Hill Country Texas
The distinct sound of metal snapping loudly before cracking back into place jerked Cal awake. He knew that sound. Everyone knew that sound. His heart hammered in his chest with the knowledge that someone had just cocked a shotgun.
And he was pretty sure it was at him.
He blinked rapidly against the bright sunlight that pierced his eyes like laser beams. In the next second, he realized that he was lying on the ground. Cal raised his hand to block the sun. That’s when he saw someone standing five feet from him. His gaze moved from well-worn boots, up
slim, jean-clad legs, to the red plaid button-down, unbuttoned to reveal the white tank top underneath. It wasn’t until Cal’s eyes locked on the woman’s face that his heart skipped a beat.
She was stunning. Utterly exquisite. Powder blue eyes that reminded him of a clear, summer sky glared at him with annoyance. Wavy brunette locks gently ruffled by a soft breeze fell from beneath the straw Stetson. Her delicate, heart-shaped face, pronounced cheekbones, and slim neck gave her a fragile, almost vulnerable appearance.
But there was nothing weak about the gun aimed at him.
He wanted to know her name and everything about her. He couldn’t wait to hear her voice. With one look, he was captivated. It was a good thing he was already on the ground. He
was that struck by her. Cal couldn’t remember the last time a female had left him so dumbstruck. Then again, he had never encountered such a woman before.
He hadn’t known that someone could feel this way just by looking at another. Someone should’ve warned him.
“What are you doing on my land?” she demanded.
Damn. Her voice was just as sexy as he imagined it would be. If her voice was that good, how would her laugh be? He swallowed in an effort to collect his thoughts, but his mouth felt like cotton. What he wouldn’t do for some water. But he wasn’t stupid enough to ask. His head throbbed mercilessly, made worse by the sunlight. He held both hands up, palms out, showing her that he wasn’t a threat.
“I asked you a question.”
The way she held the shotgun told him that she knew how to use it—and she wouldn’t hesitate. Once again, he attempted to swallow before saying, “I . . . don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” she repeated doubtfully. “You don’t know why you came onto my land and stole a horse?”
“What? I-I would never steal a horse. I swear. I don’t know how I got here,” he hastened to say as he searched his fuzzy memories. “I . . . well, I had a bad day yesterday. At least, I think it was yesterday.” He tried to remember, but it was all a haze. She blew out an irritated breath. “I suppose that bad day is why you reek of alcohol?”
He nodded, which was a mistake since the pain in his head doubled.
“My guess is that you were so inebriated, you were unsuccessful in stealing one horse, but you did open the gate to another.”
Cal glanced at the barrel of the gun she still had aimed at him with steady, sure hands. “I apologize, ma’am, for being on your property, but I’d never steal a horse. The last thing
I remember is being in town at Ike’s.”
“That bar is not only in a seedy location, but the clientele is questionable, as well.”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. My name is Cal Bennett. I’m a bull rider. Or, at least, I was. I didn’t qualify at the Bandera rodeo this past weekend to move on to the next round.”
“Forgive me if I don’t cry in my beer,” she replied as she lowered the gun so it pointed at the ground instead of at his chest. “Get on your feet and off my land. I’ve got a horse to find. And you can tell whoever sent you that my answer hasn’t changed.”
Cal sat up, the movement causing his head to feel as if hundreds of tiny jackhammers drilled into his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut, though her last words confused him. To the point where he felt compelled to say, “No one sent me.”
“I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard enough lies recently to last a lifetime.”
His stomach roiled violently. The last thing he wanted to do was get sick in front of this woman.
As displeased as she was—with reason—he feared she just might shoot him. He swallowed, praying that his head stopped pounding, and his stomach would ease long enough for him to get to his vehicle.
“I’ll be happy to leave. Just point me in the direction of my truck.”
She glanced away as she murmured, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Then her blue eyes locked on him. “I haven’t seen your truck.”
“Then . . . how did I get here?” he asked in confusion.
She glared at him for several tense seconds. “I. Don’t. Know. What I do know is that I want you gone. Immediately. If I see you on my land again, I’ll shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Understood,” he said as his stomach roiled again. He parted his lips, breathing through his mouth.
“You can’t even stand up, can you?”
He heard the frustration and exasperation in the sigh that followed her words. Cal had done several idiotic things in his life, but trespassing was a first. “I . . . just need a moment.”
When she didn’t demand that he get to his feet, Cal lay back on the ground and closed his eyes. His stomach eased enough that he wasn’t worried about getting sick, but he knew from past experience that his headache wouldn’t ease for hours. His mind drifted as he fought to sober up. The ground was hard, and the morning sun was already warm and rapidly headed toward
sweltering—and the day would only get hotter.
How in the hell had he ended up on a ranch? The last memory he could dredge up in his hazy mind was sitting at the bar at Ike’s, doing his damnedest to drink his cares away. Apparently, he had succeeded. It didn’t bode well that he couldn’t remember anything. It had been ages since he’d drunk so much that he blacked out. And given how he felt, this was likely the last time he’d
do it. He was getting too old for such idiocy.
Cal’s eyes jerked open for a second time when he realized that her voice was nearer. He found her squatting beside him.
“I’ve got work to do. Do you want help getting to your feet, or should I let you attempt it on your own?” she asked icily.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” he replied. “You were just pointing a gun at me.”
“I could still shoot you.”
He found his lips curving into a smile, and damned if he didn’t see a grin pull at her mouth as well before she turned her head away. He took her outstretched hand. From his vantage point on the ground, she didn’t look that tall or strong enough to be able to do much. He soon discovered that he was wrong.
She not only got him to his feet in one movement, but she also steadied him by taking most of his weight. Her arm wrapped around his waist while her other hand held the shotgun. The top of her hat barely reached his chin. That was when he realized that his Stetson was missing.
He wanted to ask her name, but he wasn’t sure if he should push her if she weren’t willing to offer it up. Her comment about someone sending him was troubling. He hadn’t been
Or had he?
recall how he had gotten to the ranch, much less why. Then there was the case of him supposedly trying to steal a horse. That in and of itself was enough for her to shoot him over. Horse stealing was never taken lightly. It didn’t matter what century it was.
He had to lean most of his weight on her as she began walking. The world tilted and swam before his eyes. It took all his concentration to put one foot in front of the other. He
didn’t want to fall. He’d already made a fool of himself. The least he could do was remain standing. It was by sheer will alone that he didn’t allow his wobbly legs to buckle. He desperately wanted to act proper and be a gentleman. Maybe because the last person who’d looked at him with such disapproval had been his grandmother, and she had demanded
those things in him.
Cal wanted to rejoice when they finally reached her enclosed, six-seater Polaris Ranger 1000 UTV. Not only because he was able to get out of the sun to shade his eyes, but also because
he could sit. She reached into the back and grabbed something.
“I suppose this is yours?”
He opened his eyes long enough to see his favorite black Stetson. It was dirty and covered in dust, but it was once more in his hands. “It is. Thanks.”
She said nothing as she started the UTV and put it in gear. He slumped in the seat and closed his eyes. The drive back to the ranch was bumpy as they headed up and down the hills. Cal had a few close calls where he feared he might vomit. Somehow, he managed to keep whatever
remained of his battered dignity.
When the vehicle slowed, he cracked open his eyes. He expected to see a house or barns. But they were still in the middle of nowhere. The woman put the UTV in park before she got out. Cal watched through cracked eyelids as she walked to the nearby creek and squatted to inspect something.
Suddenly, the birds got quiet. Too quiet. The hairs on the back of Cal’s neck rose. He slowly sat up, fully alert while his gaze moved around the dense growth of trees and brush that surrounded them. He didn’t see anything, but he didn’t need to. The animals had warned him. Cal’s gaze returned to the woman as a soft gust of wind ruffled the foliage. She was out in the open with nothing to shield her.
No sooner had that thought gone through his head than he heard the pop. Without thinking, he jumped out of the vehicle and rushed up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and taking her to the ground as a second pop followed. As they fell, Cal looked to where she had been and saw the bullet ricochet off the rock.
“Are you hit?” he asked in a whisper.
She shook her head.
When he glanced at her, he saw that her face was pale, and she was shaking. His attention returned to the spot next to the creek to see what she had been investigating. He spotted
a horse halter that looked as if someone had cut it.
“Do you have hunters on your property?”
She shook her head again.
Unease filled him. Was he still drunk, or had he just witnessed someone attempting a murder?
“We need to get back to the UTV,” he told her. “It’ll offer us some protection. Can you walk?”
“Of course,” she snapped.
He didn’t take her sharp words personally. He would probably do the same if someone had just tried to kill him. Cal released her. Together, they got to their feet and hurried to the vehicle. Her hands shook when she started the engine and put the UTV in drive. Cal searched the area where he thought the shooter had been as they sped away, but he didn’t see anything.
Whether he wanted it or not, he was now sober. His head still hurt, and his stomach needed food to soak up the alcohol, but he was well and truly clearheaded.
They rode in silence until he spotted roofs in the distance. When they reached the homestead, he noted how well-maintained the fences, corrals, and barns were. The house was older but impressive with its rustic beams and columns around the porch. The white limestone found so prevalently in the area gave the domicile a grand appearance. He particularly loved the wide porch that included rocking chairs and even a swing. Cal could imagine how nice it would be to sit on the porch as dusk settled over the land.
The UTV jerked to a halt. His head swung to the woman to find her blue eyes focused on him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’m glad I was there.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Dillon. Dillon Young.”
He shook with her, the feel of her skin against his like a punch to the gut. He blinked, trying to discern what had just happened, and gave her a nod. “Nice to meet you.”
“I don’t know if you just happened to stumble onto my land, or if you were sent. Regardless, you saved me today, and I owe you.”
“I wasn’t sent,” he replied, holding her gaze so she knew he meant every word. “You owe me nothing. I did what anyone would do.”
She glanced away. “Hardly.”
“Has someone shot at you before?”
She shook her head and gripped the steering wheel tightly. “He did shoot at me, didn’t
“Yes, ma’am, he did.”
Her head turned at the sound of her name. Cal spotted an older man striding toward them. He was bowlegged with wrinkled skin that looked like old leather from years out in the sun. The hair peeking out of his brown Stetson was solid white, matching his bushy eyebrows. His light brown eyes were clear and intense. He sported a handlebar mustache that matched his hair and completely covered his upper lip. Despite his obvious age, he moved like a young man, covering ground quickly.
“What happened?” he demanded as he reached Dillon. There was concern on his face as he looked her over. “You’re pale.”
Then the man’s gaze slid to Cal and lingered for a moment. When Dillon shook her head as if she wouldn’t answer, Cal took it upon himself to do so. “There was an incident. Someone
shot at her.”
“Dillon,” the old man admonished and removed his hat as he shook his head in shock.
“I’m fine,” she answered woodenly.
But it was obvious she wasn’t.
Cal cleared his throat and held out his hand across Dillon to the man. “I’m Cal Bennett. Apparently, I got drunk last night and wandered onto the ranch. Dillon found me passed
out this morning.”
“Emmett Perkins,” he replied as they shook. “I’ve worked at the Bar 4 Ranch since I was fourteen. Worked my way up to ranch manager,” he replied with a smile. “I’m honestly
surprised Dillon didn’t shoot you.”
“It was close,” Cal said with a grin. He glanced at Dillon to find her staring off into the distance. His smile faded as he thought about what could have happened had he not pulled her out of the way.
Emmett cleared his throat as his gaze darted to Dillon. “How close was it?”
Cal didn’t need to ask for clarification. “There were two pops. I didn’t see where the first landed. Most likely, it went into the water. There was a shift in the wind, and I think
that’s the only reason it missed. The second ricocheted off the rock where she had been.”
“Had been?” Emmett asked with his shaggy eyebrows raised.
Dillon replied. “Cal jerked me out of the way.”
“These things can’t keep happening,” Emmett said.
Cal frowned. Keep? Had Emmett just said keep? He didn’t want to ask since he was a trespasser on the ranch, but he couldn’t help but feel involved after witnessing things firsthand.
“I’m fine,” Dillon said and climbed out of the vehicle.
“You wouldn’t be,” Cal said as he followed suit and walked around the front of the UTV. “You were out there by yourself. If you had been shot, who’s to say you would’ve been able to
get back? Who’s to say that whoever was there wouldn’t have stayed to finish the job?”
“He’s got a point,” Emmett said.
Dillon put her hands on her hips and faced Cal.
Before she could reply, he said, “You need someone to patrol.”
“That’s a fine idea,” Emmett said. “You up for the job?”
Cal blinked. He had no money, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. But did he want to get involved in whatever was going on? He looked into Dillon’s powder blue eyes and recalled
how she had shaken in his arms after being shot at. How the mere touch of her had run through him like lightning. There was no way he would walk away. Not after finding someone like her.
“Yes,” Cal answered.
Copyright © 2022 by Donna Grant