Leticia lifted one hand and pushed back her beige-colored, straw Stetson. “John Clay, what on earth are you doing here?”
He smiled, a singularly sheepish smile. “I couldn’t wait. I got here early.”
“Funny,” she said, “I almost called you to postpone because I’m short-handed. But I don’t have your cell number, and I had no idea which ranch you might be staying on. You have so many.”
“My mistake. We should have exchanged cell numbers. Please, remind me later.”
“Sure.” She inclined her head at the shifting herd of cattle. “Let’s get these gals into the next pasture. Okay? I’m glad you came early—just at the right time. Let me get down and open the gate. You hold them tight.”
“No problem.” He kneed the gelding forward.
Leticia dismounted and unhooked the simple wire loop holding the gate shut between the two pastures. Then she pushed the aluminum gate open as wide as it would go, leaving a large space.
He urged his horse to circle closer, keeping the cows in a tight bunch. He was used to sheep, though, who were a lot more docile than cattle.
Leticia swung up on her roan and took the other position in back of the cattle. She unhooked her lariat and swung it, sing-songing, “Move cows, move, move cows, move, move cows.”
The cattle formed a V-shape behind their leader, a brindled, half-red-Angus heifer with a collar and bell fastened around her neck. The herd poured through the gate until only one black-and-white splotched calf stood on this side, bawling, his nose raised high in the air.
“He lost his Mama in the crush.” Leticia shook her head. “Stupid cow. All he has to do is follow the others, and his mother will find him.” She dropped the lariat over his head and pulled on the rope, walking him through the gate. Then she leaned down and removed the rope from the calf.
John Clay watched her quick, efficient movements. Lordy, lordy, he couldn’t get over how accomplished she was. And gorgeous to boot. His whole body was one, long ache from wanting her. Then he realized he was daydreaming again, and he leapt off his gelding, ground-tying him and closing the gate behind her.
“Thanks,” she tossed at him, as she rode through.
He swung back up in the saddle and said, “You might think that calf is stupid but compared to sheep, she’s a virtual Einstein.”
She threw back her head and laughed.
“But why cattle?” He asked. “I thought your ranch was all about horses?”
“Yes, this is a horse ranch. The cattle are just a sideline. We don’t keep a bull, but for some of the better-bred heifers, we use our neighbor’s Angus bull. Keeps the herd young. We cull the older ones and sell them, of course.”
“I’m surprised you bother.” He inclined his head toward the ranch house. “Must keep you busy, considering you said you’re short-handed.”
“Oh, that, it’s only temporary.” She removed her Stetson and wiped her arm across her brow. The spring day was heating up. “We need the cattle to properly train our horses. Our charro horses are our pride and joy, but we’re just getting back into them. Mostly, we train working Quarter horses, and you can’t train a cutting horse or calf-roping horse without cows.” She pursed her lips.
He slapped the side of his head. “Stupid of me. I wasn’t thinking. I’m all about sheep, except for my racing stable.”
She laughed again. “Hey, don’t get overwrought and knock your hat off.”
“Yeah.” He grinned and shook his head. “Kinda silly.”
And how right she was, he was acting like a goofy middle-schooler, just being around her. “So, your manpower shortage is temporary. Does that mean I won’t usually find you rounding up cattle?”
“No, not usually. I always have plenty of paperwork to keep me from riding out. But today has been a nice break.”
“I like the mare you’re riding; she’s a good-looking horse.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Laidlaw, how nice of you to say.” She patted her horse’s neck. “Yep, Pearl is a sweetie. Rusty and Camila brought her back from Ponder last year, and she was so good at everything, we couldn’t make up our minds how to train her, cutting horse or calf-roping or…”
She’d moved ahead to a thicket of live oak and ducked her head under a low-lying branch. “My mare, Sally, was getting old, so I decided to keep Pearl for myself.”
He followed her into the thicket, staying behind her horse to navigate the rough, one-horse trail through the trees and undergrowth.
She cleared the thicket and stopped, waiting for him. He could see the ranch house ahead. He drew alongside her. “At least you have the grass for horses and cows. My ranches only support sheep. We keep some milk cows for the ranch hands, but other than that, it’s mostly mesquite and cactus and patchy prairie grass on my spreads.”
She raised up in her stirrups. “Yes, Eduardo chose well. This land is fertile, and we irrigate some, using Las Moras creek to grow our own hay.”
She gathered her reins and smoothed them, half-turning toward him. “But I can’t wait to show you my new charro horse foal. Midnight Princess just threw a beautiful colt a couple of weeks’ ago.”
“I won’t say no to seeing one of your charro horses. I remember how talented Eduardo’s horses were. I was sorry when I heard you’d quit breeding them for a time.”
John Clay gazed at Leticia, and he thought he could see the faintest glimmer of moisture on her eyelashes. It was obvious she was still grieving for Eduardo? Where did that leave him?
She dropped her head and fidgeted with her reins, smoothing the long ends. “Yes, Eduardo was magic with the horses.” She bit her lip.
He wished he was the one biting her lip, her neck, and lower…