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Boundary Lines, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “I’m sorry about the old man,” Aaron said at length. “He’d have been your—grandfather?”

  Jillian’s chin stayed up, but Aaron saw the shadow that briefly clouded her eyes. “Yes.”

  She’d loved him, Aaron thought with some surprise. From his few run-ins with Clay Baron, he’d found a singularly unlovable man. He let his memory play back with the snatches of information he’d gleaned since his return to the Double M. “You’d be the little girl who spent some summers here years back,” he commented, trying to remember if he’d ever caught sight of her before. “From back east.” His hand came back to stroke his chin, a bit rough from the lack of razor that morning. “Jill, isn’t it?”

  “Jillian,” she corrected coldly.

  “Jillian.” The swift smile transformed his face again. “It suits you better.”

  “Miss Baron suits me best,” she told him, damning his smile.

  Aaron didn’t bother to acknowledge her deliberate unfriendliness, instead giving in to the urge to let his gaze slip briefly to her mouth again. No, he didn’t believe he’d seen her before. That wasn’t a mouth a man forgot. “If Gil Haley’s running things at Utopia, you should do well enough.”

  She bristled. He could almost see her spine snap straight. “I run things at Utopia,” she said evenly.

  His mouth tilted at one corner. “You?”

  “That’s right, Murdock, me. I haven’t been pushing papers in Billings for the last five years.” Something flashed in his eyes, but she ignored it and plunged ahead. “Utopia’s mine, every inch of ground, every blade of grass. The difference is I work it instead of strutting around the State Fair waving my blue ribbons.”

  Intrigued, he took her hands, ignoring her protest as he turned them over to study the palms. They were slender, but hard and capable. Running his thumb over a line of callus, Aaron felt a ripple of admiration—and desire. He’d grown very weary of pampered helpless hands in Billings. “Well, well,” he murmured, keeping her hands in his as he looked back into her eyes.

  She was furious—that his hands were so strong, that they held hers so effortlessly. That her heartbeat was roaring in her ears. The warbler had begun to sing again and she could hear the gentle swish of the horses’ tails as they stood.

  He smelled pleasantly of leather and sweat. Too pleasantly. There was a rim of amber around the outside of his irises that only accented the depth of brown. A scar, very thin and white, rode along the edge of his jaw. You wouldn’t notice it unless you looked very closely. Just as you might not notice how strong and lean his hands were unless yours were caught in them.

  Jillian snapped back quickly. It didn’t pay to notice things like that. It didn’t pay to listen to that roaring in your head. She’d done that once before and where had it gotten her? Dewy-eyed, submissive, and softheaded. She was a lot smarter than she’d been five years before. The most important thing was to remember who he was—a Murdock. And who she was—a Baron.

  “I warned you about your hands before,” she said quietly.

  “So you did,” Aaron agreed, watching her face. “Why?”

  “I don’t like to be touched.”

  “No?” His brow lifted again, but he didn’t yet release her hands. “Most living things do—if they’re touched properly.” His eyes locked on hers abruptly, very direct, very intuitive. “Someone touch you wrong once, Jillian?”

  Her gaze didn’t falter. “You’re trespassing, Murdock.”

  Again, that faint inclination of the head. “Maybe. We could always string the fence again.”

  She knew he hadn’t misunderstood her. This time, when she tugged on her hands, he released them. “Just stay on your side,” she suggested.

  He adjusted his hat so that the shadow fell over his face again. “And if I don’t?”

  Her chin came up. “Then I’ll have to deal with you.” Turning her back, she walked to Delilah and gathered the reins. It took an effort not to pass her hand over the buckskin stallion, but she resisted. Without looking at Aaron, Jillian swung easily into the saddle, then fit her own damp, flat-brimmed hat back on her head. Now she had the satisfaction of being able to look down at him.

  In a better humor, Jillian leaned on the saddle horn. Leather creaked easily beneath her as Delilah shifted her weight. Her shirt was drying warm on her back. “You have a nice vacation, Murdock,” she told him with a faint smile. “Don’t wear yourself out while you’re here.”

  He reached up to stroke Delilah’s neck. “Now, I’m going to try real hard to take your advice on that, Jillian.”

  She leaned down a bit closer. “Miss Baron.”

  Aaron surprised her by tugging the brim of her hat down to her nose. “I like Jillian.” He grabbed the string tie of the hat before she could straighten, then gave her a long, odd look. “I swear,” he murmured, “you smell like something a man could just close his eyes and wallow in.”

  She was amused. Jillian told herself she was amused while she pretended not to feel the quick trip of her pulse. She removed his hand from the string of her hat, straightened, and smiled. “You disappoint me. I’d’ve thought a man who’d spent so much time in college and the big city would have a snappier line and a smoother delivery.”

  He slipped his hands into his back pockets as he looked up at her. It was fascinating to watch the way the sun shot into her eyes without drawing out the smallest fleck of gold or gray in that cool, deep green. The eyes were too stubborn to allow for any interference; they suited the woman. “I’ll practice,” Aaron told her with the hint of a smile. “I’ll do better next time.”

  She gave a snort of laughter and started to turn her horse. “There won’t be a next time.”

  His hand was firm on the bridle before she could trot off. The look he gave her was calm, and only slightly amused. “You look smarter than that, Jillian. We’ll have a number of next times before we’re through.”

  She didn’t know how she’d lost the advantage so quickly, only that she had. Her chin angled. “You seem determined to lose that hand, Murdock.”

  He gave her an easy smile, patted Delilah’s neck, then turned toward his own horse. “I’ll see you soon, Jillian.”

  She waited, seething, until he’d swung into the saddle. Delilah sidestepped skittishly until the horses were nearly nose to nose. “Stay on your own side,” Jillian ordered, then pressed in her heels. The straining mare lunged forward.

  Samson tossed his head and pranced as they both watched Jillian race off on Delilah. “Not this time,” Aaron murmured to himself, soothing his horse. “But soon.” He gave a quick laugh, then pointed his horse in the opposite direction. “Damn soon.”

  Jillian could get rid of a lot of anger and frustration with the speed and the wind. She rode as the mare wanted—fast. Perhaps Delilah needed to outrace her blood as well, Jillian thought wryly. Both male animals had been compelling. If the stallion had belonged to anyone but a Murdock, she would’ve found a way to have Delilah bred with him—no matter what the stud fee. If she had any hope of increasing and improving Utopia’s line of horses, the bulk of the burden rested with her own mare. And there wasn’t a stallion on her ranch that could compare with Murdock’s Samson.

  It was a pity Aaron Murdock hadn’t been the smooth, fastidious, boring businessman she’d envisioned him to be. That type would never have made her blood heat. A woman in her position couldn’t afford to acknowledge that kind of attraction, especially with a rival. It would put her at an immediate disadvantage when she needed every edge she could get.

  So much depended on the next six months if she was going to have the chance to expand. Oh, the ranch could go on, making its cozy little profit, but she wanted more. The fire of her grandfather’s ambition hadn’t dimmed so much with age as it had been transferred to her. With her youth and energy, and with that fickle lady called luck, she could turn Utopia into the empire her ancestors had dreamed about.

  She had the land and the knowledge. She had the skill and the determina
tion. Already, Jillian had poured the cash portion of her inheritance back into the ranch. She’d put a down payment on the small plane her grandfather had been too stubborn to buy. With a plane, the ranch could be patrolled in hours, stray cattle spotted, broken fences reported. Though she still believed in the necessity of a skilled puncher and cow pony, Jillian understood the beauty of mixing new techniques with the old.

  Pickups and Jeeps roamed the range as well as horses. CBs could be used to communicate over long distances, while the lariat was still carried by every hand—in the saddle or behind the wheel. The cattle would be driven to feed lots when necessary and the calves herded into the corral for branding, though the iron would be heated by a butane torch rather than an open fire. Times had changed, but the spirit and the code remained.

  Above all, the rancher, like any other country person, depended on two things: the sky and the earth. Because the first was always fickle and the second often unyielding, the rancher had no choice but to rely, ultimately, on himself. That was Jillian’s philosophy.

  With that in mind, she changed directions without changing her pace. She’d ride along the Murdock boundary and check the fences after all.

  She trotted along an open pasture while broad-rumped, white-faced Herefords barely glanced up from their grazing. The spring grass was growing thick and full. Hearing the rumble of an engine, she stopped. In almost the same manner as her mount, Jillian scented the air. Gasoline. It was a shame to spoil the scent of grass and cattle with it. Philosophically she turned Delilah in the direction of the sound and rode.

  It was easy to spot the battered pickup in the rolling terrain. Jillian lifted her hand in half salute and rode toward it. Her mood had lifted again, though her jeans were still damp and her boots soggy. She considered Gil Haley one of the few dyed-in-the-wool cowboys left on her ranch or any other. A hundred years before, he’d have been happy riding the range with his saddle, bedroll, and plug of tobacco. If he had the chance, she mused, he’d be just as happy that way today.

  “Gil.” Jillian stopped Delilah by the driver’s window and grinned at him.

  “You disappeared this morning.” His greeting was brusque in a voice that sounded perpetually peppery. He didn’t expect an explanation, nor would she have given one.

  Jillian nodded to the two men with him, another breed of cowhand, distinguished by their heavy work shoes. Gil might give in to the pickup because he could patrol fifty thousand acres quicker and more thoroughly than on horseback, but he’d never give up his boots. “Any problem?”

  “Dumb cow tangled in the wire a ways back.” He shifted his tobacco plug while looking up at her with his perpetual squint. “Got her out before she did any damage. Looks like we’ve got to clear out some of that damn tumbleweed again. Knocked down some line.”

  Jillian accepted this with a nod. “Anyone check the fence along the west section today?”

  There was no change in the squint as he eyed her. “Nope.”

  “I’ll see to it now, then.” Jillian hesitated. If there was anyone who knew the gossip, it would be Gil. “I happened to run into Aaron Murdock about an hour ago,” she put in casually. “I thought he was in Billings.”


  Jillian gave him a mild look. “I realize that, Gil. What’s he doing around here?”

  “Got himself a ranch.”

  Gamely Jillian hung on to her temper. “I realize that too. He’s also got himself an oil field—or his father does.”

  “Kid sister married herself an oil man,” Gil told her. “The old man did some shifting around and got the boy back where he wants him.”

  “You mean . . .” Jillian narrowed her eyes. “Aaron Murdock’s staying on the Double M?”

  “Managing it,” Gil stated, then spit expertly. “Guess things’ve simmered down after the blowup a few years back. Murdock’s getting on, you know, close on to seventy or more. Maybe he wants to sit back and relax now.”

  “Managing it,” Jillian muttered. So she was going to be plagued with a Murdock after all. At least she and the old man had managed to stay out of each other’s way. Aaron had already invaded what she considered her private haven—even if he did own half of it. “How long’s he been back?”

  Gil took his time answering, tugging absently at the grizzled gray mustache that hung over his lip—a habit Jillian usually found amusing. “Couple weeks.”

  And she’d already plowed into him. Well, she’d had five years of peace, Jillian reminded herself. In country with this much space, she should be able to avoid one man without too much trouble. There were other questions she wanted to ask, but they’d wait until she and Gil were alone.

  “I’ll check the fence,” she said briefly, then turned the mare and rode west.

  Gil watched her with a twinkle. He might squint, but his eyesight was sharp enough to have noticed her damp clothes. And the fire in her eyes. Ran into Aaron Murdock, did she? With a wheeze and a chuckle, he started the pickup. It gave a man something to speculate on.

  “Keep your eyes front, son,” he grumbled to the young hand who was craning his neck to get a last look of Jillian as she galloped over the pasture.

  Chapter Two

  The day began before sunrise. There was stock to be fed, eggs to be gathered, cows to be milked. Even with machines, capable hands were needed. Jillian had grown so accustomed to helping with the early-morning chores, it never occurred to her to stop now that she was the owner. Ranch life was a routine that varied only in the number of animals to be tended and the weather in which you tended them.

  It was pleasantly cool when Jillian made the trip from the ranch house to the stables, but she’d crossed the same ground when the air had been so hot and thick it seemed to stick to her skin, or when the snow had been past her boot tops. There was only a faint lessening in the dark, a hint of color in the eastern sky, but the ranch yard already held signs of life. She caught the scent of grilled meat and coffee as the ranch cook started breakfast.

  Men and women went about their chores quietly, with an occasional oath, or a quick laugh. Because all of them had just been through a Montana winter, this sweet spring morning was prized. Spring gave way to summer heat, and summer drought too quickly.

  Jillian crossed the concrete passageway and opened Delilah’s stall. As always, she would tend her first before going on to the other horses, then the dairy cows. A few of the men were there before her, measuring out grain, filling troughs. There was the click of boot heels on concrete, the jingle of spurs.

  Some of them owned their own horses, but the bulk of them used Utopia’s line. All of them owned their own saddles. Her grandfather’s hard-and-fast rule.

  The stables smelled comfortably of horses and hay and sweet grain. By the time the stock had been fed and led out to the corrals, it was nearly light. Automatically, Jillian headed for the vast white barn where cows waited to be milked.


  She stopped, waiting for Joe Carlson, her herdsman, to cross the ranch yard. He didn’t walk like a cowboy, or dress like one, simply because he wasn’t one. He had a smooth, even gait that suited his rather cocky good looks. The early sun teased out the gold in his curling hair. He rode a Jeep rather than a horse and preferred a dry wine to beer, but he knew cattle. Jillian needed him if she was to make a real success out of what was now just dabbling in the purebred industry. She’d hired him six months before over her grandfather’s grumbles, and didn’t regret it.

  “Morning, Joe.”

  “Jillian.” He shook his head when he reached her, then pushed back the powder-gray hat he kept meticulously clean. “When are you going to stop working a fifteen-hour day?”

  She laughed and started toward the dairy barn again, matching her longer, looser stride with his. “In August, when I have to start working an eighteen-hour day.”

  “Jillian.” He put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her at the entrance of the barn. His hand was neat and well shaped, tanned but not callused. For som
e reason it reminded her of a stronger hand, a harder one. She frowned at the horizon. “You know it’s not necessary for you to tie yourself down to every aspect of this ranch. You’ve got enough hands working for you. If you’d hire a manager . . .”

  It was an old routine and Jillian answered it in the usual way. “I am the manager,” she said simply. “I don’t consider the ranch a toy or a tax break, Joe. Before I hire someone to take over for me, I’ll sell out.”

  “You work too damn hard.”

  “You worry too much,” she countered, but smiled. “I appreciate it. How’s the bull?”

  Joe’s teeth flashed, straight, even, and white. “Mean as ever, but he’s bred with every cow we’ve let within ten feet of him. He’s a beauty.”

  “I hope so,” Jillian murmured, remembering just what the purebred Hereford bull had cost her. Still, if he was everything Joe had claimed, he was her start in improving the quality of Utopia’s beef.

  “Just wait till the calves start dropping,” Joe advised, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. “You want to come take a look at him?”

  “Mmmm, maybe later.” She took a step inside the barn, then shot a look over her shoulder. “I’d like to see that bull take the blue ribbon over the Murdock entry in July.” She grinned, quick and insolent. “Damned if I wouldn’t.”

  By the time the stock had been fed and Jillian had bolted down her own breakfast, it was full light. The long hours and demands should have kept her mind occupied. They always had. Between her concerns over feed and wages and fence, there shouldn’t have been room for thoughts of Aaron Murdock. But there was. Jillian decided that once she had the answers to her questions she’d be able to put him out of her mind. So she’d better see about getting them. She hailed Gil before he could climb into his pickup.

  “I’m going with you today,” she told him as she hopped into the passenger’s seat.

  He shrugged and spit tobacco out the window. “Suit yourself.”

  Jillian grinned at the greeting and pushed her hat back on her head. A few heavy red curls dipped over her brow. “Why is it you’ve never gotten married, Gil? You’re such a charmer.”