Christmas in Cowboy Country (7 page)

“We probably shouldn't do that too often,” he said in a low voice.
“Maybe not.” She wriggled into a more upright position. “What were we talking about?”
“Right. You're almost done but you're not done. So why does it take so long to survey a piece of land?”
“Many reasons. For one, you have to try to reconcile the past and the present, and that's never easy.”
Annie thought that could apply to a lot of things in life. She nodded.
“Used to be stones and streams served to mark boundaries and corners. And trees,” he added. “But stones get buried and streams dry up and trees die or get hit by lightning or chopped down. Did your dad ever walk the lines with you, show you the landmarks of your ranch?”
The ritual of walking the property lines was a long-standing custom in the country and generally something that men did. She didn't ever recollect her mother going along.
“He walked the lines with my brothers,” she replied. “Not me.”
“Sounds about right. It was always a man's job. Father and son, grandfather and grandsons. Just try talking to some of these old birds about what a satellite can see or how accurate measurements are now.”
Annie bristled. “Excuse me?”
“Whoa. I didn't mean your dad. He was just concerned that I was on his property. He actually seemed to have a very good idea of where the lines were, considering your land hasn't been surveyed since his grandfather's day.”
“Did he tell you that?”
Marshall nodded. “Before you showed up, yes.”
“Just out of curiosity, do your measurements favor us Bennetts or Chuck Pfeffer?”
“The data could go either way. I really need to make sure,” Marshall replied.
Annie narrowed her eyes. His answer could be interpreted as evasive.
“By the way,” he added in a bland tone, “I don't automatically favor the side that pays me. Measurements are measurements, and numbers don't lie. Pfeffer could end up with what we call a dirty title. Meaning his claim to the land can be contested. And if he wants to sell, he won't be able to.”
“Is that why he's having his ranch surveyed?”
“To be honest, he never said.”
“I wonder if he tried to do it himself. My dad would have complained if he'd seen Chuck out there too often.”
“I don't doubt it.”
“This is the time,” she said, “I remember my dad and my brothers doing it, around Thanksgiving, before we got really snowed in but after the hay was cut.”
“How many brothers do you have?”
“Two. Sam and Zach. They're almost as overprotective as my dad.”
Stone raised an eyebrow, but seemed otherwise indifferent to the information.
“They're both married now. They'll be back for Christmas with their wives.”
“Well, maybe your dad will walk the lines with you this year. Thanksgiving's right around the corner. He could follow the surveyor's flags,” Stone added with a wink.
“If he wanted to take me along, he would have asked. He's never mentioned it.” She looked his way. “You could go with me.”
“Nothing doing,” Stone said seriously. “I don't want your daddy to see us traipsing over the fields with no warning. He might come after me with a shotgun.”
“Oh, please. He's not that old-fashioned.”
“He never saw me kiss you,” Marshall muttered. He got up and walked into the kitchenette without giving a reason. She heard things being shifted around in a random way.
Good move. She breathed a little easier.
“And he never will,” Annie confirmed. “But we're getting off the subject. I really wouldn't mind learning a little about surveying. You could teach me.”
“It's all about straight lines,” he began.
She watched him walk out of the kitchenette and stand there. The phrase described him to a T, except for his biceps, rounded with muscle under his checked flannel shirt.
“No curves? Not ever?” she asked flippantly.
“Depends on what I run into,” he replied. “Or who.”
“I see.”
He didn't seem to realize that he'd put her into a box marked
Random Encounter
. So it really didn't matter to him who he kissed. Or why.
Okay. She could live with that. After all, she hardly knew him and he was just passing through.
Two steps more and he kneeled down to drag out a long, hard-shelled case from under the bed. “I'll show you the gear.” He thumbed open the clasps and revealed the equipment he'd been using when they'd first met. “That yellow box is called a total station. It's a theodolite combined with a laser that measures distance electronically. There's the remote I mentioned.”
“But old-style equipment works better if something blocks the laser.”
“Like what?”
“Trees. Houses. Big boulders.”
Her reply was meant in jest, but it fell flat. “Well, I can see where other people's houses might get in the way of what you're doing.”
That got Stone's attention. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“Sorry. That kinda slipped out. But—” She hesitated. “Not everyone thinks you're just a surveyor.”
Marshall closed the clasps. “Who exactly are you talking about?”
“No one in particular,” she said hastily.
It was fairly obvious from the searching look he gave her that he guessed she was talking about herself.
“Okay, a few people. It's just that no one around here knows you.”
He shoved the case back under the bed with a sigh. “Wouldn't be the first time I came in somewhere and got tagged as a suspicious character. Folks get scared their taxes will go up if their land is larger than they claim.”
“That's not up to you, right?”
“No. Of course not.” He dusted off his knees as he straightened up to his full height. “Maybe I do need an assistant. Someone to hold up a sign, not a pole.
He's Just Doing His Job. Please Don't Shoot
“How about me?” The words were out of her mouth before she thought twice. Another out-of-nowhere suggestion. But it wasn't that crazy. She forced her mind back to the reason she'd come to the cabin in the first place: to find out more about him. So far she'd struck out.
She thought of Chuck Pfeffer and his pal Shep Connally, who'd showed up at the town meeting with an obviously hidden agenda. Most of all, there was Mrs. Pearson, a vulnerable old lady in some kind of financial difficulty, and probably a few others like her that Annie had no way of knowing about. Something was up. Whose side was Marshall Stone on?
If he said yes to her suggestion, then he had to be a good guy. He wouldn't let her follow him around if he wasn't.
“I mean—you could take me out into the field, show me the basics. Could be the start of a new career,” she joked.
He eyed her speculatively. “What is it you're doing now?”
“I'm a ski instructor. But I broke my leg pretty badly last spring and it's still healing.”
“Sorry to hear that. Risky sport.”
Annie studied him for a long moment. “I take it you don't ski.”
“Good guess. But what made you think so?”
“You seem like the cautious type.”
“Do I?”
She just couldn't read the expression on his face. She got the feeling there was something she ought to be able to figure out about him, but Stone was living up to his name.
“Well, I love it,” she forged on. “And I'm waiting for a go-ahead from my doctor to get back on the slopes. My mom and dad took care of me during the worst part—I moved back here from Aspen—and now I'm returning the favor.”
He nodded with approval, but he didn't say yes.
“So do you want to give me a try?”
Stone gave a shrug. “I don't think it's a great idea. Surveying involves a lot of walking.”
“I can walk just fine.” Not entirely true. Her leg still ached when she overdid it. “I just can't ski.”
Marshall looked dubious. “Some days I end up walking for miles.”
“I'm game,” she said with bravado.
“Ask your doctor first. As for the actual surveying, you could probably pick it up fairly quickly.”
“How complicated can it be?”
She knew damn well that the answer to that rhetorical question was
. But she wasn't going to chicken out.
“Depends,” he said. “Of course, you don't have to do the triangulating. There's software for that and it also factors in all the variables you enter. You really don't have to know much math.”
“Good. It never was my best subject,” she said honestly. “But I'm interested,” she insisted.
“Okay,” he said, a faintly mocking tone in his voice despite his acquiescence.
Tough luck,
Annie thought. She wasn't going to leave with nothing but a memory of a second kiss.
“Lesson One,” he began. “Surveying is pretty much about finding the distance between two points however you can. So the first thing you do is make sure the sight's level before you look through it and fix on an immovable object. Then you—”
“How big does the immovable object have to be? Just give me an example.” She raised herself halfway and peered over the back of the love seat, trying not to look too hopeful about him coming back.
He was grinning at her. “How about a lady on a love seat who won't budge?”
For some reason, he had his jacket on. Then he took a dark brown winter Stetson from a hook and set it on his head just so. The angle of the light meant his face was partly hidden. But not his mouth. Which kicked up.
She wasn't sure if he was laughing at her. “I'm—just very comfortable. I wasn't aware I'd overstayed my welcome.”
“You haven't. Rowdy needs to get out, that's all.” He held up the leash and the dog ran to him. Stone bent down to clip it to his collar.
“Maybe we could go over some more concepts tomorrow.” Annie got to her feet. “I really think we would need to be out in the field for me to understand completely.”
“That's not possible. Not tomorrow. I'm starting a new assignment just outside town. Chuck referred me.”
Him again. Their obnoxious neighbor was a little too connected to Marshall Stone for her liking. She sensed even more strongly that he was concealing something from her—and that he was good at it.
“Want to go with us?” Stone asked. “Rowdy, sit.”
She couldn't help noticing how well the dog behaved. Either Marshall had the gift of teaching instant obedience or the dog had been carefully trained by someone else. “Why not?”
She found her jacket and turned up the collar. It couldn't have gotten any warmer since she'd arrived at the cabin.
Stone opened the door and he and his dog stepped aside. “After you.”
Annie let him lead the way once they were outside. She found it hard to keep up with his long strides over the rutted dirt road that wound through the undeveloped land in back of the cabin. She wondered idly how much of it Nell owned.
“The moon will be up soon.” Stone's words echoed in the crystalline mountain air. Night had fallen an hour ago.
“Too bad,” Annie said. “Look at those stars.” Thousands upon thousands of glittering points of light decorated the dark sky.
He was bending down to unclip Rowdy's leash. “Go,” he told the dog, which bounded away, barking for joy.
“Is that a good idea?”
“He comes back. I don't think he likes the leash much. I guess I could say he tolerates it to make me happy.”
They walked on. Stone seemed to be matching his pace to hers so that she wouldn't stumble. An otherworldly glow along the horizon hinted at the imminent arrival of the moon.
They stood together in silence as he gave a low, piercing whistle. In the distance, the lights of a little ranch house came on, warm squares of yellow in the overall deep blue.
In another minute, Rowdy appeared, racing toward them. The dog circled his master's legs, panting. Eventually he sat.
Then the moon appeared over the ridge, huge and brilliant. Annie couldn't help but look at Stone's face as he took in the sight of it. The chiseled lines and strong jaw seemed to be sculpted in silver.
He lifted his head and his dark eyes shone as he turned to look at her. There was the hint of a sensual smile on his firm mouth as he closed the distance between them.
Annie had the feeling he was going for Kiss Number Three.
She wanted it as much as he did. He tipped the Stetson back. Somewhere in the mix that was Marshall Stone there had to be a rancher or a cowboy. Only they knew how to kiss with a hat on.
He drew her into his arms, holding her close and warming her instantly with the heat of his powerful body. His mouth claimed hers with assertive skill that felt too good to resist. She gave in and gave the kiss all she had.
Annie pressed herself against him, rubbing like a cat seeking a haven from the cold, slipping her hands inside his jacket and running them over the hard muscles of his chest. His warmth and his strength were irresistible. The hard contours of his thighs supported her as she stood on tiptoe to kiss him again and again. The rising moon drenched them in silver light. The little ranch house was far away. There was no one to see.
They were both quiet as they walked hand in hand back to the cabin over the same rutted road. He led her around to the front and stopped when Annie gasped.

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