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"I need to see Mr. Barton at once. It's urgent."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you need an appointment."
"But I've come from Wyoming and I need to go back this evening. Please, can you just get me a few minutes?"
"What is your business in reference to?"
"I'm here about the ranch he thinks he's buying." That sentence got Jason Barton's attention. The door to his Denver architectural firm office stood open and he had heard the entire conversation between his secretary and the interloper. Normally he depended on Janice to deflect any unscheduled visitors, but in this case he hit the call button. "Janice, send the woman in."
He didn't think he was buying a ranch! He'd made a fifty thousand dollar down payment and was due to close the deal in two weeks. He watched the door, interested in seeing this person who thought differently.
A beautiful young woman appeared in the doorway, wearing a fashionable blue suit that displayed long legs and a trim figure. Her hair, auburn in color, was in some kind of fancy hairdo piled on her head. She exuded confidence as she entered his office.
"Mr. Barton?" Her voice was low, sexy.
He glared at her, refusing to be swayed by her appearance and tone. That had happened to him once before and the result had been devastating. "Yes?"
"I'm Rosemary Wilson. My father offered to sell our family ranch to you."
As if to dismiss her, Jason remained seated, not offering his hand. "Ms. Wilson, I suggest you talk to your father. I've made a down payment to buy the Bar G ranch and we're closing in two weeks."
To his surprise, her eyes filled with tears. What happened to the self-assured womanfrom a moment ago?
"I can't do that, Mr. Barton. My"my father died last week." He frowned, studying her face as she tried to regain composure. "I'm sorry for your loss, Ms. Wilson." He paused. Then he said, "But I'm afraid that doesn't cancel the contract."
The young woman lowered her eyes, no doubt struggling to regain her composure. Jason took the moment to appreciate her appearance, though he missed her big hazel eyes. He wouldn't be doing her bidding, but he wouldn't mind spending some time with her. Aside from the hour at the closing, of course.
Acting impulsively, which he rarely ever did, he said, "We could discuss the situation over dinner this evening."
She looked up at him and shook her head. "I have to get back to Wyoming this afternoon, but I could have lunch with you"if you're free."
Without responding to Ms. Wilson, he leaned forward and pressed the intercom. "Janice, get me a lunch reservation for two at the club."
He looked up at his visitor. "If you'll let me sign a couple of papers, I'll join you out by Janice's desk in five minutes."
He watched her walk out of his office and called himself every kind of fool. But he told himself he wasn't going to be taken in by another gold digger. He was just going to enjoy the company of a beautiful woman for a couple of hours. That was all this was.
And he certainly enjoyed entering the club with Ms. Rosemary Wilson on his arm a few minutes later. But once they were seated, she immediately began her plea.
"Mr. Barton, the ranch has been in my mother's family for four generations."
He held up a hand. "I think we should order first, Ms. Wilson, don't you?"
She nodded, sitting back in her chair.
After the waiter took their orders and disappeared, Jason turned to her. "Now you can make your case."
"But it won't matter, will it?" she suddenly asked. "You have no intention of giving in to me."
"Probably not." He wouldn't lie to her.
"Then why am I here?" she demanded, and pushed her chair back to leave.
"Because I got the impression that your family ranch mattered to you, and I'd hear you out in case it mattered to me."
She stared at him and gradually relaxed in her seat again. "Very well. As I said, the ranch has been in my mother's family for four generations and I had no idea my father had intentions of selling it. Please reconsider, Mr. Barton."
He didn't want to reconsider. He'd fallen in love with the ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, away from city life. Having been raised on a ranch, he treasured the idea of returning to that life one day. He could understand the pride in the tilt of her chin at keeping the same home for generations. Too bad his father had sold his family spread. He stared into her hazel eyes, seeing the determination there at war with the fear of losing the homestead, and he could feel his resolve wavering. He wasn't so far gone that he didn't realize how unlike him this was. Normally he was steel-willed, a visionary with the strength and fortitude to back it up. But there was something about Rosemary Wilson.
He wouldn't give up his mission of owning a ranch. He'd find another place that he liked just as much as the Bar G. And Rosemary could have her family inheritance.
Still, he couldn't help feeling he wanted to keep the transaction quiet. If his business competitors discovered how he wavered on this deal, there was no telling what they'd try to get over on him.
With a sigh, he said, "All right, Ms. Wilson. I'll let you keep the ranch. Just return my down payment."
Having met her demand, he was surprised to see an uneasiness on her face.
"Return your money." "You expect me to cancel the contract and take a fifty thousand dollar loss? I'm afraid I'm not in the business of losing money, Ms. Wilson."
"No, of course not. But if you'll give me one month, I believe I can return your money to you."
Before he could ask any questions, the waiter arrived with their lunch. He waited until the man walked away.
"How do you think you'll do that?"
"Apparently my father neglected a lot of things on the ranch, including roundups. My manager says there are a couple hundred head of cattle in the foothills. If we round up those cows and take them to market, I'd have enough to pay you back."
"That's all supposition, Ms. Wilson. I see no reason to give up the ranch based on such information."
"I understand that, Mr. Barton. But it's only a month, and I'm willing to make it worth your while."
He was interested. "If I'm unable to make back the fifty grand," she said, "then I'll reduce the sale price of the ranch by an additional fifty."
"You realize you're risking a hundred thousand dollars? On the possibility you'll manage to raise fifty."
"I'm not an idiot, Mr. Barton. I know what I'm offering and keeping the family ranch is well worth the risk."
She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. "Eat your lunch and let me think," he ordered, not bothering to coat his words with sweetness.
She picked up her fork, but she didn't actually eat anything.
He figured she was one of those women who ate a few lettuce leaves and claimed to be full.
His thoughts were interrupted when a woman stopped by the table to say hello. He recalled meeting the leggy redhead at one of the must-do business engagements he'd attended a few months ago. She effused and gushed all over him, batting her long lashes at him.
After several minutes, when he didn't ask her join them, she finally moved on.
Across from him Rosemary sat stiffly in her chair. "I'm sorry to be interrupting your social life, Mr. Barton."
Jason stared at her with jaded eyes. She didn't sound like she was sorry. And he wasn't sorry, either. He wanted nothing to do with any of the socialites in Denver.
"I should've thought to ask your wife to join us," she said, no doubt trying to make him feel guilty.
"Not necessary. This is a business lunch." He didn't bother to tell her he had no wife now. He certainly didn't want her to think she could flirt her way out of the contract. Or, he suddenly thought, had she done that already?
He felt a little guilty taking advantage of her by agreeing to her deal. But she'd made the offer. He hadn't demanded it. He found it hard to believe that this woman could manage a roundup and recover cattle from the rough foothills of the Rockies. She didn't look like she could even stay on a horse, much less find the cattle.
Of course, she might try to fool him and sell cattle that had been counted in the contract. That thought had him changing his initial response. "I'll agree to your offer on one condition."
"What?" she asked, hope lighting her face.
"I and my ranch manager will accompany you on the roundup. After all, I need to make sure you don't try to sell cattle I've already paid for."
The anger on her face surprised him. "How dare you accuse me of trying to cheat you!" She glared at him. Then, after rethinking her lesser position, she changed her mind. "Fine. I don't care who comes. But if you try to sabotage our efforts or even try to slow us down, I promise I'll sue you for all you're worth." She jumped up and hurried toward the door of the restaurant, then she must have thought of something else, because she whirled around. "Be at the ranch for the start of the roundup at 6:30 a.m. Monday. And if you're late, too bad. We won't be waiting for you."
He gave her a small smile. "I wouldn't miss it."
When Rosemary reached the ranch that evening, she tried for an upbeat air, knowing Wes, her ranch manager, and Sara Beth, his wife and longtime housekeeper for her father, would be waiting.
And she should be upbeat, she told herself. After all, Barton had agreed to her proposal.
But the man was coming with them, she reminded herself. She didn't look forward to having Jason Barton on the cattle drive. He made herâ€¦uncomfortable, and she'd need all her wits about her on the roundup.
"What did he say?" Sara Beth asked as soon as Rosemary came through the door.
Wes was standing there staring at her. She tried to smile, but she wasn't very successful.
"He"he agreed to my proposal."
"So why aren't you happy?" Wes asked.
"He insisted that he and his ranch manager come with us."
"That's not an unreasonable request, Rosie."
"I know, but"but he makes me nervous. And he accused me of trying to cheat him!"
"That's only because he doesn't know you, honey," Sara Beth said, putting an arm around her. Sara Beth had been the closest thing to a mother for Rosemary since Linda Wilson had died ten years ago when Rosemary was fifteen. "He seemed real nice when he was here looking at the ranch. And he's so handsome!"
"I guess." Rosemary had no intention of raving about Jason Barton's appearance, even though the man was tall, broadshouldered, with perfectly styled brown hair and the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. He was gorgeous, actually, and wealthy. But that didn't make him right. She was determined not to let his looks sway her, in spite of the unfamiliar feelings he aroused in her.
"So when did you tell him we'd start?" Wes asked.
"Three days from now. He's going to provide his own mounts and I told him not to be late. We're not waiting for him!"
"Now, Rosie, he's doing us a favor. Let's not make him an enemy." Wes turned to his wife. "Is dinner ready? I've got a lot of work to do for us to be ready by Monday."
"Yes. I'll just put it on the table.Are you ready to eat, Rosie?"
"Yes, I'll go change and then be back down." She ran upstairs, eager to put on comfortable clothes. Back in Cheyenne, she'd had to dress well as a publicist, but she no longer had that job. Now she was a ranch owner, she needed to feel the part. In her well-worn jeans and boots, she was able to think like a rancher. At least, that was what she believed, and now more than ever she had to give herself every advantage, real or imagined.
Over dinner, she and Wes discussed what they needed to do before the roundup began. Sara Beth added her opinion. She was not only an experienced cook, but she had occasionally gone on short cattle drives when she was younger.
Rosemary jotted lists, which was how she normally organized large projects at work. By the time Sara Beth finished the dishes, they had everything organized.
At least Rosemary hoped so. The roundup was too important. If she couldn't pull it off, she'd lose the only home she'd ever known. And she would know she'd failed her mother. Linda Wilson would've expected her to keep the ranch in the family. The Bar G was named after her mother's family, the Gables. They were long on hard work but short on sons to carry on the ranching tradition. That left it up to Rosemary.
As for her father, she wasn't sure she knew what he would've wanted. After all, he'd sold the ranch.
She asked herself over and over why her father hadn't at least discussed such a big decision with her. She'd come home for the weekend only a couple of weeks before his fatal heart attack.