Heart Of The Eagle. Lindsay McKenna
taste of his past. He struggled with his anger toward her and then surmounted it. She had hurled the insult at him to get him to stop pressuring her. He drew the cowboy hat down a little lower on his brow, forcing a one-cornered smile. “My half-breed status has gotten me out of more trouble than in,” he countered mildly.
“How? By pushing papers in an office for the government!”
Jim leaned languidly against the pipe railing, studying the foals, who were now frolicking around their mothers after their recent meal. “My boss complains I’m not there enough to push those papers around. Usually, I’m in the field with my people.” His gaze moved to her. “I’d rather have the sky for a ceiling and a good horse under me instead of sitting at a desk. How about you? Which do you prefer?”
Dal frowned and licked her lips in a nervous gesture. He was cunning. He had diffused her attack and managed to steer the entire matter into an innocuous but important investigation of her as a person. “I’m sure you have a file on me in your office, Mr. Tremain. There’s little I care to add to that.”
“We’re not the FBI, doctor. The file I have on you is about your educational background, not your personal life.” He scowled. “But if you don’t allow me to enlist your help on this project, the FBI will come in. I don’t think you or your family will want that. It’s my opinion that because I and my people know the mountains and habitats, we stand a much better chance of netting the poachers than the FBI will.”
Dal clamped her lips together, refusing to be drawn into his soft banter. She liked his voice. It reminded her of a cat’s roughened tongue licking her hand, and sent delicious prickles of pleasure through her. She tried to squash all those feelings. “I’ll let my brother Rafe decide what’s going to happen, Mr. Tremain. It’s his ranch. I’m only a guest here.”
“All right,” he said slowly. “It will be necessary to talk to him, anyway. He’s as much a part of this plan as you are.”
“Rafe will be back tomorrow morning. He had business in Denver.”
“Maybe you can tell me where there might be a motel around here?”
Dal gave him a brief glance. He looked more like a wrangler than a government official. Cowboys had their own code and could be trusted. Jack was a civilian. An outsider. But Jim Tremain wasn’t. “There isn’t a motel within sixty miles of our ranch.”
Guilt twinged in her and Dal was unable to maintain that barrier of anger toward him. She could see his mind working beyond those lion-like eyes, and she watched as he rested his long, tapered fingers on his slender hips. She could discern the Indian blood in him by the sharp planed features of his face and his sun-darkened flesh. Another shaft of guilt struck her: she had called him a half-breed. God, what was wrong with her? She never threw prejudiced comments like that at anyone.
“There’s no sense in you driving all the way back to Denver just to come here again tomorrow morning,” she heard herself say. “I’ll get Millie to fix up one of the spare bedrooms and you can stay here tonight.”
Jim’s eyes glimmered with some undefined emotion as he met and held her nervous gaze. “That’s more than kind of you, doctor. Thank you.” So, he thought, there was ground for them to work on after all; he hadn’t totally destroyed the possibility of their combining their expertise on the poaching problem.
Shoving her hands in the pockets of her jacket, Dal stared down at the muddy earth. “It’s nothing,” she muttered, walking past him. “Let me tell Millie you’ll be staying.”
He watched her walk between the barns and knit his black brows. She was scared of him. As a man? Or as a government emissary? The Kincaids had a sterling reputation of having worked closely with conservation officials in the past on a number of wildlife projects. As Jim ambled around the paddocks, eyeing the horseflesh in each, he narrowed down Dal’s reaction to her distrust of him as a man. That cut down the chances of her agreeing to help him.
Sunlight bathed the valley as the clouds parted, slats shining across the lush land of the Triple K. Jim watched as a group of wranglers coaxed a herd of about a hundred Herefords out of a paddock, heading them in the direction of some upper pasture. He inhaled the crisp spring air, glad to be out of the office and in the field again. And then a rueful smile split his harsh features. Would “guard dog” Millie allow him to stay at the ranch overnight?
* * *
“What do you mean he’s stayin’, Dal?” Millie lifted her head, her chin jutting out stubbornly.
Dal walked farther into the spacious kitchen that was Millie’s territory. The red-tiled floor gleamed from a recent waxing, giving the cedar walls even more warmth. She poured herself a glass of water and leaned against the counter. Millie resumed folding the bread dough on the table, flour spotting her plump arms.
“He wants to talk to Rafe about poachers. I didn’t have the heart to make him drive sixty miles to a motel and then come all the way back tomorrow morning.”
“You know Rafe doesn’t like strangers about,” Millie chided gruffly.
Millie straightened, put the dough into a bread pan and then transferred it to the countertop. “Still,” she muttered, moving back to the table to begin folding another batch of dough, “he doesn’t seem all that bad.”
Dal raised an eyebrow at the housekeeper. Millie was mountain born and bred. She had an uncanny knack of summing up people on first sight. “What do you mean?”
“He might be with the government, but he’s got some horse sense in him. Can see it in those whiskey-colored eyes of his. That man’s always thinking. I nearly took his head off at the door earlier and he was like a duck, letting my snaps and snarls roll off his back like water. Didn’t let it ruffle him one way or another. He’s a man of patience, I can tell you that.” And then Millie looked up at her. “The exact opposite of that sidewinder of an ex-husband of yours!”
“What would I do without you around, Millie?” Dal asked with a grin.
“Humph! You might’ve listened to me when you first dragged Gordon home here to the ranch with you. Your parents didn’t like him. Rafe hated him on sight. Even your sister Cathy couldn’t stand him.”
Dal lost her smile and drank the rest of the water. “Nobody liked him,” she agreed quietly. “Except me.”
“Humph! What did you know? With you being in love for the first time in your life and Gordon being ten years your senior, he manipulated you just like a hand puppet.” Millie’s stern features softened momentarily. “But that’s all right, lamb. You did love him up until the time he let all that worldwide fame go to his addled brain. The important thing is you’re out from under his clutches. I told you then he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I was right. We all make mistakes. The important thing is not doing the same thing over again!”
Dal’s laugh was strained as she placed the glass in the sink. “No chance of that, Millie. Men and marriage are two things that have been written off my life list.”
Millie shot her a know-it-all glance. “Maybe right now, lamb, but you’re a woman who needs a partner. You were made for marriage. Your sister Cathy isn’t, but you are. You work better in a team harness than as a single.”
Dal laughed and went over, hugging the housekeeper. “Oh, Millie…”
Regaining her stern look, Millie pinched Dal’s cheek, leaving a bit of flour on it. “Just listen to us, lamb. That’s all I ask. Your parents are right in wanting you to stay here to recuperate. So what if you miss a year of teaching at the university? You’re hurt bad by this divorce. Just don’t shut us out.”
Dal nodded, feeling her heart wrench in her chest as she walked slowly around the airy kitchen. “I have been, haven’t I?”
Millie nodded. “You need to talk to someone about all this. Ever