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"He's still out there, Mama," Amy Olson's seven-year-old daughter, Rose, announced from her perch on the chair in front of the kitchen window.
Ten minutes earlier, a shiny black 4x4 extended-cab pickup towing a luxury horse trailer large enough to comfortably transport six animals pulled up the gravel drive. Amy hadn't caught the license plate, but she doubted the driver was from Pebble Creekno one in this area made enough money raising horses to purchase such a spiffy vehicle. But unlike her neighbors in the small eastern Idaho Valley, Amy was barely hanging on to her land much less making ends meet.
Positive she was viewing a mirage Amy tugged her blouse loose from the waistband of her jeans and rubbed the hem of the cotton material against the win-dowpane in front of her daughter's nose. The shirt came away smudged with dust. When was the last time she'd cleaned, let alone washed windows? She glanced at the wall calendar and sighed. She'd tidied the house right before Christmasfive months ago.
The lone cowboy sat inside his truck, yakking on a cell phone. He looked toward the house once or twice, but mostly he stared out the windshield, grinning and gesturing with his arms. Then his head fell back and his shoulders shook. Whoever was on the other end of the call sure tickled his funny bone. Go figure. Amy didn't find the cowboy or his fancy rig amusing.
As a matter of fact she'd lost her sense of humorwhat there had been of it anywaywhen the owner of her last boarded horse removed the animal from her farm a week earlier, drying up her sole source of income.
Who is he and what business does he have with the Broken Wheel?
"Is he lost, Mama?"
Lord, I hope so. She wasn't in the mood for a visit from one of her husband's creditors.
Since when do collection agencies send their henchmen out in diesel pickups towing horse trailers?
The truck door opened and Amy held her breath. A Stetson emerged. Then a pair of broad shoulders. She estimated his height to be around one or two inches over six feet. He moved around the hood and her first head-to-toe glance triggered a mini-heart attack.
Amy had a weakness for cowboys.
He paused midstride and her ticker resumed beating. His head turned toward the barn, revealing a strong jaw and a wide mouth, which wasn't smiling now. After a moment, he swaggeredthat's how most cowboys, who believed they were God's gift to women, walked over to the house. He took the porch steps two at a time and instead of ringing the bell he pounded.
"Go upstairs and check on Lily," she ordered her daughter. "But don't wake her if she's napping. And stay in your room until I call for you."
Rose obeyed, grabbing the box of Cheerios off the kitchen tableher sister's favorite foodbefore leaving the kitchen. Amy unconsciously brushed at her bangs. When she caught her reflection in the window, she grimaced. Do you really care what the man thinks of you?
No, she did not. She'd transferred handsome cowboys to her been-there-done-that list several years ago.
When she opened the door, cool blue eyes pinned her. Mesmerized, she gaped, uncaring if the man considered her behavior rude. A split-second fantasy flashed through her mindshe and the cowboy lying in a field of clover beneath a cornflower-colored sky which slowed her thundering pulse to a sluggish thump thumpity thump.
The deep voice abruptly ended the dream. "May I help you?" she squeaked.
He removed his hat.
She wished he hadn't.
Strands of dark hair, the color of the dirt after a hard rain, lay every which way across his brow and over the tips of his ears, lending him a shaggy beach-bum appeal. She easily pictured the cowboy in Hawaiian-flowered swim trunks surfing an ocean wave. Then he smiled.
Good Lord. He was a heartbreaker.
His gaze swept her from head to toe, its indifference almost insulting. Amy wasn't a lookerat least for the past several months she hadn't been one. Each morning the bathroom mirror reminded her that she had an inch of dark roots showing. But money was tight and she didn't dare waste a penny on a cut and color. Besides, a trip to the hair salon wouldn't erase the worry lines that had taken up residence across her forehead the past few months.
"Matt Cartwright." He offered his hand.
His fingers were marked by thick calluses and a scar bisected his palma bad rope burn, she suspected. He shifted, the movement sending shards of afternoon sunlight ricocheting off the silver belt buckle at his waist. According to the inscriptionDodge National Circuit Finals Rodeothe man was an authentic rodeo cowboy. Figures. Rodeo cowboys were useless. She ought to knowshe'd married one.
Steeling herself, she clasped his hand, ignoring the jolt of awareness that spread through her. Holy smokes, her breasts were tingling. When was the last time that had happened?
"I've got business with Ben Olson."
He hadn't heard? Amy's attention shifted to the horse trailer. "Ben's not here."
"Any idea when he'll be back?"
"Not soon." That was for sure.
Mr. Cartwright rubbed his chin, dragging his fingers across the emerging five o'clock shadow, the scratchy noise too intimate a sound between them for having just met. "I dialed his cell phone numerous times, but he never answered. Then a few weeks ago the number was no longer in use."
That's because Amy hadn't been able to pay the wireless phone bill and the company had cancelled her service. "Maybe I can help," she said.
Brow furrowed, he shifted his weight from one boot to the other. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
"Amy Olson. Ben's wife." His eyes roundedevidently he hadn't been aware that Ben had been married. "Would you like to leave a message for my husband?" she asked, hoping to buy a few weeks before he figured out the truth.
"Actually, I'd like to leave three of my mares with him."
Dark eyebrows curved inward over his nosea nose that had been broken at least once according to the bump along its bridge. "Did your husband happen to mention a business agreement he made with me?"
Damn her pie-in-the-sky, dreaming, scheming husband. She pushed the words past her lips. "He did not."
The cowboy rocked on his boot heels, clearly agitated by the lack of progress in their conversation. "Ben and I met in Pocatello this past December."
Not surprising. Her husband had chased the rodeo dream since before they'd married. If Ben wasn't competing, he was in the stands cheering. But he'd never been good enough to win a buckle like this cowboy. A sliver of dread crawled up Amy's spine. She hoped to heaven that the deal her husband had struck with this man had nothing to do with the beast in the barn. "I'm listening."
"On the eve of the National Finals Rodeo a group of cowboys organized a poker game and"
"The short version. I have chores to do." Not true. Few tasks remained on the farm since her horse-boarding business had gone belly-up. Regardless, she wanted this cowboy goneyesterday.
"The short version, Mrs. Olson, is that your husband lost to me at poker and I'm here to collect on his debt."
Blast it, Ben. Her husband had no business playing cards. He couldn't keep a straight face if his life depended on it. As a matter of fact he couldn't walk straight, sleep straight, sit straight or talk straight. He'd been the most wishy-washy man she'd ever met. "How much does Ben owe you?"
A high-pitched buzz whistled between her ears. She opened her mouth but only air rushed out.
"Since your husband wasn't able to procure the funds we struck a bargain."
"Bargain?" she wheezed.
"Free stud service in lieu of the money he owes me."
That surely wasn't going to happen. Besides "Most serious horse breeders prefer artificial insemination."
His devilishly wicked grin revealed a perfect set of pearly whites. "Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a lady who's been properly courted behaves better in the bedroom, er stall, I mean."
If she squeezed the doorknob any tighter, she'd bust the hardware. "I'm sorry about the gambling debt, but you can't leave your horses here." She attempted to slam the door in his face, but a size-thirteen Roper blocked the way. He held out a piece of paper.
No mistaking Ben's handwriting. She scanned the contents. The message said exactly what Mr. Cartwright claimedfree stud service for three mares valued at thirty thousand dollarsexcept her husband was to have delivered Son of Sunshine over a month ago to the Lazy River Ranch outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Like I said can't help you." When he made no move to take the note, she stuffed it into his shirt pocket, ignoring the hard wall of flesh that her knuckles nudged.
"Mrs. Olson, I'm not leaving until I speak with Ben."
The resentment and frustration that had been damned up all these months burst free, sending a flood of anger rushing through her. "I'm afraid you'll have yourself quite a long wait."
His eyes narrowed, leaving only a slice of blue visible. "And why's that?"
"Because Ben's dead."
The cowboy's mouth dropped. "Dead dead?"
Was there any other kind? "Dead as in buried over yonder." She pointed to a grassy knoll a hundred yards beyond the barnthe family burial ground. Hard to miss her great-grandparents' headstone standing ten feet high. She motioned to the horse trailer. "I apologize for any inconvenience Ben may have caused you. Good day, Mr. Cartwright."
This time the door encountered no roadblock and closed with a bang!
Ben Olson couldn't be dead. Matt had played cards with the bronc rider this past December at the Holt Arena on the campus of Idaho State University. Although they'd run into each other at rodeos through the years, Matt hadn't known the man well, save for the fact that he had a reputation for gamblingand losing. The way Olson flirted with the rodeo groupies, Matt would never have believed the man had been married. And speaking of wives
The widow sure hadn't acted torn up over the loss of her husband. Unless had he been duped by the couple?
He smashed his Stetson on his head and headed up the hill to the graveyard encased behind a three-foot wrought-iron fence, its rusted finials pointing heavenward. With long strides he covered the ground, spewing cuss words in sync with the gravel bits flying out from beneath his boot heels. He refused to entertain the possibility that his plan to retire from rodeo had encountered a roadblock he was unable to swerve around. He stopped outside the gate and scanned the handful of granite markers. Ben Ben Ben
Loving Husband and Father
Matt shifted his attention from the grave marker to the rolling green hills that butted up to the jagged peaks of the southern end of the Teton Mountain Range. His first thoughtnice place to be buried. Second thoughtnow what? It had been evident by the daze on Amy Olson's face that her husband had failed to mention he'd lost thirty thousand dollars in a poker game.
When Matt had discovered that Olson had recently purchased the famous American quarter horse Son of Sunshine, Matt had been consumed with the idea of breeding his mares with the stallion. At eight years of age the stud was regarded as one of the top-ten cutting horses in the country.
Blame it on karma, kismet or providence, but Matt believed running into Olson at the National Finals Rodeo had been a signal that the time was right for the career change Matt had contemplated for months raising cutting horses. To begin his new venture with offspring sired by Son of Sunshine was an opportunity Matt hadn't been able to pass up.
The cutting-horse operation was to be a turning point in Matt's life, allowing him to retire from rodeo. He remained a contenderone of the top tie-down cowboys on the Prairie Circuit. But at the age of thirty-four he was tired of life on the road, sleeping in dingy motels and eating fast food day in and day out.
In truth, he'd been ready to walk away from the sport when he'd turned thirty. But back then he hadn't known what he'd wanted to do with the rest of his lifeexcept that he didn't relish working for his father in the oil business. Matt preferred the smell of a rank barn to thick black crude.
His agreement with Olson had stated that the man was to deliver the stud to his father's ranch in Oklahoma by the end of April. April had faded into May and no sign of the stud and no contact with Olson.
The clock had been ticking. The mares' natural breeding season was May through September. When the first week of May had passed and Olson remained a no-show, Matt had taken matters into his own hands and hauled his horses to Idaho.
From his vantage point on the hill the old homestead left a lot to be desired. The shabby two-story white clapboardmost of the paint had peeled off over the yearslisted to the left as if the steady Idaho winds were trying to shove it off its foundation. The shutters had faded from glossy black to dull charcoal, and one shutter was missing from a second-story window. Olson hadn't put any money into upkeep. Not unusual. Most ranchers and horse breeders sunk their profits into their operations.
Next Matt eyed the horse barnin slightly better condition than the houseand the empty paddocks. Dread settled like a hot road apple in the pit of his stomach. Had the widow sold off the prized stallion?
Guess he'd better find out. Matt returned to the house and stomped up the porch steps. The door opened unexpectedly and he had to yank his arm back to prevent his knuckles from rapping the widow's forehead.
"Need more proof Ben's dead, Mr. Cartwright?" Her nose wrinkled as if she'd caught a whiff of a foul odorhim.
Was her testy demeanor the result of her husband's death or just her normal pleasing personality? First things first. He removed his hat. "My condolences on the loss of your husband."
His apology sucked the hissy-fit out of her. Her brown eyes softened to the color of well-oiled saddle leather as she murmured, "Thank you."