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Rex Trowbridge's new car was a Cadillac sedan, gun-metal gray with a black leather interior and every option he could think of. The big sleek vehicle was satisfying to him in a deep, almost visceral way. Not only did this new car announce his hard-won success with its quiet luxury and power, the Caddy also set him apart from most of his peers, who drove pretentious sport-utility vehicles.
Privately Rex was amused by these fellow lawyers and the doctors and accountants with their costly four-by-fours.
Sheer hypocrisy, he told himself.
All of them were trying to look like rugged outdoors-men, when the truth was, they were too busy making money to take a vehicle off-road for any reason.
His new car announced its owner simply as a hardhitting successful man who lived for his job and didn't pretend to be anything he wasn't.
Rex enjoyed the solid thunk of the door, the sparkle of setting sun on chrome and glass as he parked near the show ring at the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys, got out and adjusted his dark glasses, then looked around.
The ranch was holding a bachelor auction fund-raiser and the place thronged with people. Booths and exhibits were set up in the yard, selling everything from lemonade to homemade quilts. It looked more like a county fair than a bachelor auction.
Not that he knew how such a bizarre event was supposed to look, Rex thought, checking out his immaculate white shirtfront, the black onyx studs, gray silk cummerbund and crisp tuxedo trousers.
Rex knew the monkey suit looked good on him. The two seamstresses who'd done the alterations had practically gone into raptures over the fit on his tall frame with its broad shoulders and lean waist.
Still, he felt deeply uncomfortable. In fact, he wished the whole event were over with.
Or better yet, he wished Lindsay could just have left him out of it altogether. But that was probably too much to ask, once his busy little friend got an idea in her head . Besides, as owner of the ranch for troubled youths, she had a lot at stake here today.
He made his way to the arena and found a seat on the stage next to a tall, dark-haired man in the dress uniform of a U.S. Marine.
"Nick!" he said, doing a double take when he recognized the man's handsome features. "What brings you here? I thought you were out keeping the world safe for the rest of us."
Grinning, Nick Petrocelli shifted in his chair, stretching his long legs in the blue dress trousers. "I was supposed to be here for a little R and R," he said wryly.
Rex grinned and punched his friend lightly on the arm. "Lindsay got to you, too?" he asked.
Petrocelli nodded. "That cousin of mine could talk the birds down from the trees. But I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Why are you doing it?" Rex asked, puzzled. "You weren't in the catalog, were you?"
Nick shook his well-barbered head. "No, I was spared that embarrassment, at least. Lindsay was so excited about the response to this whole ridiculous idea, she bullied a few more of the guys into going along with it. I got tagged because I was out here for a visit. She even had this old uniform stored away in a closet, so she made me wear it."
"Hey, you look great," Rex said. "With any luck at all, you'll be scooped up by some military groupie who wants to spend a weekend playing paintball in the woods."
Nick lifted a dark brow. "You're awfully chipper for a penguin."
Rex smiled amiably and watched as Lindsay rushed past in a bright-red dress, holding a clipboard and looking harried. Her short blond hair stood out around her head in a rumpled halo of curls and her pretty face was drawn with fatigue, contrasting sharply with the brightness of her outfit.
"She may be excited about all this," he told Nick, "but it's still been damned hard on her, getting it organized."
"She's got a huge emotional investment in the whole thing. She can hardly eat or sleep, worrying about what's going to happen if it doesn't all work out the way she's hoping."
Rex felt a jolt of sympathy as he watched Lindsay moving through the crowd. With her slim erect figure and the bright crown of hair, she looked like a glowing red candle.
Abruptly he turned aside and leafed through the auction catalog he'd been sent, searching for his own page.
A man stared back at him from within the glossy brochure, looking suave and relaxed in tux and horn-rimmed glasses, holding a file folder. His sandy hair was smoothly combed and the blue eyes were level and unrevealing, though his mouth lifted on one side in a crooked, sardonic grin.
Rex always found it strange and a little unsettling to look at photographs of himself. This man on paper in front of him, the face he showed the world were so utterly different from the real person who was never revealed to anybody.
It was like examining a picture of some handsome stranger.
"Rex Trowbridge," the idiotic text read. "A man who's terrific in briefs and not just legal briefs! Rex is thirty-three years old and came to Lost Springs Ranch when he was twelve. He attended UCLA, where he obtained a law degree with distinction. Rex is now a junior partner with a Casper, Wyoming law firm and enjoys gourmet cooking, classical music and collecting first editions of nineteenth century English literature. Any gal with a taste for the finer things would dearly love a dream date with this luscious lawyer."
Nick was reading over his shoulder. "Luscious lawyer," he snorted. "God, that's rich."
"Lindsay's copywriters got a little carried away with this thing," Rex agreed. "Just be damn glad you aren't included."
He settled back in the chair, looking around at the familiar faces of his old schoolmates waiting to be auctioned off, while Nick watched the excited crowd of women, many of whom were turning surreptitiously to study him.
"All the ladies are attracted by your uniform," Rex told his companion. "God knows what kind of date you're going to wind up with."
Nick looked increasingly amused. "So what about you?" he said at last. "You don't seem very worried about all this."
"I'm not worried." Rex leaned back comfortably.
"Don't tell anybody, but Lindsay and I have an understanding," Rex murmured, knowing that Nick Petrocelli was the most discreet guy in the world.
"What kind of an understanding?"
"She's going to buy me," Rex said, "and I'll reimburse her for whatever she has to pay. That way the ranch will get the money but I won't have to go on some ridiculous date."
Nick grinned. "You lucky dog. If I'd known she was open to bargains, I'd have done something like that myself."
"I doubt if she would have agreed to anything at this point."
"Yeah? So how did you manage to work out your deal with her?"
Rex shrugged. "Way back at the beginning when we first came up with the auction idea, Lindsay said she needed to have me in the catalog so she could talk the other guys into it. I told her those were my terms, take it or leave it."
"You always were a coldhearted son of a bitch," Nick said with grudging admiration. "No wonder Lindsay says you have ice water in your veins."
"She said that?" Rex asked. "When?"
But the bidding had commenced. The auctioneer's raucous patter rang out over the crowd as poor Rob Carter stood on the stage, looking for all the world like a steer being led to slaughter. A whole group of women seemed to be bidding on him, and the atmosphere in the building was growing increasingly frenzied.
Rex raised his eyebrows, astonished by the sum of money they'd already reached. This plan was apparently going to succeed beyond Lindsay's wildest dreams.
He glanced around the arena in search of her slim red figure, hoping to catch her eye and see if she'd smile at him.
Nobody else in the world had a smile like Lindsay Duncan's. Her mouth lifted at the corners, dimples flashed in her cheeks and her whole face shone with a luminous, childlike glow.
But the trim red-clad figure was nowhere to be seen. Rex craned his neck and scanned the crowd again, feeling a touch of alarm.
What if she didn't make it back in time to bid on him as they'd planned?
The thought of going on an enforced date with a stranger, having his neat, wellordered life invaded by some woman he didn't even know, was totally repugnant to him. Rex was hugely relieved when a fat woman moved nearer the auction ring, and behind her he saw Lindsay seated on the bleachers.
She seemed a little more relaxed as the auction proceeded, and was chatting with her uncle, Sam Duncan, who looked lean and handsome in his western suit, string tie and pearl-gray Stetson.
Rex watched her surreptitiously, feeling that same troubling warmth the sight of her always aroused in him. She looked so pale and fragile, still tense enough that he wanted to take her in his arms and shield her from worry and harm.
"Something's wrong with her these days," Nick said at his elbow, following Rex's glance. "I noticed it right away."
Rex considered Petrocelli's words, still watching her. "You mean something more than all this worry over the ranch and its finances?"
"She's just not the happy-go-lucky girl she used to be." Nick's expression lightened for a moment. "Hey Rex, do you remember how much fun we had when we were kids?"
"I'll never forget those days," Rex said. "What do you think might be wrong?" he added, watching Lindsay's pale face.
Nick shrugged, his smile fading. "She won't talk about it. Keeps saying she's just fine. I assumed she had some kind of unhappy love affair."
Rex's jaw tensed. He hated to think of Lindsay having any kind of love affair, if the truth was known. But the idea of some jerk being cruel to her was more than he could bear.
He was still troubled when the cadence of the auctioneer's voice suddenly shifted. The crowd turned to look at him expectantly, and Petrocelli gave him a merciless grin.
"Well, off to the wars, old buddy," the Marine told him. "Knock 'em dead."
To a casual onlooker, Rex Trowbridge probably appeared suave and comfortable, even arrogant, as he paraded around and played to the crowd, aping the controlled swish and stiff-legged gait of male fashion models.
But in his heart, Rex was deeply, painfully uncomfortable.
Ever since the dreadful events of his early boyhood, he'd hated this feeling of being judged and weighed on outward merit alone. More than anything, he craved someone who could look into his soul, beyond the kind of easy confidence he showed the world, and take the time to understand what he was truly like.
Unfortunately, everybody in his life seemed content with the image. Rex Trowbridge looked and acted like their idea of a successful, high-powered lawyer, and that was enough for them.
But it hadn't always been this way.
For a while in their late teens, after they grew past the rough-and-tumble stage of their childhood, Rex had been certain Lindsay could see further into him than most people. He recalled her tenderness and warmth, her gentle probing questions, and that long-ago blissful feeling of being completely understood.
To his astonishment he felt a lump in his throat, even a brief mist of tears in his eyes.
Probably the glare of the hot sun overhead, he thought, blinking rapidly as he stared up past the top row of seats.
Besides, that gentle time with Lindsay had passed soon enough. He'd gone away to college in California and got wholly caught up in sports and the chase for academic distinction. By the time he came back, she could barely give him the time of day.
Whenever Rex called she seemed to be busy, until finally he'd gotten the hint and stopped calling altogether
Resolutely, he shoved the memories out of his mind and concentrated on the auctioneer's patter, wondering if anybody was bidding against Lindsay.
To his alarm, he suddenly realized Lindsay wasn't bidding at all. She was just sitting next to her uncle Sam, tapping an auction brochure against her cheek with a thoughtful, bemused expression while two other women fought to purchase him.
Rex scanned the crowd and felt a rising panic. One of the bidders was Angelique Parrish, and she looked even more elegant than usual in some kind of white cape and broad-brimmed hat.
Three years ago Rex had handled Angelique's divorce and made sure she got a ton of money out of poor Buddy Parrish, her genial but unfaithful ex-husband.
As a result of the huge settlement, Buddy's contracting business had failed and the last Rex heard of him he was in Denver, working with a framing crew and trying to start over.
Rex had always felt guilty about that case. Angie had been so greedy, and both she and her lawyer made a fat meal off Buddy's broken dreams.
Near the end of the proceedings Angie had indicated to Rex a few times that she might be interested in more than his legal expertise, but he'd sidestepped her advances carefully.
Now she was back, and it looked as if she'd spent a good bit of Buddy's money on liposuction and plastic surgery. Her newly smoothed mask of a face seemed intent on acquiring Rex Trowbridge's services for, in the auctioneer's words, "whatever y'all want, ladies. A happy weekend of fun and frolic as unlimited as your little ol' imagination can devise "
His panic deepened. Rex glared passionately at Lindsay, willing her to bid, but she gave him another of those sweet vacant smiles, then turned away to whisper something to Sam.
The other party bidding on him seemed to be a group effort. He recognized three grim-looking young women from Lightning Creek, all of whom, according to Sam Duncan's unfailing grapevine, were rumored to be having marital difficulties.
So this was a business arrangement, Rex surmised. The women figured they could buy a lawyer for a weekend, pump him for his legal knowledge and split the costs among the three of them.
Not such a bad idea. Rex brightened a little. In essence it was the same thing as donating his legal services or fees directly to the ranch.
But then he remembered the law firm in Casper where he'd just been named partner, and how they frowned on any kind of non-fee-paying clients or quid pro quo legal work.
"Absolutely no way," the senior partner had stated at Rex's orientation meeting, "do we want to open ourselves to any sleazy charge of professional misconduct, tax evasion or mail fraud. If you tie a shoelace for somebody, Rex, then you're gonna bill it and charge it as a legal service. No freebies for your old auntie Elma, and no legal advice for your dentist in exchange for a root canal. You got all that?"
"Yes," Rex had assured his boss. "Believe me, I've got it."
So if those three women intended to buy his time with the hope of spending a weekend exploiting his legal knowledge, they were going to be sorely disappointed.
Angelique raised the bid aggressively. Two red spots burned in her pale cheeks.
Again Rex cast an urgent, furious glance at Lindsay. She gave him the smile of maddening innocence that he remembered from childhood, a bright, teasing look that said she knew exactly how much he was suffering but had no intention of helping him.
Rex fought the urge to stride across the ring and shake her. Lindsay beamed up at him, her blue eyes sparkling with laughter. At last she relented and entered a languid bid just a few dollars higher than Angelique's, electrifying the crowd.