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Kira Jennings's quarry sat near the back of the bar under the mounted elk head. Kira focused on the man, trying to ignore the poor beast on the wall above him. He was more careworn than in the photo she'd enlarged from an old Boise State yearbook, but it was definitely Jason Ross.
Had he been alone, Kira would have crossed the room, asked if she could sit down, and made small talk while judging when to make her move, lay out her proposal. But he wasn't alone. Two other cowboy types and a striking woman with a mass of dark curls sat with him and Kira wasn't going to elbow her way into a private party. She would have to see him tomorrow, even though that was squeezing her for time. She only had two days to burn before her meeting with the Neary Farms people in Elkoin fact, her family, with the exception of her sister, Leila, thought she was there now. Her brother, Bryce, in particular, would not have been thrilled to know that she was in Otto, Nevada, a hundred and twenty miles to the southwest, trying to do what her aunt said was impossible: work out a business deal with Jason Ross.
Jason said something just then to the man next to him and everyone at the table laughed, cementing Kira's decision. She'd see him tomorrow.
She'd turned to leave, glad she'd ventured only a few feet into the crowded establishment, when an arm shot out, barring the door. Her heart lurched.
"Honey, you can't go." The big man in the black cowboy hat grinned sloppily down at her, his teeth showing white from behind a black beard, looking for all the world like Bluto of Popeye fame. "We need women here, and you fit the description."
"Is that a fact?" Kira asked, buyingtime as she stepped back, out of reach. No one in the bar seemed to notice that the Neanderthal in front of her was blocking her exit. She was on her own.
Wasn't the first time.
Kira kept her distance, but smiled pleasantly. When the big man began to beam back, she quickly ducked under his arm and shot out into the parking lot. He didn't followhe was probably too drunk to followand if he had, Kira knew she could outrun him. She went directly to her low-slung car in the gravel parking lot and got inside, locking the door.
A couple came swaying out of the bar into the warm night and ambled past her, somehow holding each other up as they walked in tandem. Kira was glad to see that they didn't get into a vehicle, but instead headed down the street toward the only other place that was openHarry's Café. Otto might be one of the smaller towns in the state, but it had its share of nightlife. Kira had enjoyed nightlife, once upon a time. Now now she concentrated on business. College was long over and she had a career to build.
She turned the key and fired her Audi TT to life. She'd driven the two blocks from the motel to the bar, which bordered on embarrassing, but she hated to walk alone in towns she didn't know, even small ones. One never knew what might be lurking in the bushes.
"Was he there?" Dorrie, the skinny gray-haired lady who ran the motel office, asked a few minutes later as Kira unlocked the door to her room. Kira only knew her name because of the plastic name tag that had been pinned to her blouse when Kira had checked in.
Dorrie leaned against the carport post, dragging on a cigarette. The smoke drifted off into the darkness, past one of the many hanging baskets of petunias that lined the edge of the carport. The woman had petunias growing everywhere, adding a bit of cheer to the tired exterior of the old motel.
"He was," Kira said.
"I thought I saw his truck." The lady blinked at Kira over her glasses and gestured with her cigarette. "What'd you want him for, anyway?"
Kira almost said, "Because our fathers used to be friends." True enough, especially the "used to be" part, but this was a small community, and it wouldn't take long for the woman to connect surnames. So instead she said, "Business," before stepping into the small room, ending the conversation. The last thing she wanted was to run into one of her father's childhood friends.
"Didyou see that girl?" Menace asked as he sat in the vacant chair across the table from Jason. "I tried to get her to come back in, but" he waved his almost empty glass "she got away."
"It's a small town," Jason said, amazed, as always, that a woman hadn't fallen for Menace's subtle charm. "I'm sure you'll find her again."
Menace shook his head. "Probably won't do any good."
Dennis Mann, aka Menace, had been shut down by every woman in the community. He was mystified as to why and Jason wasn't going to spell it out to him. He could see that Libby Hale, their mutual friend, was tempted to explain where he'd gone wrong tonight, but was for once behaving herself.
"So what time tomorrow?" Jason asked. After a wildfire had nearly taken out his dad's barn the summer before, Menace had finally talked the old man into having a fire line put in before the lightning storms became a daily occurrence. He'd almost waited too long; they'd had a nasty storm the day before. The area was going on its fifth year of drought and the land was dry, ripe for wildfires. Libby had told him the Bureau of Land ManagementBLMfire crews were practically salivating at the prospect of weeks, or even months, of overtime pay.
"Dad didn't say what time," Menace said, reaching out to pour the last of the pitcher of beer into his glass, "but I'm guessing he'll want you pretty early. Before the heat."
Which meant around dawn. Jason shoved his chair back, set his empty soda can on the table in front of him. "I think I'll be going then."
"I'll stop by tomorrow and see the baby," Libby said, idly twisting a curl. "Sometime in the afternoon? Or" she smiled blandly "will you be napping after your early morning?"
"No napping," Jason said. "I've got a foundation to rebuild." He nodded at his friends and then maneuvered through the crowd to the door. Though nearly ten o'clock, it was still hot and muggy outside. He'd parked a block away from the bar, knowing firsthand that parking in the lot often meant a new ding in his door. And his poor doors couldn't take many more.
"Hey, Jason," Dorrie Straum called before he could turn the key. He waited for her to saunter over from the motel parking lot, where she'd been having a smoke.
"So, did you talk to that girl who was looking for you?"
"What girl?" Sheet lightning glowed momentarily behind the mountains to the south of town, and thunder rumbled, making Jason wonder if Menace's father might have procrastinated too long. He hoped not. If the barn burned down tonight, he'd be out of a job in the morning.
Dorrie flicked her cigarette. "I don't know who she is. She's in room four, though."
"And she can stay there," Jason said, deciding this was not something he wanted to look into. "If she wants to say hello, she can stop by my place."
"Can I tell her that?" Dorrie asked, smirking.
"I don't think so." There was another flash of lightning, this time more distant, the thunder more muffled. The storm was moving fast, away from Otto. The barn would be safe after all. Jason would get a much needed paycheck.
Dorrie laughed. "You're never going to get laid if you don't ever hang around any women."
"Thanks for your concern about my sex life. Now stay out of it."
Jason eased his truck into gear, checking out room number 4 as he passed. A sweet silver sports car parked in the space in front of the door was the only vehicle he didn't recognize. It had to be hers.
So what was a woman who drove a high-priced sports car doing looking for him?
His gut tightened. Something about this just seemed wrong.
The morning in Otto was surprisingly crisp after the muggy evening, almost cold enough for a sweatshirt, but not quite. The tangy smell of sage hung heavily in the air, which had a dingy quality, like that of a smoggy city. Kira knew it came from a fire somewhere. It could be ten miles away or a hundred, depending on the air currents. After having several of their Idaho properties partially burned last year, her family had been hoping for a wetter summer, fewer lightning storms. It didn't appear as though they were going to get their wish.
Kira checked out of the motel on the off chance she wasn't coming back, dodged another prying question from the proprietress, then drove to Harry's Café for a surprisingly well-cooked breakfast.
And then, since Jason Ross didn't have a phoneor at least not one that was listed in the local directoryKira left town to ambush him.
Most of the land between Otto and Jason Ross's property was federal, consisting of open desert and grassland that ended abruptly at the base of the smoky-blue mountains. Kira may have spent most of her life in Ohio before joining the family company in Boise, but she loved the desert. Something about the vastness, the stillness, got to her. As did the soft pastel colors, so unlike the vivid greens and earth tones of the farming area where she was raised.
A half hour after leaving Otto, Kira found Jason Ross's drivewaybehind a big green stock gate, just as the waitress at Harry's had described. Kira fiddled with the stubborn latch for a moment before figuring it out. She opened the gate, drove through, closed it again. A person could get a lot of exercise in this county dealing with gates.
The driveway seemed to twist on forever, and the Audi was not happy with the washboards and deep dust. She pressed on, driving past stunted mountain mahogany trees and vigorous-looking sagebrush until she finally came to his place.
There wasn't much visible that wasn't related to animals or haying. Pole corrals with lean-tos and sheds, a barn and a hay roof. Big equipment Surprisingly, she couldn't see a house, just a stone foundation.
Neat stacks of lumber stood near it, with a small cement mixer and generator next to a pile of native stones he seemed to be using to rebuild the crumbling rockwork.
Kira spotted Jason in a corral as she pulled to a stop beside his dusty blue pickup truck. He was crouched next to a chestnut foal, talking as he rubbed the animal's neck. He didn't look up when she got out of the car, though he had to have heard her drive up. His attention was centered on the baby, allowing Kira to appraise him as she walked toward the pen.
He was a striking maneven more so in the light of day. Very dark hair, lean build. Excellent bones. His ball cap lay upside down on the ground beside him, making Kira wonder if the foal had knocked it off.
"Hi," she said as she approached the corral.
The foal jerked its head up at the sound of the unexpected human voice and began to dance in Jason's arms. He tightened his grip and waited for the baby to settle before glancing over his shoulder.
"Lend me a hand here, will you?" He didn't seem surprised to see her, which struck her as odd. Drop-in visitors couldn't be that common out here.
"Uh, okay." She looked for the entrance.
"Just climb over the fence. The gate's tied shut."
"Grab that first." He gestured with his head to a small cardboard box sitting near the gate.
Feeling awkward, Kira climbed the rails while carrying the box, which contained several loaded syringes and various ointment tubes. She swung her legs over the top of the fence and then dropped down on the other side, a small cloud of dust puffing up around her shoes as she landed. The foal jerked in Jason's grasp, half rearing. Again he waited for the animal to still, murmuring to it reassuringly.
It was then that Kira saw one of the baby's eyes was closed, stitched shut. Her stomach tightened.
"What happened?" she asked, fighting the impulse to look away. She'd never been good with injury, but she was damned good at hiding weakness. Sometimes it was a matter of survival in the professional world. Especially when her brother was involved.
"I don't know." He reached for a tube in the box. "His eye was injured when I got him. The vet stitched it up and now it's a wait-and-see game."
"Wait and see?"
"Whether he ends up blind in that eye. He's young, so he may not."
"And if he is?" Kira asked, fearing the foal would have to be put down.
"Then I'll have to take special care of him, won't I?" he said in a manner that made her feel ashamed for thinking he'd have the baby euthanized.
"How long do you have to wait?"
"The stitches come out in three days."
He squeezed ointment into the corner of the foal's injured eye, rubbing the area gently with his thumb before handing the tube back to Kira. "Give me the syringe with the blue top."
Kira took off the cap and handed it to him. He held the baby still as he squeezed a few drops out the tip of the needle before deftly inserting it into the foal's neck muscle. After depressing the plunger, he handed the syringe back, then took a few seconds to quiet the baby before releasing him. The foal cantered to the far side of the corral, then stopped to study the humans with his uninjured eye.
"How do you do this when you don't have help?" Kira asked as Jason picked up the box. The sun was rising ever higher in the sky and the breeze that wafted over them was growing hot. Kira pushed her hair behind one ear to get it off her face.
"Usually I have everything loaded in my pockets when it's doctoring time."
"This wasn't doctoring time?"
"Not till you showed up." His expression was closed now that he was no longer dealing with the foal and no longer needed her. "You've been asking about me."
"Someone told you?" she exclaimed, realizing now why he hadn't been in the least surprised to see her. The motel lady had ratted her out.
"You were seen driving out of town in my general direction."
She cocked her head. "Why would someone warn you about that?"
" She gestured at the old stone foundation. "It isn't as if you need to tidy up."