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He was six-foot-one of rock-hard muscle. Every last inch of him one hundred percent, prime-cut cowboy.
And he caused Samantha Davies to slam on the brakes.
Clinton McAlister, she thought, lifting her foot and slowly edging over to the side of the road. It had to be.
He pounded a metal post into the ground to her right, oblivious to her arrival at the Baer Mountain Ranch. She'd been told what he looked like by a couple of the local townspeople, right down to the distinctive brown and white feather tucked into the cowboy hat he wore. What she hadn't expected, no, what no verbal description could ever convey, was the sheer size of him. The way his sleeveless white shirt clung to his sweat-stained body. How his muscular arms glistened beneath a noonday sun.
"My, my, my," she murmured.
Okay. Get a grip.
She wasn't here to ogle him. She had a business proposition for Mr. McAlister, and there was no time like the present.
She checked her rearview mirror. No one behind her. Not that she'd expected anyone this far from civilization. She was on a private gravel road, with nothing but acres and acres of Montana grassland stretching to the left and right. Straight ahead, the Big Belt Mountain range stood, snow covering the tops of them like icing on a cake. They seemed to be far off in the distance, but she knew the Baer family owned land right up into those mountains. The sheer scope of their property took her breath away.
Even from inside her road-weary car she could hear the clink-clink-clink of metal-on-metal. It must have masked the sound of her approach because the cowboy still hadn't turned.
She shut off her car, thought for a second about honking, then nixed the idea. Better to greet him personally.
A stiff breeze all but slapped her in the face the instant she stepped out of the car's warm interior. There was a thunderstorm off to her left. Though her vision wasn't what it used to be, she'd been able to follow its progress as she'd driven. The wind was pressing Mr. McAlister's buttoned-down shirt against his back, and tugging at her own short brown strands.
"Hello," she called out.
He still didn't hear her. The breeze had snatched her words away. That same wind almost caught Mr. McAlister's hat. He reached for it quickly, and had to turn toward her, dipping his head into the wind to stop it from blowing away.
He caught sight of her.
"Hi," she said, waving.
He didn't answer. But that was okay. Sam was incapable of speech, anyway. His shirt was open in the front. And that chest…
Six perfectly symmetrical muscles bulged, the upper portion covered by a light dusting of hair. But even more startling were his eyes. Luminous, they were. Blue. But so light in color, they almost seemed to glow. Those eyes narrowed in on her.
"Sorry to interrupt," she said.
His blond eyebrows drew together in what could only be called a frown. Obviously, he hadn't been expecting company. Not surprising given they were at least thirty miles from Williams, Montana—and at least two miles from his home—if her navigation system was correct. She must have been a sight standing there in her fancy floral skirt, white blouse and sensible shoes.
She should have worn jeans.
"Can I help you?" he called out at last. She hadn't gone blind just yet—not officially, at least—but she didn't need eyes to know he was not happy to see her. Why? she wondered.
"Do you always treat your fence posts like that?" she asked, trying to coax a smile out of him. "Or was it something it said?"
He glanced at the dark green rod he'd been pounding into the ground. On either side of it strands of barbwire hung like Christmas tinsel, glinting in the sun.
"Someone ran into the old one," he said, nodding toward an L-shaped post on the ground. "Needs to be replaced before our cattle get loose."
He delivered the words in a monotone. No hint of emotion. Not even a tiny twinkle in his eyes.
"Does that happen often?" she asked with a grin of her own. "Cows making a run for the hills?"
He tipped his hat back, wiped his forehead with his arm while he scanned her blue rental car. He wore gloves, she noticed, the beige leather palms worn smooth like black patent leather.
"More often than you might think," he said.
"Oh, yeah?" she asked. "Then it must be true."
He stared at her. "What must be true?"
"That the grass is always greener on the other side." She amped up the volume of her smile. "Or taller, as the case may be."
"If you've lost your way," he said after a long moment, "the main road is back the other direction." He lifted the metal pole he'd been using to pound the post into the ground.
"Actually," she persisted, making her way around the front of her car, "I'm here to see you."
He straightened again.
"At least, I think I'm here to see you." Her rubber soles crunched, eating up the rocks, with every step she took. "You are Clinton McAlister, aren't you?"
But she knew he was and if she thought he'd appeared irritated before, it was nothing compared to the glance he shot her now. "Look, lady. Whatever you're selling, I ain't buying. So you can just turn that car right around. I'm not interested."
"I'm not selling anything."
His eyebrows lifted. "No?"
This was the man who'd graduated from University of California Davis magna cum laude, who had a degree in veterinary medicine? Who used words like ain't and lady… like some kind of cartoon cowboy?
She'd been told what to expect. Sort of. Because what people had failed to tell her was how incredibly handsome he was. Sam was tall, well above average height, and so she wasn't used to men who stood a full head taller than herself. And he was fit. She'd always been attracted to men with wide shoulders, but Clinton McAlister looked more like a member of a rowing team than a cowboy.
The storm in the distance let out a rumble, one that sounded close by. They both turned. Rain hung in streamers from the bottom of a nearby cloud, the top so bibulous it resembled some sort of gigantic tick. Samantha began to wonder if they shouldn't seek cover.
"I'm here to talk to you about the Baer Mountain Mustangs," she said, over the fading sound of thunder.
That got his attention. She could see his pupils flare with something, although what exactly that emotion was she couldn't tell.
"Don't have any idea what you're talking about," he said, turning back to his task.
She rushed forward. "Mr. McAlister, wait," she said. "I know you're thinking I'll just go away if you deny it, but I won't. I'm not like the people who wrote books and articles on your horses. The ones you managed to send away without confirming that the Baer Mountain Mustangs live on your property. But I know they're here—the herd of horses whose roots trace back to the Native Americans who settled this land. I've heard firsthand from one of your former wranglers."
There was an embankment to the right of the road, one whose steep slope was camouflaged by thick grass. Unfortunately, with her narrowing field of vision, she neglected to calculate just how sharp an incline it was. She went careening toward him like a wind-driven beach ball, very nearly skidding into him. The only reason she didn't was because he reached out and stopped her. Samantha gasped.
He was sweaty. His body was hard. He smelled like leather and sage.
And she was very, very attracted to him.
"Lady, get in your car and drive back to town. I don't know nothing about Baer Mountain Mustangs and that storm's coming fast. Road'll be washed out if you don't hurry."
She finally caught her breath, stepped back from him. "Sorry," she said, dusting off her lap—though she hadn't gotten her skirt dirty. "About almost knocking you over, but I'm not going anywhere. Not until I see them."
He was back to glaring at her again and Samantha couldn't help staring at his eyes. They were the most remarkable color she'd ever seen and it was all she could do not to lean in and examine them closer. So blue. So light. So… pure.
"You're wasting your time," he said, turning away from her.
She was almost relieved that he'd broken eye contact. "Wasting my time how?" she asked. "In getting you to admit they exist?"
He picked up the metal tool again—he'd dropped it to stop her awkward descent—and she noticed then that it was a large pipe that was capped off at one end. He fit it over the top of the fence post and then, with a bunching of muscles, he lifted, shoving the pipe down hard.
"Ouch," she cried, plugging her ears. It was like being inside a bell.
Clinton McAlister didn't appear to notice.
She moved away from him. Her peripheral vision might be fading fast, but a sudden darkening of the ground around them told her that the thunderstorm was almost on top of them—just as he'd predicted.
"Mr. McAlister," she said during a break in sound, "I know that, somehow, the Baer family has managed to hide the mustangs all these years." She covered her ears again just in time to avoid the next bang. "And I know you're the man in charge of the secret herd."
He faced her. Sam let loose a sigh of relief. "Time for you to go," was all he said. He pointed behind her.
Sam turned. The thunderstorm. It was close enough that she could smell rain in the air.
"If I were you, I'd get under cover fast," he said, reaching in his pocket. He pulled out a metallic rod of some sort. Sam watched as he made quick work of attaching the loose wire to the metal post.
"Just how'd you get out here, anyway?" she asked.
The smile he gave her could only be called smug. He whistled.
Almost instantly she heard the sound of hooves, and if there was one thing she knew, it was horseflesh. The animal that cantered toward her was one of the most beautiful dappled grays she'd ever seen. Black mane and tail, black legs, and a pair of eyes nearly as luminous as his owner's.
A Baer Mountain Mustang. She would bet her life on it.
The gelding—or was it a stallion?—came to a sliding stop practically right next to them, Clinton shooting her a glance—as if curious to see if she'd move out of the way. She didn't. She'd been around the four-legged creatures long enough to know she had nothing to fear.
But she'd never seen anything like this one that was pawing the ground. He almost resembled an Andalusian, except he had the head of a cow pony, and those eyes…
"Is his name Trigger?" she asked as he tapped the ground with his right hoof.
Buttercup. Right. Only in the movies did horses come to their master's call. And even then they only did so because some poor sod was behind the cameras with a bucket of grain. Clinton had no such bucket. He calmly walked up to his mount, slipped the metal pipe he'd used to repair the fence into a leather sheath, then mounted up.
"Where are you going?"
Just then it started to rain, not tiny droplets of water, either, but fat globules that soaked her blouse almost instantly.
"That lightning cloud will be overhead before you know it. Best I get my horse under cover." He tipped his hat at her. "Pleasure meeting you, ma'am."
And then Clinton McAlister rode off, not into the sunset, but into the torrential downpour of a thunderstorm.
When it rained in Montana, it rained, Clinton thought, keeping to a slow trot. Of course, he'd been born and raised in this country and so that came as no surprise.
But it might to the woman he'd left by the roadside. He found himself glancing back, the pool that had already gathered on the brim of his hat streaming in rivulets onto his shirt. Should have brought a jacket. But his soaked clothes didn't prevent him from pulling back on the reins for an instant. His horse obediently halted. He turned his horse's head just in time to hear her car door pop open. She disappeared from view.
At least one of them would stay dry.
I know about the mustangs.
Well, he thought, good for her. Knowing about the mustangs and being able to confirm their existence were two different things. Sure, there were those who'd come to the ranch in the hopes of seeing them. Amongst horse enthusiasts the Baer Mountain Mustangs were an urban legend. But the truth was, they weren't truly wild. The Baer family had kept them contained—and more or less hidden—for nearly two hundred years. Still, word had leaked out. People begged to see them or to help protect them or to film them…. He'd lost count of how many had come before her. And no matter who they might be or how much money they might offer him, he refused to confirm the urban legend was true. That was all he needed: a bunch of horse enthusiasts knocking on his door.
"Come on," he told Buttercup—yes, Buttercup— a private joke between him and his grandmother. "Let's head back to the ranch before we get washed down a canyon."
The gray gelding obediently moved into a canter, the gait as smooth as a carousel horse, or so his niece assured him. He never bothered to pull his horse's mane short and it flicked his hand with each tug of the horse's legs. It might be colder than the lair of a snake, but he loved riding in the rain. Thunder boomed overhead. Electricity charged the air and Clint found himself on the verge of a smile.
"Easy there," he told his horse who flicked its head up in response to the steady rumble. "We'll be back at the ranch in a minute."
There was a small rise straight ahead, and beyond that, another one. But he paused at the top of the first hill, and despite telling himself not to, he headed back to the road. Through streamers of rain, he could see the fuzzy outline of taillights.
She was going toward the ranch.
"Crap," he muttered. He watched for a second longer, waiting to see if she made a U-turn. She didn't. After a minute or two, she disappeared over another hill.
Now what? Did he go back to the house? Sure as certain, she'd be there, bugging him, asking about his herd of horses. Blah, blah, blah….
He just about rode in the other direction.
Instead he spurred his horse into a faster canter. If he hurried, he'd beat her back.