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Gar stopped the horses, and Aaron scrambled down. The heavy metal gate groaned as it opened. He clicked his tongue and they rumbled over the cattle guard. He shifted on the bench and touched her upturned palm, tracing his fingers over her soft skin and inhaling her distinctive scent.
Her perfume was subtle. He hadn’t even realized how fantastic she smelled until she’d scooted closer. “Mmmm, you smell good.” He leaned over, wishing they were on a conventional hayride. “Like spices, not flowery or musky, but…”
She pulled her hand away and hunched her shoulders. “It’s a mixture of ambergris with coumarin. I have it made
for me at a perfumer’s in Greenwich Village.” “Sounds expensive.”
“No, the opposite. Commercial fragrances are expensive and too… heavy… too obtrusive to my way of thinking. Craft-made ones are much more natural and lighter.” She was right—that’s why he hadn’t noticed her perfume before. And the scent was unusual, too, like new-mown hay or sweet spring grasses. Very natural. Despite how yummy she smelled, he shouldn’t have said anything.
And why had he stroked the palm of her hand? What was wrong with him? If he really wanted to help Aaron, he needed to keep his personal feelings to himself. That thought stunned him. When was the last time he’d had personal feelings for a woman?
Not for a long time. He’d been hurt, the hurt so deep, it was like his heart had been burned black and hollowed out. And he didn’t want to go there again.
But she drew him, like no other woman had, even Heather. She was different from any woman he’d known. She worked in a glamorous profession, but her demeanor was humble and natural. She cared deeply about her son, willing to do anything to reach him. She’d made her way, it would appear, by herself, in a foreign country and a tough profession. Yet, she seemed at home in the countryside, too, probably because of her early life.
She was one hell of a woman with a lot of experience. Without trying, she turned him to mush, like the grain mash he fed his colicky horses.
When would he learn?
He stopped the wagon and allowed Aaron to climb back on. He’d questioned her enough for one night… or maybe he didn’t want to know more.
He didn’t speak, didn’t follow up. He kept the wagon rolling to the last pasture under the clear, inky sky with the cicadas whirring in the background. Then he headed back to the ranch house and office complex. He directed the horses around back to the barn. Pulling up the draft horses, he jumped down and offered his hand, helping her to the ground.
He turned to the crowd of boys and randomly picked two. “Matthew and Brian, your turn, you unharness and groom Mabel and Sheba. Okay? And make sure they have hay, grain, and fresh water, too.”
The two boys groaned but nodded.
“The rest of you know what to do. Time for a little fun.”
The other boys ran off, racing for the wooden ladder, leading up to the hay loft. “What are they going to do?” she asked.
“What all boys like to do, slide down the hay chute and jump into a pile of hay I keep out back.”
“Oh.” She watched as Aaron ascended the ladder. Gar noticed Aaron hadn’t looked at her all night, not after the first time. “Mind if I ask something?”
“This place seems so open. How do you keep the boys from getting out?”
“State-of-the-art electronic surveillance. We’re hooked up and streaming real time to a central security site in San Antonio. And I have a contact list of off-duty police and sheriff deputies, who can come at a run if there’s trouble.” He took off his Stetson and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed the cameras.”
“You must have them well hidden.”
“We try. Makes the boys feel less like…”
“Prisoners?” she asked. “You’re very attuned to what the boys need. Aren’t you?” Did he detect a hint of admiration in her voice? He thought he did, and it warmed him, deep inside. Heather hadn’t understood. Very few people did.
“Like I said, we aim to please.” He glanced at her sketch book. “Get any drawing done?”
“How could I? It was too dark out.”
“Yep, but did you get any ideas?”
“Maybe.” She licked her lips.
He watched the flick of her pink tongue, fantasizing about sucking it into his mouth. He shut his eyes for a second and took a deep breath.
“Come on,” he said, leading her to a small room full of harnesses, bridles and saddles. In the middle was an old wooden desk. He flipped on the electric light overhead and hung his hat on one of the pegs by the door. A row of pegs held an array of battered cowboy hats, some straw, others felt. He kept old hats for the ranch hands and the boys, if anyone needed one.
He grimaced when he saw how grimy the desk was. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the desk’s dusty surface. “Plenty of light in here. Have a go at it.”
She rounded the desk and placed her pad in the middle. Looking up, she caught his eye. “Actually, when we were talking about finances, I realized I’d like to pay my fair share of Aaron’s fees.” She lowered her gaze. “At first, I didn’t know what to think. I’d read a bunch of horrible reports about ‘private’ rehab places and the scandals.”