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He didn't expect her to be so small.
Beckett Ventura watched the woman from the corner of his eye as he finished fastening on his tool belt. And despite her diminutive stature, she was a woman, slender curves and all.
The fact that he noticed either pointshort or womanwas mostly an irritation to him.
He hadn't come to the Lazy-B at damn near the crack of dawn on this particular July morning to be noticing anything at all about his neighbor's daughter.
For one thing, she wasn't even supposed to be there.
She was some fancy dancer who lived in New York and had done for years.
Or so he'd heard.
He lifted the tool chest out of the truck bed and turned toward the side of the house.
Only meant that he was also turning toward her because she was currently sitting on one of the front steps, her elbows on her knees as she cradled a white mug in her hands.
Of course she looked small. She was practically curled into a ball.
His jaw felt tight. Cage Buchanan, his neighbor who owned the ranch and who'd hired him for this particular job, had called him just last night. Ostensibly to check on the building projecta long-planned addition to the back of the Buchanans' two-story brick house. Beck suspected, though, that his neighbor had also wanted to let him know that his dancer-daughter was unexpectedly home for the rest of the summer.
Maybe Cage figured she needed looking after, even though he hadn't said it outright. But he had gone to the point of mentioning that she was getting over some sort of mild knee injury.
The last thing that Beck wanted was someone to look after.
He had his hands full enough looking after his daughter, Shelby. She was only six and so damn shy that she rarely managed anything above a whisper, even with her own father.
She was as different from her brother, Nick, as a person could get. Beck's son was nearly twenty-one and off at school, but he could remember him as a youngster as clearly as if it were yesterday. Where Shelby seemed shy and delicate, Nick had been all chatter and motion.
And thinking about either one of his offspring didn't make the woman sitting on the porch disappear. He couldn't walk on past her to the back of the house, much as he'd have liked to.
Wasn't neighborly, for one thing.
He had never put a lot of store in the social niceties, but his wife, Harmonywhen she'd been alivehad kept him from straying too far off the path of basic politeness.
He set his jaw and angled away from his pickup and the tin-can of an automobile with a rental company sticker in the back window that he'd parked behind. He crossed the graveled drive that ran from the front gate of the Lazy-B, circled near the house, then shot off toward the two barns set some distance away. His boots crunched across the gravel, hit the lush grasstoo lush, considering it was long overdue for a good mowingand walked toward her.
The fact that she was blonde was evident all along.
The fact that her eyes were as pale as the palest aquamarine, surrounded by the thickest, blackest lashes he'd ever seen only became apparent as he neared her and finally came to a stop several feet away.
She wore a skinny pink shirt with narrow straps that clung to her slender torso, baggy pants printed with pink hearts and red roses and had a scarlet colored weblike scarf looped around her arms.
She had a faint smile on her face, which was too narrow to be considered perfect. Above the scarf, the bones of her shoulders seemed ready to poke through her nearly translucent skin. Her hairas light as corn silkwas pinned messily up at the back of her head, some of it falling around her neck.
There was no reason for him to think she was stunning.
But she was.
If he had to recognize that fact, why the hell couldn't he do it with the simple detachment of a person recognizing something of beauty?
Why the damn hell did he have to feel a jolt of heat down deep inside him wheresince he'd lost Harmonyall he'd felt was a chasm of cold emptiness?
His tight jaw barely wanted to move. He gave a brief nod. "Beckett Ventura."
Her smile didn't waver. "Mr. Ventura. I figured." She set aside her coffee mug and unfolded herself from her low slouch on the porch steps. She rose smoothly, holding the long ends of the scarf together with one hand, and extended the other. "I'm Lucy. My parents told me about the construction work you're doing for them. It's very nice to meet you."
Her hand was as pale in tone as her shoulders, her palm narrow, her fingers long and slender. He might as well have been staring at a snake, ready to strike.
"Call me Beck." His voice was short and he forced himself to reach out and brusquely shake the offered hand, but only because in his head, he could see an image of his late wife, shaking her auburn head, a tsking look in her golden eyes. Go on now, the image spoke inside his head.
After their hands parted, he managed not to scrub his tingling palm down the backside of his jeans. Barely. "I'll try not to disturb you too much," he said evenly, lifting his toolbox a few inches.
She tilted her head slightly, those strangely pale eyes looking up at him. They would have seemed as ethereal as the rest of her if not for the ring of black that surrounded the irises, and the smudged, smoky look of her eyelashes that were oddly
He might have grown up a hick kid from a dysfunctional ranching home in Montana, but along the way, he'd learned what women could do with cosmetics. He stood close enough to Lucy Buchanan to recognize that there wasn't a lick of anything artificial on her upturned face.
Those black, sooty lashes, so at odds with her pale hair, were all her.
"Disturb me? Are you kidding?" Her smile had widened a little to reveal an unexpected dimple in her right cheek. "I'm so happy that my parents are finally adding on to this place, I wouldn't care if you made so much noise we all needed ear plugs." She didn't seem to notice his general reluctance about having to speak with her at all as she glanced over her shoulder at the house behind her. "I grew up here. My brother, Caleb, and I might have each had our own bedrooms, but there never was anything particularly spacious about the place." She sounded more matter-of-fact than complaining.
Then she looked back at him and her smile was still in place as she rearranged the scarf over those shoulders that looked as if they might break if someone handled them too roughly. "But then it was my grandparents who built it and I expect it was just fine for them." She stepped off the bottom step to the ground.
Oh, yeah. She was small. Damn near a foot shorter than he was, he figured, because the top of her head didn't even reach his shoulders. The loose pants she wore hung dangerously low around her slender hips, showing a solid three inches of bare skin below the edge of the clinging top; more than enough to see the way her hips flared out from her narrow waist.
A waist his hands could probably span with no trouble at all.
His jaw tightened again and he took a step back, moving his toolbox from one hand to the other.
It hadn't escaped his notice either that when she'd stoodfor all of the smooth grace in the movementshe was heavily favoring one leg over the other.
"My parents tell me you bought the old Victor place."
He wondered what else they would have told her. That he was an antisocial widower? "Yes."
"It's a pretty property."
"Suppose." He'd just needed a piece of land on which to put a roof over what was left of his family's head since staying in Denver with all of its memories had become intolerable. Yet he'd chosen to move them all to Weaver because it had been where Harmony was born.
Not exactly moving on.
Or so his father, Stan, had pointed out more than once in the eighteen months since they'd moved into the house that Beck designed and built.
And in those eighteen months, Beck had managed to keep his interactions with everyone outside his own family to a bare minimum.
The only reason he'd agreed to the build for Cage and Belle Buchanan had been because it was July and Beck knew it was better if he stayed busyreally busyin July. His chores around the ranch and the few head of cattle he ran just wasn't enough.
And dawdling around noticing the attributes of his neighbor's daughter wasn't staying busy at all. "I'd better get to it."
She didn't seem offended. She leaned over to pick up her coffee mug. "Let me know if you need anything."
The band of exposed skin widened fractionally.
When she straightened, he managed to move his lips in what he supposed was a reasonable facsimile of a smile. Enough so that her pleasant expression didn't change.
But as he moved away from her, he imagined he could feel those otherworldly eyes watching him go.
He waited until he turned around the corner of the brick house before he let out a breath. And waited even longer until he reached the framework of the addition he was building on the rear side of the house before he loosened his white-knuckled grip on his toolbox and set it on a stack of lumber next to some sawhorses.
"Only thing I need died three years ago," he muttered to the morning air. Two years, eleven months and sixteen days ago, to be exact.
Lucy sat back down on the porch steps and cradled the coffee mug in her hands as she watched her parents' neighbor stride out of sight.
It was just after six in the morning and the warmth of the mug between her palms wasn't quite enough to counter the cool air. It definitely wasn't enough to counter the chill that had been in Beck Ventura's eyes.
She didn't know all that much about the man except for the brief details her folks had shared. That he was building an addition for them. That he was their nearest neighbor, although he didn't socialize much.
And that he was a widower, living with his father and his small daughter.
Having met him herself, now she knew that he was tall, broad-shouldered and lean. Those chilly, painfully solemn eyes were a muddy shade of green and he had only spoken to her because he'd obviously figured he'd had to.
She hitched her scarf over her shoulders again, sipped the coffee that was still hot, even if it had stopped steaming, and stared out at the land around the house.
At least the man had picked a good place to raise his child. Lucy might have become an East Coast transplant, but she'd loved growing up on the Lazy-B. The cattle ranch had been in the Buchanan family since her father was a boy, but now at least half the branded cattle growing fat on Lazy-B grass carried the Double-C brand, which was pretty much the largest operation in the state of Wyoming. It was owned by the Clay family. They happened to be Lucy's family, too, thanks to the marriage between Lucy's grandmother, Gloria, to Squire Clay, who was the ranching family's patriarch.
Lucy still considered marrying Gloria's daughter, Belle, to be the smartest thing her dad had ever done. Not because Belle was one of the wealthy, influential Clay clan, but because she made her dad happy. One summer, Belle had come to the Lazy-B to help Lucy recover from a knee injury that had landed her in a wheelchair for months, and she'd ended up becoming the only mother who mattered.
Now, Lucy tugged up the leg of her loose pajama bottoms and studied that same knee that she'd injured yet again.
It was covered with a miserable choreography of scars. They were long and had paled over the years, having been earned when she was twelve from being thrown from a horse that had been too wild for her not-inconsiderable horse skills. But the current problem with her knee showed no scar.
Just swelling and bruises that, over the course of the past several weeks, had evolved into a putrid shade of greenish yellow.
A truck heading up the drive caught her attention. She pushed down the pant leg as she watched the vehicle race along the gravel until it came to an abrupt stop next to Beck Ventura's dark blue pickup.
She set aside her coffee again and pulled herself to her feet. "Caleb!" She'd wondered when he'd show his face.
Her brother stepped out of the truck, looking rumpled and crabby, although he slanted her a grin as he headed her way. "Hey." His voice was deep and he looked like their father, only his hair was as dark as chocolate, courtesy of Belle. "When the hell did you get here?"
"Last night. And when did you get old enough to be staying out all night?" she asked as he caught her in a big, welcoming hug.
He set her back on her feet and grinned. "Gonna rat me out to the folks?"
"I didn't interrupt Mom and Dad's vacation to tell them I was coming home until I got here, so I hardly think I'm going to interrupt them with tales of your wild ways," she said drily. "You were with Kelly, I suppose?" Kelly Rasmusson had been Caleb's girlfriend since high school, sticking with him even when he'd left for college and she'd stayed behind in Weaver.
Caleb grimaced a little. "Not this time." He reached over to nab her coffee for himself. His brown eyes squinted as he drank down the brew. "That the rental you drove all the way from New York?" He jerked his head toward the economy car that looked particularly small situated as it was in front of two large pickup trucks.
She nodded. "I'll need to turn it in sometime this week. There's an office over in Braden." The town was Weaver's closest neighbor, about thirty miles away. And even though both communities were small, when combined, they usually provided whatever the residents needed.
"I've got some stuff to take care of there this afternoon. I can take it if you want."
She wasn't about to turn down the offer. "How will you get back if you're driving it?"
Her brother just shrugged. "I'll grab a ride from someone," he said dismissively, just as the high-pitched whine of a power tool rent the air, startling Lucy. "Beck's at it early."
A shiver danced over her skin and she hitched her scarf up yet again. She'd forgotten how chilly it could be in the mornings even in the throes of summer. "When does he usually start?"