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"Keep your hands where I can see them, and back on down that ladder real slow." The voice was soft and low. Distinctly feminine. And definitely not joking.
Freezing at the command, one foot above the other on the metal steps of the combine ladder, Dusty McPherson stopped breathing.
An ominous click shattered the silence, and he knew without a doubt that the woman had a shotgun in her hands, cocked and ready. Breathing again, but careful not to startle her, he didn't question her as he eased back down the ladder. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, even though the late May Oklahoma morning sun hadn't begun to heat the day. A woman with a gun could be dangerous.
"Okay, that's good. Now turn around, but don't make any sudden moves," she said when he reached the ground. "And keep your hands up."
Dusty made his turn slow and smooth, his nerves taut and ready in case she had an itchy trigger finger. Knowing he could meet his maker in the blink of an eye, he faced his opponent. His eyes zeroed in on the tip of the steel barrel pointed directly at a spot any man would protect. He could only hope he'd be quick enough if there was any indication he'd be shot. He might want to be a daddy someday.
Slowly raising his gaze to her face, Dusty found himself staring into eyes the color of a clear blue mountain lake. It was all he could do to keep from sucking in air at the sight, but he managed to control himself.
The blue eyes widened for an instant, but just as quickly narrowed, hard as granite. "Just what do you think you're doing, cowboy?"
The urge to check out the rest of her was strong, but tempered by the fact that it could be the end of him if he did. Not wanting to spook her, he kept his voice low and even. "Put the gun down and I'll tell you."
"You must think I'm crazy." Her gaze never left his. She took a step closer. "What are you doing messing around my machine?"
"I'm here about the job," he answered with a calmness the clippity-clop of his heartbeat denied. "Agatha Clayborne hired me."
Her lips formed a perfect pink oval. "Oh… well…"
Dusty noticed her finger ease up on the trigger and allowed himself to relax a little. But he didn't let down his guard. Only a man with scrambled eggs for brains would do that.
Eyes narrowing again, she tightened her grip on the gun. "How do I know you're not just saying that?"
"You needed some harvest help, right?"
Her chin dipped a fraction of an inch in a noncommittal nod. "But I expected somebody younger. Like one of the kids from the high school."
"And I expected to get this wheat cut." He watched her consider his statement. "Mind if I put my hands down now?"
Hesitating, she finally lowered the shotgun. "Aunt Aggie mentioned she'd put some fliers around town. Maybe you should have come up to the house first and introduced yourself."
Before he could answer, she turned around, giving him a view of her backside and the long, copper braid that reached past her waist. The end of it swung between a set of slim but well-curved hips encased in a pair of tight blue jeans. Something about her was familiar, but he couldn't put a finger on what it was. And he was sure he wouldn't have forgotten the woman if he had met her before.
"You might as well come on in," she tossed over her shoulder. "Breakfast should be on the table."
Two strides brought him up next to her after he'd taken a long, breath-stealing look at the sashaying form in front of him. "Any special reason you came after me with that gun?" he asked, matching his longer gait to her shorter but strong one.
She slid him a look, but didn't slow her steps. "I don't like strangers poking around. Would you?"
"Guess not. But you didn't need the gun. I'm pretty harmless."
"You never know." She gave him another quick glance when they stepped up onto the wide porch of the Clay-borne farmhouse and proceeded around to a side door.
She reached for the door handle, but he stuck his hand out to grab it at the same time. When his fingers brushed against hers she looked up quickly, a warning blaze in her eyes. He couldn't be sure if the sudden flash he felt was from the contact or the red light her eyes exhibited. He chose the latter and swallowed a chuckle. How was she to know she'd just issued him a challenge? Like waving a red flag at a bull. Or blue, like those eyes. With bulls, it didn't matter what color the flag was, as long as it moved. And she sure could move.
When they entered a sunny kitchen, the aromas of a country breakfast nearly knocked him over. His mouth watered at the tantalizing smell of sausage sizzling in a pan and hotcakes fresh from a griddle. He had traveled the rodeo circuit for more than ten years, living mostly on concession-stand food and tavern burgers, with an occasional restaurant and truck-stop meal thrown in. Home-cooked meals would be a taste of heaven.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep, reverent breath. It had been too long. Too damned long.
"Duane McPherson? I hardly recognize you. I haven't seen you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper."
Dusty opened his eyes at the sound of the strong female voice to find Agatha Clayborne studying him from head to toe, and he smiled at the quaint phrase from his childhood. It had been years since he had seen her. Well past her youth, her ginger-colored hair was peppered with gray. His gaze quickly settled on the heaping platter of scrambled eggs she held.
"Folks call me Dusty, Miss Clayborne."
"'Course they do. And I'm Aggie."
"I found him out looking over the combine," the redhead supplied from behind him.
Dusty felt Aggie's sharp blue gaze and heard her grunt of approval. "Well, you look fit enough to me."
"We expect an honest day's work," the redhead said.
His head snapped around at the words, and he looked back at her over his shoulder. Her eyes held skepticism, and he took offense to the statement and the inference. Never once in his life had he not given something his all. "You'll get it," he answered.
He slipped off his Resistol, noticing that when he did, Aggie's expression softened. She gave a decided nod and set the platter on the table. "Pull up a chair," she told him.
"You know how to drive a combine, don't you?" came the next question from the redhead.
Dusty gave the young woman a quick glance to let her know he'd heard her. She might be more than easy on the eyes, but she struck him as being one bossy woman. Just like his mother. He would rather deal with Aggie, who might have a bit of bossiness herself, but she had earned it. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't," he answered, focusing on the older woman. "I've handled machinery since I was a kid."
Again, Aggie nodded and looked past him toward the redhead. "He spent summers with his grandparents and then—" She turned her gaze on him. "You lived with them for a few years, too?"
"Four years," he answered. "All through high school in Desperation."
"They were good people. So was your mama. I was sorry to see her move to Tulsa after she married your daddy. Sorry they split up, too. How's she doing?"
"Good," Dusty said, although he didn't really know. He wasn't on good terms with his mother. Never had been. And his daddy had left when he was four.
"Families are a blessing, even when they're no longer with us."
He guessed she was referring to her brother. Tom Clayborne and his wife had been victims of an Oklahoma twister a year before the big tornado that hit Oklahoma City. It was obvious the redhead was Aggie's niece, and one of the two daughters they'd left behind.
And then he remembered where he had seen her. Only she hadn't looked like she did now. Not in high school. She was younger than him by three years and had been a new freshman his senior year. Yeah, he remembered her, although he didn't recall ever speaking to her. Back then, she was a lanky girl, all arms and legs, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and a haircut that would scare the britches off any guy. At the time, he'd had a girl, and he'd married her as soon as they both graduated. The marriage lasted all of six months. Like his father, rodeo and bull riding had called to him. And like his mother, that hadn't settled well with his new wife.
Movement across the room caused him to glance in that direction. In another doorway stood a blonde with a hesitant smile on her sweet face. The other Clayborne sister.
"I found the butter." Her anxious gaze bounced from the redhead to Aggie.
"Just put it on the table," Aggie said. She took a seat at the table and frowned at the others. "Now that we're all here, let's get to this breakfast."
Dusty stood, waiting, while the blonde took the chair directly opposite him and next to her aunt. He also noticed the diamond ring on her left hand, a clear sign she was taken, and he wasn't one to move in on another man's woman. Which left him the redhead. He couldn't decide if that was good or not, but he had plenty of time to find out. The summer he had thought might prove dull and wasted, while he waited out the time until he was released by his doctor to return to rodeo, might not be so boring after all.
Kate Clayborne tossed her long braid over her shoulder and took her usual place at the table. Unfortunately, it was next to where their new hired hand was taking his.
He was no stranger to her. As soon as he had turned around on the combine ladder and she could see him clearly, she knew exactly who he was. But it was just as clear that he'd had no clue who she was. Not that she was surprised. Half the girls in the school had had a crush on him. Too bad she had been one of them.
The initial view of his backside hadn't been bad when she'd caught him on that ladder, either. She would have paid more attention, but she'd been too afraid he was a transient ready to steal the machine or strip the interior. One good look at him had been all she needed to recognize him, but she hadn't allowed her somersaulting stomach to overrule common sense and caution. Just because she knew him didn't mean she could trust him. And he obviously hadn't recognized her, even when his bourbon-colored gaze had met hers.
"Girls, this is Dusty McPherson." While she spoke, Aggie's attention was on the biscuit she was slathering with butter. Nodding in the direction of each of the girls, she introduced them. "These are my nieces. That one's Kate and this one's Trish."
Dusty looked up to smile at Trish. "This is great," he said, pointing at his plate with his fork.
"Oh, I didn't—"
"Kate did the cooking," Aggie said from across the table.
Kate felt Dusty's gaze on her, but pretended she didn't.
"You cooked this breakfast?" he asked.
Across from her, Kate saw Aggie's go-ahead nod, encouraging her. She knew what her aunt was thinking. It wasn't the first time she had tried her hand at matchmaking. But Kate wasn't interested.
"You'll find dinner filling, too," Aggie said, frowning at her. "We'll be cutting wheat in the field here at home to start, so we'll eat here at the house. When we get farther away, Trish brings it out to the field."
"And you're on your own for supper," Kate added to set the record straight.
"But I'll bring sandwiches in the evening," Trish chimed in. "We wouldn't want anyone wasting away." Her smile produced the twin set of dimples she was famous for, second only to her sweet disposition.
Dusty looked to Aggie. "Who's your truck driver?"
"I am," Kate answered sharply. What did he think she did, anyway, besides pointing shotguns at strangers?
His penetrating gaze fell on her again. "Any other talents? Other than cooking and firearms experience, I mean."
Ready with a hot retort, Kate looked up to see a spark of mischief in his eyes and knew better than to take the bait. Feeling his gaze slide over her, she lifted her chin to deny the warmth that went through her. "If worse comes to worst, I can drive a combine, change the oil, grease it and do minor repairs."
He rewarded her with a slow grin. "Multitalented." "She really is," Trish agreed. "I wish I had her talents." Dusty turned to her. "Each of us has our own." "His or her own," Trish corrected and blushed fiercely. "Trish is a teacher," Aggie explained. "Second grade. We all get corrected at one time or another. She's a writer, too. Just sold her first children's book."
Kate only half listened to the conversation around her, relieved that the subject had turned away from food. She loved cooking and baking, but it was a part of herself she didn't understand. She didn't know where her cooking flair came from. Her mother had been a good cook, but nothing spectacular, and Aunt Aggie was much the same. Somehow Kate had taken to it and added her own touch. She had even been providing pies and cakes to the local café and barbecued beef to the local tavern for the past few years. But it wasn't something she liked people making a big deal about. Farming was and always would be her first love.
Aggie pushed away from the table and stood. "When you're finished, Dusty, go on outside and I'll show you around."
If he had been anyone else, Kate would have offered to show him the farm and machinery, but because it was Dusty McPherson, she was glad she wouldn't have to. She had never reacted to any man the way she was reacting to him. Until she could get some control over that, being around him wasn't a good idea, but there wasn't much she could do about it until harvest was over.
Dusty laid his fork on the plate and rose from the table. "I can go out right now," he said, but his gaze lingered on the stack of biscuits.
"No need," Aggie said with a wave of her hand. "But Kate can add those biscuits to a basket. No reason why you can't enjoy them while driving the combine." She stepped into the hallway and turned around. "Kate, I need to speak with you."