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This Gator Queen Excerpt Will Trap Your Heart

The Florida heat isn’t the only thing making this book steamy.

gator queen romance mystery book

When they say there’s someone out there for everyone, they mean it–even for girls who live in a place called Wahoo with troubled twin sisters and a habit for wrestling gators. Though the plot of Gator Queen may initially sound a little far fetched, it’s much more relatable than it seems, and if you’re looking for a cozy-mystery-meets-romance and have a certain affinity for the fake dating trope, this book is absolutely for you.

Maggie Andrews is a 25-year-old petite but seasoned alligator-trapper from Wahoo, Florida. Whether that makes her a badass or an anomaly is up for debate, though. She has just left her job at the Boston Zoo to reunite with her twin sister Vera down south and take the reins of the family business in order to fulfill her father’s dying wish. 

It’s then that she meets Jack Bianchi, a smart, sexy criminology professor who also happens to be great with Maggie’s kitten (i.e. the total package). And she gets to see him all the time, since he’s renting a room from her and her sister. But in the midst of Maggie deciding whether or not she has time for a steamy fling, a rival gator trapper is found dead in a swamp. And it’s bullets from Vera’s stolen gun that killed her, making Vera suspect number one. 

Maggie and Jack team up to investigate, naturally. And it only makes more sense to pretend to pair up romantically, too—they don’t want Vera’s sketchy boyfriend getting suspicious, after all. Like the gators she wrangles, Maggie may have bitten off more than she can chew, but her family legacy, Vera’s bookstore, and her almost-relationship are too important to lose. It’s nothing a Gator Queen can’t handle, right? 




Gator Queen

By Tara Lush

Chapter One 

If alligators are the descendants of dinosaurs, this teeny reptile was disappointing millions of years of evolution. 

The cute little two-footer paddled lazily in a backyard pool, circling a giant green alligator float. Maybe he thought the pool toy was his momma. 

“Get a look at that beast. I can’t believe this crap. What a way to start the new year.” The homeowner was one of Wahoo’s newest residents, if the moving boxes piled to the side of the salmon-colored stucco home were any indication. He ran a hand over his sweaty bald head and glanced at his preteen son, who was capturing the entire scene on his cell phone. 

Northerners. They were so adorable. They always lost it over their first flying Florida cockroach and when they spotted that first alligator in the wild. 

Or in their pool. 

I set my duffel bag on a glass patio table, which was shaded by an umbrella the same hue as the house. “It’s a baby. Not dangerous at all. Probably more afraid of us than we are of it. No need to panic.” 

“Oh, I’m plenty afraid of it, don’t you worry. You don’t see this kinda thing in Jersey. We’ve been here only ten days, and this monster shows up in our pool. Is trapping gonna take all day? I have some business to get to. First of the new year and all that shit. Gotta hustle, you know.” The guy’s thick New Jersey accent came out in one staccato string. 

“Dad, you’re a wuss, not a hustler,” the kid chimed in. Both father and son sported baggy cargo shorts, pot- bellies, and fresh sunburns on their pale skin. 

“Oh, I’m a hustler all right. But if your mother sees this, she’s going to get on the next plane to Newark.” The guy screwed up his face as he gestured toward the pool with a meaty hand. “My wife’s in Orlando, doing some shopping. I want this thing gone before she comes home.” 

I shot him a reassuring smile. “Shouldn’t take long to catch him. I could get in the pool and grab him, but I didn’t bring my swimsuit.” 

The guy’s jaw dropped and his eyes fell to my chest. Perv. He was in a tank top, and a downy pelt of hair covered his beefy shoulders. 

“Kidding,” I said. “You don’t happen to have a pool net, do you?” 

I had a snatch hook in the truck, but this gator was so small that a net would work just as well. 

“Are you qualified to catch that thing? You look kinda young. What did you say your name was?” The man squinted at me in disbelief, probably because I was all of five-three and, at twenty-five, still routinely carded at bars. 

“Maggie. Maggie Andrews.” I unzipped my duffel and fished my laminated Florida gator permit out of a plastic zip-top bag. It declared that I was a certified trapper under the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, charmingly known as SNAP. I handed it to him. 

His eyes flicked to the card, then he hastily gave it back. “OK, Maggie. I’ll grab my pool skimmer.” 

“Mind if I take a photo?” I called out. 

The guy stopped in his tracks and turned. “I don’t want it out there publicly, like on social media. I’m a private person. Unlike this joker over here.” He jerked a thumb toward his son, who stuck out his tongue. 

“Oh, it’s for my own records. I like to have photos of the critters I catch. So I can show future clients.” 

“Sure, go ahead.” 

He waved his hand at the tiny gator. It was now undulating through the water, using its tail to glide smoothly along the surface. When it reached one end of the pool, it did an Olympic-level turn underwater, as if it were doing laps. The January air was hot as Satan’s wet fart, and I couldn’t blame the little guy for wanting to take a dip. 

The creature was probably having the best swim of its life. I was definitely jealous. 

I stood at the edge of the pool and snapped a couple of photos on my phone while the guy hustled over to a white aluminum shed on the side of the property. 

“For my records, what’s your full name? I didn’t quite catch it on the voicemail,” I said. 

“Bruce Doyle,” he hollered. “That’s my son, Brandon.” “Nice to meet you both.” I returned to the table, rooting around in my large duffel. After I found my notebook, I jotted down Bruce’s name and info. Then I attached a roll of duct tape to a clip on my belt and took out a bag of mini marshmallows. 

The kid sidled up to me. “What are you doing with those?” 

I went to open the package. “You want some?” “Sure.” 

I used my Swiss Army knife to cut the plastic and extracted a few plump pillows of sugar, then deposited them in the kid’s grubby hand. “Gators think they’re eggs. When I throw one in the pool, it’ll swim toward me, and I can catch it easier. But I have to warn you. Never, ever feed a gator yourself. This is only for professionals, and only for trapping purposes.” 

“Whoa. Epic.” The kid popped the marshmallow in his mouth and swallowed it after a single bite. “My dad panicked when he saw the gator in the pool. He almost dropped his coffee cup. He’s worried it’s gonna eat our chihuahuas.” 

“That’s a valid concern, my dude. Gators like to snack on small dogs, probably as much as you like those marshmallows.” The kid stole another handful and shoved them in his mouth. 

The dad lumbered over with the pool net and stared dubiously at the marshmallow package lying on the glass patio table. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” 

I fished two marshmallows out of the package and stood, motioning for him to hand me the net. 

“It’s no sweat, I’ve done this dozens of times. I’ll get him out of here in no time. Y’all might want to stand back.” I could probably grab the creature with my hands, but that would involve climbing into the water, and I didn’t want to get my cute new Gator Queen T-shirt wet. I paused for dramatic effect and winked. “This could get a little rough.” 

little alligator sitting poolside
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Sweet. I’m gonna post this online,” the kid yelled while aiming his cell at me. 

“For God’s sakes, Brandon, don’t get your arm chomped off. And for the millionth time, don’t put our address on the interwebs. Christ, I knew there were alligators in Florida. I didn’t think they’d end up in my pool. I was even gonna take a morning swim until this happened.” The guy rambled on for a bit about the humidity. 

“It’s going to be a hot one all right,” I said in a cheery voice. I’d been home all of six weeks and the warm weather had settled into my bones. And in my pores. And in crevices I’d forgotten about while living in Boston. 

You could take the girl out of Florida, but you could never take Florida out of the girl. 

Bruce stood there with his hands pressed into his hips, which only accentuated his fireplug-like body. “Where do you think the gator came from?” 

“Well, there’s that canal out back, and a swampy area, too. Plus a few small lakes. Gators are in almost every freshwater source in Florida.” I took a few steps to the deep end of the pool. “There are about one-point-two- five million gators in the state, and some of them end up in backyards and pools. Sometimes they even knock on doors. I’d suggest getting a screened enclosure if you don’t want this to happen again.” 

I didn’t tell him that a large enough gator would rip through a pool enclosure like the Kool-Aid Man busting through a wall. A screen would probably deter the smaller critters like this one. 


I tossed a marshmallow about eight feet into the water, a foot from the gator’s snout. Within a few seconds, it floated over, opened its jaws, and snapped them shut around the candy. The kid let out a muffled squeal. 

“Cool, right?” I said. 

“Way cool,” the kid responded. 

“You need help?” the guy called out, from a safe distance. “Should we call for backup?” 

“Nah, I’ve got this.” Adrenaline surged through me. Even though this was only a small gator, I hadn’t officially caught one here in Florida in a couple of years. The last time was when I’d come home from Boston and gone on a call with Dad. We’d nabbed a twelve-footer that day. 

By my family’s standards, that was what passed for a cherished memory. 

With my toes at the edge of the pool, I dropped the second marshmallow into the water between me and the reptile. 

“Come to momma, baby gator,” I whispered. 

The critter turned in my direction, aiming its snout right at the marshmallow. It was a cutie all right, with black and tan stripes on its tail and body, markings that would eventually fade to a menacing, leathery, dark gray in adulthood. It submerged everything but its gold- green eyes. Some people thought reptiles were gross. To me, they were a quirky bunch of misunderstood characters in the animal kingdom. 

The gator tucked its little feet against its body and propelled itself forward with its muscular tail. 

I readied the net. When the gator opened its mouth to chomp the marshmallow, I swiftly dipped the net into the water and scooped the reptile up, making sure to maneuver the skimmer so the animal twisted and tangled in the mesh. It squirmed and thrashed violently, spraying droplets of water everywhere. 

Using a hand-over-fist motion on the pole, I drew the net closer to me, then slowly crouched. The gator was so small that I wasn’t too concerned about getting hurt. I flipped the net on the ground, open side down. I kept one knee on the net’s handle while my hands went to my duct tape dispenser. I tore off a foot-long piece of silver tape and stuck one end to my left bicep. 

Through the net, I clamped one hand firmly around the back of the gator’s neck to immobilize it. Its little tail whipped against my forearm but caused no pain—I’d sustained much worse from far more menacing creatures. 

Carefully, I lifted the aluminum rim of the pool skimmer and grabbed the reptile with my other hand, dragging it from under the net. I kept it pinned to the ground while I reached for the tape, then wrangled it around its snout. 

“Gotcha,” I said. 

I picked up the gator, resting its slim body on my forearm. The smooth belly felt pleasantly cool against my sunbaked bare skin. 

My upturned hand clamped around its stubby front arms and throat. “There we go. We’ll get you to some- where more fun than a pool.” 

“That was the most awesomest thing I’ve ever seen,” cried the kid. 

“Uh, you gonna let him loose in the swamp back there, or what? What if it returns? Then what? Can I shoot it?” The dad gestured to the wild thicket behind the house. “I’ll get my Glock and—” 

“No, please don’t shoot it. It’s against the law unless you’re in imminent danger. I’ll take him far away and he’ll never come back. Lemme secure him in my truck then I’ll return for my stuff, OK?” 

The dad nodded weakly. 

It didn’t take me long to nestle the alligator in the cage in the back of my beat-up, cherry-red Ford F-150, which used to be Dad’s and happened to be almost the same color as my Gator Queen shirt. I paused to clean my hands with some lavender-scented hand wipes while taking in the neighborhood. 

This was one of many new subdivisions in Wahoo, making the town look more like a suburban outpost of a big city than a small central Florida village. The homes here in Osprey Landing—that was the name of this development—were crammed together, generic stucco buildings with uniform electric-green lawns the size of mattresses. When I was growing up, this had been an orange grove, and my twin sister and I used to steal the sweet fruit and eat it at the edge of the swamp. Our hands and faces would be sticky with juice and we’d ride our bikes home. 

Now there wasn’t an orange tree in sight, much less kids on bicycles. 

With a sigh, I returned to the backyard for the last of my gear. 

The boy was sitting with his feet in the pool, hunched over his phone. I scooped up my trusty duffel bag and sauntered over to Bruce, his brow furrowed with a mix of confusion and mild disbelief. He stood there, scratching his hairy shoulder as he surveyed the pool, likely questioning the sanity of his decision to settle in a place where prehistoric creatures appeared to have an open invitation to party in his backyard. 

My sister’s voice popped into my head. Since I’d returned home, Vera had insisted that we hand out our business cards. Marketing, she implored. 

“Here’s my card, in case you need anything else. I trap gators, snakes, iguanas, and turtles. Raccoons and possums aren’t my jam. I’m better with reptiles. Oh, and my sister is opening a specialty bookstore downtown. All romance novels. Maybe you and your wife want to stop by. She opens two weeks from today. I’m helping out. The address is on the other side of the card.” 

My sister had affixed cute stickers with the store’s name and address to the back of my gator cards. She claimed that the combo was so quirky it would almost certainly draw business to the bookstore. I wasn’t so sure. It seemed a little weird, but this was Wahoo, a place so eccentric that this tactic just might work. 

Bruce took the shiny red card and turned it over. “Wow. A girl who traps gators. Gator Queen,” he read slowly, totally ignoring my pitch for the store. “Weird, I thought I called a business called Gator King. A neighbor suggested you. You were actually the second place I called. I, uh, left a message for the first place, but they never called back.” 

“The Gator King was Logan Andrews, my dad. He was the county’s contracted nuisance alligator trapper. He passed a few months ago and I took over his business and rebranded. I’d always go on calls with him when I was a kid, so he called me the Gator Queen.” Even mentioning Dad made my chest feel heavy. “This is actually my first job since taking over the business.” 

He nodded slowly. “I see. Well, great job. How much do I owe you?” 

“Fifty dollars.” 

“Fifty bucks? That seems cheap.” 

“It’s what private trappers are allowed to charge in Florida.” 

“That’s a shame, considering you put your life on the line. You have a dangerous job, especially for a girl.” 

I took a fortifying inhale. I’d expected some casual sexism, but maybe not in my first hour on the job. He extracted his wallet and counted five tens before handing them to me with a grin. 

“Thanks again, Maggie. It was pretty crazy, finding a gator in the pool. That brute looked like it could eat my dog.” 

“Nah, he’s actually a young’un. You should see some of the gators in the swamps. Fifteen-footers. That’s why I recommend the pool enclosure.” 

“What do you do with the gators, anyway? Turn them into boots and belts? I heard that people here in Florida eat gator meat. I can’t even—” He pantomimed a gag. 

“I’m the only trapper in the region who doesn’t kill the gators. Most trappers bring the big ones to a processor for meat and hide. The ones under four feet, I’ll take to a nearby swamp and release them. I can’t set the bigger ones loose because they’ll fight each other, so I bring those to my uncle, who runs the reptile sanctuary here in town. It’s called Tropical Acres, you might want to check it out, he does private tours. It’s a pretty interesting place and your son might enjoy it.” 

“That’s nice you don’t kill ’em, I guess. Lemme walk you out. And tell me more about what’s in that swamp back there behind the house.” 

I waved goodbye to the kid, who ignored me for his phone. “Well, there’s a bunch of turtles, some bass fish, and the gators in the canal. They roam around for food. So be careful. And please don’t feed them. That’s how they become nuisances. I only used the marshmallows today so we could take care of this quickly.” 

We were at the back gate and he swung it open. “I’ll be honest, I was shocked when you drove up. You’re what, all of five feet, a hundred pounds soaking wet. I didn’t think a girl like you would show up to trap a gator.” 

I raised myself up to my full height and attempted a cool stare. My sister called this my “intimidating garden gnome” look, which made no sense, but that was Vera. 

His eyes fixed on my crotch, then back up to my chest. 

I shot him a glare. Pig. 

Hoo boy. Even in Boston, when I worked at the zoo, men had always commented how I was too small, or too young, to be handling reptiles. Dad used to laugh at comments like that and would proudly say he raised tough-ass girls. 

“My family’s been trapping gators for four generations in these parts. I caught my first baby gator when I was six. It was about the size of this one.” 

With a tight smile, I said goodbye and climbed into my truck. It was time to bring the reptile to Gator Heaven. No, really. That was what my family had dubbed the swamp on the edge of town—Gator Heaven. It was owned by the Covington family, who also farmed citrus. This particular piece of land was too wet to plant orange trees, and the family had kept it wild and undeveloped for decades. Because my grandfather had grown up with one of the Covington boys, he’d gotten permission to release the wildlife that we trapped into the wetland on the property. We’d been going there for decades with our little gators. 

It took me two attempts to exit the subdivision because every street looked identical. I pulled over to study the map on my phone so I could decipher the twisting roads to nowhere. It struck me that the development was probably named after the very thing it displaced—ospreys—and I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally pulled out onto a more familiar street. 

I headed west out of town, passing one of the two remaining orange groves in Wahoo. Workers with heavy burlap sacks slung around their bodies picked the last of the season’s ripe fruit off the trees, reminding me that I should probably stop at my favorite produce stand at some point to grab a bag. I’d been here for more than a month and hadn’t had a single glass of freshly squeezed juice. 

My mouth watered when I thought about the sugary liquid sunshine mixed with a shot of vodka. Mmm. Screwdrivers. 

At the stop sign next to a gas station, I banged a left, then slowed about a mile down the road. I hadn’t been to this swamp in years and frowned when approaching what I thought was the dirt road leading to the wetland. A heavy chain attached to two wooden posts stretched across the road. 

There was also a sign with a photo of a house similar to the one I’d just left. I slowed the truck to a stop and gaped in horror. 

COMING SOON: Sunny Meadows Homes starting at $500K! 

“What the hell? Come on!” My voice bounced around the cab of the truck and I slammed my palm on the steering wheel. 

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Gator Queen

Gator Queen

By Tara Lush