Page 9

“Night, Cora. Have a good weekend.” Fletch locked the front door after her and grabbed a bottle of water before he headed to his office. Seated in his padded chair, he let his head fall back and closed his eyes.

Maybe it made him a fool, rewinding the events from last night, but he’d done it several times during the day. Each flashback a montage of her beautiful face. Laughing, lost in passion, teasing, her eyes dark with need. Then his thoughts would skip to the satiny smoothness of her flesh beneath his hands. The sweet taste of her, from her generous br**sts to the slice of heaven between her thighs. Remembering the feel of her hands on him, how she hadn’t left any part of him untouched.

Outstanding sex aside, they’d clicked on a deeper level.

Wishful thinking. You didn’t do a whole lot of talking. She’s not from around here anyway. Chalk it up to a good time and leave it at that.

But he couldn’t. When Fletch had woken up alone, he’d quickly put on his clothes and checked every car in the parking lot for a vehicle with a Texas license plate and found nothing.

Then again, maybe their night of steamy sex hadn’t meant anything to her. She had warned him up front she wasn’t looking for more than one night. And honestly, how many times had he done that to women? Banged them and left with a hasty good-bye, and sometimes they didn’t even rate that. Too many times to count. So no wonder that bad behavior was coming back to bite him in the ass.

Maybe it was a sign he needed to change his ways.

He dropped his feet to the floor and moved his neck from side to side, hearing a satisfying pop. He still had an ache between his shoulder blades, which was a reminder he was overdue for a visit to the chiropractor. Months overdue.

Putting aches and pains and mistakes out of his mind, he buckled down and updated his files. He took his laptop everywhere with him and was able to document diagnoses on the spot, but he liked to flesh out the cases while they were still fresh in his mind.

Fletch didn’t notice three hours had passed until his stomach grumbled. He’d mostly gotten caught up from the last month. With the always busy calving season behind him, he looked forward to a slower pace. At least until he had to start preg testing cows in another few months. Switching over to the answering service to deal with after-hours calls, he set the alarm and left through the back door.

Regardless of how many times he told himself he wouldn’t find his mystery woman at Cactus Jack’s, he drove there anyway. He sat in a booth with a clear view of the main entrance and ordered a burger and a beer. A few women approached him, and he was polite but cool. He killed two hours before he gave up.

Usually it didn’t bother him going home to a dark house, but it did tonight.

During a break in the action at the branding the next morning, Tanna leaned against the wooden corral and drained half a bottle of water. She’d been to plenty of brandings in her life, but most of them utilized a rancher’s roping skills by getting the calf into the position using the “rope and drag” method. Once the calf was on the ground, then a ranch hand would tie the feet together, immobilizing it for the brand, vaccination, dehorning and castration for the baby bulls. Or she’d been part of a chute operation. Where the calves were crammed into a loading alley and were moved into the chute one at a time, assembly-line fashion, with a propane-fired branding iron and the vaccinating, castration, dehorning all happening in one fell swoop.

But the Gilchrist and Lawson ranches employed the “chicken catching” method of branding. Holding the calves in the big corral and releasing them into a smaller pen ten at a time. It’d take two hands to catch the calf and wrestle it to the ground. One person held the head, the other held the feet during the whole process. If Tanna had to choose a more efficient method—and it pained her Texas cowgirl ranch roots to admit it—the chicken-catching technique was definitely a lot more fun, even if it was a throwback to the good old days.

None of the guys down in the dirt blinked about a woman in the trenches. But Kyle kept an eye on her and had signaled for her to take a break. Tanna appreciated his concern and that he didn’t make a big deal about it. She didn’t mention to anyone how badly her knee ached after only a few hours.

As soon as Celia saw her resting, she strolled toward her, chatting with a Native American guy who had to be Eli Whirling Cloud.

People who claimed Mexicans and Indians were the same ethnicity had been talking out their ass. Eli looked nothing like the Mexicans she’d been raised around in Texas—certainly nothing like her Mexican uncle from her mom’s side of the family. Eli was tall—over six feet, with a rangy, lean build. He dressed like a cowboy, wearing boots, jeans, long-sleeved shirt. His hat was shaped differently and he’d jammed an eagle feather into the hat band. Eli’s dark hair spilled into a long braid down his back. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties—a little young to be some kind of Indian wise man.

He aimed a kind smile at her and offered his hand. “Tanna, I’m Eli. Sorry we haven’t had a chance to meet officially before now. Thought I’d wander over during a break in the action. It’s been a hectic morning, eh?”

“I’ll say. Never been to a branding like this before.”

“I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you,” Celia said to Tanna before she flounced off.

Eli chuckled. “No pressure.”

Tanna relaxed and smiled at him. “She is pushy.”

“Celia hasn’t always been that way. She’s come into her own the last few years, so you won’t hear me complaining about the change in her, ’cause it is for the better.”