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When Sam Gordon idly glanced over the crowd at the annual Hacket barbecue, a head of straight auburn hair caught his attention. It could be only one person. Lila Hacket's silky hair was a unique color, a deep auburn shot through with red strands as natural as the rest of Lila. She was back in town and his pulse jumped over the prospect. Had she come home for the barbecue? Memories of Lila heated Sam's insides while the horse conversation faded, replaced by memories of holding Lila's warm, naked body against his.
The ranchers around him laughed over something Beau Hacket said, so Sam smiled, trying to pick up again on the conversation. Beau proudly pointed out his latest acquisition, a three-year-old sorrel, to the Texas Cattleman's Club members gathered beside the corral.
Standing with her back to him, Lila chatted with another group of guests. She was taller than several women around her. She wore a turquoise sundress that had narrow straps and a top that came down over her hips, hiding her tiny waist. Her feet were in high-heeled sandals and she looked luscious. Certain he would talk to her before the evening was over, Sam attempted once more to focus on those around him. Local cattle rancher Dave Firestone and gray-haired energy magnate Paul Windsor quizzed Josh, Sam's twin, on horses. Josh loved horses, one more thing Sam didn't share with his twin.
"Beau, did you get that horse around here?" Chance McDaniel asked.
"No. I drove to a sale in Cody, Wyoming. But that isn't the kind of horse you need on your dude ranch."
"My place is a working ranch, too, and I'd like to have another cutting horse," Chance replied, his green-eyed gaze roaming over the horses.
"Chance, you need some horses like the little mare I have for Cade. Something gentle even a four-year-old can ride," Gil Addison, another local rancher, added.
Sam was not involved with horses but most of the men in his circle were horsemen one way or another, from Ryan Grant, now retired from the rodeo circuit, to rancher Dave Firestone. All belonged to Royal's elite Texas Cattleman's Club and Sam saw them often enough that he didn't mind breaking away from the group.
"Y'all excuse me," Sam said. "I'll be back." He strolled away in an easy stride that belied the anticipation bubbling in him. When Lila had not returned his call the morning after their one-nighter, he had let it go. There were other women in his life. That had been three months agothree months in which he couldn't shake her out of his thoughts.
Why was she back in town? Laughing, she moved away from the people standing around her. Determined not to lose her, Sam walked a little faster through the crowd.
It took only another minute to catch up. "Lila, welcome back."
When she turned, there was an almost imperceptible flicker in the depth of her crystal-green eyes. "Sam," she said. In spite of her smile, there was no warmth in her voice. "I hope you're enjoying the party," she said, sounding as if they were polite strangers and had never shared a night together. This was not a reaction he usually had with women.
"This is a great party, as usual. Better now that you're here. Did you come home for the barbecue?"
"No, as a matter of fact. I'm in town to set up for a movie that'll be filming on ranches here at the end of the month," she said. "It's nice to see you again. Enjoy yourself at the party." She turned slightly to greet her longtime friend Shannon Fentress, still thinking of her as Shannon Morrison, instead of Mrs. Rory Fentress since her recent marriage.
"Hi, Shannon. Just welcoming Lila back to town," he said.
"It's the first of August, just in time for her family's big annual partywho would miss this? I think all of Royal is here," Shannon said. "Lila, that barbecue is the most tempting smell ever. Too bad they can't bottle and sell it like perfume."
Lila laughed. "C'mon. We have a new chef. You can meet him. 'Course, my dad is going to supervise. Excuse us, Sam," she said sweetly, motioning to Shannon to follow her.
Sam watched them walk away, his gaze raking over Lila's back. Her cool reception had been a first for him. He didn't get that reaction from women. He frowned as he watched the slight flare of her hips, the sexy swing to her walk. As he studied her, he wanted to go out with her.
He shook his head and turned to go get a cold beer. Lila didn't take after her dad. She didn't even seem much like her mother, who was friendly, always happy to stay in her husband's shadow, to be the wife in the background. In her own quiet way, Barbara Hacket kept Beau happy, entertained constantly and had charity projects without ever showing the streak of independence Lila didthat need to get away from Royal, to have a fancy job. Lila and her brother, Hack, were light-years apart.
As if his thinking about Hack had conjured him, Sam greeted her brother as he approached. "Great party, as always, Hack."
"Dad knows how to have a barbecue. Saw you talking to my snooty sister," Hack said.
"Snooty is okay. At least your sister's kind of snooty is. It may not run deep," Sam replied, still watching Lila as she disappeared into the house with Shannon.
"Like a challenge, huh?" Hack said, rocking on his heels and hooking his thumbs over his hand-tooled belt. "Guess you're right. Chicks are easy. Sometimes it's sweeter when there's a challenge because most chicks are so eager they're boring."
Lost in thought about Lila, Sam barely heard Hack.
"My hotshot sister is home from L.A., where she thinks she's setting the world on fire with her highfalutin movie job," Hack continued. "She's living alone out thereor so she saysprobably because no one will live with Miss Snooty. It gives me more money from the old man. My sister can just stay in California. It's a good place for her. Royal, on the other hand, does have the hot chicks. Think so, Sam?"
"There are fine people in Royal, Texas," Sam said, his thoughts still only partially on Hack.
"Speakin' of hot chicks, I see Anna June Wilson. If you'll excuse me," Hack said, walking away.
Sam took a deep breath, glad Hack had moved on. At seventeen, the kid was spoiled rotten by Beau. Sam had seen Hack around his dad. The kid was smart enough to keep on Beau's good side most of the time. The rest of the time, Beau bailed him out of trouble.
Sam raked his fingers through his hair and strode to the outdoor bar on the large patio. After Lila had returned to California, he'd called her. When she hadn't taken his calls, he had stopped phoning. Was she cool because he hadn't continued to pursue her? He should forget Lila Hacket. Trouble was, he hadn't been able to forget Lila.
"Dammit," he said under his breath.
"Sam Gordon, what are you doing standing by yourself?"
"Just looking for you, darlin'," he said, smiling at Sally Dee Caine, the perfect antidote for Lila. Known by every male in Maverick County, Sally Dee was fun and Sam enjoyed her in small doses. He took in her bright pink, low-cut, clinging jersey blouse and tight faded jeans. "You look good enough, Sally Dee, to make me forget about the enticing barbecue that's cooking. I might find what I want right here," he said, nuzzling her neck. Giggling, she wrapped her arm in his.
"Sam, you're usually a partying fool. C'mon, the fiddler's wound up and there's a barn filled with two-steppers dancing the time away."
"I thought you'd never ask," he said, grinning as he draped his arm across her shoulders and pulled her close against his side. While she slipped her arm around his waist, they headed toward the Hackets' big brown barn.
"Sorry if I interrupted you if you wanted to stay and talk to Sam," Shannon said as she walked beside Lila.
"No, you rescued me. I know you don't care to meet the barbecue cook. Let's head for the dining room. We can get some of Agnes's artichoke dip."
"Your parents' cook is the best in Maverick County."
"She's good, but we have a lot of good cooks around here. Also, I saw her carrying a tray of gorgeous fruit into the dining room."
"Yum. I won't argue that one. It's great to have you home. As usual, your family's barbecue is fabulous. Each year, this barbecue seems to be bigger than the year before."
"I think it is bigger. Nearly all the Texas Cattleman's Club members are here. There's an undercurrent this year, though. I hear people talking about Alex Santiago's disappearance. That mystery has some on edge."
"No one knows what happened to him and they're keeping publicity about it to a minimum, I think. Or maybe they just really don't know anything. It's odd and it's scary. No one, much less a member of the Texas Cattleman's Club, just disappears."
"Alex Santiago did."
Shannon shivered. "I hope they find him soon. I understand that he's a wealthy investorwho knows what he's involved in? What about you? You said you're on vacation for two weeks?"
"Yes. I have to be here in two weeks anyway because the studio will be shooting a picture in the area. I took two weeks off beforehand. I'm working a little, trying to select locations, but I'm taking some private time for myself."
"Your work sounds like a dream job."
"Sometimes it is. It can get hectic, but I'm learning and I like what I do."
"You have two weeks' vacation." Shannon's blue eyes focused on Lila. "Why don't you think about squeezing a little time to help plan the new child center at the Texas Cattleman's Club? We could use your professional opinion. The construction company is renovating the place, but they want the women's input about the decor and what we'd like to have for the children."
Lila laughed. "My dad would explode. You can't imaginewell, yes, you can imaginehow he feels about a child center. It almost did him in when women were voted into the club, Shannon," Lila said with a big grin.
Shannon laughed. "I love being a member of the club. I still can't get used to women, including me, belonging to the exclusive male bastion, the sacrosanct male domain for over one hundred years, the exclusive Texas Cattleman's Club." She laughed again with Lila. "I better not speak loudlyall the members are here tonight.
"I know it irritates your dad and some of the others," Shannon continued. "Your dad and a lot of the older members, but some young ones, too. The Gordon twins. Your brother has made snippy remarks."
"I told you years ago to tune Hack out. Dad spoils him until it's pitiful. I'm afraid Hack is going to turn out as narrow-minded as Dad. If you weren't such a good friend, I think Hack would make worse remarks to you. He can get really crude."
Shannon shrugged. "I do tune out your brother and the remarks are more than just snippy. He isn't going to like the child center. Doesn't matter. The construction company has already started renovation."
"Lila, you're perfect for the job because you're a production set designer. C'mon. Help us while you have some time."
Thinking over the request, Lila looked into Shannon's bright blue eyes beneath short, sassy blond hair. Lila had come home to rest, to talk confidentially with her mother, not to take on another job. If she accepted, though, it might keep her mind off her problems and it would be an interesting project. She would be with Shannon, a hard worker who was always fun. "You know, I'd enjoy collaborating with you and the idea is exciting. Besides, sometimes I like to shake up my dad. I'll do it, but if it gets to be too much, Shannon, I'm out."
"Fantastic and fair enough. I don't want you to participate if it's too much, but it won't be. I'd like your input."
"That sounds easy."
"It should be fun to do. Any chance you can meet me at the club Monday morning?"
"Sure. My schedule is open. As long as it's not early Monday morning."
"No, we won't meet early, because I have my ranch chores," Shannon said as they walked down a wide hall into the big dining room that had a table holding silver trays and crystal dishes of hors d'oeuvres.
"Hi, Amanda, Nathan," Lila said while Shannon echoed her greeting to the couple, who stood holding hands and had been gazing at each other until they were interrupted. Amanda and Nathan Battle, Royal's sheriff, turned to look at them. Lila felt an invisible punch in her middle when she saw them holding hands, clearly in love.
"The newlyweds," Lila said, smiling at them. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," they said in unison, then looked at each other and laughed.
"We were just taking a moment away from the crowd to talk. The party is fantastic, Lila. Your folks know how to throw a party," Amanda said. Amanda's glow and obvious joy continued to give Lila a pang. What would it be like to be deeply in love, to have it returned? From the way Amanda looked, it seemed it would be bliss.
"We'll head out to get some barbecue," Nathan said.
"Don't go on our account," Lila told him. "We're here for some artichoke dip and then we're going outside to eat."
"Eat all you want," Nathan said, smiling and wrapping his arm around Amanda's waist as they left.
"They're so much in love I doubt if either one of them knows what was just said or even who was in here. Now, I think we were talking about getting together at the TCC Monday," Lila said.
"We were. Actually, the later the better for me. How about lunch? While we eat, I can bring you up to speed on what we plan. After lunch we can go look at the location. It's the old billiard room."
"That will be good. Lunch will be the best time for me," Lila said, crossing to the sideboard to pick up a plate and napkin.
"At three on Monday, there is a TCC meeting and I plan to attend, but you and I will be finished by then," Shannon said.
"I'll bet my dad is suffering over the thought of turning the billiard room into a child-care center." Lila laughed and Shannon joined her.
"It's time to shake them up a little," Shannon said. "Besides, they'll get a new billiard room. That renovation will be next."
"Shannon, do the Gordons have the construction contract?" Lila asked, realizing for the first time that she might see a lot of Sam.
"As a matter of fact, no, they don't."
"Why not? I'd think they would have been awarded the contract without any conversation about it," Lila said.
"I wondered about that, too. I was told they bowed out because of a 'conflict of interest,' but frankly, in my opinion, they wanted to avoid it because they hate to see the center become a reality."
"Could be. The Gordon brothers are as old-fashioned as my dad."
"Maybe they're that way because they lost their mother when they were so young. Perhaps their dad just settled into a chauvinistic manner toward women."
"Probably. Even with a mom, my dad's influence, unfortunately, is stronger on Hack than my mom's."