Christmas with the Rancher: The Rancher / Christmas Cowboy / A Man of Means Diana Palmer The RancherCort Brannt, the handsome heir to the Skylance Ranch empire, has women throwing themselves at him, but this eligible bachelor sends them on their way, until a pretty, vivacious neighbour catches his attention. – Christmas Cowboy – Eight years ago, Corrigan Hart wasn’t the marrying kind, but he’d desired innocent Dorie Wayne. He was too much for her to handle and she’d fled to New York. Now Dorie is back, older, wiser, and the sparks still fly…A Man of MeansFrom the moment rancher Rey Hart first set eyes on Meredith Johns, he was mesmerised. She came to work on the ranch as a cook and soon the hot-tempered cattleman just didn’t want to let her go! Praise for Diana Palmer (#uceb3b13e-a3e3-5888-a59d-6f77a8e8bb42) ‘Nobody does it better.’ —New York Times bestselling author Linda Howard ‘Ms Palmer masterfully weaves a tale that entices on many levels, blending adventure and strong human emotion into a great read.’ —RT Book Reviews ‘Nobody tops Diana Palmer when it comes to delivering pure, undiluted romance. I love her stories.’ —New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz ‘A compelling tale…[that packs] an emotional wallop.’ —Publishers Weekly on Renegade ‘This story is a thrill a minute—one of Palmer’s best.’ —Rendezvous on Lord of the Desert The prolific author of over one hundred books, DIANA PALMER got her start as a newspaper reporter. A multi-New York Times bestselling author and one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humour. Diana lives with her family in Georgia. Dear Reader, You probably think this story is about Cort Brannt, the brother of my heroine, Morie Brannt, in Wyoming Tough. Well, it’s not. It’s actually about the rooster who belongs to Cort’s neighbour. A red rooster came into my yard several weeks ago. I tried to run him off, but he kept coming back. I discovered that roosters can fly, because he jumped a seven-foot-high solid wooden fence to keep coming into my yard. I have lots of grass and a garden, which means bugs and worms and nice edibles. He wouldn’t leave. Over the weeks, people who work for me in the yard tried to catch him. Some of the neighbours got into the act. I especially wanted him gone because every time I went out to feed the birds or look at my garden, he would attack me. I was spurred three times, and I have the scars to prove it. So the rooster had to go. That presented a problem. I didn’t want him killed or eaten, which left his fate up to me, since his owner apparently moved away and left him behind. (I don’t blame him. If you knew this rooster, you wouldn’t blame him, either!) Our nice Mr Martin, who looks after the koi and goldfish ponds for us, had a friend who knew how to catch chickens. He also kept chickens. So he just walked into the backyard, picked the rooster up and carried him off. My jaw is still dropping. Anyway, the rooster is very happy, has many hens to court, and I am happy because I can walk to my pumpkin patch without being mauled on the way. Cort Brannt is going to have the same problem. His nice little frumpy neighbour has a pet rooster named Pumpkin and she loves him. She loves Cort, too, but Cort loves Odalie Everett, who wants to train as a soprano and sing in the great opera houses of the world. Ah, the eternal triangle. It will all end well, I promise. And Pumpkin will have a happy future. Just like my unwanted red rooster visitor. Hope you like the book. It has roots in Branntville, Texas, and King Brannt is Cort’s dad. Your greatest fan, Diana Palmer Christmas with the Rancher The Rancher Christmas Cowboy A Man of Means Diana Palmer www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u1251441a-9d6b-5760-a9a0-01e27eb9b807) Praise for Diana Palmer About the Author (#uf0a7a775-2fad-5d90-837e-f37a02dbc7cb) Title Page (#u31ae8ac6-fcbf-5dcc-81c3-919e20db2acf) The Rancher Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Epilogue Christmas Cowboy Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six A Man of Means Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) The Rancher (#uceb3b13e-a3e3-5888-a59d-6f77a8e8bb42) Chapter One (#uceb3b13e-a3e3-5888-a59d-6f77a8e8bb42) Maddie Lane was worried. She was standing in her big yard, looking at her chickens, and all she saw was a mixture of hens. There were red ones and white ones and gray speckled ones. But they were all hens. Someone was missing: her big Rhode Island Red rooster, Pumpkin. She knew where he likely was. It made her grind her teeth together. There was going to be trouble, again, and she was going to be on the receiving end of it. She pushed back her short, wavy blond hair and grimaced. Her wide gray eyes searched the yard, hoping against hope that she was mistaken, that Pumpkin had only gone in search of bugs, not cowboys. “Pumpkin?” she called loudly. Great-Aunt Sadie came to the door. She was slight and a little dumpy, with short, thin gray hair, wearing glasses and a worried look. “I saw him go over toward the Brannt place, Maddie,” she said as she moved out onto the porch. “I’m sorry.” Maddie groaned aloud. “I’ll have to go after him. Cort will kill me!” “Well, he hasn’t so far,” Sadie replied gently. “And he could have shot Pumpkin, but he didn’t…” “Only because he missed!” Maddie huffed. She sighed and put her hands on her slim hips. She had a boyish figure. She wasn’t tall or short, just sort of in the middle. But she was graceful, for all that. And she could work on a ranch, which she did. Her father had taught her how to raise cattle, how to market them, how to plan and how to budget. Her little ranch wasn’t anything big or special, but she made a little money. Things had been going fine until she decided she wanted to branch out her organic egg-laying business and bought Pumpkin after her other rooster was killed by a coyote, along with several hens. But now things weren’t so great financially. Maddie had worried about getting a new rooster. Her other one wasn’t really vicious, but she did have to carry a tree branch around with her to keep from getting spurred. She didn’t want another aggressive one. “Oh, he’s gentle as a lamb,” the former owner assured her. “Great bloodlines, good breeder, you’ll get along just fine with him!” Sure, she thought when she put him in the chicken yard and his first act was to jump on her foreman, old Ben Harrison, when he started to gather eggs. “Better get rid of him now,” Ben had warned as she doctored the cuts on his arms the rooster had made even through the fabric. “He’ll settle down, he’s just excited about being in a new place,” Maddie assured him. Looking back at that conversation now, she laughed. Ben had been right. She should have sent the rooster back to the vendor in a shoebox. But she’d gotten attached to the feathered assassin. Sadly, Cort Brannt hadn’t. Cort Matthew Brannt was every woman’s dream of the perfect man. He was tall, muscular without making it obvious, cultured, and he could play a guitar like a professional. He had jet-black hair with a slight wave, large dark brown eyes and a sensuous mouth that Maddie often dreamed of kissing. The problem was that Cort was in love with their other neighbor, Odalie Everett. Odalie was the daughter of big-time rancher Cole Everett and his wife, Heather, who was a former singer and songwriter. She had two brothers, John and Tanner. John still lived at home, but Tanner lived in Europe. Nobody talked about him. Odalie loved grand opera. She had her mother’s clear, beautiful voice and she wanted to be a professional soprano. That meant specialized training. Cort wanted to marry Odalie, who couldn’t see him for dust. She’d gone off to Italy to study with some famous voice trainer. Cort was distraught and it didn’t help that Maddie’s rooster kept showing up in his yard and attacking him without warning. “I can’t understand why he wants to go all the way over there to attack Cort,” Maddie said aloud. “I mean, we’ve got cowboys here!” “Cort threw a rake at him the last time he came over here to look at one of your yearling bulls,” Sadie reminded her. “I throw things at him all the time,” Maddie pointed out. “Yes, but Cort chased him around the yard, picked him up by his feet, and carried him out to the hen yard to show him to the hens. Hurt his pride,” Sadie continued. “He’s getting even.” “You think so?” “Roosters are unpredictable. That particular one,” she added with a bite in her voice that was very out of character, “should have been chicken soup!” “Great-Aunt Sadie!” “Just telling you the way it is,” Sadie huffed. “My brother—your granddaddy—would have killed him the first time he spurred you.” Maddie smiled. “I guess he would. I don’t like killing things. Not even mean roosters.” “Cort would kill him for You if he could shoot straight,” Sadie said with veiled contempt. “You load that .28 gauge shotgun in the closet for me, and I’ll do it.” “Great-Aunt Sadie!” She made a face. “Stupid thing. I wanted to pet the hens and he ran me all the way into the house. Pitiful, when a chicken can terrorize a whole ranch. You go ask Ben how he feels about that red rooster. I dare you. If you’d let him, he’d run a truck over it!” Maddie sighed. “I guess Pumpkin is a terror. Well, maybe Cort will deal with him once and for all and I can go get us a nice rooster.” “In my experience, no such thing,” the older woman said. “And about Cort dealing with him…” She nodded toward the highway. Maddie grimaced. A big black ranch truck turned off the highway and came careening down the road toward the house. It was obviously being driven by a maniac. The truck screeched to a stop at the front porch, sending chickens running for cover in the hen yard because of the noise. “Great,” Maddie muttered. “Now they’ll stop laying for two days because he’s terrified them!” “Better worry about yourself,” Great-Aunt Sadie said. “Hello, Cort! Nice to see you,” she added with a wave and ran back into the house, almost at a run. Maddie bit off what she was going to say about traitors. She braced herself as a tall, lean, furious cowboy in jeans, boots, a chambray shirt and a black Stetson cocked over one eye came straight toward her. She knew what the set of that hat meant. He was out for blood. “I’m sorry!” she said at once, raising her hands, palms out. “I’ll do something about him, I promise!” “Andy landed in a cow patty,” he raged in his deep voice. “That’s nothing compared to what happened to the others while we were chasing him. I went headfirst into the dipping tray!” She wouldn’t laugh, she wouldn’t laugh, she wouldn’t… “Oh, hell, stop that!” he raged while she bent over double at the mental image of big, handsome Cort lying facedown in the stinky stuff they dipped cattle in to prevent disease. “I’m sorry. Really!” She forced herself to stop laughing. She wiped her wet eyes and tried to look serious. “Go ahead, keep yelling at me. Really. It’s okay.” “Your stupid rooster is going to feed my ranch hands if you don’t keep him at home!” he said angrily. “Oh, my, chance would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it?” she asked wistfully. “I mean, I guess I could hire an off-duty army unit to come out here and spend the next week trying to run him down.” She gave him a droll look. “If you and your men can’t catch him, how do you expect me to catch him?” “I caught him the first day he was here,” he reminded her. “Yes, but that was three months ago,” she pointed out. “And he’d just arrived. Now he’s learned evasion techniques.” She frowned. “I wonder if they’ve ever thought of using roosters as attack animals for the military? I should suggest it to someone.” “I’d suggest you find some way to keep him at home before I resort to the courts.” “You’d sue me over a chicken?” she exclaimed. “Wow, what a headline that would be. Rich, Successful Rancher Sues Starving, Female Small-Rancher for Rooster Attack. Wouldn’t your dad love reading that headline in the local paper?” she asked with a bland smile. His expression was growing so hard that his high cheekbones stood out. “One more flying red feather attack and I’ll risk it. I’m not kidding.” “Oh, me, neither.” She crossed her heart. “I’ll have the vet prescribe some tranquilizers for Pumpkin to calm him down,” she said facetiously. She frowned. “Ever thought about asking your family doctor for some? You look very stressed.” “I’m stressed because your damned rooster keeps attacking me! On my own damned ranch!” he raged. “Well, I can see that it’s a stressful situation to be in,” she sympathized. “With him attacking you, and all.” She knew it would make him furious, but she had to know. “I hear Odalie Everett went to Italy.” The anger grew. Now it was cold and threatening. “Since when is Odalie of interest to you?” “Just passing on the latest gossip.” She peered at him through her lashes. “Maybe you should study opera…” “You venomous little snake,” he said furiously. “As if you could sing a note that wasn’t flat!” She colored. “I could sing if I wanted to!” He looked her up and down. “Sure. And get suddenly beautiful with it?” The color left her face. “You’re too thin, too flat-chested, too plain and too untalented to ever appeal to me, just in case you wondered,” he added with unconcealed distaste. She drew herself up to her full height, which only brought the top of her head to his chin, and stared at him with ragged dignity. “Thank you. I was wondering why men don’t come around. It’s nice to know the reason.” Her damaged pride hit him soundly, and he felt small. He shifted from one big booted foot to the other. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said after a minute. She turned away. She wasn’t going to cry in front of him. Her sudden vulnerability hurt him. He started after her. “Listen, Madeline,” he began. She whirled on her booted heel. Her pale eyes shot fire at him. Her exquisite complexion went ruddy. Beside her thighs, her hands were clenched. “You think you’re God’s gift to women, don’t you? Well, let me tell you a thing or two! You’ve traded on your good looks for years to get you what you want, but it didn’t get you Odalie, did it?” His face went stony. “Odalie is none of your damned business,” he said in a soft, dangerous tone. “Looks like she’s none of yours, either,” she said spitefully. “Or she’d never have left you.” He turned around and stomped back to his truck. “And don’t you dare roar out of my driveway and scare my hens again!” He slammed the door, started the truck and deliberately gunned the engine as he roared out toward the main highway. “Three days they won’t lay, now,” Maddie said to herself. She turned, miserable, and went up the porch steps. Her pride was never going to heal from that attack. She’d had secret feelings for Cort since she was sixteen. He’d never noticed her, of course, not even to tease her as men sometimes did. He simply ignored her existence most of the time, when her rooster wasn’t attacking him. Now she knew why. Now she knew what he really thought of her. Great-Aunt Sadie was waiting by the porch screen door. She was frowning. “No call for him to say that about you,” she muttered. “Conceited man!” Maddie fought tears and lost. Great-Aunt Sadie wrapped her up tight and hugged her. “Don’t you believe what he said. He was just mad and looking for a way to hurt you because you mentioned his precious Odalie. She’s too good for any cowboy. At least, she thinks she is.” “She’s beautiful and rich and talented. But so is Cort,” Maddie choked out. “It really would have been a good match, to pair the Everett’s Big Spur ranch with Skylance, the Brannt ranch. What a merger that would be.” “Except that Odalie doesn’t love Cort and she probably never will.” “She may come home with changed feelings,” Maddie replied, drawing away. “She might have a change of heart. He’s always been around, sending her flowers, calling her. All that romantic stuff. The sudden stop might open her eyes to what a catch he is.” “You either love somebody or you don’t,” the older woman said quietly. “You think?” “I’ll make you a nice pound cake. That will cheer you up.” “Thanks. That’s sweet of you.” She wiped her eyes. “Well, at least I’ve lost all my illusions. Now I can just deal with my ranch and stop mooning over a man who thinks he’s too good for me.” “No man is too good for you, sweetheart,” Great-Aunt Sadie said gently. “You’re pure gold. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you different.” She smiled. When she went out late in the afternoon to put her hens in their henhouse to protect them from overnight predators, Pumpkin was right where he should be—back in the yard. “You’re going to get me sued, you red-feathered problem child,” she muttered. She was carrying a small tree branch and a metal garbage can lid as she herded her hens into the large chicken house. Pumpkin lowered his head and charged her, but he bounced off the lid. “Get in there, you fowl assassin,” she said, evading and turning on him. He ran into the henhouse. She closed the door behind him and latched it, leaned back against it with a sigh. “Need to get rid of that rooster, Miss Maddie,” Ben murmured as he walked by. “Be delicious with some dumplings.” “I’m not eating Pumpkin!” He shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll eat him for you.” “I’m not feeding him to you, either, Ben.” He made a face and kept walking. She went inside to wash her hands and put antibiotic cream on the places where her knuckles were scraped from using the garbage can lid. She looked at her hands under the running water. They weren’t elegant hands. They had short nails and they were functional, not pretty. She remembered Odalie Everett’s long, beautiful white fingers on the keyboard at church, because Odalie could play as well as she sang. The woman was gorgeous, except for her snobbish attitude. No wonder Cort was in love with her. Maddie looked in the mirror on the medicine cabinet above the sink and winced. She really was plain, she thought. Of course, she never used makeup or perfume, because she worked from dawn to dusk on the ranch. Not that makeup would make her beautiful, or give her bigger breasts or anything like that. She was basically just pleasant to look at, and Cort wanted beauty, brains and talent. “I guess you’ll end up an old spinster with a rooster who terrorizes the countryside.” The thought made her laugh. She thought of photographing Pumpkin and making a giant Wanted poster, with the legend, Wanted: Dead or Alive. She could hardly contain herself at the image that presented itself if she offered some outlandish reward. Men would wander the land with shotguns, looking for a small red rooster. “Now you’re getting silly,” she told her image, and went back to work. Cort Brannt slammed out of his pickup truck and into the ranch house, flushed with anger and self-contempt. His mother, beautiful Shelby Brannt, glanced up as he passed the living room. “Wow,” she murmured. “Cloudy and looking like rain.” He paused and glanced at her. He grimaced, retraced his steps, tossed his hat onto the sofa and sat down beside her. “Yeah.” “That rooster again, huh?” she teased. His dark eyes widened. “How did you guess?” She tried to suppress laughter and lost. “Your father came in here bent over double, laughing his head off. He said half the cowboys were ready to load rifles and go rooster-hunting about the time you drove off. He wondered if we might need to find legal representation for you…?” “I didn’t shoot her,” he said. He shrugged his powerful shoulders and let out a long sigh, his hands dangling between his splayed legs as he stared at the carpet. “But I said some really terrible things to her.” Shelby put down the European fashion magazine she’d been reading. In her younger days, she had been a world-class model before she married King Brannt. “Want to talk about it, Matt?” she asked gently. “Cort,” he corrected with a grin. She sighed. “Cort. Listen, your dad and I were calling you Matt until you were teenager, so it’s hard…” “Yes, well, you were calling Morie ‘Dana,’ too, weren’t you?” Shelby laughed. “It was an inside-joke. I’ll tell it to you one day.” She smiled. “Come on. Talk to me.” His mother could always take the weight off his shoulders. He’d never been able to speak so comfortably about personal things to his father, although he loved the older man dearly. He and his mother were on the same wavelength. She could almost read his mind. “I was pretty mad,” he confessed. “And she was cracking jokes about that stupid rooster. Then she made a crack about Odalie and I just, well, I just lost it.” Odalie, she knew, was a sore spot with her son. “I’m sorry about the way things worked out, Cort,” she said gently. “But there’s always hope. Never lose sight of that.” “I sent her roses. Serenaded her. Called her just to talk. Listened to her problems.” He looked up. “None of that mattered. That Italian voice trainer gave her an invitation and she got on the next plane to Rome.” “She wants to sing. You know that. You’ve always known it. Her mother has the voice of an angel, too.” “Yes, but Heather never wanted fame. She wanted Cole Everett,” he pointed out with a faint smile. “That was one hard case of a man,” Shelby pointed out. “Like your father.” She shook her head. “We had a very, very rocky road to the altar. And so did Heather and Cole.” She continued pensively. “You and Odalie’s brother, John Everett, were good friends for a while. What happened there?” “His sister happened,” Cort replied. “She got tired of having me at their place all the time playing video games with John and was very vocal about it, so he stopped inviting me over. I invited him here, but he got into rodeo and then I never saw him much. We’re still friends, in spite of everything.” “He’s a good fellow.” “Yeah.” Shelby got up, ruffled his hair and grinned. “You’re a good fellow, too.” He laughed softly. “Thanks.” “Try not to dwell so much on things,” she advised. “Sit back and just let life happen for a while. You’re so intense, Cort. Like your dad,” she said affectionately, her dark eyes soft on his face. “One day Odalie may discover that you’re the sun in her sky and come home. But you have to let her try her wings. She’s traveled, but only with her parents. This is her first real taste of freedom. Let her enjoy it.” “Even if she messes up her life with that Italian guy?” “Even then. It’s her life,” she reminded him gently. “You don’t like people telling you what to do, even if it’s for your own good, right?” He glowered at her. “If you’re going to mention that time you told me not to climb up the barn roof and I didn’t listen…” “Your first broken arm,” she recalled, and pursed her lips. “And I didn’t even say I told you so,” she reminded him. “No. You didn’t.” He stared at his linked fingers. “Maddie Lane sets me off. But I should never have said she was ugly and no man would want her.” “You said that?” she exclaimed, wincing. “Cort…!” “I know.” He sighed. “Not my finest moment. She’s not a bad person. It’s just she gets these goofy notions about animals. That rooster is going to hurt somebody bad one day, maybe put an eye out, and she thinks it’s funny.” “She doesn’t realize he’s dangerous,” she replied. “She doesn’t want to realize it. She’s in over her head with these expansion projects. Cage-free eggs. She hasn’t got the capital to go into that sort of operation, and she’s probably already breaking half a dozen laws by selling them to restaurants.” “She’s hurting for money,” Shelby reminded somberly. “Most ranchers are, even us. The drought is killing us. But Maddie only has a few head of cattle and she can’t buy feed for them if her corn crop dies. She’ll have to sell at a loss. Her breeding program is already losing money.” She shook her head. “Her father was a fine rancher. He taught your father things about breeding bulls. But Maddie just doesn’t have the experience. She jumped in at the deep end when her father died, but it was by necessity, not choice. I’m sure she’d much rather be drawing pictures than trying to produce calves.” “Drawing.” He said it with contempt. She stared at him. “Cort, haven’t you ever noticed that?” She indicated a beautiful rendering in pastels of a fairy in a patch of daisies in an exquisite frame on the wall. He glanced at it. “Not bad. Didn’t you get that at an art show last year?” “I got it from Maddie last year. She drew it.” He frowned. He actually got up and went to look at the piece. “She drew that?” he asked. “Yes. She was selling two pastel drawings at the art show. This was one of them. She sculpts, too—beautiful little fairies—but she doesn’t like to show those to people. I told her she should draw professionally, perhaps in graphic design or even illustration. She laughed. She doesn’t think she’s good enough.” She sighed. “Maddie is insecure. She has one of the poorest self-images of anyone I know.” Cort knew that. His lips made a thin line. He felt even worse after what he’d said to her. “I should probably call and apologize,” he murmured. “That’s not a bad idea, son,” she agreed. “And then I should drive over there, hide in the grass and shoot that damned red-feathered son of a…!” “Cort!” He let out a harsh breath. “Okay. I’ll call her.” “Roosters don’t live that long,” she called after him. “He’ll die of old age before too much longer.” “With my luck, he’ll hit fifteen and keep going. Animals that nasty never die!” he called back. He wanted to apologize to Maddie. But when he turned on his cell phone, he realized that he didn’t even know her phone number. He tried to look it up on the internet, but couldn’t find a listing. He went back downstairs. His mother was in the kitchen. “Do you know the Lanes’ phone number?” he asked. She blinked. “Well, no. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to call them, not since Pierce Lane died last year, anyway.” “No number listed, anywhere,” he said. “You might drive by there later in the week,” she suggested gently. “It’s not that far.” He hesitated. “She’d lock the doors and hide inside when I drove up,” he predicted. His mother didn’t know what to say. He was probably right. “I need to get away,” he said after a minute. “I’m wired like a piano. I need to get away from the rooster and Odalie and…everything.” “Why don’t you go to Wyoming and visit your sister?” she suggested. He sighed. “She’s not expecting me until Thursday.” She laughed. “She won’t care. Go early. It would do both of you good.” “It might at that.” “It won’t take you long to fly up there,” she added. “You can use the corporate jet. I’m sure your father wouldn’t mind. He misses Morie. So do I.” “Yeah, I miss her, too,” he said. He hugged his mother. “I’ll go pack a bag. If that rooster shows up looking for me, put him on a plane to France, would you? I hear they love chicken over there. Get him a business-class ticket. If someone can ship a lobster from Maine,” he added with a laugh, referring to a joke that had gone the rounds years before, “I can ship a chicken to France.” “I’ll take it under advisement,” she promised. His mother was right, Cort thought that evening. He loved being with his sister. He and Morie were a lot alike, from their hot tempers to their very Puritan attitudes. They’d always been friends. When she was just five, she’d followed her big brother around everywhere, to the amusement of his friends. Cort was tolerant and he adored her. He never minded the kidding. “I’m sorry about your rooster problems,” Morie told him with a gentle laugh. “Believe me, we can understand. My poor sister-in-law has fits with ours.” “I like Bodie,” he said, smiling. “Cane sure seems different these days.” “He is. He’s back in therapy, he’s stopped smashing bars and he seems to have settled down for good. Bodie’s wonderful for him. She and Cane have had some problems, but they’re mostly solved now,” she said. She smiled secretly. “Actually, Bodie and I are going to have a lot more in common for the next few months.” Cort was quick. He glanced at her in the semidarkness of the front porch, with fireflies darting around. “A baby?” She laughed with pure delight. “A baby,” she said, and her voice was like velvet. “I only found out a little while ago. Bodie found out the day you showed up.” She sighed. “So much happiness. It’s almost too much to bear. Mal’s over the moon.” “Is it a boy or a girl? Do you know yet?” She shook her head. “Too early to tell. But we’re not going to ask. We want it to be a surprise, however old-fashioned that might be.” He chuckled. “I’m going to be an uncle. Wow. That’s super. Have you told Mom and Dad?” “Not yet. I’ll call Mom tonight, though.” “She’ll be so excited. Her first grandchild.” Morie glanced at him. “You ever going to get married?” she asked. “Sure, if Odalie ever says yes.” He sighed. “She was warming up to me there just for a while. Then that Italian fellow came along and offered her voice training. He’s something of a legend among opera stars. And that’s what she wants, to sing at the Met.” He grimaced. “Just my luck, to fall in love with a woman who only wants a career.” “I believe her mother was the same way, wasn’t she?” Morie asked gently. “And then she and Cole Everett got really close. She gave up being a professional singer to come home and have kids. Although she still composes. That Wyoming group, Desperado, had a major hit from a song she wrote for them some years ago.” “I think she still composes. But she likes living on a ranch. Odalie hates it. She says she’s never going to marry a man who smells like cow droppings.” He looked at one of his big boots, where his ankle was resting on his other knee in the rocking chair. “I’m a rancher, damn it,” he muttered. “I can’t learn another trade. Dad’s counting on me to take over when he can’t do the work anymore.” “Yes, I know,” she said sadly. “What else could you do?” “Teach, I guess,” he replied. “I have a degree in animal husbandry.” He made a face. “I’d rather be shot. I’d rather let that red-feathered assassin loose on my nose. I hate the whole idea of routine.” “Me, too,” Morie confessed. “I love ranching. I guess the drought is giving Dad problems, too, huh?” “It’s been pretty bad,” Cort agreed. “People in Oklahoma and the other plains states are having it worse, though. No rain. It’s like the Dust Bowl in the thirties, people are saying. So many disaster declarations.” “How are you getting around it?” “Wells, mostly,” he said. “We’ve drilled new ones and filled the tanks to the top. Irrigating our grain crops. Of course, we’ll still have to buy some feed through the winter. But we’re in better shape than a lot of other cattle producers. Damn, I hate how it’s going to impact small ranchers and farmers. Those huge combines will be standing in the shadows, just waiting to pounce when the foreclosures come.” “Family ranches are going to be obsolete one day, like family farms,” Morie said sadly. “Except, maybe, for the big ones, like ours.” “True words. People don’t realize how critical this really is.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “That’s why we have the National Cattleman’s Association and the state organizations,” she reminded him. “Now stop worrying. We’re going fishing tomorrow!” “Really?” he asked, delighted. “Trout?” “Yes. The water’s just cold enough, still. When it heats up too much, you can’t eat them.” She sighed. “This may be the last chance we’ll get for a while, if this heat doesn’t relent.” “Tell me about it. We hardly had winter at all in Texas. Spring was like summer, and it’s gone downhill since. I’d love to stand in a trout stream, even if I don’t catch a thing.” “Me, too.” “Does Bodie fish?” “You know, I’ve never asked. We’ll do that tomorrow. For now,” she said, rising, “I’m for bed.” She paused and hugged him. “It’s nice to have you here for a while.” “For me, too, little sis.” He hugged her back, and kissed her forehead. “See you in the morning.” Chapter Two (#uceb3b13e-a3e3-5888-a59d-6f77a8e8bb42) Maddie hadn’t thought about Cort for one whole hour. She laughed at herself while she fed her hens. Pumpkin was in the henhouse, locked in for the time being, so that She could feed the chickens without having to defend herself. The laughter died away as she recalled the things Cort had said to her. She was ugly and flat-chested and he could never be attracted to her. She looked down at her slender body and frowned. She couldn’t suddenly become beautiful. She didn’t have the money to buy fancy clothes that flattered her, like Odalie did. In fact, her wardrobe was two years old. When her father had been dying of cancer, every penny they had was tied up trying to keep up with doctor bills that the insurance didn’t cover. Her father did carry life insurance, which was a lucky break because at his death, it was enough to pay back everybody. But things were still hard. This year, they’d struggled to pay just the utility bills. It was going to come down to a hard choice, sell off cattle or sell off land. There was a developer who’d already been to see Maddie about selling the ranch. He wanted to build a huge hotel and amusement park complex. He was offering her over a million dollars, and he was persistent. “You just run a few head of cattle here, don’t you?” the tall man in the expensive suit said, but his smile didn’t really reach his eyes. He was an opportunist, looking for a great deal. He thought Maddie would be a pushover once he pulled out a figure that would tempt a saint. But Maddie’s whole heritage was in that land. Her great-grandfather had started the ranch and suffered all sorts of deprivations to get it going. Her grandfather had taken over where he left off, improving both the cattle herd and the land. Her father had toiled for years to find just the right mix of grasses to pursue a purebred cattle breeding herd that was now the envy of several neighbors. All that would be gone. The cattle sold off, the productive grasslands torn up and paved for the complex, which would attract people passing by on the long, monotonous interstate highway that ran close to the border of the ranch. “I’ll have to think about it,” she told him, nodding. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes, either. He pursed his lips. “You know, we’re looking at other land in the area, too. You might get left out in the cold if we find someone who’s more enthusiastic about the price we’re offering.” Maddie didn’t like threats. Even nice ones, that came with soft words and smiles. “Whatever,” she said. She smiled again. “I did say I’d have to think about it.” His smile faded, and his eyes narrowed. “You have a prime location here, only one close neighbor and a nearby interstate. I really want this place. I want it a lot.” “Listen, I hate being pressured…!” He held up both hands. “Okay! But you think about it. You think hard.” His expression became dangerous-looking. “We know how to deal with reluctant buyers. That’s not a threat, it’s just a statement. Here’s my card.” She took it gingerly, as if she thought it had germs. He made a huffing sound and climbed back into his fantastically expensive foreign car. He roared out of the driveway, scattering chickens. She glared after it. No more eggs for two more days, she thought irritably. She’d rather starve than sell the ranch. But money was getting very tight. The drought was going to be a major hit to their poor finances, she thought dismally. “Miss Maddie, you got that rooster locked up?” Ben called at the fence, interrupting her depressing reverie. She turned. “Yes, Ben, he’s restrained.” She laughed. “Thanks.” He grimaced. “Going to feed the livestock and I’d just as soon not be mauled in the process.” “I know.” She glanced at the wire door behind which Pumpkin was calling to the hens in that odd tone that roosters used when there was some special treat on the ground for them. It was actually a handful of mealworms that Maddie had tossed in the henhouse to keep him occupied while she locked him in. Two of the hens went running to the door. “He’s lying,” Maddie told them solemnly. “He’s already eaten the mealworms, he just wants out.” “Cort left town, you hear?” Ben asked. Her heart jumped. “Where did he go?” she asked miserably, waiting to hear that he’d flown to Italy to see Odalie. “Wyoming, one of his cowboys said, to see his sister.” “Oh.” “Mooning over that Odalie girl, I guess,” he muttered. “She said she hated men who smelled like cattle. I guess she hates her dad, then, because he made his fortune on the Big Spur raising cattle, and he still does!” “She’s just been spoiled,” Maddie said quietly. Ben glanced at her irritably. “She was mean to you when you were in school. Your dad actually went to the school to get it stopped. He went to see Cole Everett about it, too, didn’t he?” “Yes.” She flushed. She didn’t like remembering that situation, although Odalie had quickly stopped victimizing her after her father got involved. “Had a nasty attitude, that one,” Ben muttered. “Looked down her nose at every other girl and most of the boys. Thought she was too good to live in a hick town in Texas.” His eyes narrowed. “She’s going to come a cropper one day, you mark my words. What’s that quote, ‘pride goeth after a fall’? And she’s got a lot farther to fall than some women.” “There’s another quote, something about love your enemies?” she teased. “Yes, well, she’s given a lot of people reason to put that one into practice.” Maddie grimaced. “It must be nice, to have beauty and talent. I’d settle for one or the other myself.” She laughed. “You ought to be selling them little fairy statues you make,” he advised. “Prettiest little things I ever saw. That one you sent my granddaughter for her birthday sits in the living room, because her mother loves to look at it. One of her friends has an art gallery in San Antonio. She said,” he emphasized, “that you could make a fortune with those things.” Maddie flushed. “Wow.” “Not that those pretty drawings are bad, either. Sold one to Shelby Brannt, didn’t you?” “Yes.” She’d loved the idea of Cort having to see her artwork every day, because she knew that Shelby had mounted it on a wall in the dining room of her home. But he probably never even looked at it. Though cultured, Cort had little use for art or sculpture. Unless it was a sculpture of one of the ranch’s prize bulls. They had one done in bronze. It sat on the mantel in the living room of the Brannt home. “Ought to paint that rooster while he’s still alive,” Ben said darkly. “Ben!” He held up both hands. “Didn’t say I was going to hurt him.” “Okay.” “But somebody else might.” He pursed his lips. “You know, he could be the victim of a terrible traffic accident one day. He loves to run down that dirt road in front of the house.” “You bite your tongue,” she admonished. “Spoilsport.” “That visitor who came the other day, that developer, you see him again?” Ben asked curiously. “No, but he left his name.” She pulled his business card out of her pocket and held it up. “He’s from Las Vegas. He wants to build a hotel and amusement park complex right here.” She looked around wistfully. “Offered me a million dollars. Gosh, what I could do with that!” “You could sell and throw away everything your family worked for here?” Ben asked sadly. “My great-grandfather started working here with your great-grand-father. Our families have been together all that time.” He sighed. “Guess I could learn to use a computer and make a killing with a dot-com business,” he mused facetiously. “Aw, Ben,” she said gently. “I don’t want to sell up. I was just thinking out loud.” She smiled, and this time it was genuine. “I’d put a lot of people out of work, and God knows what I’d do with all the animals who live here.” “Especially them fancy breeding bulls and cows,” he replied. “Cort Brannt would love to get his hands on them. He’s always over here buying our calves.” “So he is.” Ben hesitated. “Heard something about that developer, that Archie Lawson fellow.” “You did? What?” “Just gossip, mind.” “So? Tell me!” she prodded. He made a face. “Well, he wanted a piece of land over around Cheyenne, on the interstate. The owner wouldn’t sell. So cattle started dying of mysterious causes. So did the owner’s dog, a big border collie he’d had for years. He hired a private investigator, and had the dog autopsied. It was poison. They could never prove it was Lawson, but they were pretty sure of it. See, he has a background in chemistry. Used to work at a big government lab, they say, before he started buying and selling land.” Her heart stopped. “Oh, dear.” She bit her lip. “He said something about knowing how to force deals…” “I’ll get a couple of my pals to keep an eye on the cattle in the outer pastures,” Ben said. “I’ll tell them to shoot first and ask questions later if they see anybody prowling around here.” “Thanks, Ben,” she said heavily. “Good heavens, as if we don’t already have enough trouble here with no rain, for God knows how long.” “Everybody’s praying for it.” He cocked his head. “I know a Cheyenne medicine man. Been friends for a couple of years. They say he can make rain.” “Well!” She hesitated. “What does he charge?” “He doesn’t. He says he has these abilities that God gave him, and if he ever takes money for it, he’ll lose it. Seems to believe it, and I hear he’s made rain at least twice in the area. If things go from bad to worse, maybe we should talk to him.” She grinned. “Let’s talk to him.” He chuckled. “I’ll give him a call later.” Her eyebrows arched. “He has a telephone?” “Miss Maddie,” he scoffed, “do you think Native American people still live in teepees and wear headdresses?” She flushed. “Of course not,” she lied. “He lives in a house just like ours, he wears jeans and T-shirts mostly and he’s got a degree in anthropology. When he’s not fossicking, they say he goes overseas with a group of mercs from Texas for top secret operations.” She was fascinated. “Really!” “He’s something of a local celebrity on the rez. He lives there.” “Could you call him and ask him to come over when he has time?” He laughed. “I’ll do that tonight.” “Even if he can’t make rain, I’d love to meet him,” she said. “He sounds very interesting.” “Take my word for it, he is. Doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it’s worth hearing. Well, I’ll get back to work.” “Thanks, Ben.” He smiled. “My pleasure. And don’t let that developer bully you,” he said firmly. “Maybe you need to talk to Cort’s dad and tell him what’s going on. He’s not going to like that, about the development. It’s too close to his barns. In these hard times, even the Brannts couldn’t afford to build new ones with all that high tech they use.” “Got a point. I’ll talk to him.” Maddie went back to the house. She put the feed basket absently on the kitchen counter, mentally reviewing all the things she had planned for the week. She missed Cort already. But at least it meant the rooster was likely to stay at home. He only went over to the Brannt ranch when Cort was in residence, to attack him. “Better wash those eggs and put them in the refrigerator,” Great-Aunt Sadie advised. “They’re the ones for the restaurant, aren’t they?” “Yes. Old Mr. Bailey said his customers have been raving about the taste of his egg omelets lately.” She laughed. “I’ll have to give my girls a treat for that.” Great-Aunt Sadie was frowning. “Maddie, did you ever look up the law about selling raw products?” Maddie shook her head. “I meant to. But I’m sure it’s not illegal to sell eggs. My mother did it for years before she died….” “That was a long time ago, honey. Don’t you remember that raid a few years ago on those poor farmers who were selling raw milk?” She made a face. “What sort of country do we live in? Sending an armed raid team after helpless farmers for selling milk!” Maddie felt uneasy. “I’d forgotten that.” “I hadn’t. In my day we had homemade butter and we could drink all the raw milk we wanted—didn’t have all this fancy stuff a hundred years ago and it seems to me people were a whole lot healthier.” “You weren’t here a hundred years ago,” Maddie pointed out with a grin. “Anyway, the government’s not going to come out here and attack me for selling a few eggs!” She did look on the internet for the law pertaining to egg production and found that she was in compliance. In fact, there were even places in the country licensed to sell raw milk. She’d have to tell Great-Aunt Sadie about that, she mused. Apparently armed teams weren’t raiding farms out west. Meanwhile, a day later, she did call King Brannt. She was hesitant about it. Not only was he Cort’s father, he had a reputation in the county for being one tough customer, and difficult to get along with. He had a fiery temper that he wasn’t shy about using. But the developer’s determination to get the Lane ranch could have repercussions. A lot of them. She picked up the phone and dialed the ranch. The housekeeper answered. “Could I speak to King Brannt, please?” she asked. “It’s Maddie Lane.” There was a skirl of laughter. “Yes, you’ve got a rooster named Pumpkin.” Maddie laughed. “Is he famous?” “He is around here,” the woman said. “Cort isn’t laughing, but the rest of us are. Imagine having a personal devil in the form of a little red rooster! We’ve been teasing Cort that he must have done something terrible that we don’t know about.” Maddie sighed. “I’m afraid Pumpkin has it in for Cort. See, he picked him up by the feet and showed him to my girls, my hens, I mean, and hurt his pride. That was when he started looking for Cort.” “Oh, I see. It’s vengeance.” She laughed again. “Nice talking to you, I’ll go get Mr. Brannt. Take just a minute…” Maddie held on. Her gaze fell on one of her little fairy statues. It was delicate and beautiful; the tiny face perfect, lovely, with sculpted long blond hair, sitting on a stone with a butterfly in its hand. It was a new piece, one she’d just finished with the plastic sculpture mix that was the best on the market. Her egg money paid for the materials. She loved the little things and could never bear to sell one. But she did wonder if there was a market for such a specialized piece. “Brannt,” a deep voice said curtly. She almost jumped. “Mr. Brannt? It’s… I mean I’m Maddie Lane. I live on the little ranch next door to yours,” she faltered. “Hi, Maddie,” he said, and his voice lost its curt edge and was pleasant. “What can I do for you?” “I’ve got sort of a situation over here. I wanted to tell you about it.” “What’s wrong? Can we help?” “That’s so nice of you.” She didn’t add that she’d been told some very scary things about his temper. “It’s this developer. He’s from Las Vegas…” “Yes. Archie Lawson. I had him investigated.” “He’s trying to get me to sell my ranch to him. I don’t want to. This ranch has been in my family for generations. But he’s very pushy and he made some threats.” “He’s carried them out in the past,” King said, very curtly. “But you can be sure I’m not going to let him hurt you or your cattle herd. I’ll put on extra patrols on the land boundary we share, and station men at the cabin out there. We use it for roundup, but it’s been vacant for a week or so. I’ll make sure someone’s there at all times, and we’ll hook up cameras around your cattle herd and monitor them constantly.” “You’d do that for me?” she faltered. “Cameras. It’s so expensive.” She knew, because in desperation she’d looked at them and been shocked at the prices for even a cheap system. “I’d do that for you,” he replied. “You have one of the finest breeding herds I know of, which is why we buy so many of your young bulls.” “Why, thank you.” “You’re welcome. You see, it’s looking out for our interests as well as yours. I can’t have a complex so close to my barns, or my purebred herd. The noise of construction would be bad enough, but the constant traffic would injure production.” “Yes, I know what you mean.” “Besides that, Lawson is unscrupulous. He’s got his fingers in lots of dirty pies. He’s had several brushes with the law, too.” “I’m not surprised. He was a little scary.” “Don’t you worry. If he comes back and makes any threat at all, you call over here. If you can’t find me, talk to Cort. He’ll take care of it.” She hesitated. “Actually Cort isn’t speaking to me right now.” There was a pause. “Because of the rooster?” His voice was almost smiling. “Actually because I made a nasty crack about Odalie Everett,” she confessed heavily. “I didn’t mean to. He made me mad. I guess he was justified to complain. Pumpkin is really mean to him.” “So I heard. That rooster has had brushes with several of our cowboys.” She could tell that he was trying not to laugh. “The man who sold him to me said he was real gentle and wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s sort of true. I’ve never seen Pumpkin hurt a fly.” She laughed. “Just people.” “You need a gentle rooster, especially if you’re going to be selling eggs and baby chicks.” “The baby chick operation is down the road, but I’m doing well with my egg business.” “Glad to hear it. Our housekeeper wants to get on your customer list, by the way.” “I’ll talk to her, and thanks!” He chuckled. “My pleasure.” “If Mr. Lawson comes back, I’ll let you know.” “Please do. The man is trouble.” “I know. Thanks again, Mr. Brannt. I feel better now.” “Your dad was a friend of mine,” he said quietly. “I miss him. I know you do, too.” “I miss him a lot,” she said. “But Great-Aunt Sadie and I are coping. It’s just this ranching thing,” she added miserably. “Dad was good at it, he had charts in the barn, he knew which traits to breed for, all that technical stuff. He taught me well, but I’m not as good as he was at it. Not at all. I like to paint and sculpt.” She hesitated. “Creative people shouldn’t have to breed cattle!” she burst out. He laughed. “I hear you. Listen, suppose I send Cort over there to help you with the genetics? He’s even better at it than I am. And I’m good. No conceit, just fact.” She laughed, too. “You really are. We read about your bulls in the cattle journals.” She paused. “I don’t think Cort would come.” “He’ll come.” He sounded certain of it. “He needs something to take his mind off that woman. She’s a sweet girl, in her way, but she’s got some serious growing up to do. She thinks the world revolves around her. It doesn’t.” “She’s just been a little spoiled, I think.” She tried to be gracious. “Rotten,” he replied. “My kids never were.” “You and Mrs. Brannt did a great job with yours. And John Everett is a really nice man. So the Everetts did a great job there, too.” She didn’t mention the second Everett son, Tanner. The Everetts never spoke about him. Neither did anyone else. He was something of a mystery man. But gossip was that he and his dad didn’t get along. “They did a great job on John, for sure.” He let out a breath. “I just wish Cort would wake up. Odalie is never going to settle in a small community. She’s meant for high society and big cities. Cort would die in a high-rise apartment. He’s got too much country in him, although he’d jump at the chance if Odalie would offer him one. Just between us,” he added quietly, “I hope she doesn’t. If she makes it in opera, and I think she can, what would Cort do with himself while she trained and performed? He’d be bored out of his mind. He doesn’t even like opera. He likes country-western.” “He plays it very well,” Maddie said softly. “I loved coming to the barbecue at your place during the spring sale and hearing him sing. It was nice of you to invite all of us. Even old Ben. He was over the moon.” He laughed. “You’re all neighbors. I know you think of Ben as more family than employee. His family has worked for your family for four generations.” “That’s a long time,” she agreed. “I’m not selling my place,” she added firmly. “No matter what that fancy Las Vegas man does.” “Good for you. I’ll help you make sure of that. I’ll send Cort on over.” “He’s back from visiting his sister?” she stammered. “Yes. Got back yesterday. They went trout fishing.” She sighed. “I’d love to go trout fishing.” “Cort loves it. He said they did close the trout streams for fishing a couple of days after he and Dana—Morie, I mean, went. The heat makes it impossible.“ “That’s true.” She hesitated. “Why do you call Morie Dana?” she blurted out. He laughed. “When Shelby was carrying them, we called them Matt and Dana. Those were the names we picked out. Except that two of our friends used those names for theirs and we had to change ours. It got to be a habit, though, until the kids were adolescents. “Hey, Cort,” she heard King call, his hand covering the receiver so his voice was a little muffled. “Yes, Dad?” came the reply. “I want you to go over to the Lane place and give Maddie some help with her breeding program.” “The hell I will!” Cort burst out. The hand over the phone seemed to close, because the rest of it was muffled. Angry voices, followed by more discussion, followed like what seemed a string of horrible curses from Cort. King came back on the line. “He said he’d be pleased to come over and help,” he lied. “But he did ask if you’d shut your rooster up first.” He chuckled. “I’ll put him in the chicken house right now.” She tried not to sound as miserable as she felt. She knew Cort didn’t want to help her. He hated her. “And thank you again.” “You’re very welcome. Call us if you need help with Lawson. Okay?” “Okay.” True to his father’s words, Cort drove up in front of the house less than an hour later. He wasn’t slamming doors or scattering chickens this time, either. He looked almost pleasant. Apparently his father had talked to him very firmly. Maddie had combed her hair and washed her face. She still wasn’t going to win any beauty contests. She had on her nicest jeans and a pink T-shirt that said La Vie en Rose. It called attention, unfortunately, to breasts that were small and pert instead of big and tempting. But Cort was looking at her shirt with his lips pursed. “The world through rose-colored glasses?” he mused. “You speak French.” “Of course. French, Spanish and enough German to get me arrested in Munich. We do cattle deals all over the world,” he added. “Yes, I remember.” She swallowed, hard, recalling the things he’d said at their last unfortunate meeting. “Your father said you could help me figure out Dad’s breeding program.” “I think so. I helped him work up the new one before he passed away,” he added quietly. “We were all shocked by how fast it happened.” “So were we,” Maddie confessed. “Two months from the time he was diagnosed until he passed on.” She drew in a long breath. “He hated tests, you know. He wouldn’t go to the doctor about anything unless he was already at death’s door. I think the doctor suspected something, but Dad just passed right over the lecture about tests being necessary and walked out. By the time they diagnosed the cancer, it was too late for anything except radiation. And somebody said that they only did that to help contain the pain.” Her pale eyes grew sad. “It was terrible, the pain. At the last, he was so sedated that he hardly knew me. It was the only way he could cope.” “I’m sorry,” he said. “I haven’t lost parents, but I lost both my grandparents. They were wonderful people. It was hard to let them go.” “Life goes on,” she said quietly. “Everybody dies. It’s just a matter of how and when.” “True.” She swallowed. “Dad kept his chalkboard in the barn, and his books in the library, along with his journals. I’ve read them all, but I can’t make sense of what he was doing. I’m not college educated, and I don’t really know much about animal husbandry. I know what I do from watching Dad.” “I can explain it to you.” She nodded. “Thanks.” She turned and led the way to the house. “Where’s that…rooster?” he asked. “Shut up in the henhouse with a fan.” “A fan?” he exclaimed and burst out laughing. “It really isn’t funny,” she said softly. “I lost two of my girls to the heat. Found them dead in the henhouse, trying to lay. I had Ben go and get us a fan and install it there. It does help with the heat, a little at least.” “My grandmother used to keep hens,” he recalled. “But we only have one or two now. Foxes got the rest.” He glanced at her. “Andie, our housekeeper, wants to get on your egg customer list for two dozen a week.” She nodded. “Your dad mentioned that. I can do that. I’ve got pullets that should start laying soon. My flock is growing by leaps and bounds.” She indicated the large fenced chicken yard, dotted with all sorts of chickens. The henhouse was huge, enough to accommodate them all, complete with perches and ladders and egg boxes and, now, a fan. “Nice operation.” “I’m going to expand it next year, if I do enough business.” “Did you check the law on egg production?” She laughed. “Yes, I did. I’m in compliance. I don’t have a middleman, or I could be in trouble. I sell directly to the customer, so it’s all okay.” “Good.” He shrugged, his hands in his jean pockets. “I’d hate to have to bail you out of jail.” “You wouldn’t,” she sighed. He stopped and looked down at her. She seemed so dejected. “Yes, I would,” he said, his deep voice quiet and almost tender as he studied her small frame, her short wavy blond hair, her wide, soft gray eyes. Her complexion was exquisite, not a blemish on it except for one small mole on her cheek. She had a pretty mouth, too. It looked tempting. Bow-shaped, soft, naturally pink… “Cort?” she asked suddenly, her whole body tingling, her heart racing at the way he was staring at her mouth. “What? Oh. Yes. The breeding books.” He nodded. “We should get to it.” “Yes.” She swallowed, tried to hide her blush and opened the front door. Chapter Three (#ulink_09e9d165-031e-5b26-b687-ad8cf66cefc3) Maddie couldn’t help but stare at Cort as he leaned over the desk to read the last page of her father’s breeding journal. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. And that physique! He was long and lean, but also muscular. Broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, and in the opening of his chambray shirt, thick curling black hair peeked out. She’d never been overly interested in intimacy. Never having indulged, she had no idea how it felt, although she’d been reading romance novels since her early teens. She did know how things worked between men and women from health class. What she didn’t know was why women gave in to men. She supposed it came naturally. Cort felt her eyes on him and turned, so that he was looking directly into her wide, shocked gray eyes. His own dark ones narrowed. He knew that look, that expression. She was trying to hide it, but he wasn’t fooled. “Take a picture,” he drawled, because her interest irritated him. She wasn’t his type. Not at all. Her reaction shamed him. She looked away, cleared her throat and went beet-red. “Sorry,” she choked. “I was just thinking. You were sort of in the way. I was thinking about my fairies…” He felt guilty. That made him even more irritable. “What fairies?” She stumbled and had to catch herself as she went past him. She was so embarrassed she could hardly even walk. She went to the shelf where she’d put the newest one. Taking it down very carefully, she carried it to the desk and put it in front of him. He caught his breath. He picked it up, delicately for a man with such large, strong hands, and held it up to his eyes. He turned it. He was smiling. “This is really beautiful,” he said, as if it surprised him. He glanced at her. “You did this by yourself?” She moved uneasily. “Yes,” she muttered. What did he think—that she had somebody come in and do the work so she could claim credit for it? “I didn’t mean it like that, Maddie,” he said gently. The sound of her name on his lips made her tingle. She didn’t dare look up, because her attraction to him would surely show. He knew a lot more about women than she knew about men. He could probably tell already that she liked him. It had made him mad. So she’d have to hide it. “Okay,” she said. But she still wouldn’t look up. He gave the beautiful little statuette another look before he put it down very gently on the desk. “You should be marketing those,” he said firmly. “I’ve seen things half as lovely sell for thousands of dollars.” “Thousands?” she exclaimed. “Yes. Sometimes five figures. I was staying at a hotel in Arizona during a cattlemen’s conference and a doll show was exhibiting at the same hotel. I talked to some of the artists.” He shook his head. “It’s amazing how much collectors will pay for stuff like that.” He indicated the fairy with his head. “You should look into it.” She was stunned. “I never dreamed people would pay so much for a little sculpture.” “Your paintings are nice, too,” he admitted. “My mother loves the drawing you did. She bought it at that art show last year. She said you should be selling the sculptures, too.” “I would. It’s just that they’re like my children,” she confessed, and flushed because that sounded nutty. “I mean…well, it’s hard to explain.” “Each one is unique and you put a lot of yourself into it,” he guessed. “So it would be hard to sell one.” “Yes.” She did look up then, surprised that he was so perceptive. “You have the talent. All you need is the drive.” “Drive.” She sighed. She smiled faintly. “How about imminent starvation? Does that work for drive?” He laughed. “We wouldn’t let you starve. Your bull calves are too valuable to us,” he added, just when she thought he might actually care. “Thanks,” she said shyly. “In that journal of Dad’s—” she changed the subject “—he talks about heritability traits for lean meat with marbling to produce cuts that health-conscious consumers will buy. Can you explain to me how I go about producing herd sires that carry the traits we breed for?” He smiled. “It’s complicated. Want to take notes?” She sighed. “Just like going back to school.” Then she remembered school, and the agonies she went through in her junior and senior years because of Odalie Everett, and her face clenched. “What’s wrong?” he asked, frowning. She swallowed. She almost said what was wrong. But she’d been down that road with him already, making comments she shouldn’t have made about Odalie. She wasn’t going to make him mad. Not now, when he was being pleasant and helpful. “Nothing. Just a stray thought.” She smiled. “I’ll get some paper and a pencil.” After a half hour she put down the pencil. “It’s got to be like learning to speak Martian,” she muttered. He laughed out loud. “Listen, I didn’t come into the world knowing how this stuff worked, either. I had to learn it, and if my dad hadn’t been a patient man, I’d have jumped off a cliff.” “Your dad is patient?” she asked, and couldn’t help sounding surprised. “I know he’s got a reputation for being just the opposite. But he really is patient. I had a hard time with algebra in high school. He’d take me into the office every night and go over problems with me until I understood how to do them. He never fussed, or yelled, or raised his voice. And I was a problem child.” He shook his head. “I’m amazed I got through my childhood in one piece. I’ve broken half the bones in my body at some point, and I know my mother’s gray hairs are all because of me. Morie was a little lady. She never caused anybody any trouble.” “I remember,” Maddie said with a smile. “She was always kind to me. She was a couple of years ahead of me, but she was never snobby.” His dark eyes narrowed. “There’s a hidden comment in there.” She flushed. “I didn’t mention anybody else.” “You meant Odalie,” he said. “She can’t help being beautiful and rich and talented,” he pointed out. “And it wasn’t her fault that her parents put her in public school instead of private school, where she might have been better treated.” “Better treated.” She glared at him. “Not one teacher or administrator ever had a bad word to say about her, even though she bullied younger girls mercilessly and spent most of her time bad-mouthing people she didn’t like. One year she had a party for our whole class, at the ranch. She invited every single girl in the class—except me.” Cort’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.” “My father went to see her father, that’s how unintentional it was,” she replied quietly. “When Cole Everett knew what she’d done to me, he grounded her for a month and took away her end-of-school trip as punishment.” “That seems extreme for not inviting someone to a party,” he scoffed. “I guess that’s because you don’t know about the other things she did to me,” she replied. “Let me guess—she didn’t send you a Valentine’s Day card, either,” he drawled in a tone that dripped sarcasm. She looked at him with open sadness. “Sure. That’s it. I held a grudge because she didn’t send me a holiday card and my father went to see the school principal and Odalie’s father because he liked starting trouble.” Cort remembered her father. He was the mildest, most forgiving man anywhere around Branntville. He’d walk away from a fight if he could. The very fact that he got involved meant that he felt there was more than a slight problem. But Cort loved Odalie, and here was this badtempered little frump making cracks about her, probably because she was jealous. “I guess if you don’t have a real talent and you aren’t as pretty, it’s hard to get along with someone who has it all,” he commented. Her face went beet-red. She stood up, took her father’s journal, closed it and put it back in the desk drawer. She faced him across the width of the desk. “Thank you for explaining the journal to me,” she said in a formal tone. “I’ll study the notes I took very carefully.” “Fine.” He started to leave, hesitated. He turned and looked back at her. He could see an unusual brightness in her eyes. “Look, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s just, well, you don’t know Odalie. She’s sweet and kind, she’d never hurt anybody on purpose.” “I don’t have any talent, I’m ugly and I lie.” She nodded. “Thanks.” “Hell, I never said you lied!” She swallowed. Loud voices and curses made her nervous. She gripped the edge of the desk. “Now what’s wrong?” he asked angrily. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said quickly. He took a sudden, quick step toward her. She backed up, knocked over the desk chair and almost fell again getting it between him and herself. She was white in the face. He stopped in his tracks. His lips fell open. In all his life, he’d never seen a woman react that way. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked, but not in a loud or menacing tone. She swallowed. “Nothing. Thanks for coming over.” He scowled. She looked scared to death. Great-Aunt Sadie had heard a crash in the room. She opened the door gingerly and looked in. She glanced from Maddie’s white face to Cort’s drawn one. “Maddie, you okay?” she asked hesitantly, her eyes flicking back and forth to Cort’s as if she, too, was uneasy. “I’m fine. I just…knocked the chair over.” She laughed, but it was a nervous, quick laugh. “Cort was just leaving. He gave me lots of information.” “Nice of him,” Sadie agreed. She moved closer to Maddie, as if prepared to act as a human shield if Cort took another step toward the younger woman. “Good night, Cort.” He wanted to know what was wrong. It was true he’d said some mean things, but the fear in Maddie’s eyes, and the looks he was getting, really disturbed him. He moved to the door, hesitated. “If you need any more help…” he began. “I’ll call. Sure. Thanks for offering.” Maddie’s voice sounded tight. She was standing very still. He was reminded forcibly of deer’s eyes in headlights. “Well, I’ll get on home. Good night.” “Night,” Maddie choked out. He glanced from one woman to the other, turned and pulled the door closed behind him. Maddie almost collapsed into the chair. Tears were running down her cheeks. Great-Aunt Sadie knelt beside the chair and pulled her close, rocking her. “There, there, it’s all right. He’s gone. What happened?” “I mentioned about Odalie not inviting me to the party and he said I was just jealous of her. I said something, I don’t…remember what, and he started toward me, all mad and impatient…” She closed her eyes, shivering. “I can’t forget. All those years ago, and I still can’t forget!” “Nobody ever told Cort just what Odalie did to you, did they?” “Apparently not,” Maddie said heavily. She wiped her eyes. “Her dad made her apologize, but I know she never regretted it.” She drew in a breath. “I told her that one day somebody was going to pay her back for all the mean things she did.” She looked up. “Cort thinks she’s a saint. If he only knew what she’s really like…” “It wouldn’t matter,” the older woman said sadly. “Men get hooked on a pretty face and they’d believe white was black if the woman told them it was. He’s infatuated, baby. No cure for that but time.” “I thought he was so sexy.” Maddie laughed. She brushed at her eyes again. “Then he lost his temper like that. He scared me,” she said on a nervous smile. “It’s all right. Nobody’s going to hurt you here. I promise.” She hugged the older woman tight. “Thanks.” “At the time, that boy did apologize, and he meant it,” Sadie reminded her. “He was as much a victim as you were.” “Yes, but he got in trouble and he should have. No man, even an angry young one with justification, should ever do what he did to a girl. He didn’t have nightmares for a month, either, did he, or carry emotional scars that never go away? Sad thing about him,” she added quietly, “he died overseas when a roadside bomb blew up when he was serving in the Middle East. With a temper like that, I often wondered what he might do to a woman if he got even more upset than he was at me that time.” “No telling. And just as well we don’t have to find out.” Her face hardened. “But you’re right about that Odalie girl. Got a bad attitude and no compassion for anybody. One of these days, life is going to pay her out in her own coin. She’ll be sorry for the things she’s done, but it will be too late. God forgives,” she added. “But there’s a price.” “What’s that old saying, ‘God’s mill grinds slowly, but relentlessly’?” “Something like that. Come on. I’ll make you a nice cup of hot coffee.” “Make that a nice cup of hot chocolate instead,” Maddie said. “I’ve had a rough day and I want to go to bed.” “I don’t blame you. Not one bit.” Cort was thoughtful at breakfast the next morning. He was usually animated with his parents while he ate. But now he was quiet and retrospective. “Something wrong?” his dad asked. Cort glanced at him. He managed a smile. “Yeah. Something.” He sipped coffee. “I went over her dad’s journal with Maddie. We had sort of an argument and I started toward her while I was mad.” He hesitated. “She knocked over a chair getting away from me. White in the face, shaking all over. It was an extreme reaction. We’ve argued before, but that’s the first time she’s been afraid of me.” “And you don’t understand why.” His father’s expression was troubled. “I don’t.” Cort’s eyes narrowed. “But you do, don’t you?” He nodded. “King, should you tell him?” Shelby asked worriedly. “I think I should, honey,” he said gently, and his dark eyes smiled with affection. “Somebody needs to.” “Okay then.” She got up with her coffee. “You men talk. I’m going to phone Morie and see how she’s doing.” “Give her my love,” King called after her. “Mine, too,” Cort added. She waved a hand and closed the door behind her. “Tell me,” Cort asked his dad. King put down his coffee cup. “In her senior year, Maddie was Odalie’s worst enemy. There was a boy, seemingly a nice boy, who liked Maddie. But Odalie liked him, and she was angry that Maddie, a younger girl who wasn’t pretty or rich or talented, seemed to be winning in the affection sweepstakes.” “I told Maddie, Odalie’s not like that,” Cort began angrily. King held up a hand. “Just hear me out. Don’t interrupt.” Cort made a face, but he shut up. “So Odalie and a girlfriend got on one of the social websites and started posting things that she said Maddie told her about the boy. She said Maddie thought he was a hick, that his mother was stupid, that both his parents couldn’t even pass a basic IQ test.” “What? That’s a lie…!” “Sit down!” King’s voice was soft, but the look in his eyes wasn’t. Cort sat. “The boy’s mother was dying of cancer. He was outraged and furious at what Maddie had allegedly said about his family. His mother had just been taken to the hospital, not expected to live. She died that same day. He went to school just to find Maddie. She was in the library.” He picked up his cup and sipped coffee. “He jerked her out of her chair, slapped her over a table and pulled her by her hair to the window. He was in the act of throwing her out—and it was on the second floor—when the librarian screamed for help and two big, stronger boys restrained him, in the nick of time.” Cort’s face froze. “Maddie told you that?” “Her father’s lawyer told Cole Everett that,” came the terse reply. “There were at least five witnesses. The boy was arrested for assault. It was hushed up, because that’s what’s done in small communities to protect the families. Odalie was implicated, because the attorney hired a private investigator to find the source of the allegations. They traced the posts to her computer.” Cort felt uneasy. He was certain Odalie couldn’t have done such a thing. “Maybe somebody used her computer,” he began. “She confessed,” King said curtly. Cort was even more uneasy now. “Cole Everett had his own attorney speak to the one Maddie’s father had hired. They worked out a compromise that wouldn’t involve a trial. But Odalie had to toe the line from that time forward. They put her on probation, you see. She had first-offender status, so her record was wiped when she stayed out of trouble for the next two years. She had a girlfriend who’d egged her on. The girlfriend left town shortly thereafter.” “Yes,” Cort replied, relaxing. “I see now. The girlfriend forced her to do it.” King made a curt sound deep in his throat. “Son, nobody forced her to do a damned thing. She was jealous of Maddie. She was lucky the boy didn’t kill Maddie, or she’d have been an accessory to murder.” He watched Cort’s face pale. “That’s right. And I don’t think even Cole Everett could have kept her out of jail if that had happened.” Cort leaned back in his chair. “Poor Odalie.” “Funny,” King said. “I would have said, ‘Poor Maddie.’” Cort flushed. “It must have been terrible for both of them, I suppose.” King just shook his head. He got up. “Blind as a bat,” he mused. “Just like me, when I was giving your mother hell twice a day for being engaged to my little brother. God, I hated him. Hated them both. Never would admit why.” “Uncle Danny?” Cort exclaimed. “He was engaged to Mom?” “He was. It was a fake engagement, however.” He chuckled. “He was just trying to show me what my feelings for Shelby really were. I forgave him every minute’s agony. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t realize how deeply a man could love a woman. All these years,” he added in a soft tone, “and those feelings haven’t lessened a bit. I hope you find that sort of happiness in your life. I wish it for you.” “Thanks,” Cort said. He smiled. “If I can get Odalie to marry me, I promise you, I’ll have it.” King started to speak, but thought better of it. “I’ve got some book work to do.” “I’ve got a new video game I’m dying to try.” Cort chuckled. “It’s been a long day.” “I appreciate you going over to talk to Maddie.” “No problem. She just needed a few pointers.” “She’s no cattlewoman,” King said worriedly. “She’s swimming upstream. She doesn’t even like cattle. She likes chickens.” “Don’t say chickens,” Cort pleaded with a groan. “Your problem isn’t with chickens, it’s with a rooster.” “I’d dearly love to help him have a fatal heart attack,” Cort said irritably. “He’ll die of old age one day.” His dad laughed. “Maddie said that developer had been putting pressure on her to sell,” King added solemnly. “I’ve put on some extra help to keep an eye over that way, just to make sure her breeding stock doesn’t start dying mysteriously.” “What?” Cort asked, shocked. “She didn’t say anything about that.” “Probably wouldn’t, to you. It smacks of weakness to mention such things to the enemy.” “I’m not the enemy.” King smiled. “Aren’t you?” He left his son sitting at the table, deep in thought. Maddie was working in the yard when the developer drove up a week later. She leaned on the pitchfork she was using to put hay into a trough, and waited, miserable, for him to get out of his car and talk to her. “I won’t sell,” she said when he came up to her. “And in case you feel like high pressure tactics, my neighbor has mounted cameras all over the ranch.” She flushed at his fury. “Well, how about that?” he drawled, and his eyes were blazing with anger. He forced a smile. “You did know that cameras can be disabled?” he asked. “The cameras also have listening devices that can pick up a whisper.” He actually seemed to go pale. He looked at the poles that contained the outside lighting and mumbled a curse under his breath. There was some sort of electronic device up there. “I’ll come back again one day and ask you the same question,” he promised, but he smiled and his voice was pleasant. “Maybe you’ll change your mind.” “We also have cowboys in the line cabins on the borders of this ranch. Mr. Brannt is very protective of me since my father died. He buys many of our young breeding bulls,” she added for good measure. He was very still. “King Brannt?” “Yes. You’ve heard of him, I gather.” He didn’t reply. He turned on his heel and marched back to his car. But this time he didn’t spin his wheels. Maddie almost fell over with relief. Just as the developer left, another car drove up, a sleek Jaguar, black with silver trim. Maddie didn’t recognize it. Oh, dear, didn’t some hit men drive fancy cars…? The door opened and big John Everett climbed out of the low-slung luxury car, holding on to his white Stetson so that it wouldn’t be dislodged from his thick head of blond hair. Maddie almost laughed with relief. John grinned as he approached her. He had pale blue eyes, almost silver-colored, like his dad’s, and he was a real dish. He and Odalie both had their mother’s blond fairness, instead of Cole Everett’s dark hair and olive complexion. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he drawled. “Black cars make you twitchy or something?” “I think hit men drive them, is all.” He burst out laughing. “I’ve never shot one single person. A deer or two, maybe, in season.” He moved toward her and stopped, towering over her. His pale eyes were dancing on her flushed face. “I ran into King Brannt at a cattlemen’s association meeting last night. He said you were having some problems trying to work out your father’s breeding program. He said Cort explained it to you.” “Uh, well, yes, sort of.” It was hard to admit that even taking notes, she hadn’t understood much of what Cort had told her. “Cort tried to tutor me in biology in high school. I got a D on the test. He’s good at genetics, lousy at trying to explain them.” He shoved his hat back on his head and grinned. “So I thought, maybe I’ll come over and have a try at helping you understand it.” “You’re a nice guy, John,” she said gently. And he was. At the height of his sister’s intimidation, John had been on Maddie’s side. He shrugged. “I’m the flower of my family.” His face hardened. “Even if she is my sister, Odalie makes me ashamed sometimes. I haven’t forgotten the things she did to you.” “We all make mistakes when we’re young,” she faltered, trying to be fair. “You have a gentle nature,” he observed. “Like Cort’s mother. And mine,” he added with a smile. “Mom can’t bear to see anything hurt. She cried for days when your father’s lawyer came over and told her and Dad what Odalie had done to you.” “I know. She called me. Your dad did, too. They’re good people.” “Odalie might be a better person if she had a few disadvantages,” John said coldly. “As things stand, she’ll give in to Cort’s persuasion one day and marry him. He’ll be in hell for the rest of his life. The only person she’s ever really loved is herself.” “That’s harsh, John,” she chided gently. “It’s the truth, Maddie.” He swung his pointing finger at her nose. “You’re like my mother…she’d find one nice thing to say about the devil.” He smiled. “I’m in the mood to do some tutoring today. But I require payment. Your great-aunt makes a mean cup of coffee, and I’m partial to French vanilla.” “That’s my favorite.” He chuckled. “Mine, too.” He went back to the car, opened the passenger seat, took out a big box and a bag. “So since I drink a lot of it, I brought my own.” She caught her breath. It was one of those European coffee machines that used pods. Maddie had always wanted one, but the price was prohibitive. “Sad thing is it only brews one cup at a time, but we’ll compensate.” He grinned. “So lead the way to the kitchen and I’ll show you how to use it.” Two cups of mouthwatering coffee later, they were sitting in Maddie’s father’s office, going over breeding charts. John found the blackboard her father had used to map out the genetics. He was able to explain it so simply that Maddie understood almost at once which herd sires to breed to which cows. “You make it sound so simple!” she exclaimed. “You’re a wonder, John!” He laughed. “It’s all a matter of simplification,” he drawled. He leaned back in the chair and sketched Maddie’s radiant face with narrowed pale blue eyes. “You sell yourself short. It’s not that you can’t understand. You just have to have things explained. Cort’s too impatient.” She averted her eyes. Mention of Cort made her uneasy. “Yes, he loses his temper,” John said thoughtfully. “But he’s not dangerous. Not like that boy.” She paled. “I can’t talk about it.” “You can, and you should,” he replied solemnly. “Your father was advised to get some counseling for you, but he didn’t believe in such things. That boy had a record for domestic assault, did you ever know? He beat his grandmother almost to death one day. She refused to press charges, or he would have gone to jail. His parents jumped in and got a fancy lawyer and convinced the authorities that he wasn’t dangerous. I believe they contributed to the reelection campaign of the man who was police chief at the time as well.” “That’s a harsh accusation,” she said, shocked. “It’s a harsh world, and politics is the dirtiest business in town. Corruption doesn’t stop at criminals, you know. Rich people have a way of subverting justice from time to time.” “You’re rich, and you don’t do those types of things.” “Yes, I am rich,” he replied honestly. “And I’m honest. I have my own business, but I didn’t get where I am by depending on my dad to support me.” She searched his eyes curiously. “Is that a dig at Cort?” “It is,” he replied quietly. “He stays at home, works on the ranch and does what King tells him to do. I told him some time ago that he’s hurting himself by doing no more than wait to inherit Skylance, but he just nods and walks off.” “Somebody will have to take over the ranch when King is too old to manage it,” she pointed out reasonably. “There isn’t anybody else.” John grimaced. “I suppose that’s true. But it’s the same with me. Can you really see Odalie running a ranch?” He burst out laughing. “God, she might chip a fingernail!” She grinned from ear to ear. “Anyway, I was a maverick. I wanted my own business. I have a farm-equipment business and I also specialize in marketing native grasses for pasture improvement.” “You’re an entrepreneur,” she said with a chuckle. “Something like that, I guess.” He cocked his head and studied her. “You know I don’t date much.” “Yes. Sort of like me. I’m not modern enough for most men.” “I’m not modern enough for most women,” he replied, and smiled. “Uh, there’s going to be a dressy party over at the Hancock place to introduce a new rancher in the area. I wondered if you might like to go with me?” “A party?” she asked. She did have one good dress. She’d bought it for a special occasion a while ago, and she couldn’t really afford another one with the ranch having financial issues. But it was a nice dress. Her eyes brightened. “I haven’t been to a party in a long time. I went with Dad to a conference in Denver before he got sick.” “I remember. You looked very nice.” “Well, I’d be wearing the same dress I had on then,” she pointed out. He laughed. “I don’t follow the current fashions for women,” he mused. “I’m inviting you, not the dress.” “In that case,” she said with a pert smile, “I’d be delighted!” Chapter Four (#ulink_917b4b86-5acc-5d8e-b4c3-8deda75fcc3f) Some men dragged their feet around the room and called it dancing. John Everett could actually dance! He knew all the Latin dances and how to waltz, although he was uncomfortable with some of the newer ways to display on a dance floor. Fortunately the organizers of the party were older people and they liked older music. Only a minute into an enthusiastic samba, John and Maddie found themselves in the middle of the dance floor with the other guests clapping as they marked the fast rhythm. “We should take this show on the road.” John chuckled as they danced. “I’m game. I’ll give up ranching and become a professional samba performer, if you’ll come, too,” she suggested. “Maybe only part of the year,” he mused. “We can’t let our businesses go to pot.” “Spoilsport.” He grinned. While the two were dancing, oblivious to the other guests, a tall, dark man in a suit walked in and found himself a flute of champagne. He tasted it, nodding to other guests. Everyone was gathered around the dance floor of the ballroom in the Victorian mansion. He wandered to the fringes and caught his breath. There, on the dance floor, was Maddie Lane. She was wearing a dress, a sheath of black slinky material that dipped in front to display just a hint of the lovely curve of her breasts and display her long elegant neck and rounded arms. Her pale blond hair shone like gold in the light from the chandeliers. She was wearing makeup, just enough to enhance what seemed to be a rather pretty face, and the pretty calves of her legs were displayed to their best advantage from the arch of her spiked high-heel shoes. He’d rarely seen her dressed up. Not that he’d been interested in her or anything. But there she was, decked out like a Christmas tree, dancing with his best friend. John didn’t date anybody. Until now. Cort Brannt felt irritation rise in him like bile. He scowled at the display they were making of themselves. Had they no modesty at all? And people were clapping like idiots. He glared at Maddie. He remembered the last time he’d seen her. She backed away from Cort, but she was dancing with John as if she really liked him. Her face was radiant. She was smiling. Cort had rarely seen her smile at all. Of course, usually he was yelling at her or making hurtful remarks. Not much incentive for smiles. He sipped champagne. Someone spoke to him. He just nodded. He was intent on the dancing couple, focused and furious. Suddenly he noticed that the flute was empty. He turned and went back to the hors d’oeuvres table and had them refill it. But he didn’t go back to the dance floor. Instead he found a fellow cattleman to talk to about the drought and selling off cattle. A few minutes later he was aware of two people helping themselves to punch and cake. “Oh, hi, Cort,” John greeted him with a smile. “I didn’t think you were coming.” “Hadn’t planned to,” Cort said in a cool tone. “My dad had an emergency on the ranch, so I’m filling in. One of the officers of the cattlemen’s association is here.” He indicated the man with a nod of his head. “Dad wanted me to ask him about any pending legislation that might help us through the drought. We’ve heard rumors, but nothing substantial.” “My dad was wondering the same.” John frowned. “You okay?” “I’m fine,” Cort said, making sure that he enunciated as plainly as possible. He stood taller, although he still wasn’t as tall, or as big, as his friend. “Why do you ask?” “Because that’s your second glass of champagne and you don’t drink,” John said flatly. Cort held the flute up and looked at it. It was empty. “Where did that go?” he murmured. “Just a guess, but maybe you drank it?” John replied. Cort set the flute on the spotless white tablecloth and looked down at Maddie. “You’re keeping expensive company these days.” She was shocked at the implication. “Hold it right there,” John said, and his deep tone was menacing. “I invited her.” “Got plans, have you?” Cort replied coldly. “Why shouldn’t I?” came the droll reply. “Oh, by the way, Odalie says her Italian voice teacher is an idiot. He doesn’t know beans about how to sing, and he isn’t teaching her anything. So she thinks she may come home soon.” Maddie felt her heart sink. Cort’s expression lightened. “You think she might?” “It’s possible. You should lay off that stuff.” Cort glanced at the flute. “I suppose so.” “Hey, John, can I talk to you for a minute?” a man called to him. “I need a new combine!” “I need a new sale,” John teased. He glanced at Maddie. “I won’t be a minute, okay?” “Okay,” she said. But she was clutching her small evening bag as if she was afraid that it might escape. She started looking around for someone, anyone, to talk to besides Cort Brannt. While she was thinking about running, he slid his big hand into her small one and pulled her onto the dance floor. He didn’t even ask. He folded her into his arms and led her to the lazy, slow rhythm. He smelled of spicy, rich cologne. He was much taller than she was, so her she couldn’t see his face. She felt his cheek against the big wave of blond hair at her temple and her body began to do odd things. She felt uneasy, nervous. She felt…safe, excited. “Your hand is like ice,” he murmured as he danced with her around the room. “They get cold all the time,” she lied. He laughed deep in his throat. “Really.” She wondered why he was doing this. Surely he should be pleased about Odalie’s imminent reappearance in his life. He hated Maddie. Why was he dancing with her? “I’ve never raised my hand to a woman,” he said at her ear. “I never would, no matter how angry I was.” She swallowed and stopped dancing. She didn’t want to talk about that. He coaxed her eyes up. His were dark, narrow, intent. He was remembering what his father had told him, about the boy who tried to throw Maddie out a second-story window because of Odalie’s lies. He didn’t want to believe that Odalie had meant that to happen. Surely her female visitor had talked her into putting those nasty things about the boy and his family on the internet. But however it had happened, the thought of someone manhandling Maddie made him angry. It upset him. He didn’t really understand why. He’d never thought of her in any romantic way. She was just Pierce Lane’s daughter. He’d known her since she was a child, watched her follow her dad around the ranch. She was always petting a calf or a dog, or carrying chickens around because she liked the sounds they made. “Why are you watching me like that?” she faltered. “You love animals, don’t you?” he asked, and there was an odd, soft glow about his dark eyes. “I remember you carrying Mom’s chickens around like cuddly toys when you’d come over to the ranch with your dad. You were very small then. I had to rescue you from one of the herding dogs. You tried to pet him, and he wasn’t a pet.” “His name was Rowdy,” she recalled. “He was so pretty.” “We never let anybody touch those dogs except the man who trains and uses them. They have to be focused. You didn’t know.” He smiled. “You were a cute little kid. Always asking questions, always curious about everything.” She shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t dancing and they were drawing attention. He looked around, cocked an eyebrow and moved her back around the room in his arms. “Sorry.” She didn’t know what to think. She was tingling all over. She wanted him to hold her so close that she could feel every inch of his powerful frame against her. She wanted him to bend his head and kiss her so hard that her lips would sting. She wanted…something. Something more. She didn’t understand these new and unexpected longings. It was getting hard to breathe and her heartbeat was almost shaking her. She couldn’t bear it if he noticed. He did notice. She was like melting ice in his arms. He felt her shiver when he drew her even closer, so that her soft, pert little breasts were hard against his chest through the thin suit jacket he was wearing. He liked the way she smelled, of wildflowers in the sun. He drank in that scent. It made his head swim. His arm contracted. He was feeling sensations that he’d almost forgotten. Odalie didn’t like him close to her, so his longing for her had been stifled. But Maddie was soft and warm and receptive. Too receptive. His mouth touched her ear. “You make me hungry,” he whispered roughly. “Ex-excuse me?” she stammered. “I want to lay you down on the carpet and kiss your breasts until my body stops hurting.” She caught her breath and stopped dancing. She pushed back from him, her eyes blazing, her face red with embarrassment. She wanted to kick him in the shin, but that would cause more problems. She turned away from him, almost shivering with the emotions he’d kindled in her, shocked at the things he’d said to her. She almost ran toward John, who was walking toward her, frowning. “What is it?” he asked suddenly, putting his arm around her. She hid her face against him. He glared at Cort, who was approaching them with more conflicting emotions than he’d ever felt in his life. “You need to go home,” John told Cort in a patient tone that was belied by his expression. “You’ve had too much to drink and you’re going to make a spectacle of yourself and us if you keep this up.” “I want to dance with her,” Cort muttered stubbornly. “Well, it’s pretty obvious that she doesn’t want to dance with you.” John leaned closer. “I can pick you up over my shoulder and carry you out of here, and I will.” “I’d like to see you try it,” Cort replied, and his eyes blazed with anger. Another cattleman, seeing a confrontation building, came strolling over and deliberately got between the two men. “Hey, Cort,” he said pleasantly, “I need to ask you about those new calves your dad’s going to put up at the fall production sale. Can I ride home with you and see them?” Cort blinked. “It’s the middle of the night.” “The barn doesn’t have lights?” the older man asked, raising an eyebrow. Cort was torn. He knew the man. He was from up around the Frio river. He had a huge ranch, and Cort’s dad was hungry for new customers. “The barn has lights. I guess we could…go look at the calves.” He was feeling very light-headed. He wasn’t used to alcohol. Not at all. “I’ll drive you home,” the rancher said gently. “You can have one of your cowboys fetch your car, can’t you?” “Yeah. I guess so.” “Thanks,” John told the man. He shrugged and smiled. “No problem.” He indicated the door. Cort hesitated for just a minute. He looked back at Maddie with dark, stormy eyes, long enough that she dropped her own like hot bricks. He gave John a smug glance and followed the visiting cattleman out the door. “Oh, boy,” John said to himself. “Now we get to the complications.” “Complications?” Maddie was only half listening. Her eyes were on Cort’s long, elegant back. She couldn’t remember ever being so confused. After the party was over, John drove her to her front door and cut off the engine. “What happened?” he asked her gently, because she was still visibly upset. “Cort was out of line,” she murmured without lifting her eyes. “Not surprising. He doesn’t drink. I can’t imagine what got him started.” “I guess he’s missing your sister,” she replied with a sigh. She looked up at him. “She’s really coming home?” “She says she is,” he told her. He made a face. “That’s Odalie. She always knows more than anybody else about any subject. My parents let her get away with being sassy because she was pretty and talented.” He laughed shortly. “My dad let me have it if I was ever rude or impolite or spoke out of turn. My brother had it even rougher.” She cocked her head. “You never talk about Tanner.” He grimaced. “I can’t. It’s a family thing. Maybe I’ll tell you one day. Anyway, Dad pulled me up short if I didn’t toe the line at home.” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I had to clean the horse stalls when I made him mad.” “Odalie is beautiful,” Maddie conceded, but in a subdued tone. “Only a very few people know what she did to you,” John said quietly. “It shamed the family. Odalie was only sorry she got caught. I think she finally realized how tragic the results could have been, though.” “How so?” “For one thing, she never spoke again to the girlfriend who put her up to it,” he said. “After she got out of school, she stopped posting on her social page and threw herself into studying music.” “The girlfriend moved away, didn’t she, though?” “She moved because threats were made. Legal ones,” John confided. “My dad sent his attorneys after her. He was pretty sure that Odalie didn’t know how to link internet sites and post simultaneously, which is what was done about you.” He touched her short hair gently. “Odalie is spoiled and snobbish and she thinks she’s the center of the universe. But she isn’t cruel.” “Isn’t she?” “Well, not anymore,” he added. “Not since the lawyers got involved. You weren’t the only girl she victimized. Several others came forward and talked to my dad when they heard about what happened to you in the library. He was absolutely dumbfounded. So was my mother.” He shook his head. “Odalie never got over what they said to her. She started making a real effort to consider the feelings of other people. Years too late, of course, and she’s still got that bad attitude.” “It’s a shame she isn’t more like your mother,” Maddie said gently, and she smiled. “Mrs. Everett is a sweet woman.” “Yes. Mom has an amazing voice and is not conceited. She was offered a career in opera but she turned it down. She liked singing the blues, she said. Now, she just plays and sings for us, and composes. There’s still the occasional journalist who shows up at the door when one of her songs is a big hit, like Desperado’s.” “Do they still perform… I mean Desperado?” she qualified. “Yes, but not so much. They’ve all got kids now. It makes it tough to go on the road, except during summer holidays.” She laughed. “I love their music.” “Me, too.” He studied her. “Odd.” “What is?” “You’re so easy to talk to. I don’t get along with most women. I’m strung up and nervous and the aggressive ones make me uncomfortable. I sort of gave up dating after my last bad experience.” He laughed. “I don’t like women making crude remarks to me.” “Isn’t it funny how things have changed?” she wondered aloud. “Not that I’m making fun of you. It’s just that women used to get hassled. They still do, but it’s turned around somewhat—now men get it, too.” “Yes, life is much more complicated now.” “I really enjoyed the party. Especially the dancing.” “Me, too. We might do that again one day.” She raised both eyebrows. “We might?” He chuckled. “I’ll call you.” “That would be nice.” He smiled, got out, went around and opened the door for her. He seemed to be debating whether or not to kiss her. She liked that lack of aggression in him. She smiled, went on tiptoe and kissed him right beside his chiseled mouth. “Thanks again,” she said. “See you!” She went up the steps and into the house. John Everett stood looking after her wistfully. She thought he was nice. She liked him. But when she’d come off the dance floor trailing Cort Brannt, she’d been radiating like a furnace. Whether she knew it or not, she was in love with Cort. Shame, he thought as he drove off. She was just the sort of woman he’d like to settle down with. Not much chance of that, now. Maddie didn’t sleep at all. She stared at the ceiling. Her body tingled from the long contact with Cort’s. She could feel his breath on her forehead, his lips in her hair. She could hear what he’d whispered. She flushed at the memory. It had evoked incredible hunger. She didn’t understand why she had these feelings now, when she hadn’t had them for that boy who’d tried to hurt her so badly. She’d really thought she was crazy about him. But it was nothing like this. Since her bad experience, she hadn’t dated much. She’d seen her father get mad, but it was always quick and never physical. She hadn’t been exposed to men who hit women. Now she knew they existed. It had been a worrying discovery. Cort had frightened her when he’d lost his temper so violently in her father’s office. She didn’t think he’d attack her. But she’d been wary of him, until they danced together. Even if he was drunk, it had been the experience of a lifetime. She thought she could live on it forever, even if Odalie came home and Cort married her. He was never going to be happy with her, though. Odalie loved herself so much that there was no room in her life for a man. If only the other woman had fallen in love with the Italian voice trainer and married him. Then Cort would have to let go of his unrequited feelings for Odalie, and maybe look in another direction. Maybe look in Maddie’s direction. On the other hand, he’d only been teasing at the dance. He wasn’t himself. Cold sober, he’d never have anything to do with Maddie. Probably, he’d just been missing Odalie and wanted a warm body to hold. Yes. That was probably it. Just before dawn she fell asleep, but all too soon it was time to get up and start doing the chores around the ranch. She went to feed her flock of hens, clutching the metal garbage can lid and the leafy limb to fend off Pumpkin. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realized that it was going to come down to a hard decision one day. Pumpkin protected her hens, yes; he would be the bane of predators everywhere. But he was equally dangerous to people. What if he flew up and got one of her cowboys in the eye? She’d been reading up on rooster behavior, and she’d read some horror stories. There had been all sorts of helpful advice, like giving him special treats and being nice to him. That had resulted in more gouges on her legs, even through her slacks, where his spurs had landed. Then there was the advice about having his spurs trimmed. Good advice, but who was going to catch and hold him while someone did that? None of her cowboys were lining up to volunteer. “You problem child,” she told Pumpkin as he chased her toward the gate. “One day, I’ll have to do something about you!” She got through the gate in the nick of time and shut it, hard. At least he wasn’t going to get out of there, she told herself. She’d had Ben go around the perimeter of the large fenced area that surrounded the henhouse and plug any openings where that sneaky feathered fiend could possibly get out. If she kept him shut up, he couldn’t hurt anybody, and the fence was seven feet high. No way he was jumping that! She said so to Ben as she made her way to the barn to check on a calf they were nursing; it had dropped late and its mother had been killed by predators. They found it far on the outskirts of the ranch. They couldn’t figure how it had wandered so far, but then, cattle did that. It was why you brought pregnant cows up close to the barn, so that you’d know when they were calving. It was especially important to do that in winter, just before the spring calves were due. She looked over the gate at the little calf in the stall and smiled. “Pretty boy,” she teased. He was a purebred Santa Gertrudis bull. Some were culled and castrated and became steers, if they had poor conformation or were less than robust. But the best ones were treated like cattle royalty, spoiled rotten and watched over. This little guy would one day bring a handsome price as a breeding bull. She heard a car door slam and turned just as Cort came into the barn. She felt her heartbeat shoot off like a rocket. He tilted his hat back and moved to the stall, peering over it. “That’s a nice young one,” he remarked. “His mother was killed, so we’re nursing him,” she faltered. He frowned. “Killed?” “Predators, we think,” she replied. “She was pretty torn up. We found her almost at the highway, out near your line cabin. Odd, that she wandered so far.” “Very odd,” he agreed. Ben came walking in with a bottle. “’Day, Cort,” he said pleasantly. “How’s it going, Ben?” the younger man replied. “So far so good.” Maddie smiled as Ben settled down in the hay and fed the bottle to the hungry calf. “Poor little guy,” Maddie said. “He’ll make it,” Ben promised, smiling up at her. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Maddie said. She was reluctant to be alone with Cort after the night before, but she couldn’t see any way around it. “You’re up early,” she said, fishing for a safe topic. “I didn’t sleep.” He stuck his hands into his pockets as he strolled along with her toward the house. “Oh?” He stopped, so that she had to. His eyes were bloodshot and they had dark circles under them. “I drank too much,” he said. “I wanted to apologize for the way I behaved with you.” “Oh.” She looked around for anything more than one syllable that she could reply with. “That’s…that’s okay.” He stared down at her with curiously intent eyes. “You’re incredibly naive.” She averted her eyes and her jaw clenched. “Yes, well, with my background, you’d probably be the same way. I haven’t been anxious to repeat the mistakes of the past with some other man who wasn’t what he seemed to be.” “I’m sorry. About what happened to you.” “Everybody was sorry,” she replied heavily. “But nobody else has to live with the emotional baggage I’m carrying around.” “How did you end up at the party with John?” She blinked. “Well, he came over to show me some things about animal husbandry, and he asked me to go with him. It was sort of surprising, really. He doesn’t date anybody.” “He’s had a few bad experiences with women. So have I.” She’d heard about Cort’s, but she wasn’t opening that topic with him. “Would you like coffee?” she asked. “Great-Aunt Sadie went shopping, but she left a nice coffee cake baking in the oven. It should be about ready.” “Thanks. I could use a second cup,” he added with a smile. But the smile faded when he saw the fancy European coffee machine on the counter. “Where the hell did you buy that?” he asked. She flushed. “I didn’t. John likes European coffee, so he brought the machine and the pods over with him.” He lifted his chin. “Did he, now? I gather he thinks he’ll be having coffee here often, then?” She frowned. “He didn’t say anything about that.” He made a huffing sound in his throat, just as the stove timer rang. Maddie went to take the coffee cake out of the oven. She was feeling so rattled, it was a good thing she’d remembered that it was baking. She placed it on a trivet. It smelled of cinnamon and butter. “My great-aunt can really cook,” she remarked as she took off the oven mitts she’d used to lift it out. “She can, can’t she?” She turned and walked right into Cort. She hadn’t realized he was so close. He caught her small waist in his big hands and lifted her right onto the counter next to the coffee cake, so that she was even with his dark, probing eyes. “You looked lovely last night,” he said in a strange, deep tone. “I’ve never really seen you dressed up before.” “I… I don’t dress up,” she stammered. He was tracing her collarbone and the sensations it aroused were delicious and unsettling. “Just occasionally.” “I didn’t know you could do those complicated Latin dances, either,” he continued. “I learned them from watching television,” she said. His head was lower now. She could feel his breath on her lips; feel the heat from his body as he moved closer, in between her legs so that he was right up against her. “I’m not in John Everett’s class as a dancer,” he drawled, tilting her chin up. “But, then, he’s not in my class…at this…” His mouth slowly covered hers, teasing gently, so that he didn’t startle her. He tilted her head just a little more, so that her mouth was at just the right angle. His firm lips pushed hers apart, easing them back, so that he had access to the soft, warm depths of her mouth. He kissed her with muted hunger, so slowly that she didn’t realize until too late how much a trap it was. He grew insistent then, one lean hand at the back of her head, holding it still, as his mouth devoured her soft lips. “Sweet,” he whispered huskily. “You taste like honey….” His arms went under hers and around her, lifting her, so that her breasts were flattened against his broad, strong chest. Involuntarily her cold hands snaked around his neck. She’d never felt hunger like this. She hadn’t known it was possible. She let him open her mouth with his, let him grind her breasts against him. She moaned softly as sensations she’d never experienced left her helpless, vulnerable. She felt his hand in her hair, tangling in it, while he kissed her in the soft silence of the kitchen. It was a moment out of time when she wished it could never end, that she could go on kissing him forever. But just when he lifted his head, and looked into her eyes, and started to speak… A car pulled up at the front porch and a door slammed. Maddie looked into Cort’s eyes with shock. He seemed almost as unsettled as she did. He moved back, helping her off the counter and onto her feet. He backed up just as Great-Aunt Sadie walked in with two bags of groceries. “Didn’t even have fresh mushrooms, can you believe it?” she was moaning, her mind on the door that was trying to close in her face rather than the two dazed people in the kitchen. “Here, let me have those,” Cort said politely, and he took the bags and put them on the counter. “Are there more in the car?” he asked. “No, but thank you, Cort,” Sadie said with a warm smile. He grinned. “No problem.” He glanced at Maddie, who still looked rattled. “I have to go. Thanks for the offer of coffee. Rain check?” he added, and his eyes were almost black with feeling. “Oh, yes,” Maddie managed breathlessly. “Rain check.” He smiled at her and left her standing there, vibrating with new hope. Chapter Five (#ulink_54e8f5e3-eb28-5af0-91b2-830867b891c3) Maddie still couldn’t believe what had happened right there in her kitchen. Cort had kissed her, and as if he really did feel something for her. Besides that, he was very obviously jealous of John Everett. She felt as if she could actually walk on air. “You look happier than I’ve seen you in years, sweetie,” Great-Aunt Sadie said with a smile. “I am.” Sadie grinned. “It’s that John Everett, isn’t it?” she teased. She indicated the coffeemaker. “Thought he was pretty interested. I mean, those things cost the earth. Not every man would start out courting a girl with a present like that!” “Oh. Well, of course, I like John,” Maddie stammered. And then she realized that she couldn’t very well tell her great-aunt what was going on. Sadie might start gossiping. Maddie’s ranch hands had friends who worked for the Brannts. She didn’t want Cort to think she was telling tales about him, even in an innocent way. After all, it might have been a fluke. He could be missing Odalie and just reacted to Maddie in unexpected ways. “He’s a dish,” Sadie continued as she peeled potatoes in the kitchen. “Handsome young man, just like his dad.” She grimaced. “I’m not too fond of his sister, but, then, no family is perfect.” “No.” She hesitated. “Sadie, do you know why nobody talks about the oldest brother, Tanner?” Sadie smiled. “Just gossip. They said he and his dad had a major falling out over his choice of careers and he packed up and went to Europe. That was when he was in his late teens. As far as I know, he’s never contacted the family since. It’s a sore spot with the Everetts, so they don’t talk about him anymore. Too painful, I expect.” “That’s sad.” “Yes, it is. There was a rumor that he was hanging out with some dangerous people as well. But you know what rumors are.” “Yes,” Maddie said. “What was Cort doing over here earlier in the week?” Sadie asked suddenly. “Oh, he was just…giving me some more pointers on dad’s breeding program,” Maddie lied. “Scared you to death, too,” Sadie said irritably. “I don’t think he’d hurt you, but he’s got a bad temper, sweetie.” Maddie had forgotten that, in the new relationship she seemed to be building with Cort. “People say his father was like that, when he was young. But Shelby married him and tamed him,” she added with a secret smile. Sadie glanced at her curiously. “I guess that can happen. A good woman can be the salvation of a man. But just…be careful.” “I will,” she promised. “Cort isn’t a mean person.” Sadie gave her a careful look. “So that’s how it is.” Maddie flushed. “I don’t know what you mean.” “John likes you, a lot,” she replied. Maddie sighed. “John’s got a barracuda for a sister, too,” she reminded the older woman. “No way in the world am I having her for a sister-in-law, no matter how nice John is.” Sadie grimaced. “Should have thought of that, shouldn’t I?” “I did.” She laughed. “I guess so. But just a suggestion, if you stick your neck out with Cort,” she added very seriously. “Make him mad. Make him really mad, someplace where you can get help if you need to. Don’t wait and find out when it’s too late if he can’t control his temper.” “I remember that boy in high school,” Maddie reminded her. “He didn’t stop. Cort frightened me, yes, but when he saw I was afraid, he started apologizing. If he couldn’t control his temper, he’d never have been able to stop.” Sadie looked calmer. “No. I don’t think he would.” “He’s still apologizing for it, in fact,” Maddie added. Sadie smiled and her eyes were kind. “All right, then. I won’t harp on it. He’s a lot like his father, and his dad is a good man.” “They’re all nice people. Morie was wonderful to me in school. She stuck up for me when Odalie and her girlfriend were making my life a daily purgatory.” “Pity Odalie never really gets paid back for the things she does,” Sadie muttered.” Maddie hugged her. “That mill grinds slowly but relentlessly,” she reminded her. She grinned. “One day…” Sadie laughed. “One day.” Maddie let her go with a sigh. “I hope I can learn enough of this stuff not to sink dad’s cattle operation,” she moaned. “I wasn’t really faced with having to deal with the breeding aspect until now, with roundup ahead and fall breeding standing on the line in front of me. Which bull do I put on which cows? Gosh! It’s enough to drive you nuts!” “Getting a lot of help in that, though, aren’t you?” Sadie teased. “Did you tell Cort that John had been coaching you, too?” “Yes.” She sighed. “Cort wasn’t overjoyed about it, either. But John makes it understandable.” She threw up her hands. “I’m just slow. I don’t understand cattle. I love to paint and sculpt. But Dad never expected to go so soon and have to leave me in charge of things. We’re going in the hole because I don’t know what I’m doing.” She glanced at the older woman. “In about two years, we’re going to start losing customers. It terrifies me. I don’t want to lose the ranch, but it’s going to go downhill without dad to run it.” She toyed with a bag on the counter. “I’ve been thinking about that developer…” “Don’t you dare,” Sadie said firmly. “Darlin’, do you realize what he’d do to this place if he got his hands on it?” she exclaimed. “He’d sell off all the livestock to anybody who wanted it, even for slaughter, and he’d rip the land to pieces. All that prime farmland, gone, all the native grasses your dad planted and nurtured, gone. This house—” she indicated it “—where your father and your grandfather and I were born! Gone!” Maddie felt sick. “Oh, dear.” “You’re not going to run the ranch into the ground. Not when you have people, like King Brannt, who want to help you get it going again,” she said firmly. “If you ever want to sell up, you talk to him. I’ll bet he’d offer for it and put in a manager. We could probably even stay on and pay rent.” “With what?” Maddie asked reasonably. “Your social security check and my egg money?” She sighed. “I can’t sell enough paintings or enough eggs to pay for lunch in town,” she added miserably. “I should have gone to school and learned a trade or something.” She grimaced. “I don’t know what to do.” “Give it a little time,” the older woman said gently. “I know it’s overwhelming, but you can learn. Ask John to make you a chart and have Ben in on the conversation. Your dad trusted Ben with everything, even the finances. I daresay he knows as much as you do about things.” “That’s an idea.” She smiled sadly. “I don’t really want to sell that developer anything. He’s got a shady look about him.” “You’re telling me.” “I guess I’ll wait a bit.” “Meanwhile, you might look in that bag I brought home yesterday.” “Isn’t it groceries…dry goods?” “Look.” She peered in the big brown bag and caught her breath. “Sculpting material. Paint! Great-Aunt Sadie!” she exclaimed, and ran and hugged the other woman. “That’s so sweet of you!” “Looking out for you, darling,” she teased. “I want you to be famous so those big TV people will want to interview me on account of we’re related!” She stood up and struck a pose. “Don’t you think I’d be a hit?” Maddie hugged her even tighter. “I think you’re already a hit. Okay. I can take a hint. I’ll get to work right now!” Sadie chortled as she rushed from the room. Cort came in several days later while she was retouching one of the four new fairies she’d created, working where the light was best, in a corner of her father’s old office. She looked up, startled, when Great-Aunt Sadie let him in. She froze. “Pumpkin came after you again?” she asked, worried. “What?” He looked around, as if expecting the big red rooster to appear. “Oh, Pumpkin.” He chuckled. “No. He was in the hen yard giving me mean looks, but he seems to be well contained.” “Thank goodness!” He moved to the table and looked at her handiwork. “What a group,” he mused, smiling. “They’re all beautiful.” “Thanks.” She wished she didn’t sound so breathless, and that she didn’t have paint dabbed all over her face from her days’ efforts. She probably looked like a painting herself. “Going to sell them?” “Oh, I couldn’t,” she said hesitantly. “I mean, I…well, I just couldn’t.” “Can’t you imagine what joy they’d bring to other people?” he asked, thinking out loud. “Why do you think doll collectors pay so much for one-of-a-kind creations like those? They build special cabinets for them, take them out and talk to them…” “You’re kidding!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Really?” “This one guy I met at the conference said he had about ten really rare dolls. He sat them around the dining room table every night and talked to them while he ate. He was very rich and very eccentric, but you get the idea. He loved his dolls. He goes to all the doll collector conventions. In fact, there’s one coming up in Denver, where they’re holding a cattlemen’s workshop.” He smiled. “Anyway, your fairies wouldn’t be sitting on a shelf collecting dust on the shelf of a collector like that. They’d be loved.” “Wow.” She looked back at the little statuettes. “I never thought of it like that.” “Maybe you should.” She managed a shy smile. He looked delicious in a pair of beige slacks and a yellow, very expensive pullover shirt with an emblem on the pocket. Thick black hair peeked out where the top buttons were undone. She wondered how his bare chest would feel against her hands. She blushed. “What can I do for you?” she asked quickly, trying to hide her interest. Her reaction to him was amusing. He found it really touching. Flattering. He hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind since he’d kissed her so hungrily in her kitchen. He’d wanted to come back sooner than this, but business had overwhelmed him. “I have to drive down to Jacobsville, Texas, to see a rancher about some livestock,” he said. “I thought you might like to ride with me.” She stared at him as if she’d won the lottery. “Me?” “You.” He smiled. “I’ll buy you lunch on the way. I know this little tearoom off the beaten path. We can have high tea and buttermilk pie.” She caught her breath. “I used to hear my mother talk about that one. I’ve never had high tea. I’m not even sure what it is, exactly.” “Come with me and find out.” She grinned. “Okay! Just let me wash up first.” “Take your time. I’m not in any hurry.” “I’ll just be a few minutes.” She almost ran up the staircase to her room. Cort picked up one of the delicate little fairies and stared at it with utter fascination. It was ethereal, beautiful, stunning. He’d seen such things before, but never anything so small with such personality. The little fairy had short blond hair, like Maddie’s, and pale eyes. It amused him that she could paint something so tiny. He noted the magnifying glass standing on the table, and realized that she must use it for the more detailed work. Still, it was like magic, making something so small look so realistic. He put it down, very carefully, and went into the kitchen to talk to Sadie while he waited for Maddie to get ready. “Those little fairies she makes are amazing,” he commented, lounging against the counter. Sadie smiled at him. “They really are. I don’t know how she does all that tiny detailed work without going blind. The little faces are so realistic. She has a gift.” “She does. I wish she’d do something with it.” “Me, too,” Sadie replied. “But she doesn’t want to sell her babies, as she calls them.” “She’s sitting on a gold mine here.” Cort sighed. “You know, breeding herd sires is hard work, even for people who’ve done it for generations and love it.” She glanced at him and she looked worried. “I know. She doesn’t really want to do it. My nephew had to toss her in at the deep end when he knew his cancer was fatal.” She shook her head. “I hate it for her. You shouldn’t be locked into a job you don’t want to do. But she’s had no training. She really can’t do anything else.” “She can paint. And she can sculpt.” “Yes, but there’s still the ranch,” Sadie emphasized. “Any problem has a solution. It’s just a question of finding it.” He sighed. “Ben said you’d had another cow go missing.” “Yes.” She frowned. “Odd thing, too, she was in a pasture with several other cows, all of them healthier than her. I can’t think somebody would steal her.” “I know what you mean. They do wander off. It’s just that it looks suspicious, having two go missing in the same month.” “Could it be that developer man?” Cort shook his head. “I wouldn’t think so. We’ve got armed patrols and cameras mounted everywhere. If anything like that was going on, we’d see it.” “I suppose so.” There was the clatter of footsteps almost leaping down the staircase. “Okay, I’m ready,” Maddie said, breathless. She was wearing jeans and boots and a pretty pink button-up blouse. She looked radiant. “Where are you off to?” Sadie asked, laughing. “I’m going to Jacobsville with Cort to look at livestock.” “Oh.” Sadie forced a smile. “Well, have fun, then.” Cort started the sleek two-seater Jaguar. He glanced at Maddie, who was looking at everything with utter fascination. “Not quite like your little Volkswagen, huh?” he teased. “No! It’s like a spaceship or something.” “Watch this.” As he started the car, the air vents suddenly opened up and the Jaguar symbol lit up on a touch screen between the steering wheel and the glove compartment. At the same time, the gearshift rose up from the console, where it had been lying flat. “Oh, gosh!” she exclaimed. “That’s amazing!” He chuckled. “I like high-tech gadgets.” “John has one of these,” she recalled. His eyes narrowed. “So he does. I rode him around in mine and he found a dealership the next day. His is more sedate.” “I just think they’re incredible.” He smiled. “Fasten your seat belt.” “Oops, sorry, wasn’t thinking.” She reached up and drew it between her breasts, to fasten it beside her hip. “I always wear my seat belt,” he said. “Dad refused to drive the car until we were all strapped in. He was in a wreck once. He said he never forgot that he’d be dead except for the seat belt.” “My dad wasn’t in a wreck, but he was always careful about them, too.” She put her strappy purse on the floorboard. “Did Odalie come home?” she asked, trying not to sound too interested. “Not yet,” he said. He had to hide a smile, because the question lacked any subtlety. “Oh.” He was beginning to realize that Odalie had been a major infatuation for him. Someone unreachable that he’d dreamed about, much as young boys dreamed about movie stars. He knew somewhere in the back of his mind that he and Odalie were as different as night and day. She wanted an operatic career and wasn’t interested in fitting him into that picture. Would he be forever hanging around opera houses where she performed, carrying bags and organizing fans? Or would he be in Texas, waiting for her rare visits? She couldn’t have a family and be a performer, not in the early stages of her career, maybe never. Cort wanted a family. He wanted children. Funny, he’d never thought of himself as a parent before. But when he’d listened to Maddie talk about her little fairy sculptures and spoke of them as her children, he’d pictured her with a baby in her arms. It had shocked him how much he wanted to see that for real. “You like kids, don’t you?” he asked suddenly. “What brought that on?” She laughed. “What you said, about your little fairy sculptures. They’re beautiful kids.” “Thanks.” She looked out the window at the dry, parched grasslands they were passing through. “Yes, I love kids. Oh, Cort, look at the poor corn crops! That’s old Mr. Raines’s land, isn’t it?” she added. “He’s already holding on to his place by his fingernails I guess he’ll have to sell if it doesn’t rain.” “My sister said they’re having the same issues up in Wyoming.” He glanced at her. “Her husband knows a medicine man from one of the plains tribes. She said that he actually did make it rain a few times. Nobody understands how, and most people think it’s fake, but I wonder.” “Ben was talking about a Cheyenne medicine man who can make rain. He’s friends with him. I’ve known people who could douse for water,” she said. “Now, there’s a rare talent indeed,” he commented. He pursed his lips. “Can’t Ben do that?” “Shh,” she said, laughing. “He doesn’t want people to think he’s odd, so he doesn’t want us to tell anybody.” “Still, you might ask him to go see if he could find water. If he does, we could send a well-borer over to do the job for him.” She looked at him with new eyes. “That’s really nice of you.” He shrugged. “I’m nice enough. From time to time.” He glanced at her pointedly. “When women aren’t driving me to drink.” “What? I didn’t drive you to drink!” “The hell you didn’t,” he mused, his eyes on the road so that he missed her blush. “Dancing with John Everett. Fancy dancing. Latin dancing.” He sighed. “I can’t even do a waltz.” “Oh, but that doesn’t matter,” she faltered, trying to deal with the fact that he was jealous. Was he? That was how it sounded! “I mean, I think you dance very nicely.” “I said some crude things to you,” he said heavily. “I’m really sorry. I don’t drink, you see. When I do…” He let the sentence trail off. “Anyway, I apologize.” “You already apologized.” “Yes, but it weighs on my conscience.” He stopped at a traffic light. He glanced at her with dark, soft eyes. “John’s my friend. I think a lot of him. But I don’t like him taking you out on dates and hanging around you.” She went beet-red. She didn’t even know what to say. “I thought it might come as a shock,” he said softly. He reached a big hand across the console and caught hers in it. He linked her fingers with his and looked into her eyes while he waited for the lights to change. “I thought we might take in a movie Friday night. There’s that new Batman one.” “There’s that new Ice Age one,” she said at the same time. He gave her a long, amused look. “You like cartoon movies?” She flushed. “Well…” He burst out laughing. “So do I. Dad thinks I’m nuts.” “Oh, I don’t!” His fingers contracted around hers. “Well, in that case, we’ll see the Ice Age one.” “Great!” The light changed and he drove on. But he didn’t let go of her hand. High tea was amazing! There were several kinds of tea, china cups and saucers to contain it, and little cucumber sandwiches, chicken salad sandwiches, little cakes and other nibbles. Maddie had never seen anything like it. The tearoom was full, too, with tourists almost overflowing out of the building, which also housed an antique shop. “This is awesome!” she exclaimed as she sampled one thing after another. “Why, thank you.” The owner laughed, pausing by their table. “We hoped it would be a success.” She shook her head. “Everybody thought we were crazy. We’re from Charleston, South Carolina. We came out here when my husband was stationed in the air force base at San Antonio, and stayed. We’d seen another tearoom, way north, almost in Dallas, and we were so impressed with it that we thought we might try one of our own. Neither of us knew a thing about restaurants, but we learned, with help from our staff.” She shook her head. “Never dreamed we’d have this kind of success,” she added, looking around. “It’s quite a dream come true.” “That cameo,” Maddie said hesitantly, nodding toward a display case close by. “Does it have a story?” “A sad one. The lady who owned it said it was handed down in her family for five generations. Finally there was nobody to leave it to. She fell on hard times and asked me to sell it for her.” She sighed. “She died a month ago.” She opened the case with a key and pulled out the cameo, handing it to Maddie. It was black lacquer with a beautiful black-haired Spanish lady painted on it. She had laughing black eyes and a sweet smile. “She was so beautiful.” “It was the great-great-grandmother of the owner. They said a visiting artist made it and gave it to her. She and her husband owned a huge ranch, from one of those Spanish land grants. Pity there’s nobody to keep the legend going.” “Oh, but there is.” Cort took it from the woman and handed it to Maddie. “Put it on the tab, if you will,” he told the owner. “I can’t think of anyone who’ll take better care of her.” “No, you can’t,” Maddie protested, because she saw the price tag. “I can,” Cort said firmly. “It was a family legacy. It still is.” His dark eyes stared meaningfully into hers. “It can be handed down, to your own children. You might have a daughter who’d love it one day.” Maddie’s heart ran wild. She looked into Cort’s dark eyes and couldn’t turn away. “I’ll put the ticket with lunch,” the owner said with a soft laugh. “I’m glad she’ll have a home,” she added gently. “Can you write down the woman’s name who sold it to you?” Maddie asked. “I want to remember her, too.” “That I can. How about some buttermilk pie? It’s the house specialty,” she added with a grin. “I’d love some.” “Me, too,” Cort said. Maddie touched the beautiful cheek of the cameo’s subject. “I should sculpt a fairy who looks like her.” “Yes, you should,” Cort agreed at once. “And show it with the cameo.” She nodded. “How sad,” she said, “to be the last of your family.” “I can almost guarantee that you won’t be the last of yours,” he said in a breathlessly tender tone. She looked up into his face and her whole heart was in her eyes. He had to fight his first impulse, which was to drag her across the table into his arms and kiss the breath out of her. She saw that hunger in him and was fascinated that she seemed to have inspired it. He’d said that she was plain and uninteresting. But he was looking at her as if he thought her the most beautiful woman on earth. “Dangerous,” he teased softly, “looking at me like that in a public place.” “Huh?” She caught her breath as she realized what he was saying. She laughed nervously, put the beautiful cameo beside her plate and smiled at him. “Thank you, for the cameo.” “My pleasure. Eat up. We’ve still got a long drive ahead of us!” Jacobsville, Texas, was a place Maddie had heard of all her life, but she’d never seen it before. In the town square, there was a towering statue of Big John Jacobs, the founder of Jacobsville, for whom Jacobs County was named. Legend had it that he came to Texas from Georgia after the Civil War, with a wagonload of black sharecroppers. He also had a couple of Comanche men who helped him on the ranch. It was a fascinating story, how he’d married the spunky but not so pretty daughter of a multimillionaire and started a dynasty in Texas. Maddie shared the history with Cort as they drove down a long dirt road to the ranch, which was owned by Cy Parks. He was an odd sort of person, very reticent, with jet-black hair sprinkled with silver and piercing green eyes. He favored one of his arms, and Maddie could tell that it had been badly burned at some point. His wife was a plain little blonde woman who wore glasses and obviously adored her husband. The feeling seemed to be mutual. They had two sons who were in school, Lisa explained shyly. She was sorry she couldn’t introduce them to the visitors. Cy Parks showed them around his ranch in a huge SUV. He stopped at one pasture and then another, grimacing at the dry grass. “We’re having to use up our winter hay to feed them,” he said with a sigh. “It’s going to make it a very hard winter if we have to buy extra feed to carry us through.” He glanced at Cort and laughed. “You’ll make my situation a bit easier if you want to carry a couple of my young bulls home with you.” Cort grinned, too. “I think I might manage that. Although we’re in the same situation you are. Even my sister’s husband, who runs purebred cattle in Wyoming, is having it rough. This drought is out of anybody’s experience. People are likening it to the famous Dust Bowl of the thirties.” “There was another bad drought in the fifties,” Parks added. “When we live on the land, we always have issues with weather, even in good years. This one has been a disaster, though. It will put a lot of the family farms and ranches out of business.” He made a face. “They’ll be bought up by those damned great combines, corporate ranching, I call it. Animals pumped up with drugs, genetically altered—damned shame. Pardon the language,” he added, smiling apologetically at Maddie. “She’s lived around cattlemen all her life,” Cort said affectionately, smiling over the back of the seat at her. “Yes, I have.” Maddie laughed. She looked into Cort’s dark eyes and blushed. He grinned. They stopped at the big barn on the way back and Cy led them through it to a stall in the rear. It connected to a huge paddock with plenty of feed and fresh water. “Now this is my pride and joy,” he said, indicating a sleek, exquisite young Santa Gertrudis bull. “That is some conformation,” Cort said, whistling. “He’s out of Red Irony, isn’t he?” he added. Cy chuckled. “So you read the cattle journals, do you?” “All of them. Your ranch has some of the best breeding stock in Texas. In the country, in fact.” “So does Skylance,” Parks replied. “I’ve bought your own bulls over the years. And your father’s,” he added to Maddie. “Good stock.” “Thanks,” she said. “Same here,” Cort replied. He drew in a breath. “Well, if this little fellow’s up for bids, I’ll put ours in.” “No bids. He’s yours if you want him.” He named a price that made Maddie feel faint, but Cort just smiled. “Done,” he said, and they shook hands. On the way back home, Maddie was still astonished at the price. “That’s a fortune,” she exclaimed. “Worth every penny, though,” Cort assured her. “Healthy genetics make healthy progeny. We have to put new bulls on our cows every couple of years to avoid any defects. Too much inbreeding can be dangerous to the cattle and disastrous for us.” “I guess so. Mr. Parks seems like a very nice man,” she mused. He chuckled. “You don’t know his history, do you? He led one of the most respected groups of mercenaries in the world into small wars overseas. His friend Eb Scott still runs a world-class counterterrorism school on his ranch. He was part of the merc group, along with a couple of other citizens of Jacobsville.” “I didn’t know!” “He’s a good guy. Dad’s known him for years.” “What a dangerous way to make a living, though.” “No more dangerous than dealing with livestock,” Cort returned. That was true. There were many pitfalls of working with cattle, the least of which was broken bones. Concussions could be, and sometimes were, fatal. You could drown in a river or be trampled…the list went on and on. “You’re very thoughtful,” Cort remarked. She smiled. “I was just thinking.” “Me, too.” He turned off onto a side road that led to a park. “I want to stretch my legs for a bit. You game?” “Of course.” He pulled into the car park and led the way down a small bank to the nearby river. The water level was down, but flowing beautifully over mossy rocks, with mesquite trees drooping a little in the heat, but still pretty enough to catch the eye. “It’s lovely here.” “Yes.” He turned and pulled her into his arms, looking down into her wide eyes. “It’s very lovely here.” He bent his head and kissed her. Chapter Six (#ulink_8eecadf0-d644-5624-ab5f-043f791031bd) Maddie’s head was swimming. She felt the blood rush to her heart as Cort riveted her to his long, hard body and kissed her as if he might never see her again. She pressed closer, wrapping her arms around him, holding on for dear life. His mouth tasted of coffee. It was warm and hard, insistent as it ground into hers. She thought if she died now, it would be all right. She’d never been so happy. She heard a soft groan from his mouth. One lean hand swept down her back and pressed her hips firmly into his. She stiffened a little. She didn’t know much about men, but she was a great reader. The contours of his body had changed quite suddenly. “Nothing to worry about,” he whispered into her mouth. “Just relax…” She did. It was intoxicating. His free hand went under her blouse and expertly unclasped her bra to give free rein to his searching fingers. They found her breast and teased the nipple until it went hard. He groaned and bent his head, putting his mouth right over it, over the cloth. She arched up to him, so entranced that she couldn’t even find means to protest. “Yes,” he groaned. “Yes, yes…!” Her hands tangled in his thick black hair, tugging it closer. She arched backward, held by his strong arms as he fed on the softness of her breast under his demanding mouth. His hand at her back was more insistent now, grinding her against the growing hardness of his body. She was melting, dying, starving to death. She wanted him to take off her clothes; she wanted to lie down with him and she wanted something, anything that would ease the terrible ache in her young body. And just when she was certain that it would happen, that he wasn’t going to stop, a noisy car pulled into the car park above and a car door slammed. She jerked back from him, tugging down her blouse, shivering at the interruption. His eyes were almost black with hunger. He cursed under his breath, biting his lip as he fought down the need that almost bent him over double. From above there were children’s voices, laughing and calling to each other. Maddie stood with her back to him, her arms wrapped around her body, while she struggled with wild excitement, embarrassment and confusion. He didn’t like her. He thought she was ugly. But he’d kissed her as if he were dying for her mouth. It was one big puzzle… She felt his big, warm hands on her shoulders. “Don’t sweat it,” he said in a deep, soft tone. “Things happen.” She swallowed and forced a smile. “Right.” He turned her around, tipping her red face up to his eyes. He searched them in a silence punctuated with the screams and laughter of children. She was very pretty like that, her mouth swollen from his kisses, her face shy, timid. He was used to women who demanded. Aggressive women. Even Odalie, when he’d kissed her once, had been very outspoken about what she liked and didn’t like. Maddie simply…accepted. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he said softly. “Everything’s all right. But we should probably go now. It’s getting late.” She nodded. He took her small hand in his, curled his fingers into hers and drew her with him along the dirt path that led back up to the parking lot. Two bedraggled parents were trying to put out food in plastic containers on a picnic table, fighting the wind, which was blowing like crazy in the sweltering heat. They glanced at the couple and grinned. Cort grinned back. There were three children, all under school age, one in his father’s arms. They looked happy, even though they were driving a car that looked as if it wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot. “Nice day for a picnic,” Cort remarked. The father made a face. “Not so much, but we’ve got a long drive ahead of us and it’s hard to sit in a fast-food joint with this company.” He indicated the leaping, running toddlers. He laughed. “Tomorrow, they’ll be hijacking my car,” he added with an ear-to-ear smile, “so we’re enjoying it while we can.” “Nothing like kids to make a home a home,” the mother commented. “Nice looking kids, too,” Cort said. “Very nice,” Maddie said, finally finding her voice. “Thanks,” the mother said. “They’re a handful, but we don’t mind.” She went back to her food containers, and the father went running after the toddlers, who were about to climb down the bank. “Nice family,” Cort remarked as they reached his car. “Yes. They seemed so happy.” He glanced down at her as he stopped to open the passenger door. He was thoughtful. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were soft and full of secrets. “In you go.” She got in, fastened her seat belt without any prompting and smiled all the way back home. Things were going great, until they got out of the car in front of Maddie’s house. Pumpkin had found a way out of the hen enclosure. He spotted Cort and broke into a halting run, with his head down and his feathers ruffled. “No!” Maddie yelled. “Pumpkin, no!” She tried to head him off, but he jumped at her and she turned away just in time to avoid spurs in her face. “Cort, run! It’s okay, just run!” she called when he hesitated. He threw his hands up and darted toward his car. “You have to do something about that damned rooster, Maddie!” he called back. “I know,” she wailed. “I will, honest! I had fun. Thanks so much!” He threw up his hands and dived into the car. He started it and drove off just before Pumpkin reached him. “You stupid chicken! I’m going to let Ben eat you, I swear I am!” she raged. But when he started toward her, she ran up the steps, into the house and slammed the door. She opened her cell phone and called her foreman. “Ben, can you please get Pumpkin back into the hen lot and try to see where he got out? Be sure to wear your chaps and carry a shield,” she added. “Need to eat that rooster, Maddie,” he drawled. “I know.” She groaned. “Please?” There was a long sigh. “All right. One more time…” He hung up. Great-Aunt Sadie gave her a long look. “Pumpkin got out again?” “Yes. There must be a hole in the fence or something,” she moaned. “I don’t know how in the world he does it!” “Ben will find a way to shut him in, don’t worry. But you are going to have to do something, you know. He’s dangerous.” “I love him,” Maddie said miserably. “Well, sometimes things we love don’t love us back and should be made into chicken and dumplings,” Sadie mused with pursed lips. Maddie made a face at her. She opened her shoulder bag and pulled out a box. “I want to show you something. Cort bought it for me.” “Cort’s buying you presents?” Sadie exclaimed. “It’s some present, too,” Maddie said with a flushed smile. She opened the box. There, inside, was the hand-painted cameo of the little Spanish lady, with a card that gave all the information about the woman, now deceased, who left it with the antiques dealer. “She’s lovely,” Sadie said, tracing the face with a forefinger very gently. “Read the card.” Maddie showed it to her. When Sadie finished reading it, she was almost in tears. “How sad, to be the last one in your family.” “Yes. But this will be handed down someday.” She was remembering the family at the picnic tables and Cort’s strange smile, holding hands with him, kissing him. “Someday,” she said again, and she sounded as breathless as she felt. Sadie didn’t ask any questions. But she didn’t have to. Maddie’s bemused expression told her everything she needed to know. Apparently Maddie and Cort were getting along very well, all of a sudden. Cort walked into the house muttering about the rooster. “Trouble again?” Shelby asked. She was curled up on the sofa watching the news, but she turned off the television when she saw her son. She smiled, dark-eyed and still beautiful. “The rooster,” he sighed. He tossed his hat into a chair and dropped down into his father’s big recliner. “I bought us a bull. He’s very nice.” “From Cy Parks?” He nodded. “He’s quite a character.” “So I’ve heard.” “I bought Maddie a cameo,” he added. “In that tearoom halfway between here and Jacobsville. It’s got an antiques store in with it.” He shook his head. “Beautiful thing. It’s hand-painted…a pretty Spanish lady with a fan, enameled. She had a fit over it. The seller died recently and had no family.” “Sad. But it was nice of you to buy it for Maddie.” He pursed his lips. “When you met Dad, you said you didn’t get along.” She shivered dramatically. “That’s putting it mildly. He hated me. Or he seemed to. But when my mother, your grandmother, died, I was alone in a media circus. They think she committed suicide and she was a big-name movie star, you see. So there was a lot of publicity. I was almost in hysterics when your father showed up out of nowhere and managed everything.” “Well!” “I was shocked. He’d sent me home, told me he had a girlfriend and broke me up with Danny. Not that I needed breaking-up, Danny was only pretending to be engaged to me to make King face how he really felt. But it was fireworks from the start.” She peered at him through her thick black eyelashes. “Sort of the way it was with you and Maddie, I think.” “It’s fireworks, now, too. But of a different sort,” he added very slowly. “Oh?” She didn’t want to pry, but she was curious. “I’m confused. Maddie isn’t pretty. She can’t sing or play anything. But she can paint and sculpt and she’s sharp about people.” He grimaced. “Odalie is beautiful, like the rising sun, and she can play any instrument and sing like an angel.” “Accomplishments and education don’t matter as much as personality and character,” his mother replied quietly. “I’m not an educated person, although I’ve taken online courses. I made my living modeling. Do you think I’m less valuable to your father than a woman with a college degree and greater beauty?” “Goodness, no!” he exclaimed at once. She smiled gently. “See what I mean?” “I think I’m beginning to.” He leaned back. “It was a good day.” “I’m glad.” “Except for that damned rooster,” he muttered. “One of these days…!” She laughed. He was about to call Maddie, just to talk, when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number. He put it up to his ear. “Hello?” “Hello, Cort,” Odalie’s voice purred in his ear. “Guess what, I’m home! Want to come over for supper tonight?” He hesitated. Things had just gotten complicated. Maddie half expected Cort to phone her, after their lovely day together, but he didn’t. The next morning, she heard a car pull up in the driveway and went running out. But it wasn’t Cort. It was John Everett. She tried not to let her disappointment show. “Hi!” she said. “Would you like a cup of very nice European coffee from a fancy European coffeemaker?” she added, grinning. He burst out laughing. “I would. Thanks. It’s been a hectic day and night.” “Has it? Why?” she asked as they walked up the steps. “I had to drive up to Dallas-Fort Worth airport to pick up Odalie yesterday.” Her heart did a nosedive. She’d hoped against hope that the other woman would stay in Italy, marry her voice teacher, get a job at the opera house, anything but come home, and especially right now! She and Cort were only just beginning to get to know each other. It wasn’t fair! “How is she?” she asked, her heart shattering. “Good,” he said heavily. “She and the voice teacher disagreed, so she’s going to find someone in this country to take over from him.” He grimaced. “I don’t know who. Since she knows more than the voice trainers do, I don’t really see the point in it. She can’t take criticism.” She swallowed, hard, as she went to work at the coffee machine. “Has Cort seen her?” “Oh, yes,” he said, sitting down at the little kitchen table. “He came over for supper last night. They went driving.” She froze at the counter. She didn’t let him see her face, but her stiff back was a good indication of how she’d received the news. “I’m really sorry,” he said gently. “But I thought you should know before you heard gossip.” She nodded. Tears were stinging her eyes, but she hid them. “Thanks, John.” He drew in a long breath. “She doesn’t love him,” he said. “He’s just a habit she can’t give up. I don’t think he loves her, either, really. It’s like those crushes we get on movie stars. Odalie is an image, not someone real who wants to settle down and have kids and live on a ranch. She can’t stand cattle!” She started the coffee machine, collected herself, smiled and turned around. “Good thing your parents don’t mind them,” she said. “And I’ve told her so. Repeatedly.” He studied her through narrowed eyes. His thick blond hair shone like pale yellow diamonds in the overhead light. He was so good-looking, she thought. She wished she could feel for him what she felt for Cort. “People can’t help being who they are,” she replied quietly. “You’re wise for your years,” he teased. She laughed. “Not so wise, or I’d get out of the cattle business.” She chuckled. “After we have coffee, want to have another go at explaining genetics to me? I’m a lost cause, but we can try.” “You’re not a lost cause, and I’d love to try.” Odalie was irritable and not trying to hide it. “What’s the matter with you?” she snapped at Cort. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.” He glanced at her and grimaced. “Sorry. We’ve got a new bull coming. I’m distracted.” Her pale blue eyes narrowed. “More than distracted, I think. What’s this I hear about you taking that Lane girl with you to buy the new bull?” He gave her a long look and didn’t reply. She cleared her throat. Cort was usually running after her, doing everything he could to make her happy, make her smile. She’d come home to find a stranger, a man she didn’t know. Her beauty hadn’t interested the voice trainer; her voice hadn’t really impressed him. She’d come home with a damaged ego and wanted Cort to fix it by catering to her. That hadn’t happened. She’d invited him over today for lunch and he’d eaten it in a fog. He actually seemed to not want to be with her, and that was new and scary. “Well, she’s plain as toast,” Odalie said haughtily. “She has no talent and she’s not educated.” He cocked his head. “And you think those are the most important character traits?” She didn’t like the way he was looking at her. “None of my friends had anything to do with her in school,” she muttered. “You had plenty to do with that, didn’t you?” Cort asked with a cold smile. “I believe attorneys were involved…?” “Cort!” She went flaming red. She turned her head. “That was a terrible misunderstanding. And it was Millie who put me up to it. That’s the truth. I didn’t like Maddie, but I’d never have done it if I’d realized what that boy might do.” She bit her lip. She’d thought about that a lot in recent weeks, she didn’t know why. “He could have killed her. I’d have had it on my conscience forever,” she added in a strange, absent tone. Cort was not impressed. This was the first time he’d heard Odalie say anything about the other woman that didn’t have a barb in it, and even this comment was self-centered. Though it was small, he still took her words as a sign that maybe she was changing and becoming more tolerant… “Deep thoughts,” he told her. She glanced at him and smiled. “Yes. I’ve become introspective. Enjoy it while it lasts.” She laughed, and she was so beautiful that he was really confused. “I love your car,” she said, glancing out the window. “Would you let me drive it?” He hesitated. She was the worst driver he’d ever known. “As long as I’m in it,” he said firmly. She laughed. “I didn’t mean I wanted to go alone,” she teased. She knew where she wanted to drive it, too. Right past Maddie Lane’s house, so that she’d see Odalie with Cort. So she’d know that he was no longer available. Odalie seemed to have lost her chance at a career in opera, but here was Cort, who’d always loved her. Maybe she’d settle down, maybe she wouldn’t, but Cort was hers. She wanted Maddie to know it. She’d never driven a Jaguar before. This was a very fast, very powerful, very expensive two-seater. Cort handed her the key. She clicked it to open the door. She frowned. “Where’s the key?” she asked. “You don’t need a key. It’s a smart key. You just keep it in your pocket or lay it in the cup holder.” “Oh.” She climbed into the car and put the smart key in the cup holder. “Seat belt,” he emphasized. She glared at him. “It will wrinkle my dress,” she said fussily, because it was delicate silk, pink and very pretty. “Seat belt or the car doesn’t move,” he repeated. She sighed. He was very forceful. She liked that. She smiled at him prettily. “Okay.” She put it on, grimacing as it wrinkled the delicate fabric. Oh, well, the dry cleaners could fix it. She didn’t want to make Cort mad. She pushed the button Cort showed her, the button that would start the car, but nothing happened. “Brake,” he said. She glared at him. “I’m not going fast enough to brake!” “You have to put your foot on the brake or it won’t start,” he explained patiently. “Oh.” She put her foot on the brake and it started. The air vents opened and the touch screen came on. “It’s like something out of a science-fiction movie,” she said, impressed. “Isn’t it, though?” He chuckled. She glanced at him, her face radiant. “I have got to have Daddy get me one of these!” she exclaimed. Cort hoped her father wouldn’t murder him when he saw what they cost. Odalie pulled the car out of the driveway in short jerks. She grimaced. “I haven’t driven in a while, but it will come back to me, honest.” “Okay. I’m not worried.” He was petrified, but he wasn’t showing it. He hoped he could grab the wheel if he had to. She smoothed out the motions when she got onto the highway. “There, better?” she teased, looking at him. “Eyes on the road,” he cautioned. She sighed. “Cort, you’re no fun.” “It’s a powerful machine. You have to respect it. That means keeping your eyes on the road and paying attention to your surroundings.” “I’m doing that,” she argued, looking at him again. He prayed silently that they’d get home again. She pulled off on a side road and he began to worry. “Why are we going this way?” he asked suspiciously. “Isn’t this the way to Catelow?” she asked in all innocence. “No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s the road that leads to the Lane ranch.” “Oh, dear, I don’t want to go there. But there’s no place to turn off,” she worried. “Anyway, the ranch is just ahead, I’ll turn around there.” Cort had to bite his lip to keep from saying something. Maddie was out in the yard with her garbage can lid. This time Pumpkin had gotten out of the pen when she was looking. He’d jumped a seven-foot-high fence. If she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, she’d never have believed it. “Pumpkin, you fool!” she yelled at him. “Why can’t you stay where I put you? Get back in there!” But he ran around her. This time he wasn’t even trying to spur her. He ran toward the road. It was his favorite place, for some reason, despite the heat that made the ribbon of black asphalt hotter than a frying pan. “You come back here!” she yelled. Just as she started after him, Odalie’s foot hit the accelerator pedal too hard, Cort called out, Odalie looked at him instead of the road… Maddie heard screaming. She was numb. She opened her eyes and there was Cort, his face contorted with horror. Beside him, Odalie was screaming and crying. “Just lie still,” Cort said hoarsely. “The ambulance is on the way. Just lie still, baby.” “I hit her, I hit her!” Odalie screamed. “I didn’t see her until it was too late! I hit her!” “Odalie, you have to calm down. You’re not helping!” Cort snapped at her. “Find something to cover her. Hurry!” “Yes…there’s a blanket…in the backseat, isn’t there…?” Odalie fetched it with cold, shaking hands. She drew it over Maddie’s prone body. There was blood. So much blood. She felt as if she were going to faint, or throw up. Then she saw Maddie’s face and tears ran down her cheeks. “Oh, Maddie,” she sobbed, “I’m so sorry!” “Find something to prop her head, in case her spine is injured,” Cort gritted. He was terrified. He brushed back Maddie’s blond hair, listened to her ragged breathing, saw her face go even paler. “Please hurry!” he groaned. There wasn’t anything. Odalie put her beautiful white leather purse on one side of Maddie’s head without a single word, knowing it would ruin the leather and not caring at all. She put her knit overblouse on the other, crumpled up. She knelt in the dirt road beside Maddie and sat down, tears in her eyes. She touched Maddie’s arm. “Help is coming,” she whispered brokenly. “You hold on, Maddie. Hold on!” Maddie couldn’t believe it. Her worst enemy was sitting beside her in a vision of a horrifically expensive pink silk dress that was going to be absolutely ruined, and apparently didn’t mind at all. She tried to speak. “Pum… Pumpkin?” she rasped. Cort looked past her and grimaced. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Maddie started to cry, great heaving sobs. “We’ll get you another rooster,” Cort said at once. “I’ll train him to attack me. Anything. You just have to…hold on, baby,” he pleaded. “Hold on!” She couldn’t breathe. “Hurts,” she whispered as sensation rushed back in and she began to shudder. Cort was in hell. There was no other word that would express what he felt as he saw her lying there in bloody clothing, maybe dying, and he couldn’t do one damned thing to help her. He was sick to his soul. He brushed back her hair, trying to remember anything else, anything that would help her until the ambulance arrived. “Call them again!” Odalie said firmly. He did. The operator assured them that the ambulance was almost there. She began asking questions, which Cort did his best to answer. “Where’s your great-aunt?” he asked Maddie softly. “Store,” she choked out. “It’s okay, I’ll call her,” he said when she looked upset. Odalie had come out of her stupor and she was checking for injuries while Cort talked to the 911 operator. “I don’t see anything that looks dangerous, but I’m afraid to move her,” she said, ignoring the blood in her efforts to give aid. “There are some abrasions, pretty raw ones. Maddie, can you move your arms and legs?” she asked in a voice so tender that Maddie thought maybe she really was just dreaming all this. She moved. “Yes,” she said. “But…it hurts…” “Move your ankles.” “Okay.” Odalie looked at Cort with horror. “I moved…them,” Maddie said, wincing. “Hurts!” “Please, ask them to hurry,” Cort groaned into the phone. “No need,” Odalie said, noting the red-and-white vehicle that was speeding toward them. “No sirens?” Cort asked blankly. “They don’t run the sirens or lights unless they have to,” the operator explained kindly. “It scares people to death and can cause wrecks. They’ll use them to get the victim to the hospital, though, you bet,” she reassured him. “Thanks so much,” Cort said. “I hope she does well.” “Me, too,” he replied huskily and hung up. Odalie took one of the EMTs aside. “She can’t move her feet,” she whispered. He nodded. “We won’t let her know.” They went to the patient. Maddie wasn’t aware of anything after they loaded her into the ambulance on a backboard. They talked to someone on the radio and stuck a needle into her arm. She slept. When she woke again, she was in a hospital bed with two people hovering. Cort and Odalie. Odalie’s dress was dirty and bloodstained. “Your…beautiful dress,” Maddie whispered, wincing. Odalie went to the bed. She felt very strange. Her whole life she’d lived as if there was nobody else around. She’d never been in the position of nursing anybody—her parents and brother had never even sprained a hand. She’d been petted, spoiled, praised, but never depended upon. Now here was this woman, this enemy, whom her actions had placed almost at death’s door. And suddenly she was needed. Really needed. Maddie’s great-aunt had been called. She was in the waiting room, but in no condition to be let near the patient. The hospital staff had to calm her down, she was so terrified. They hadn’t told Maddie yet. When Sadie was calmer, they’d let her in to see the injured woman. “Your great-aunt is here, too,” Odalie said gently. “You’re going to be fine.” “Fine.” Maddie felt tears run down her cheeks. “So much…to be done at the ranch, and I’m stove up…!” “I’ll handle it,” Cort said firmly. “No worries there.” “Pumpkin,” she sobbed. “He was horrible. Just horrible. But I loved him.” She cried harder. Odalie leaned down and kissed her unkempt hair. “We’ll find you another horrible rooster. Honest.” Maddie sobbed. “You hate me.” “No,” Odalie said softly. “No, I don’t. And I’m so sorry that I put you in here. I was driving.” She bit her lip. “I wasn’t watching the road,” she said stiffly. “God, I’m sorry!” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/diana-palmer/christmas-with-the-rancher-the-rancher-christmas-cowboy-a-man/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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