Red's Hot Cowboy

By: Carolyn Brown

Chapter 1

 The lights went out in Henrietta, Texas.

 Everything west of the bridge into town was black: no streetlights and very few humming generators. But the flashing neon sign advertising the Longhorn Inn motel still flickered on and off, showing a bowlegged old cowboy wearing six guns, a ten-gallon hat, and a big smile as he pointed toward the VACANCY sign at his feet.

 Santa Claus and a cold north wind kept everyone inside that Christmas Eve night and there were no customers, which was fine with the new owner, Pearl Richland. She could cuss, stomp, and pout about operating a damn motel in north Texas rather than spending the holiday in Savannah with her southern relatives, and no one would hear a thing. Not even her mother, who had told her she was making the biggest mistake of her life when she quit her banking job in Durant, Oklahoma, and moved to Henrietta, Texas.

 “Entrepreneur! Running a fifty-year-old motel and cleaning rooms is not an entrepreneur. You are ruining your life, Katy Pearl Richland,” her mother had said.

 But Pearl had always loved the time she spent at the motel when she was a kid, and after sitting at the loan officer’s desk in a bank, she had a hankering to be on the other side. The one where she was the person with a new business and bright, fresh ideas as to how to improve it. Now she was, but it did have a price to pay. Pearl, the party girl, was now an entrepreneur and had more work than she could keep up with and hadn’t been out on a date in months. Hard work, she didn’t mind. Long hours, she didn’t mind. Online classes with research projects that took a chunk of her days, she didn’t mind. Not dating—that she minded a helluva lot.

 Pearl put the finishing touches on the assignments for the two online motel hospitality classes she was taking out of Midwestern University in Wichita Falls. One needed a few tweaks, but she’d have it done by New Year’s, and then she’d enroll in more courses, which would begin the middle of January.

 She was on her way to the kitchen to see if Santa Claus had left something wonderful like double fudge brownies in her cabinet when all hell broke loose. She thought about that guy in the poem about the night before Christmas as she ran to the window and peeked out at all the vehicles crunching gravel under their wheels—cars, vans, trucks. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see a fat feller dressed in red with tiny reindeer stopping an oversized sleigh in amongst all those vehicles.

 She hustled back to the check-in counter and put on her best smile as she looked at the crowd pushing their way toward the door. The tiny lobby of the twenty-five-unit 1950s-style motel didn’t offer breakfast, not even donuts and coffee. That was something on her list for the future, right along with a major overhaul when she decided whether she wanted to go modern or rustic. It didn’t have a crystal chandelier or a plasma television. It did have two brown leather recliners with a small table between them. In addition to the recliners, it was now packed with people all talking so loudly that it overpowered the whistling wind of the Texas blue norther that had hit an hour earlier.

 She was reminded of Toby Keith’s song “I Love This Bar.” He sang about hookers, lookers, and bikers. Well, if he’d loved her motel instead of a bar he could have added a bride and groom, a pissed off granny who was trying to corral a bunch of bored teenage grandchildren, and sure enough there was Santa Claus over there in the corner. Pearl didn’t see anyone offering to sit on his chubby knees, but maybe that was because he’d taken off his hat and his fake beard. He was bald except for a rim of curly gray hair that ended, of all things, in a ponytail about three inches long at his neck.

 Pearl raised her voice. “Who was here first?”