HER GAME, HIS RULES
Is Clint McCulloch really thinking of bulldozing one hundred acres of prime blackberries? Not if Rose McCabe has her way! The enterprising single mother's plan will benefit the rodeo-champion-turned-rancher and her natural-food co-op. Too bad the sexy six-foot-four Texan is more stubbornand devastatingly attractivethan when they were kids growing up in Laramie.
Clint just wants to restore his family ranch to its former glory, but the sassy entrepreneur can be awfully persuasive. Their mutual attraction is an added incentive. Until Rose lays down the ground rules: a no-strings affair because she's never, ever marrying again. Only now Clint wants the whole shebanga future where he can be daddy to Rose's adorable preschool triplets and husband to his Lone Star cowgirl!
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"You can ignore me as long as you want. I am not going away." Rose McCabe followed Clint McCulloch around the big farm tractor.
Wrench in one hand, a grimy cloth in another, the rodeo cowboy turned rancher paused to give her a hostile glare. "Suit yourself," he muttered beneath his breath. Then went right back to working on the engine that had clearly seen better days.
Aware she was taking a tiger by the tail, Rose stomped closer. "Sooner or later you're going to have to hear me out."
"Actually, I won't." Sweat glistened on the suntanned skin of his broad shoulders and muscular back, dripped down the strip of dark hair that covered his chest, and arrowed down into the fly of his faded jeans.
Still ignoring her, he moved around the wheel to turn the key in the ignition.
It clicked. But did not catch.
His expression impassive, he strode back to the engine once more, giving Rose a good view of his ruggedly handsome face and the thick chestnut hair that fell onto his brow and curled damply against the nape of his neck. At six foot four, there was no doubt Clint was every bit as stubbornand breathtakingly masculineas he had been when they were growing up.
And, because he was four years older than shewhich made him thirty-three nowlikely feeling as if he were all the wiser. And more experienced.
Which, she determined fiercely, he was not.
She ambled close enough to see the darker rim of his sable brown eyes, then inclined her head at the engine. "Still not working, hmm?"
He grunted and muttered something she was just as glad not to be able to decipher.
Not above needling him if that was what it took to get his attention, she rocked back on the heels of her cowgirl boots and drawled, "Sure would be nice if you could afford to pay someone who knew what he was doing to fix that tractor. Or better yet, buy a brand new one."
She paused to let that idea sink in.
Pivoting away from him, she turned to look out at the thousand acres of Double Creek ranchland sprawled behind the big two-story ranch house, stable and barns. "Of course, maybe I should be thanking my lucky stars you not only haven't a clue how to get that machine up and running, but also are reportedly operating this ranch on a very thin margin. Because the combination of those two things" she turned around to tip her hat back and give him a dazzling smile "is going to keep you from bulldozing the hundred acres of beautiful blackberries on this property."
Finally Clint straightened. He looked her right in the eye. "Not necessarily," he said.
His uninvited guest was speechless.
Deciding the only way to discourage her was to let her know exactly where they stood, Clint continued. "I could always borrow a tractor from any one of my friends." Ex- cept they were all using their tractors for spring clearing, mowing and planting. "And get the job done today."
Rose's pink lips slid into an astonished pout. "You wouldn't!"
Pushing aside the notion of what it might be like to taste the tempting softness of those lips, he moved his gaze back to her wide-set sage-green eyes and nodded tersely. "I most certainly would."
"But you're sitting on a gold mine!"
He shrugged, letting his gaze linger once again over the delicate, feminine features of her heart-shaped face. "I'm sure you think so."
She drew in a breath. "Do you know how much four ounces of blackberries retail for these days?"
"Haven't a clue."
He kept his eyes locked with hers in an attempt to intimidate her into going away. "So?" To his mounting frustration, his maneuver did not achieve its goal.
Rose huffed. "The typical yield of mature plants like yours is five to ten thousand pounds per acre!"
Which meanthe quickly did the maththe total of a good yield would be anywhere from two to four million dollars, retail, for one crop. However, a farmer would get a lot less wholesale.
"If you can get them picked," Clint pointed out, forcing himself to be practical. He did not have the money for harvesting, either.
Grimacing, he paused to remove his Stetson and wipe the sweat gathering on his brow. "I can't."
Following suit, Rose swept off her straw cowgirl hat and slapped it against her sleek denim-clad thigh. Her unruly ash-blond curls glittered with golden highlights. The thick silky strands were cut to frame her face and rested against her chin. She ran the fingers of her free hand idly through her hair before placing her hat back on her head. "Actually," she countered, returning his impudent stare, "you could."
It was Clint's turn to heave a sigh of frustration. He straightened once again, aware they were talking about something that just wasn't going to happen.
"The point is" he kept his gaze locked with hers "I'm not interested in being a berry farmer. I'm a rancher. I want to restore the Double Creek Ranch to the way it was when my dad was alive. Run cattle, and breed and train cutting horses here." He pointed to the blackberry patch up for debate. "And those thorn- and weed-infested bushes are sitting on the most fertile land on the entire ranch."
Rose's expression turned pleading. "Just let me help you out."
"No." He refused to be swayed by a sweet-talking woman, no matter how persuasive and beguiling. He had gone down that road once before, with a heartbreaking result.
A silence fell and Rose blinked. "No?" she repeated, as if she were sure she had heard wrong.
"No," he reiterated flatly. His days of being seduced or pressured into anything were long over. Then he picked up his wrench. "And now, if you don't mind, I really need to get back to work "
She stared at him a moment longer. Started to say something, then stopped herself, shrugged and walked off.
A little surprised the inimitable Rose McCabe had given upjust like that!Clint watched the lovely entrepreneur climb into her extended-cab Rose Hill Farm pickup truck and drive away.
He tinkered with the tractor motor another half an hour, then gave up. Much as he hated to admit it, Rose was right about one thing. He was never going to be able to fix this engine on his own. So he went into the house, showered and changed into fresh clothes, grabbed his keys and wallet and headed to the farm- and ranch-equipment dealership in Laramie.
He had no trouble getting someone to wait on him, but he didn't like what Swifty Mortimer had to say. "Trying to find parts for a tractor that's forty years old is going to cost more than a new one," the salesman announced.
Clint braced himself for the worst. "And how much is that?"
"Several hundred thousand dollars. Of course, you can lease at a rate of five thousand dollars a month. Or buy used and reconditioned agricultural equipment, which will still likely run you into six figures."
Clint sighed. All options were well out of his range. He'd spent what cash he did have on hand adding to his herd of black Angus and buying more cutting horses, which now numbered six.
"Not going to work for you, hmm?" the salesman guessed.
Clint shook his head.
"Well, then, maybe you could work a deal with a friend."
"Or better yet," a familiar female voice said from somewhere behind them, "me!"
Clint turned to see Rose McCabe standing behind him, with the owner of the dealership, Jeff Johnston, at her side. An affable man in a sports coat and jeans, the forty-year-old bachelor was a well-respected Laramie County businessman with an eye for the ladies.
Realizing he was no longer needed, Swifty discreetly eased away to help another customer coming in the door.
Rose beamed at Clint. "I was just talking to Jeff about you."
Pushing aside an unexpected twinge ofjealousy, Clint shrugged at whatever Rose was trying to finagle now. "Sorry she bent your ear, Jeff."
Jeff extended his hand to Clint. "Actually, I'm glad she did."
"Seems like you could do each other a favor," Rose commented when the two men had finished shaking hands.
Clint noted that Jeff seemed to think so, too. "Really. And how is that?" he asked dryly. His patience was beginning to wear thin.
Barely containing her excitement, Rose asked Jeff, "Why don't we just show him?"
The man smiled and gestured broadly. "After you "
Rose settled her hat on her head and led the way back out into the late-spring sunshine.
On the corner of the lot sat a brand-new machine. As narrow in width as a lawn tractor but three times as tall, it had a glassed-in cab for the operator situated near the top and a produce catcher sticking six feet out to one side. A large vacuum hose fed into a belt-run crop sorting and processing system that ran the length of the entire machine, and there was a ledge for a produce box directly beneath the end of the produce catcher. Behind the tractor was a detachable flat-bed trailer with room for stacked produce boxes.
Cheerfully Rose explained, "You drive the berry harvester between the rows. The nylon bars enclosed in the top of the machine move through the bushes and gently shake the ripe fruit loose. The captured blackberries are drawn up through the hose at the bottom and move through the machine via conveyor belts, where any loose leaves, sticks and thorns are removed, and gently drop into the box below." She took a breath, then continued. "When the box is full, a sensor will sound. You stop the tractor, remove the full container and replace it with another."
It sounded pretty easy. And a lot less expensive and labor-intensive than picking them by hand. "Except there are no rows to drive through in that mess of blackberries on my property," Clint pointed out. The canes had grown together into a dense thicket years before.
Rose shrugged. "So we'll use a tractor to make some." She lifted a hand to cut off any objection. "Yes, you'll be mowing down some perfectly good bushes and blackberries in the process, but you'll still be left with a ton of plants and plenty of fruit in a much more manageable situation. And with a new set of berries ripening every two days for the next three to five weeks, depending on weather, that is a lot of berries, McCulloch."
And a whole lot of money, Clint acknowledged. Still, he hated being pushed into anything. "Let me guess." He narrowed his eyes at her. "You're just the person to take the blackberries off my hands?"
Oblivious to the amused way Jeff was watching her, she dipped her head in a playful bow. "I do run a wholesale Buy Local fruit and vegetable business and co-op at Rose Hill Farm."
Clint thought about what it was going to cost to get his cutting-horse breeding and training business off the ground. He was still running the fifty black Angus on a neighboring ranch and spending a lot more time than he liked giving cutting-horse riding lessons and hiring himself out as a cowboy just to bring in needed operating cash. It had been over a year since he'd repurchased the property he grew up on, and although he had no trouble meeting his mortgage payments, he was still a long way from making the ranch what he knew it could be.
He shook his head in frustration. He was tempted, but too smart to follow her down a trail that would most likely only set him even farther back in the end. "Look, even if I wanted to do this, there's no way I could afford this machine." The price label on the side stated it retailed for two hundred fifty thousand dollars.
Or about the same as the new tractor he needed but could not yet purchase.
"Actually, you can," Rose insisted smugly.
Clint scoffed. "What are you going to do? Loan me the money to lease it?"
Her grin widened. "Better than that. I've worked out an arrangement with both Jeff and Farmtech, the manufacturer."
Clint couldn't say he was surprised Rose had the owner of the dealership at her command. Or any red-blooded man with an appreciation for a smart, beautiful, sexy woman, for that matter.
"What kind of arrangement?" he couldn't help but ask. Jeff quietly excused himself and headed back in the direction of the office.
Now that they were alone beneath the shimmering blue Texas sky, Rose focused all her energy on Clint. "One that won't cost you a cent!" She stepped closer, persuading cheerfully, "All you have to do is use the berry picker on your property to bring in the crop. And then offer the required testimonial, which I will support and bolster in any way that's needed."
He studied her. "Okay, I see what's in it for you." She would get access to the blackberry crop she so desperately wanted for her wholesale produce business. He lowered his face until they were almost nose to nose. "But why would the dealership and the manufacturer agree to let me do this free of charge?"
Instead of stepping back as he expected, she came nearer, enticing him to inhale her sunny, citrus perfume. "Because this particular machine is a brand-new design, with very few willing to buy it thus far. Farmtech is hoping to change that via positive experienceespecially here, because in Texas, most berries are still picked by hand."
It sounded simple enough, but his gut told him there was more to it. He stepped back and studied her, glad they were no longer within kissing distance. "What aren't you telling me?"
She shifted her glance to the left, suddenly looking a little nervous. "That's pretty much it."
"But not all," Clint surmised.
She cleared her throat and turned her attention back to him. "They also want to come out to the Double Creek Ranch and film you using the product. Of course, you'll get paid for your time and trouble at a rate commensurate with others working in the spokesperson industry."
No question, the additional money would help. But the thought of riding around on a berry picker in front of a camera bordered on the ridiculous. "You're kidding." Dread filtered through him. "You're not kidding."
"Well" Rose wrinkled her nose. "You are a former rodeo star. And, well, if not all that handsome, at least not all that ugly."
"And it wouldn't be your first endorsement."
Aha. Here comes the sales pitch
Luckily this wasn't the first time a beautiful woman had used her charm to try and wheedle him into agreeing to something he had no business doing.
He rocked forward on the toes of his boots. She did the same on hers.
Letting her know with a glance she wasn't going to railroad him into anything, he said, "What few ad campaigns I've done have been for saddle soap and leather gloves. Nothing to write home about."
She aimed another sweet, tempting smile his way that had his lower half tightening, despite his vow to remain unaffected.
"Well, maybe this will be," she offered hopefully. Silence fell.