Beau stomped the brakes and jumped off the three-wheeler, anger boiling up from somewhere down deep in his scuffed-up cowboy boots. "What in the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted at the back of the skinny, short stranger on the other side of the fence. The fool held the reins of a jet-black horse and was looking out across the pasture at several white-faced heifers and his prize Angus bull that nobody ever borrowed for free, not even his best friends or his favorite neighbors.
"You idiot! That's my stud bull you've cut this fence and let through!" he continued to rant as he passed through the tangled barbed wire. Jim Torres had hired very few dummies in his life, and when he did, they didn't last long. This man would be riding his big black horse into the sunset before nightfall once Jim found out about this. If Jim Torres didn't fire him on the spot, then Beau fully well intended to string him up in the nearest oak tree. Considering how little the fellow was, he could do it single-handedly. The man must have cow chips for brains to deliberately cut a fence and let an Angus bull in with purebred white-faced cattle. Either that or Beau had just walked in on the first step of a rustling job, in which case the man could look forward to spending a long time behind bars.
Milli heard a commotion behind her and turned to see if Alice Martin or maybe even Buster had come to help. Her grandfather, Jim Torres, was going to have the kind of hissy fit seen only in the front gates of hell if that big Angus critter actually bred one of these cows. Thank goodness the big black bruiser was just eating grass and didn't seem to be interested in the cows milling around him.
She'd only arrived yesterday, to help her grandfather while he was recovering from hip-replacement surgery. A cut fence and a big, mean Angus bull in the pasture weren't exactly what she had in mind for her first day's work.
Milli gasped when she saw the man, yelling at her instead of the bull. She put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"What are you doing here? And why in the hell did you cut the fence and let that stupid Angus bull in with purebred white-faced heifers? Don't you have any sense at all? Wait 'til Alice finds out that she's got a cowhand that don't know purebreds from culls. You might just as well crawl up on your play pretty back there and go pack your bags, 'cause Alice Martin is going to fire you by nightfall."
She pointed toward the three-wheeler and shook her finger under his nose, amazed that she could utter a single word to the blond-haired man. Just how in the hell did he get from Louisiana to Oklahoma, and why had Alice Martin hired a drunk like him? One thing was sure, he could pick up his paycheck, because he'd just pulled the damnedest stunt in history.
Beau stopped dead in his tracks, not three feet from the stranger who turned out to be a feisty woman instead of a short man. Her brown eyes flashed with as much anger as danced in his steel blue ones. She'd jerked her hat off in the middle of her tirade and hair as black as the bull grazing in the pasture had fallen down to the middle of her back. Her lips were full and sexy and her eyebrows arched in pure rage. A tingle on the nape of his neck said he'd met this hellcat somewhere before, but he damn sure didn't know where.
He might be a sucker for dark hair and big, brown eyes, but no one was cutting his fence and using his prize bull without paying stud fees. To be threatening him on top of her stupidity was adding insult to injury, and Beau wasn't in any mood to explain to this upstart female that the Bar M was his ranch now, not Alice Martin's.
He pointed his finger at her. "Don't you lie to me. You've cut this fence and thought you'd take advantage of my prize bull. That bull is worth a whole pasture of those ignorant cows and I don't let him breed nobody's cattle for free. Not even Jim's-even though he's my neighbor and friend. Either that or you're lying your way through an attempted rustling."
She slapped his finger away. "Get back on your land. And don't point at me or yell at me again. I didn't cut the fence, but I'm damn sure going to repair it so your horny bull won't be on Lazy Z ground again. And I am not a cattle rustler."
She shoved her hand in the pocket of her tight blue jeans and hoped it didn't burn a hole right through the denim. Just touching him brought back memories she'd buried and long since tried to forget. It all went to show just how damn fickle her body could be. One touch and she was a melting pot of passionate hormones again.
"You ain't repairing a thing. I'll fix the fence as soon as I get my bull back in my own pasture." He turned abruptly and stomped back to his three-wheeler, crawled into the seat like it was a saddle, and started toward the fence. Where had he seen her before? When she touched his finger, desire shot through his body like he'd only known one time before. But that wasn't possible. That had just been a drunken man's dream that set him firmly on the sober wagon for all eternity.
She pulled a .22 rifle from the sheath fastened to the side of her saddle and before he had gone ten feet, she fired twice, dusting up the gravel in front of him. That got his attention.
He growled deep in his throat. "You stupid bitch. You could have killed me! Put that gun down right now."
There was no way that spitfire of a woman had been in his dreams. Maybe in his worst nightmare, but damn sure not in any sweet dream like he remembered when he thought about a night in paradise with a lady named Amelia.
"If I'd wanted to kill you, you'd be dead. And if you want to be dead, you just tell me what part you want shot first and where you want to drop and I'll make it as painless as possible. And don't you ever call me a bitch again. You get a warnin' the first time, but the second time I just let my anger have its way."
She drew a bead right between the sexiest blue eyes in the whole world. What on earth had brought him to Oklahoma? She'd left him in southern Louisiana after that fatal night when she had let her hormones ride roughshod over her better judgment.
Beau glared at her. Stupid woman had no business shooting at him. Either she'd just escaped from a mental institution or else Jim had started hiring gunfighters. But why? He and Jim had always been best friends. They played poker together with other area ranchers once a month at the bunkhouse. At least Jim had joined them until last week, when he'd had his hip replaced. Beau figured it was just a matter of a few weeks until Jim would be at the head of the table dealing cards and sipping Jack with them again. He would be willing to bet his Saturday night silver spurs that Jim didn't have any idea who was out here on his land with a gun laid on her shoulder and pointed right at him. She probably really was a cattle rustler and bluffing her way through getting caught. She had cut the fence and waited for a truck to arrive to steal his bull and however many of Jim's cows she could haul away at one time.
He put up his hands. "Whoa, wait a minute. Put that gun down and let's talk sensible." He started toward her slowly, fully intending to grab the weapon, take her to Jim's house just over the rise, and see if he had indeed put someone as impulsive as an erupting volcano on the Lazy Z payroll.
She lowered the gun slightly and dusted the gravel again, so close that the tarnished silver spurs wrapped around his boots jingled like a doorbell. "Don't you take another step, cowboy. Just crawl up on that tricycle you rode in on and get on out of here. I'll take care of this pesky bull. He's on Lazy Z property. And I'll fix this damned fence, too. I didn't cut it, but I'll see to it that it's fixed right proper, so get your sorry old scraggly ass out of here before I get really mad."
The next bullet wasn't going to make the dust fly or his spurs jingle. She looked crazy enough to make buzzard bait out of him. It wasn't easy to back down from a woman, but Beau wasn't totally stupid. He turned around very slowly so as not to excite the lunatic, crawled up on the seat of his three-wheeler, and started the engine just as slowly, all the while resisting the urge to wipe the nervous sweat off his brow. One squeeze of her finger and there wouldn't be any more poker games. There wouldn't be any more sitting on the porch swing on a hot summer night with his arm draped loosely around Amanda's shoulders. There would just be a zingy pop and Beau would be no more, and it would probably be late evening before Buster or one of the other hired hands came looking for him. It wouldn't take that long for the buzzards to find breakfast, though. He wouldn't even have time to pull the cell phone from his pocket and make a call for help. He patted his shirt pocket and moaned-he'd left it at home.
He drove the vehicle through the pasture and over a small rise before he braked, drew a pair of binoculars from the saddlebags, and eased back up the hill on his belly to see what was going on. Would the crazy woman rustle Jim's cows and his bull, or would she really put that rangy, mean-spirited bull back in the right pasture and fix the fence? He cocked his elbows up to make a brace and peeped through the glass to watch her cut the bull away from the cows with the finesse of a well-trained cattleman. She edged him back into Bar M pastureland and then went back to the fence. She took a small kit from the worn saddlebags on her horse, which bore a strange brand Beau had never seen before. It looked like a T lying at a thirty-degree angle. Not straight up. Not really lying down. She whipped a new piece of barbed wire from one orange steel post to the other, wrapped it tightly and snipped it. She repeated the process two more times before she plucked the wires like he did his guitar strings to check them for tightness. He almost expected to hear a melodious twang float across the pasture to his ears.
"Well, I'll be damned," he muttered, inching backwards down the hill.
Buster yelled from the back porch when he parked the vehicle in the bunkhouse yard. "Hey, Tyler Spencer called and said he found a cut fence this morning 'tween us and the Lazy Z. Bunch of younguns he knew was out lettin' their dogs chase coyotes last night and he figures they probably cut the fence to get their three-wheelers through to keep up with the dogs. That's where you keep your stud bull, so thought maybe you'd better send someone over there to fix it before he gets in with the Torres cattle. Jim would have a stroke if an Angus bull ever bred one of his white-faced cattle and even though the bull might have a good time, you'd lose the price of a stud fee." Buster chuckled, his smile creating even more wrinkles in a face that already looked like a road map of Texas. "Kids these days ain't got no respect. Bet they spooked the hell out of that bull lettin' coyotes chase past him with a bunch of dogs a-howlin'."
"Fence is fixed. Who's the woman Jim's hired?"
"Jim ain't hired no woman. Far as I know he ain't never hired women to work the ranch. Just Hilda to cook, and she and Slim are family, they been there so long. Oh, bet you're talkin' about Milli. Was she out there? She's his granddaughter. Pretty, ain't she? She used to come around here some in the summer when she was a little girl. Knew she'd grow up to be a looker. Biggest brown eyes in the whole state of Texas. Comes from out around Amarillo. Little town north of Hereford where her folks have a ranch. The Lazy T. She come out to help Jim 'til he's back on his feet." Buster's green eyes sparkled. "She's full of spit and vinegar, that girl is. She could tell a man to go to hell on a silver poker and make him look forward to the trip."
Beau pulled out a pack of gum and offered Buster a piece. "You can say that again. Jim's granddaughter, huh? How come nobody ever said anything to me about him having a granddaughter who could shoot the eyeballs out of a rattlesnake at a hundred yards? She whipped that rifle out of her saddlebags so fast I figured Jim was hiring gunslingers these days. She peppered the rocks in front of my toes and told me to get back on my tricycle and go back where I came from, then she mended that fence back together in record time."
Buster shook his head, his eyebrows knit together in a gray, bushy line. "If I can't chew something stronger than that stuff, I'll do without. Just what'd you do to make Milli pull a gun on you, boy?"
Beau shrugged his shoulder in exasperation. "Well, hell, Buster, I thought she cut the fence. I didn't know if she was a rustler or just a crazy bitch."
"Don't you never call Miss Milli that in front of me again, boy, and expect to keep all your pretty white teeth. You might be my boss but you ain't goin' to talk about Miss Milli like that. She's a pure lady and comes from fine folks."
Beau held up both hands like he was being robbed. "Sorry. Looks like I've done backed into a rattlesnake nest when I thought it was a gopher hole. And I guess I've really got off on the wrong foot with Jim's granddaughter, too."
"Yep, reckon you did, son. You might need to dust off that new pickup truck of yours and ride over there and apologize for any ill feelings you caused," Buster said.
Beau couldn't believe his ears. "Me, apologize! She didn't tell me she was his granddaughter! She didn't tell me nothing, just started firing that cannon at me and issuing orders. I didn't do nothing to apologize for-except for calling her a bitch, and she set me straight about that pretty damn quick. Said the first time was on the house, but the second time she'd let her anger take control and I didn't ask what that meant."
A deep chuckle started down in the bottom of Buster's beer belly and erupted into a full-fledged roar. He pulled a red bandanna from the hip pocket of his bibbed overalls and wiped his eyes. "I'd give my eye teeth to have got to see that. Some little old girl putting a big feller like you around the corner. Boy, you just ain't got a damned bit of sense when it comes to handling women folks. You 'bout as lucky as Mr. Midas himself when it comes to running this ranch and making money, but when it comes to women, you damned sure ain't lucky, Beau."
"What's so funny?" Rosa, the cook at the Bar M for the past thirty years and Buster's wife two more than that, appeared on the back porch of the main house. She wore a starched white bibbed apron tied around her short, stout body and her jet-black hair was tied back with a bandanna. Buster didn't lose a minute's time beating a path overto the porch to tell her about Beau meeting Milli and how she whipped out a gun on him. Beau shook his head and went on to his office at the far end of the bunkhouse. He might be the talk of the ranch for several days, but he'd been the butt of jokes before and he had a tremendous sense of humor. Today it was his turn to make them laugh; next week it would be someone else's turn. And they were sure right about one thing. As they were always saying, he wasn't lucky in love. But that was changing, and he had a diamond ring in a little velvet box sitting on his dresser to prove it. Next week, when he was engaged properly to Amanda, they could all eat their words.
Milli Torres spotted the binoculars by the glint of the sun's rays reflecting off them. Things must have changed over at the Bar M. He acted like he owned-or at least operated-the ranch. But where was Alice Martin? Poppy hadn't mentioned anything happening to her, but if she was able to run the Bar M, she sure wouldn't hire a foreman. Especially an egotistical male chauvinist who jumped to conclusions and let his dump-truck mouth get ahead of his bicycle butt. And besides, just how did Beau Luckadeau get from Louisiana to Oklahoma, anyway? The last time she'd seen him he was drunker than Cooter's owl. Thank goodness for that. At least he had been so drunk he didn't remember meeting her that disastrous night, which seemed like eons ago. The episode couldn't have affected him like it did her. If it had, he would have noticed the smoke rising from his hand when she slapped his pointing finger away from her face. His insides would be something akin to warm, quivering jelly and he wouldn't be watching her from the back side of that little rise. He'd have gotten a soft look in his eyes and gathered her in his arms so tightly she could hear his heart beating too fast through his chambray work shirt. No, sir, Beau did not remember and that was a good thing.
She finished the job, checked the wire for tightness so he would see she was able to do exactly what she set out to do, mounted her horse, Wild Fire, and rode back to the house, leaving only a cloud of dust, a herd of white-faced heifers, and a million unanswered questions in her wake.
She rode hell-bent for leather into the barnyard at the ranch. "Slim? Would you please unsaddle Wild Fire and rub her down? I've ridden her hard and..."
Slim, the tall, lanky ranch foreman with graying hair and gaunt cheeks grabbed the reins. "You're right about one thing, Miss Milli; you rode this horse too hard. A kid from over on the Spencer place called and said some young fellers were out last night letting their dogs run the coyotes. Said he thinks maybe they cut the fence between us and the Bar M. It's over there where Beau keeps that prize bull of his, and you know Jim would rise up out of that bed and kick that bull to hell and back if it got next to one of his cows. Not to mention what Beau would do if he thought someone was trying to get a free standing out of his bull. Brags all the time about how much money he makes in a year off stud fees with that bull. Says the critter is the same as ownin' a good-pumpin' oil well. Thought maybe you'd want to check it out, or at least send one of the boys."
She made a beeline toward the house. "I already fixed it."
"Granny?" she called out at the door. "Where are you?"
A small, lightly brown-skinned lady with gorgeous brown eyes, short graying black hair, and a spry step that belied her sixty years, peeked around the door into the utility room. "Right here, child. What do you need?"
"What is Beau Luckadeau doing on the Bar M?" Milli asked bluntly as she plopped down on the tiled floor and removed her boots.
"Beau? Why, he's the owner. Alice Martin got Alzheimer's disease a while back and when she realized what it could do to her, she willed everything she owned to Beau, since he's her favorite nephew, and then when things started getting bad, she checked herself into a nursing home over in Ardmore. Smart woman. I see her every so often, but she doesn't know me anymore. How did you know Beau?" Mary Torres asked.
"Didn't 'til now," Milli lied. "Sorry sumbitch thought he was going to order me off the land until I dusted up the gravel in front of his boots with my rifle. Treated me like I was some kind of hired hand who didn't know straight up from backwards on a sunny day."
"You shot at Beau?" Mary exclaimed. Why was Milli lying to her? Three signs always gave a liar away: breathlessness, high color, and shifting eyes. Nothing got past Mary Torres. "Why in the world would you shoot at Beau? He's the easiest-going one of all those Luckadeau boys. That's why Alice liked him best. He's got green thumbs when it comes to growing things and a sixth sense when it comes to cattle. Lord, he wouldn't hurt a fly. Now why would you shoot at him?"
"Because he made me mad. He yelled at me."
"He's one of your Poppy's best friends. He used to visit Alice in the summertime. Surely you met him at a barn dance or something when you come back here to visit?"
She tugged off her socks. "Nope, I did not. I didn't even know he was kin to Alice until right now."
"Maybe you better get in your truck and drive over there and make things right," Mary suggested.
"Me? I didn't do nothing. It was his stupid bull in our pasture, and he started the fight, yelling at me like some kind of idiot. Come through that cut fence like somebody died and made him God. Called me a bitch, even," Milli said.
"Have it your way."
Something wasn't right. Mary felt as if she was looking at the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle and had no idea where to start fitting them together. There had been questions Milli would never answer, not when all three of her brothers pitched a fit that could be heard all the way from Amarillo to southern Oklahoma. Not even when her mother threatened to throw her out on her ear if she didn't tell them who the baby's father was. Mary didn't know the details, but the first piece of the puzzle glowed brightly.
Milli knew Beau, and that was the corner piece to the whole puzzle.
"Where's Katy?" Milli asked. She padded across the room in her bare feet, untucking a blue chambray shirt to let it fall on the outside of faded blue jeans that fit her so tightly she looked as though she'd been melted and poured into them. Mary remembered a time many years before when she filled out a pair of jeans like that: when all the male eyes in a room followed her as she walked across a room. Milli might look like her mother, but she was sure built like Mary had been at twenty-three: full bosom, tiny waist, rounded hips. Evidently Beau really had let his temper get ahead of his hormones if he yelled at her, instead of admiring all the curves under her jeans and shirt.
"Katy is entertaining your Poppy. I put her in the playpen and she's been throwing her toys out over the top. He picks them up with his cane and tosses them back inside. It's a good game for both of them," Mary answered.
Milli headed for the den, where a hospital bed and lift chair had been installed for her grandfather when he came home from the hospital, and where he ruled the ranch with an iron fist even yet. At least Mary let him think he was king of the Lazy Z. Mary had as much of the ranch sense in the Torres family as her husband. They worked as a team and she was wise enough to let Jim wear the crown.
A pretty little toddler with a head full of gorgeous blonde curls looked up and squealed, "Mommy! Ride, peas?"
The baby raised her chubby little arms. Milli picked her up, squeezing her tightly to her chest. She talked fast to hide the quiver in her voice and the tears welling in her eyes. "We'll go for a ride later, Katy Scarlett. Have you been taking good care of Poppy while Momma's been out checking the cows?"
Katy wiggled down into her mother's embrace and giggled.
"Course she's been taking care of me," Jim said from his recliner. "Best nurse a Poppy could have. If she wants to ride, then take an hour and go ride with her. We have to encourage her to keep her a cowgirl."
A smile lit his weathered brown face and his soft brown eyes glittered as he watched his only granddaughter. He enjoyed having them both at the ranch so much that he'd begun thinking in terms of healing slower so they wouldn't go home at the end of the summer. Perhaps he could offer to build them a home of their own. Give Milli a hundred acres or so and bring her herd of cows out from west Texas. The ranch needed the laughter of a child again, and Katy fit the bill just right.
"Poppy, that's all I hear: ‘Ride, peas.' She'd keep me on a horse twenty-four seven if I'd let her. She loves to ride."
"I think it's cute the way she says it. ?Body didn't know better they'd think she was wanting to ride peas rather than a horse. Wasn't that her first words? Stands to reason she'd say them often. It brings her something she likes and it's easy for her to say."
Mary stood in the door and that funny feeling rose again. Milli's long black hair covered Katy like a natural blanket when she hugged her tightly. Katy's blonde curls bounced as she wiggled in her mother's arms and it was the second that she looked at Mary that it became so evident. It was those steel blue eyes that everyone noticed when they first looked at Katy. They looked so out of place with her lightly toasted skin from generations of Mexican blood on both sides of the family. Why hadn't she seen the resemblance before?
Milli hugged Katy even closer. "Ride was actually her first word. I wanted her to have manners so I said, ‘Say ride, please.' Turned into ‘Ride, peas.'"
"Ride, peas, now!" Katy drew her eyes down.
"And you shall, after lunch," Mary said.
She eyed mother and daughter. Two years ago Milli had broken up with her fiancé when she'd caught him in a motel with another woman. Then she'd gone back to college at Waco that fall, only to return home at Christmas with a baby on the way. When her brothers had wanted to square off with her ex-fiancé, she had told them the baby wasn't his, and when Katy was born there was no doubt she was telling the truth. Her fiancé was from an old Mexican family and didn't have a drop of Caucasian blood in him. His hair was black as a raven's and his brown eyes were like two lumps of coal set in his well-chiseled, fine-boned face. He had been handsome and rich from the day he was born, with a bank account only slightly smaller than his ego.
At the end of April, when she gave birth to Katy, Milli declared the baby was hers and didn't have a father. Even when her mother threatened her, she stood by her decision not to tell, but now that Mary looked at the baby, she wondered if she really didn't know what gene pool Katy Scarlett dipped into to inherit those blue eyes and blonde curls. As she stared at the child with a puzzle piece now firmly in place, she saw other features that supported her theory. Curly blonde hair. Tall for fourteen months. Sweet natured. The exact replica of her father, with only a little of her mother's skin color, determination, and temper showing through. Oh, all of it could have come from Milli's other grandmother, but somehow, Mary Torres didn't think so.
"What are you staring at so intently, Mary?" Jim asked. "It looks like heaven just opened up and you got a glimpse of an angel."
Mary smiled sweetly. "That's exactly what happened, sweetheart. Milli, bring Katy out in the yard and we'll put her in the swing for a while before dinner. She needs to get some fresh air, and your chores are done for the morning. We'll put old crip here in his wheelchair and push him out to watch her giggle. That'll probably heal the hip quicker than any medicine the doctor can prescribe anyway."
Jim and Mary sat side by side in the backyard, him in a wheelchair, her in a rocking chair, as Milli pushed the baby in a swing that hung from the first limb of a tall hackberry tree. "What happened back there?" Jim whispered.
Mary shot a look toward the swing. "Shhh, she'll hear you. When I get it all figured out, I'll tell you," Mary leaned over and whispered in Jim's ear.
"Is it about Katy?"
"Yes, and you're going to love the story when it all gets worked out. She's lovely, isn't she?"
"Yes, she is. Sure you don't want to tell me a little bit of it? You know I've always trusted your sixth sense," he teased.
She took his hand in hers, kissing his fingertips. "Not now. Later."
Milli sent up a silent prayer as she listened to Katy's squeals. Lord, help me to pretend I don't know him if he's ever in my presence again. I need about ten thousand angels right now just to help me keep my sanity, Lord, so if you've got any to spare, send them to southern Oklahoma. Just touching his hand about made me melt in a puddle at his feet-again. I'd be grateful for a miracle, because that's what I'm afraid it's going to take if I have to stay here all summer.