"I don't want to go to the Cattleman's Ball." Winslow Grange was emphatic about it. He glared at the other man. His dark eyes were hostile. Of course, they were usually hostile.
His boss just smiled. Jason Pendleton knew his foreman very well. "You'll have a good time," he said. "You need the break."
"Break!" Grange threw his big hands up in the air and turned away. "I'm going to a South American country with a group of covert ops specialists to retake a country under a bloodthirsty dictator
"Exactly," Jason said blandly. "That's why you need the break."
Grange turned back to him, with his hands deep in his jeans pockets. He grimaced. "Listen, I don't like people much. I don't mix well."
"And you think I do?" Jason asked reasonably. "I have to hobnob with heads of corporations, government regulators, federal auditors
but I cope. You'll be able to deal with it, too."
"I guess so." He drew in a long breath. "It's been a while since I led men into battle."
Jason lifted an eyebrow. "You went into Mexico to liberate my wife when she was kidnapped by your current boss."
"An incursion. We're talking about a war." He turned back to the fence, leaned his arms on it and stared blindly at the purebred cattle munching at a rolled-up hay bale. "I lost men in Iraq."
"Mostly due to your C.O.'s idiotic orders, as I recall, not to your own competence."
Grange said grimly, "I loved his court-martial."
"Served him right." Jason leaned against the fence beside him. "Point is, you lead well. That's a valuable ability to a deposed head-of-state who's fighting to restore democracy to his country. If you succeed, and I believe you will, they'll erect a statue of you somewhere."
Grange burst out laughing.
"But the ball is a local tradition. We all go, and donate to important regional causes at the same time. We get together and dance and talk and have fun. You remember what that is, Grange, don't you? Fun?"
Grange made a face.
"You ex-military guys, honest to God" Jason sighed.
"Don't start with me," Grange told him. "You just remember that my military experience is why Gracie isn't lying dead in a ditch somewhere."
Jason shook his head. "I think about it every day."
He didn't like remembering it. Gracie had almost died. Their courtship had been rocky and difficult. They were married now, and expecting their first child. Gracie had thought she was pregnant soon after their marriage, only she'd been mistaken. She wasn't this time. She was six months pregnant and beaming. They were happy together. But it hadn't been an easy path to the altar.
"I was going to ask her out, just before you married Gracie," Grange said to irritate the other man. "I even bought a new suit."
"It wasn't wasted. It's still in style. You can wear it to the Cattleman's Ball. Besides," Jason added with a grin, "you have no cause for complaint. I gave you a tract of land and a seed herd of purebred Santa Gertrudis."
"You really shouldn't have done that," Grange told him firmly. "It was overkill."
"It wasn't. You're the most valuable employee I've got here. It was a bonus. Well deserved."
Grange smiled. "Thanks." He made another face. "But you didn't have to throw in Ed Larson and his daughter."
"Peg's sweet, and she cooks like an angel."
The dark eyes glared. "She's after me. All the time. She says things."
"She's barely nineteenof course she says things
"She's trying to seduce me, for God's sake!" he burst out, and his high cheekbones flushed.
Jason's eyebrows lifted. "You do know that the Victorian Age is over and done with?"
"I am not about to start playing games with a nineteen-year-old," came the curt reply. "I go to church, pay my taxes and give to charity. I don't even drink!"
Jason shook his head. "I give up. You're a lost cause."
"You want to see a lost cause, look around you," Grange began. "We have the highest divorce rate, the ugliest economy and the greediest corporate entities on earth
Jason held up a hand. "I'm sorry, but I'm due in New York the week after Thanksgiving," he said drolly.
"I wasn't going to take that long to get my point across."
"You'll have to plant your soapbox someplace else. As to the ball, if you don't take Peg, who will you take?"
Grange looked hunted. "I'm going alone."
"Oh, that's going to put you on everybody's front page for a month."
His sensual lips made a straight line. "I'm not taking Peg! Her father works for me! So does she, while we're on the subject!"
"I can list all the people who took employees to past balls, if you like," Jason mused.
Grange knew already what a list that would be, and many of those couples ended up married. He didn't want to open that can of worms.
"It's only for about three hours," Jason continued. "What's the harm? And aren't you leaving the country two days later?"
"Think of it as a happy memory to take with you." He shifted and averted his eyes. He ran a hand through his thick, black hair. "Peg won't have the money for a party dress."
"We have a new boutique in town. The designer, Bess Truman, is trying to drum up business, so she's outfitted half the town's eligible women with her stock. Remember Nancy, our pharmacist? She's got a green gown that she wore for an event that was filmed on the local television station. Bonnie, her assistant, has a red one that stopped traffic. Literally. Even Holly, who works with them, got a gold one. So Bess, she's the designer, she gave Peg one to wear also."
"Going to tell me what color it is?" Grange drawled sarcastically.
"You'll have to wait and see." Jason grinned. "Gracie said it's the most gorgeous of the lot." Grange still hesitated.
"Ask her," Jason said, and he was solemn. "You've been walking around alone for a long time. You don't date anybody. It's time you remembered why men like women."
His eyes narrowed. "Gracie put you up to this. Didn't she?"
Jason shrugged and pursed his lips. "Pregnant women have cravings. Strawberry ice cream with pickle topping, crushed ice with mango, their friends getting asked to holiday balls
" He glanced at Grange with twinkling eyes. "You wouldn't want to upset Gracie?"
"Yeah, hit me in my weak spot, why don't you?" Grange muttered.
Jason grinned wider.
He shrugged. "Okay. I should be testing weapons and drilling men. But I'll take the evening off and escort Peg to a ball I don't want to attend. Why not?"
"And be nice, could you?" Jason groaned. "Just once?"
He snarled. "I hate nice. I'm not nice. I was a major in a forward company in Iraq."
"It will be good practice for when you have to charm insurgents to surrender to your boss, the general."
Grange smiled coldly. "I won't need charm. I have several retooled automatic weapons and a few grenades."
Jason just shook his head.
Peg was in the kitchen when Grange walked through the door of his ranch house. Jason had given him the house with the property, against his protests. Grange was still, technically, Jason's foreman on the huge Pendleton Comanche Wells property. But when he had free time, he could build up his own herd and renovate the huge white elephant of a house. Jason was paying Ed's salary. Grange was paying Peg's.
He never failed to appreciate Jason's generosity. The older man was a fanatic about repaying debts, and he felt that he owed Grange a lot for saving Gracie. Grange refused money, so Jason had found another way to repay him: the land, the house and the seed herd. It was worth a small fortune, but it was impossible to get around Jason when he was determined. Gracie had also been determined. In the end, Grange gave up and accepted with whatever grace he could manage. It was a hell of a reward. But it had been a desperate and dangerous mission. He could have died, so could his men. He'd managed the rescue in short time, and with no serious casualties. He hoped, he prayed, he'd be able to do the same with Emilio Machado's invasion force the week after Thanksgiving, when they went to South America to liberate Barrera from a merciless dictator who had led a coup against Machado.
Peg was nineteen, vivacious, with long blond hair and green eyes and a wicked smile. She and her father had been alone for five years, since the death of her mother from an aggressive, vicious cancer. The two of them had ended up working for Jason Pendleton, but his obligation to Grange had settled them here, in this old house.
Neither of them minded. Ed loved being foreman of Grange's small operation. He got the same salary he'd drawn from Jason at the Pendleton ranch property, but the duties were less rigorous and he had more free time. Peg, on the other hand, only had to cook for the three of them, and she was good at it. Not that the bunkhouse cook at Jason's place didn't stop by frequently to beg pies and cakes from her, because he couldn't do those. Peg never minded. She loved to cook.
"You should be in college," Grange said without preamble when he walked into the kitchen where she was just putting a meatloaf into the oven.
She glanced at him, laughed and stirred her potatoes, which were boiling. "Sure. I'll go to Harvard next semester. Remind me to ask Dad for the tuition."
He glared at her. "There are scholarships."
"I was a straight-C student."
She turned around and looked up at him. It was a long way. She only came up to his chin. Her long, light blond hair was in two pigtails and her sweatshirt was spotted with grease. So were her jeans. She never wore an apron. She pointed the spoon at him. "And what would I study, exactly?"
She glowered at him. "Do you really want me to go to college and live in a coed dorm?"
"A dorm that has men and women living in the same rooms, when they don't even know each other? Do you think I'm undressing in an apartment with a man I don't know?"
He gaped at her. "You have to be kidding."
"I am not. They have dorms for married couples. The rest have no choice about whether their dorm mates are male or female." She glared harder. "I was raised to believe that things work in a certain way. That's why I live in a place where people think like I do." She shrugged. "I read this old book by a guy named Toffler. Thirty years ago, he predicted that there would be people out of step with society and who couldn't fit in." She turned to him. "That's me. Out of step. Can't fit in. Doesn't belong anywhere. Well, anywhere except Jacobsville. Or Comanche Wells."
He had to admit, he didn't like the idea of her living in a dorm with male students she didn't know. On the other hand, he wouldn't like being forced to live with some woman he didn't know. How the world had changed in a decade or so!
He leaned against the wall. "Okay. I guess you're right. But you could commute to a college, or through the internet."
"I've thought about that."
He studied her pretty bow of a mouth, her rounded chin, her elegant neck. Her eyes were her finest feature, but the pigtails and lack of makeup did nothing for her.
She saw where he was staring and grinned. "Deterrents."
He blinked. "Excuse me?"
"My pigtails and my lack of makeup. They keep suitors away. If you don't care about fancy clothes and makeup, you're smart, right? So men don't like smart women."
He cocked an eyebrow. "If I wanted a relationship, I'd like a smart woman. I have a degree in political science with a double major in that and Arabic language studies."
The fork she was testing her potatoes with was suspended in midair. "You speak Arabic?"
He nodded. "Several dialects."
Her eyes fell. "Oh." She hadn't realized that he was college educated. She felt suddenly inadequate. He'd said that she needed to go to college herself. Did he find her unattractive because her mind wasn't developed like his? Or did he want her to leave?
He frowned. She looked worried. He recalled what Jason had said about that designer gown she'd been loaned. He grimaced. Well, he didn't really have any plans to take another woman.
"How about going to the Cattleman's Ball with me?" he asked bluntly.
She went from doubt and misery to euphoria in five seconds flat. She gaped at him. "Me?"
"Well, I don't think your Dad would look very good in a ball gown," he replied.
"The ball," she said, confused.
He nodded. "I hate parties," he said flatly. "But I guess I can stand it for a couple of hours."
She nodded. She looked blank.
"If you want to go?" he asked, because she looked
He wasn't sure how she looked.
He laughed. The fork had flown out of her hand in her excitement. It landed, oddly, right in the sink. He laughed harder. "Nice toss. You might consider the NBA."
"Oh, I don't play football."
He started to tell her it was basketball, but she was beaming, and she looked really pretty. He smiled. His dark eyes sparkled. "Just a joke."
He shouldered away from the wall. "I'll get back to work. We'll leave about six on Saturday. They're serving canapes and whatnot. I don't think you'll need to cook supper, except something for your dad."
She nodded. "Okay."
He smiled and walked out.
Peg barely noticed the potatoes until water splashed out onto the stove. She tested them with a clean fork and moved the pan off the burner. She was going to the ball. She felt like Cinderella. She'd fix up her face and hair and make Grange proud. It would be the happiest night of her entire life. She felt as if she were walking on air as she started to mash the potatoes in a big ceramic bowl.