The sun was slow in sinking behind the mountain, and dark ominous clouds began to float across the sky. The sky seemed alive with orange and red hues, as if the entire heavens were on fire. Deep below the earth a single heart began to beat and Rafael awoke, his eyes snapping open, his first breath releasing in a long slow hiss of fury. Somewhere above him Colby's distress had awakened him from his rejuvenating slumber. She was fighting back tears, her mind chaotic and fearful.
Rafael scanned the area to ensure he was completely alone before he burst through the surface, dirt spewing into the air like a geyser. He rose high into the air, shape-shifting as he did so, choosing the familiar form of the strong and powerful harpy eagle. Spreading his wings, he climbed even higher, grateful for the thickening cloud cover guarding his sensitive eyes. He soared above the ranch, inspecting the region closely, looking for potential trouble.
The ranch seemed quiet enough, yet he knew Juan had found a steer, horribly mutilated, the animal killed quite recently. It had been a brutal, savage act, and the steer had been left in the water hole. He had taken the information from Colby's mind. He read Paul's mind as the boy stood in the shadows of the porch watching the blood red sunset and talking with his sister. In the body of the bird, Rafael flew higher and higher, unashamedly listening to every word of the conversation taking place below him, his sharp eyes taking in every movement on the ground, seeking to find hidden danger to his lifemate.
"Were you with Juan when he found the steer?" Colby persisted. "How long was he out of your sight?" She was still fighting the effects of sleep, making a concentrated effort to be alert and listen to every detail of the distressing news.
"The fence was down near the field, Colby," Paul said, his young voice weary. "I told Juan I could handle it by myself. They're fast workers, and they know what they're doing. I wanted you to be able to sleep. I thought if we split up we'd get more work done. I know you told me to keep an eye on both of them, but I worked with them most of the day and I…" He trailed off. "I'm sorry, Colby."
She reached out to pull his hat lower over his eyes, a loving gesture meant to reassure him. "But you liked them," she finished for him. "I don't really think Juan killed the steer, Paul. It wouldn't be sensible to kill a steer, drag it into the water hole, and then 'find' it just so we could take it back out. The animal would have to be there for a while to foul the water hole. My guess is, whoever did this had that as their intention and Juan stumbled upon it too soon."
"But he might have done it."
Colby sighed. "Maybe. Did you look for tracks? Did you take a look at his clothes? His knife?"
Paul's face colored slightly. "I should have. He didn't leave it in the water. He pulled the carcass out before he came after me." Paul did like his uncles, both of them. They were hard workers and knowledgeable. They treated him like an equal, and they reminded him of his father. Paul was beginning to feel affection and a great deal of respect for both of his uncles and he wanted them to feel the same way about him. He hadn't searched for evidence or tracks because it hadn't occurred to him either one of them could be responsible, but now he was confused.
Colby nodded. "We both would have gotten a carcass out of the water. We can hardly fault him for that." She shook her head. "I'm very worried; someone is definitely trying to shut us down. We're operating on a thin financial margin as it is." She glanced around her to ensure Ginny wasn't close by and lowered her voice another notch. "You aren't a little kid anymore, Paul, I don't know who we can trust and who we should be afraid of. But someone murdered Pete. It wasn't an accident. He didn't have money, there was no reason to try to rob him, someone burned down our stable, and now they've killed one of our steers and left it in a water hole deliberately to foul it."
"What did Ben say?" Paul took off his hat and raked a hand through his hair.
"I called him, of course, and he should be arriving any minute. The Everetts are coming for a riding lesson too." When Paul snickered, Colby glared at him. "I expect you to be on your best behavior. This means a lot to Ginny, she wants a friend. We both forget how hard it is for her. You can visit your friends, but she's stuck out here."
Paul kicked at a rock. "Yeah, I have so many chances to visit friends, Colby. I work from sunup to sundown."
"I know you do." Colby looked away from him, struggling not to cry. She couldn't remember a single day in her life for the last five years that she hadn't worked from sunup until sundown and often through the night as well. "What did the vet say about the horses?"
"You did a fantastic job. You and De La Cruz. Watch them carefully for infection, and mainly the scars will be emotional, not physical. They're traumatized and will need work." He looked at her. "Your job, Colby, you're the one good with horses. Did you notice how they reacted to De La Cruz? They were calm around him and he seemed to really know what he was doing. His lawyer called, by the way." His voice had turned very casual. He tried not to notice how Colby stiffened. "He drew up papers for a loan and is sending them by way of Sean Everett for us to look over. De La Cruz will be here later this evening."
"He's probably out entertaining the tall blonde he likes to play with," Colby said. She needed to keep her perspective with Rafael. He was a ladies' man. Just because he made her feel things she'd never felt before, just because he whispered beautiful things in the night didn't mean he wasn't saying and doing the same things to other women. Colby was fairly certain she was going to wake up one morning soon with a head full of gray hair just worrying about everything.
You certainly have strange ideas.
Colby's fingers curled around the porch railing at the whisper of intimacy in her mind. She looked around her carefully, feeling he was close. Her body ached. Her breasts were suddenly sore. At the sound of his sinfully sexy voice her blood began to heat. Go away. I don't want to talk to you right now. That was a blatant lie, but she didn't want to face him, face the night with the memory of his body buried deep within hers. Face the accusations she made in the middle of his helping her or the fact that she was going to take his money to bail out their ranch.
Yes, you do. I am in your mind. Why do you never seek to enter my mind?
Beneath her long lashes Colby glanced guiltily at her brother. She couldn't help herself. She was drawn to Rafael in spite of every fear she had. In spite of the fact that he was there to take away her family. She had hidden her strange, unique talents for so long and there was always the fear of discovery. There was always an empty place inside of her. There was such loneliness in the middle of the night that sometimes Colby would stare up at the stars and wish she could just disappear. And the work. The endless work. Rafael held her in strong arms. He took charge and directed everyone in a crisis. His strength alone was a seductive lure. And his body…
I think whatever is in your mind would scare me. Did you do something to me to make me need so much sleep? She blushed at the thought of it, of the dark erotic dream she couldn't seem to stop replaying during the day or while she slept any more than she could stop the way her body ached and needed him in an unfamiliar way.
Rafael's voice held warmth and laughter, complete male satisfaction. He was nearly purring. We did a lot of things to make you need to sleep.
She could feel the flush spreading up her neck and into her face. She should have known better than to open the subject with him. It was humiliating to talk to him or face him, thinking of the things she'd let him do to her, yet when she was alone, she thought of his body and the way he could make her feel continually.
"Aren't you going to ask me what Mr. De La Cruz said about the terms of the loan?" Paul burst out, unable to contain himself any longer. His sister's attention seemed far away, she had a peculiar, almost dreamy look on her face. Colby looked startled, as if she'd forgotten he was there. She even blushed. "Well? It could save the ranch, Colby."
She touched the toe of her boot to the head of a nail on the steps. "We could lose everything, Paul. Rafael De La Cruz came to the United States for one purpose. They might be buying horses and doing business here and there, but they came to bring you and Ginny back to Brazil with them. Men like De La Cruz get what they want one way or the other. You do business with them and you'll lose every time." She closed her eyes, feeling his hands moving over her body. She'd allowed him to seduce her. Was she a complete idiot?
You are not being very polite, meu amor. Rafael sounded more amused than ever, not in the least perturbed by her assessment.
Isn't it the truth? You're going to take what you want and no one can stand in your way. Her chest was suddenly tight.
That is true, querida, and you know exactly what I want.
Did she? Colby didn't feel as if she knew much of anything.
"So what's the worst that can happen, Colby?" Paul demanded. "He would get our ranch, right? He's at least family of sorts. If we let Clinton Daniels take it away from us, we'll never get it back. You know that. If one of them had to have it, which would be better?"
Her green eyes suddenly, shrewdly, lifted to his face. "Juan or Julio Chevez told you that, didn't they?"
Paul shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. "Does it matter who thought of it? It's true." He looked down the road, to where the border collie was barking furiously. "The Everetts are coming."
"Did you wonder why your uncles didn't offer a loan when they have enough money to do it? They're rich too, Paul," Colby pointed out. "Why would they let Rafael loan us the money instead of doing it themselves?" Why didn't they?
Because they do not dare cross me, pequena. And neither should you. Rafael spoke the words almost complacently. They know better than to interfere in my business.
Colby was silent for a moment thinking that through. A shiver had gone down her spine and she resisted a desire to rub warmth into her arms. I would think this family would be Chevez business, not yours.
Ah, that was so at one time, but then you are my business now.
Rafael was near, she sensed him close by, but she didn't see him in the truck approaching the yard. Paul stepped off the porch to avoid answering her, heading for the hay fields so he wouldn't get trapped into giving riding lessons to a greenhorn. Colby watched him go across the yard, her heart heavy just looking at him. He was too young to bear the burden of the ranch, their financial woes, and the knowledge that someone was trying to destroy them.
So are you. The words shimmered in her mind, warm breath teased the back of her neck, and two strong arms circled her waist possessively from behind her.
Colby nearly jumped out of her skin, but he was holding her close to him, his body protective and aggressive at the same time. The backs of his hands deliberately brushed the underside of her breasts. She could feel the hard thick length of his erection pressed tightly against her. Imprisoned against his hard strength, she inhaled his masculine scent with her heightened senses. He smelled of the mountains, wild, untamed. "We are having company, I see. And I wanted you all to myself." He whispered the words wickedly against skin. His mouth skimmed over the nape of her neck, found his brand, his teeth teasing and scraping gently.
"Don't you dare! I look like a teenager as it is. If Paul sees this…" Colby turned her head to glare at him. "I have a few things to say to you about your behavior." Except she couldn't remember what she wanted to say, terrible words that would drive him away. She wanted the heat and fire of his body, his hands on her, his mouth on her. His body buried deep inside of hers. She found herself blushing, avoiding his gaze.
"Just how old are you?" he asked suddenly. "You look like a teenager to me " His eyes were devouring her face, black and intense, with that hunger that only seemed to be present when he looked at her. He smoldered with sensuality, his gaze devouring her. She could almost feel the electricity crackling between them. Hot flames licked at her skin and deep inside, her blood went thick.
Colby should have moved. If she had any sense of self-preservation left, if her brain was working, she would have run. Instead she stayed in his arms, letting his mouth blaze a path of flames along her neck to her collarbone. He touched her forearm gently, brought it up to his mouth. She felt the velvet rasping of his tongue against her skin. Instead of hurting the burns, it felt soothing. "What are you doing?" Besides setting me on fire. Why do I let you do this to me? Have you hypnotized me? Part of her felt the familiar despair that she couldn't control her reaction to him, but another part flared with excitement, in anticipation.
I am healing you, pequena, you have burned yourself. You must wear very dark glasses to protect your eyes when the sun is out. And cover your skin. Try to find a way to stay out of direct sunlight. Deliberately he used the much more intimate method of communication as his mouth moved over her skin, his healing saliva taking away the pain of her burns. He turned her around and kissed her eyelids, lingering to make certain he had done a thorough job of healing her.
For a moment, Colby allowed herself to melt into the strength and shelter of his body. His voice was chanting in another language, not Portuguese, but something far older, the words beautiful and soothing. She could hear the chant in her mind rather than with her ears. "Why did I burn today in the sun?" He knew. With their minds merged together, she caught shadows and echoes of his thoughts. His memories. None of it made sense to her. I live on a ranch, I can't exactly stay out of the sun!
The truck was pulling into the yard and right behind it was Ben's sheriff's vehicle, a four-wheel drive needed to travel the roads into the ranches. Colby pulled away from the warmth of Rafael's body, standing straight to face the visitors. Rafael laughed, his breath stirring tendrils of her hair at the nape of her neck. Deliberately he caught her to him, fastening his mouth to hers, welding them together, so that for a moment she melted into his body. He took his time, his tongue mating with hers, his hands hot, while little flames licked at their bodies. Her thick hair was crushed in his hand while he kept command of her mouth. Slowly, he lifted his head, his black gaze flaring with a dark intensity that arced like lightning through her body.
Colby blinked hard and tried to recover, then glared at him and stepped away, off the porch, but he moved easily beside her, his hand resting possessively on the small of her back. His palm burned like fire and between her thighs, her body throbbed and pleaded for him. She knew exactly what he was doing, staking a claim on her in front of the people in her world. And he was letting her know there was nothing she could do about it.
Joclyn was watching them, speculation in her gaze. Sean had an open grin on his face, but Ben's expression looked like a thundercloud as he slammed the door to his Jeep. Colby was very aware of his disapproval while she was talking to Joclyn and her little girl. Rafael didn't help, talking easily with Sean, discussing the fire, acting as if he belonged. He seemed to take every opportunity to touch her, caressing her hair, sliding his fingers along the nape of her neck until she thought Ben would shoot somebody.
Glaring at Rafael and moving away from him didn't seem to help much. She could hear his soft mocking laughter in her mind. She was forced to acknowledge him, even when she was determined not to fall into his trap. Will you stop! She narrowed her eyes at him in warning.
Rafael looked at her in mock innocence. I am not doing anything.
Colby turned her attention to Tanya, Joclyn's daughter, as Ginny came running over and wound her arm around Colby for support. Rafael put his hand on the child's shoulder with an encouraging smile and Ginny smiled up at him gratefully, obviously mesmerized by him.
I'm going to throw something at you. Colby tried not to laugh at the situation, but for the first time in her life, she felt like she was sharing something with someone else. Like she belonged. Was a part of someone else. It didn't seem to matter that her brain screamed a million warnings at her, she was enjoying his attention. It was a new experience for her.
"I'm on a tight schedule, Colby," Ben snapped, bringing her attention hack to him. "If you can spare me enough time to tell me what's going on around here." He sounded accusing.
Rafael immediately circled Ginny's shoulders with his arm. She looked about to cry. "Go ahead, Colby, report to the official. Ginny and I can handle this, right, Ginny?" His voice was low and intimate, welding them all together as if they were one family. He sounded supremely confident in Ginny. "You know me, Tanya. Ginny and I will start the lesson and when Colby is finished with her business, she will join us. Is that acceptable to you?" He turned on a high-powered smile.
Colby shook her head watching Rafael. He was definitely creating the impression he belonged, he was a part of their family. Ben caught her arm rather roughly, dragging her attention back to him. She glanced up at him, startled, like someone waking up, coming out of a dream.
A low warning growl shimmered in the air, so that the horses stirred restlessly and the adults looked around carefully. They all heard it; most of them thought it might have been Ginny's dog, who was sitting regarding them all with an inquiring eye at the sudden attention. Colby knew better. She tucked her hair behind her ear and surreptitiously glanced in warning at Rafael. "Come up to the porch, Ben. Can I get you some coffee?"
He waited all of five steps before he exploded. "You want to tell me what the hell that was all about?"
Her eyebrow shot up. "What are you talking about?"
"Before you deny the little scene on the porch, Colby, you might take a look in the mirror at your neck. You've been all over that man."
Colby bit at her lip to keep from laughing. If she didn't laugh, she might cry. Her behavior with Rafael was completely out of character. She knew it and so did Ben. "Why are you blaming me? It just so happens he was all over me," she corrected. So maybe she wasn't the most beautiful woman in town, did that mean that Rafael couldn't possibly be attracted to her? "Some men are attracted to me, as strange as the concept might seem, Ben. I don't always have to attack them."
"This is so like you, choosing the wrong man. A man like Rafael De La Cruz will eat you up and spit you out! You're playing with fire. You can't do that with someone like him. Damn it, Colby, why don't you settle down with a decent man like Joe Vargas?"
"Joe Vargas! Sheesh! What is it with everyone and poor Joe? He would hate being married to me."
"Everyone in their right mind would hate being married to you." He dragged her onto the porch, deeper into the shadows, his fingers circling her upper arms to give her a little shake. "Is this about money? What are you up to?"
"Ben, let go, you're hurting me " Colby pried at the fingers circling her arm. "You always forget how blasted strong you are."
"Let her go now." The voice was very soft, very menacing. A whip of malevolence, a dark promise of retaliation. Colby had never heard anything like it before. Rafael had somehow covered the distance between them, completely across the wide expanse of yard, and was blending into the shadows so that his large frame scarcely could be seen, yet his black eyes were nearly glowing in the dark with unbelievable menace.
A shiver of fear ran down her spine and her hand went protectively to her throat. Rafael looked merciless, ruthless, every inch the predator. In that moment he didn't look wholly human. There was an animal quality about him, feral, dangerous, untamed.
Ben dropped his arms and would have stepped away from her, his hand sliding to his gun as his instincts took over, but Colby stayed firmly between the two men. "I've known Ben since I was about three years old, Rafael. He's like a brother to me. He would never hurt me, never. I'm sure this looked like he was getting rough, but it isn't like that at all. He was just, well… " She floundered for a moment, her heart pounding in her throat. The feeling of menace, of death was so strong she actually felt terrified for a moment. Terrified for Ben.
Rafael was the first to move, his arm snaking out, fingers circling her wrist to draw her very gently to him. "Then I must apologize as I do not understand the relationships of men and women in other countries." His arms circled her slender body, brought her right up against him protectively. Ssh, meu amor, your heart is beating far too fast. Listen to the rhythm of mine.
Ben stood there in silence watching the other man as he bent possessively over Colby. There was a protective posture to his body as he held Colby, his hands gentle, despite his tremendous strength. Rafael exuded power and menace, the arrogance of one long used to commanding others with complete authority. He looked like a man who always got his way and Ben could clearly see Rafael De La Cruz wanted Colby Jansen. De La Cruz was a man, not a boy, and Colby looked young and vulnerable beside him. She seemed a bit frightened and very confused as if she found herself in a situation she was unprepared for. And Ben knew Colby, knew she would never be prepared for a man such as Rafael De La Cruz.
"I would never hurt Colby," Ben said calmly. "We're old friends and I guess I'm used to rough-housing with her a bit."
Rafael smiled, showing gleaming white teeth. There was no humor in the smile, rather a subtle warning. "Perhaps she is becoming too old for such things." His voice was softer than ever and it sent Colby's pulse racing all over again. He sounded deadly.
Colby took a deep breath and let it out, determined to take back control of the situation. "Thank you for worrying about me, Rafael, but as you can see, I'm perfectly fine. I really have quite a bit to discuss with Ben, so if you would excuse us…"
Rafael bowed low with a courtly old-world elegance long since gone from the modern world. All the time his gaze never left Ben's face, the black depths of his eyes ice cold. Ben watched as the man bent to brush a kiss on the top of Colby's silken hair before gliding away, back across the yard to the Everetts and Ginny.
Ben stared down at Colby, his features set and sober. "You are nuts to think you can control him. He's dangerous, Colby. He would have torn my heart out with his bare hands. You should know better than to get involved with someone like that."
Colby stood there looking up at him rather helplessly. She didn't know if she was involved with Rafael. Everything in her life seemed as if it was spinning out of control when she was anywhere near Rafael. She shook her head and dropped into the porch swing, her knees suddenly rubbery. "I don't know what's happening to me, or to the ranch, the world is so upside down right now, Ben."
It was the first time he had ever heard her sound so lost. At once he hunkered down beside the swing, his hand on her knee to comfort her. "Listen to me, honey. You don't need to sell your soul here. I've got money if you need it. A little saved up, nothing big." He took a deep breath, his face manfully expressionless as he made the ultimate sacrifice. "And hell, if you need me to marry you, I guess we could do that too."
Colby stared at him for all of five seconds before she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him close, laughing softly. "What would I do without you, Ben?"
Rafael heard the entire conversation, his blood surging with such power through his body he held himself utterly still, afraid the demon would break loose. His brother stirred in his mind, questioning the fury pouring through him. Rafael stared at the hand touching Colby's knee, watched as she flung herself into the other man's arms, heard her soft laughter, the camaraderie of a man and woman who had known one another a long time.
He felt the demon raising its head, the roaring, the bestial reaction beneath the thin veneer of civility he had worked so hard at achieving. Fangs exploded in his mouth and his eyes burned savagely. A red haze seemed to consume his brain.
Call out to her. It was Nicolas. Calm. Commanding. The voice of reason when the dark call of his nature was consuming him. Rafael. Deliberately Nicolas used his brother's name to call him back from the edge of disaster. Call out to her now.
The beast could see his rival embracing his lifemate. He had not bound them together for fear she would be uncomfortable, now the beast had a firm hold on him.
Call out to her. It was the cool wind of reason moving through his mind. Rafael latched on to the ribbon of sanity his brother provided.
Colby. Move away from him immediately. For me. Do this for me.
The normally soft voice was a menace in her mind. More dangerous than any wild animal she had ever encountered. The threat was there, just like the time she had come upon a large mountain lion in its prime just after it had made a kill. She sensed his fear that she might not listen to him, that she wouldn't see the danger, but Colby was far more adept at reading wild things than he gave her credit for. And she chose that moment to touch his mind.
Colby pulled away from Ben and leapt to her feet, pacing away from him quickly, her mind working on two levels. She wanted to appear normal to Ben, yet she shared the swirling cauldron of dark violent emotions with Rafael. "You would hate being married to me and you know it." She crossed her arms and tried to keep from shivering. Somewhere out in the gathering darkness was something powerful and menacing. It crouched very close, watching them with the unblinking eyes of a tiger. "I'd drive you crazy, Ben, and you know it. But it was very sweet of you to offer. I'm sure you earned your way into heaven tonight."
Ben stood up slowly, trying not to look like he'd dodged a bullet. "You know I'd do it, if you needed me to. Just don't do anything desperate, Colby."
She walked down the steps of the porch and glanced around the yard casually. She felt the danger like a living, breathing entity. What is it, Rafael? Do you feel it too? Was it Rafael? Or was he simply tuned into the danger? Was Rafael threatening her?
I could never harm you, querida, never. There is no danger to you or yours, I would know. You are simply feeling me being a jealous man. The voice was his usual calm. She saw him then, standing by the corral as if nothing had happened, talking quietly with Sean and Joclyn as Ginny led Tanya's horse around in a wide circle.
Jealous? That was jealous? Colby stared at him for a long time. He looked completely normal, a handsome, charming foreigner who was very magnetic. Was she going completely insane? What did she think? That he was more than a man? He had power the same way she had power; it was easy enough to lose control. She understood that better than anyone could. Yet she had caught a glimpse of a raging beast, not human, something far more dangerous.
You can project that much danger when you are simply jealous? And not for a very good reason, I might add. She had to ask him. She didn't know if she wanted him to lie or to tell her the truth. But she had to ask him.
When we are alone and I can hold you in my arms we will talk. The words were spoken like a soft caress, running across her bare skin so that she touched her own arm. Astonished, she looked down. The blisters and redness were gone. Her skin was smooth and unblemished from the sun. He had healed her terrible sunburn.
"Are you going to talk to me or stare at that foreigner all night?" Ben demanded, coming up behind her. "I thought you had another problem out here." He sounded almost belligerent and Colby turned back to face him.
"You know, Ben, I don't think I'll understand men in a million years. They aren't at all logical like they try to brainwash women into thinking they are." Colby turned away from him to stare up at the darkening sky. "Paul is over in the hay field. I haven't checked on the problem yet, Ben. Juan Chevez was the one who found the steer and Paul saw it. He can take you out there, but its getting dark very fast. I don't know if you have time."
"I'm getting worried about you and the kids out here by yourselves. I'm making time, Colby, I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
She smiled at him over her shoulder, her hair falling in a bright cascade down her back. She looked so beautiful Ben was slightly shocked. She looked almost ethereal, hauntingly sexy and a little mysterious. He had considered her a younger sister almost all of his life. Ben's feelings about Colby were very mixed, and he didn't want to see her in this light. They weren't suited at all. He had never noticed her looking alluring and sexy before, not once in all their years together.
Ben glanced over at the dark stranger and caught the man looking at him. Rafael didn't look away, his smoldering eyes odd in the waning light. They reminded Ben of a cat's eyes, more suited to night vision than day. The eyes didn't blink and Ben looked away, not liking that intent, hair-raising stare. Rafael De La Cruz was making it perfectly clear that Colby was off-limits to any other man. Ben didn't trust him, sensing something violent and dangerous seething below that calm exterior. And De La Cruz seemed a playboy type, easily acquiring women and just as fast tossing them aside. Colby was not made for a one-night stand. She was a woman who would give herself completely to someone she loved. Ben didn't want it to be a man like De La Cruz.
He shoved his hat on his head. "I'll find Paul and talk with Chevez, but, Colby, you keep the kids close and don't go wandering off by yourself."
"I have a ranch to run, Ben," she said quietly. "I'm not going to let someone scare me off."
"You said Juan Chevez found the steer. What was he doing riding your ranch?" Ben sounded casual, but Colby wasn't in the least bit fooled, she had known him far too long.
"After the fire, Rafael didn't want us to be alone here. He couldn't stay with us so he asked Juan and Julio to help us out." She looked down at her hands, ashamed to admit her weakness to him. "It was a good thing they stayed. I was sick this afternoon and slept most of the day away."
"So De La Cruz ordered them to stay"
"They wanted to stay, Ben. They are Paul and Ginny's uncles, after all. They are concerned for their welfare."
He turned his faded blue eyes on her. "Are you trying to make me believe that Colby Jansen is not in the least suspicious about this setup? That these people show up out of the blue claiming your brother and sister and wanting the ranch to hold for them? That they just happen to be business associates and are staying with your neighbor Sean Everett whose entire crew just happens to be ex-cons? And that just about the same time they arrive, all kinds of `accidents' begin happening on your ranch? This is all coincidence, Colby? And now Juan Chevez finds a dead steer mutilated while he is 'watching over you' on De La Cruz's orders. It seems a bit far-fetched to me."
"Didn't we have this conversation before, and I was the one saying these things to you? You told me I was stubborn and to get over it. You told me I was talking through my hat when I tried to point out to you that the things going wrong on the ranch weren't accidents."
"Yeah, well, Pete's death was no accident, Colby, and it was no accident that Chevez and Everett's riders were up on the bluff. Or that Clinton Daniels and that scum Harris were out there either, along with that new hand of his, Ernie Carter. Now that's a real winner there. What the hell were you doing riding out there alone?"
"Ben"-she laid a placating hand on his arm-"you aren't suggesting everyone is conspiring against me, are you?"
Ben felt the weight of those peculiar eyes staring at him malevolently. He didn't look up to see; he knew instinctively they had De La Cruz's full attention and he knew it was because he had raised his voice to Colby and she was touching him. "I think you're in great danger, Colby, and not just of losing the ranch. That's what I think and you'd better take me damn seriously."
"I will, Ben," Colby conceded with a little sigh. "I'm worried too. I don't know what to think, but I don't want anything to happen to Paul or Ginny. I promise to be careful." When he continued looking at her she sighed again. "Very, very careful."
"And not trust anybody too much," he prompted.
"And I won't trust anybody too much," she added obediently.
Ben walked off toward the hay field, and she watched him until his large frame disappeared around the side of the large barn. She stared at the barn, puzzled. It would have made more sense for the arsonist to burn down the barn. It was located farther away from the house and it didn't have built-in sprinklers. The barn would have gone up fast with the hay in it. Why hadn't they chosen the barn?
"Colby!" Ginny called out, her voice betraying annoyance. She desperately wanted to make a good impression. Tanya was very nice and she wanted Colby to pay her lots of attention so she would want to come back.
Colby hurried over, ignoring Rafael's hot gaze and concentrating totally on Joclyn and Tanya. She was aware of Rafael watching her intently the entire time she gave instructions, but she forced herself to keep from looking at him. She wanted to look at him. She even needed to look at him. She could feel her mind continually reaching for his. She had felt the sensation before; now she recognized it. And he often touched her mind. Like a shadow. Almost for reassurance. The moment he touched her she could relax again, breathe. She smiled at Joclyn and talked normally. She hugged Ginny often, going through the motions of being interested and excited by her chatter. She lavished attention on Tanya, but all the while she was intensely aware of Rafael. Waiting. Watching.
Sean handed Rafael an envelope through the truck's open window just before they left, promising Ginny they would return in a couple of days. Colby watched Rafael casually tuck it into his shirt pocket. She really looked at him then, allowing herself the luxury. His clothes were immaculate, despite the fact that he had been checking the burns on the horses in the corral and helping with the riding lesson. It seemed as if even the dirt and dust of the ranch didn't dare cling to him the way it did everyone else. And he always smelled so good too.
Rafael met her gaze over the top of Ginny's head and smiled at her. He could rob her of her breath without doing much at all. Colby ducked her head and began walking with Ginny up to the house. "So, what did you think, chickadee, did you like Tanya?"
"She's really nice, Colby," Ginny said enthusiastically. "Paul should have at least come over to be introduced."
"Really?" Colby's eyebrow shot up. "Did you think so? I thought he might say something awful and mortify us-you know Paul."
Ginny thought it over, then shook her head. "Girls think he's cute. He's been talking to quite a few of them on the phone and they always call him first. He never calls them. At night when you're working he's on the phone in the kitchen."
"Your brother talks on the phone to girls while your sister is working?" Rafael asked quietly. There was no real expression in his voice, it was soft and calm like always, yet it held a wealth of menace.
Colby glanced at him, wondering how he could do that, not raise his voice or change his inflection, yet sound so frightening. "Paul is very young, Rafael. He's only sixteen."
"And when Armando was in the accident and left you to run the ranch and nurse him, you were what? Seventeen?" His black eyes moved broodingly over her face.
She took the back porch steps very fast, suddenly angry with him. "Paul helps out a lot, Rafael, and in any case, it isn't your business."
He glided along beside her in his silent way, irritating her even more. His hand reached the door to the kitchen at the exact same time as hers did. Colby jerked her hand away when his fingers brushed hers. "Do you think coddling that boy is going to make a man out of him, Colby? Ultimately, he has to run the ranch. It was your father's dream to keep the ranch for the kids, but he wouldn't want you running yourself into the ground."
Colby was all too aware of Ginny's wide eyes staring from one to the other of them, suddenly very grown-up. "It was my dream too." Colby sounded defiant even to her own ears. She stalked across the room to the refrigerator and stared inside.
Rafael's smile was very gentle. He put a hand on her shoulder. I have been in your mind, pequena. I did not see such a memory.
He had been in her body too. The unspoken words shimmered in the air. She whirled around and glared at him. "Then you darn well weren't looking for it," she snapped, hating that she knew what was in his pocket and that she would have no choice but to accept his handout. She was going to take his money and she had slept with him. "I wanted the ranch too. I did. I do."
The memory is not there, querida, and you, more than I, know it is true. It was never there, no such memory, because you had no such desire or dream.