The Cowboy’s Convenient Marriage
One a.m. on Christmas morning.
Remington Martinez’s first white Christmas.
Texans in the panhandle probably saw the white stuff, but he was from southwest Texas. He’d spent the last two months on an Alaskan fishing boat, so this wasn’t his first rodeo, but it was definitely his first white Christmas.
If Ford Hanson had his way, it’d be Rem’s last Christmas as a single man.
He parked his three-quarter ton dually in front of the all-night gas station and walked inside. He didn’t need fuel, but he needed to stretch his legs. Grab a joe maybe. Although from what he’d experienced so far, northerners didn’t know how to make coffee. They seemed to use tweezers to measure the grounds instead of a spade shovel, the way coffee was meant to be made.
It wasn’t the only thing northerners didn’t get right, but it was his current gripe. That, and the cold.
His truck said -17. He’d never actually seen that little line in front of his truck’s temperature display until yesterday coming down out of Canada, which was like coming down out of another world.
’Course he was back in the good ol’ US of A, but he felt more like he’d moved into a Siberian village.
Maybe he looked like he was ready to spend the winter in Siberia. But the sleepy store clerk and the lady who walked in behind him carrying two children while a third trailed behind her weren’t wearing a fur-lined parka, insulated coveralls, and one thousand-gram insulated hiking boots like he was. Actually, from his limited experience with the hardy North Dakotans, he was somewhat surprised the woman wasn’t wearing flip-flops and a bikini.
The farther north he’d come, the odder folks had got.
The woman thanked him for holding the door for her and walked straight to the bathroom while he went to the coffee maker.
The stuff looked like weak tea, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and he wasn’t going to teach the entire northern part of the country to make good coffee tonight, so he reached for a cup.
But he didn’t pick it up because the little kid that had been trailing behind the woman passed the end of the aisle, heading toward the door.
Rem hesitated. He didn’t usually get mixed up in other folk’s business, but it was cowboy cold outside, and that little guy only had some kind of pajama thing on. Didn’t even have real shoes, just little footie things connected to his pants.
He’d never spent much time with kids—he didn’t allow his mind to go to the dark place where he remembered what his fiancée had done—and didn’t know much of anything about them. But shouldn’t he have a coat on at least?
The little guy pushed at the heavy door.
Rem’s eyes went to the store clerk. He sat on the stool by the register, his arms crossed over his chest, his head back, eyes closed, mouth open, snoring.
Rem glanced over at the bathroom. The door was closed.
He adjusted his hat and leaned down, looking out the window. A car with the parking lights on sat at a gas pump, like the woman might have fueled up before walking in. There wasn’t anyone in the passenger seat.
A set of headlights flashed from a car just pulling into the parking lot.
Rem couldn’t let the little guy go outside by himself with who knows what kind of stranger out there.
The kid hadn’t gotten the door open yet.
Just when Rem decided he might not have to worry about it because the kid couldn’t get out, the kid gave a huge shove, and the door popped open.
He took two long steps over to the kid, grabbed him by the seat of his pants, and swung him up under his arm. He didn’t exactly know how one was supposed to carry a kid that size, smaller than a newborn calf but bigger than his cattle dog.
The kid started screaming like he’d put a firecracker in his pants, so it probably wasn’t the way he was used to being carried.
Rem strode over to the bathroom, hoping to set the screaming thing down in front of the door, and hopefully his mother would be out before he could make it to the outside door again.
He should have known from all the years he’d worked with animals. One didn’t castrate a piglet within hearing distance of its mother. He’d seen nine hundred-pound sows climb a five-foot fence to get to their precious, squealing porkers. A sight like that helped a man find a way to drop the piglet and climb the nearest cottonwood.
But that angry sow didn’t have a thing on the human mamma that came barreling out of that restroom, a baby in each arm, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see a gun in her teeth, pointed at his privates with the trigger half squeezed.
A blast of cold air rocked the store as the outside door opened, but Rem didn’t take his eyes off the hollering woman in front of him. He closed his mouth over the explanation he’d been ready to give, dropped the kid, raised his hands in the air—despite her lack of a visible gun—and backed slowly away. He knew when he was outmatched.
The woman ducked forward and grabbed her offspring with one of the hands that still held a baby.
She glanced over at the door. “Watch this guy. He just tried to take my boy. Probably a child trafficker or molester or something. He’s obviously not from around these parts.”
How did she know he wasn’t from around these parts? Did he have it stamped on his forehead? He resisted the urge to touch his forehead under his hat brim and kept his hands in the air.
She didn’t have the smooth southern tones of women he was used to hearing, but he hadn’t gotten a word out of his mouth, so she wouldn’t know he didn’t have the clipped and jarring sound of a Yankee.
“Thanks for the warning. I left my other kids in the car with the motor running.” A voice, smooth as saddle leather and just a bit husky, came from his left, and he turned toward it, wondering at the stirring deep in the pit of his stomach.
A frail-looking woman, with hair as fair as his was black, wearing a long black skirt and a sparkling red top, like she’d just come from church, stood holding onto the hand of a boy not much bigger than the one he’d just tried to keep from walking outside and freezing to death. Not like anyone around here appreciated it.
“I’ll watch it for you, sister.” The woman who’d just come out of the bathroom huffed.
“Thanks, I’ll just be a minute.” The frail woman, with wrists maybe only twice as big around as his thumb, gave him a suspicious look before tugging on the hand of her child and keeping an eye on him as she walked to the bathroom. He kept his hands in the air, but his eyes tracked her as she moved. Her eyes were tired, her face careworn, but her movements were graceful and confident.
Still, she walked by him like he was a rat sticking its nose out of a hole.
He’d never felt so much like a criminal in his life before.
Apparently they put antifreeze in their veins come winter up here, since the red shirt that lady was wearing was short sleeved. Obviously the other kid hadn’t needed saving, either. Maybe his sleeper was made of heat tape.
At this point in time, he just wanted to get the tinted water these folks called coffee and finish the drive to his friend Ford’s home, where he’d stay for Christmas before getting directions to the home of his future wife. She apparently had four wild children, a dog that learned its manners north of the Mason-Dixon line, and a dilapidated home that was slightly more crooked than a DC politician. But she had a ranch and, as soon as she married him, a billion dollars. That was his paraphrase of Ford’s description.
Ford hadn’t actually told him what the woman herself looked like.
The bathroom door clicked, and the white-blond woman in the sparkling red shirt walked out holding tight to the hand of her little boy. Her eyes scanned the store until her gaze hooked on his.
He expected to see a return of the suspicion and disdain on her face. But like the time in the restroom had given her a minute to think things through, those emotions didn’t appear. Instead, her gaze was wary but thoughtful, too.
Rem had been a professional bull rider for over a decade. He thrived on the excitement and challenge. But he’d also learned to pay attention to the subtle signs.
He wasn’t in any danger of being attacked by this woman. For some reason, he wanted to defend himself, even though she wasn’t even the woman whose kid he’d saved.
But he’d learned, too, that a woman who looked soft and sweet could hurt him worse than a one-ton bull.
Actually, if he had to choose between his ex-fiancée, who was now his sister-in-law, and the one-ton bull…he’d take the bull, easy choice.
This woman’s ice-blue eyes, the color of which reminded him of the Texas sky at high noon, warmed him. Without thinking, the manners of his childhood kicked in.
He tipped his hat and said, “Merry Christmas, ma’am.”
It was almost imperceptible, but she slowed just a bit, and her brows twitched. Then she jerked her chin up, acknowledging his words, and walked out the door.