Blurb: When a coffin arrives on Annie Corday’s doorstep she knows who sent it—her former husband, one of Chicago’s most vicious crime lords. Desperate, she decides on a radical solution. If a man can advertise for a wife, why can’t she arrange for a bodyguard and temporary husband?
Jake Williams isn’t looking for a wife when he comes to Chicago to buy cattle but ends up roped into a loco marriage contract. And worse, he can’t stop his headlong fall into love with a woman who will eventually leave.
By the time Jake returned from the barn, Annie was at the range. He quickly learned that she liked it quiet in the morning, a slow waker. He knew enough about women to not provoke her and quietly ate. The thin, fragile pancakes filled with blackberry preserves were worthy of reverent silence.
He put his plate in the dry sink and went to get his hat. He hesitated at the door, toying with the brim, while trying to judge if she was ready for conversation. He gave up worrying about it and went out.
She surprised him when she joined him on the porch. In the quiet, they watched morning’s shy light spread its warmth across the land. The sharp scents of ragweed and dew-drenched foliage permeated the air. Gentle lowing of cattle drifted up from the pastures below.
He looked over at Annie. She gazed out at the new day and glory of a Colorado summer sunrise. She no longer looked grumpy.
He tugged his hat into place and pulled a pair of gloves from his back pocket. “Thanks for breakfast, Annie. And last night. Your word is good. I haven’t eaten like that in a long time.”
Not since Mother, but he wouldn’t tell her that. No sense in giving her a swelled head.
She stared sleepily at the spectacular view. “Thank you. Will you buy a milk cow?”
“Sorry. I don’t milk cows. I can have the neighbors bring milk over twice a week.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to have a cow?”
“Are you willing to milk it every morning and night?”
That woke her up. He wisely swallowed a laugh when she scowled. He couldn’t tell if she was annoyed about his refusal to buy the cow or the idea of getting up early to milk it.
“Very well, sir. No cow, but I was accustomed to fresh milk every day and always kept a Jersey in the barn.”
“Plenty of cream,” she shot back.
“No cow, Annie. I spent enough years as a ranch hand to have developed a snobbish attitude about milking. Farmers milk cows. Ranchers breed’em.”
She gave up the argument with a sigh and turned back to the view. Jake started to leave, got half way to the barn and came back.
“Annie, do you know how to shoot?”
“Can you drive a team or a single hitch buggy?”
“Yes, and I can ride.”
“Well, that’s something. But you’ll have to learn how to shoot.”
She made an owlish face. “I think not.”
“Annie,” he began, careful to remove all traces of condescension from his tone, “there’s no choice. You have to learn.”
“Give me one reason why.”
“First off, it’s August. The heat draws the rattlers to the water trough and the well out back. Come September, or when the weather turns wet, they won’t be a bother.”
“Are you speaking of rattlesnakes?”
“Yes. They like the water when the heat gets bad.”
“Very well, then. I shall learn.”
“Tomorrow,” he succinctly warned.
“Why so soon?”
“Because, Annie, it’s hot and likely to stay like this for another three weeks.”
She huffed a sigh, letting him know she would do as he asked but that he’d spoiled her morning.
She suffered through her first weaponry lesson the next day. Her target was a dead tree. Jake demonstrated with a pistol, showing how easy it was for him to shoot off tiny twigs she could barely see and certainly had no interest in killing.
She took the Colt.44 from him and managed to hit everything surrounding the tree but not the tree itself. The pistol weighed too much for her wrist. His army issue revolver wobbled in her feeble grip, even when she used both hands. By the time he told her to stop, she was ready to give up and happily set the pistol on a tree stump. She hadn’t counted on his annoying determination.
He withdrew a rifle from a fringed buckskin case. “Here. This is a Remington D-Ring.”
Exasperated by yet another weapon to fuss with, she made an impatient noise. “How many guns do you have?”
“This is a rifle, not a gun.” Before she could ask, he explained. “It has to do with the interior design of the barrel.”
She huffed an aggrieved sigh and confronted the rifle. Smooth brass pegs had been hammered into the stock for decoration. The unexpected weight of it almost slipped through her fingers and toppled her to the ground. She gamely hoisted it up.
He showed her how to fit it to her shoulder. Standing behind her, he reached around and adjusted the position. She instantly lost the ability to concentrate. His entire body was wrapped around hers, huge and enveloping her within his heat. His breath brushed her cheek. When he correctly positioned her hands, his fingers felt raspy yet gentle. The solid ridge of his thigh supported her hip. The implacable wall of his torso braced her back. She tried to think about what he was saying, but his scent and heat and presence were making her head spin.
She heard his patient directions from a distance and tried to focus on his deep, whispery voice. “Squeeze it, Annie. Slow and easy. Don’t jerk on it. Just slide your finger over it. Here. I’ll show you how.”
His finger covered hers against the trigger. An explosion slammed into her head, her body rammed backward into his chest. The spot where the rifle stock fit against her shoulder felt like she’d been kicked by a horse. But there was a hole in the center of the tree.
Stepping back, he said, sounding oddly hoarse, “Now you try it without me.”
And she did, many times. She listened, forcing attention and persistence, while he explained how to load and clean the rifle. He didn’t stand closely again, but stood a little behind her, ready to support or catch her after the impact of the recoil.
At bedtime, she used a hand mirror to study the bruises on her sore shoulder, quite proud of the smudges. She could barely lift her arm, but she knew how to shoot. Not that she could hit much. The only time the tree had anything to fear was when Jake helped her to aim, but he’d only done that once. She pretended not to feel any disappointment about that, nor about the fact that Harold had yet to wire her about what was happening in Chicago.
That night she dreamed that Charles had come to the peaceful valley, vowing to keep her there forever. Jake was in Chicago at the Clark Street house, happy as a lark, soaking in the black marble tub, fully clothed.
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)