The Cowboy’s Secret Romance
The rattle clued Clay in pretty quick.
The brittle sound echoed through the midday sun, seeming to expand in the heat waves coming off the brown rows of oats and come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
Clay “Preacher” Stryker had worked outside all his life. On his ranch in North Dakota, where rattlesnakes did not live, and all across Texas and the western plains, including his current location of Nebraska, where they did.
In all that time, he’d never heard that particular shaking and snapping sound, but it only took his brain about a tenth of a second to tell his body to freeze, one hand in the air, ready to grab the handle of the big combine he’d been about to climb into, and one foot lifted, six inches from the bottom step. The step under which the rattlesnake lay curled, its tail shaking out a warning, the wedge-shaped head pulled back, the forked tongue zipping in and out.
A rattlesnake bite wasn’t going to kill him, and his daughter, Gina, was safe in his pickup fifty feet away along the edge of the dirt road that ran to this field. But the work would have to stop while he drove himself to the nearest acute care facility and gritted his teeth while they did whatever it was they did for snakebites.
He’d heard of guys lying on the ground and allowing their bodies to deal with the venom without getting medical attention.
Except for Gina, the idea of lying out here, surrounded by the wide-open sky and miles of nothing but waving grain, appealed to him more than a care facility.
But he hadn’t been bitten yet, so he’d stop borrowing trouble and focus on winning the contest between man and snake.
It had been several millennia ago that the snake had won, big time.
The rattle shook the air again.
A spurt of adrenaline shot through his veins, narrowing his vision and focusing his thoughts.
Today, Clay had every intention of coming out the victor.
The head, shaped like a Native American arrowhead, with eyes that were soulless enough to be featured on the villain of the next Hollywood blockbuster, swayed back and forth as Clay slowly moved his boot down.
His ear registered a car motor, but he didn’t turn to look. He was supposed to be hiring a new cook and general errands person at some point today, which was why he’d left Gina in the pickup while he went to take a turn around the field so he could get a moisture test on the oats, but the thought barely registered before he dismissed it.
Focus on the snake.
His foot hardly moved, and it seemed to take forever to lower it to the ground. Either the adrenaline or fear was making the leg that held all his weight shake. He tried to control it. Snakes could sense vibrations.
A car door slammed, too light to be his pickup, so he knew it wasn’t Gina getting out.
His stomach tightened, and he wished he’d not just eaten lunch, since it seemed to back up in his throat.
He glanced around for a stick, a piece of pipe, anything that could be used as a weapon. In a lot of states, it was illegal to kill rattlers, since they were considered endangered.
Part of the trouble with traveling like he did with his harvest crew all through the Midwest was that he couldn’t remember which laws belonged to which states.
He was a bit of a stickler for following the law. That, and the fact that he not only believed the Bible, but read it and did his level best to live it, had earned him the nickname “Preacher.”
Clay didn’t mind the nickname, even if he didn’t use his mouth to preach. He preached with his life. Tried to, anyway.
He could blame his dad for that. Clay’d been thirteen when he’d died. He’d heard a thousand times if he’d heard once, “You live right so the kids coming after you see it and do what you do.”
He had other memories of his dad, but he felt he owed it to his mother to do the one thing his dad had requested over and over again. After all, including him she had eight children to raise without her husband. Counting the one she was carrying when he died.
This time, the door slamming was most definitely his pickup.
For the first time, real fear shot though him. “Gina, stay back,” he called without moving his eyes from the snake.
His voice made the head rear back even farther. The forked tongue waved and vibrated as it slid in and out of the reptile’s mouth.
“I’m back, Daddy.”
The snake moved again at her voice, and he raised one finger, from the hand that still hung in the air just six inches from the grab bar, hoping she would figure out that it meant for her to be quiet. He was still working on getting himself backed up and out of striking range.
She was eight and smart for her age, despite the drugs she’d been exposed to in the womb. She’d know to be quiet.
“Shh. Stay put. Give me a minute, Gee Gee.”
He’d just managed to get his foot on the ground and was slowly shifting his weight to it when he heard something that sounded very much like a shotgun being cocked.
He had a twenty gauge in his pickup. Unloaded. Although the shells were in the glove box. Gina knew how to use it, but she’d never shot it. The recoil would knock her on her butt and possibly break her shoulder. She was small for her age. Plus, she’d grown up with guns and would never touch it without permission.
He must have misheard.
There was a broom strapped to the side of the combine. He could use it to move the snake out of the way once he backed up enough that he could walk around.
He’d just managed to get enough weight on his back foot that he could start sliding his front foot back when a voice, low and close, startled him.
“Be still, rancher dude.”
A woman’s voice. Slightly husky and sounding like she’d grown up on the South Side of Chicago.
He wanted to whip his head around but resisted. Barely.
In the next second, a shotgun blast rent the air. The snake flew up and flopped back down on the ground with a thud. Its head barely attached to the body, red staining the dusty ground.
Clay spun in time to see the small woman slamming the next shell into the chamber and taking a quick second to aim before she pinched off another shot.
That one took the head clear off.
She made like she was going to shove another shell into the chamber.
“I think we can safely say it’s dead,” Clay murmured.
If the woman sounded like she belonged in Chicago, she looked even more like it. Her eyebrow was pierced along with her lip—a piercing that looked as much like a weapon, with its sharp, pointed tip, as a decoration. Her hair was jet black, tightly curled, and her skin was the golden brown of an October corn field ripe for harvest. Her jeans hugged her legs and had more holes than material. Her tight shirt showed an hourglass figure.
But it was the tattoo that poked out from behind her ear and curved around the side of her neck that tripped the switch in his brain.
“Reina?” he said. It was a question, but he already knew the answer. Gina’s mother had found him.