By: Diana Palmer

Black eyes bored into his face with an expression under them that would have made an impression on a man less thick-skinned.

“You didn’t get that lot of Santa Gertrudis heifers you came after, did you?” Cy Parks mused.

The man made a face. “Rub it in. I know you were the high bidder.”

“Nope. It wasn’t me. I was there for the lot of Santa Gert calves. I got those.” Cy’s green eyes narrowed. “Your boss sent you there to get those heifers, I hear.”

The man’s lip pulled up. “Sent me there with half the amount I needed to bid for them,” he said angrily. “And told me not to go higher. Hell of a boss. I’ll bet he wouldn’t know a heifer from a bull, sitting up there in his office telling real cattlemen how to buy cattle!”

Cy studied him coldly. “That attitude won’t get you far in the Pendleton organization.”

“Not my fault if the boss doesn’t know how to bid for cattle. I’ll have to educate him.”

There was a collective intake of breath at the table. Beside it, Jason’s brow quirked. He was beginning to enjoy himself.

“Do you know who trumped my bid for those heifers?” the man asked curiously.

Everybody at Cy Parks’s table pointed to Jason Pendleton. Gracie did, too.

The visiting cattleman turned to the man he’d been putting down for most of the day. Jason took off his Stetson and cold black eyes bored into the man’s shocked face.

“You bought those heifers? With what?” the arrogant rancher exclaimed. He glanced at Gracie. “You don’t look like a man who could afford a sick calf, and your girlfriend there sure hasn’t got money. So who do you work for?”

Jason didn’t like the crack about Gracie. His amusement morphed into pure dislike. “I could ask you the same question,” he said icily.

“I work for the Pendleton organization,” the man said.

Jason glowered at him. “Not anymore.”

“And who do you think you are, to tell me that?” the man demanded.

Jason’s black eyes glittered at him. “Jason Pendleton.”

The fancy rancher stared at the ragged cowboy with patent disbelief. But then, in his mind, he recalled the painting in the Pendleton Corporation CEO’s office downtown, over the fireplace. The man in the portrait was a match for the man glaring at him from the booth. “You’re Mr…. Mr. Pendleton?” he stammered, flushing purple. “I didn’t recognize you!”

Jason was toying with his coffee cup. His eyes held the other man’s. “Pity,” he murmured.

The other rancher seemed to lose his dignity and his arrogant attitude all at once.

“I didn’t know…” he stammered.

“Obviously,” Jason replied curtly. “I wanted to see how you operated before I turned you loose as my representative. Good thing. You like to put people down, don’t you? Well, you won’t be doing it on my payroll. Collect your last paycheck at the office. Do I need to say the words?”

The rancher’s jaw set. “You can’t do this to me! Hell, nobody fires a man for losing a bid…!” he began belligerently.

Jason stood up. He was a head taller than the man and he looked dangerous. The ranchers at the nearby table tensed.

“I said,” Jason began in a slow, menacing tone, “collect your last paycheck.” His big hands began to curve into fists at his side.

The rancher’s companion noticed that and grabbed his friend’s arm, almost dragging him away. He knew things about Jason Pendleton’s temper that the other rancher obviously didn’t.

Gracie tugged at Jason’s hand gently. He looked at her and calmed a little as he sat back down again. But he was openly glaring at the man’s retreating back. The fancy rancher’s companion was talking feverishly and nodding toward Jason Pendleton. The rancher glanced back toward the Jacobsville cattlemen and grimaced. But he wasn’t going to a table—he was actually leaving the restaurant.

“Who is he?” she asked.

“He is, rather he was,” Jason replied with magnificent disdain, “the man I hired recently to go to sales for me. Barker. The one I told you about, who was throwing his weight around. Good thing I checked him out. He’d have cost us business, with that attitude. I don’t like men who judge people on appearances. Wealth is no measure of character.”