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Rebecca Parrish Wallingford turned in a slow circle, her gaze sweeping the ranch yard. She braced herself against the open door of the rental car and took in the buildings set in a neat half circle around the dusty square. Weather and time had long since stripped the paint from the two-storied ranch house until it was a uniform dark gray. A tall, gnarled maple shaded the left side of the house, its leafy branches brushing against gray wood, the second story's sashed windows and the roof of the deep porch that edged the front of the house. A matching maple sheltered the other side of the house, set back and slightly nearer the far end of the structure.
The building was silent, slumbering beneath the hot June sun. If people were within, Rebecca could neither see nor hear them.
She glanced past the house to the sprawling out-buildings on her left. New lumber and shingles created a patchwork of pale color against the weathered walls and roof of the large barn while the attached corral was constructed entirely of raw, unpainted wood. Three dusty pickup trucks stood outside a long shed just beyond the corral. The sound of hammers thudding against nails and the high-pitched scream of a saw slicing through wood broke the afternoon quiet.
A man stepped from the dim interior of the shed into the hot sunlight and strode toward the trucks.
He glanced toward the house, saw Rebecca and abruptly changed direction to angle away from the back of a truck loaded with lumber, and move toward her.
He was shirtless, a tool-hung carpenter's belt riding low on his hips, its weight dragging the waistband of faded denim jeans below his navel. A straw cowboy hat shaded his face, leather gloves on his hands. Rebecca stared, riveted by the slow saunter of long legs, the gleam of hot sunlight on sleek brown shoulders, the supple flex and shift of muscles as he moved.
"Afternoon, ma'am." He halted a few feet away.
"Something I can do for you? Are you lost?"
His voice was a deep drawl. She felt the impact of his gaze when it met hers as if he'd reached out and touched her.
Shivers feathered up Rebecca's spine and heat grew, easing its way through her body. Her black linen suit and white cotton shell, chosen for traveling in the summer heat, felt suddenly much too warm. Shocked by her reaction, she took a mental step back and desperately sought detachment.
Sweat dewed the angles and hollows of his face, dampening the ends of his hair where it curled, a shade too long, behind his ears and at his nape. Thick eyebrows, the same deep brown as his hair, arched over dark gold eyes, the sharply defined cheek-bones - fit companions to a blade of a nose that was slightly crooked. Rebecca wondered fleetingly if he'd broken it sometime in the past. His wasn't a classically handsome face but there was something so essentially male about him that Rebecca felt threatened by the raw power he exuded. At five feet eight inches tall, she rarely felt intimidated by males, but this man made her vividly aware that she was smaller boned and distinctly feminine.
Her reaction set alarm bells jangling inside her head.
And the way he was looking at her, his golden eyes hooded, hot with more than the afternoon heat, only made the alarms ring louder.
Other men had looked at her and she'd known they wanted her. She'd never felt the slightest physical reaction. Her heart hadn't pounded harder. Her skin hadn't heated. That this man could arouse a reaction with only a look was irritating beyond words.
"I hope I'm not lost. I'm looking for Jackson Rand, owner of the Rand Ranch."
His gaze sharpened, a faint frown creasing his forehead.
"I'm Jackson Rand."
Oh no. Rebecca stiffened. Her day had swiftly gone from bad to worse.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rand." She forced herself to step forward and extend her hand, steeling herself. His much bigger hand engulfed hers, his fingers and palm callused and hard against hers for a brief moment before he released her. "I'm Rebecca Wallingford with Bay Area Investments - I believe you're expecting me."
If Rebecca had stiffened, Jackson Rand went rigid. His gaze narrowed, swiftly flicking over Rebecca from head to toe in a swift searing assessment.
"No, I'm expecting a man named Walter Andersen."
"Walter had a minor heart attack yesterday and I've been assigned to take his place. I trust I haven't arrived at an inconvenient time?"
He stared at her for a long moment without speaking, his gaze unreadable.
"No," he said finally. "The timing isn't inconvenient, but I wasn't expecting a woman." He gestured toward the shed and barns. "We're updating the out-buildings but the house hasn't been touched and there's no room for a woman."
"I'm sure the accommodations you planned for Mr. Andersen will be perfectly fine for me, Mr. Rand. As long as I have a bed, somewhere to shower, brew a pot of tea and plug in my laptop, I'll be perfectly comfortable."
"I doubt that, lady. The house has four bedrooms and, at the moment, three of them are occupied by me and my crew. You'll be the only woman in a house full of men."
Rebecca schooled her face not to reflect her instant dismay. She'd been told that the owner of Rand Ranch would provide housing, but sharing that housing with a crew of men wasn't a possibility she'd considered. Her mind raced, considering the problem.
"Did you assign a room to Mr. Andersen or was he going to share?"
Excerpted from Cattleman's Heart by Lois Faye Dyer Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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