By: Diana Palmer

“Why are you calling me, if you don’t need an extra ranch hand?” she asked merrily.

“I thought you might like to go to the sale with me,” he said comfortably. “I’ll buy you lunch after we’re through.”

She grinned. “I’d love to,” she said.

Not only did she enjoy his company, but she loved the atmosphere of the sale barn. It was always crowded, always fun. She liked hearing the auctioneer’s incredibly rapid spiel as he prompted buyers to go higher and higher on prices for the various lots of cattle. She liked the other cattlemen who turned up there, many of them from Comanche Wells, as well as Jacobsville, which was only a few miles from Comanche Wells. There was a select group of environmentally staunch ranchers to which Jason belonged. They raised old grasses that were earth-friendly, they improved the land and provided habitat for wild animals, they used modern methods of feed production that were kind to the ecology, and they were fanatics about the good treatment of their purebred cattle. These cattlemen never used growth hormone and they only used the necessary antibiotics, most particularly those that prevented bovine pulmonary disorder. They didn’t use dangerous chemicals to control weeds or pests. Cy Parks had introduced the idea of using predator insects to control many pests. The lack of poisonous substances on plants helped grow more colonies of honey bees, which were essential to pollination of grain and feed crops.

None of the environmental group of Jacobs County ranchers ran beef cattle; they were all producers of herd sires and champion young bulls, cows and heifers, which they sold for herd improvement. It got them into trouble sometimes with beef producers who wanted a quicker profit. There had been some notable fistfights at cattle conferences in the past. Jason had been involved in one of them. Gracie had gone to bail him out of jail, bursting into laughter when she saw him, disheveled and bloody and grinning like a Cheshire cat as they led him out of the detention cell. He loved a good fight.

“I said I’ll pick you up in about twenty minutes,” he repeated, because she hadn’t answered him.

“Okay. What should I wear?”

“Jeans and a T-shirt,” he said. “If we walk in wearing designer clothes, the price will jump twenty dollars a head before I sit down. I don’t want to be recognized.”

“Fat chance if we show up in your Jaguar,” she drawled.

“I’m driving one of the ranch pickups and wearing working clothes,” he drawled back.

“All right. I’ll finish cleaning out my flower beds later.”

“As if we haven’t already got enough damned bulbs poking up in the front yard. You’re getting soil ready to put out more this fall, aren’t you?” he muttered. “And I’ll bet you’ve got Harcourt refilling those planters on the porch.”

He knew her too well. “It’s just pansies—they’ll last until late autumn. I won’t plant bulbs until October. But bulbs are beautiful in the spring, Jason,” she defended herself.

“Why do I pay a yard man to do outdoor work?” he grumbled.

“Because he does the heavy work that Harcourt and I can’t,” she replied saucily. “I’m hanging up now.”

“Don’t keep me waiting,” he said. “We’ll barely make it there in time, as it is. I got held up with an accident.”

“You weren’t hurt?” she exclaimed quickly.

There was a slight pause. “No,” he said softly. “Not me. One of my cowboys got stepped on by a bull. Broke his foot, but he’ll be all right.”

She let out the breath she’d been holding. Jason was her life. He didn’t know how she felt about him. It was impossible anyway. She could never do those things with men that most modern women did. She remembered her mother coming out of the bedroom, the blood staining her nightgown…

She grimaced. “I thought you just hired a new man to go to local sales representing the ranch to buy cattle for you.”

“I did. But I’ve heard some things about him I don’t like. He’s supposed to be at this auction. I can see for myself.”

“He’ll recognize you.”