Her mouth tightened at his reluctance. The sense of unease he inspired within her had to do with that husky inflection in his voice as he spoke her name, she thought. As if he knew all there was to know about Katherine Cassidy and found her lacking. As if he sought to peel away the stark surface she wore like a coat of mail, seeking the softness of the woman beneath the brown drabness. The same warmth she’d felt at the touch of his hand on her flesh earlier reappeared as she listened to the sound of her name on his tongue. He’d rolled it within his mouth, making it appear a many-syllabled word. Not like Pa, who’d more often than not called her Kate or sometimes Katie, when his eyes regarded her with tenderness.
“Katherine,” Roan repeated, rousing her from her wandering thoughts. “Can we talk about a horse now?”
She pursed her mouth and frowned at him, disturbed by her meanderings. “Like I said before, I don’t have any stock ready to sell.”
He shrugged and tipped the sturdy chair back to balance on the back legs. “Can I take a look?”
She shook her head at his persistence. “It wouldn’t do you any good. They’re all halterbroken, of course, but I’ve only put a saddle on two of them. They’ve not been ridden yet.” Her pause was significant before she added her final words on the subject, as if to emphasize their import.
“And you can’t have my mare.”
He shrugged off the edict with a casual grin. “Where’s your pa’s stud?” he asked lazily, watching her hands bury themselves in the pockets of her apron.
She flushed and her eyes shifted from his gaze. “I had to sell him.” The admission was painful, and her mouth tightened.
“You don’t have any stock breeding now?”
“Maybe my mare.”
He frowned, considering. “I didn’t notice.”
“If she took, she won’t drop her foal till March,” Katherine said shortly. “She was in season when I had to let the stud go, so I let him in with her just before…before I sold him.”
He drew in a breath, shaking his head. She was really something, this small woman who spoke of the breeding of horses as if it were not fraught with danger. “You’re not big enough to handle a stallion like your pa’s,” he said. “You’re lucky you got it done without getting hurt.”
She shrugged, dismissing his words with the lifting of her shoulders. “You do what you have to. He was strong and a good size, and he’d carried my pa to war and back. I wanted another colt from him before I let him go.”
“Could be a filly,” he reminded her.
Her gaze was fiercely determined and she shook her head, negating the idea. “No, I need a stud. And I’ll have one, give him a couple of years.”
“How many are you running in your pasture?” he asked. “Thought I saw a yearling or two.”
“Three, actually,” she admitted. “The results of last year’s breeding. My father had great hopes for them.”
“You make it sound sorta dismal, Katherine. Surely the dreams didn’t die with Charlie, did they?”
She shrugged off his taunt. “I’m not made of the same stuff my father was, Mr. Devereaux. Someone had to be practical, and Charlie Cassidy was somewhat of a dreamer.”
“That’s not all to the bad.” He dropped the front legs of his chair to the floor with a thump. To his way of thinking, Katherine Cassidy looked like she could use a little dreaming to brighten up her life. As a matter of fact, he decided with a long look at her stiff demeanor, the woman in front of him looked like she’d had all of her dreams shattered. From the top of her smoothly scraped-back hair to the scuffed toes of the shoes showing beneath her dark dress, she looked like a woman who’d buried more than her pa. She was about at the end of her rope, Roan thought. What am I gonna do, Charlie?
Rising from the chair purposefully, he reached for his hat, hanging on a peg just inside the door. Easing it into place, he settled it with a final tilt of the brim His fingers slid into the pockets of his denim pants, thumbs hooked over his belt and his elbows thrust behind him.
All he needed was a gun belt and he’d look like a gunslinger for sure, Katherine thought, her eyes ranging over the man who was thoroughly upsetting her equilibrium this morning. She struggled against the tension that had gripped her upon his arrival yesterday and had remained deeply seated in the depths of her being. His touch had not eased her disquiet any, either, she reflected grimly. Whether it was a natural reaction to a stranger or some individual sense of danger attached to this particular man was the problem.
The former she could handle. The latter, which was more likely to be true, could create a situation she’d gone to great lengths to steer clear of over the years.
His eyes pinned her in place, taking a leisurely journey over the dowdy length of her, and she began to bristle instinctively. He had no right, she thought with rising indignation. No right at all to come in here and make himself at home and then question her about her livestock as if he could pick and choose.
His next words only added to her turmoil. “What are you gonna do with the three mares out in the corral?” he asked mildly, as if he sought to salve her obvious tension.
Her reply was abrupt, snapped off irritably. “Work with them.”
“I’ll take one off your hands,” he offered easily. “Give me a few days to get in the saddle and I’ll be out of your way.”
“My four-year-old is too small. In fact, I don’t have anything big enough for you. Just a three-year-old and she’s…” Her eyes softened as she hesitated.
“Doesn’t pay to make pets of animals you’re bound to sell off, Katherine,” he said gently.
Once more her chin tilted as she glared at him. “She’s not a pet. But she sure isn’t ready to have a saddle thrown on her back and a two-hundred-pound man digging his heels in her sides.”
“She’s a horse,” he said bluntly. “She was bred to be ridden.”
“Said like a man,” she returned with icy disdain, anxious to be rid of this reminder of her own frailty.
“Any man in particular, Katherine?”
She glanced at him quickly, assessing the question.
He pushed for an answer. “Who made you so prickly?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But something tells me you’re a mite touchy about that sassy little filly of yours.”
“That’s the key word, Mr. Devereaux. She is mine and I intend to keep her.”
He smiled agreeably. “That’s your right, ma’am.” His head nodded in the direction of the barn as he changed the subject with alacrity. “Thought I’d spend a couple of hours out there to pay for my keep.”
“It’s not necessary,” she countered swiftly. She’d felt the warmth creep up into her cheeks as the play of words had swirled between them, and she felt a sudden letdown as he turned from the fray so easily. For a few minutes, she’d felt alive and vital sparring with Roan Devereaux and, in an odd way, enjoying it
His index finger rose to tilt the brim of his hat in a courtly parody, and he headed for the door with long strides that carried him out onto the porch and down the steps before her protest could be enlarged upon.
She watched, almost unwillingly, yet drawn by the sight of him. Slim-hipped, he walked with a lithe swing that spoke of long years in the saddle and an ease with his own body. Only a slight hitch betrayed him, and Katherine’s gaze narrowed as she analyzed the hesitation that marred his easy stride. Then her father’s words came back to her, jolting her with the image of savage warfare they had painted.
“Roan paid for my life, girl,” he’d said grimly. “That leg of his will wear scars for all of his years. He dragged me when he could hardly make it himself…till both of us were so covered with muck and mire you couldn’t make out the pair of us from the mud we crawled through. Him pullin’ and tuggin’ on me, one hand holdin’ my belt and the other clawin’ for a good grip on the side of that hill.”
Charlie Cassidy had spoken often—and well—of the man who’d saved his life in the midst of battle in Virginia. Her eyes softened as they focused on the barely discernible hesitation in Roan’s step now as he strode across her yard.
“I owe you, Roan Devereaux,” she whispered with reluctance in the silence of her kitchen. Her shoulders lifted as an indrawn breath shuddered through her. “Maybe I can figure something out.” And maybe she’d better quit lollygaggin’ around and get busy, she thought, shaking her head as she reluctantly turned her back and headed for the cookstove to bank the fire.
Charlie had left a fine legacy. Although where the mares were concerned, who had produced these charmers was anyone’s guess. The yearlings frolicked about the pasture with long-legged freedom, heads tossing and tails flying, performing as though they sensed the admiration of their audience. Oblivious to their antics, a chestnut mare grazed, her nose lifting as she turned her head momentarily in his direction. The man who’d hooked one boot on the bottom rail, leaning casually to watch the animals gambol about in the pasture, was more than just an admiring audience. Roan had earned his respite, the sweat that drew his shirt to cling to the muscles of his back was a damp testimony to his morning’s work.
He’d walked the boundaries of the pasture, checking and repairing several weak places in the old fencing, tight-lipped as he considered the amount of work that needed to be done. The condition of the posts and wire had disturbed him, and he was aware that his nailing up sagging wire and shoring up fence posts could only be considered a temporary measure.
Charlie’s homestead was not what he’d expected. The horseman who’d befriended him in the last days of his service to the army had not been cut out to be a farmer, it seemed.
Charlie’d been more suited to be a roaming man, Roan thought. More geared to training horses and moving on his way than settling down here on green Illinois pastureland.