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Excerpt: Devil in Disguise

Excerpt: Devil in Disguise

Book 4: Portland Devils

Sneak Preview!

Ch. 1. Wyoming Summer

Owen Johnson didn’t believe in moods. He didn’t believe in weather, either. At least, not as an excuse.

What he mostly didn’t believe in was excuses.

That had worked for him growing up on a ranch, and it also worked for owning one. It worked in the NFL, too. You bet it did. A center had no excuses. It was on you to know every play the second the QB called it, to get the snap exactly right, to read the defensive line and call out the adjustments for your guys, to block your man so he couldn’t get to your quarterback, and then to block the next man who tried. If you screwed up any of that? Nobody was going to buy that it was because the sun was in your eyes or you were tired.

If you screwed up on a ranch, you lost some cattle. If you screwed up in the NFL, you lost your job. He was all clear on that.

And yet here he was, attempting to thread the hot wire in a livestock fence through a section of old garden hose for insulation while a whole bunch of cows crowded around the gate and watched in a judgmental fashion, with sweat dripping down his face and soaking his shirt and jeans in an early-summer Wyoming heat wave that was making itself felt even at ten A.M. As he fumbled with the pliers, nicked his finger, and swore. Another thing he didn’t like to do outside of football.

He was noticing the weather. He was screwing up the job. And he was in a bad mood. Hitting the trifecta.

He stopped what he was doing, breathed in, breathed out, and refocused.

Right. He was finishing this, and then he was heading up to Wild Horse, Idaho, for the night. Where he had a nineteen-year-old girlfriend.

Who was graduating from high school today.

And then going to college.

In a town that wasn’t where he lived during the season, and wasn’t anywhere even close to where he lived during the offseason.

So what’s bugging you most about that? he asked himself, getting back to work on the hose. Besides the high-school thing, which has been bugging you since the beginning?

That the girlfriend’s mom was pregnant with his teammate’s baby, and that mother and daughter were living with that teammate? Yeah, that was a complication. That the press was going to find out about the whole thing pretty damn soon, and was going to run with it? Annoying, but not career-ending. It wasn’t like Dyma was sixteen.

Like her mom had been when she’d given birth to her, which made her extra-protective. Understandable, and he didn’t need to be screwing up anybody else’s life, or taking their peace. Peace could be a fragile thing.

And then the final reason. Which was Dyma. You couldn’t exactly reason with Dyma, not when she had her heart set on something. Not because she wasn’t smart enough, but because she was. She’d give you a million reasons. She’d argue you straight into a corner, no letting up, and then she’d pull your head down, kiss you deep, grind up against you, and wreck all your defenses. 

Dyma, who was too damn cute and too damn smart, and was headed into all her adventures.

He took off his hat and wiped his face with a bandana, then shoved the hat back on, got his hot wire threaded through the hose and fastened to the gate at last, and told the cows, “Show’s over, girls. That big ol’ Number 11 and a couple more boyfriends are going to be showing up here any minute, so get ready for some action. I’m guessing you can keep them occupied enough to keep from breaking through this gate, but better safe than sorry.”

They flicked their ears against the flies, looked at him out of doe-like eyes, chewed their cuds, and acted unimpressed. When his prize bull, Marble Hill Ranch Number 11, got here, they’d change their minds fast, because cows were like that.

There was going to be a whole lot of sex happening today. Too bad it was all going to be happening to cows.

The tail of dust that had announced itself a mile back morphed into a dusty pickup pulling a livestock trailer, and Owen’s brother Dane hopped down, making Owen’s horse, Grizzly, turn his massive deep-bay head, twitch his black tail, and stare with a whole lot more intelligence than the cows had shown.

Dane slammed the pickup door, hitched up his belt, and said, “You just finishing the fences up?”

“Yep.”

“Better hurry if you want to make that flight,” Dane said. “Don’t know why you didn’t take an ATV instead. Though it’d probably be just as well if you stayed home, if you ask me.”

“Yeah?” Owen stowed his tools in Grizzly’s saddlebags. “I don’t remember asking you, though.”

Dane said, “So what’s the end game here? Just asking the obvious question, because, yeah, she’s probably the exact opposite of Ashley, from the pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work out any better. Swapping out a twenty-five-year-old swimsuit model for an eighteen-year-old kid? What part of this doesn’t end up in, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ again? Not to mention, ‘I just don’t see myself on a ranch’? Amy’s got that friend, Heather, just got divorced, and brother, she’s looking. She likes you, too. She’s even short and blonde. Could be from a bottle, but …”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “See, it’s not the short-and-blonde part that matters. It’s the woman. And Dyma’s nineteen.”

“You don’t have to marry somebody to get over that hump, you know,” Dane said. “Can’t believe I’m having to tell you this, but you got to get back in the saddle again. Divorce was final, what, six months ago? Amy says it’s …” He waved a hand. “Some kind of psychological thing. That you want a girl who has all those obstacles in the way, because you’re scared of getting involved again. When you could just head down to the Outlaw on any Saturday night instead and get your heart broke for free.”

From the back of the trailer, a bull bellowed, and another joined in. Not too surprising. A bull could smell a cow in heat from six miles away, and these guys were more like sixty yards from their recreational opportunity. Owen said, careful to keep it neutral, since Dane didn’t always love to be reminded who actually owned Marble Hill, “Better go on. They’re going to kick out the back of the trailer if you don’t take them on in.”

It wouldn’t be through the same gate. That led to too much excitement, and to fights, because that was bulls. You took them into the pasture well away from the cows, and let them find each other in Love’s True Flowering. Which could make him wonder why Dane had stopped here, except that he wasn’t wondering. He knew. He decided to add, “And, yeah, I’m not going to be getting any action tonight. You’re right about that. Not for any kind of psychological reason. For my reasons. And stop talking about me with Amy.”

“Can’t. She thinks you’re fascinating,” Dane said, but at least he was climbing up into the cab again.

“Except I’m not.” Owen was a rancher. He was an NFL center. In that order, probably, if he bothered to think about it, which he didn’t. There was no point. You knew what the job was for that day. You went out and did it. And the next day, you did the same thing.

The bulls bellowed again, the cows answered, and Dane looked at him, shook his head, and put the truck in gear. Grizzly tossed his big head, and Owen asked him, “What, you got an opinion too?” He swung himself up into the gelding’s saddle and clicked his tongue, the broad-backed Percheron crossbred broke into a shambling trot, and they headed back to the ranch house with just about enough time for a shower, a shave, and a fast drive to the Cheyenne airport.

Just in time to get his heart broke. What could he say? No choice. 

He always had a choice. He always made a choice. He lived his life in the sunshine, but he was in the dark with this.

Total eclipse of the heart.

 

Coming June 1, 2021
Preorder Now

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