Hair Trigger Heart
“GUNPOWDER AND LEAD” BLARED FROM THE TRUCK’S SPEAKERS as Caridad Mathews sped down the farm to market road, her hair dancing in the breeze from the open windows. The weather had finally decided to cool down, with highs dropping from the nineties to the seventies overnight.
Gotta love west Texas in November.
A sign came up on her right. Devils Ranch. She slowed and turned left into the drive. Caliche bounced against the underside of the pickup as she pulled up to a closed gate. She rolled to a stop next to an intercom system, which had a sign above it directing her to press the green button and wait a few seconds.
Caridad sighed as she opened the truck door in order to actually reach the button—being short definitely had its drawbacks—and then followed directions. Moments later a masculine voice said, “Yes?”
The guy—whoever he was—may have sounded like a phone sex operator, but he also sounded rude. Caridad reigned in her temper.
“Yeah. I have a reservation for this weekend. Caridad Mathews?”
She heard a couple of clicks from what she assumed was a mouse, and then the phone sex operator spoke again. “You’re a little early, so we don’t have your room ready yet. That going to be a problem?”
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. 12:23. Dammit. She was early. By an hour and a half.
“Not at all, just as long as there’s a bathroom I can use.” It had been a couple of hours since her last stop on the drive down from Dallas, and her bladder was letting her know it.
“Absolutely. Once you pull through the gate just follow the signs. The ranch house is about a quarter mile up the drive. Just pull up close to the house.” Phone Sex Operator’s voice quieted as the intercom clicked off.
The gate swung open and Caridad drove through, following the caliche road around a curve. In front of her the ranch house and out buildings sprawled, the stone and metal appearing to spring out of the earth.
The photos on their website did not do the place justice.
Transfixed by the rustic elegance of the main house, Caridad pulled to a stop and stared. Maybe this hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.
Pulling her gaze away from the buildings, she reached over and grabbed her backpack off of the passenger seat before removing the keys from the ignition and opening the door. Placing one foot on the running board, she hopped out of the truck and closed the door behind her.
A cool breeze ruffled her hair and the sound of sotol fronds rubbing against each other greeted her ears. She’d traveled all over the country and seen some amazing sights, but there was still nothing like a fall day in west Texas.
The sound of gravel crunching under feet sounded on the other side of the truck, and Cari pulled herself from her musings as she rounded the hood. A stocky, well-built man walked towards her, a slight smile on his bearded face.
Holy hotness, Batman.
She’d never really been into gingers, but this one might make her change her mind. His hair was hidden under a ball cap with the Devils Ranch logo on it, but a few strands curled out from under the edges. His beard—also something she’d never particularly been into—was just between well-groomed and Duck Dynasty, giving him a look that screamed, “I don’t care what you think.” His eyes were hidden behind mirrored aviators, and she couldn’t help but wonder what color they were. Green? Blue? Brown? Would they dance with laughter or would they smolder?
What in the world? She never got fanciful over a guy’s eye color, much less used the word “smolder,” but something about the sight of him had her brain going fuzzy. He just oozed sexuality, and her body was lighting up like the Fourth of July.
Also something that didn’t happen often.
Certainly not recently, which was part of the reason why she’d decided to go through with this weekend in the first place.
Despite the fact that she was alone.
Owen Daniels strode across the caliche drive towards the newer model F-150 and the woman standing in front of it. Backpack slung over one shoulder, wariness pulsed off of her in waves.
Weird. Women were never wary around him.
Then again, there had been a bit of snippiness in her tone when she’d buzzed over the intercom, which was probably his fault since he’d been distracted when he’d responded. He’d probably inadvertently come across as a little rude.
As he reached her—Caridad, she’d said—he sized her up. About five-two. Curvy—he knew better than to guess any woman’s weight—and probably around a 38DD (that one he was more than happy to guess—and verify). Heart-shaped face. Button nose. Olive skin that he guaranteed did not come from a tanning bed. Straight black hair.
Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark-lensed sunglasses, but his gut told him they were brown. Something about her just screamed, “brown-eyed girl.”
He reached the front of her truck and held out his hand. “Owen Daniels. Nice to meet you.”
Her hand was small but the grip firm. “Caridad Mathews. Sorry I’m early.”
He grinned. “No problem. It’s not a big deal. Like I said over the intercom, we don’t have your room quite ready, but you’re more than welcome to go ahead and bring your things inside and grab a bite to eat.”
She nodded, the movement almost stiff. “I’ll just get the rest of my stuff, then.”
She rounded the truck and opened the back door before pulling a wheeled carry-on out. A large purple and black range bag followed, which she strapped onto the carry-on. She then pulled out a hard-sided rifle case and shut the door.
“I can help you with that,” Owen offered.
She shook her head. “No thanks. I’ve got it.”
He sighed. Great. Looked like she was going to be one of those stubborn, independent types who thought an offer of help from a man was chauvinistic. Not that he had any problem with strong, independent women. His best friend Jenn was the very definition of strong and independent, even if she was shacking up with his friend and business partner Matt Roberts. And his friend Chase’s fiancée, Jo, was also strong and independent, it was just that both women understood that a guy offering help didn’t mean he thought less of her.
In his case, he’d had good southern manners drilled into his head since he was a boy.
Yes ma’am. No ma’am. Yes sir. No sir. Please. Thank you. Always hold the door open for a lady.
Even though both his grandmother and his mother were now gone, he could still hear their voices in his head on a daily basis, urging him to always do the right thing and be a good boy.
He turned on his heel and followed Caridad into the ranch house, and his gaze accidentally on purpose dropped down to her ass.
Sometimes it was really hard to be a good boy.
She could feel his gaze on her ass.
At least, she was pretty sure she could. To be fair, she wasn’t entirely sure he was checking out her backside, but the hair on the back of her neck was standing up and she felt twitchy, like she was being watched. Once she was inside the ranch house, she stopped abruptly and turned towards him.
Crap. She’d forgotten about his sunglasses, so there really was no way to know if her suspicions were correct.
Owen stepped inside and closed the door behind her, gesturing towards the open space they’d stepped into before taking off those aviators. Unfortunately, the bill of his cap obscured her view of his eyes. Seriously? “As you can see, this is the primary gathering and living area. Very open floor plan. We have a chef who cooks meals for our guests during our busy season, but if you prefer to cook for yourself or want a snack or anything, feel free to use the kitchen and whatever’s in the pantry and fridge.”
Caridad stepped further into the house and pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head. She wasn’t really into cooking—her travel schedule meant she spent a lot of time in hotels—but even she knew quality appliances when she saw them. Stainless steel gleamed and the countertops were a spotless gray made out of some stone material—quartz or granite, she honestly wasn’t sure. The cabinets were stained a dark brown, picking up the natural grain of the wood. There was a huge kitchen island with bar stools along one side, and over it hung a rack heavy with copper and stainless steel pots and pans. An open shelf on the end of the island held numerous cast iron skillets.
To her left was the living area, filled with large, comfortable-looking furniture; a couple of recliners, a couch with media seating and a smaller love seat that looked like a great place to curl up with a book. In front of the couch was a heavy wooden coffee table, the rustic piece matching the pine end tables and entertainment center that spanned the entire length of one wall. The doors on it were closed, but she imagined it held a television most men only dreamed of having (and let’s face it, The Devils Ranch was definitely geared more towards men than women).
There was also a small dining area with a table that looked to hold about eight, but could probably hold more if necessary. Chandeliers fashioned out of antlers hung from the ceiling and provided light, surprisingly coming across as rustic and tasteful rather than tacky. The handful of mounted game made it clear this was a hunting lodge, but the walls weren’t filled with taxidermy like she’d imagined they would be.
“It’s really nice in here.”
“You sound surprised by that.” His tone sounded teasing rather than offended, but Caridad stole a glance at him anyway to make sure. A small grin tilted the right corner of his mouth up, and she finally managed to catch a glimpse of his eyes, even though she wasn’t sure why it was so important to her to know what color they were.
Ends up, they were clear blue and almost burning with heat and life.
She felt that little grin, and the heat in his gaze traveled straight to her core.
Crap. That was inconvenient.
She shrugged and tried to school her features so he wouldn’t know she was standing there thinking lustful thoughts about him. Because, hello, kind of creepy considering they’d met, oh, ten minutes ago.
“To be honest, when you hear the words ‘hunting ranch’ or ‘hunting lodge’ you kind of get this immediate picture of dead animals everywhere, muddy boots on cheap furniture and a bunch of old, fat dudes drinking beers and farting. You don’t imagine something that feels upscale yet comfortable.”
“’Upscale yet comfortable,’ huh? I’m gonna have to pass that one along to our website guy.”
She snorted. “You know what I mean.”
He nodded then walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “You want anything to drink? Even if this place does look ‘upscale yet comfortable’ we do have those aforementioned beers.”
“Am I going to be handling firearms later?”
His gaze flicked down to the gun case she’d set at her feet. “Probably not, unless you want to use our indoor range to make sure your rifle’s sighted in. Your hunt doesn’t technically start until tomorrow morning.”
He had her at ‘indoor range.’ “Is it as awesome as it looks on the website?”
He closed the refrigerator door and smiled, sending a sucker punch straight to her ovaries. “It’s even better.”
“Holy crap.” Her voice was almost reverent as they stepped into the ranch’s private indoor range.
The door closed behind them, locking all sound out and keeping all sound in. “I told you it was awesome.”
Caridad stepped forward and set her range bag and rifle case on the floor in front of the shooting bench and propped her hands on her hips. “I’ve seen some nice ranges in my time, Mr. Daniels, but this one is right up there with the best of them.”
Owen leaned against the wall and crossed his feet. Hands in his pockets, he said, “You can call me Owen, Ms. Mathews.”
She nodded once. “Fine. And you can call me Caridad.”
He fought a grin. Jesus, she was a mystery. One minute she was friendly and almost flirtatious, and the next it was like a total stranger had taken her place. Normally he wasn’t the type for games or having his head messed with, but something about Caridad Mathews was piquing his curiosity.
She sighed and squatted so that she could open her range bag. Owen’s gaze followed the motion. Okay, so he knew at least one thing that was piquing his curiosity. The woman had a very nice ass. As she pulled ammunition and shooting equipment out of her range bag, he fought to remain professional. It was hard, though, considering the way her jeans pulled across her butt and her cotton t-shirt stretched across her breasts.
They were kind of magnificent.
She stood and set a box of ammo on the shooting bench, followed by shooting glasses and what looked to be some expensive electronic in-ear noise protection. She stooped down again and opened the hard-sided gun case before removing an AR with a custom purple and teal paint job.
“What caliber is that in?” he asked.
She glanced up at him before grabbing the magazine that had been beside the rifle in the case. “Three-oh-eight. Why?”
“Just wanted to make sure it wasn’t two-twenty-three. That can take a deer, but it’s not the most humane way to do it.”
She gave him some serious side eye before standing up and placing the rifle on the shooting stand. “Please. Just because I’m a woman that doesn’t mean I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Never said you didn’t. But you’d be surprised how many people think they’re going to take a twelve-point, mature buck at two hundred yards with a round that’s better suited to varmint hunting.”
She snorted and pulled a baseball cap out of her range bag. He watched as she put her hair in a ponytail then threaded it through the back of the cap before settling it firmly in place on her head. “You got ear protection?”
He walked over to a cabinet where they stored things like ear muffs, shooting glasses and a trauma kit—just in case—and grabbed a pair of electronic ear muffs and glasses. He made sure the muffs were on and working before slipping the safety glasses onto his head. Caridad had already put her ears in and glasses on, and began loading the magazine when he was once again behind her.
He had to admit, he was fairly impressed so far with her gun safety skills. Unfortunately, he’d been around one too many people who didn’t seem to understand that guns were not toys.
As was his usual MO when around someone he didn’t know who was handling a firearm, he watched her like a hawk. Okay, so maybe the watching wasn’t so bad, all things considered.
Come on, man, get your shit together. She’s a client, not some chick you just met in a bar.
Annoyed with himself and his seemingly one-track mind, he forced himself to focus on Caridad’s actions and his surroundings. He kept an eye out to make sure she kept her finger off the trigger, had the rifle pointed down range at all times, that the safety was on. The same things he made sure of with anyone.
The calm, efficient manner with which she loaded the magazine and the rifle, and then positioned herself at the shooting bench told him she was familiar with and comfortable around guns. She was safe—that was obvious—and she wasn’t scared. If anything, she looked more relaxed with her cheek against the collapsible stock of her rifle than she had since she’d gotten here.
That thought did nothing to calm his mind. Instead, it worried him even more, mostly because women who knew their way around guns were hot. Seriously so.
And it wasn’t the whole girls in bikinis holding guns thing, either. Honestly, that wasn’t all that hot and was pretty demeaning towards women, like all they were good for was gun porn and, well, porn. It was more that confidence was sexy, more so than any amount of glistening cleavage featuring a Glock would ever be.
He knew there were some women who had started out as gun girls and had successfully transitioned from that into true shooting careers, and more power to them. There was something about a woman—okay, in this case Caridad—who just exuded a quiet competency and lack of fear that caught his attention.
His gaze dipped down to the curve of her ass in her jeans, and he quickly jerked it back up.
Okay, so more than her competency and confidence had caught his attention, but the whole package was definitely piquing his interest.
“Ready?” Caridad asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
Owen inhaled and mentally shook himself. “Ready!”
She flipped off the safety. He saw her inhalation and slow exhale just before she fired the first shot down range. In rapid succession she fired five rounds before flipping the safety back on and standing straight. She looked back through her rifle scope and nodded once before turning to him and asking, “Mind if I fire off a few magazines? It’s been a stressful week.”
Her smile was kind of crooked, almost apologetic. Owen felt it like a kick to the chest. Understanding that sometimes the best kind of therapy involved lead and a paper target, he smiled and said, “Sure. Have at it.”
She smiled back at him, fuller now, before repositioning herself behind the bench.
Caridad could feel Owen’s gaze on her as she readied herself behind the shooting bench. He’d watched her the entire time they’d been in here, his eyes and mind making note of every single one of her movements.
As if she would ever handle a gun improperly.
But again, he wouldn’t know that.
Because he didn’t seem to know who she was.
She was grateful for the anonymity right now, that he didn’t know who she was. Too often when she was around other gun enthusiasts—and Owen definitely came across as a gun enthusiast—they only wanted to bitch about politics and talk about legal stuff or competitions.
All she wanted to do was shoot her guns, compete, drink some beer afterwards and maybe enjoy a good cheeseburger on occasion. Was that really so much to ask?
Not that she wasn’t glad for her success. She’d worked her ass off to get to where she was as the reigning Women’s American 3-Gun Champion, had trained long hours and competed even when she didn’t feel like it. There were days, though, when the minor celebrity that came along with the title grated on her nerves.
The biggest was that people sometimes treated her differently. Women would look at her either in awe or like she was an alien. Men who weren’t previously interested in her sometimes looked at her in a completely different and highly sexual sort of way. Sure, there were always the folks who respected her and acknowledged the achievement and were more interested in asking for training tips or what it was like to compete at that level, and luckily those people really did outweigh the bad.
The problem was that there had been so much of the bad stuff here lately.
Just one more reason why getting out of Dallas for the weekend had probably been a good idea.
Caridad pushed her thoughts to the back of her mind and focused on the rifle in her hands and the target down range. She took a couple of slow, even breaths before flipping the safety off.
Once she’d acquired a good cheek meld and centered the target in the crosshairs of her scope, she curled her finger around the trigger.
Breathe out, just a little.
She regained her sight picture, briefly noted that the shot had been almost dead center, just as her first six shots had been. Breathed in. Breathed out, just a little. Squeezed the trigger. Exhaled.
She fired off the rest of the rounds in rapid, efficient fashion, ejected the magazine and flipped the safety back on before stepping back. Silently—which was how she liked to work—she reloaded the magazine and repositioned herself behind the bench.
Three magazines later (she was really glad she’d brought a few boxes of ammo), she felt lighter and her head clearer than it had in days, if not weeks.
It really had been too long since she’d gotten in any range time.
After ejecting the final magazine and flipping the safety back to the ON position, she bent down and grabbed a spotting scope out of her range bag, which she handed to Owen. “So do I pass the test?”
He quirked up a golden red eyebrow. “What test?”
She rolled her eyes. “The test I’ve been taking ever since we stepped in here.”
He snorted and took the spotting scope from her, put it up to his eye and said, “Wow, that’s impressive.”
She shrugged. “Eh, I’ve had better days.”
He handed the scope back to her. “Better days? You completely obliterated the center of the target and there isn’t a stray bullet hole anywhere on paper. I’m a pretty damned good shot, and even I can’t shoot that accurately.”
His matter of fact praise warmed her a lot more than it should have, all things considered.
You don’t even know the guy.
“Nice Armalite, by the way.”
She walked back to the bench and placed the scope back in her range bag. As she packed up her gear, she said, “Thanks. It was actually a gift—custom paint job and all—and I’ve barely gotten to shoot it since I got it. I figured now was as good a time as any, right?”
“That’s a pretty nice gift.”
“I agree. Although the person who gave me this accidentally dropped the fact that they were going to get me a LaRue, but decided not to because of the backlog.” For some reason, she didn’t quite want to share that the gift giver was someone he might know—her sometimes agent who also happened to be one of the owners of the Devils Ranch, and most likely Owen’s boss. This weekend had also been Darrin’s idea, his way of telling her to get out of the city because she’d been driving him nuts.
“Wait. So the person who gave you this actually let it spill that they were going to get you a LaRue instead? No offense to Armalite—because they have some seriously nice guns—but that’s like telling someone they won a Lamborghini then giving them a Corvette.”
“I know, right? Believe me when I say I gave him hell about that for weeks, because, seriously, LaRue. But ultimately it’s the thought that counts, right? And the custom paint job really was a nice touch.”
And it had been. Her favorite colors were teal and purple, so Darrin had had the custom paint job done before giving it to her after she’d won the national championship. Even better was the fact that the pattern wasn’t camo—instead, it was this cool, almost abstract splatter design—and it wasn’t pink. She was all for getting more women interested in the shooting sports, but there was definitely a pink camo apocalypse going on right now.
It wasn’t pretty.
She zipped up her range bag and grabbed her rifle, which she returned to its case. She quickly cleaned up her brass, and once that was done, she stood and grabbed both her range bag and rifle case. “Thanks for letting me use this. It’s a pretty good indoor range.”
Owen shrugged before returning his ear muffs and glasses. “No problem. We enjoy it, and like that we can sight in rifles or shoot handguns during deer season. We eventually want to add on, take it out to five hundred yards or so.”
She raised an eyebrow as they exited the range and walked across the patio area between it and the main house. “We?”
He shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, making the edge of his t-shirt ride up just slightly in the front. She almost stumbled at the sight of that little strip of taut, male stomach.
Eyes up ahead. Eyes up ahead.
“My partners and me.”
“Partners…?” she asked.
“The other three guys who own this place.”
Her little anonymity bubble suddenly burst at the knowledge that he did know Darrin, apparently pretty well if they were freaking business partners. She didn’t know why it mattered that Owen didn’t know who she was, but for some reason it did. “Oh. So you’re one of the owners, then?”
“Yup, guess I forgot to mention that earlier,” he said as they reached the house and he opened the door for her. She stepped inside and he followed, the door quietly closing behind them.
Caridad set her rifle and range bag down next to her suitcase and changed the subject. “Do you think my room’s ready by now?”
Owen glanced at the watch on his wrist. “It should be. Let me check for you.”
He pulled out his phone and typed something into it. Seconds later he glanced up at her and said, “It’s ready. Let me show you the way.”
Part of her wanted to tell him it was okay, that she could find the way herself, simply because she was feeling an antsy need to get away from him. Why, she wasn’t sure.
Okay, if she was being honest with herself, she did know why she was feeling antsy; she was attracted to him and shouldn’t be. Plus, the fact that he knew Darrin was bothering her a lot more than it should have.
That was all moot, though, considering she didn’t know which room was hers to begin with.
Yeah, slight problem, that.
Caridad shouldered her laptop bag and moved to pick up her range bag, but Owen beat her to it. “I get the impression you’re fully capable of taking care of yourself, and you’ve got that whole independent woman thing going on, but you’re a guest. I’ve got this.”
His expression clearly said he wasn’t going to budge, and Caridad shrugged. “If it makes you feel better to roll my carry-on, be my guest. I’ve got the rifle, though.”
He smirked. “As if I would have even attempted to carry that for you. I’m all about customer service, but not at the expense of my balls.”
A snort laugh escaped before she could stop it. “Glad we’ve come to an understanding.”
As she followed him through the living area and to a long hallway—trying not to stare at his ass—she asked, “So are there any other guests this weekend?”
“Nope. You’re our only one.”
Darrin must have pulled some strings. “Any reason why?”
He shrugged and then stopped at an open bedroom door before turning to her and casually saying, “Darrin said you needed the time to yourself, that you needed to ‘get away,’ if I recall correctly. Anyway, here’s your room.”
She walked past him, being sure not to brush against him, and into the room. It was spacious, decorated like the rest of the house in a classy yet rustic style. A king-size bed with a wooden frame dominated the space. There were fresh flowers on the dresser, a bowl of Twix on the nightstand. “Darrin put you up to the candy, didn’t he?”
Owen wheeled her carry-on inside and placed it beside the dresser. “Yup.”
Caridad set her stuff down at the foot of the bed and turned towards him. “Well, thanks for going to all the trouble.”
He nodded once and turned to leave.
“Oh! What’s the schedule for the rest of the weekend like?”
He stopped just inside the door, turned back towards her and leaned against the door frame. He scratched his beard and said, “Supper’s usually around seven. We’ll probably try to get out to one of the blinds by five-thirty in the morning, so we’ll meet in the living area around five. If you want to take coffee with you, feel free to do so; we have a ton of Thermoses and a Keurig with just about any type of coffee you can imagine. If you prefer frou frou drinks, we have an espresso machine that makes lattes, too. We’ll spend however much time you want out in the blind, so if you want to stay out all day until after sundown, we can. If you want to come back here for breakfast and then go back out in the afternoon we can do that, too. It’s pretty much your call.”
“You keep saying ‘we.’ Does that mean you’re my guide?”
His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
With that, he left her standing alone at the foot of the bed and feeling all kinds of emotions she didn’t know how to process. She was kind of irritated with Darrin for essentially booking her a private weekend that had to have cost him—and the ranch itself—an arm and a leg. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but still. He wasn’t even her full-time agent; it definitely wasn’t his job to give her gifts and take care of her, even though he seemed to think it was. She was kind of irritated with herself for being attracted to Owen when she shouldn’t be. And she was definitely irritated that he was her private guide for the entire weekend.
It was one thing to be mildly attracted with the thought that she could maybe avoid him most of the weekend by simply staying away from the main house. It was another thing entirely to be told she’d be spending many hours in very close quarters with Hottie McGinger himself.
“Ugh,” she groaned as she sank onto the bed. The relaxing weekend Darrin had convinced her to take was looking more and more like it was going to be exactly the opposite.