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NO ONE EXPECTED Claire Flynn to last long in Barlow Ridge. Even Claire had her doubts about making the transition to life in the tiny Nevada community, but she had sworn to herself that no matter how great the emergency or how dire the circumstances, she would not ask for help. It was a matter of pride.
And now here she was, going in search of help. Drat.
She trudged up the rickety wooden steps leading to Brett Bishop's front door. Technically he was her landlord and therefore the logical person to help her with domestic emergencies. But he was also her sister's new brother-in-law, and a bit of an enigma. An interesting combination, Claire mused as she raised her hand to knock on his weathered kitchen door. It opened before her knuckles touched wood.
Brett did not look pleased to see her, but then he never looked too pleased about anything. That enigma thing. Claire enjoyed enigmas.
"There's a snake in my house."
His brown eyes became even more guarded than usual. "What kind of snake?"
"Grayish, no markings, maybe twelve to eighteen inches long. Very fast and uncooperative."
It had scared the daylights out of her when she'd moved a box and found it curled up in a corner. The feeling had apparently been mutual, since the creature had shot off toward the washing machine before Claire's feet were back on the ground. It was then that she'd decided to go for reinforcements. If her computer had been connected to the Internet, she might have done some quick research on snake removal, but it wasn't, so she took the coward's way out. When she'd made her vow of independence, she hadn't factored in reptiles.
Brett regarded her for a moment, his mouth flattening exactly the way it had when she'd made the mistake of flirting with him during their wedding-duty dance just over a year ago. And then he gave his dark head a fatalistic shake.
"Let's go see what you've got," he said.
WHEN CLAIRE FLYNN SMILED, she looked like she knew a secret, and if you treated her right she might just tell you what it was. Brett did not want to know Claire's secrets. He'd had enough secrets for one lifetime.
He stepped out onto the porch, preparing himself for the inevitable. His brother, Will, had asked him to give Claire a hand when necessary, and Brett had agreed, but he hadn't anticipated snake removal as one of the services required.
"I appreciate this," Claire said as he pulled the door shut behind him.
"No problem." But he did wonder how much more help she was going to need before her year of teaching was over. And he also wondered just how well she was going to fit into this small community, with her choppy blond hair and trendy clothing. Not many women in Barlow Ridge wore skirts that clung and swirled, strap-py tops or flimsy sandals. In fact, none of them did. He imagined the locals were going to have a fine old time discussing her.
Claire walked briskly beside Brett as they left the homestead house and headed across the field toward the single-wide trailer she was now calling home. The field had just been mowed and baled with third-cutting alfalfa, so although the walking was easy, he expected the hay stubble was probably scratching up Claire's bare ankles pretty good. She didn't say a word, though, which kind of surprised him.
And she hadn't whined about the condition of the trailerthe only place to rent in Barlow Ridgewhich happened to sit on the edge of his hay field. Another surprise. The previous teacher to rent it, a guy named Nelson, had registered at least a complaint a day.
"Where'd you last see the snake?" Brett asked when they were a few yards from the house. Dark clouds were moving in from the south. The evening thunderstorm was brewing early today and Brett hoped he'd be able to get rid of the snake and return home before lightning began to strike.
"It went behind the washer."
Brett grimaced. Nothing like moving a heavy major appliance with his worst nightmare lurking behind it.
Claire opened the trailer door and stood back. The interior smelled of industrial-strength cleanser. Brett wheezed as the stringent odor hit his nostrils. "You know," he said, "if you just close the door and give the snake a little time, it'll probably pass out from the fumes."
He sucked in a breath of fresh air, then stepped inside and headed down the hall to a narrow alcove where the washer was installed. Claire was close behind him. He grabbed a broom propped against the wall and handed it to her before taking hold of the washer, keeping his feet as far away as possible.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked, lifting the broom, a clunky wooden bracelet sliding down her arm in the process. Who cleaned house wearing a bracelet?
Brett took a firm hold and started rocking the appliance toward him, fully expecting the snake to shoot straight up his pant leg at any moment. Damn, he hated snakes.
He finally got the heavy machine pulled out far enough so that he could see the snake coiled in the corner, looking as threatened as Brett felt. A blue racer. Fast but not dangerous. Unless it went up your pant leg.
He reached his hand out for the broom. "Better stand back."
Brett gently nudged the snake into the hall, trying not to dance too much as he blocked the reptile's repeated escape attempts with the broom, before finally managing to send it sailing through the front door. For several seconds it remained motionless, but then it came back to life and slithered off into the grass.
From behind him, Brett heard Claire sigh with relief. He turned to give her an incredulous look.
"Just because I don't want it living with me doesn't mean I want it to get hurt."
Brett closed the door. Sweat beaded his forehead, and it wasn't entirely due to the hellishly hot interior of the trailer. He set the broom back against the wall, noticing that it was damp. He touched the surface again, experimentally, with the palm of his hand. She'd washed the walls.
"Are you some kind of germophobe?" he asked as he pushed the door wide to let out both the heat and the cleaning fumes. She had the windows open, but the air was still in the heavy pre-thunderstorm atmosphere.
"I prefer it to ophidiophobia."
"I know what it is," he snapped. Or at least he could make a good guess. He hadn't realized it was that obvious. "I'm not afraid of snakes. I'm just cautious." Like all sensible Nevadans. He wiped his sleeve over his damp forehead. "Why don't you turn the cooler on?"
"It made a funny noise, like it was losing a bearing." Her green eyes were steady on his. "I didn't want to bother you. I thought I'd find out who the local handy-man was."
Brett walked over to the cooler panel and flipped the pump switch, followed by the blower switch. A low screech became progressively louder as the blower wheel began to turn. He quickly snapped both switches off. Yes, it did sound like a bearing was going, and for some reason he hated the fact she had figured that out. "I'll have a look at it." He could not leave her in a hotbox until Manny Fernandez had time to come round and fix the cooler. She'd likely be using the furnace by that timewhich was also probably in need of repair.
"I don't suppose you have any tools?"
She walked into the kitchen and returned a few seconds later with a zebra-striped tool kit.
"It was a gift," she said before he had time to comment. "From the class I studenttaught last year."
Brett felt an unexpected desire to smile at the defensiveness in her voice. So Claire's fashion sense had its limits. "They must have liked you."
"We developed a rapport," she said cryptically, as she followed him outside.
There was an old wooden ladder lying beside the trailer, and Brett propped it up against the siding. A sudden gust of wind almost knocked it over again. He waited a moment until the wind settled down, making the air seem heavier than before, and then he began to climb.
Swamp coolers were not complex machines, and it wasn't too difficult to tell that this one was on its last legs. Claire was in for a warmish time in her trailer. He'd have to see about ordering parts, if they still made them for this dinosaur.
The ladder shifted, and a moment later Claire climbed up onto the roof herself. Somehow he wasn't surprised.
"Another snake?" he asked wryly.
"Just curious. Someday I may have to fix this thing myself."
"You going to be here that long?"
"Ten months, and then back to grad school. What's the prognosis?" she asked.
"Terminal." The wind gusted again and the first faint rumblings of thunder sounded in the distance. The storm was moving in fast. "We'd better get down to the ground." He closed the cooler's heavy hinged cover.
Once they were back on solid earth, Brett put the ladder beside the trailer and handed Claire her tools. "I'm going to Wesley tomorrow. I'll see about getting some parts, if they still make them. If not, I'll see about a new cooler." He felt bad leaving her in an oven. "It's going to be kind of hot without it."
"That's the beauty of being a Vegas native. I'm used to it." She pushed her choppy bangs away from her forehead. They stuck up, giving her a punk rock look. She smiled. "So You want to go down to the bar and grab a bite or have a drink? As a thank-you?"
He hesitated just a little too long. "I take it that's a no." He wasn't sure how to say what he needed to without being insulting and possibly pissing off his brother for not being nice to Claire. "Look," Brett said in what he hoped was a reasonable tone, "I'll help you out whenever you need it, but I'm not much of a socializer."
"What does that mean?"
That I'm not going to risk screwing up again with someone so closely tied to my brother?
"It just means I'm not much on socializing," he said with a touch of impatience. "It's nothing personal." Not the total truth, but close enough. "All right." She didn't look particularly offended, but the smile was gone from her eyes. "I guess I'll get back to work. Thanks for the help. I'll call you if I need anything." She started for the trailer door.
"There's something you should know, Claire." She looked back. "What's that?"
"I don't think it was an accident that there was a snake in your house. There was a bunch of kids hanging around, just before you got here. I went to see what they were doing, and they took off running."
"You think they were my students?"
"I'd say it's a real possibility."
Claire considered his words for a moment. "Should make for an interesting year, don't you think?"
"Uh, yeah." That was one way of putting it.
"I think I can probably handle anything they might dish out." She sounded confident.
Brett nodded, wondering if she knew what she was up against. Apparently not. There was a flash of lightning, followed by thunder. "I think I'll head back before it rains."
SO HER STUDENTS HAD PUT a snake in her house and Brett didn't want to socialize with her. Claire shook her head as she went through the door. Not exactly a welcoming beginning to her new life in Barlow Ridge. She was surprised about her students, and not so surprised about Brett. She'd only met him three times before deciding to take the teaching job here, but every time they'd been together she'd been struck by his standoffish attitude. With her and with his family.
Well, Claire didn't do standoffish. With the exception of her mother, Arlene, who could still make her quake in her boots, she'd never met anyone who intimidated her. Maybe she should thank her mother for that.
The trailer was starting to cool off as the wind grew stronger, blowing in through the open windows. Another flash of lightning lit the sky, and Claire wondered how safe it was being in a metal can during a thunderstorm. It had to be safe, though. There were lots of trailers in the world and she'd never heard of one being struck by lightning. But leave it to her to be the first.
She sank down in the reclining chair, pulling her knees up to her chest as the sky flashed and a blast of thunder shook the trailer almost simultaneously. This was not only her first night alone in her new home, it was one of her first nights really alone anywhere. As in, no family down the hall, no neighbor on the other side of the wall. No neighbors within a quarter of a mile, for that matter.
It felt strange.
But she could handle it.
In fact, she had a feeling that she might even grow to like it. If not, she only had ten months to get through before she moved back to Vegas.
Her cell phone buzzed. Claire glanced at the number, debated, and then gave in to the inevitable.
"Hi, Mom." She forced a note of cheerful optimism into her voice. Nothing set her mother off like Claire doing what she pleased and enjoying it. Arlene had wanted her to be an engineer. Claire was talented in math, but hated the cut-and-dried engineering way of thinking. She was more free-formway more free-formand didn't understand why Arlene couldn't see that a free-form engineer who hated to double-check her equations was probably going to be a dangerous engineer. Arlene resented the fact that neither of her daughters had gone into the high-profile, high-paying professions she had chosen for them before they'd entered preschool. And she still hadn't given up on turning their lives around.
"I called to see how you're settling in."
"Just fine," Claire said breezily, deciding not to share her snake adventure just yet. "I'll be going to school tomorrow to see my new room and do some decorating."
"Any regrets?" her mother asked hopefully.
"Not yet, but there's still time." Claire knew that Arlene wanted her to at least entertain the possibility that she'd be sorry for putting off grad school for a year.
"Well, there's a reason they can't keep a teacher at that school."
"Any idea what it is?" Claire asked innocently. Arlene did not deign to answer, and Claire decided to change the subject while they were still on polite terms. She sifted through several topics and dismissed them all. Her stepfather, Stephen, was off-limits, since he had moved out of the house, informing Arlene that he would not come back unless she decided being a companion was as important as running her business. Claire wasn't all that sure that Stephen would ever be coming back.