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What the hell was he doing here?
Gabriel Trevino tilted the bottle of beer to his lips to hide his frown as his eyes cut across the sweeping lawn filled with people. Normally his social events consisted of sharing a beer with his buddies behind the bucking chutes at a local rodeo. This gathering at the Sandbur Ranch could hardly be compared to that sort of tobacco-spitting, curse-laden entertainment. Even the boring parties Sherleen had dragged him to during their ill-fated union paled in comparison to tonight's lavish celebration.
The best that money could buy.
The food, the drinks, the five-piece band, the women with hunks of diamonds glittering at their necks and wrists. Only in Texas, he thought wryly, could a woman justify wearing her best to an outdoor barbecue.
Leaning against the massive trunk of a live oak, he turned his attention to the portable dance floor that had been erected several yards away from the house. Presently, it was crowded with couples. Some of them old, some young, all of them having a high old time kicking up their heels to the Cotton Eyed Joe.
"What's the matter, Gabe? Don't you like to dance?"
Glancing around, he saw Geraldine Saddler, the matriarch of the Sandbur, approaching him. The tall, elegant woman with silver hair hardly looked like a woman who knew how to burn a brand into a cowhide, but since he'd come to work here at the ranch two months ago, he'd seen her do things that would make even some cowhands squeamish.
"Sometimes," he replied.
Eyeing him keenly, she smiled. "Just not now?"
Embarrassed that his discomfort was showing, Gabe straightened away from the tree and turned to face her.
"It's enough for me just to watch, ma'am."
Kindness and grace emanated from Geraldine and for one brief moment, Gabe wondered what his mother's life would have been like if she'd been exposed to this sort of wealth, if she'd had a nice home, plenty of food and enough money to pay the bills with plenty left over for luxuries.
"This is the first party we've had since you arrived here on the ranch," Geraldine remarked. "I'd like to think you're enjoying yourself."
"Oh. Well, it's a real nice affair, Ms. Saddler. Real nice."
Looping her arm through his, she chuckled. "Come along, Gabe. I want to introduce you to someone."
Not about to offend her by protesting, Gabe allowed the woman to guide him through the milling throng of merrymakers until they reached the patio where several people were standing around in a circle.
Lex Saddler, Geraldine's son and the man who regulated the cattle sales here at the Sandbur, was one of them. Apparently he'd just said something funny, because a tall, blond woman was laughing rowdily. She was wearing a skimpy white sundress with vivid tropical flowers splashed along the hem. The garment struck her long legs somewhere in the middle of her tanned thighs while the top was held up by tiny straps that could easily be snapped beneath the pressure of his fingers. Unlike most of the other young women present tonight, she wasn't stick-thin. She had enough flesh to fill out the sundress with delicious curves.
As Gabe and the boss lady drew nearer to the group, the blonde turned slowly toward them. Almost instantly, a faint look of unease crossed her features, as though seeing him with Geraldine was like spotting a wolf in a pen full of sheep.
"Mercedes, come here," Geraldine called to her. "I'd like for you to meet someone."
Mercedes. This was Geraldine's daughter, he realized. Lex and Nicci's sister. She was the reason hordes of guests had swarmed upon the Sandbur Ranch tonight. She was the reason he was standing here wishing like hell he was somewhere else.
Excusing herself from the intimate circle, the woman walked over to where they stood. Soft, expensive perfume drifted to his nostrils as he struggled to keep his eyes on her face, rather than the sensual curves of her body.
He sensed Geraldine releasing his arm as she quickly made introductions. "Gabe, this is my daughter, Mercedes. And this is Gabriel Trevino. He's our new head horse trainer here on the ranch."
The woman was young. Much younger than Gabe's thirty-five years, he decided. But her dark blue eyes were eyeing him with a shrewd perception that implied she was mature beyond her years. Pure attraction for the sultry beauty standing before him twisted in his gut.
Tilting the brim of his straw cowboy hat, he inclined his head toward her and she responded by thrusting her hand out to him.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Trevino."
Closing his hand around hers, he was surprised by her firm shake, the warmth of her fingers.
"My pleasure, Ms. Saddler."
Sure. He was feeling as pleased as a bull in a squeeze chute, Mercedes thought. The man was bored. She could see it all over his face. But oh, my, what a face. Strong square jaw, dimpled chin and a Roman nose that had arrogance written all over it. Storm cloud-gray eyes peered at her from beneath heavy black brows. And his mouthwell, it would have looked delicious if a smile had been curving the corners. Instead, the firm slash was bracketed with faint lines of disdain.
Much to her dismay, her curiosity was instantly aroused by his reaction and she continued to hold on to his hand. Partly because she found touching him pleasant, and partly because she knew it was making him even more uncomfortable.
"So you've taken over Cousin Cordero's job," she mused aloud. "How do you like it here on the Sandbur?"
His dark gray gaze momentarily slanted over to Geraldine, and Mercedes watched a genuine smile cross her mother's face. Apparently she considered this man more than just a hired horse trainer. But then Geraldine was the sort of person who'd always gotten close to her employees, who always focused on the good in people rather than their faults.
"I like it," he answered quietly. "Your family has been very generous and gracious to me."
There wasn't anything particularly distinctive about his voice, yet something about the gravelly tones left her feeling a bit breathless. Silly, she told herself. She wasn't about to give in to the sensation. The feeling would pass. Just like this man would no doubt eventually move on from the Sandbur. He sure didn't look like the establishing-roots kind.
"The Sandbur has always had an excellent remuda," Mercedes remarked. "I'm sure you'll enjoy working with them. And Uncle Mingo is a legend in the cutting-horse business."
"Your uncle is a very special man," he agreed.
Her fingers were beginning to sweat against his, forcing Mercedes to drop his hand. As Mercedes shifted her weight on high-heeled sandals, Geraldine began to speak.
"Gabe has worked for years with problematic horses," she proudly explained. "He gets them over difficult issues and teaches them to bond with man rather than fight him. We're very lucky to have Gabe with us."
So the man could tame a wounded beast. Wonder what he did for women, Mercedes asked herself as her gaze slid to his ring finger. Empty. No surprise there. Obviously there wasn't a woman in the background to smooth out his rough edges. He looked as tough as nails and as wild as a rangy mustang.
"That must be challenging," she said to Gabe.
A faint smile curved the corners of his rough-hewn lips, and Mercedes was both ashamed and shocked at the little thrill of attraction that suddenly zipped through her. He was pure male animal. Any woman would be attracted, she tried to reason with herself. But it had been years since any man had stirred her with a prickle of sexual interest. So why was this one stirring up cold ashes?
"That's why I do it," he told her.
Mercedes was studying his face, trying to read beneath the surface of his words when Lex suddenly called to her from across the lawn.
"Hey, Mercedes, come here! A long lost stranger has arrived!"
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Lex standing with an old classmate of hers. Vernon Sweeney, the nerd of St. Mary's High School. He was sweet and not nearly as exciting as the man standing in front of her. But he was safe. And right now safe was far easier to handle.
Turning back to Gabe, she swiftly explained, "An old friend calls. Will you excuse me?"
His stoic expression didn't falter. "Certainly, Ms. Saddler."
For the next hour, Mercedes mingled, talked, laughed and danced with the endless guests that spilled across the two hundred feet of lawn separating the big house from the old bunkhouse.
She'd been home for just a little over a week and truthfully hadn't had time to get her feet firmly planted back on Sandbur soil when her mother had started planning tonight's event. Mercedes hadn't really been up to this much socializing so soon. She would have preferred to get back in the groove of civilian life before being tossed into a crowd. But this homecoming was important to her mother and she'd not wanted to hurt her feelings for any reason. And these were her friends, she reminded herself. All of them except Gabe Trevino.
In spite of the evening's distractions of dancing, eating and reacquainting herself with old friends, she'd not been able to get the dark horseman off her mind. Which was really very foolish of her. They'd not exchanged more than a handful of sentences, and the few words he'd directed at her had been polite nothing out of line.Yet she thought there had been an underlying condescension in his attitude, as though he found her boring or, even worse, a spoiled brat. She continued to bristle at the idea as her brother whirled her around the dance floor.
"Still as light on your feet as ever," Lex said with a grin. "Guess all those ballet lessons you took as a child are still paying off."
She laughed. "Poor Mother. I don't think I ever quit fighting her about those."
"You wanted to wear chaps instead of a frilly tutu."
Mercedes sighed. It seemed so long ago since she'd been that innocent age. If only her life had remained that simple and sheltered. "I was a tomboy. She wanted me to be more refined, like Nicci. So did Daddy."
"Nah. Dad loved you any way you wanted to be," he said.
She couldn't help but notice a tiny shadow crossing her brother's handsome face. He still missed their father desperately. Mercedes missed him, too. She'd give anything to have him here with them. But back in 1996, Paul Saddler had died in what the police had called a boating accident. To this day, Lex didn't like to discuss the tragedy or say one way or the other what he believed happened that fateful day on the Gulf. All Mercedes knew was that her father was gone and their lives were far lesser because of it.
"Enjoying yourself, sis?"
She smiled up at him. "Certainly. It's a very nice party. Mother has outdone herself. And Cook still has her special touch, doesn't she? The brisket melted in my mouth."
"Bet you didn't have anything like that over on Diego Garcia."
No. The military air base located on the tiny island in the Indian Ocean didn't cater to parties or home-cooked Texas meals. She'd spent the last two years of her eight-year stint in the Air Force on the isolated island and had to admit that she'd forgotten just what a spoiled, luxurious life she'd once had here on the Sandbur.
"We had turkey and pecan pie on Thanksgiving," she said, then laughed. "'Course, it had to be flown injust like everything else."
Lex's smile was full of affection. "We've missed you, honey. Everyone is so glad to have you back home. We're all going to give you hell if you try to leave again. Just keep that in mind if you get the urge to travel."
Her brother's words made her feel wanted, yet at the same time uncomfortable. He and the rest of the family had simply taken it for granted that she was home to stay. But Mercedes wasn't at all sure that her life was meant to be spent on the ranch. Not when old memories and past mistakes continued to haunt her at every turn.
She was trying to push the unsettling issue of her future out of her mind when her gaze slipped past Lex's shoulder to another couple circling the dance floor. So far this evening, she'd not spotted the horse trainer taking a turn to the music. She'd already decided the man wasn't into dancing, but it looked as if she was wrong.
Alice Woodson, an old classmate of Mercedes's, was snuggled up to him, looking as though she was enjoying every second of being in his arms. She would, Mercedes thought with a measure of sarcasm. The woman was man-crazy and had been since junior high.
"Yoo-hoo, sis! The song is over. Want to go another round?"
Realizing the music and her brother's feet had both stopped, Mercedes looked up at him and hoped her wandering thoughts didn't show. "I think I'll sit this one out, Lex. I'm ready to get something to drink."
Looping his arm around her waist, Lex ushered Mercedes off the dance floor. As the two of them walked to the nearest galvanized tub of iced drinks, Mercedes couldn't help but ask, "Do you know why Mother invited Alice?"
Lex frowned. "She's one of your old classmates, isn't she?"
"Yes. But I never cared for her," Mercedes muttered. "Although it seems that someone around here does."
Lex followed Mercedes's gaze as she watched Gabe escort Alice off the dance floor and over to a nearby table.
"Gabe and Alice?" Lex laughed. "He's just being gentlemanly. I don't think Gabe is much into women."
Mercedes frowned as she reached down and plucked a diet soda from among the assortment of drinks. "What do you mean?"
Lex shrugged as though he didn't much want to elaborate, which only made Mercedes even more curious.
Lex finally said, "I think he's had a bad experience and doesn't care to repeat it."
Mercedes could certainly understand that. She'd spent the past eight years dodging men, telling herself that being alone was much better than having her heart ripped out, her trust shattered again.
Popping open the can, she took a sip as she covertly studied the horseman out of the corner of her eye. He was a tall devil, shaped like a wedge with strong broad shoulders and narrow hips. His jeans and Western shirt were probably pieces of clothing that he wore to work every day. Yet he wore the casual garments with so much class that he made all the other men seem ridiculously overdressed.