By: Diana Palmer

He glanced at her from under the wide brim of his creamy Stetson. He didn’t smile, but his black eyes did.

He was wearing jeans, too, with wide leather batwing chaps, old disreputable brown boots with turned-up toes from too many soakings and stains everywhere. His shirt was chambray and faded. Despite the immaculate cleanness of his beautiful, tanned hands, he looked like a poor, working cowboy.

Heavens, he was sexy, she thought as she gave him a covert appraisal. Tall and broad-shouldered, with that physique rarely seen outside a Hollywood Western film, jet-black hair in a conventional short cut, and a light olive complexion that was a legacy, like his black eyes, from a Spanish grandfather. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, but he had a very masculine face, lean and square-jawed, with deep-set eyes and high cheekbones and a mouth that was so sensuous it made Gracie squirm. He’d never kissed her. Well, not in the way a man would kiss a woman, anyway. They didn’t have that sort of relationship. Nor was he a womanizer. He had women, certainly, she was sure. But he never brought them home.

“Deep thoughts, tidbit?” he teased, grinning at her with perfect white teeth.

“I was thinking how handsome you are,” she blurted out and then flushed and laughed nervously. “Sorry. My mouth and my brain are disconnected.”

He didn’t smile. His black eyes slid over her face and back to the road. “You aren’t bad yourself, kid.”

She toyed with her seat belt. “Are any of the Jacobsville crowd coming up for this sale?”

“Cy Parks, J. D. Langley and Leo Hart,” he said. “The Harts are after another one of those Japanese bulls grown for Kobe beef. They’re moving into new breeding programs.”

“Don’t tell me Leo’s gone off Salers bulls?” she exclaimed.

He laughed. “Not completely. But when you consider how well Japanese beef sells, it’s no surprise. It’s tender and lean and appeals to shoppers. We’re in a consumer-driven market war, grubbing for new methods of production and new marketing techniques to overcome the slump in sales.”

“Don’t you still chair a committee on marketing with the cattlemen’s association?”

“I did. Had to give it up. This damned German business is wearing me ragged.”

She recalled that he was haggling for another computer company with a concern in Berlin that produced a new brand of microchip. Negotiations for a merger were going into their third week while the bosses hemmed and hawed about whether or not they wanted to sell for the price Jason was offering. Eventually he was going to have to spend some time overseas working personally on the takeover, because the man he’d delegated that authority to was quitting. His wife was English and he wanted to move to London. Jason would have to replace him, but there was no time for that now. It was too sensitive a negotiation to bring in a new outsider. Jason would have to do the job himself.

“You could send Grange to Germany and let him deal with them for you,” she murmured with a mischievous grin, naming his new livestock foreman. Grange had worked for the Ballenger feedlot, but Jason liked him and had hired him on at the ranch for a bigger salary. Grange had proved to be an asset. His military background had made him the perfect foreman. The former army major had no trouble throwing out orders.

He made a face at her. “Grange negotiates like a military man. You know they won’t let men fly overseas with guns.”

“Grange is big enough to intimidate those businessmen without guns.”

He gave her a cool appraisal. He didn’t like it when she talked about Grange. He didn’t like Grange’s interest in her. Not that he made an issue of it. He just made sure Grange was otherwise occupied when Gracie visited the ranch. His black eyes slid over her slender body in the tight jeans and T-shirt. His hand on the steering wheel contracted violently. Gracie didn’t notice. She was smiling out the window at a group of children playing in the dirt yard of an old, ragged house beside the road.

THE SALE BARN WAS FULL. Gracie walked behind Jason, pausing when he did to speak to cattlemen they knew along the way. The auctioneer spotted Jason the moment he walked in and they nodded at each other. She didn’t see the Jacobsville cattlemen, but there was a huge crowd. They might be on the other side of the arena. The only seats left were against a wall, but he didn’t mind that.