A soft breeze carried the crisp odor of cow manure, telling Kira McGovern where to find her new coworkers. Male voices and animal sounds wafted on the dry air, and dust rose up in a cloud in front of the barn's open double doors. She stepped inside, where it was at least ten degrees cooler, and the conglomeration of sounds assaulted her senses. Cowboys bustled around, relaying bales of hay to the loft, cleaning stalls, grooming horses, and yelling commands to one another. In the distance, through the barn's other set of doors was a huge corral, holding several hundred head of lowing cattle, and beyond that, men were branding calves.
Kira caught a man by the arm and asked him where she could find Holt Crockett, the owner's son. Ben, the owner, had hired her to diagnose and treat an illness affecting the majority of his herd and had said Holt was in charge and would give her the details. She was a little nervous, because this was her first job as a professional veterinarian.
The cowboy looked her up and down with a lop-sided grin, pointed, then moved on before she could thank him. She looked in the direction he'd indicated and saw a group of men in a corner, one of them standing sideways with his head bent over a clipboard, instructing the others.
A tan cowboy hat topped his caramel colored hair, which curled below his collar. Burnt-caramel stubble darkened his jaw. She couldn't make out the specific details of his face, hidden in shadow. His long-sleeved, white, cotton shirt tapered from square shoulders to his waist, where it disappeared into dirty blue jeans. Knee-length chaps framed his buttocks, and spurs chinked at the heels of his worn boots.
Kira allowed herself to admire the masculine angles of his body as he stood hipshod. Ben's attitude led her to believe Holt was in his early twenties, but this man looked at least thirty, and seasoned by hard work in the desert sun. She figured he was Holt's assistant, but would know how to find him.
She stepped around a wheelbarrow of fresh manure, wondering why men always had to spit where people walked. She approached him and tapped his shoulder. When he turned, he glanced at her, then back to his clipboard, as if dismissing her.
"Treat's in the house, Ma'am," the man hollered above the noise, a toothpick bouncing between his lips. He pointed toward the house and then turned from her, frowning. Apparently not caring whether she overheard him, he said to the others, "Great. Another buckle chaser for Treat tonight. I barely got four hours work out of him yesterday, and he's getting started early today." He looked at his watch and rolled his eyes, laughing sarcastically, then added, "Treat should give out better directions, and maybe even a map down the hall to his bedroom." The men laughed what Kira thought was a dirty locker-room laugh.
Incensed, Kira slapped his shoulder. "Excuse me!"
The man turned to her, an impatient look on his face and pointed toward the house again. Kira shook her head and motioned with her hand for him to bring his head closer to hers. With a patronizing look, he leaned down while the other men watched with interest.
"May I speak to you outside?" She decided she'd put him in his place when she got him away from all the noise and had his full attention. As he stood up, she reminded herself that the best looking men were the worst to get involved with.
He strightened, and his eyes bored into hers, but his mind seemed to be someplace else. Then he blinked, and almost imperceptibly shook his head just once. "Sure."
Kira nodded, then strode out. She heard him following as the other men murmured, and stopped about twenty feet away from the barn, where she turned to confront him. Her voice caught. His eyes shone above high cheekbones and beneath a strong brow, and in the sunlight, they matched the color of his hair exactly. His square chin cradled a dimple that could make a woman swoon.
And she almost did. Her body over-rode her mind, spreading tingles through her chest and making starbursts in her belly. She knew she had to find Holt and escape this man. "I," she began, but it came out in a whisper. Kira swallowed. "Can you tell me where I can find Holt Crockett?"
Blinking, he pressed his lips together, then spoke. "That would be me, ma'am."
Kira stood there a moment, speechless. Holt frowned, then shifted from one foot to the other, hanging his large hands on his hips. The sun pounded her uncovered head, drawing trickles of sweat from her scalp, and glinting off the pearl snaps on Holt's shirt.
Her first-job excitement had turned to dread. A small attraction for this man could grow into a raging desire, and would turn her precariously balanced life into road-kill. But, she had signed a contract.
Kira flipped her hair back from her cheek and held out her hand. "I'm Kira McGovern, your new vet. Ben hired me and said I should see you."
Holt grabbed her hand and froze. "He what?" A violent scowl creased his face.
"I assumed he'd told you," she stammered, her hand slipping from his.
"He damn well didn't." Holt spit out his toothpick. "And we don't need one." He turned and strode toward the house, then stomped inside and slammed the door.
It took a minute for Kira to realize that she'd been fired. But he couldn't do that. He hadn't hired her! She marched after him and whacked the heavy, brass, bull's-head knocker against the door.
The door swung open before she could lower her hand. In front of her stood a loose-jointed, shaggy-blonde haired, Cheshire-smiling man in a wrinkled, tapered shirt with pearl snaps down running down the front. But what caught her eye was the huge silver and gold rodeo award belt buckle, studded with several large stones and with 'TC' tooled into the metal. He looked to be enjoying the argument, which was audible through a closed door behind him.
With feigned enlightenment he said, "Ah, you must be the doctor we're expecting." He stepped back, pulling the door wider. "Please, come in."
Kira stepped inside, deciding she didn't like this person. "I need to speak to Ben," she said, as he swung the front door closed behind her.
"He's busy right now." He smirked at the direction of the argument, then turned back to her. Grinning, he crossed his arms over his chest, and began rocking back and forth from heel to toe, perusing her body. Kira felt as if she were a prime heifer on the block and could barely resist pulling her lips away from her teeth to show him her age and health. Instead, she eased away from him.
"What?" She thought he'd told her he was a treat. To Kira, he sounded just like the menboys at vet-school, so full of themselves.
"Treat. S'my name." His leather boots creaked as he rocked.
"Nice to meet you." She turned her back on him and examined some Indian pottery on the wall, groaning inwardly.
"And that's what I could give you," he added, in a conspiratorial tone.
She smirked at him over her shoulder. "Sounds like a lot of empty calories, to me." Kira heard his creaking pause, then continue. She smiled to herself, moving her attention to another wall. But her smile didn't last long. She needed this job.
Kira's sister and brother-in-law, Cleo and John, had died three months ago in a car accident on the way to her graduation.Yesterday, she'd been in court fighting for custody of her niece, Zoe. Cleo had left Zoe's custody to Kira, which outraged John's parents and triggered the fight. The court was concerned that Kira hadn't found a job or permanent residence yet.
Truthfully, Kira had been so depressed about her sister, she hadn't even looked for a job. She'd survived on the remains of her school loans, while adjusting to instant motherhood. But the judge had given her two months to prove herself and keep Zoe.
After her case had been heard, Ben, who was there with his attorneys for a case, had introduced himself and offered her a job. Besides the perfect timing, Ben was just as desperate as she was. He couldn't afford to pay her right now, so he'd proposed that she would receive a hefty ten percent of the ranch, including room and board and a fully stocked veterinary trailer to start her own business, if she was successful in diagnosing the cattle disease.
If Kira failed, she would walk away with nothing. And she couldn't lose Zoe. It was what Cleo and John had wanted, and Kira loved Zoe as her own daughter.
Her shoulder muscles tensed as she remembered the pain and stress of the last few months. At least, Treat silently watched her now. She looked at the closed door and wondered what was going on in there.
Holt leaned his hands on the front edge of Ben's desk. "What you're doing is just plain wrong." Holt glared at his father, sitting behind his mammoth desk. "How can you so easily give away a piece of the ranch? Of ...our family heritage?"
"Son, you have to understand that I'm thinking of the future--"
"I'm the future of this ranch." Holt jabbed his thumb into his chest. "Me and Treat." He knew his younger brother listened outside the door.
Of course, Holt never thought his brother would be a part of the ranch. Treat was more interested in women and rodeos, and had already promised he'd sell his share when he got it. Which was good. Holt couldn't imagine working side by side with him; they'd been adversaries since childhood.
"Hell, Dad, I'm thirty-two years old. It's time you stepped down and let me handle it." Holt began pacing in front of the desk.
"Damn it." Ben Crockett slammed his fist onto the desk pad. "I told you, you're not ready to take over yet."
Holt halted and faced his father. "You said I was in charge. What does that mean, then?"
"It means what it means. You're in charge. For now. We'll see how you do, and if necessary, we'll try Treat." He waived his arm at the door. "You're still so damned pig-headed."
"But Treat's a screw-up," Holt mumbled under his breath.
"You and Treat are so different from one another. I don't know how I could have spawned the both of you."
Holt flinched. When he was ten years old, he'd heard the men talking about his mother getting into trouble with Hiram Bogie, the neighboring rancher, and then marrying Ben. He would never forget the fear and shock he'd felt back then. He'd run behind some bales of hay, fallen onto his knees, and cried nearly all day.
It was easy to question; Holt had been born about nine months after his parents were married. Plus, Ben seemed to favor his younger brother, appearing more proud of Treat's accomplishments than Holt's. And there seemed to be tension between his parents whenever discussion revolved around that timeframe.
It worried him so much, that for the last twenty-two years he'd worked like hell to be the best. He wanted Ben to know that he was worthy, and there was no way he'd let anyone take ownership of even one cow pie. This ranch was a part of him, belonged to him. He loved it and he'd earned it.
Holt began pacing again, his mind racing. He didn't need a vet. He was sure he'd figured out the problem already, and could take care of this on his own. And once he did, that gold-digging vet could take a hike.
"Eventually you'll see the wisdom of investing a piece of the ranch in a good vet," he heard Ben say.
Holt flared his nostrils, trying to control his breathing. He opened his hands, beseeching. "I just need some time."
"We don't have it, son." They studied each other. "Do you know where I was yesterday?"
"At the courthouse." Ben paused, and Holt's interest perked. Why hadn't his father told him? It was just like Ben to leave him out of important things.
"Our creditors caught wind of our trouble and have called in our loans. The lawyers got it delayed."
"Well, then...we have time." Maybe he could turn this around. "I know I can handle this on my own. I can-- "
"No, Holt. It's a done deal." Ben raised his right brow. "You'd better catch her before she gets too far. And bring her in here so I can fix things up with her."
Holt stood a moment more, willing himself to stay calm. He couldn't believe this was happening. He turned, strode to the door, and jerked it open, almost knocking Kira down.
She'd probably heard everything that just happened between he and his father. Backing up, he stood aside and motioned for her to enter. She nodded and walked in, while he waited for herto take a seat in front of the big desk. Hell, he may resent her, but that didn't mean he wouldn't show manners--in the house, anyway. His mother wouldn't stand for anything less. Besides, if he was going to have to work with her, he may as well enjoy the scenery. She did have one hell of a backside.
Treat followed to the door and leaned against the jamb, arms crossed, grinning. He looked to Holt like he'd been having fun with the doctor. Besides being an obvious gold digger, maybe she really was a buckle chaser. Holt stared at his father's back, as he stood with his hands clasped behind him, looking out the window, through wooden shades.
Turning, he looked at Holt a moment, then Kira. "Kira, please accept my apologies."
Holt felt her tension. She seemed wound up like a pig's tail.
Ben dipped his head and chuckled. "I thought I'd told Holt about your arrival, but I guess that I forgot. Just a part of gettin' old."
Holt grimaced at his father's lie. He'd figure out a way to beat this. Holt pulled out a toothpick from his pocket, to substitute for the cigarette he really needed, unwrapped it, and ground it between his molars.
"Holt is in charge of this ranch." Ben stopped and gave his son a meaningful glance. "Fortunately, we've come to an understanding, and we'll be keeping you on."
Kira smiled, then said, "That's good to hear, Ben. Thank you." Holt had expected her to castigate them both for not having their act together. Maybe she was a little afraid of Ben, he mused. If so, maybe he could intimidate her himself. Then she might quit this job before messing things up for him.
Ben stopped pacing at the center of the desk and faced them both. "Mrs. Crockett and I are leaving this afternoon for a week in Barbados. We were planning a month-long trip, but with the problems we've been having, I couldn't take that much time away."
From the corner of his eye, Holt saw Kira look from Ben to him and he smirked. Treat gave a soft guttural laugh. Holt knew Treat was going to pursue her into his bed. Of course, she'd be a major step up for his brother.
Whatever his feelings on the matter, this woman did have class and looks. If it weren't for his situation, Holt might try to have a go at her himself. But, this was war. If Treat was successful in his wooing, Holt could use that to embarrass her. She'd lose the respect of the rest of the men and have to leave.
Ben sat at the desk again, and arranged papers. "I trust that by the time we return, you both will be working together smoothly and our cattle situation will be almost resolved."
He seemed to believe that his words had fixed the problem and that everyone finally agreed with one another. Holt hated that.
"There." Ben wiped his hands in the air. "Now, I've got a plane to catch."
Kira jumped to her feet as he walked past her. "But-- "
Ben headed for the door and paused. "Oh, Kira, meet my other son-- "
Kira turned. "We've met." She looked at all three men as if they were insane.
She looked like she was feeling trapped. And really, she was. She was closed in by him, a man who didn't want her here; Treat, who wanted her in one place only; and Ben, who wasn't going to be here himself. It was perfect. Before the day was out, he'd have this little filly broken and trained. Holt leaned back in his chair and enjoyed Treat's moves for the first time.
Treat stood away from the door jamb, squaring his shoulders. "Not officially," he said, with a challenging grin.
"Treat's our rodeo champ, Kira." Ben slapped his son's back. "He's put the family on the map!" Ben beamed and Holt snorted.
Kira stepped behind Holt and approached Treat with her hand extended. "Nice to meet you." She smiled briefly.
Holt watched as Treat's eager hand grabbed hers and held it several seconds too long, then he frowned when Kira wiped her hand on her jeans.
Ben nodded his approval. "Well, good luck then. See you next week." He disappeared down the long hallway, leaving Kira standing between the two brothers.
She stood motionless. Treat relaxed against the door jamb again, looking at her as if she were naked.
Holt watched all this with amusement, and then rose. "We'd better get started."
"Absolutely." Keeping her eyes on Treat, she moved toward the door. When Treat refused to budge, she stared at him until finally, he winked and sauntered away. Cocky as ever, true, but Holt had to admit Treat got a reaction--and was always successful. Maybe he'd watch closely and get himself a little action in town, - after the ranch was in the black again.
Kira veered off from their path to the barn and surprised Holt when she approached a motorcycle, rummaged through the storage compartment, and pulled out a doctor's bag and a pistol. What kind of a woman rode a motorcycle? Holt kept walking, and didn't acknowledge her when she caught up with him. He hid his pleasure at the fact that she almost had to run to keep up with his long stride.
"I assume you can ride a horse." Holt motioned to some hands and told them to saddle up Betsy for her.
"I've ridden a few times."
As he bridled and saddled a brown and white Quarter horse, an old cowboy with white wisps of hair jutting from under his hat brought her a spotted Appaloosa mare.Random braids decorated hte the mare's long black mane.
He was sure she'd just lied. Didn't matter. He'd see the truth soon enough, and then she'd have another strike against her, the first one being merely her presence. Not to mention the fact that she was too small to be a large-animal vet, and too good-looking. She'd have her men falling off their horses and roping each other instead of the cows. That was more than enough to convince him she didn't belong here. Holt slid his rifle into its sheath on his horse. "Shorty, tell Treat I want him to ride the south fence starting today." He looked at her and realized she was missing an important piece of gear. "And, loan her your hat," he added with disgust.
"That's okay, Shorty." She turned to Holt. "I can get by for one day without it."
Holt looped a coil of rope over his saddle horn and began checking the cinch. "Ms. McGovern, while you're on this ranch, I'm responsible for you. You won't be as valuable to my father with a sunburn, let alone heat stroke." He turned to Shorty. "Shorty, I know it's a lot to ask, but if you don't mind."
Shorty nodded then, with a grimace, ifted the black felt off his head and handed it to her. He turned his head away and averted his eyes. To a cowboy, it was bad luck for anyone else to handle your hat, and Holt thought it was damned inconsiderate of her to have not brought her own.
Kira smiled her thanks and donned the hat. Holt noticed she was careful to hold it by the front and back of the brim so as not to crunch the creases in the crown.
"Thank you," she said to Shorty, then turned to him and smiled.
"It'll do." He busied himself by tying canteens to the saddles and rechecking the cinches for the third time, trying not to stare.
She looked Bea-utiful.
When he first met her, he'd assumed she was here for Treat, even though she wasn't his type. Treat's type of woman was all perfumey, with stiff, curled hair and lots of make-up.
His mother had always told him that he was a man for details, and he'd sure noticed some on Kira. Her eyes were a blue-black lit up in the sunshine like the neon sign down at Julio's. Tiny almond-colored freckles dusted her nose and cheeks, atop full, bow-tie lips.
And when he leaned over her in the barn that first time they'd met, her soft, shoulder-length black hair caressed his nose, filling his head with sweetness. Time seemed to have stopped, and he watched as pinpoints of glistening perspiration had slid past the opening of her shirt. A silver ball, about one inch in diameter hung from a silver chain, and snuggled between her breasts, something he'd instantly imagined himself doing.
All right, so she was something to look at, which he'd already noted was part of the problem. But she made him remember how long it'd been since he'd had a female in his bed. His experience with pretty faces was that there were never enough brains behind them. And this pretty face was a threat, besides. Just the thought of what she could do to his life dwindled any desire he might otherwise have felt. Or so he tried to tell himself.
He walked his horse out of the barn, mounted, and gently spurred the animal into a walk. A few moments later, he heard the doctor's horse galloping up behind him and her butt slapping the saddle. The slapping sound slowed and subsided as she caught up with him. Holt sighed; it was going to be a long ride.
Holt's mind worked, going over the situation. He had to accept his father's decision about hiring her, and he had to work with her. But he didn't have to actually help her. He didn't have to make it easy for her. She'd have to pull her weight just like every other hand on the ranch. Holt grinned inwardly, as a plan began to form in his mind. By the end of today, this little snippet of a woman would be calling it quits. He'd cure the cattle without anyone's help, and he'd end up with the ranch--all of it. Hope surged in his veins like good whiskey. He smiled and turned his horse south, through rugged terrain toward the holding corral.