By: Diana Palmer

He politely addressed a strange cattleman wearing a designer suit and highly polished new boots. The man looked him over with faint distaste, noting the working-cowboy gear, complete with spurred boots, batwing chaps and old chambray shirt.

“Nice day for a sale,” Jason said cordially.

The man smirked. “For those of us who can afford to buy something, sure it is. You work for a local ranch?” he added, giving Jason a demeaning look. “They sure must not pay very well.” He turned away again.

Gracie noted the exchange and grinned up at Jason, but he didn’t return the smile. His black eyes were fiery. They sat down and waited for the noise to subside so that the auction could begin.

She leaned up to Jason’s ear. “Who is he?” she whispered, indicating the man a row in front of them.

He didn’t answer. Instead he gestured toward the auctioneer at the podium tapping the microphone.

He welcomed the cattlemen, summarized the contents of the sale and began with a lot of purebred Black Angus calves. Jason leaned back, just watching, as bidding opened.

Gracie loved going to these auctions with him. It was one of the more pleasant memories of her early teens, tagging along after him through sale barns and learning the cattle business. It had irritated him at first, and then amused him. Finally he understood that it wasn’t the business that attracted her, but the novelty of his company. She was standoffish, even cold, with boys her own age and men of any age, but she adored Jason and it showed. As the years passed, she acquired a nickname—Jason’s shadow. He didn’t seem to mind. Glory had never cared much for cattle, but Gracie had always been fascinated by them. Even now, he rarely asked anyone except Gracie along when he went to auctions or to look at new equipment or even just for a drive over his property. A loner most of the time, he was supremely comfortable with her.

She studied her program and tapped his hand. He glanced where she was pointing at the program and nodded.

It was the next lot, a consignment of purebred Santa Gertrudis open heifers. Jason kept replacement heifers, as any cattleman did, against necessary culls after breeding season. But these young females were exceptional. They were from a division of the King Ranch, with exquisite bloodlines. Jason wanted to improve his seed stock. This was a bargain at the price.

The auctioneer named the consignment and opened bidding. The fancy rancher in front of them raised his hand to accept the price. There was an increase on the base price of ten dollars a head. Jason scratched his ear. The price jumped by twenty dollars a head.

“I told you they knew I was coming,” the cattleman in the row ahead of them said smugly. “Didn’t I tell you prices would jump when I started the bidding?”

Jason didn’t say a word. But his eyes were coldly amused. The cattleman ahead of him jumped the ante by ten dollars, Jason doubled that bid. The price went up a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, two thousand.

“Who the hell’s bidding against me?” the cattleman in front muttered in a whisper to his companion, looking around. “Nobody here looks like they could afford to buy a cattle trailer, much less purebred Santa Gerts!”

“Bid higher,” his companion suggested.

“Are you nuts?” the man grumbled. “I’m at my limit. I wish I could get in touch with my boss, but he’s not in his office. He won’t be happy that I let someone outbid me for these heifers. He was keen to have them.”

The bid came again. The cattleman in front sat mute, fuming. Jason scratched his ear.

The bid was called once, twice, three times, and the auctioneer banged his gavel and shouted “Sold!”

He didn’t name the buyer, as Jason had already agreed before the sale began. He had Jason’s blank check and he knew where to send the consignment, and how. Jason and Gracie got up and walked out of the auction barn into the sunshine. The cattleman who’d been in front of them walked out, too, punching in numbers on his cell phone. He ran into Jason and bumped him.

“Watch the hell where you’re walking, will you?” the man snapped at Jason and kept walking.

Jason stared after the man with retribution in his dark gaze. But after a minute he stretched comfortably and glanced down at Gracie. “Hungry?”