She paused in her pruning and wiped at her damp eyes with the back of her bare arm again, shuddering at the old memory. Why had he treated her so bad? Why had Momma died? The answers didn’t come to her now any easier than they had nine years ago.
The sudden sound of a vehicle in the drive drew her back to the present. She lowered the pruning shears as Dylan Quinn stopped by the gate. He climbed out of the pickup and headed in her direction with a distinctive limp.
Shielding her eyes with a gloved hand, she smiled. “Hi. You’re here. Good.”
He stopped under the cherry tree and took in the entire yard with one sweeping glance. His inspection also included her, and something fluttered in her belly. “My sister told me you wanted to see me.”
“Yes. You’re hired, and I’d like you to start today.” She pointed behind her. “There’s a snake in the lake over there. It couldn’t be too far from the edge. I want you to kill it. Then I’ll show you around.”
His lips twitched in a ghost of a smirk. “It was probably a little blotched or broad-banded water snake. They’re harmless and common.”
“Little? The thing was a good four feet long. And no snake is harmless.” When the meaning of the rest sank in, she shivered as the blood drained out of her face. “Common?”
“Yep.” He pushed back his dark brown Stetson, revealing some of his similarly colored short hair. “Water snakes are very common in this part of Texas. When I was a kid, I’d catch them from here and let them loose over on my granddad’s place to torment his wife.” His eyes twinkled at the memory. “Jock loved to watch me. You sure it was four feet long?”
She glanced at the lake again. “I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t that long. Just kill it.”
He shook his head, and his lips twitched further into a genuine lopsided grin. Who cared if he was making fun of her? The guy was gorgeous when he smiled. The hard angles and planes still provided structure, but now small crinkles added life to his silvery eyes, and a small dimple formed in his left cheek. The flutter in her stomach his assessment of her had started just got worse.
“No. Unless it’s a cottonmouth.” He picked up a hoe from where she’d dropped it. “I’ll show you how harmless the water snakes are.”
He went to the edge of the water and prodded around in the overgrowth of cattails by the limestone lip.
She jumped when he pulled the snake out of the water. It twisted around the end of the hoe.
He looked over his shoulder at her. “This little guy’s a blotched water snake. I’m not killing it. Or any of his buddies in here either.”
“It’s a damned snake! Get rid of it. Now!” Dear Lord, was the man nuts?
He chuckled, the sound more than a little rusty as it drifted to her across the yard. “You aren’t really afraid of this fella, are you? This guy’s as harmless as a frog.” He shook the snake off the hoe and probed around in the water for a few feet. Turning, he headed back toward her through the high grass and weeds. For a guy with a limp, he moved fast.
“Maybe it is as harmless as a frog, but I don’t like them much either.” When he stopped at the edge of the garden, she backed up a step, and her feet tangled in the vegetation. With an ompff, she landed on her backside in the middle of a clump of weeds, bluebonnets and, amazingly, yellow daffodils.
He laughed and held his hand out to her, which she ignored. With a shrug, he hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. “When I was on a mission in the South American jungle, pythons the length of my pickup would come into camp. We didn’t have to worry unless we woke up in the morning with our feet in the mouth of one.”
She widened her eyes. Was he serious?
He snorted and shifted his stance. “Of course that was better than our heads being swallowed first.”
“Oh… Oh!” She struggled to her feet and brushed at her jeans. “If you aren’t careful, you’ll be fired before you even get started. I want that snake and any of his ‘buddies’ removed from my lake.”
“I’m not killing the snake.” He put his hands on his narrow hips, drawing her gaze to the way his jeans fit powerfully built legs. “If it was a cottonmouth, I would, but the water snakes keep down the populations of more unsavory critters like mice and rats.”
“My, my, if this isn’t a scene right out of the Bible.” A smooth voice drawled from the opposite side of the flowerbed by the gate.
They turned to Leon Ferguson standing on the stone walk. She hadn’t heard him drive up the driveway, and considering the thin line Dylan’s mouth formed, he hadn’t heard him either.
Leon had his hands in the pants pockets of his dark gray designer suit. His white Stetson cast his brown eyes in shadow.
“Ferguson, what are you doing here?” Dylan barked.
Leon ambled toward them on the stone path. “I’m saving a young maiden from torment. What are you doing here, playing the part of the devil?”
“I’m Miss Monroe’s new manager.” The deadly edge of his voice matched the flintiness of his eyes. “If there’s anyone to save the young maiden from, it’s you.”
“Mr. Quinn, please.” She turned to Leon. “Leon, is there something I can do for you?”
He smiled, showing off perfect white teeth in a face handsome enough to belong to an actor. “I was just passing by on my way home and decided to stop. How are the boys working out?”
Dylan’s stance widened and his hands flexed at his slides. “What boys?”
“Charli and I have entered into a business arrangement.”
She lost the battle with the urge to wrap her arms around herself. As much as she appreciated Leon’s kindness, respected him, and was even a little attracted to him, something about him didn’t sit right with her. He represented her peers in the community. According to Mrs. Pratt, besides the Cartwrights, she and Leon were undoubtedly the wealthiest residents in the county. No one in Colton could learn about her past. It would ruin her, and Leon, no doubt, had the means to dig up the dirt.
“Really?” Dylan stepped closer to her in a protective manner. Whiskey tainted his breath as the warmth of the exhalations tickled her cheek. “What kind of business arrangement?”
She could protect herself. Dylan Quinn wasn’t any safer than Leon Ferguson. Stepping away from him, she forced her arms to her sides. “Mr. Quinn, I can handle this.”
She faced Leon. “I’m amazed by how much the men got done since starting on Monday. The foreman told me last evening they’d be reseeding another fifty acres for hay this morning. And they have the corrals fixed and started on the fencing in the north pasture.”
“Good, good.” He glanced at Dylan. “I’ll be going, unless you need a more reliable exterminator. I couldn’t help but overhear about your snake infestation. I can give you the name of the company that has gotten rid of the snakes in our lakes over on Oak Springs for years.”
Although he presented the perfect solution, she didn’t the like way Leon had looked at Dylan as he said the word exterminator. “No, Mr. Quinn is quite capable of getting rid of the snake.”
“Oh, I’m sure he is.” Leon tipped his hat. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, Charli.” Dylan’s jaw tightened as his uncle glanced at him. “It’s good to see you up among the living again.”
Leon headed back to his Porsche. With no pretense of lowering his voice, Dylan said, “Now, there’s a snake no one wants in their garden.”
Upon hearing the jibe, Leon’s shoulders jerked in mid-stride.
Rattled by Leon’s attention and the snake fiasco, she turned on Dylan. “You aren’t off the hook. I want those snakes gone.”
“I hate snakes.” She shuddered and put her hands on her hips. “Maybe I should have asked him who the exterminator is.”