She was already five minutes late for her meeting.
After plugging the coordinates into her GPS and promptly loosing signal, Hannah Duncan discovered the higher peaks of the Balcones Escarpment played havoc with satellite positioning and cell phone service. She had left the main highway some forty-five minutes ago, wandered around through a series of turns and curves, traversed rugged hills and flowing streams, and somehow managed to come out almost in the exact same spot from where she started. Still nowhere near where she needed to be.
Hannah glanced again at the time. The only number she had for the lawyer was at his office, where an answering machine picked up the call. Without a cell number, she had no way to warn him she was running late. Her only choice was to drive fast and hope he was a patient man.
She took a left onto the blacktop ribbon and sped along its patched path, taking little time to appreciate the scenic landscape. Rocky hills blended into hayfields. Elaborate new homes intermingled with old stone houses and weathered barns. Fields alternated with goats or cattle. The area was known for its whitetail deer and spotted axis. Hannah enjoyed looking at the wildlife as much as anyone, but she hoped the deer stayed on their side of the fence and off the narrow two-lane road.
“Obviously, I turned way too early,” she chastised herself. “By now, though, I should be getting close…” She glanced down at her phone for directions, completely missing one of the more useful landmarks on her left. She sailed on down the road until she spotted a sign on the right.
“Great,” Hannah muttered, “now I’ve gone too far!” She remembered the email directing her to turn between the Town Loop and Uptown Luckenbach. With a low growl of frustration, Hannah whipped the car around and grumbled aloud, “You’d think if it was famous enough to have its own song, you’d at least be able to see it on the side of the road.”
She slowed the car to a crawl, so she didn’t miss her turn. Again. At this rate, she’d be lucky to make it by nightfall. “Please be waiting on me,” she begged the absent attorney. “Don’t let me have come all this way for nothing.” According to her directions, she still had several more miles to go, and this road was even narrower, and quite winding. It was silly, she knew, because the man couldn’t hear her, but she repeated the plea, this time with extra zeal.
Hannah watched her speedometer and clocked the precise mileage given in the directions. The GPS gods smiled upon her and allowed a signal through, directing her to her final turn. She made a left, crossing over a rocky creek bed and following the graveled path up a steep embankment. The road was well maintained but bumpy. Atop the rocky hill, she saw the first promise of the town, nestled there in a grove of trees and bramble.
“Ah, a gated community.” She smirked, driving beneath an ornate iron arch bearing the town’s name in vintage lettering.
So this was Hannah, Texas.
It reminded her of a Hollywood movie set for an old western. The graveled road forked around a large grassy area that boasted a trio of massive old live oaks, met up again on the far side, and meandered its way into the sunset… or to at least as far as the tree line. A collection of old, weathered buildings—some eight or so in all, in various degrees of disrepair—loosely clustered around either fork of the road.
Hannah spotted a pickup truck parked near the largest of the buildings and felt a surge of relief. Thank heavens, the lawyer had waited! Maybe there was something to telepathic messaging, after all. She edged her sporty little car up next to the truck, tugged sunglasses into place, and braced for the Texas heat.
A man emerged from the weathered structure as she hurried from her car. A crooked sign above the door identified it as the Stagecoach Stop. An official state historical marker identified it as important.
With a stab of disappointment, Hannah realized this wasn’t the lawyer, after all.
She disqualified him on two accounts: age and dress. Not only was he too young—hardly older than she was, it would seem—but his clothes were much too casual. Even though his jeans and pale-blue western shirt were neatly starched and pressed, his shirt was open at the collar, no tie in sight, his boots dusty and scuffed. Definitely not lawyer attire.
He thrust out a hand and smiled, but the effort looked strained. “Hannah Duncan?”
“Yes, I’m Hannah,” she acknowledged, accepting his brisk handshake. She glanced around for sight of someone else. “I was supposed to meet the attorney here at one, but I’m afraid I took a wrong turn. Have I missed him?”
“No, you’re fine.”
She waited for him to expand on his statement. Perhaps he would offer to take her inside and make introductions. Explain that the lawyer was in one of the other buildings. That he was answering the call of nature and would be with them shortly. Something. Anything.
Instead, the man simply stood there, his tight expression unreadable.
Hannah finally gave up and asked, “Where is he?” Her expression hinted at exasperation.
The man did something with his brows, a subtle lift that gave him a superior air. It irritated Hannah, knowing she chose that exact moment to realize how attractive he was. A good six feet tall, with a trim, muscular build and a nice head of black hair. A perfect, aquiline nose, with nostrils flared just enough to signal his impatience.
“I am Walker Jacoby,” he informed her sharply. “Attorney at law, at your service.” He gave a half bow, the gesture mocking.
Her eyes flew over him again, taking in the long, jean-encased legs, the cowhide belt and shiny buckle, the hint of curly chest hair peeking over the top buttons of his monogrammed shirt. She could picture him as a rodeo champion. A country music star.
Some sort of western show promoter. A drugstore cowboy wannabe. But she couldn’t quite imagine him as an attorney.
His stiff smile turned into a smirk. “Is there a problem, Ms. Duncan?”
“You’re an attorney?” The question popped out before she could censure it.
“That’s what it says on my diploma.” He appeared suitably perturbed as he scowled. “Is this going to be a problem? Perhaps I should speak with Mr. Duncan.”
Fire flashed in Hannah’s eyes, dancing blue flames that threatened to spark at any moment. Despite the heat building in her pointed glare, her voice was cold. Each word fell like a shard of ice from her tongue. “What a disturbingly chauvinistic thing to say. There isn’t a Mister Duncan, and even if there were, I hardly need a man to step in and speak for me. Do I make myself clear, Mister Jacoby?” She couldn’t help but offer her own sneer. “Or shall I explain that to Mrs. Jacoby?”
Something flickered in his own eyes, which were a much paler shade of blue than her own. That something could have been anger, could have been amusement. Hannah didn’t bother to dwell on his eyes. She had decided the man wasn’t so attractive, after all.
“No need,” he assured her. “Mrs. Jacoby is of the same opinion.”
So, the cad was married. Poor woman, Hannah thought of his wife.
“And if there’s no Mr. Duncan,” he added smugly, “we might have a problem. He’s the one who actually made the purchase.”
Understanding dawned in Hannah’s eyes, dousing the flame. “You were referring to my uncle, Joseph Duncan.” She had the grace to look embarrassed. He hadn’t been patronizing her, after all.
Or had he? Something about his smug look suggested he might think men were superior to women, at least when handling legal matters.
“My uncle has… peculiar… tastes in gift giving, to say the least. The purchase was my birthday gift. As benefactor of that gift, I am the sole person you will be dealing with, Mr. Jacoby.”
He rocked back on his heels and assured her, “Hey, not a problem for me. You were the one who seemed to be struggling with the concept of working with me.”
“Not at all,” she snapped. “I was merely surprised by your informality. Most lawyers I know wear a suit and tie when meeting with a client, particularly for the first time.”
“Do you visit the Hill Country often, Ms. Duncan?”
“No,” she admitted. “Other than going to San Antonio twice and the State Capitol in Austin once, this is actually my first time.”
He brushed away her statement with a wave of his hand. “Neither city is considered within the boundaries of the Hill Country,” he said. “But you will soon notice that formalities, and ties, are in short supply around here.” With a sudden smile that looked almost genuine, he asked, “So, shall we get down to business, Ms. Duncan?”
Too bad, the smile was also very attractive.
“You might as well call me Hannah,” she said with a hint of resignation. “And yes, please. I’d like to know what couldn’t be discussed over the phone or by email.”
It was his turn to sigh. “Quite a bit, to be honest. Why don’t we start with a tour? Then we can go inside and talk brass tacks.”
Something about the way he said it all made Hannah uncomfortable. She sensed he was hiding something from her. But what could it be? A tax lien on the property? A disputed property line?
No, she reasoned, neither scenario was plausible. That’s what title searches and surveys were for, and JoeJoe was smart enough to insist on both before making a purchase, even for a fluke gift.
Perhaps there was a cemetery on the property, and he wasn’t sure how she would take the news. Or perhaps the previous owner died here. Both thoughts were a bit creepy, but neither were deal breakers.
Not one to beat around the bush, Hannah stood her ground. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to nail those tacks down, first thing.”
Her directness surprised him, but he nodded in agreement and gestured toward the old inn. “We’ll be more comfortable inside.” As they started toward the front steps, he asked, “What do you know about your little town, Ms.—Hannah?”
“Nothing,” she readily admitted. “Not a thing, other than the fact we share a name.”
“The community was founded by Ezekiel Hannah in 1851, where he and his wife operated a stagecoach stop for several years. The inn is original to the property and built by Ezekiel Hannah and Henry Anheim in about 1853. Watch your step here on the entry.”
He held the door open and allowed her to enter first. As she passed by him, Hannah got a whiff of something outdoorsy and decidedly male. The entryway they stepped into felt crowded, especially when he leaned close and pushed open the second door. There was no denying the little zing of electricity radiating from the man like a live current.
He’s married, she reminded herself in a singsong voice. He didn’t wear a ring, but he was definitely off limits. Besides, his holier-than-thou attitude would be a deal breaker, even if his wife weren’t. Which she was. Hannah held high regards for the institution of marriage, even though she had no plans of it for herself, anytime soon.
“I came out earlier and opened up the place, but it’s still a little stuffy inside,” he apologized. He waved a hand to the room beyond. “Welcome to the Spirits of Texas Inn.”
A long room ran the breadth of the building, with a limestone fireplace holding reign on either end. A collection of mismatched armchairs guarded the hearth on the left; a dozen or so dining tables and chairs scattered across the expanse to the right. Straight ahead was the front desk.
It reminded Hannah of something from a western movie, like an old bank teller’s cage, but without the bars. Elaborate fretwork and hand-carved details gave the space distinction and matched the oak support pillars standing about the room like stoic sentries. The long check-in counter even came with a vintage grid to hold room keys and messages.
“How quaint,” she murmured, completely underwhelmed.
The hardwood floors looked original, bearing the scars and scuffs of a century past. The walls were simple shiplap, the raw hewn lumber long since darkened with age. Everything in the room was outdated, from the frilly white eyelet curtains to the brass-plated light fixtures.
Despite the dowdy appearance now a decade or three out of vogue, something about the room spoke to Hannah. It seemed to have a presence. Or, she mused, perhaps it was that it had a past. This was history, plain and raw. Very plain, very raw, but there was still something about it…
“Let’s have a seat,” the lawyer suggested, gesturing to a table strewn with paperwork. He pulled out a straight-back chair and waited for Hannah to be seated before he settled in the chair directly across from her.
“Though never incorporated,” he explained, “what started as a stagecoach shop and livery soon grew into quite a busy little town. At one time, there were as many as twenty or so families living here. There was a blacksmith, general store, two saloons, one church, and a gristmill. Eventually, the only thing left of the town was the inn, which was actually quite prosperous. For over one hundred and sixty-five years, and through five generations, a member of the Hannah family has lived here and kept the inn in operation.”
“So how did the town end up in an auction?”
“The last owner, Wilhelmina Hannah, never married. As the last descendant of Ezekiel and Elsa Hannah, she was sole heir to the property. When she died last year at the age of eighty-seven, she left very specific instructions about the handling of her estate. It was her wish for the town to be sold at auction.”
Hannah’s brow puckered as she contemplated his words. “That seems a bit odd.”
At his cautious tone, her eyes flew up to meet his.
“There’s stipulations, aren’t there?” Hannah realized. She jumped up to restlessly pace near the table. “That’s just like JoeJoe. He didn’t read the fine print, did he?” Her tone dared him to contradict her, but she gave him no opportunity. Wheeling around on her heels, she continued with her rant. “He got caught up in the excitement of bidding, and no telling what God-awful price he ended up paying. JoeJoe loves a good competition. A man like my uncle, God love him, can’t be bothered with details, not when he can buy himself the win.”
“Please, sit down.” The attorney’s tone was borderline testy, making it more of a command than a request. He reached for a folder from the table. “I have no idea which of the conditions your uncle may or may not have bothered with, but yes, there were conditions listed. The main requirement is that the inn must remain open and operational.”
“What? Are you kidding me?”
In contrast to her incredulous cry, Walker Jacoby’s voice remained quiet and oddly patient. “There is no need to yell, Miss Duncan. And yes, you heard me correctly. The inn is to remain in business.”
Hannah’s head whipped around as she surveyed the room. A lock of dark hair slung into her gaping mouth, but she hardly noticed. She did notice, however, that despite its ancient decor, the inn was tidy and well kept.
But operational? She had her doubts.
She spat out the mouthful of ebony curls. “People still stay here?” she asked incredulously.
“Actually, yes. There are a handful of loyal customers who continue to return here, year after year.”
“But… who’s been taking care of them?”
“Sadie and Fred Tanner are the caretakers, and the only other residents of the town. They took care of the inn, as well as the animals and the gardens, long before Miss Wilhelmina died.”
Her head began to spin. Of all the oddball gifts her uncle had given her over the years, this was the most ridiculous yet. “Animals?”
“You also own a small herd of goats, five head of cattle, several laying hens, one rooster, six horses, and assorted ducks and geese.” He made the announcement in a gleeful voice as he opened the folder and read from one of the papers inside.
Thank goodness, he had insisted she sit back down. Her knees never would have held her. “G—G—Goats?”
The look on her face obviously amused him. “Don’t forget the cattle. Which happens to include two good Guernsey milk cows, so serving fresh milk to your guests is never a problem.”
“Are you going to repeat everything I say? Because there are quite a few things we need to go over this afternoon, and saying them just once will take long enough.”
Hannah closed her eyes and concentrated on taking deep, even breaths. She owned goats and chickens. And milk cows.
Holy boomtown, JoeJoe has turned me into a farmer! She had a ridiculous image of herself in a pair of overalls and a floppy straw hat, munching on a piece of straw.
Fighting off a wave of hysteria, Hannah forced herself to remain calm. She opened her eyes and made a guess. “You’re telling me I have to reimburse the Tanners?” She vaguely wondered if she could pay them in eggs and fresh milk. Maybe a nice side of beef.
Much to her relief, the lawyer shook his head. “Not at all.” He flashed a smile that was charming enough to penetrate her fogged brain. “You were right. Your uncle did pay a God-awful price to win that auction. Luckily for you, the proceeds went into a trust for the property. Along with money Miss Wilhelmina put into it, you will be able to keep the inn running for years to come. Have no fear, the Tanners have already been compensated for all their hard work.”
“Wait.” She threw up both palms and waved them defensively, as if to stop the onslaught of his words. “Wait, wait, wait. I have no intentions of keeping this inn running, Mr. Jacoby.”
“Please, call me Walker.” Now that she was in a full-out panic, his demeanor had changed dramatically. Despite his earlier stiffness, he seemed completely relaxed now. Almost jovial.
“I have no intentions of keeping this inn running, Walker.” Changing the name didn’t change her tone. It was still vehement. “I’m not an innkeeper. I don’t want to be an innkeeper. My life is in Houston.”
“Oh? What is it you do in Houston? Where do you work?” There was an edge in his voice. A slight tilt of his dark head.
He knows good and well I have no job, she fumed.
Hannah lifted her chin. “I am an investment analyst. I am currently looking for new employment, as I think you well know.”
He appreciated her sharp retort, if the light in his eyes was any indication. Hannah ignored the glimmer, wishing she could as easily ignore the man.
“Did I mention the arrangement comes with a salary, as well as a very generous bonus?”
She sat up straighter in her seat, trying not to look as interested as she felt. She picked at a thread on her linen walking shorts. “Oh?” she asked coolly.
“The trust provides a generous yearly budget for the inn. This allows for operational expenses, including a salary for the new owner.” He took another paper from the file and slid it across the table for her inspection.
Okay, not a fortune, but decent. Particularly if I have no rent, no utility bills.
When she realized the direction of her thoughts, she gave herself a stern and visible shake.
Walker bit back a grin. It was as if he could read her very thoughts. “Naturally, you would be living here at the inn.” His tone suggested it might be a thought that hadn’t yet occurred to her, but the glint in his blue eyes said differently. “Most of your living expenses would be covered.”
She hoped she sounded suitably nonchalant. “Hmm. I suppose that would help. If I were interested.”
“From a monetary perspective, there is no reason the inn cannot be successful. No mortgage, no property taxes, no monthly utility bills. Even if you have no experience running an inn, you must admit, it’s an intriguing offer. Most every dime you make would be profit.”
She leaned in a bit closer, drawn to the possibilities.
“Of course, you would need to put the money back into the business,” he went on to say. “Miss Wilhelmina and I worked out a very comprehensive budget that hinges on re-investing in the trust. Even using a modest income projection and an overly aggressive rate of inflation, I feel confident the inn can maintain a fully-funded operational budget for years to come.”
“Why—Why would she do that? Why would she set aside all that money? It would have to be a literal fortune, to fund all the bills for several years.”
The attorney flashed a disarming smile. With a smile like that, she could easily forget about his rakish personality and his invisible wedding ring. “Don’t forget your uncle’s very generous donation to the cause. As for the reason, it’s really quite simple. Miss Wilhelmina loved the town of Hannah and the Spirits of Texas Inn. She dedicated her life to keeping both alive.”
Hannah glanced out the window, to the ghost of a town outside. “Well, I’m not so sure she kept the town alive…”
“But she kept its chances alive, and that’s almost as important. There are many possibilities for a town like this. The purpose of the trust is to ensure that at least some of those possibilities are explored.”
One corner of Hannah’s mouth dipped south. “You’re telling me there are more conditions.”
In answer, he pulled out another sheet of paper.
He went over a list of a dozen do’s and don’ts. Although Hannah didn’t understand the logic behind some, none were so outlandish or so unreasonable that she balked. If she were interested, she could work with the conditions he listed.
Still, her head spun with the enormity of it all. Her, an inn owner? And not just any inn. An inn in the middle of nowhere. An inn in dire need of updating.
Breaking free of the whirlwind in her head, she practically snapped, “I believe you mentioned a bonus?”
His smile revealed a row of pearly white teeth. “Ah, I wondered when you would remember that. Yes, there are two very generous bonuses, actually. The second bonus wasn’t mentioned in the conditions of the sale. It is a ‘bonus’ bonus, you might say. On the first anniversary of your purchase, if three simple conditions have been met, you will receive a bonus check of five thousand dollars, to do with as you please. No stipulations.”
Her eyes widened when she heard the amount, then narrowed in suspicion. “And what are these three conditions?”
“One, the inn must still be in business. Two, you must have a solid business plan in place. And three, you must continue to accommodate Miss Wilhelmina’s special guests.”
“None of those sound too difficult,” Hannah mused. “Actually, it sounds like an easy five thousand dollars.”
He did that thing with his eyebrows again. “If you meet the condition of the first bonus.”
“You must remain on the property, without leaving, for the first thirty days after taking over.”
She stared at him in surprise. “You mean… like… a prisoner?”
“No bars,” he assured her with his most charming smile. “But no leaving.”
“No leaving the inn, or no leaving the town?” she clarified.
“The town, as defined by the fence surrounding the property. You are free to move about at your leisure, but you aren’t allowed to venture further than the gates.”
“Not even to buy groceries?”
“I will be happy to bring whatever you need.”
“What if I get sick and need a doctor?”
“We have a local doctor who can make house calls, if needed.” He frowned and gave her a thorough perusal. “You’re not suffering from an illness I should know about, are you?”
“No, of course not. And even if I were, you wouldn’t need to know about it. My health is none of your concern,” she sniffed.
“Actually, it is. It is my responsibility to carry out the terms of both the purchase and of Miss Wilhelmina’s will. If you aren’t fit to meet the conditions of either, it is important I know so now.”
“I am completely healthy, Mr. Jacoby.”
“Walker,” he reminded her. “We will be working closely with one another, Hannah. We might as well be on friendly terms.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “Why will we be working together? And why does she have this ridiculous stipulation in the terms?”
“I’m afraid I cannot speak on the behalf of Miss Wilhelmina, at least in that regard. I merely carry out her wishes. And it was her wish I act as trustee and financial planner for the trust.”
“So, you control the money.”
“That is one way of saying it, yes.”
Hannah let his words soak in before she finally gave a shake of her dark head. “I still don’t understand. Why would I agree to stay here for thirty days without stepping foot off the property?”
“Because if you fail to meet this one non-negotiable term of sale, the entire deal becomes null and void.” He saw the hopeful expression that crossed her face. “That God-awful price your uncle paid, as you so aptly put it, would be forfeited. Believe me, Hannah, you don’t want that to happen.”
“But—but—!” she sputtered in outrage before she found her voice. “You’re telling me that unless I agree to this ridiculous farce of a deal, my uncle losses his money? Unbelievable! And most likely illegal! That’s—That’s extortion!”
“The condition of the deal was clearly and visibly displayed on the auction site. Your uncle agreed to all terms before he placed his first bid.”
“My uncle was too caught up in the thrill of bidding to bother with the details!”
“Your uncle is a shrewd businessman, Hannah. He knows not to enter into a legally binding contract without reading the fine print.”
“And how do you know?” she snapped.
“I give the man credit for as much. At any rate, he initialed the stipulation when signing the papers. Like it or not, your uncle knew what was at stake before agreeing to purchase the property.”
She wanted to protest, but what could she say? He was right, of course. JoeJoe wasn’t only an adult who was responsible for his own actions, but he was an astute businessman. If he failed to read the contract, that was on him.
A niggling of suspicion wormed into her thoughts. Is that why he had urged her to come? He would be out of the country. For at least thirty days. By the time he returned, the screaming and kicking phase of her tantrum would be over.
“This is so like JoeJoe,” she muttered beneath her breath.
Walker Jacoby allowed her time to process all she had learned. He waited patiently as an array of emotions passed over her face, the strongest of which included anger,
resentment, irritation, and, at last, resignation. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and looked him in the eye.
“I suppose the first bonus is the fact that, if I stay the thirty days, my uncle doesn’t forfeit his money?”
“The bonus is that if you stay, you get access to the trust, and ensure operational expenses for the foreseeable future.”
“Controlled by you, of course,” she added coolly.
He arched his brows in answer, a gesture she was quickly coming to detest. “It also includes a very generous budget for whatever updates you might want to make.”
Her eyes inadvertently darted around the room, seeing a dozen things that needed doing. It would take a small fortune to bring this one room, alone, up to the standards she was accustomed to.
He deftly slid another piece of paper her way. “I did mention that it was quite generous, didn’t I?”
Eyes widening when she saw the amount, Hannah asked, “What did this woman do for a living, rob banks?”
“She was an innkeeper, Hannah.”
“There is no way keeping an inn, particularly this one, could make her that much money!” Hannah tapped the figure shown on the paper.
“Miss Wilhelmina was a sharp businesswoman. You would be wise to study her business plan.”
Hannah stood from the chair and dared to venture around, arms crossed over her queasy stomach as she studied the room. “You mentioned loyal guests.”
“Yes. If you consult your reservations, you’ll find you have several bookings for June. That should give you plenty of time to settle in, complete your thirty-day challenge, and start working on the changes you’d like to make.”
“You make it sound so simple…”
He gave her that smile again, that one that made her forget his more obnoxious qualities. “Unless you have a job or a significant other waiting for you in Houston, it really is quite simple. This is your town now, Hannah. You can move in immediately. The sooner you start, the sooner you earn those bonuses.”
She could think of thousands of reasons why his offer made sense. Enough money for renovations. A trust to ensure her business success. Another five thousand reasons—money to do with as she pleased—at the end of one year.
For the life of her, she couldn’t think of a single reason to refuse, not even the fact she knew nothing about running an inn.
“I—I’ll consider it,” she said.
“I need your answer by the end of the day tomorrow.”
“What?” she cried, throwing her hands wide. “That’s insane!”
“There is specific language in the will,” he explained, “as to expiration dates for all bonuses. Your uncle made the purchase almost six months ago. You came just in the nick of time.”
Hannah ignored the reproachful tone in his voice. She was known for over-thinking every situation. She loved to make lists. She had even been known to make a chart or two, to better analyze those lists. JoeJoe forever teased her about her obsession with pondering every possibility before making a decision. He claimed she never did anything spontaneous.
Well, JoeJoe was wrong.
Marching back to the table, her blue eyes blazed with a defiance the lawyer couldn’t possibly understand.
“Fine. I accept. Is there something I need to sign?”
He pulled out the thickest of the files and opened it. “As a matter of fact,” his smile was enigmatic, “there is.