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The sudden sound of footsteps had Rosalinda Lightfoot turning to see Tyler Pickens stepping onto the porch. At least, she figured the tall, imposing figure of a man had to be the owner of the Pine Ridge Ranch. He certainly looked the part. Dressed in jeans and boots and a cream-colored shirt, she figured him to be somewhere in his thirties. Black hair was combed straight back from a darkly tanned face while the expression on his lean features was nothing but grim.
Quickly rising to her feet, Rosalinda placed her coffee on a table next to her lawn chair. As she extended her hand in greeting, she felt a shiver rush down her spine and her pulse leap into a rapid thud.
She spoke first. "Good morning, Mr. Pickens."
For one awkward moment she thought he was going to ignore her outstretched hand, but then he wrapped his big fingers tightly around hers and she was acutely aware of warm, abrasive skin and tempered strength.
"Deputy Lightfoot," he said. "I was expecting a man."
She met his gaze head-on and the coolness of his green eyes was like sliding across an icy pond that could break through at any given moment. Interviewing this man was definitely going to be a challenge, she thought. But being a deputy for the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department made it a part of her job.
"Sorry to disappoint you," she replied.
Releasing her hand, he gestured to the seat she'd just vacated. "Sit," he insisted.
While she followed his suggestion, he pulled up a matching chair and positioned it so that he was facing her.
As she furtively watched him settle back and cross his boots at the ankles, the relaxed language of his body surprised her. She'd expected to find a tense, rigid man ready to explode at any moment. Perhaps the rumors she'd heard about the man were exaggerated or wrong. Or maybe his moods were always changing. In any case, there was something about him that made it impossible for her to tear her gaze away. He'd not expected her to be a woman. Well, she'd certainly not expected him to look so tough and masculine.
Sharp cheekbones angled beneath his hooded eyes, while a thin, aquiline nose led down to a pair of rough-hewn lips. He was the epitome of man, sex and whipcord strength, and for the first time in a long, long time Rosalinda felt the woman in her staring with interest.
Sipping the coffee that Gib, the house servant, had kindly served her, she gave herself a mental shake. The lack of sleep last night must have left her punch-drunk. Normally, she never looked at a man the way she was looking at Tyler Pickens now.
Clearing her throat, she said, "I'll try to make this quick, Mr. Pickens. I understand you're busy dealing with the mess the fire left behind."
"Ah, yes," he said softly, "the fire. The reason for your little visit. I don't suppose you have any information on how it started."
"Not yet," she said briskly. Before she'd made the trek out here, Undersheriff Brady Donovan had briefed her on all he knew about Tyler Pickens. During that meeting she'd learned he was a single man and had been ever since he'd moved to this ranch over nine years ago. No one had heard or seen family visiting and the only friends he seemed to have were his ranch hands. And Laramie Jones, the foreman of the Chaparral Ranch and Tyler's neighbor to the south, had a somewhat amiable relationship with him.
He grimaced. "I should have known better than to ask that question. You probably wouldn't tell me even if you had a long list of suspects or motives."
"Probably not," she said, softening her reply with a faint smile. As best as she could gauge, last night's fire had stopped at the river, which was situated no more than three miles from the Pine Ridge ranch house. The brunt of the flames had spread mostly over the Chaparral Ranch, the Cantrells' land, blackening and scorching acres and acres of forest and meadowlands. Thankfully, Laramie Jones and his crew had saved the Chaparral livestock by working through the night to move the cattle as far away from the fire as possible. As for Tyler Pickens, he'd not reported any cattle dead or missing.
"So what do you expect to get out of me?" he asked. "I can't do your job for you."
Trying her best not to bristle at his cocky attitude, she purposely delayed answering as she took another leisurely sip of coffee. Maybe he didn't have friends or family around him because they found him too difficult to deal with, she thought. Or maybe the fire had left him in a testy state of mind.
"I'm glad you realize it's not your job to play lawman. Arson is a serious matter." Lowering her cup to her thigh, she noticed he was looking at her keenly now, as though seeing a woman with a weapon strapped to her hip was an oddity or completely distasteful to him. The idea had her lifting her chin and calling upon the confidence that Sheriff Hamilton had tried to instill in her. He'd often called her a good deputy. She had to believe the good sheriff. Moreover, she had to believe in herself.
His green eyes narrowed. "So the fire chief has ruled the incident as arson?"
"Accelerants were used." She wasn't going to elaborate on the evidence. To do so might compromise the case, especially when she didn't yet know whether this man was involved.
"That's hardly a surprise." Faint sarcasm tinged his words. "There wasn't a lightning strike within a hundred miles of here last night."
She wondered if anyone had ever tried to slap that smirk from his face. It certainly wouldn't be an easy feat to accomplish, she decided. The man was a picture of toughness.
"Other things can cause fires, Mr. Pickens. Like cigarettes, campfires, burning trash, welding sparksjust to name a few. Were any of your men working in the area yesterday where the fire started?"
His black brows formed a straight line across his forehead. "Why the hell are you questioning me about my men? The Cantrells are the ones you should be interrogating!"
His defensive attitude didn't surprise Rosalinda. From what she'd learned, this past year the adjoining Chaparral Ranch had been plagued with all sorts of problems. Some of which had spilled over onto the Pine Ridge Ranch. And Tyler Pickens hadn't been bashful about voicing his displeasure over the matter. But that could be a guise, she told herself. He could be pretending to be a victim when in actuality he was the instigator. But why would this man want to cause trouble for the Cantrells? And did he really seem the criminal type?
But Dale's ex-girlfriend never seemed like a psycho, she reminded herself. On the outside, Monique had resembled a shy, soft-spoken librarian with hardly the gumption to say boo to a mouse. But she'd been an obsessed woman with evil intent on her mind. She fooled the hell out of you and your boyfriend. You need to remember that appearances can lead you in a dangerous direction.
Shoving aside the cold little voice in her head, she said, "Deputy Harrigan is currently at the Chaparral Ranch interrogating folks there."
The subtle flare of his nostrils told her that he was struggling to keep a rein on his temper. But in all fairness, the man had every right to be aggravated. He'd had a portion of his land burned to a crisp and now he was being interrogated by the law. Under those conditions, no normal person would be in a happy mood.
A sneer lifted one corner of his lips. "So they sent you up here to dig into my ranch and my personal business."
Her backbone straightened to a rigid line. "I'm hoping that digging won't be necessary, Mr. Pickens. I expect you'll want to help in this investigation, to volunteer anything and everything that might help us discover who committed this devastating crime."
Long, tense seconds ticked by as his cool gaze slipped over her face, her khaki shirt, then on to the long line of her legs. In spite of the fact that many women were working in law enforcement these days, they were still sometimes subjected to nasty slurs and sexual insults. But the look in Tyler Pickens's eyes said he wasn't dismissing her as a deputy sheriff, he was seeing her as a woman. And that unsettled her far more than his brash attitude.
"How long have you worked for Sheriff Hamilton?" he asked.
This was her interview, not his. Still, she didn't want to make him so angry that he clammed up. Like it or not, she needed this man's cooperation.
"Long enough," she answered evasively. She wasn't about to tell him she'd only worked as a Lincoln County deputy for eight months. He'd think she was too inexperienced. He couldn't know that prior to becoming a deputy sheriff, she'd already worked a year and a half for the Ruidoso Police Department. And since becoming a deputy she and her partner had already busted a major theft ring, helped capture two fugitives and recovered stolen livestock.
His gaze settled on her left hand. "You have a family, Ms. Lightfoot?"
Why would he be asking her something that personal? she wondered. It was none of his business. "Deputy Light-foot," she corrected him. "And no. Do you?" she countered.
Even though his gaze slipped from hers, she could tell by the tight corners of his mouth that he didn't appreciate her question. Why? Was he estranged from his family?
"No," he answered. "Except for my cook, Gib Easton, I live here alone."
"Hmm. Must get lonely," she mused aloud. "Lonely enough to want to create a little excitement by setting a fire?"
His response was a deep, rich laugh that had Rosalinda staring at him in wonder. The dimples in his hollow cheeks, the gleam of white teeth against his dark skin was so endearing she found herself smiling along with him.
"You find that funny?" she finally asked.
"Very." Rising to his feet, he walked over to the edge of the concrete porch and with one hand made a sweeping gesture toward the mountain range to the right of them, the narrow valley directly below and in the far distance, the glint of a river winding its way southward. "All of this is mine, Deputy Lightfoot. I've worked hard to make it into the ranch it is today. I get excitement from watching a calf born or a foal running at its mother's side. Not from flames eating up my precious grazing land."
He made perfect sense. Draining the last of her coffee, she placed the cup and saucer aside and walked over to where Tyler Pickens stood next to an arched column of rock that supported the porch roof.
If she were to get really close to the man, she thought, the top of her head would do well to reach the middle of his chest. A fact that had nothing to do with the matter at hand, she quickly reminded herself, so why was she thinking it? After the long, nightmarish ordeal she'd been through with Dale, she'd not wanted to be close to a man again. Neither physically nor emotionally. But something about this rugged rancher was making her forget the heartache and fear that she'd endured.
Clearing her throat, she tried her best to focus on her job. "How long have you owned this ranch?" she asked, even though county records had already told her.
He glanced at her. "Nearly ten years."
Beyond the manicured lawn shaded by huge Ponderosa pines, the ground sloped away to a green valley floor, where the working ranch yard was located. From her angle, she could see a maze of barns, sheds and corrals. Cowboys on horseback were moving cattle from pen to pen, while others pitched hay and spread feed into mangers and troughs. Cows bawled and a horse's loud whinny was answered by its nearby pal. It was a beautiful June morning in southern New Mexico, the kind that could almost make a person forget that something bad had happened the night before.
Keeping her voice brisk, she said, "I understand you asked Quint Cantrell to sell a stretch of Chaparral land to you and he refused."
"That's right. A couple of years ago, I approached him about buying a piece of land that runs adjacent to my property. Most of it is grazing land, something I need more of. Neither he nor his grandfather wanted to part with it."
"Did that make you angry?"
He looked utterly bored. And perhaps he did consider her questions stupid, but to her it was legitimate.
"Disappointed, Deputy Lightfoot. Not angry. I'm still hoping that someday they'll have a change of heart. In the meantime, I don't want their land burned or any other mishap to happen to their ranch. I happen to like the family."
"But you are aware that the Chaparral Ranch has been experiencing some problems."
"That's a damned fool remark! You bet your ass I'm aware of it! I run purebred Herefords up here. I don't want any of their Angus bulls over here breeding my cows! I don't want my fences cut or my cattle straying off their home range! I'm sick of Cantrell problems turning into mine!"
His icy eyes were now spitting fire, making it clear to Rosalinda that he was a passionate man.
"I can appreciate that," she told him.
"Somehow I doubt that." As quickly as it flared, the anger disappeared from his face. "The Cantrells are an old, established family around here. They're known and loved by a lot of folks. I'm still considered a Texan, an interloper. Nobody gives a damn what happens on the the Pine Ridge Ranch."
She turned a thoughtful gaze toward the busy ranch yard. "Frankie Cantrell, Quint's mother, is from Texas. In fact, she's back there now visiting her older sons. Did you know that?"
"Is that question a part of your investigation?"
"No. Just my curiosity."
A disapproving groove appeared between his brows, and Rosalinda got the impression he wasn't used to having personal questions directed at him. And suddenly she was wondering about far more than his feelings toward the Cantrells or their adjoining land. This ranch was even more remote than the Chaparral and he'd already admitted that he lived here alone. Outside of raising cattle and horses, what did he do for companionship?