Fulfilling a dream for a friend? That’s all in a day’s work for Katie, who (almost) single-handedly saved Sea Horse Ranch and Hell and Dammit Cay from ruination. So when the island’s resident old salt, Marchant, has a brush with death that leaves him longing to satisfy some of his long-deferred desires, Katie is on the job.
It’s just one more thing on her plate, but Katie is pretty sure she can keep all her plates spinning. Add in a new friend, a long-lost relative, and some stormy weather, and you’re in for a fabulous beach read in this second installment of Sea Horse Ranch.
If you love horses and the beach and stories about strong women finding themselves, have I got a great read for you! Sea Horse Ranch is coming to ebook and paperback on January 18th, 2022. And you’re going to love it.
Katie LeBlanc never expected to find herself hitchhiking away from Key West after a gig gone wrong. Booed offstage and kicked out of the band she’s been traveling with for the past year, she figures she has to start over with everything, and she doesn’t even know where to start.
But when a kind woman offers her a ride and a safe place to stay for the night, Katie realizes her adventures are beginning already.
A quiet island paradise, eccentric locals, a herd of mustangs, a prodigal son with a mountain-man beard and arresting eyes: what is this enchanted place? And can she stay forever please?
As Katie becomes accustomed to island life, she realizes she’d do anything to keep this place safe from harm. And it’s a good thing, too. Because it turns out Sea Horse Ranch is in need of saving — and Katie’s old contacts in the music industry might hold the key to keeping her new home from being destroyed forever.
With beautiful scenery, fun characters, and just enough romance, Sea Horse Ranch is destined to become your new favorite reading escape!
Read Chapters One & Two Below!
Find Sea Horse Ranch at all major ebook and paperback retailers beginning January 18th, 2022.
I put up my thumb as another truck passed, but this time it just felt like habit. The hot breath of exhaust it left behind only added to my general sticky grossness. I needed a twenty-five-minute shower and an entire bottle of body wash.
But the prospect of finding a place to bathe and rest was feeling increasingly unlikely.
How had I found myself walking up the side of a two-lane highway deep in the Florida Keys? Oh, the same way dreamy girls always got into this kind of mess.
Chasing a dream and a hot guy.
“This is always how it was going to end,” I muttered to myself, watching my toes in my hot pink flip-flops as I walked carefully, one step after another, into the hard-packed white sand along the side of U.S. 1. “There was never any other outcome in play. You run away from home, you sing in a band, you sleep with the singer, and you get kicked out. At the literal end of the continent. Typical Katie.”
Yeah, somewhere deep inside, I’d probably known. Of course, it would all end in tears and hitchhiking my way towards home. The only unknown had been where it would end.
Wasn’t it just my luck that fateful spot would be at Mile Marker 0?
* * *
Another pickup truck roared past, this one hauling a small flat-bottomed boat. It bounced along on a trailer with squeaky shocks. They sure loved their boats and pickups down here in the Florida Keys. I liked them, too. Keys culture reminded me a lot of home, back up in the soggy saltwater marshes along the Gulf Coast. Sure, up in Louisiana we spiced our shrimp with Cajun seasoning and down here it came blackened with Jamaican jerk spices, but the general attitude towards life was the same: you got up, you put on your tank top and your flip-flops, and then you fished as much as was humanly possible. Finish off the day with a six-pack or three, depending on your tolerance, and sleep it all off before another big day tomorrow.
That leisurely lifestyle was the only one I’d ever known before I took off with The Bombers. It was how my mom and dad lived, and my brothers, and my uncles and my aunts and my cousins, and everyone else I knew back in St. Bart Bay. It was how I was supposed to live. So, it had come as quite the surprise to the whole lot of them when I’d taken off for New Orleans to sing back-up with some strangers I’d met online.
Well, my mom called them strangers. I’d called them friends.
Kind of sucked that she’d been right. That’s the thing about moms, though, isn’t it? You never want them to be right. But it seems like they usually are. At least, my mom’s that way. Your mileage may vary.
The road quieted for a few minutes, no traffic in sight. It was almost calming: this empty strip of pavement marching through the sea. Water to my right, water to my left. On the right was a bright stretch of turquoise water, its gentle swells lapping against a short but serviceable white-sand beach, where a few spunky coconut palms were waving their fronds in the sea breeze. Beyond the shallow water, the Florida Straits stretched out to the horizon. No land until Cuba.
To the left, the water was deep blue, slapping gently against a grass-choked shore. Mangrove islands popped up across narrow channels, small hummocks of brush dotted with white birds. I understood water like that: not swamp, but not open sea, either. A waterlogged landscape, with islands which were more the tangled roots of trees than dry sand.
And running right up the middle: the sun-faded pavement of U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway. I stood along the roadside and gazed up the road’s center line, the two colors of sea blinking on either side of me. They merged again in the distance, the shocking brightness of Caribbean turquoise swallowed up by the darker water. But I felt like I’d seen their secrets. I knew they had different beginnings, those two seas.
A rumble from behind me signaled oncoming traffic. I put out my thumb reflexively, not bothering to look over my shoulder. They weren’t going to stop. No one stopped. Not the tourists in their white rental cars, heading back to Miami so they could fly home to parts north and forget their Floridays, the corresponding Jimmy Buffett playlist they’d played on repeat all holiday disappearing forever. Not the fishermen in their pickups. Not the snowbirds in their Buicks and their Cadillacs, zipping between the islands to buy groceries and pick up prescriptions.
The truck went by, a boatless model this time, although it had a big hitch on the back, and a diving flag decal on the rear window—those two were common markers of Monroe County truckdom. I was still studying the dents in the back bumper when the brake lights flashed on, and the truck pulled over onto the narrow, sandy shoulder.
Uh-oh, I thought. I got something on the line.
Hope it doesn’t have teeth.
* * *
A woman unfolded herself from the truck and walked back towards me. She looked like a typical Conch, just aging away in the sun. A turquoise tank top set off her dark tan and freckled chest, and her cut-off khaki shorts had seen their share of fish guts and motor oil, judging by the stains. She was wearing a sturdy pair of hiking sandals. In the Conch Republic, flip-flops were not required, but socks and shoes were never the correct choice. Her gray and brown hair was drawn back into a ponytail, and the strands bulged in protest, humidity fluffing it into a wild bush.
She looked kind of like my mom.
She looked the way I figured I’d look in thirty years, give or take a decade of hard living.
She also had kind, pale blue eyes which fastened on me as she stopped a short distance away. A respectful distance. She tipped her head. “You crazy, girl?”
I loosened the strap of my backpack and let it fall to the ground, rubbing at my sore shoulder. Life had been easier when both straps were working. “No, just dumb,” I said ruefully.
She chuckled. “Where you headed?”
“North,” I said simply. That was usually enough. A direction was all anyone offering a ride needed to know, in my opinion. And I’d been hitching since I was fifteen, which was a solid eleven years, thanks for asking, so I had a pretty informed opinion on the subject.
But the saltwater in her veins wasn’t cold enough to just let me off the hook with a simple cardinal direction. “North where?”
“By northeast, judging by the road ahead,” I joked, pointing up U.S. 1. The highway didn’t actually turn north until it hit the mainland—or Key Largo, which a lot of the Lower Keys folks seemed to think was the mainland.
She wasn’t having it. “Honey, I’m trying to find out if you’ve got a problem you need help with.”
The word problem was gently stressed.
She meant a man.
“He’s not my problem anymore.” I smiled gamely, to let her know it was fine. My heart wasn’t ripped out or anything. Just stomped on a little. It was my pride that needed worrying about. “You heard of the Saltwater and Sunsets Music Festival? Over the weekend down in Key West?”
She nodded. “Sure. Another big tourist weekend in Key West. They have a way of drawing all the drivers right past the other islands.”
She sounded almost…bitter? As if she wanted some of the tourists to stay. Well, that wasn’t the normal reaction. Now I was curious. Curious enough to hitch my bag back over my shoulder and keep talking. “I was down for that, performing. Only now I’m not in the band anymore. So I need a way home. Think you could just get me a few more miles up the road? I can camp on the beach if I don’t find my way all the way to Miami.”
I didn’t really know what I’d do in Miami. Maybe give up, call my mom, beg for a plane ticket home. I’d rather do almost anything else. Clean toilets. Rake seaweed. Pick up garbage. Whatever it took to avoid groveling. I was prepared for something good to happen, just in case the universe wanted to go off-script for an afternoon.
“Well, if you want to keep going north, sure,” the woman agreed. She looked me over again, from my sandals to my straw hat. “Or if you want to stop for a night or two and get your head back on straight, you can stay at the ranch. I find folks always feel good after they’ve spent some time talking to my horses.”
The word ranch was unexpected. I would have been less surprised if she’d suggested I stay overnight in her hot-air balloon. I looked from side to side: the dark water of the bay, the turquoise of the strait. Then back and forth, up and down this narrow road, running through the narrow chunk of coral and coquina that passed for dry land in this sunken part of the world. Still didn’t make sense. I asked, politely as I could, “The ranch?”
And that was what did it: the faded blue in her eyes positively sparkling, the smile on her face as warm and welcoming as if I’d found out the secret password. “Yes, ma’am. I run Sea Horse Ranch,” she announced. “Name’s Crystal Linney.” She took a few steps closer and held out a calloused, sun-dotted hand. I took it.
“Katie LeBlanc,” I replied, feeling the steely strength in her hand. “I’m a retired singer.”
“Retired!” She looked me up and down with surprise. “Honey, you look pretty young for retirement.”
“Well, it isn’t by choice,” I said, grinning to take the sting out. “But you know how it is. Tough world out there.”
“It sure is,” Crystal Linney agreed. “It sure is. That’s why I try to avoid it, best as I can.”
Crystal took back her hand, her expression still bemused. “I don’t know, though, retired? You look a little young to be using the r word.”
I spread my hands innocently. “Sometimes you get forced out, y’know? I’m just trying to keep a positive outlook on life. Everyone wants to be retired, right?”
Crystal grinned and beckoned me to follow her as a semi-trailer blew past, scattering gravel. “Come on. Let’s get out of the shoulder before one of us ends up roadkill.”
Well, I’d made my choice. And while I usually liked to ride in the back of a pickup—with hitching, quick getaways can be the name of the game—I gamely climbed up into the passenger side of Crystal’s truck. It was an old Chevy with a bench seat covered by a brightly colored Navajo blanket, a lot of sand and grass clippings on the rubber floor mats, and a pile of mail in the middle.
“Don’t mind the mess,” Crystal advised, unembarrassed. “I pick up the mail in town once a week and forget it.”
“Where’s town?” I put my backpack at my feet. A little grass wouldn’t hurt it, not after the places that bag had already gone with me. “Key West?”
“You got it. Even though I live closer to Big Pine.”
I remembered Big Pine Key from the drive south. I’d wanted to creep into the back streets behind U.S. 1, maybe find some of those elusive Key Deer that people talked so much about. But I didn’t know if the locals would welcome some hitchhiker wandering their quiet neighborhoods. Back in St. Bart Bay, a vagrant got told which road to take on their way out of town, and they were watched until they were a tiny dot in the distance.
“And where’s the…the ranch?” I asked, finding a hard time getting my mind around using that word out here. Crystal was pulling back onto U.S. 1, and a long bridge loomed ahead, connecting this little piece of sand with the next little piece of sand. Water spread all around us, sparkling in the southern sun. Where could there be a ranch out here?
“It’s just a few miles up this way, then over a couple little bridges on the bay side.” Crystal smiled to herself. “I call it Sea Horse Ranch. But we’re actually on a little island called Hell and Dammit Cay.”
“You’re on what?”
“Hell and Dammit,” she repeated, confirming I hadn’t heard her wrong. “Funny, right? Some old cuss named it that because he kept wrecking his shrimp boat on a reef just offshore. Then some government fellas came around when they was laying out the post office codes or something, and they asked for the name, wrote it down, and that’s what we got. Hell and Dammit Cay. That’s cay like key, by the way. Spelled C-A-Y but not pronounced that way. Don’t get it wrong, or you’ll sound like a tourist.”
I was almost afraid to ask Crystal anything else. So much to take in. A ranch. On an island named by an angry, mildly profane fisherman. And not for nothing, but apparently I’d been pronouncing the word cay wrong for like, a really long time. What else would I get wrong if I opened my mouth?
I decided I’d better just settle down and enjoy the view.
Crystal seemed fine with my silence. She pointed out places of interest as we passed them. “That there’s Half-Moon Beach. Roy Ellis caught a shark off that pier once that was filled with gold jewelry. No one ever explained how a shark could eat that much jewelry.” She chuckled to herself, then pointed at a low, brown building with several trucks parked in the sandy lot out front. “That’s the Slutty Mermaid Saloon. It doesn’t have a sign. That’s to keep the tourists away. Plus, if they put up a sign with that name, the morality police would probably go nuts. We got all types down here. Puritans and prostitutes. And look there—that’s the palm tree that my neighbor Marchant Davis tied up to when Hurricane Betty raised the water so fast, he was carried out to sea while he was still taking the sails down off his boat.”
I had to admit of all that crazy, the tree thing really got me. The palm tree was all by itself on a mound of sand at least twenty feet above the water. That palm tree was probably the highest point in the Florida Keys. I could see it surviving a storm surge, its fronds fluttering gamely, but, still, I was skeptical that someone could’ve tied their sailboat that high above solid ground. “Oh, now, that can’t be true.”
“I saw it with my own eyes, when I rowed over to check on poor old Marchant before the water went down,” Crystal informed me. “And there’s a photo of it hanging behind the bar of the Slutty Mermaid. Everything here was under water.”
“What about the ranch? Wasn’t it underwater?”
For a moment, Crystal’s easy-going expression slipped. “Well, the houses out there have stilts,” she said. “And we didn’t have any horses back then. Just goats. We took the goats with us up into the house and they were fine. Marchant replaced my floors, though. That floor wasn’t fine, believe me. I got rid of the blame things after that. Never again, I said.” She rested an elbow on the truck door and leaned her cheek on her hand, looking thoughtful. “We don’t get many storm surges that cover the islands, though.”
Then and there, I resolved I wouldn’t bring up hurricanes again. The big storms were a constant threat during the long, sultry summers in St. Bart Bay, too. We mostly dealt with them by building dikes and putting houses on stilts, but only one of those options would work out in the Keys, and I didn’t think horses would appreciate climbing up the stairs of a barn on stilts. They’d have to evacuate the horses to higher ground if a storm surge was forecast. Couldn’t be easy trying to get out of here in a normal car, with only one road for all these islands. It would be worse with a trailer full of horses, I was sure.
Just a few dozen feet past the Slutty Mermaid, Crystal turned down a narrow road paved only in sand and some kind of pulverized stone, shimmering white in the sunlight. I’d noticed these white roads in other parts of Florida; someone at a gas station outside Daytona Beach had told me it was likely limestone rock or crushed coquina, which was a crumbling blend of fossilized shells and prehistoric sands. It had a washboard surface in a few places, and deep pools of milky colored rainwater in the occasional pothole.
We were on a wide island, no trace of the bay on either side of the road, but instead there were deep, narrow ditches lining either side. The black water in their depths hinted at disappearing bodies and creatures of unusual size. This was something else I’d noticed about Florida: it wasn’t all palm trees and bikinis at all. Driving south in the band’s van, taking old highways to avoid expensive toll roads, I looked out at those ditches and vast swamps and figured those, more than anything else, were what gave Florida its endless potential for crazy crime. Things could just vanish in Florida.
I could vanish, if I kept on hitch-hiking here. Or if Crystal turned out to be a murderer. Anything was possible. But I pushed that thought out of my head.
Palms and occasional stands of bamboos grew thick behind the ditches. Little driveways humped over the moats from time to time, and rusting mailboxes proved not everyone had to haul down to Key West to get their catalogs and bills. I tried to peer down the driveways, but mostly just saw flashes of tantalizing color through the thick foliage.
“The houses here are pretty bright,” I observed, after seeing a coral-pink house through a quick break in the brush.
“Folks like to go their own way here,” Crystal said. “You move out onto these islands, no homeowner’s association is telling you what color to paint your house. Now, look here, this is the first bridge.”
Only one lane wide, and just about twelve feet long, the little concrete bridge made a disconcerting hum when the truck passed over it. Crystal laughed at my expression. “It’s a solid bridge, I swear. We call it the Humming Bridge.” I could hear the capital letters in her voice. “When it stops making that noise, that’s when we got trouble. Means something’s shifted and we gotta get a county engineer to come look.”
“What causes the humming?”
“Something about the rocks on either side, Marchant says.”
“The guy with the boat.”
“Well, we all have boats. But yeah, the hurricane boat. That’s Marchant. He has the place across the road from me. Old friend of mine. The best.” Crystal smiled to herself.
The island we were on now was even more intensely jungly than the last one, with only a few houses visible through thickets of palms and thickly leaved vines. I caught glimpses of coquina walls, an occasional boat resting quietly at a short pier. They didn’t even seem to be bobbing on the glassy waters. “So, which island is this?” I asked.
“This is Little Bucket Key. With a k, this time.”
“Why are some spelled like key and some like cay?” I pronounced ‘cay’ the wrong way on purpose this time.
“Depends on who wrote it down first,” Crystal explained. “Lotta the early folks here didn’t really know much spelling. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”
We passed a mailbox with a red bucket turned over atop the post. “And that’s the little bucket,” Crystal said, and I didn’t even question it.
This was the Keys. Nothing was too weird to be true.
“Here’s the last bridge,” she said, pointing ahead. Also single-lane, but somewhat longer, the bridge to Hell and Dammit Cay sat low over the blue-green channel it crossed. It wouldn’t take much of a flood to cover that bridge, I thought. No wonder Marchant Davis tried to float away from the hurricane on his boat.
This bridge didn’t hum. But it did seem to tremble a bit. Crystal said nothing about the gentle wobble, and I decided not to bring it up. The water was shallow when you came right down to it.
“And here’s Hell and Dammit,” she said proudly as the truck’s tires connected with sand again and I permitted my clenched fists to relax. “A real hidden gem, we call it.” She braked to give me a moment to take it in.
I looked around. The island was small, and far more cleared out than Little Bucket Key. I could see the far shore ahead of us, less than a half-mile away, though the road ended well before that. Scruffy grass covered the ground between the road’s end and the rocky shore. The island seemed to be divided into quadrants, and four stilted houses rose from along the waterside. They’d been built to be identical, but I could tell their owners’ distinct personalities had altered them over the years.
There were some good plantings of tropical hardwood trees and pretty flowering hedges along the road, plus some clusters of plain-Jane Sabal palms, like the ones that grew up in St. Bart Bay. If there were horses, or a ranch, I couldn’t see them. I guessed the thick foliage along the roadside was blocking the view.
Closer to the bridge we’d just crossed, the shorelines on either side ran away from the road with brief, tan-colored beaches. Tall white egrets and stilt-legged sandpipers stalked the sands. From a nearby rock, a green iguana regarded me leisurely. I blinked at it for a moment. It was the largest lizard I’d ever seen: at least six feet long, from horny nose to black-tipped tail.
Crystal chuckled and pointed over her steering wheel. “So just ahead and to the right, behind those banyan trees, is where my fencing begins. The yellow house you can see there is mine. And on the left, in that blue house, is where Marchant lives, and then just beyond that, in the pink house, that’s Stacy. You’ll love Stacy,” Crystal added comfortably, as if I was coming for an extended stay.
“Who lives in the fourth house?” I asked. “The sorta gray one?”
“No one,” Crystal said. “That was my dad’s house. It’s falling apart inside. Dunno when we’ll ever have enough money to fix it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
Crystal shrugged. “We got enough for us,” she said.
Then the truck moved past the trees and showed me the full, startling expanse of Sea Horse Ranch, and I forgot about the abandoned house.
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Find Sea Horse Ranch at all major ebook and paperback retailers beginning January 18th, 2022.