The Merlot Setup
Ditched by friends on a blind double date
"Am I late?" Jessie checked her watch before stepping out of her metallic teal Mustang when Dustin opened the driver's door.
"No ma'am, you're perfect!" A grin brightened the square-jawed rancher's tanned face as he offered a helping hand. "That is, if you're Jessie. If you're not, then you can leave—I'm not buying anything."
"Oh, come on—everybody could use more insurance!" she laughed. "Yes, I'm Jessie."
A grey-muzzled dog hefted itself to a standing position and stood for a moment, tail wagging, before descending from the broad porch. It angled toward where they stood at the loop-end of the drive.
"Stay back, Rex," Dustin said. "Don't slobber on the lady's pretty dress."
"He's fine, and my dress will wash. Hello, Rex." Jessie crouched to greet the dog. "Besides, I should've known better than to wear a sundress to a cookout at a ranch. Shouldn't I, Rex?"
As she straightened, Dustin swatted Rex's hind end. "Go see if there are any squirrels around those pecan trees that need chasing."
The dog ambled fifteen feet and returned to stand near his master.
Jessie reached into the convertible and pulled a bottle from the rear seat. "I brought wine. Daphne told me you'd probably be serving filet mignon, so a glass of Merlot should pair nicely—unless you have a better idea."
"If you brought something you like, we'll drink that."
Peering down the long driveway to the lime rock road she had traveled, Jessie pondered aloud, "I thought for sure she and Todd would get here before I did. It's not like Daphne to be—"
Two cell phones chimed simultaneously, and Dustin and Jessie exchanged curious looks before checking their incoming messages.
"Come up on the porch—I can't read this in the sun," said Dustin.
Jessie nudged the car door closed with a hip and followed him up the steps. "Daphne says something's come up and they can't make it this afternoon. 'Have fun,' she says."
Dustin gave her the squint-eye and replied, "We've been set up."
"You think? Maybe—no, you're right! Those rats planned this all along."
He flashed his screen at her. "Todd says almost the same thing. I'll fix him right now." Dustin wore a sly expression. He continued speaking as he poked at his screen. "Understood. I'll—tell—her—when—she—gets—here."
More chimes followed.
Jessie thumbed her phone furiously. "My—GPS—made—me—take—the—exit—for—Hickey—Lake. I—got—turned—around—but—I'll—get—there—in—an—hour—or—less."
Dustin chuckled. "Let 'em chew on that for a while. In about a half hour, I can ask Todd if you canceled on meeting me because they're not coming, and you can tell Daphne you had to find a rest stop." He paused. "That is, if you want to stay."
"If I want to stay? There's going to be steak, right?"
"Well, yes, but seeing how we've never met before …" Dustin trailed off.
"Oh, stranger-danger. Right. Well, I have friends who know where I'm supposed to be this afternoon and when I'm planning on heading home, so if you decide to lock me in your basement, they know where to come looking for me." Jessie's wink morphed into an evil grin. "Actually, if they do—Todd and Daphne, that is—we should make it worth their while. Where can I hide my car?"
Dustin's eyes twinkled. "I'll pull my tractor out of that equipment shed right there, and you can park behind it."
Jessie emerged from her Mustang a second time and watched Dustin jockey the big machine into position so that it would obscure the view of her car.
He climbed down, laughing. "All righty, then. Let's go to the back deck and light a fire. We can visit a bit while it burns down to coals."
"I did bring bluejeans to change into if needed—should I do that?"
Dustin shrugged. "You be comfortable. I'll show you where the restroom is if you want to change—or just for future reference."
"This is nice," said Jessie as her eyes adjusted to the relative darkness of the ranch house's interior. Her gaze shifted from the coyote head mounted on one wall to the antique rifle hung above the great room's stone fireplace. "I imagine everything in here has a story to tell, doesn't it?"
"Pretty much. I don't normally shoot coyotes, but I came across that one right after it had killed one of my calves, so it had to go."
Jessie nodded and continued looking. "And the jackalope?"
"My great-granddad shot that." Dustin removed his Stetson and held it over his heart. "With that forty-five caliber rifle, and that's all that was left of the beast. They used to be much more numerous around here, and they terrorized the herds and cowhands alike. That one managed to gore a dozen good men, three of them to death, before Granddad got it."
"It must've been tragic for their families," Jessie observed, her eyes sparkling as she dabbed at the corner of one with all the solemnity she could muster.
They went to the kitchen, where Jessie noticed a tray of steaks on the granite counter, just waiting to go on a hot grill, and continued through what felt like a second great room.
Dustin slid the double glass doors open and led his guest out onto the deck, where she surveyed the terrain. A row of pecan trees followed the fence line westward down the gentle slope to the shallow stream that dawdled its way into and out of a small pond. Several horses stood in the shade with their ears perked in the couple's direction.
Rex halted, stiff-legged, his eyes fixed on something just beyond the corner of the large brick grill and outdoor oven that dominated the patio below. His hackles raised, and he let out a warning "Woof." Then he went down the steps, growling and barking.
"What's he—?" Jessie began.
"Leave it, Rex!" The imperative in Dustin's voice startled Jessie. "It must be a rattlesnake, and he's not as young as he used to be," Dustin explained. "Excuse me a minute."
Dustin disappeared into the house only to emerge seconds later with a shotgun. The snake reared its head. Its ominous rattle persisted as the dog circled just out of striking range, issuing a barrage of throaty barks.
"Get back, Rex!" Dustin commanded. Raising the gun to his shoulder, he pulled the trigger. He shook his head, stretched his jaw, and appeared to swear softly.
"Is it dead?" Jessie asked.
"Yeah, it's dead. Sorry about that—I should've grabbed you some ear protection. I should've grabbed me some."
Rex circled the writhing, headless body, growling.
"We could put those slabs of cow back in the fridge, now that we have rattlesnake," joked Dustin.
"Um, no. I'll be just fine with steak." Jessie smiled, crinkling her nose. "You do have a corkscrew, don't you?"
"Absolutely. It's somewhere in the kitchen—I'll get it."
"I'll find it. You build your fire."
Dustin's eyes met hers for a moment before he acquiesced. "Good luck!" He grinned and turned toward his woodpile, admonishing Rex to leave the snake's body alone.
Jessie paused just inside the doorway to watch Dustin arrange firewood on top of his kindling. One of the horses nickered, and a mockingbird chased a crow away from its tree.
"You were right for once, Daphne," she murmured, her gaze wandering from Dustin to the sorrel mare and across the valley to the next low ridge. "He does seem like my kind of guy, and this—this feels comfortable."