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Sheriff Jed Jackson eased down on the brake and slid one arm across to stop his deputy sliding off the front seat.
'Well,' he muttered to the grizzly bear of a dog who cocked an ear in response, 'there's something you don't see every day.'
A sea of loose steer spilled across the long, empty road out to the Double Bar C, their number swollen fence-to-fence to seal off the single lane accessway, all standing staring at one another, waiting for someone else to take the lead. That wasn't the unusual part; loose cattle were common in these parts.
He squinted out his windscreen. 'What do you reckon she's doing?'
Adrift right in the middle of the massing herd, standing out white in a sea of brown hide, was a luxury sedan, and on its roofstanding out blue in a sea of white lacquerwas a lone female.
Jed's mouth twitched. Ten-fifty-fours weren't usually this entertaining, or this sizeable. This road didn't see much traffic, especially not with the Calhouns away, but a herd of cattle really couldn't spend the night here. His eyes lifted again to the damsel in distress, still standing high and dry with her back to him, waving her hands shouting uselessly at the cattle.
And clearly she couldn't.
He radioed dispatch and asked them to advise the Calhoun ranch of a fence breach, then he eased his foot off the brake and edged closer to the comical scene. The steer that weren't staring at one another looked up at the woman expectantly.
He pulled on the handbrake. 'Stay.'
Deputy looked disappointed but slouched back into the passenger seat, his enormous tongue lolling. Jed slid his hat on and slipped out the SUV's door, leaving it gaping. The steer didn't even blink at his arrival they were so fixated on the woman perched high above them.
Not entirely without reason.
That was a mighty fine pair of legs tucked into tight denim and spread into a sturdy A-shape. Not baggy denim, not the loose, hanging-lowenough-to-trip-on, did-someone-outlaw-belts, de-feminising denim.
Fitted, faded, snug. As God intended jeans to be.
Down at ground level, the length of her legs and the peach of a rear topping them wouldn't have been all that gratuitous but, from his steer-eye view, her short blouse didn't do much to offset, either.
The moaning of the cattle had done a good job disguising his arrival but it was time to come clean. He pushed his hat back with a finger to the rim and raised his voice.
'Ma'am, you realise it's a state offence to hold a public assembly without a permit?'
She spun so fast she almost went over, but she steadied herself on bare feet, and then lifted her chin with grace.
Whoa. She was
His synapses forgot how they worked as he stared and he had to will them to resume sending the signals his body needed to keep breathing. He'd never been so grateful for his county-issue sunglasses in his life; without them she'd see his eyes as round and glazed as the hypnotised steer.
'I hope there's a siege happening somewhere!' she called, sliding her hands up onto her middle. Her righteousness didn't make her any less attractive. Those little clenched fists only accentuated the oblique angle where her waist became her hips. Her continuing complaint drew his eyes back up to the perfectly even teeth she flashed as she growled at him with her non-Texan vowels.
'Because I've been on this rooftop for two hours. The cows have nearly trebled since i called for help.' Cows. Definitely a tourist.
Guess an hour was a long time when you were stuck on a roof. Jed kept it light to give his thumping pulse time to settle and to give her temper nowhere to go. 'You're about the most interest these steer have had all day,' he said, keeping his voice easy, moving cautiously between the first two lumbering animals.
He leaned back against the cattle as hard as they leaned into him, slapping the occasional rump and cracking a whistle through his curled tongue. They made way enough for him to get through, but only just. 'What are you doing up there?'
Her perfectly manicured eyebrows shot up. 'I assume that's a rhetorical question?'
A tiny part of him died somewhere. Beautiful and sharp. Damn.
He chose his words carefully and worked hard not to smile. 'How did you come to be up there?'
'I stopped for ' Her unlined brow creased just slightly. 'There were about a dozen of them, coming out in front of me.'
He nudged the nearest steer with his hip and then shoved into it harder until it shuffled to its right. Then he stepped into the breach and was that much closer to the stranded tourist.
She followed his progress from on high. It kind of suited her.
'I got out to shoo them away.'
'Why not just nudge through them with your vehicle?'
'Because it's a rental. And because I didn't want to hurt them, just move them.'
Beautiful, sharp, but kind-hearted. His smile threatened again. 'So how did you end up on the roof?' He barely needed to even raise his voice now; he was that close to her car. Even the mob had stopped its keening to listen to the conversation.
'They closed in behind me. I couldn't get back round to my door. And then more came and I.. just '
Clambered up onto the hood and then the roof? Something caught his eye as he reached the front corner of the vehicle. He bent quickly and retrieved them. 'These yours?'
The dainty heels hung from one of his crooked fingers.
'Are they ruined? I kicked them off when I climbed up.'
'Hard to know, ma'am.'
Her disappointment seemed genuine. 'Expensive?'
She waved away that concern. 'They were my lucky Louboutins.'
Get lucky more like it. He did his best not to imagine them on the end of those forever legs. 'Not so lucky for them.'
He edged along the side of the car to pass the shoes up to her and she folded herself down easily to retrieve them.
She stayed squatted. 'So now what?'
'I suggest you get comfortable, ma'am. I'll start moving the steer back towards the fence.'
She glanced around them and frowned. 'They don't look so fierce from up here. I swear they were more aggressive before.'
'Maybe they smelled your fear?'
She studied him, curiosity at the front of her big blue-green eyes, trying to decide whether he was serious. 'Are you going to move them yourself?'
'I'll have Deputy help me until the men from the Double Bar C arrive.'
That got her attention. 'These are Calhoun cows?'
She pressed her lips together at his correction. 'That's where I was coming from. Calling on Jessica Calhoun. But she was out.'
He paused in his attempts at shoving through the steer and frowned. 'Jess expecting you?'
'What are you, their butler?'
Again with the sass. It wasn't her best feature, but it did excite his blood just a hint. Weird how your body could hate something and want it all at the same time. Maybe that was a carryover from his years in the city. 'I just figured I'd save you some time. Jess is more than out, she's on her honeymoon.'
That took the wind from her sails. She sagged, visibly.
'Sorry.' He shrugged and then couldn't help himself. He muttered before starting up on the steer-shoving again, 'Would you like to leave your card?'
She sighed. 'Okay, I'm sorry for the butler crack. You're a police officerI guess it's your job to know everyone's business, technically speaking.'
A pat with one hand and a slap on the way back through. With no small amount of pleasure in enlightening her, he pointed at his shoulder. 'See these stars? That makes me county sheriff. Technically speaking.'
She blew at the loose strand of blond hair curling down in front of her left eye and carefully tucked it back into the tight braid hiding the rest of it from him. Working out whether to risk more sarcasm, perhaps?
She settled on disdain.
Good call. Women in cattle-infested waters
'Well, Sheriff, if your deputy could rouse himself to the task at hand maybe we can all get on with our day.'
That probably qualified as a peace offering where she came from.
He lifted his head and called loudly, 'Deputy!'
One hundred and twenty pounds of pure hair and loyalty bounded out of his service vehicle and lumbered towards them. The cattle paid immediate attention and, as a body, began to stir.
'Settle,' he murmured. Deputy slowed and sat.
She spun back to look at him. 'That's your deputy?'
She stared. 'Because this is Texas?'
'Because it's his name. Deputy Dawg. It would be disrespectful to call him anything else.' 'And he's trained to herd cows?'
He hid his laugh in the grunt of pushing past yet another stubborn steer. 'Not really, but from where I'm standing beggars can't be choosers' he made himself add some courtesy 'ma'am.'
She squatted onto her bottom and slid her feet down the back windscreen of the car. They easily made the trunk.
'You have a point,' she grudgingly agreed, then gestured to a particular spot in the fence hidden to him by the wall of steer. 'The hole's over there.'
But her concession wasn't an apology and it wasn't particularly gracious.
Just like that, he was thinking of New York again. And that sucked the humour plain out of him.
'Thank you,' he said, then turned and whistled for Deputy.