“Have we met?” he asked, knowing he'd remember her if they had.
She gave him a slow smile. “Not until now. I just wanted to shake your hand and make a small personal contribution to your campaign.” She drew a plain white envelope from her purse and held it out to him. “Stella Rawlins. My phone number's written on the inside flap of this envelope. Call me if you need more. Call me, in fact, if you need anything at all.”
Some instinct made him hesitate. She thrust the envelope into his hands. “Take it. No strings attached. I just want to see the best man win the nominationâand the election in November.”
The envelope was thick and heavy between Prescott's fingers. He'd expected a check. This felt more like cash, probably small bills. Never mind, the lady meant well, and every little bit counted.
“Thank you,” he said, switching the envelope to his left hand and extending his right for the handshake. Her palm was warm, her firm grip lingering a few extra seconds.
welcome.” She turned and walked away, her hips doing a little shimmy as she disappeared into the crowd.
Curious, but not wanting to be observed, Prescott made his way to the men's room and shut himself inside a stall. Mindful of the phone numberânot that he planned to contact the womanâhe ran his index finger under the sealed flap and opened the envelope.
His pulse cartwheeled.
Inside was a thick bundle of hundred-dollar bills. Prescott's hand quivered as he ruffled through them, keeping a mental count. There were two hundred of them, if he hadn't lost track. Two hundred even.
Stella Rawlins had just handed him twenty thousand dollars cashâand told him to call her if he needed more.
Three days had passed, and Sky had yet to find the time for an afternoon trip to town. With drought conditions getting worse and no rain in the forecast, Will had ordered a crew up to the summer range to collect the cattle into one fenced pasture where the herd could be fed. The windmills pumped enough drinking water from the vast aquifer under the caprock to fill the tanks, but in the rainless heat the grass on the high plain was crumbling into dust. The cattle would need daily rations of hay to keep the animals from starving.
Sky had been pressed into service with the rest of the hands. Managing the remuda, riding herd with the other cowboys, and delegating care for the young horses he was training kept him so busy that even his worry about Marie had been pushed to the back of his mind. Cattle were the lifeblood of the Rimrock. No job was more vital than keeping the herd safe and healthy.
Sky was scanning the flat horizon for strays when Will rode up beside him. “The Boss,” as his hired men called him, had barely slept in days. His face and clothes were gritty with dust, blown by a wind that was like the heat from a blast furnace.
“You look like hell,” Sky said.
“I'm guessing I look about the same as you.” Will pulled down the red bandanna that protected the lower part of his face. “At least we got most of them penned. The first truckload of hay should be here any time. It'll cost us a blessed fortune to feed this many head of cattle.”
“Better than watching them waste and die,” Sky said. “How long do you figure we can afford to keep the hay coming?”
“According to Beau's numbers, we can feed them for another three weeksâmaybe a month if the rains come and we know there'll be grass. Otherwise, we'll have to sell them off cheap and see them trucked away to feed lots.”
“So this is a big gamble.”
“Damned big. I've lost nights of sleep wondering if we shouldn't just go ahead and sell them now. If it doesn't rain, every cent we're spending on hay is just money down the hole.”
The two men sat in silence, watching dust devils play across a landscape so flat that early Spaniards named it the
âthe Staked Plainâbecause they had to mark their trails with stakes in the ground to keep from getting lost.
Will lifted his Stetson and raked a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “Those colts you're breaking to sell could keep us from going under. How many can you have ready for auction before the fall roundup season?”
“The yearlings are barely halter broke,” Sky said. “But I've got at least twenty good two-year-olds that are partway there. It'll take a lot of work to get them to where they should be. But I'll do my best.”
The furrow deepened between Will's dark eyebrows. Sky could imagine him doing the math in his head. A well-bred, well-trained young cow pony could go for as much as $30,000. An exceptional horse, trained by a man of Sky's reputation, could fetch more. With luck, they could count on more than half a million dollars for the lot of themâminus what they'd paid for the unbroken colts in the first place. Would that be enough to make a difference?
Given what the ranch would lose if they had to sell off the cattle, it didn't seem like much. But that wasn't Sky's decision to make. All he could do was give the young horses his best and trust to luck.
“The boys and I can look after things up here,” Will said. “For now, I want you to get back to those colts. Go home, get some rest, and start again as soon as you're ready.”
“You're sure? There could still be strays out there.”
“I'll send somebody to check. Go on now.” He wheeled his mount, then paused, turning back. “About that cousin of yours. I know you need to check out what she's doing here and whether she had something to do with shooting Jasper. Take the time you need, as long as it's not too much. Those colts have to come first.”
“I hear you.” Sky had been working with the Tyler men since he was fifteen, and Will's controlling style sheeted off him like water off a stone. Beau, on the other hand . . .
Letting the thought trail away, Sky swung his roan gelding back toward the corral where the spare horses were kept. He'd brought his own pickup, which he would drive back down the winding road through the escarpment to the heart of the ranch. The horses not needed up on the caprock would be trailered down laterâa task the cowboys could easily handle.
Meanwhile, Sky would resume training the prime colts he'd brought to the ranch, and try to squeeze in time, tomorrow maybe, for an afternoon visit to the Blue Coyote.
He was unsaddling the roan when Beau rode up to the gate, dismounted, and led his bay mare into the corral. “Will wants me to ride back to the ranch with you,” he said. “I just found out he made an appointment for me with a banker in Lubbock. I'm supposed to go and talk with him about a backup loan to tide us over in case we need it.”
Beau's face was a thundercloud. Sky guessed that Will had made the appointment without consulting his brother and foreman. The stress of the drought was putting everybody on edge. Unlike Sky, Beau chafed visibly under the weight of his brother's authority. Sooner or later, Sky feared, there'd be a showdownâone that could end badly. Beau had left once after a clash with their father. If Will pushed him far enough, he might leave again.
Sky had vowed that nothing would change for him after Jasper's revelation. But some things couldn't be helped. The depth of his concern for his two blood brothers had come as an unsettling surprise. Whether he liked it or not, the Tylers weren't just his employers. They'd become family even before he knew of their shared blood.
Beau said little as Sky drove down the gravel road that zigzagged among flat-topped mesas and red sandstone hoodoos to emerge above the ranch. As the view opened up, Sky caught himself glancing down toward the house, to the open area beyond the porch where visitors parked their cars. There was no sign of the black Corvette.
“She hasn't been around.” Beau seemed to read his mind. “The computer hasn't been touched, and that little gold earring is still in the desk drawer. What did you do to the woman, anyway?”
Sky muttered a noncommittal reply. He'd tried to wall Lauren out of his thoughts, but she'd crept back to haunt his unguarded momentsâthat lush mouth, that lithe willing body, those sharp little whimpers as he'd brought her to climax.... He'd been crazy to take herâand even crazier to keep wanting her. She was the spoiled daughter of a man the Tylers barely tolerated. If he passed her on the street, she'd probably turn and look the other way.
“Whatever the hell's going on with you two, I need Lauren's help with the books,” Beau said. “If she doesn't show up soon, I'll have to go to her on my knees, offer her the moon, and promise to slug you if you get within a hundred yards of her.”
“Do what you have to,” Sky said. “Lauren doesn't take orders from me.”
“Getting testy, are we?” Beau prodded.
“Just don't push me. Get her back here and she's all yours. I've got better things to do than fool around with Garn Prescott's little princess.”
“Fine. Let's keep it that way.”
“Are you going to see Jasper on the way back?” Sky changed the subject.
“Of course I am,” Beau growled. “You and Will don't have to remind me of every little thing.”
Sky drove on in silence. Both men were saddle sore, hungry, sleep deprived, and on the ragged edge of snapping. But they made it to the house without an all-out clash. Sky let Beau off by the porch and drove around to his own quarters out back. Once they'd had a chance to rest and clean up, things would be all right between them, Sky knew. But anxiety over the drought was eating away at everyone on the ranch. And the blazing afternoon sun promised nothing but more of the same.
Jasper, at least, was doing better and would soon be coming home. Sky was counting the days. If ever there was a time when the ranch could use Jasper's salty wisdom, experience, and gentle humor, it was now.
Sky showered, dressed, and washed down a turkey sandwich with a cold beer. There wasn't enough time to go to town today, but if he got right to it, he could work with the colts for several hours.
Twenty minutes later, he was in the corral, saddling a two-year-old gray gelding, when he heard Beau's Jeep peel out of the yard and head down the long gravel lane toward the main road. Even without looking, he could tell that Beau's mood hadn't changed. As Jasper might have put it, dealing with bankers was like dealing with coyotes. They were quick to take advantage of a weakness, and any rancher with his back against the wall was fair game. Will had sent Beau in early to negotiate a possible loan before it was needed so they could get better terms. It was a wise move, but Sky could understand Beau's annoyance at being treated like an errand boyâjust as he understood that Will had been too preoccupied to make sure Beau was involved in the plan.
Sky eased into the saddle, lowering the brim of his Stetson to shade his eyes from the burning sun. The dwindling money, the hungry cattle, the flaring tempersâa good spell of rain would wash away all those troubles. But the heat-seared land was dying, and the heavens were merciless.
The dappled gray geldingânamed Quicksilver by Erinâwas a small horse with an elegant head that showed his Arabian blood. Smart as a fox and agile as a cat, Quicksilver had the makings of an ideal cow pony. Sky had singled him out for extra training in the hope of getting a premium price. Today he'd decided to introduce backing and turning, an essential maneuver for working a cow. The sharp little horse responded to the pressure of Sky's knees and the slight shifts in his weight, performing the moves as if they'd come naturally. Some lucky buyer was going to get their money's worth out of this boy.
Sky was paying no attention to anything going on outside the corral. A shrill whinny from the direction of the house shattered his concentration. He looked up to see a spectacular black horse dancing across the yard toward him, battling its rider all the way.
Sky swore out loud.
Clinging to the saddle, fighting for control of the reins, was Lauren.
With Quicksilver distracted by the newcomer, there was no way the training could go on. Taking his time, Sky freed the colt from the saddle and bridle and loosed him into the paddock. Emotions warred as he walked slowly back to the corral fence. Lauren Prescott was nothing but trouble in high-heeled boots. So why was he so damned glad to see the leggy, red-haired hellion?
More to the point, what was she doing to that poor horse?
attling the reins, Lauren managed to pull up short of the log fence. The Prescott cowhands had warned her not to ride the tall black gelding they called Storm Cloud. He had a rebellious streak and a tendency to nip and rear. He was nothing but trouble, they'd told her. Only a strong man could control a horse like that.
Which was exactly why Lauren had chosen him.
It had been all she could do, getting Storm Cloud the six-mile distance from the Prescott Ranch. He'd fought her every step of the way, shying at the wind in the brush, sometimes rearing, sometimes balking or fighting the bit with his tossing head. If Lauren had been a less experienced rider, or a less determined one, she might have been thrown.
There'd been moments when she'd been ready to give up and abandon this crazy idea. But she'd stuck it out, and here she wasâsweaty, dusty, sore, and windblown, but still in the saddle, bracing herself for the most challenging moment of all.
Sky was at the fenceâglaring up at her as if he'd caught her beating the wretched animal with a whip. So far this didn't look good.
“What in hell's name do you think you're doing?” he demanded.
“I'm trying to ride this horse,” Lauren said. “And since I brought him all the way here to ask for your help, the least you can do is be civil.”
He shook his head, his breath easing out in a long exhalation.
“I can pay you,” Lauren said. “I'll pay as much as you want.”
“I don't need your money, Lauren.” His low, flat voice was more withering than if he'd shouted at her. “I don't have much time to spare, but I'll do what I canânot so much for you as for this poor horse. Look at him, he's overheated and scared half to death.”
“Scared? This brute? Now, that's hard to believe.”
He swung over the corral fence in one easy motion. “Horses in the wild are prey. Fear helps keep them alive. It's part of their nature to be scared. You can climb down. I've got him.”
Gripping the bridle with one hand, he stroked the horse's damp neck, murmuring words Lauren couldn't understandâComanche perhaps. She felt Storm Cloud's taut body begin to relax. Swinging her leg cautiously over his hindquarters, she slid to the welcoming earth. The last time she'd ridden had been in her teens, when she'd competed in dressage with her grandfather's gaited American saddle horses. She remembered the basics, but her thigh muscles were screaming.
You know where to find me.
It had been a gamble on her part, choosing a difficult horse so she could ask Sky for help. There was something aching and restless in her that yearned to see him again and take a chance on what might happen. But after what he'd said to her before he walked out of the ranch office, she had too much pride to simply show up and say,
Here I am.
Did he feel the same? Sky took a step toward her, leaning close. Lauren's pulse skittered as she readied herself for a kiss, but he only sniffed the air above her head. “I can tell you one thing right now,” he said. “You're wearing perfume, and this horse hates the smell of it.”
“Oh, I hadn't thoughtâ” Lauren swore silently. She had dabbed her earlobes, the back of her neck and the hollow between her breasts with a pricey fragrance that, according to the ads, was supposed to make men melt. Evidently it didn't work on horsesâor on Sky Fletcher.
A smile teased the corner of his grim mouth. “In case you're wondering, I think you smell fine,” he said. “But if you're going to be around this horse, you'd better get rid of that scent. There's a faucet outside the barn door. Go and rinse off as much as you can.”
So much for seduction. Reaching the barn, Lauren found the faucet, turned it on, and began splashing cold water on the spots where she'd dabbed perfume. It was good perfume, formulated to last. Even after she'd finished dousing herself, she could still smell the sweet, musky aroma.
By the time she made it back to the corral, Sky had a second horse, a drowsy-looking bay mare, saddled and waiting. “We're going for a ride,” he said. “I'll take your horse, and you can tag along on this lady. Her name's Belle.”
“Is she the one you save for seniors and children?” Lauren tried a feeble joke.
“She's a great cow pony, and her foals are some of the best on the ranch. You should be honored to ride her.” Evidently, where his horses were concerned, the man had no sense of humor.
“Then I'll treat her as the lady she is.” Lauren moved past Storm Cloud to get to the mare. The big black horse snorted and laid back its ears. “I'm starting to take this personally.”
“If I can still smell that perfume, so can the horse. We'll need to camouflage that. Come here.” Beckoning her close, Sky turned and ran a finger under the edge of the saddle pad where the gelding's warm hide was soaked with perspiration. “Hold still,” he murmured, stroking his moist fingertip along the side of her throat and up behind her ear.
“You're making me smell like horse sweat!” Lauren hissed.
“Urine works even better. So does manure, if you'd rather have that. Hold still.” Collecting more of the dampness, he circled the back of her neck, working the horse smell into the base of her hair. The strangeness of itâthe pungent aroma and the light pressure of Sky's touchâawakened whorls of subtle sensation. The feeling shimmered downward to pulse like a glowing current in the depths of her body. Her lips parted. She stifled a moan as his fingers spread the scent over her damp chest and slid downward to the deep vee of her wet shirt front, where she'd tried to splash the perfume away from the hollow between her breasts.
His breathing had gone rough. She could feel the tension in him, the conflict as he struggled against the urge to move his hand lower. Blast the man! He must know what they both wanted. Why didn't he just give in?
Driven by impulse, she seized his wrist and tugged his hand down to cup her breast. He groaned. A shudder passed through his body as his fingers closed on her tingling softness. His free hand caught her waist and jerked her close, grinding her hips against him as his mouth crushed hers. The ground seemed to spin under Lauren's feet. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the waves of torrid heat that surged through her body . . . .
But only for a moment. Then Sky was shoving her away from him, holding her at arm's length. His hooded eyes burned as hot and blue as gas jets.
“Not here.” His voice was a growl. “We've got an audience.”
His head jerked in the direction of the yard, where one of the cowhands was strolling toward the bunkhouse. Only the horses, blocking the view, had kept him from getting an eyeful.
“And not now,” he said. “I promised Beau that if you came back to work on the books, I'd keep my distance.”
” Lauren's cheeks blazed.
“He guessed after he found your earring behind the computer. It'll be in the desk drawer when you want it back.” He turned toward the black horse again. “Come on, let's ride. We'll take it slow for the horses.”
Sky headed southeast, keeping the late afternoon sun at their backs. They rode single file across the brushy landscape, Sky in front on Storm Cloud, Lauren on Belle a few yards behind him. He'd warned her to keep the mare at a distance so she wouldn't distract the big black. But he suspected that Lauren's silence had little to do with the horses. He'd done it againâwounded her womanly pride. If he was getting the silent treatment now, it was no worse than he deserved.
Lord, did she have any idea how hard it had been to push her away? All he'd really wanted to do was drag her into the barn, throw her down in the hay, and thrust his sex deep into that lush, willing body. He knew she'd wanted it, too. That was why she'd shown up smelling like a high-class French cathouse, with her blouse unbuttoned to the point of luscious indecency.
The horse had been nothing more than an excuse. He understood that. But Storm Cloud was a magnificent animal, and his trust issues were real. If anything could be done for him, Sky resolved to do it. He kept his touch light but firm, guiding as much with his knees as with his hands. He could sense the resistance in the big gelding. What was the creature afraid of?
“What do you know about this horse?” he asked Lauren. “Where did he come from?”
“Sorry, can you say that again, louder?” Her voice came from a dozen yards back.
Sky glanced over his shoulder, making sure she could hear. “Bring the mare up even with us. Not too close. Let's see how he does with the two of you next to him.”
Nudging the mare to a trot, she came up alongside, keeping a safe distance between the two horses. The gelding tensed and snorted but kept to his brisk walking pace. Heat waves shimmered in the distance, blurring the air above the sunbaked land. A lone vulture circled against the blazing turquoise sky.
“Storm Cloud's behaving just fine for you,” Lauren said.
“But not because he wants to. I can feel the fear in every step he takes. It would help to have some idea of what's bothering him.”
“It's not just the perfume,” Lauren said. “He misbehaves with the cowboys, too.”
“What do you know about his history?”
“Not much. The foreman told me he wasn't raised on the ranch. One of the syndicate men brought him in last year. He'd bought the horse for his wife, but things hadn't worked out.”
“With the horse or with the wife?”
Lauren's laugh was deep and realâa sexy laugh, not a ladylike giggle. “I'm not sure. But could that explain why he hates my perfume?”
“Maybe. That, or he just plain doesn't like the smell. If you're bound and determined to ride this horseâ”
He broke off as a jackrabbit exploded out of the mesquite, almost under the gelding's hooves. Storm Cloud squealed and reared.
“Easy, boy . . . . That's it.” Sky soothed the quivering horse, keeping firm control as the rabbit streaked away. “As I was about to say, if you're determined to ride this horse, I'd like to keep him here for a week or two, keep an eye on him, ride him a little and see how he does. When you're helping Beau in the office, you can come out afterward, and I'll work with both of you.”
“Is this a bribe to get me working on Beau's spreadsheet again?” Mischief danced in her copper-flecked eyes. They'd be tempting fate, and they both knew it. Alone together, there'd be no way they could keep their hands off each other for long.
“Beau really does need your help,” Sky said. “He thinks you've stayed away because of me. We had a few words over it today. Sorry, but this drought's got everybody on edge.”
“My staying away had nothing to do with you. It's just that I've been busy.”
“So you'll come back?”
“I've meant to come back all along.”
“And the horse?”
“I'm with you. He deserves better than to be so miserable. Do whatever you can for him, and I'll give Beau some free hours in exchange.”
“You don't have to do that.” But it would please Beau, Sky thought. Given the ranch's limited cash flow, even that small saving would help.
“Please let me. I took the job for the experience, not for the money. And it's a great excuse to get away from my father.”
Yes, her father
. Sky had actually begun to like the woman before she reminded him whose daughter she was. Garn Prescott was everything that gave politicians a bad nameâtwo-faced, double dealing, and greedy. At least his late father, Bull's archenemy Ferg Prescott, had been up-front with his meanness. But Ferg's congressman son hid everything behind a genial mask.
How did Jasper put it?
Trust a rattler before you trust a Prescott.
Wise words, Sky knew. But kissing Lauren by the corral had lit a bonfire inside him. He wanted herâany time, any place he could get into those damned two-hundred-dollar jeans of hers.
But having her would mean walking a fine lineâmaybe even a dangerous line.
They were almost there before Sky realized where he was taking her. Without conscious thought, he'd been headed toward the southeast boundary of the ranchâand the hundred acres Bull had left him in his will.
Torn by conflict over his father's motives, Sky had avoided coming here. But he'd seen and admired the place before without knowing it was to be his. It was a choice piece of land, rolling, wooded in spots, and watered by a deep springâperfect for horses.
Even now, as they crossed the boundary, something resisted in him. It would serve his pride to sell the land and donate the money to the ranch. He didn't need it. And he didn't want a guilt offering from the man who'd left his mother pregnant and alone. If he saw the land, if he rode across it, he might begin to think of it as hisâand he wasn't ready for that.
But something in him had wanted to see the place again; and being here with Lauren made it easier. He wouldn't tell her about the land, of course. He didn't plan to tell anybody until he'd made a final decision. For now, at least, her company kept the darkness from his thoughts.
They talked about safe things. She told him about growing up in Maryland and competing in dressage. He explained the fine points of riding a Western cow horse. Heat lay like a blanket on the land. Insects droned in the long grass. The horses had slowed to a plodding pace. Even Storm Cloud was too hot to misbehave.
A bead of sweat trickled like a liquid jewel down her cheek. Sky checked the impulse to reach out and brush it away with his fingertip. With Lauren, one thing was apt to lead to another. Maybe it was time they turned around, before they found themselves in trouble.