Texas rancher Callum Latimer believed that the Civil War had killed everything tender and yearning inside of him until he struck up a partnership with Banner Payne. His dark-haired, golden-eyed, spirited neighbor stirred embers that he thought were long dead . . .
Sunlight glided over hair as she shifted from one boot to the other, and before his mind could catch up with his instincts, Callum reached out and wrapped his index finger around one of her auburn curls. Its softness against his calloused skin sent longing through him like a rushing river. She’d be like that all over – soft where he was hard, giving where he was not. He heard her gasp and his heart bucked.
As long as he could remember, the Paynes were the family everyone in these parts shunned. His pa made noise about Otis Payne stealing cattle from him, but the bad blood between him and Otis went farther back than that – years before Callum was born. The Paynes had a good piece of land and had usually turned out a healthy herd of cattle, but they were a slovenly lot. The children had always looked unkempt. That probably had to do with them not having a mother to look after them. Alva had died when Banner was just a babe.
The war had taken two of her brothers, leaving only Hollis. Otis had died six months before the war ended. Callum had heard that Banner was running the Payne ranch, but he didn’t believe it. He figured Hollis was trying to be the boss and his cowhands were taking advantage of him. Stealing him blind, probably. That’s what he’d heard from Eller and from folks in town.
Leaning a shoulder against the porch post, Callum watched the horse and wagon make its way toward the house. Behind him, the hound growled. “No, Rowdy,” he commanded and the growl faded to whine.
The sun burned his eyes, making it difficult to discern any details of the Payne’s girl’s face. She reined the sway-backed horse in the shade of the house and Callum could finally see her bonnet and pretty dress. After she wrapped the reins around the brake, she turned toward him and a smile curved her pink lips as her gaze met his boldly, confidently.
Callum shifted his weight from one boot to the other as a bolt of awareness shot through him. Damn, she’d grown into a beauty, he thought, taking in her reddish brown hair and heart-shaped face. And those eyes – dark gold. The eyes of a tiger.
“’Afternoon to you, Misters Latimer.” Her voice had a husky quality, as pleasing as aged whiskey. “I bet you’re surprised to see me.”
“I don’t like surprises,” Seth said.
She swallowed and her smile faltered for a moment. Directing her full attention to Callum, she took in a breath that lifted her breasts and the white ruffles covering them. “Your herd looks profitable. Good, sound stock.”
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Callum said, wondering what was going on under that blue bonnet. She was up to something – but what? “How’s the Payne herd?”
Her smile vanished and she shrugged. “Not what it should be. I’m missing some. It’s been a bad year for calves, but a good year for coyotes, wolves, and rustlers.”
“Your pappy stole cattle from me,” Seth said, repeating an oft-spouted accusation.
Banner’s gaze whipped to the older man’s frowning visage and Callum could almost feel her fighting back scalding words.
“Sir, my father is dead and can no longer defend himself.” She squared her shoulders. “And I’m not here to fight old battles. I have new ones to address. I’ll come right the point as I know you have work to attend to – as have I. Northerners are sniffing around our place and several have offered to buy me out.”
“Damn Yankees,” Seth groused and Rowdy growled as if in agreement.
Banner gave a sniff of contempt. “Of course, they want to pay half of what it’s worth.” She looked off into the distance and it seemed that a shadow passed over her face. “Looks like I’m going to have to sell. I don’t want the Yankees to prosper from what my family bled and died for, so I’m here to offer it to you.” Her gaze swept to Callum again. “I’ll sell it to you. All I ask is that you let Hollis stay on.”