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Thunderclouds piled up on the western horizon as Willa Mercado drove into Zapata, Texas, to betray her husband.
She wasn't contemplating actual adultery. Jamie had been dead for eighteen months. She couldn't cheat on a dead man even if she wanted to. And she did not want to.
But selling the Blue Moon Ranch, which had been Mercado family land for more than a century, definitely felt like betrayal.
"Not the whole ranch," she reminded herself for the millionth time, gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands.
"You're only selling ten percent, a thousand acres. You'll never miss it. Your grandchildren will never miss it."
Even so, the guilt continued to chafe at her as she drove, like leather boots a size too small.
Her attorney, Juan Angelo, occupied an office in a strip mall near the fancy new Zapata County Courthouse. Willa whipped her truck into a parking space, pulled the key from the ignition and shoved the door open. Without giving herself a chance for more second thoughts, she grabbed up her purse and the folder of papers she needed, then strode toward the lawyer's tinted glass door. A chime sounded as she entered the air-conditioned space, and two pairs of eyes fastened on her face. "I'm Willa Mercado," she told the pretty blonde at the reception desk. "I have an appointment for a closing at three."
"Yes, Mrs. Mercado." The young woman gave her a friendly smile. "Mr. Angelo will be free in a few minutes. Can I get you something to drink while you wait?"
Willa's hands were shaking too badly to hold a cup steady. "No, thanks."
Another bright, white smile. "Just have a seat, then. He'll be with you shortly. My name is Julielet me know if you need anything."
Julie got up from her desk and went through a door at the back of the room. Willa turned toward the chairs arranged around the wall near the front windows and met the gaze that had been fixed on her since she'd walked in.
He sat at ease in the corner chair, one long, jean-clad leg stretched out in front of him. A soft chambray shirt and navy sports coat hung a little loosely from his wide shoulders. His bright blue eyes smiled as they met hers and he brought up a sexy, three-sided grin, which creased his cheeks and heated hers.
"Willa Mercado?" His voice made her think of warm butter-scotch on cold vanilla ice cream. "I'm Daniel Trent. I think we're here on the same business."
The urge she'd felt to return that grin evaporated. Willa nodded curtly. "Major Trent." She chose a chair as far from his as possible, facing the receptionist's desk so she didn't have to confront the man who was buying part of her soul.
"Forgive me for not getting up," he said, evidently oblivious to her desire to ignore him. "My bum leg's acting up with the storm coming in."
Willa waved away the comment without looking at him. "Don't worry about it." But she couldn't stop her gaze from sliding sideways to his legs. She didn't see a cast or a brace. What did "bum leg" mean? Was it the one he kept bent, or the one he held straight? Just how disabled was he?
He still didn't take the hint. "There's a question I've been wanting to ask you ever since I first heard the name of your spread. El Rancho Luna Azulthe Blue Moon Ranch. Where did the name come from?"
Nosy, as well as dense. "The legend says that Rafael Mercado, who founded the ranch, spent his first night on the land under a blue moon."
Trent chuckled, a rich, deep sound. "Old Rafael must have been a romantic."
She glanced over, unable to suppress a smile. "He had his wife with him. Maybe she chose the name."
"Women being more imaginative? Maybe." He lifted a quizzical eyebrow. "Does that mean Rafael was henpecked?"
Before she could answer, Julie reappeared. "Mrs. Mercado? Major Trent? Right this way. Mr. Angelo's got everything ready."
Willa took a deep breath and stood up, then glanced Daniel Trent in time to see him pick up a cane from the floor. She couldn't look away as he propped the stick in front of him, then held it with both hands for extra support as he came up out of the chair, using only the strength of the bent left leg. His right leg stayed straight. When he stepped forward, he swung that stiff leg out to the side in a rolling sort of gait.
Daniel Trent caught her staring, of course, and shrugged one shoulder. "Like I said, the weather." Leaning one-handed on the cane, he motioned her ahead of him with the other. "Shall we?"
Without the mesmerizing smile to distract her, she could see the stress in his face, the lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, which revealed a pain he didn't want to acknowledge.
A twinge of sympathy lodged in Willa's chest. "Sure." She followed Julie down the hall. About halfway along, though, her second thoughts hit like a rampaging longhorn bull. She actually stumbled in shock.
A warm hand closed around her elbow from behind. "Are you okay?"
Her cheeks hot with embarrassment, she glanced back at Daniel Trent. "I'm fine. Sorry."
He let go easily as she pulled free. "No problem." Frowning, Willa hurried to catch up with the secretary. Maybe she was making a huge mistake. When she'd put the land up for sale, she'd expected to get a man with experience, a steady and reliable neighbor she could depend on. What kind of ranching background did Daniel Trent have? How would he manage cattle if he couldn't walk without a limp? Did he have other plans for the land that she should know about?
At the end of the hallway, attorney Juan Angelo waited for them in a windowless conference room. "Willa, good to see you again. I've got your papers right here." He pulled out a chair at one corner of the long table that filled most of the available space and scooted it in underneath her. Then he went to shake hands with Daniel Trent.
"I'm glad to meet you, Major Trent. I've arranged your paperwork, too." He glanced at the cane, and rolled back a chair on the other corner. "Have a seat."
Willa understood, from the way Daniel pressed his lips together, how much he disliked that accommodation to his disability. But he said, "Thanks," and lowered himself into the chair without much trouble. Now they sat facing each other, with the attorney at the head of the table between them.
Juan rubbed his hands together. "So, we're here to close on the sale of a thousand acres of ranch land. Willa, you're the seller, of course, and Daniel is the buyer. We've got a fair amount of paperwork to go through, but nothing too complicated. This first page"
Willa put up a hand. "Just a minute." Her reservations had seized control, and now she looked Daniel Trent straight in the back. "Do you have a ranching back-
the world are you going to make this work?" very wide, with all the whites showing. "We're just here to complete the sale."
"I figured I could hire good hands to help me out," Daniel explained. "And I'm not too proud to ask my neighbors for advice, maybe a little assistance now and then."
"Ranching is a full-time job." Boy, did she know that.
"Running a ranch, even a small one, requires stamina and strength, coordination and physical competence." Which was why she was always exhausted at the end of each and every day. "The economics are against you, too. Running such a small herdone, two hundred headyou'll barely break even most years. The price of corn is going up and water's been scarce. Do you know how to handle those problems? Why do you want to take on a complicated enterprise that's pretty much guaranteed to fail?"
"Willa " Juan groaned.
Daniel Trent straightened up in his chair, and suddenly she could see the military training behind his easy-going facade. "I may not be a hundred percent physically, but I expect to make a profit on the New Moon."
"I'm sure you will," Juan started. "And I'm sure"
"I'm not." Willa flattened her hands on the table. "And I don't think I can complete the sale under these conditions."
The attorney choked. Trent narrowed his eyes. "You're backing out on the deal?"
"This land is my children's heritage. I have a duty to see that it's cared for properly."
"I can do that."
"How do I know? How do you know?"
Juan got to his feet. "Willa, can I talk to you privately for a moment? Excuse us, Daniel." He walked to the door and opened it, waited for Willa to go through and then followed her out into the narrow hallway. With the door shut again, he faced her, his hands propped on his hips. "What in the world do you think you're doing?"
Willa winced as she heard the attorney's urgent question. He rushed on before she could answer. "You're throwing away this sale is what you're doing. Why?"
"I can't sell the land, Juan. Especially not to someone who knows next to nothing about ranching, or cattle." She rubbed her eyes with her fingers. "I might as well poison the water and set fire to the grass."
"Do I have to remind you of how much you'll be making off this sale? Daniel Trent didn't argue with the price, didn't try to talk you down. He paid top dollar and all he wants to do is run a few head of beef and some horses. It's not that big a deal."
"That land is the Mercado legacy. I want to know it's taken care of." I wanted some help! She bit her lip to keep the words unsaid.
"So let me remind you about the taxes you owe on that land. About the outstanding bills at the feed store and the veterinarian, the payroll you're behind on. Remember the mortgage Jamie took out on the ranch, and the fact that you have kids who'll be wanting to go to college in just a few years. You need this cash, Willa. As your attorney, I'm recommending you march in there, keep your mouth shut and sign those papers."
She stared at him in the dim light of the hall, hating the truth, unable to decide. They both jumped when the door to the conference room opened.
Daniel Trent stood silhouetted by the fluorescent light behind him, his shoulders slanted slightly, his hip cocked to the side by that stiff leg. "If you two want to come back, I think I have a solution to this dilemma."
By the time they'd finished, Daniel's leg felt like a fallen tree with a host of termites chewing on it from the inside out. The extra paperwork he'd suggested had extended the meeting by almost an hour, which meant he was two hours past the time for his usual dose of pain meds. He only took over-the-counter stuff these days, but the drugs still made a difference.
As a distraction, he let himself gaze at Willa Mercado while she finished reading the agreement he'd proposed. She might have a heart of stone, but he found her incredibly sexyher thick black hair, tamed into a shiny braid hanging down her back, her smooth olive skin, her wide, long-lashed dark eyes. Thin and graceful, she reminded him of a gazelle, all legs and arms, with the potential for great speed and endurance. Her mouth fascinated him, and he couldn't seem to look away from the sensual promise of those wide, full lips.
A promise likely to remain unfilled, he told himself. She'd agreed to let him live on the portion of the Blue Moon he'd wanted to buy, but she wasn't happy about it. At his suggestion, she'd put him on probation. After three months, if she didn't think he'd demonstrated an aptitude for ranching life, the sale contract would be void and he'd be out on his ear while she kept his deposit as rent.
Willa finished reading and, without a word, picked up a nearby pen to sign the last sheet. She passed the page to Juan, who gave it to Daniel for his signature. After three copies had been completed, the lawyer rubbed his hands together in satisfaction.
"That's great. I think this is an excellent solution." Stacking the papers together, he practically beamed. "Daniel, you'll have a chance to make sure this is what you want, and Willa, you'll be able to see that you're doing the right thing in selling Daniel this parcel of land. I'll have Julie make an appointment for three months from now, and we'll all get back together to finalize the sale."
He bustled out, leaving the door open, but returned before Daniel had a chance to say anything to the woman across the table. "I just looked at the calendar," Juan said. "Three months from today will be Christmas Eve. I thought I'd ask whether you want to set something up after the New Year." He gave an apologetic shrug. "Our office is usually closed that last week of December."
Willa opened her mouth, but Daniel spoke first. "Set it up for December twenty-first," he said. "I plan to spend Christmas on the New Moon Ranch."
He heard the click of teeth as Willa snapped her jaws shut.