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Esther Jackson sat on her front porch and watched with bemused irritation as a sheep devoured her flower garden. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but grass, a few huge old cottonwood trees, the distant mountains and the fence that should have kept that sheep on the other side, off her property.
The August wind blew steadily. Hot and dry, it seemed to be turning her skin to parchment. She ought to go in and put some cream on her face, but she couldn't make herself get out of the rocking chair. The sheep, trespasser though it was, was too amusing. Too irritating. Too out of place. It seemed to have a passion for marigolds and geraniums. Esther wondered in a detached sort of fashion whether it was going to get an upset stomach.
She supposed she ought to do somethingshoo it back beyond the fence perhaps, except that she couldn't see where it had managed to break through. Except that she'd never dealt with any animal other than dogs and cats in her life and she wasn't quite sure what to do. Did sheep bite?
The image of herself stumbling around on her gimpy leg trying to shoo a recalcitrant sheep out of her garden made her chuckle into her iced tea. The further thought of the sheep snarling back at her almost made her laugh out loud.
Of course, she shouldn't find this amusing at all. Planting those flowers had been expensive. But worse, it had been difficult labor for a woman who had to wear a brace on her leg. Not impossible, just difficult, and she really ought to be angry.
Except that she found herself enchanted. The sheep was just being a sheep, after all, and doing a sheep thing. Just then, looking up, she saw what was presumably the rest of the flock coming over a rise. Still firmly on their own side of the fence, they were slowly heading this way, bleating a little as if calling to their sister or brother. She had no way of knowing whether the animal in her garden was male or female, and she didn't propose to get close enough to find out.
The stray sheep lifted its head briefly, as if taking note of the calls of the flock, then resumed its placid dining.
Too, too much, Esther thought. She rather liked the little fellow's temperament. Easygoing.
More and more sheep were coming over the rise. There must be several hundred of them at least, she calculated. Funny, she'd lived here almost three years and had never realized her nearest neighbor was a sheep farmer. Or was it sheep rancher? She was hopelessly lost when it came to such things, having been a city girl until she relocated to Conard County, Wyoming.
But while she might not understand much about what people did hereabouts to earn their living, she loved her new home. She liked the wide-open spaces, and the purple range of mountains to her west, and that silly sheep that was dining on her geraniums. It was a sight she never would have seen in Seattle.
A whine and a jingle of chain from behind her drew her attention. Her shorthaired Saint Bernard, Guinevere, was at the door, begging to be let out.
"Absolutely not," Esther told her. "You'll just chase that poor sheep and ruin its digestion."
Guinevere looked offended.
"All right, maybe you wouldn't chase it, but what if it chases you?"
Although, upon reflection, she didn't think that was too likely. Sheep weren't rumored to be very aggressive, at least not that she'd heard. But what did she know? Maybe Wyoming sheep were fierce.
The tinkle of a bell reached her on the ceaseless wind. She looked up again to see that the flock of sheep had come closer. Herding them was an animal that looked like a gigantic string mop with feet. Another sheep? But no, it didn't have the neat curly coat of the sheep, but rather long thick strings of off-white fur that honestly did look like a cotton string mop.
And it barked. When it woofed the sheep obeyed, heading away from the dog, she guessed. It had to be a dog. It was nearly as big as the sheep it was guarding, probably as big as Guinevere. She wondered what breed it was.
Guinevere whined again, and chuffed quietly. She wasn't ordinarily a difficult or noisy dog, but the presence of a sheep in her front yard was exciting her. Or perhaps it was the scent of that strange dog which was approaching.
"I hope you have better taste than that, Guinevere," Esther said to her dog. "That animal looks positively scruffy."
Guinevere barked loudly. The sheep looked up from a marigold blossom as if trying to determine what the bark meant. The sheepdogor whatever it wasjust totally ignored it. Moments later, the woolly invader returned to grazing. Guinevere whined impatiently.
"Sorry, girl, but I'm not going to let you argue with scruffy strangers or strange animals. I have no idea how violent a sheep might get. Maybe it's a qualified kickboxer. You never know with strangers. Those hooves might well be lethal weapons."
Guinevere didn't seem particularly impressed with her mistress's reasoning, but Esther had already forgotten her dog. In fact, she'd already forgotten the sheep on her front lawn and her rapidly diminishing garden.
Because behind the flock of sheep came a man on horseback. With the bright sun behind him, she couldn't tell much except that he looked big and powerful on the back of an equally big and powerful horse. It was an image straight out of a western, the tall rider silhouetted against the brilliant sky.
And just that suddenly, the tranquillity of the day was shattered. Not that anything happened, but she couldn't remain relaxed and amused when a strange man was approaching. When any man was approaching.
Instead, the sour taste of fear filled her mouth, and she was suddenly painfully aware that there was not another soul for miles in any direction. Just this strange cowboy and his flock of sheep.
God, it was terrible to feel so vulnerable. And so ridiculous. That cowboy had no interest in her whatever. He would come to collect his sheep and then go.
But never had she been so aware of her isolation.
Guinevere whined again. Esther considered letting her outGuin was very protective of herbut decided against it.
The cowboy spied the sheep in her yard and spurred his horse, riding to the head of the flock and coming to a halt on the far side of the fence. The fence was fifty yards from where she sat, so she shouldn't have felt threatened. She did anyway. Her hands tightened around the arms of her wooden rocker and every muscle in her body seemed to tense.
"Howdy," he called, and touched a finger to the brim of his hat. "Mind if I come get my stray?"
"No. No, certainly I don't mind." Even if her mouth was dry and her heart was hammering. She tried to scold herself for overreacting, but for some reason the bracing words didn't help. She was a woman alone, and she'd been taught at a very early age what a man could do to her.
He dismounted, tethered his horse to one of the fence posts, and climbed carefully through the barbed wire. The dog that looked like a mop was still patiently herding the sheep down the hillside. Other than to make sure the dog knew which direction to move the sheep, there didn't seem to be any need for the rider.
He crossed the hard ground toward her, moving with a surprisingly easy stride. Esther caught herself staring, her artist's eye picking out details almost hungrily. He wore a navy blue western shirt and denim vest, and blue jeans that were more faded in the knees and seat than elsewhere. Jeans that had seen as much hard work as his boots.
But she couldn't avoid looking at his face. She tried, of course, noting other details such as the fact that his shirt snapped rather than buttoned, and that his hair, black as coal, was long, falling below his shoulders. But finally she met his gaze, finding eyes as black as midnight.
She caught her breath and for one insane moment the world seemed to stop in its course as she tumbled headlong into dark pools. But almost as soon as the impression hit her, it was gone, drifting away on the dry, hot breeze.
"Hell," said the cowboy as he reached the edge of her small lawn and garden. "Cromwell, what the heck do you think you're doing eating the lady's flowers?"
The sheep, recognizing the voice, deigned to look at him a moment before tugging another geranium blossom off the nearest plant.
"You should have shooed her away," the man told Esther.
"Well, that's a matter of opinion," she replied, hoping she didn't sound as nervous as she felt. "I have no idea how a sheep would react if I were to try to prevent it from dining."
The cowboy cocked his head a little, looking at her as if she were some kind of surprising puzzle that had just been dropped into his lap. "Cromwell wouldn't hurt a fly."
"You name your sheep?"
"Some of 'em. There's too damn many to name 'em all."
"So I should have thought." The flock must number several hundred. The thought of naming them all made her head whirl. "Why Cromwell? That's really not a girl's name, is it?"
"No, but Cromwell isn't your ordinary ewe."
"Apparently not." Relaxing a little as the cowboy didn't come any closer than the sheep, Esther began to enjoy herself again. "I've been worrying that she might become ill from eating my garden. Do you have any idea if geraniums and marigolds will make her sick?"
He shrugged, spreading his leather gloved hands.
"Flowers aren't exactly on her regular dietexcept for wildflowers maybe. I guess we'll just have to see."
"I suppose." He must be American Indian, she thought, judging by the inky blackness of his hair and the coppery tone to his skin. She found herself wishing she could paint him. It would be such a challenge to capture his skin tone in watercolor.
She must have been staring too intently because he shifted uncomfortably and looked away for just an instant.
"I'm Craig Nighthawk, by the way. I own the spread next to yours." He indicated the land behind him with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder.
"I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Esther Jackson."
"Well, Miss Jackson, I'm real sorry about your flower beds. I'll get Cromwell out of here and replace all the plants she ate."
"Oh, that won't be necessary, Mr. Nighthawk. It's getting late in the summer and I'm sure a frost would have killed them before much longer anyway."
Esther hesitated, feeling rude for sitting in her rocker and not budging even a little to shake his hand or offer him a drink. But there was her limp, her terrible limp, and as long as she stayed seated, her long denim skirt covered the brace on her leg completely. When she stood, long though her skirt was, the brace would become visible, and for some reason she didn't want him to see it. Of course, she didn't want most people to see it, but she'd long since become accustomed to the fact that there was really no way to avoid it.
But she just kept sitting there, rocking, giving him what must certainly appear to be a vapid smile, not even offering him a glass of cold water.
"I'll replace the flowers, ma'am."
"That really won't be necessary, Mr. Nighthawk."
He looked at her for a long moment, as if he were pondering her behavior, then he turned and swatted the sheep on the rump. "Come on, Cromwell. Enough is enough."
The sheep looked at him, then returned to nibble another geranium. Guinevere woofed softly from the door.
"Nice dog," Nighthawk remarked. "Saint Bernard?"
"Yes." Which reminded her. "Your dog is it a dog?"
A slow smile creased his face, softening an expression that had been as unyielding as stone. "He's a dog, all right. A komondor."
"He looks like a string mop."
His smile widened another notch. "I call him Mop."
At that Esther chuckled. "How apropos. Now what about Cromwell?"
"I call her Cromwell after Oliver Cromwell because she's always bothering the neighbors."
Esther laughed outright, and her opinion of this man underwent a great shift. He might well be a cowboy who talked plain and herded sheep, but he was clearly well-read. And she rather liked his sense of humor. At that moment she decided to get up, brace or no brace, and offer him a drink.
"Would you like a glass of water, Mr. Nighthawk? Or some iced tea?"
He looked surprised again, and Esther found herself wondering if this man was unused to common civility from his neighborsand if so, why.
"That's kind of you," he said, giving her a crooked smile. "A glass of cold water would be great."
For an instant she feared her body was going to refuse to obey her, but after the briefest hesitation, her muscles resumed functioning. She rose, feeling the exact instant his eyes spied the brace visible beneath her skirt. There was a buzzing sound in her ears, and she felt her cheeks heat painfully as she turned and limped toward the door.
There was absolutely no reason to feel humiliated, and so she had been telling herself for years. So therapists had told her on countless occasions. She hadn't done anything wrong. She wasn't wearing the mark of Cain, just a brace.
But somewhere deep in her soul she felt defective and undeserving, and each time someone saw her limp and her brace, she felt exposed, embarrassed. The whole world could see she wasn't normal. That she was imperfect.
Nonetheless, feeling Craig Nighthawk's eyes on her like a burning brand, she made it to the door. Guinevere, seeing that Esther was coming inside, backed away to make room for her.
Once inside the comparative coolness of the shadowy house, Esther released a long breath and relaxed. It was silly to feel this way, she scolded herself. She'd been limping for the better part of twenty years, and she really ought to have gotten used to it by now.
But she hadn't. She loathed the looks of pity that came her way, and she hated the inevitable questions. Out here in the middle of nowhere she'd finally found a comfortable hideaway. The only people she dealt with regularlythe sheriff's department, for whom she worked as a freelance artist, and the few stores she frequentedhad all grown used to her disability. But instead of making her more comfortable with her condition, it only seemed to have heightened her sensitivity. Apparently what few calluses she'd been able to build had vanished.
But it was always worse when she came under the scrutiny of one of life's rare perfect physical specimens. The man standing in her garden appeared to be as close to physically perfect as most mortals ever get.