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"What the hell?"
Boone Barnett's muttered question was lost in the cold wind as he watched a truck pulling a horse van leave a wake of dust as it barreled its way across the desert basin. The woman from New Mexico, he decided. The rig was too fancy to belong to anyone around here. But she was supposed to have been here shortly after lunch. Not five minutes from sundown!
Damn it, he was chilled to the bone, exhausted and hungry. He was hardly in the mood to put up with a woman who'd not had the forethought or good manners to show up at a decent hour. If she expected to look at the horses now, she was in for a surprise, Boone thought. His horses weren't pampered pets housed in luxurious stalls with overhead lights. They existed outside, as they had for hundreds of years on this Nevada range.
Dropping the feed sack near the barn door, he called to a barking black-and-white shepherd before starting the long walk to the front of the house. Frigid north wind had been gusting all day and since he'd been outdoors for most of it, his face burned from exposure and his feet weren't in much better shape. While he waited for the truck to pull to a stop, he stomped his boots and prayed for a little feeling to return to his toes.
Next to his leg, the dog whined and Boone's gloved hand patted the animal's head. "You don't need to worry about the lady, Queenie. She's only a visitor."
Pricking its ears, the shepherd followed Boone forward, while a few feet away, the driver's door opened on the truck and a tall, shapely woman stepped to the ground. She was dressed in blue jeans and boots and a bright red sweater, and as she moved toward him, she quickly shoved her arms into a denim ranch jacket.
"Hello," she called out loud enough to be heard above the wind.
"Hello," he greeted in response.
As the two of them met on the bare, hard-packed earth, Boone removed his glove and extended his hand to her. Even though he was damned irritated at her for showing up at a ridiculous hour, she was still a potential client. And for the past few months horse buyers hadn't exactly been beating down his door. The last thing he wanted to do was offend this one with bad manners.
"I'm Boone Barnett," he introduced himself. "And you must be Ms. Donovan?"
A wide smile spread her cherry-colored lips and Boone found himself staring at the woman. He'd not been to town in weeks and even when he was there he didn't take much notice of people, especially women, but something about the warmth on her face had struck him.
She was far younger than he'd expected and definitely prettier. Light, copper-red hair fell in thick waves to her shoulders and with each gust of wind, it tossed around her head like a bright silk scarf.
She grasped his hand in a firm shake while dimples bracketed her lips and Boone suddenly realized it was going to be an effort to do business with this woman. She had an irritating ability to remind him he was a man, one that had lived without a woman for a long, long time.
"That's right," she said. "Call me Dallas. And I want to apologize for showing up so late this evening. The trip out here took much longer than I expected. My truck kept trying to quit on me."
He'd expected to hear some sort of excuse for her tardiness, but not this one. "It appeared to be running just fine when you pulled up a few moments ago," he couldn't stop himself from pointing out.
A faint line furrowed the center of her pale forehead. "For the past mile or two it seemed to smooth out. But several times during the trip out here the engine choked down to a crawl and died. I filled the tank with fuel at Pioche and I'm beginning to wonder if water might have been in the diesel."
He studied the tiny movements of expression crossing her face and decided her explanation was sincere. Not that the reason for her tardiness mattered, but her honesty did. He wasn't about to let even one of his horses go to someone who lied. Liars tended to have other faults and his mustangs were like his children. Once they left for a new home, he wanted them to be in the best of hands.
"Could be you picked up some bad fuel," he agreed. "But whatever the problem, let's hope it's fixed itself."
She let out a long breath. "I hope so, too. The truck belongs to my brother. He was kind enough to let me bring it on this trip, but he won't be very happy with me if the engine is ruined. Especially since the truck is practically new."
The realization that he was still holding her hand suddenly hit Boone and though his first instinct was to drop it like a hot brick, he released it slowly and then jammed his hand deep into the pocket of his coat.
She pulled a thick white scarf from the pocket on her jacket and as she quickly wrapped it around her neck, she said, "I tried calling, to give you a heads-up that I was going to be late. But my cell couldn't pick up a signal."
He tried to smile, but his face was stiff from the cold. Not that he could use the brutal weather as an excuse. These past few years Boone had pretty much forgotten how to lift the corners of his mouth. But something about this woman made him want to try to appear friendly and normal, even if he wasn't particularly feeling that way.
"Cell phones are useless out here," he informed her. "We're too far away from civilization to have a signal tower anywhere near."
The wind continued to blow her hair in all directions, and she caught the wayward strands with one hand as she turned her head and surveyed the open land around them. Although her clothes were casual, she wore them with class and it was easy for Boone to see that she'd not purchased them from a discount store. No, this lady was first-class all the way.
"I thought our ranch was isolated, but this place has the Diamond D beat all to pieces," she remarked. "I don't think I passed another house for the past fifteen miles."
Because she'd contacted him by phone before she'd made the trip, Boone was already aware that this young woman lived in southern New Mexico, ran a riding stable for handicapped children and was interested in purchasing mustangs. Other than those bits of information, he knew nothing about her personally. But he was definitely learning fast.
He asked, "Is there someone else still sitting in the truck? You didn't travel all this way alone, did you?"
She smiled again and his gaze automatically focused on the twinkle in her eyes. Was she just the happy sort, he wondered, or was this her way of flirting?
A woman like her flirting with a man like you? Hell, Boone, you 're really losing it.
"I made the trip by myself. None of my family or friends was available to travel with me this time."
Boone's gaze zeroed in on her ring finger. Did her family include a husband? He couldn't imagine this young, attractive woman was still single. But there was no ring of any sort on her left hand.
Why are you wondering about any of that, Boone? Dallas Donovan is here to buy horses. Her marital status is none of your business.
Stunned that he'd let his curiosity wander so far, Boone did his best to jerk his focus back on the real purpose of this woman's visit.
"Well, I'm glad you made the trip safely, only there's not much daylight left." He gestured toward a maze of outbuildings and connecting corrals. "You're welcome to look around while I finish spreading feed. There's a yard lamp on the left side of the big barn. You might be able to see a few of the horses I've corralled there."
"Sure," she happily agreed. "Now that I'm here, I'd love to see what I can."
The man turned away from her and started walking toward a long, low barn with several adjoining corrals. Dallas fell in step beside him and as they moved along, she purposely fastened her gaze upon their destination.
Yet keeping her eyes off Boone Barnett did little to push him out of her thoughts.
Meeting this man in person had been like a wham on the head. Something about him had instantly grabbed her attention and still hadn't let go. Maybe because the real thing was a far cry from the image she'd formed when she'd spoken to him over the phone.
First of all, she'd been expecting him to be at least in his fifties or sixties. Instead, he appeared to be just a few years older than her thirty-two. And secondly, he was very tall. At five foot nine, it wasn't often that Dallas encountered a man that was a head taller than her, but Boone Barnett was that and more. And from the width of his shoulders beneath the plaid jacket, his height was backed up by a very solid foundation.
Even in the waning light, she could see his features were lean and hawkish and tanned to a nut-brown color. The somberness of his face both intrigued and bothered Dallas. She hated to think he might be a man plagued with worries and troubles. It was hard to do business with a person who couldn't see the lighter side of things.
At the front of the largest barn, he picked up a red plastic feed bucket and pointed to a corral to their immediate left. "There's a small herd of yearlings in that pen. The mares are next to them. Look all you want, I'll be back in a few minutes."
Glancing at him, she offered politely, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
He shook his head. "Thanks, but I can manage."
Before she could make any sort of reply, he walked away and she was left to make her way over to the penned horses. Apparently he'd already spread the feed for this small herd. The animals were presently lined up to long wooden troughs filled with mixed grains. Nearby, a hay manger was stuffed full of dark green alfalfa.
From what she could see, the horses were well-groomed and in great shape, but as far as Dallas was concerned, their dispositions and willingness to please were more important traits. For the sake of the children, she had to make sure the mounts that made up Angel Wings Stables were dependable, trustworthy steeds.
She was still standing at the fence and sizing up the mares, when Boone finally reappeared. Darkness had now settled over the ranch yard and across the way, near the barn porch, a yard light flickered on to shed a weak glow across the dusty pens.
When he finally came to a stop a few feet away from her, she waited for him to speak.
"The geldings and stallions are penned on the back side of the barn," he said to her. "But it's very dark over there. It would be better if you looked at them tomorrow."
"You don't have to persuade me," she said with agreement. "It's getting colder out here."
"I'm finished with all the outside chores. Let's go to the house where it's warm," he suggested.
Dallas looked at him, but there wasn't much to glean from his stoic features. It was impossible for her to tell if he actually welcomed her arrival on the ranch or was simply tolerating it. She probably should have stayed in Pioche and waited until morning to drive out here, she thought dismally. But once she'd checked in at a hotel and grabbed a bite to eat, she'd believed there was plenty of time to make the last leg of her journey to White River Ranch.
She'd never dreamed the drive out here would be so long and the terrain so rough. And she especially hadn't expected Liam's truck to start giving her problems. Now she was going to have to make a second trip out here, which would ultimately cause her to be a day late in getting back home to the Diamond D. And that thought was already weighing on her shoulders.
"I don't want to intrude on you and your family, Mr. Barnett," she said as she quickened her pace to match his longer strides.
"My name is Boone," he insisted. "And since it's just me and my daughter, you won't be intruding."
He had a deep, rough voice that was far more expressive than his face. Each time he spoke, his words seemed to vibrate right through her.