d kept himself out of trouble, focusing on working and nurturing the few relationships he’d established since he got back. Rumor was Rafe had turned over a new leaf. He wouldn’t go that far, but he’d admit he wasn’t trying to buck the system as much these days.
Granted, he wouldn’t turn away from a fight if it came knocking on his door. The mere thought of it had his hands flexing, his muscles coiling as the adrenaline slithered through his bloodstream.
The sweet, almost musical lilt of her voice had Rafe turning to look at Bailey as she approached. With a smile, she slipped off her apron and tucked it behind the bar before coming to stand beside him.
“I’m ready to go. Can you give me a ride home?”
Rafe wasn’t sure how he’d gotten so damn lucky to have Bailey as a friend, but at some point, that was exactly what had happened. And he liked her. A hell of a lot more than he should, considering.
Granted, it hadn’t been her sweet nature or kind eyes that had originally turned his head. No, he attributed that to her ass. Yeah, Bailey had an ass that deserved a fucking shrine. The way she filled out a pair of jeans should’ve been illegal. But the moment she’d turned those pretty hazel eyes on him, Rafe had been a fucking goner.
Although he certainly enjoyed spending time with her, Rafe hadn’t come back to land a relationship. He wasn’t looking for love, romance, or even a hookup. Hell, he hadn’t even been looking for a friend, but then there she was.
And damn near every day since, Bailey had been right by his side, making him laugh with her stories, giving him insights into all the goings-on in this small town.
Rafe valued her friendship because those were damn hard to come by for him. She had grown up here, heard all the stories from whoever shared the tale of woe that pertained to the Sharpe brothers, yet she still insisted on hanging out with him. Rafe couldn’t figure out why she wanted to be around the likes of him, but he was long past questioning her motives. The woman was the only light in an entirely too dark world.
“Come on,” she said with a nudge of Rafe’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“You slummin’ it tonight, Bailey?” Daryl asked with a yellow-toothed grin. “’Cause, honey, you just hafta ask. I’d be more’n happy to oblige. I could take you home, spend some time foggin’ up the windows in my truck.”
Bailey cast him her signature sweet smile, but her voice held a slight edge. “Oh, Daryl, I’m not sure what your wife would think about that.”
When she turned back to Rafe, she rolled her eyes and feigned gagging.
Setting his beer on the bar, Rafe stood. He pulled out a twenty, tossed it beside the bottle.
“Your money ain’t no good here, boy,” Mack grumbled.
“Put it in the tip jar, then.”
Mack merely shook his head and grinned.
“I’m drivin’,” Bailey announced.
“No, ma’am. I’m drivin’,” Rafe told Bailey as they started for the door.
“Uh-uh. You’ve been drinkin’. That means your butt’s in the passenger seat.”
It was Rafe’s turn to roll his eyes. “One beer, Bailey. I only had one beer.” And he hadn’t even finished it.
Chatter erupted behind him, but Rafe ignored it. Or tried to, anyway. It helped that Bailey put her smooth hand on his arm and steered him in the right direction.
“But I like drivin’ your truck,” she drawled, probably more of a distraction than anything. “Plus, you look cute sittin’ in the passenger seat.”
That had only happened once, and that night, Rafe had been too drunk to walk, much less focus on the road.
“Look at the pussy runnin’ out the door,” Daryl called from behind him, laughing like a hyena. “Still can’t fight like a man. Someone oughta check, make sure he ain’t got a gun.”
Daryl’s drunker sidekick laughed along with him while the hustler looked on with interest.
“Ignore them,” Bailey whispered, her tone no longer cordial.
“Girl, if you had a lick of sense, you’d steer clear of that one,” the sidekick hollered. “You ain’t safe with him. One wrong move, and he’ll likely shoot you, too.”
Rafe stopped when Bailey’s feet abruptly came to a halt. She spun on her little white tennis shoes, a finger coming up as she pointed in the direction of the words. Her dark blond ponytail swung around, hanging over her shoulder.
“You keep your mouth shut, Flynn. I don’t quite like your tone.”
Rafe grinned at the cute little woman now fuming mad beside him. That was one of the things he loved about Bailey. She took no shit from anyone. At five-foot-three, a strong breeze could knock her over, but she would stand up to the orneriest of men.
“We’re just watchin’ out for you, sweetness,” Daryl said as he moved closer.
Rafe did turn then, positioning himself between Daryl and Bailey when Flynn and the hustler moved in to offer their support.
“You don’t wanna do this,” Rafe warned softly.
“And what if I do, boy? Whatcha gonna do about it?”
Rafe didn’t speak, didn’t move. He inhaled slowly, exhaled. His mind was clear as he tracked every person in the room, every move. Without a doubt, Rafe could take Daryl in a fair fight, but he knew this wouldn’t be fair. Daryl wasn’t about to get his ass kicked in front of his friends. Those fuckers would be on Rafe like stink on shit as soon as Daryl took the first fist to the face.
Bailey moved to stand in front of Rafe. “You start somethin’, Daryl, and I’m gonna go tell Lulu how you were suckin’ face with that floozie last Friday night. That what you want?”
Daryl’s dark eyes shot to Bailey’s face.
“That’s what I thought,” she said firmly, then waved toward the bartender. “Mack, you’ll keep him in here till we leave?”
“You know I will,” the man said, used to keeping these rednecks in line.
“Come on.” Bailey turned and placed her hands on Rafe’s chest, forcing him backward.
It wasn’t until his back came in contact with the door that Rafe turned, pushed it open, and motioned Bailey outside. They stepped out into the hot, muggy July night, and Rafe felt like he could breathe again.
“I’m so glad you’re here tonight,” she said as she marched around to the driver’s side. “But I don’t like the way those buttholes talk to you.”
“Buttholes?” Rafe laughed. “Are you twenty-four? Or fourteen?”
“Oh, you hush up.”
Rafe followed her to the driver’s side, opening the truck door for her. When Bailey climbed in, he did the same, right behind her.
“Hey! I said I was drivin’.”
“Scoot on over, darlin’,” he insisted, not giving her a chance to argue.
Bailey huffed. “Rafe Sharpe, I do not like your high-handedness.”
Rafe chuckled. “Get used to it, woman.”
“I don’t have to get used to nothin’.” She sighed but crawled over the console to the passenger seat.
He held out his hand for the keys, which she’d snagged from his pocket, and waited patiently until she dropped them into his palm. With a twist of his wrist, Rafe started the truck, backed it out of the space, and headed toward Bailey’s house.
Even after all this time, Rafe still couldn’t believe he was back here, back in the town where he grew up. Couldn’t believe his brother was still here, living in that old house that he’d turned into a fancy bed-and-breakfast where strangers traipsed through every day and night.
The day Rafe turned eighteen, he’d left Coyote Ridge and everyone he knew, swearing he would never come back. He walked away from Uncle Owen, his aunt, his cousins, even his brother, the only person he gave a shit about in the world. And he didn’t look back. Not necessarily because he didn’t want to, but because he couldn’t. Rafe had killed his bastard of a father, and the stigma associated with it and the events leading up to it had brought a dark cloud over his family. To alleviate some of their stress, Rafe had moved on.
But not without consequences.
Back then, Rex had been expecting Rafe to move into the farmhouse, to go to college, to let Rex take care of him. Rafe hadn’t been able to do it, hadn’t wanted to drag his brother down like that. So, he’d bought a bus ticket and headed for the coast. Ended up working in the refineries in Corpus Christi for a while. Not glamorous, but he made ends meet that way. For a few years, he managed to stay off the grid. How Rex eventually found him, Rafe didn’t know. For the years that followed, he’d kept in touch with his brother, replying to a text every so often so Rex knew he was alive. And that had been his plan. Carry on elsewhere and not be a burden on the family he had left in Coyote Ridge.
Until three years ago.
Something had compelled him to come back here. Perhaps it was that he missed his brother, or maybe he’d simply been running from something else, and this was the only direction to go. Whatever it was, he had woken up one morning, hopped in his truck, and started driving.
“Did Rex mention I’ve got an interview with him tomorrow?” Bailey asked when they’d driven in silence for a few minutes. “He called me this mornin’. Outta the blue.”
Rafe cut his gaze to her. “Interview for what?”
“To work at the B and B.”
He knew Bailey had never intended to waitress forever. She claimed she enjoyed it, but she was constantly on the hunt for something more fulfilling. Why she didn’t want to work at her family’s bakery, he didn’t know, but he didn’t question it either.
“Well, I figured that. Doin’ what?”
“Whatever he wants me to do. I know he’s lookin’ to hire someone to manage the place, but I don’t have that kind of experience.”
Having spent the better part of the last two years confined to the B and B since they were doing a good amount of business, Rex had become serious about hiring a manager for the Double R Retreat—a ridiculous name for a bed-and-breakfast if Rafe had ever heard one. Being that Rex was married to Jack, the two of them had been forced to see less of each other because of Jack’s job. Evidently, being a world-famous graphic novelist required you to trek across the country—and sometimes the globe—to make appearances at various comic conventions dedicated to whatever it was he wrote about. Because Rex was hoping to cash in on some of those travel opportunities, he was looking for someone to take over full-time.
“You’ve got a degree, don’tcha?”
Bailey sighed again. “Yeah. From an online college.”
She said it like it was a four-letter word.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothin’, I guess. But that doesn’t always make up for experience.”
“What kind of experience do you need?” Rafe glanced her way.
Bailey chuckled. “It’s not nearly as easy as it looks. You’ve gotta manage reservations, take care of the guests, ensure the house is in workin’ order, cook meals, coordinate events.”
“You could do that easy,” he told her, his attention on the road.
“One day, maybe.” Bailey sighed and leaned back into the seat. “I’m just lookin’ forward to workin’ somewhere I don’t have to worry about wanderin’ hands.”
Rafe glanced over and frowned. “Whose hands are wanderin’?”
She waved him off with a grin. “It’s nothin’. I’m just excited about doin’ somethin’ different, that’s all.”
Rafe let the subject drop but vowed to find out who was putting their hands on this woman without permission. She might not belong to him, but Rafe felt protective of her. Not that Bailey couldn’t take care of herself. She was sweet as molasses, but the woman had a fire in her. It took something big to draw it out, but it was there.
“What about the bakery?” he asked.
Bailey shrugged. “Mama said she could handle it just fine. Shelly’s takin’ more hours, helpin’ every day now that her kiddos are gettin’ older. Mama told me it’d be smart to branch out into somethin’ more.”
Rafe didn’t care to talk about Bailey’s mother. He’d met Ramona Weber because she owned and worked at the bakery, but he didn’t know her thoughts on him and his brother. Everyone else in town seemed to have an opinion, and he figured she did too. But Ramona kept it professional when their paths crossed, and Bailey was far too nice to let him think differently.
“You sure you wanna work for my brother?”
“Well, technically, I’d be workin’ for both of you,” she said quickly. “Rex said you’re as much an owner as he is.”
“Whatever.” Rafe hadn’t lifted a finger to help his brother with the B and B, hadn’t even stepped foot inside that house since the night the police took him away all those years ago. He damn sure didn’t deserve to be part owner of the place, no matter what Rex said. Which was why he’d refused every check his brother had tried to pay him since the Double R opened its doors.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed. I think it’ll be fun,” she told him as her eyes shifted out the window.
Seventeen years ago, fun ceased to exist for him, and Rafe wasn’t even sure what it meant anymore.
WOW, I was not prepared for Rafe's backstory. I haven't read his brother Rex's book yet, so I wasn't aware of the horrors they suffered at the hands of their father and his girlfriend after the death of their mother. My heart broke for him and his grief from one fateful night.
Bailey has been in love with Rafe for as long as she can remember, but he has firmly placed her in the friend zone, and it doesn't seem like he's ever going to change his mind about it. So when a sexy new man comes to town and shows Bailey that he's interested in her, let's just say things get very interesting.
Nicole Edwards is one of the very few authors I don't read her books' blurbs before I dive in, and that's because I know no matter what she writes, I am in for a great story. Even when she hits on sensitive subjects, she does it with compassion so there is no worry about what may happen on the pages. Rafe's backstory can be triggering for some readers, and I have not seen any content warning posted, so if you want to know about it, feel free to message me.
I recommend this book to ADULT readers who enjoy STEAMY Contemporary Romances, Menage/Triad Romances, Friends to Lovers Romances, Second Chance at Love Romances, Small Town Romances, or Family Saga Romances.
**I have voluntarily reviewed an Advanced Readers Copy of this book for my Blog, Nadine's Obsessed with Books**
About the Author:
Nicole lives in Texas with her husband and their youngest of 3 children. The two older ones have ventured out in the world on their own. She has a beautiful granddaugther and a rather spoiled grand-puppy.. Oh, she and Colt also have four dogs. Most of the time, you can find her hiding in my writing cave. If she's not there, she's probably hanging out with the family, reading, or watching hockey and football. One thing for sure... Nicole is always trying to have fun.
*Book Teasers and Excerpt are property of Nicole Edwards
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