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From a platform twenty feet in the air, Naomi Perkins focused her binoculars on a pair of fuzzy heads sticking out of a gigantic nest across the clearing. Those baby eagles sure had the cuteness factor going on. If they lived to adulthood, they'd grow into majestic birds of prey, but at this stage they were achingly vulnerable.
Blake Scranton, the university professor who'd hired her to study the nestlings, was an infirm old guy who was writing a paper on Jackson Hole bald-eagle nesting behavior. He expected her firsthand observations to be the centerpiece of his paper, which would bring more attention to the eagle population in the area and should also give a boost to ecotourism.
Lowering her binoculars, she crouched down to check the battery reading of the webcam mounted on the observation-platform railing. Still plenty of juice.
As she glanced up, a movement caught her eye. A rider had appeared at the edge of the clearing.
In the week she'd spent monitoring this nest on the far boundary of the Last Chance Ranch, she'd seen plenty of four-legged animals, but none of the two-legged variety until now. Standing, she trained her binoculars on the rider and adjusted the focus. Then she sucked in a breath of pure feminine appreciation. A superhot cowboy was headed in her direction.
She didn't recognize him. He wasn't one of the Chance brothers or any of their longtime ranch hands. Her eight-by-eight platform, tucked firmly into the branches of a tall pine, allowed her to watch him unobserved.
If he looked up, he might notice the platform even though it was semicamouflaged. But he was too far away to see her. Her tan shirt and khaki shorts would blend into the shadows.
Still, she'd be less visible if she sat down. Easing slowly to the deck, she propped her elbows on the two-foot railing designed to keep her from falling off. Then she refocused her binoculars and began a top-to-bottom inventory.
He wore his hair, which was mostly covered by his hat, on the longish side. From here it looked dark but not quite black. She liked the retro effect of collar-length hair, which hinted at the possibility that the guy was a little less civilized than your average male.
The brim of his hat blocked her view of his eyes. She decided to think of them as brown, because she had a preference for dark-haired men with brown eyes.
He had a strong jaw and a mouth bracketed by smile lines. So maybe he had a sense of humor.
Moving on, she took note of broad shoulders that gave him a solid, commanding presence. He sat tall in the saddle but without any tension, as if he took a relaxed approach to life.
Thanking the German makers of her binoculars for their precision, she gazed at the steady rise and fall of his powerful chest. He'd left a couple of snaps undone in deference to the heat, and that was enough to reveal a soft swirl of dark chest hair. Vaguely she realized she'd crossed the line from observing to ogling, but no one would ever have to know.
Next she focused on his slim hips and the easy way his denim-clad thighs gripped the Western saddle. While she was in the vicinity, she checked out his package. She had to own that impulse. If she ever caught some guy giving her such a thorough inspection, she'd be insulted.
But she didn't intend to get caught, or even be seen. After a solid week of camping, she was far too bedraggled to chat with a guy, especially a guy who looked like this one. He was the sort of cowboy she'd want to meet at the Spirits and Spurs when she looked smokin' hot in a tight pair of jeans, a low-cut blouse and her red dancing boots.
He could be a visitor out for a trail ride, but if he was a ranch hand, he might come into town for a beer on Saturday nights. She'd ask aroundsubtly, of course. He'd be well worth the effort of climbing out of this tree and sprucing up a bit.
She was due for some fun of the male variety, come to think of it. She'd been celibate since Had it really been almost a year since Arnold? And that hadn't been a particularly exciting relationship, now that she had some distance and could look at it objectively.
She had a bad tendency to set her sights too low, which was how she'd ended up in bed with Arnold, a fellow researcher in a Florida wildlife program. If she should by some twist of fate end up in bed with this cowboy, she could never say her sights were set too low. He was breathtaking.
He was also getting too close for her to continue ogling. She regretfully lowered her binoculars and eased back from the edge of the platform. If she scooted up against the tree trunk, he'd never know she was there.
Emmett Sterling, the ranch foreman, and Jack, the oldest of the Chance brothers, had built the platform for her. They'd also mentioned her presence to the cowhands so they'd be aware in case they rode out this way. But even if the rider had noticed the structure, he'd have no idea whether it was currently occupied.
She could be doing any number of things. She might be hiking back to town for supplies or taking a nap in the dome tent she'd pitched down near the stream that ran along the Last Chance's northern boundary. Leaning against the tree, she listened to the steady clop-clop of hooves approaching.
She needed to sneeze. Of course. People always needed to sneeze when they were trying to hide. She pressed her finger against the base of her nose.
Finally the urge to sneeze went away, but she felt a tickle in her throat. Clop, clop, clop, clop. The horse and rider sounded as if they were only a few yards from her tree. She needed to cough. She really did. Maybe if she was extremely careful and exceptionally quiet, she could pick up her energy drink and take a sip.
Usually while she was up here, the songbirds chirped merrily in the branches around her and the breeze made a nice sighing sound. That kind of ambient noise would be welcome so she could take a drink of her favorite bright green beverage without danger of detection. But the air was completely still and even the birds seemed to have taken an intermission.
The horse snorted. They were very close. If only the horse would snort again, she could coordinate her swallow with that. She raised the bottle to her mouth but was greeted by absolute silence.
That means he's stopped right under your tree, idiot. Adrenaline pumped through her as she held her breath and fought the urge to cough.
"Anybody up there?"
His unexpected question made her jump. She lost her grip on the bottle, which rolled to the edge of the platform and toppled off.
The horse spooked and the man cursed. So did Naomi. So much for going unnoticed.
The horse settled down, but the man continued to swear. "What is this damned sticky crap, anyway?"
Filled with foreboding, she crawled to the edge of the platform and peered down. Her gorgeous cowboy had taken a direct hit from her energy drink. He yanked off his hat, causing green liquid that had been caught in the brim to run down the front of his shirt. "Oh, God. I've been slimed!"
He glanced up at her. "You must be Naomi Perkins."
"I am." Even from twenty feet away, or more like ten or twelve since he was still on his horse, she could see that he was royally pissed. "And you are?"
"Sorry about dousing you, Luke."
"I'll wash, and my clothes will wash, but the hat And it's my best hat, too."
"I'll have it cleaned for you." She wondered why he'd worn his best hat out on the trail. Usually cowboys saved their best for special occasions.
Blowing out a breath, he surveyed the damage. "That's okay. Maybe Sarah can work some magic on it."
"Right. The boss lady."
So he was a ranch hand. "She might be able to clean it." Naomi, who'd grown up in this area, had great respect for Sarah, widow of Jonathan and co-owner of the ranch along with her three sons. If anybody could salvage a hat covered with energy drink, Sarah could.
"What's in that stuff, so I can tell her what to use on it?"
"Oh, you know. Glucose, electrolytes, vegetable juice. I think it's the broccoli that turns it green. Or maybe it's the liquefied spinach."
He grimaced. "That sounds nasty."
"I don't always eat three squares while I'm working, so the energy drink helps me stay nourished and hydrated."
"You must be really dedicated if you can stomach that on a regular basis."
She shrugged. "You get used to it."
"You might. I wouldn't."
"So are you out here checking the fence?"
He hooked his damaged hat on the saddle horn and gazed up at her. "Actually, I rode out to see how you were getting along."
"You did?" That surprised her. "Did Emmett send you?"
"Not exactly. But he told us what you were trying to accomplishdocumenting nesting behavior for a professor who plans to write up a paper on it. I thought that sounded like interesting work. I had a little spare time, so I decided to find out if you're okay."
"That's thoughtful." Especially when he didn't know her from Adam. Nor did she know him, although under different circumstances, she'd be happy to get acquainted. "I'm doing fine, thanks."
"How about the eagle babies? Are they all right?"
"So far." Apparently he was curious about the eagles. She could understand that. They were fascinating creatures.
"Good. That's good." A fly started buzzing around him, followed by a couple of bees. He waved them away. "They're after the sweet smell, I guess."
"I'm sure." He'd probably hoped to visit her platform and get a bird's-eye view of the eagles. Time to stop being vain and let him do that. "Listen, did you want to come up and take a look at the nest?"
"I'd love to, but I'm all sticky and attracting bugs."
"So maybe you could wash some of it off in the stream."
"Yeah, that might work."
"I'll come down. I know the best spot along the bank for washing up."
He smiled. "I'd like that. Thanks."
"Be right there." Wow, that was some smile he had going on. It almost made her forget that she looked like something the cat dragged in. She'd read that first impressions carried a tremendous amount of weight. As she started down the rope ladder, she hoped he'd make allowances.
Despite having been drenched in sticky, sweet green stuff, Luke wanted a look at Naomi Perkins. He hoped she'd be worth the possibility that he'd ruined his best hat. Had he known she possessed a hair-trigger startle response, he would have called out to her long before he'd reached her tree.
But as he'd approached, he'd assumed the platform was deserted. That was the only explanation for the total silence that had greeted him. If she'd been there, he'd reasoned, she would have greeted him.
That was the accepted way out here in the West. When a person laid claim to a portion of the great outdoors, be it with a campfire or a platform in a tree, they welcomed incoming riders. He was an incoming rider. She had to have noticed him. Yet for some reason she'd played possum.
So it was with great interest that he watched her climb down the rope ladder. First appeared a serviceable pair of hiking boots. He might have figured that.
Then came Sweet Lord, she had an ass worthy of an exotic dancer. A man could forgive a whole bucket of that green glop landing on him for a chance to watch Naomi Perkins descend a ladder. He no longer cared about the sad condition of his hat, even though that Stetson had set him back a considerable amount of money.
She wore her tan T-shirt pulled out, not tucked in, but even so, he could tell that her slender waist did credit to the rest of her. Her breasts shifted invitingly as she descended, and by the time she'd reached the ground, he was glad he'd ridden out here.
Besides looking good coming down the ladder, she'd accomplished the climb with dexterity. She seemed perfectly at home out here by herself. He admired that kind of self-sufficiency. He'd guessed she might be that type of woman from the moment Emmett had described the job she was doing.
She'd put her honey-blond hair up in a careless po-nytail. He could hardly expect some elaborate style from someone who'd been camping for days. Then she turned around, and he was lost.
Eyes bluer than morning glories, a heart-shaped face and pink lips that formed a perfect Cupid's bow. He'd never thought about his ideal woman, but from the fierce pounding of his heart, he suspected he was looking at her.
Before coming to the Jackson Hole area to work at the Last Chance eight months ago, he'd spent a couple of years in Sacramento. Although that city wasn't Hollywood by any means, he'd met plenty of women, young and old, who subscribed to plastic surgery and Botox beauty regimes. And the makeupthey wouldn't walk out the door without it. Some slept in it.
Standing before him was someone who wore not an ounce of makeup. She had an expressive face that obviously hadn't been nipped and tucked. In her khaki shorts and tan shirt, she seemed ready for adventure, like a sidekick for Indiana Jones. He didn't run across women like Naomi all that often. He felt like hoisting this treasure up onto his saddle and riding off with her into the sunset.
Not literally, of course. Sunset wasn't for several hours. Besides, that dramatic gesture sounded good in theory, but in reality he wasn't a good candidate for riding into the sunset with a woman on his horse. That implied that he'd made some pretty big promises to her.
He was a rolling stone who didn't make those kinds of promises. He traveled light. Even so, he wouldn't mind spending some time with the luscious Miss Perkins when she wasn't busy watching eagles.
Now that she was on the ground, he dismounted. "I'd shake your hand, but I'm afraid we'd be stuck together for eternity. My hands are covered with that green stuff."