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Who the hell is that?"
Lex Saddler's drawled question was directed to no one in particular in the dusty cattle pen, but it was spoken loud enough for his cousin Matt to hear.
The other man followed Lex's gaze across the ranch yard to see Geraldine Saddler, the matriarch of the Sandbur ranch, approaching the corral fence. The surprise wasn't Lex's mother, an attractive woman in her mid-sixties with silver, bobbed hair, but the person by her side. The tall, young woman with long red hair, dressed in a short black skirt and delicate high heels, was definitely a stranger.
"I don't know," Matt murmured, "but if she gets any closer, she's going to get coated with dust."
Behind the two men, several cowboys were roping calves and stretching them out for the branding iron. The indignant
little bulls and heifers were bawling in loud protest as the stench of burning hair and black dust filled the hot, muggy air.
Squatting near one of the downed calves, a cowboy called out, "Hey, Matt, better come look at this one. Looks like he has a loose horn."
Grinning at Lex, Matt inclined his head toward the rapidly approaching women. "You go meet the company. I've got more important things to do."
"Yeah, right," Lex muttered dryly, not bothering to slap at the dust on his denim shirt or brown leather chaps as he walked over to the fence.
"Lex, climb out of there, please," Geraldine called to him. "I want you to meet someone."
As he mounted the fence, then dropped to the other side, he could feel the redhead eyeing him closely. Normally, the idea that a woman was giving him a second glance would have pleased him. He made no pretensions about his love for the opposite sex. Women made hisworld go around, and he soaked up any attention they wanted to throw his way. But something about this particular female was making him feel just a tad self-conscious. Instead of batting her eyes with appreciation, she was giving him a cool stare. Wouldn't his tough cousin have a laugh about that? he thought wryly.
Shoving a black cowboy hat to the back of his head, he sauntered over to the two women. His mother began to make introductions, but Lex was too interested in their guest to pick up more than a word here and there.
Thick auburn hair clouded around her shoulders in glistening waves. Her pale skin, with its faint dotting of freckles, reminded him of cream sprinkled with nutmeg, and her blue eyes, of a late-summer storm cloud. Beneath afaintly tip-tilted
nose, her lips were plush and pink, the moist sheen on them implying she'd just touched them with the tip of her tongue.
"Lex? Did you hear me? This is Ms. Logan. Christina Logan. The private investigator that has agreed to take our case."
His mother's words cut into his meandering thoughts, adding even more shock to his addled senses. This was the P.I.? And his mother might call it our case, but he viewed it as hers. Even though he'd agreed to help, this was totally his mother's doing.
"Uhyes." He jerked off his leather glove and quickly offered his hand to the beauty standing in front of him. "My pleasure, Ms. Logan."
Instead of touching her palm weakly against his, the woman totally surprised him by curling her fingers firmly around his and giving his whole hand a strong shake.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Saddler."
"Oh, don't call him 'Mr.,'" Geraldine quickly interjected. "You'll make his head even bigger than it already is. He's Lex to everyone. Even you. Isn't that right, son?"
Lex glanced at his mother, then smiled at Christina Logan. "I'd be pleased if you'd call me Lex. After all, I'm sure we'll be getting to know each other very well in the coming days."
Not if she could help it, Christina thought as she eyed the tough cowboy standing in front of her.
When Geraldine Saddler had approached her about taking on this case of her husband's death, she'd been very excited. The Sandbur reputation was known all over the state of Texas and beyond. Besides being rich and prominent, the families had the reputation of being fair dealers. Solving this case for the Saddlers was definitely going to put a feather in her cap.
However, when Geraldine had spoken of her son and the role he would be playing to help Christina with information, she'd expected Lex to be a businessman. The kind that sat behind a desk all day, giving orders over the phone. The kind that had soft hands and plenty of employees to make sure they stayed that way.
She'd never expected the rough, tough specimen of masculinity standing before her. He was tall. At least six foot three. And his body was the lean, wiry kind full of strength and stamina. Straight hair in myriad shades of blond covered his forehead and lent a boyish look to his rugged, thirty-something features. White teeth gleamed against his tanned face as his smile zeroed in directly on her.
Christina wanted to turn and run. Instead, she dropped his hand and drew in a long, much-needed breath.
"Then Lex it will be," she said as casually as she could. "And you must call me Christina."
"Will you be working here much longer?" Geraldine asked her son.
The man's dark green eyes swung away from Christina's face and over to his mother's.
"Yeah," he answered. "Probably till dark. Why?"
Geraldine rolled her eyes as though her son was growing slow-witted. "Cook is preparing a special supper in honor of Christina's arrival. I'd appreciate it if you weren't late."
"I'll try not to be," he assured her. "But I'm not going to leave everything with Matt." He smiled at Christina. "You understand, don't you?"
Christina understood that this man had probably been charming females with that smile from the moment he'd been born.
"Perfectly," she told him, then quickly softened the word
with a faint smile. After all, the man was to be admired for working at all when he clearly didn't have to. Add to that, it was obviously important to him to carry out his part of the work, instead of leaving it all to the other men. "And don't feel you have to make a special effort to hurry on my account. Your mother and I have plenty to talk over."
"Seven thirty, Lex," Geraldine warned. "After that, I'm telling Cook to throw yours out."
"Ouch!" he exclaimed, with a grimace. "All right. I'd like to eat tonight, so I'd better get back to work. See you later, Christina."
He pulled the brim of his hat down low on his forehead, then tipped it toward Christina in an outrageously gallant way before he climbed over the fence and jumped back into the dusty corral.
Sighing, Geraldine turned toward her. "I'm sorry if my son seems indifferent, Christina. But don't worry. He'll come around. I'll see to that." She closed a hand around Christina's elbow and urged her toward the big hacienda-style ranch house in the distance. "Let's get out of this dust and get you settled."
Two hours later, Christina stood in the upstairs bedroom she'd be occupying while on the ranch, peering out the window at the shadows rapidly spreading across the lawn below. From this view, she could see only portions of the massive ranch yard, with its numerous barns, sheds and corrals. The area where Lex Saddler had been working earlier was blocked from her view by the branches of a massive live oak tree.
And that was okay with her. She didn't need to be sneaking extra peeks at the man. Not when his image was still crowding her mind, refusing to leave her alone.
He had trouble written all over that sexy face, and she'd
not traveled all the way from San Antonio to this South Texas ranch to let a rakish cowboyor any man, for that matterdistract her from her job. She'd learned the hard way that men like Lex had a habit of turning a woman's life upside down, then leaving her alone to pick up the pieces. Now that she'd gotten herself glued back together after Mike's betrayal, she had no intention of letting another man turn her head.
Her lips pursed with grim determination, she walked over to a long pine dresser and gazed at her image in the mirror. Ger-aldine had insisted that the family didn't "dress up" for evening meals, so Christina had chosen to wear a casual skirt with a ruffled hem, topped with a sleeveless cotton sweater in the same coral color as the skirt. Her aim was not to be overly dressed up, but to still look nice enough to show respect to her hosts.
She was brushing the loose ends of her hair when a knock sounded on the bedroom door. Laying the brush back on the dresser top, she went to answer it and was faintly surprised to see Lex Saddler standing on the other side of the threshold. Obviously, he and his men had gotten all the little dogies marked with the Sandbur brand.
"Good evening, Christina."
Christina couldn't help herself. Before she could stop it, her gaze was sliding over him, noting the clean jeans and brown ostrich boots, the blue-and-white pin-striped shirt tucked inside a lean waistband, the long sleeves rolled back against corded brown forearms. At the moment his hat was absent. It appeared he'd made an effort to slick the thick blond hair back from his forehead, but a couple of strands had slipped from the restriction and were now teasing a toffee brown eyebrow. A faint stubble of whiskers said he either didn't like shaving or had lacked the time to pick up a razor.
But the faint brown shadow did nothing to detract from the man's appearance. In fact, he was even more sensual and sexual than she'd first thought, and it irked her that the mere sight of him elevated the beat of her heart.
"Good evening," she said, returned his greeting, then, with a quick glance at her watch, asked, "Am I late?"
He smiled. "Not at all. Mother's on the front porch. We thought you might like to come down and have a drink before supper."
"Sounds nice," she agreed.
She shut the bedroom door behind her, and as they started down a wide hallway leading to the staircase landing, he linked his arm though hers, smooth and easy. Christina realized he was an old hand at escorting women.
"So, do you like your room?" he asked. "If you don't, there are several more you could try."
"The room is lovely," she told him, then tossed him a glance. "And so is your ranch."
His brows arched upward, and then he chuckled. "My kind of woman," he drawled. "I think we're going to get along just fine."
Christina wasn't ready to make such a prediction. Especially when he was giving off such flirtatious vibes. She was here for work and work only. She wanted to get along with this man, which would allow her to resolve the case quickly. If she had to keep fending him off at every turn, she was in for a long row to hoe.
At the bottom of the long staircase, they crossed a wide living room with Spanish-tile floors, brown leather furniture and several sculptures and paintings depicting the history of the century-plus-old ranch. It was not the formal type of sitting room she would have expected in the home of such
a wealthy family. Instead of being a showcase, it had a lived-in look, which had instantly put her at ease.
After passing through a short foyer, Lex guided her onto a long concrete porch with huge potted succulents and wicker furniture grouped at intervals along the covered portico. Somewhere in the middle, Geraldine Saddler sat in a fan-backed chair, sipping from a frosty glass.
When she spotted Christina and her son, she smiled brightly.
"I see Lex found you ready to come down," she said to Christina. "Would you like a margarita or a glass of wine?"
"A margarita would be fine," Christina replied.
"I'll get it," Lex told her. "Just sit wherever you'd like." He released his hold on her arm and headed to a small table where Cook had organized glasses, a bucket of ice and several choices of drinks.
The moment Lex left her side, it felt as though the tornado that had been traveling beside her had now moved safely away. At least for the time being.
Drawing in a slow breath, she took a seat directly across from Geraldine and smoothed the hem of her skirt across her thigh. She'd hardly gotten herself settled when Lex returned with her drink.
"Thank you," she murmured quietly.
"My pleasure," he said as he took the seat next to her. "And be careful with that thing. Cook pours in a lethal amount of tequila. You might want to drink it slowly. Not everyone can handle liquor like my mother," he added teasingly.
Geraldine scowled at her son. "Lex! You'll have Christina thinking I'm a sot! I only have one or two of these in the evenings and sometimes none at all!"
"Yeah, but one or two of those things would kick my head right off my shoulders," replied Lex.
Although he spoke in a joking tone, Christina was inclined to believe he was being more or less truthful. The sip she'd taken from her own glass was like a cold jolt of lightning. Her father would love this, she thought wryly. But then, she had to give the man credit. He'd not touched alcohol in five years and was getting his life in order again.
Christina smiled at her hostess. "It's delicious."
She could feel more than see Lex watching her.
"So tell me about being a private investigator," he prompted. "Have you always done this sort of job?"
She turned her gaze on him, then wished she hadn't. He had such a raw sex appeal that each time she gazed squarely at his tanned face and beach-blond hair, she felt her stomach clench, her breath catch.
Stop it, Christina! You're not a teenager. You're a thirty-three-year-old woman who understands firsthand how a good-looking man can wreak havoc on a woman's common sense.
"No. I was twenty-two when I first went into law enforcement for the San Antonio Police Department. I remained on the force there for four years. Then I had an offer for an office position with the Texas Rangers. I worked there five more years before I finally decided I wanted to go into business for myself."
He casually crossed his ankles out in front of him, and from beneath her lowered lashes, Christina followed the long length of his legs with her eyes, all the way down to the square toes of his boots. If there was ever a complete description of a Texas cowboy, Lex Saddler was it.
"So what made you interested in law enforcement?" he asked. "Did you follow a relative into that profession?"
Christina might have laughed if the reality of her family situation hadn't been so sad. Her father had fought his own
demons while trying to work in a family business that he'd had little or no interest in. And then there was her mother, who had flitted from one man to the next in hopes of finding happiness. No, her parents had lacked the dedication it took to work in law enforcement.
"None of my relatives have been in law enforcement of any sort. I just happened to find it interesting. I decided I wanted to spend my time helping folks find lost loved ones. Most of my cases consist of missing persons."
His brows arched slightly. "Well, my father is hardly missing, Christina. He's in the Sandbur cemetery. Along with the other family members that have passed on."
Her chin lifted a fraction. "I said I work mostly on missing-person cases, Lex. I didn't say I worked on those types of cases exclusively."
Geraldine eased forward in her chair. "Unfortunately, my daughters Nicci and Mercedes couldn't be here this evening. But they're agreeable to what I decide, and Lex has promised to keep them informed. They, like Lex, have had doubts about their father's death. But none of them wanted to voice them out loud."
He grimaced as though the whole subject was something he didn't want to ponder. "Well, hell, Mom, we've all had our doubts. But I want to believe the police. They concluded that a heart attack contributed to his drowning. The police and county coroner made a ruling. Why can't you accept their findings? What can Christina do that they've not already done?"
Geraldine swallowed down the last of her drink and set her glass aside. "I'll tell you what. She can look into all the weird things that were going on just before your father died.