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Authors: Janet Dailey

Texas Tough (9 page)

BOOK: Texas Tough
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Warning Marie to stay back, he stepped into the clearing, where a makeshift tent—little more than a tarp on some sticks—stood with the flap partway lifted. A magpie glided onto the peak of the ramshackle structure, scolded the newcomers, then took wing again.
“Coy?” Marie pushed past Sky and flung back the tent flap. There was nothing inside but some crumpled food wrappers, empty beer cans, and a dirty, rumpled blanket.
Through the trees Sky could see the marijuana patches, scattered among clumps of mesquite, each one watered by a black plastic hose. Without water, the finger-high plants wouldn't last long.
“Coy! Dammit, where are you?” Marie's voice had taken on a frantic note. She raced past the marijuana and up a faintly worn path that probably led to the latrine. She was back a moment later, a stricken look on her face.
“I can't find him anywhere,” she said. “He's gone.”
CHAPTER 8
S
ky and Marie took a few minutes to scout the area around the camp. They found no sign that any strangers had been there.
Sky made a last scan of the horizon. “Could Coy have taken his motorcycle somewhere? I don't see it.”
“That Harley's mine. It's parked behind the Blue Coyote,” Marie said. “I drove Coy into town for a burger and some snacks yesterday and dropped him off back here when he was done.”
“So that was you I heard driving up. I thought you'd be working at that hour.”
“My shift doesn't start till four-thirty on weekdays. Coy gets antsy out here alone, but it makes more sense for me to keep the bike in town. I'd just as soon not have him roaming around, getting into trouble.” Marie lifted her hat and raked a hand through her sweaty hair. “I heard somebody riding off on a horse as we pulled in. I was wondering if it might be you.”
Sky reached into the tent and lifted out a moth-eaten, red wool blanket. The butts of a half-dozen marijuana joints dropped to the ground as he shook it. There was nothing underneath but a couple of well-thumbed girlie magazines.
Sky tossed the blanket aside. “I don't see any guns. Where would Coy have kept them?”
“Right here in the tent. All he had was a little lever-action rifle and the shotgun we took off the old man.”
“Could he have taken the guns and gone hunting? There are plenty of rabbits and birds out here.”
“Maybe. Coy likes to kill things. But he's so lazy, he'd have to be starving to skin and cook anything he shot. Besides, we agreed that a campfire might attract attention.”
“In this drought, it could start a range fire, too.” Sky holstered his pistol and glanced back toward the spring. “How about helping me dismantle this hose setup and throwing it all in the truck? Maybe by the time we're finished, he'll show up.”
He seized one of the black hoses and yanked it free of the bent wire stakes that anchored it to the ground. It came up easily. Walking forward he coiled the length between his hands. After watching him a moment, Marie pulled up a second hose and began looping it over her arm. Sky studied her for some sign of anger or regret—after all, she'd likely helped Coy buy the pump and hoses and set up the watering system. But her sharp Comanche features might as well have been chiseled in stone.
It didn't take long to coil the hoses, pull the pipe out of the spring, and disconnect everything from the pump. By the time Sky backed the truck up to the site and tossed everything into the bed, the small cannabis plants were already wilting in the heat—and there was still no sign of Coy.
Marie gave Sky a questioning glance, as if to say,
What about him?
Sky thought of the work waiting back at the ranch. After opening the cab, he gave several loud blasts on the horn. “I can't wait here much longer, and I can't leave you without a ride. I'll give him ten minutes. If he's not back by then, we're leaving. Coy can figure things out for himself.”
“I can come back and check on him later,” Marie said. “But he'll need shelter. Can we leave the tent?”
“For now.” Sky slid his wallet out of his Wranglers and counted out four twenty-dollar bills. “If Coy needs food or a place to sleep, this'll help. But anything that's still here by tomorrow night is getting torn down and hauled away. Understand?”
Marie gave him a sullen look. “You've gotten mean in your old age, Sky.”
He thought of Lute. “Life does that to you. Something tells me you've figured that out by now.”
She sat on the lowered tailgate, her thin, muscular arms hugging her knees. “D'you plan to tell anybody about this?”
The drone of insects filled the silence as Sky pondered his answer. Maybe he could forgive the marijuana on his property. But he owed Jasper the chance to face the man who'd nearly killed him. The trouble was, with warrants hanging over him in Oklahoma, Coy would run from any involvement with the law. Maybe he already had.
“I told you, the shooting was an accident,” Marie said.
“If that's true, maybe we can clear it up without calling in the sheriff. Coy could go to the Tylers, explain what happened. It's worth a shot.”
“Sure it is.” Marie's voice twanged with sarcasm.
“If you've got any better ideas, I'm all ears. But know that if Coy runs, the offer's off the table. That's tantamount to an admission of guilt.”
“What about me?” she asked. “If Coy wants to leave, I can't stop him. But I'm staying in Blanco Springs, and you know the reason why.”
“Get Coy to cooperate—or tell the truth yourself if he runs—and I'll stand up for you,” Sky said. “If Coy had the gun and shot Jasper by accident, the only thing you'd be guilty of is trespassing.”
“And the weed?” she asked.
Sky lifted an eyebrow. “What weed?”
“Thanks,” she muttered, “I'll think about the rest.”
“There's a pen in the cab. I'll jot down my cell number for you.”
“I'll take it,” she said, “But I don't usually carry a phone, and I can't risk anything that might make Stella suspicious. If you need to talk to me, come in and order a beer. We'll work it from there.”
She was quiet on the way back to town, maybe worried about her brother, Sky thought. He let her off behind the Shop Mart, where he unloaded the hose parts and tossed them into a Dumpster. Why stir up a fuss when no harm had been done?
Driving home, he forced his attention back to the ranch. If the colts he was training could save the Rimrock, nothing could be allowed to distract him from his vital job—not Marie and her problems, and not even the sexy, red-haired hellion who kept stealing into his thoughts.
Lauren could drive him crazy if he let her, but that wasn't going to happen. Sure, if she wanted a roll in the hay, he'd be glad to give her one, no strings attached. But he'd seen her kind before—a spoiled princess having a little fun with a cowboy, not caring who got hurt. Sooner or later she'd face the fact that he could never give her all she wanted, and she'd move on. He was already prepared for that. As far as he was concerned, she was already gone.
As the house and barns came into sight, Sky glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was barely ten-fifteen. Plenty of time left to work with the colts. But the sun would be blistering hot. He would need to give his four-legged pupils plenty of water and maybe shorten their training intervals.
Still shifting mental gears, he came up to the house. He'd resolved not to look, but his gaze was drawn as if by a magnet to the gravel strip out front. There was Lauren's Corvette, the dust still settling on its shiny black chassis.
The sudden thought of her, in that room, at that desk, in those jeans, triggered a jolt of lust. A curse escaped his lips as heat forked through his body like an electric jolt.
Damn the woman!
Sky tore his eyes away and kept on driving.
Lauren switched off the computer, rose from the desk chair, and stretched her arms above her head. She'd put in a long day at the Rimrock. Beau would be pleased with what she'd managed to get done.
Beau had dropped by earlier for a quick hello. “I see you found your earring,” he'd said, casting an impish glance at the little gold stud she'd replaced in her earlobe. “For what it's worth, Sky's under strict orders to let you work today.”
“Fine.” Her hot-faced glare had warned him not to say more. Beau Tyler was an incorrigible tease, but he seemed to know when he'd pushed far enough.
At lunchtime, Bernice had brought her a chicken sandwich and some icy lemonade. She'd mentioned that her brother, Jasper, was home from the hospital and already chafing to be up and around. Aside from that—and the brief distraction of Sky's truck passing the house—Lauren had worked undisturbed.
Now it was late afternoon and time for a decision. She could go home now, or she could swallow her pride, find Sky, and apologize for yesterday's behavior. After picking up the hat she'd left on a chair, she closed the office and wandered outside to the front porch.
There was nobody in sight—only a red-tailed hawk riding the updrafts and a dust cloud swirling across the sun-parched yard. Heat waves blurred the near distance where the long barn stood, with the corrals and horse paddock on its far side. Would she find Sky there if she went to look for him? Would he be civil, or would he simply ignore her and go on with his work?
Maybe she should just get in her car and leave. Anything would be better than withering under the contempt in those proud cobalt eyes. A man like Sky could get any woman he wanted. If he'd decided Garn Prescott's daughter was more trouble than she was worth . . .
Lauren dismissed the thought. She had her own pride. And if all she needed was a male body in her bed, there was always Josh Hardesty, who would be back at the beckoning crook of a finger. But Sky had stirred something she hadn't felt since Mike's death. Not that she was in love with him—that would be too much to expect, as well as a disaster for them both. But for the first time in a year, she'd begun to feel something besides grief.
Without having made a conscious decision, she was walking across the open ground. Whorls of dust rose from under her boots. The slanting sun beat down on her straw hat as she came around the barn.
The horse paddock, which had its own windmill-driven watering system, was an island of green in a sea of sun-parched brown. Mares and foals clustered in the shade of a big cottonwood on the far side, their tails whisking flies out of one another's faces. Separated from the mares by a fence, Sky's colts drowsed in the heat or gathered around the water trough. A half-dozen older cows, kept around to accustom the colts to the presence of cattle, grazed along the far fence.
Lauren's pulse quickened as her eyes found Sky. He was on the near side of the paddock, working with Erin and her young palomino. Moving closer, Lauren leaned against the log fence to watch. She'd gotten to know Will's daughter over the past few weeks and found the girl delightful. Today Erin and Sky were working with a length of rawhide rope, not trying to lead the foal but simply letting him smell it, laying it across his back and draping it lightly around his neck to give him the feel of it.
Lauren knew better than to speak. She stood still and watched, amazed by Sky's gentleness. Here, in his own element, he was different from the gruff, driven man she'd come to know. With Erin and Tesoro he was all patience, his manner firm but tender, as if the girl and the foal were the most precious things on earth. What a wonderful father he'd make, Erin thought, then brought herself up short. Where had that thought come from?
No doubt Sky was aware of her—he was alert to everything around him. But he gave no sign that she'd caught his attention. He was focused on the lesson he was giving. His manner told her that any other business—even hers—would have to wait.
He took his time before ending the session, releasing the foal with a pat on the rump. With Erin at his side, Sky walked back to the fence.
“Hi, Lauren.” The girl grinned up at her. “Isn't Tesoro looking good? Sky says he's really smart.”
“I can tell,” Lauren said. “He's growing, too.”
“Sky says that if Tesoro's going to be a stallion, we have to make sure he's well trained, and that he knows I'm his boss.”
“Well, it looks like you're well on your way.” Lauren could feel Sky's gaze on her. He looked as if he'd been out in the hot sun all day. Sweat had plastered his cotton shirt to his lean-muscled torso. Below the brim of his Stetson, moisture beads trickled down his sun-burnished face. The salty man-aroma of his body seeped into Lauren's senses, arousing, despite the tension between them.
Erin caught the top rail of the fence, swung a leg over, and jumped to the ground. “Guess I'll go see if Jasper needs anything,” she said. “Thanks, Sky. I know you were really busy today.”
He gave her a quicksilver smile. “I can always make time for you and Tesoro.”
“More tomorrow?” she asked. “Just for a little while.”
“Sure.”
Lauren watched the girl race back toward the house. Pulse tripping, she turned back to face Sky. Was he going to welcome her, or chill her with a look?
His gaze found her. His chiseled face was unreadable. “Hell but it's hot,” he growled. “Hand me that empty bucket next to your feet.”
Puzzled, but knowing better than to question him, Lauren passed the bucket over the fence. He moved to the nearby watering trough and filled the bucket to the brim. Tossing his hat aside, he lifted the bucket high and emptied it over his head. Lauren watched the cool water spill over him, plastering his black hair to his head, flowing down his face and body like a cascading stream over a rocky ledge.
BOOK: Texas Tough
8.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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