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2

Ginny knocked on Colby's bedroom door a few minutes after she heard the shower shut off. Colby had put in so much time with the cattle and out in the garden and the hay field that Ginny was afraid she might have forgotten the appointment with Joclyn Everett.

Colby was towel-drying her long hair and smiled at Ginny as she peeked through the door. "Got everything set up for barrel racing?"

Eagerly Ginny bounded into the small bedroom, seating herself on the bed. "Did you send in my entry fee for the Redbluff Rodeo?" she asked hopefully.

"I told you when you were twelve you could travel a bit. The local rodeo's enough until then."

"There's an eleven-year-old girl barrel racing already," Ginny protested. "She's making enough money for her college education." Shrewdly she pulled out a magazine and read quickly from the article, determined to prove her point.

"Shelve it, chickadee, I'm tired and in a hurry. As it is I'm going to be very late meeting with Mrs. Everett. What do you think? Should we take on the daughter?"

"I wouldn't mind if she was nice," Ginny admitted. "It would be cool to have a friend. Maybe sometimes I could go to her house. Paul told me Mr. Everett is really just a business associate of the De La Cruz family; they aren't like really close friends or anything. Maybe if I was friends with Mr. Everett's daughter and Mr. De La Cruz wants to do business with him, he'll start being nicer to you."

Colby didn't want Rafael De La Cruz to be nice to her. She didn't want him near her. "Don't count on it, honey." Colby grinned impishly. "I have this strong feeling the De La Cruz brothers would rather give up their business ties with Everett in a minute than be nice to me. They don't like independent women." It was strange how Colby thought Nicolas was so cold, the coldest man she had ever met, yet she found Rafael just the opposite, a seething cauldron of dangerous emotions, intense and darkly erotic. Rafael De La Cruz was a truly sensual man and he scared the hell out of her. If she never saw him again, it would be too soon.

Ginny scowled darkly. "You aren't ever serious, Colby," she reprimanded.

"I wouldn't say that." Colby pulled on a long-sleeved cotton shirt to cover the white marks marring her tanned skin.

"Did you notice how good-looking Rafael was? He's a hunk," Ginny pointed out solemnly. "His brother is a hunk too. And they're stinking rich, Colby. You're missing a great chance."

Snorting inelegantly, Colby stamped her foot down into her worn boots. "Have you ever noticed the type of women who flock around those men?" Throwing her hips forward, shoulders back, she batted her eyelashes. "Dawling," she purred, mimicking Louise's voice perfectly, "you're just soooo strong! My little old heart just flutters whenever I lay eyes on you." Dramatically clutching her heart, Colby fell onto her bed.

Ginny, giggling, gave up her matchmaking. "All right, all right," she surrendered. "But it wouldn't be bad having a niece or nephew to play with. I'll be an old lady by the time Paul gets roped."

"So I'm to be the sacrifice. No thank you, young lady." Colby wrinkled her nose. "I'm perfectly happy being an old maid. Gotta get out of here or I'll never get there in time." She glanced down at her watch. "It's already past time."

Ginny clutched at her hand, eyes serious. "I really would like to have a friend, Colby. I get lonesome in the summer-time. We're so far from everybody" She trailed off, hating to complain when Colby worked so hard.

Colby gave her a quick hug. "I know, honey. Paul and I get so busy we forget you're here by yourself doing all the cooking and cleaning. I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks." Ginny hugged her tightly. "You look great tonight. Is Joe going to be there?" There was a hopeful note in her voice.

"Joe? Joe Vargas? Ginny, don't you dare try to saddle that poor man with me. He'd be lost." Laughing, Colby caught up her purse and hurried out to the pickup truck.

Paul was there to open the rusty, dented door. "Drive carefully, Colby, the tires are completely bald," he cautioned. "Gone. Totally worn out."

"Everything is," she commented as again and again she tried to coax the truck into starting. When it finally turned over they both cheered. "Good old truck, still hanging in there." She patted the dash in appreciation and, waving at Paul and Ginny, took off in a cloud of dust. Bouncing high with every rut and hole, springs protesting, she cranked up the radio and happily sang all the way into town.

She found a parking space in the side lot and slid out of the battered cab. It was pushing close to nine. Chances were good Joclyn Everett would think she'd been stood up. Colby was simply too tired to care. With a sigh and a hasty prayer De La Cruz wouldn't be in the bar with his multitude of female groupies, Colby pushed open the door. It wasn't hard to spot Joclyn in spite of the crowd. Her simple white dress shouted money, her makeup and hair were perfection. In a group of cowhands she stuck out like a sore thumb and she was looking distinctly uncomfortable. Colby could imagine the hard time she'd been given, the joshing, the come-ons, the snide catty remarks only women make to one another. Colby made up for it the only way she knew how. "Joclyn!" She waved across the room. "I was hoping you'd wait for me. Joe, get out of my way, will you?" she added as a tall dark-haired man swept her up in a bear hug.

"Ah, Colby, when are you going to marry me?" he complained, kissing her soundly as he held her dangling with her feet several inches from the floor.

She slugged him good-naturedly. "One of these times I'm going to drag a preacher in here and you'll head for the hills." As he put her down, she wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. "And stop kissing me in public."

"You want to go somewhere more private?" he offered, waggling his eyebrows.

Everyone in the bar laughed at Joe's antics and greeted her as she pushed past the cowhand to weave her way through the mass of people. "Sorry I'm so late." Colby flung herself into a chair.

"I was afraid you weren't coming after Louise admitted how rude she'd been," Joclyn ventured, looking more uncomfortable than ever.

"Colby!" Another man swept off his hat as he dropped into the chair beside her. "You're a hard woman to track down."

"Hi, Lance. This is Joclyn Everett, Sean's wife. Joclyn, Lance Ryker. Lance, we're in the middle of a business discussion, or," Colby corrected with a rueful grin, "at the beginning."

"I bought Diablo-I finally swung the deal. You promised me you'd help me train him." His words tumbled out. "I made the deal based on that promise."

"When will he be here?" Colby inquired with a small, apologetic smile at Joclyn.

"A month or so. I'll want you to take him to your ranch."

"Sure, give me a call. Paul makes the appointments so if I'm not around leave a message with him or with Ginny."

"Thanks, Colby." Lance leaned over to kiss her cheek before nodding at Joclyn as he left.

"You know everyone," Joclyn commented.

"It's a small town and this particular group is all ranch. I grew up with most of them," Colby explained, smiling her thanks at the waitress who was putting a tall glass in front of her.

Joclyn laughed softly. "I ordered a beer because I was certain you'd drink beer but I can see I made another mistake."

"Seven-Up. Sometimes I get really brave and have them put orange juice in it." Colby laughed. "They all give me a bad time about it."

Joclyn's dark eyes were suddenly serious. "I know you felt it was an insult for Rafael to ask you to teach my daughter to ride. And then I found out it wasn't Rafael who asked, it was Louise in her usual endearing manner. Please don't apologize-I understand. You work very hard, and you take a great deal of pride in what you do. Rafael didn't want us to ask you. He said you would be far too busy."

"More likely he made a few cracks about me trying to fill a man's boots," Colby said. "He's a male chauvinist."

Joclyn didn't bother to deny it. There was something very cold about the De La Cruz brothers that bothered her, but she wasn't about to discuss her husband's business associates. "I had to ask you anyway. Since my husband and I moved here, all I've heard is 'Colby's the best tracker, the best trainer, guide, anything to do with horses.' They say you have a gift."

Colby's grin was positively devilish. "I hope all this has been said in the presence of the De La Cruz brothers, especially Rafael."

"Invariably," Joclyn laughed.

Colby wanted to be strictly fair and give the devil his due. "I did hear that Rafael and his brother, Nicolas, were excellent with horses."

Joclyn nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "That's true, I've seen them. They keep odd hours for ranchers, though. They're night owls. I think they live pretty well in Brazil. But I watched Rafael walk right up to a severely injured horse and calm it with a touch of his hands. It was amazing." She shook her head as if to clear the memory. "But they aren't very good with people. At least not with children. I don't think either one of them has even looked at my daughter. Maybe her physical disability puts them off. Some people are like that. Tanya was struck by a car two years ago and must use braces to walk. The children at the school she was attending were very cruel and she's become withdrawn from us and quiet."

Joclyn fiddled with her glass, avoiding Colby's disconcerting steady gaze. "I know it would take a great deal of time, time you'd be using to train horses. We're willing to pay you whatever you would normally get for training a horse; that way you wouldn't lose anything." She was speaking very quickly, afraid of Colby's reaction. "It's so important to her, the first thing she's expressed interest in"

"Wait a minute, hold up." Colby reached out to pat Joclyn's hand soothingly, her natural compassion for the little girl already aroused. "It's not a question of money so much as time. She would need to work at her own pace, not feel rushed by my time schedule. Perhaps Ginny could help us. She's been riding horses since she was two. I could start the lesson, then let Ginny take over and just oversee it a bit. What about you? Do you ride?"

Joclyn ducked her head, flushing. "I'm terrified of horses," she admitted. "I'm a total city girl. When Sean suggested we move out here and buy a ranch I nearly died of fright. But I didn't like Tanya being in a boarding school and we traveled so much we had no choice. At least it was an opportunity for us to be together."

"I've never really known any other way of life," Colby mused. "My earliest memories are of my father putting me in front of him on his horse and riding all over the ranch. It's amazing to think all these years I've taken it for granted. I'd be lost in a city."

"And I'm lost here," Joclyn attempted a little laugh that didn't fool either of them.

"Don't worry, I wouldn't throw you on the back of just any horse. I have a couple of wonderful, very steady animals. You may as well take lessons with Tanya; that is, if Tanya would like to ride once she actually meets me." Colby made her commitment, trying not to think about what Paul was going to say.

"It's all she's talked about, learning to ride, I mean." The relief on Joclyn's face was so apparent Colby had to look away. As she did so, she encountered a pair of coal black eyes, an eyebrow raised in a kind of mocking male amusement.

At once her heart slammed hard against her chest and her mouth went dry. She could actually hear her heart pounding overloud in alarm. "Why didn't you tell me he was here?" Colby couldn't look away from those unblinking eyes. She had seen many predators, both bear and mountain lion. Rafael De La Cruz had the same uncanny stare. Her internal warning system had failed to let her know he was watching her, yet now it had kicked in and was working overtime so that every nerve ending was shrieking in trepidation.

"Rafael? I'm sorry, Colby, I know it must be difficult for you when you feel as if the Chevez family is trying to take your brother and sister away, but Sean has to entertain them somehow. They are business associates. Rafael insisted he come along tonight and Sean didn't have a good enough reason to deny his request."

With tremendous willpower, Colby tore her gaze from Rafael's mesmerizing one. He could hypnotize the entire room with his glittering black eyes, she decided as she stood up and shoved ineffectually at the unruly hair spilling around her face. "Three o'clock on Wednesday sound okay?" Even her voice was shaking. Colby knew when to cut her losses and run. Rafael De La Cruz was more than she could handle.

"Thank you, Colby." Joclyn was sincere, intuitively not attempting to detain her any longer. Whatever was between Colby and Rafael put Colby visibly on edge.

Colby had made it nearly to the door when Rafael's vise-like fingers circled her upper arm. He had moved with all the silence and stealth of a hunter, swiftly, unerringly, bringing his prey to ground. "Dance or a scene, you have your choice." His voice whispered over her skin like a velvet glove, tempting, taunting, a sinful male enticement when his words were so at odds with the seduction of his voice. He didn't care if she struggled, if every man in the bar leapt to her defense; he was not going to relinquish his hold on her. She knew it instinctively. People-her friends-would get hurt if they tried to interfere.

There was an edge to Rafael tonight, a distinct warning in the very way he held her. His body was as hard as a rock, his skin hot. There was raw possession in the depths of his eyes, in the enormous strength of his arms. Colby was used to men who were ranchers, strong men who thought nothing of tossing hay bales around. Rafael De La Cruz was deceptive in his looks. Long and lean, steel ran through his blood and bones. As soon as Colby felt the heat of his chest through the thin silk of his shirt where her cheek brushed his body, she knew dancing with him was a big mistake. Her heart gave a crazy lurch and she stiffened, tried to hold herself away from him.

Rafael simply pulled her that much closer, so close she could feel the warmth of his breath against her temple. Felt the hard thick thrust of his arousal pressed against her. Honestly.

Casually. As if it didn't matter in the least that she knew the urgency of his body's demand for hers. His fingers curled around her wrist, held her hand tight against his heart. "Sssh," he cautioned, his accent very deep, his voice so husky her entire body trembled with need. "You would not want these men to rush to your rescue."

"They would, too." She forced the words out of her mouth. For one terrible moment she thought her vocal cords were paralyzed. He was too potent up close like this. She had never seen such a sensual man. But it was more than his good looks. More than his raw sex appeal. There was a dangerous untamed aura clinging to him. She smelled it on him, felt it up close to him. Like an animal, a wild marauder. He was very dangerous, not only to her, but also to others. The knowledge was deep inside her, elemental, certain. She didn't know where it came from, but she trusted her instincts.

He leaned his dark head toward hers while the music beat through their bodies and rushed through their bloodstream. "What if I told you I could read your mind?" He whispered the words, his lips against the pulse beating so frantically in her neck. Little flames began licking along her neck and shoulder.

Colby closed her eyes. The music surrounded them, encasing them like satin sheets so that she burned with need. They burned together, she felt it in his body. Dancing with him was a kind of sexual torment. She could hear her blood pounding in her ears and her body felt molten with liquid fire. "I would have to call you a liar, Mr. De La Cruz. If there is one thing I know for certain, you can't read my mind." And for that she was eternally grateful. Because she wanted him with every cell in her body. She wanted to feel that perfectly sculpted mouth crushing hers, his hands moving over her, needing her, possessing her.

Rafael held her close, his body painful in its new demands. This woman was the one who belonged to him. He would have her. He had never denied himself a single thing he wanted in centuries of living. Nothing, no one, had aroused his interest in well over a thousand years, longer even. Now his every waking moment was occupied with thoughts of her. Torment. Pure and simply she was torment. Colby Jansen was his and no one would take her from him. Not now, not ever.

What she said was true. And it was shocking. He could read minds easily, yet hers was partially closed to him. And she knew it was. The fact maddened him, sent temper drifting through his bloodstream to mingle with the sexual hunger and lust rising so acutely. He would have her. All of her, no matter the cost. He would keep her for his own, make love to her when he chose. Feed his hunger, possess her. Own her. She would obey him and she would never close her mind to his once he unlocked her secrets.

Rafael bent even closer to the temptation of her satin skin. When he inhaled her scent, she smelled of spring and forest. The high mountains. Colby was different, far different from any other human he had met. An intriguing puzzle he would enjoy working out. He would take his time, feel his way through the unfamiliar situation. If it became necessary, he would simply take her and go to his homeland. Rafael's family ruled there; no one would attempt to interfere. Either way, she would not escape him.

Colby made the mistake of looking up at his sensual, handsome features. There was a ruthless set to his jaw, a merciless stamp to his mouth. At that moment his eyes were flat and hard and cold. She shivered and immediately he pulled her even closer so that her soft body was imprinted against the hardness of his. "I can't breathe." She meant it to come out sarcastically, but her voice betrayed her, a whisper of sound, husky, breathless, fearful.

Rafael guided her expertly through the traffic of drunken cowboys on the dance floor, straight into the deeper shadows. His dark head bent closer until his mouth rested against her tempting pulse. Their bodies were swaying together to the music, a dark erotic tango they shared together. He inhaled deeply, taking her scent into his lungs, his body and soul, so he would know her anywhere, find her anywhere. Deep inside him the demon raised its head and roared for supremacy. She could sate his ever-present hunger. She stopped the emptiness, the cold gray world, she could quench the firestorm burning out of control in his blood. He would have her at any cost. She belonged to him.

"You can breathe, querida." His voice was soft, gentle even when his arms were like steel bands. "You are afraid to take me inside your body, afraid of my possession, but you will come to accept it." His accent was thick, sexy, a temptation, and no one had ever tempted her before. She gave a small gasp at his choice of words, but the pad of his thumb brushed a caress over her lower lip, effectively halting her protest. His mind was working on the secret of hers. What protected her from his invasion? It wouldn't protect her forever. If he took her blood, he would have her. She would never escape him. "You will not, you know, not ever." He said it aloud, as if she might read his thoughts, testing her, even as he bent his head to her neck.

She felt his teeth tease her pulse, scraping back and forth, nibbling, caressing. Her entire body clenched in response. Her womb throbbed and ached. Her breasts swelled, nipples tightening into hard peaks. Gasping in sheer shock at her own response, Colby tilted her head to look up at him. His face was dark with desire, his eyes smoky with a raw intense hunger now. He had the look of a natural born predator. He didn't try to hide it, or soften it, he simply stared into her horrified gaze. She had the strange sensation of falling again, of moving toward him, embracing him, asking him into her mind and soul.

"Let go of me!" She hissed the words between her small clenched teeth, suddenly terrified in a room filled with people. A room filled with tough cowhands, every one of whom would fight for her protection. Deep down, where it counted, Colby knew they wouldn't win against him. No one would defeat him. Not alone or together. No one would be able to save her from him if he decided to forcibly take her. Rafael De La Cruz was truly a dangerous man under that very thin veneer of civilization. The knowledge was there, strong in her mind.

He held her for another long moment, savoring the feel of her body pressed so close to his. Her eyes were beautiful, sparkling with a hint of temper, but mostly fear. "You think to escape me, pequena, but there is no chance for you. You may as well accept it as you accept the air you breathe into your lungs. And I don't like you saying no to me. No one says no to me, least of all you."

It wasn't even what he said that disturbed her, it was the way he said it, the sound of his voice, sexy, husky, heavily accented.

It was the intensity in his black eyes as they moved so possessively over her face.

"You'd better get used to it, then. Go back to your home, Mr. De La Cruz. You can't have my brother and sister and you certainly won't get them by trying to seduce me," Colby said insultingly, her words muffled by the thin silk of his shirt.

He let her go, his soft laughter a mocking male amusement that tilled her ears with a kind of menace, with a promise. She lifted her chin at him, her expression defiant as she turned on the heel of her worn boots and stalked across the crowded floor. Halfway to the door, Joe caught her up in his bear grip. Joe, the perpetual clown. She'd known him all of her life. Easygoing Joe. Safe Joe. Joe didn't move the earth or shatter mountains with one touch. She went into the safety of his arms, allowing him his dance, acutely aware of a pair of mocking eyes following them around the dance floor. She didn't talk, she couldn't, so shaken was she by her encounter with Rafael. She just wanted to snuggle with someone familiar and safe.

Never once did those black eyes leave her face. They had gone back to hiding all emotion. Ice cold. Hard. Flat. The direct, focused gaze of a hunter locked on its prey. There was something very dangerous in those eyes as they touched on Joe's face. She shivered, suddenly afraid for the great bear of a man who had always been her friend. She pulled out of his arms, driven by fear. Colby tried to appear as normal as possible as she stood on tiptoe to kiss Joe's cheek before slipping outside into open air.

Crossing the parking lot to the sanctuary of her beat-up pickup truck, Colby swore under her breath, lots of unladylike things the cowhands had taught her at an early age. It was impossible-she had seen Rafael on the other side of the bar when she went out the door-but he was there, lounging against the hood of her truck. He looked lazy and contented, not a mass of nerves like she was. His long legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles, his clothes were impeccable, black jeans and black silk shirt, his arms folded across his powerful chest.

"Do you know what harassment is?" Nobody should look that good. Nobody. It wasn't fair. Colby didn't fall all over herself staring at good-looking cowboys; she was a busy woman, she didn't have time to faint at their feet. Besides, she was the independent bossy type, according to Paul, and every man within a hundred-mile radius was afraid of her sharp tongue. "I don't know about your country, but in mine, it is against the law."

"And you have much faith in these laws?" His voice was very quiet, a mild question, gentle almost, but she heard the edge of humor.

"I suppose you're above the law," she snapped, yanking open the door to her truck. It wasn't going to start; she knew it wouldn't. It never started first time out.

He moved then, a ripple of muscle, but he was standing beside her, crowding her body with his superior height, the heat from his skin causing her bloodstream to catch fire. He seemed to glide across the ground, as silent as any cat, his attention fixed on her with the same intensity as a jungle beast hunting night prey.

"We have a code of honor my family lives by. That is the law that binds me." He touched her hair with his fingertips, drew strands of fine silk into his palm almost as if he were mesmerized. "Have you ever felt your hair? Really felt it? It is truly beautiful."

She stood there, afraid to move or speak, her body restless with unfamiliar demands. As hard as she could, she gripped the door of the truck, needing something solid. "I have to get home to my brother and sister." Colby wasn't entirely certain, at that moment, whether she was asking his permission or not. He was that potent, that powerful.

His perfectly straight white teeth flashed. There in the darkness he seemed a lord of the night. His realm. Invincible.

"Miss?" The voice was soft, but it pulled Colby out of her mesmerized state. She spun around to see a young woman standing hesitantly near them. "Do you need help?"

Colby recognized her as the new waitress, only because she was a stranger in a small town filled with people Colby knew very well. She didn't once look at Rafael, even when there was a small surge of power and Colby knew he was influencing the woman to walk away.

Rafael reached out and settled his fingers around Colby's arm. You wouldn't want anyone to get hurt.

The woman turned her head then and focused wholly on Rafael. "You could try to hurt me," she said, as if he'd spoken aloud to her, "but you'd get more than you bargained for. If you try to hurt her, I'll find a way to make you pay."

Colby looked at the woman's face. She was young, but her eves were old. A startling green, almost sea green, deep and fathomless. "Thank you," Colby said, meaning it. "I can handle him. He's from Brazil where women fall at his feet all the time. It's shocking to him that I don't. I'm Colby Jansen, by the way."

Rafael's fingers tightened on Colby, but he was watching the other woman with a dark, disturbing look. Colby was suddenly frightened for her.

"Maybe I'll see you around, Colby," the woman said. She turned and walked slowly away without giving out her name.

"She heard you," Colby said. "When you spoke, telepathically, she heard you. In my life, you and your brother were the first people I ever met who were like me. Now there's this woman. Isn't that such a strange coincidence?"

"I don't believe in coincidence," Rafael said. His hand slid from her arm as he stared after the other woman.

Colby felt a sharp tug of jealousy. It was unreasonable, stupid-it possibly bordered on insane and plain made her mad at herself. She wanted away from Rafael De La Cruz more than anything. She ducked into the cab, clutching the steering wheel for support. The truck would start. Absolutely would start. She took a deep breath and turned the key. The starter made its usual grinding protest. She stared hard at it, determined that it would start. Nothing defied Colby Jansen in this mood. The engine turned over and she revved it carefully, a swift, triumphant smile crossing her face. She couldn't help but glance at him smugly as she backed out of the lot and headed home.

Rafael watched thoughtfully as the old rickety pickup disappeared around the corner. The sudden surge of power vibrating in the air as she started the engine had been impossible to miss. Had she known what she was doing? Colby Jensen was unique among humans. She possessed qualities, talents he had not expected. There had been rumors that his family was not completely isolated. He had heard, although none of them had ever really believed until Riordan had found his lifemate, that there were human women possessing certain rare gifts that deemed them lifemates to the males of his race. Colby not only was telepathic, but she could do a variety of other things as well. And who was the mystery woman who would have challenged his authority over Colby? Friend or enemy?

Rafael and his four brothers were immortal. From their home in the Carpathian Mountains, they had gone willingly to South America when it was a wild, lawless land plagued by vampires, far from their homeland and their kin. The ancestors of the present-day Chevez family had eventually been chosen to run their vast estates during the daylight hours. In exchange, the De La Cruz brothers provided protection and wealth for those members of the Chevez family who remained loyal to them. In the intervening years, Rafael had certainly hunted countless vampires, males of his race who had deliberately chosen the darkness and had become wholly evil.

He glanced around the parking lot, blurred his image so that the few stragglers wouldn't see him, and, with the ease of long practice, launched himself skyward. Shape-shifting on the wing, he circled once and then flew across the night sky. Colby Jansen was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was the first time in his long life he could remember being uncertain how to proceed. Emotions were new and raw, colors were vivid and blinding, his body was alive and crawled with relentless sexual hunger. It was amazing to be in her company, to have her in his world. He wanted to spend every moment with her, yet he could not control her as he did everything and everybody in his realm of existence. But I will. He sent that thought winging ahead of him into the night. A promise. A need. A vow.


Colby hung on grimly to the steering wheel, her mind in total chaos. Something was very, very wrong with Rafael De La Cruz. He certainly was the epitome of the Latin charmer. He could knock off a woman's socks at fifty paces. Everything about him screamed sin and sex. She muttered unladylike imprecations under her breath. She was a practical woman, certainly not someone easily swayed by physical attraction. This man was turning on the charm to get his way. He wanted Paul and Ginny and with them, their ranch. He was ruthless enough to use any method possible to get what he wanted.

Colby groaned aloud. She certainly showed him she was totally susceptible to his sex appeal. She'd acted just like every other female in a hundred-mile radius, throwing herself at him. She glanced in the mirror to see if her face was shiny crimson with shame. For a split second she saw eyes staring hack at her. Inky black. Unblinking. Icy cold. The eyes of a merciless hunter. In the depths of those staring eyes were wicked red flames flickering and growing. The gaze was fixed on her; she was prey, helpless and weak in the face of such relentless strength.

Colby's heart slammed hard and loud. She nearly cranked the wheel to the side of the road as she twisted around to look behind her seat into the bed of the pickup. There was nothing there. She had seen those red flames before, felt the shiver of fear, of apprehension. A wind was whipping up out of the mountains, hitting her face through the open window, an ominous portent of things to come.

Resolutely she pressed the gas pedal down, bumping along, the springs on the seat squeaking in tune to the radio she had blasting. As hard as she tried, Colby couldn't stop herself from continually checking the rearview mirror for those merciless eyes. She had enough to worry about without seeing things. So many little things had gone wrong on the ranch lately-Pete's disappearance when she needed an extra hand so desperately, the balloon payment due on the mortgage, and the South American group showing up out of nowhere demanding the children. She swept a hand through her hair, shoving it away from her face. The wind blew the silken strands right back at her.

Something was terribly wrong at the ranch. She knew it, she felt it, but how could she make Ben understand she just knew things? Like the plane crash. She had known the moment it was in trouble. She had known the moment her mother died. She had been the one to find the wreckage, knowing her beloved stepfather was clinging to life and waiting for her. How could she explain how she knew things? How could she explain to anyone the things she could do?

For a moment wild emotion welled up out of nowhere, blindsiding her, unexpected when she was so careful to be controlled. She felt tears burning in her eyes, her throat tight, her chest like stone. Loneliness hit her hard. She was so alone, so lonely. There was no one with whom she could ever share who and what she was. Colby fought desperately to control the burning in her chest. She didn't dare lose control, wouldn't lose control. It could be dangerous, very, very dangerous.

The dirt road leading to her ranch loomed up, the gate closed and locked. She glanced around the lonely area just once, ensuring she was completely alone. Slowing the truck, Colby leaned out the window and stared intently at the pad-lock and heavy chain wrapped around the gate. It trembled once, then fell open. The gate swung inward, clearing the path for her. With her ragged fingernail she tapped a rhythm out on the rusted door as she pulled the truck forward. She leaned out of the window to concentrate on locking the gate behind her, thankful she had certain useful talents. It came in handy in the rain and on nights she was just too tired to pretend she was normal.

The wind washed over her again and she felt eyes on her. The scent of a hunter. Something, someone was out in the darkness and it had turned its attention to her. Perhaps it was the disturbance of power in the air when she used her strange talents that drew unwanted attention in her direction. Colby only knew something was very wrong, and evil stalked her family. She was the only protection Paul and Ginny had. She loved them and she would guard them fiercely. From anyone. Anything.

With a sigh she drove the rest of the distance to the ranch house. Ginny's dog, King, a border collie, rushed out barking a greeting. She rested her head against the steering wheel for a moment trying to absorb the vibrations in the night sky. What was out there, close, watching her ranch, marking her family? Why couldn't she isolate the direction it was coming from? She knew something was watching, yet she couldn't pinpoint the trouble. Colby knew things. She knew the cow in the barn was going to give birth soon and it wasn't going to be an easy birth. She knew when it was going to rain and just how long she had to get the hay out of the fields.

Patting the dog, she made her way to the porch. Paul was waiting for her, on the porch swing. His long, lanky frame was stretched out, his hat pulled low over his eyes. His arms were folded across his chest. Colby stood there looking down at him, love for him welling up inside of her. He was an amazing brother. He looked so young and vulnerable when he was asleep. Colby touched his shoulder gently.

Paul woke with a start. "I was just resting my eyes," he said, his grin lighting his face as he pushed back his hat with his thumb. He had seen the gesture in a western movie and had copied it ever since. He had been about seven and Colby didn't have the heart to remind him of its origins. In any case she found it endearing.

"Joclyn Everett is a very nice woman, Paul. I've met her husband, of course, many times, but never her. What do you think of them?"

His sigh was audible in the silence of the night. "What I think is that you told this woman you would take on her kid for riding lessons even though you are totally swamped. That's what I think, Colby."

Colby rubbed her forehead, avoiding his eyes. "Well, the girl is Ginny's age and Ginny gets very lonely."

"Colby, you can't do it. You're running yourself into the ground already. Don't you think I know you're staying up half the night already? You can't take on any more."

"They're offering good money, Paulo, and Ginny needs a friend. I thought I could spend a short period each lesson with the girl and then let Ginny take over. It shouldn't really take that much time."

Paul groaned aloud. "You really are crazy, Colby, but there's never any good arguing with you." He held open the door. "I checked the stock, made the rounds so you can hit the sack."

She flashed him a quick smile. "Thanks, Paul. I am tired tonight." She leaned over to kiss his cheek. "I appreciate it, I really do."

"I'd give you a lecture," he said, "but I kind of like Sean Everett. Since he's a neighbor, we might as well become friends with him." Colby burst out laughing, the sound soft and quite catching. Paul found himself with a big smile on his face.

"You're only saying that because you want another victim to rope into fixing our broken-down equipment."

"Are you accusing me of having an ulterior motive?" He did his best to look innocent.

Colby signaled King toward the barn. Usually the collie slept curled up on the floor of Ginny's bedroom, but Colby had been so troubled lately, she had taken to using him as a night guard. Paul watched her signal the dog, a frown on his face. "You really are worried, aren't you, Colby?"

She shrugged casually. "I just think it's better to be safe than sorry, Paulo. Ben says he thinks a bunch of kids are playing pranks."

Paul snorted his denial. "Ben always blames teenagers. What's up with that?"

Colby laughed again, filling the house with the sound of her warmth. "You should have seen him as a teenager. He was the bad boy of the school. He just thinks everyone is like he was."

Paul shook his head and opened the door to his bedroom. "I can't imagine him as a teenager. He doesn't even know how to smile. Good night, Colby, you need to actually go to bed."

She raised an eyebrow even as she hid her amusement of his authoritative tone. "Good night, Paul."


| Dark Secret | c