"Come on, Colby," Sheriff Ben Lassiter yelled, feeling like a fool running alongside the tractor. "You have to be reasonable. Get off that damn thing and listen to me for once in your life. You're being stubborn!"
The ancient tractor bounced along in the gathering dusk, shooting up clouds of powdery dirt to spray over Ben's immaculate sheriff's uniform. Colby waited until he was totally out of breath and at a complete disadvantage before she stopped the tractor and sat staring moodily out over the field. Very slowly she pulled off her leather work gloves. "I'm getting tired of these visits, Ben. Just whose side are you on, anyway? You know me. You knew my father. The Chevez family don't belong here and they certainly don't have the right to try to force me to turn over my brother and sister to them."
Ben swiped at the dirt covering him, gritting his teeth against his frustration. He took several deep breaths before he answered her. "I didn't say it was right, Colby, but the Chevez family have the De La Cruz brothers on their side, which means a lot of money and power. You can't just ignore them. They aren't going to go away. You have to talk to them or they're going to take you to court. People like the De La Cruz brothers don't lose in court." He raised his hands to grasp her small waist before she could jump off the tractor by herself. Resisting the urge to shake some sense into her, he lifted her down easily, retaining possession for a moment. "You have to do this, Colby. I mean it, honey, I can't protect you from these people. Don't put it off any longer."
Colby pushed away from him, a small gesture of impatience, swinging her head so her disheveled hair spilled out from under her hat, hiding the sudden sheen of tears swimming in her eyes. Ben quickly looked away, pretending not to notice. A man would have to kill for her if she cried, and anyone witnessing her tears would be very likely to take the brunt of her anger.
"Fine." Colby began moving across the field at a fast pace. "I presume you have the entire lot of them camped on my porch?"
"I knew Ginny and Paul were gone tonight." Ben had ensured his sister-in-law invited Colby's sister and brother over for homemade ice cream.
"Like that was hard to see through." Colby tossed the words sarcastically over her shoulder at him. She had known Ben since kindergarten. She was certain he persisted in thinking of her as a wild, untamed little girl, not quite bright, when she was perfectly capable of running a ranch all by her little lonesome and had been doing so for some time. She wanted to box his thick skull.
"Colby, don't go in there like a powder keg. These people aren't the type to be pushed around." Ben easily kept pace with her.
"Pushed around?" She stopped so abruptly that he had to rock back on his heels to keep from running her over. "They're trying to push me around. How dare they come here acting so arrogant I want to sic the dog on them! Men!" She glared at him. "And another thing, Ben. Instead of kissing up to Mr. Moneybags and his entourage, you might consider what is going on out here. All my equipment keeps disappearing and some little gremlin is messing with the machinery. That's your job, isn't it?-not escorting the rich and infamous around." She began moving again, her small feminine body radiating fury.
"Colby, you and I both know it's a bunch of kids playing pranks. Probably friends of Paul," Ben said, trying to soothe her.
"Pranks? I don't think stealing is a prank. And what about my missing person's report? Have you even tried to find Pete for me?"
Ben raked a hand through his hair in sheer desperation. "Pete Jessup is probably off on a binge. For all you know that old man stole your things to pay for his alcohol."
Colby stopped again, and this time Ben did run into her and had to catch her shoulders to keep from knocking her flat. She slapped his hands away, a fine outrage smoldering in her. "Pete Jessup quit drinking when my father died, you turncoat! He's been invaluable around here."
"Colby," Ben said, his voice persuasive and gentle, "the truth is you took in that homeless old coot out of the goodness of your heart. I doubt if he did more than eat your food every day. He's a broken-down cowboy, a drifter. He's just taken off somewhere. He'll turn up eventually."
"You would say that," she sniffed, truly aggravated with him. "It's just like you to let the disappearance of an old man and sneak thieves go by the wayside so you can mix with some rich idiots who are here to try to steal my brother and sister."
"Colby, come on, they proved they're relatives and they claim they have the children's best interests at heart. The least you can do is listen to them."
"You probably agree with them, don't you? Paul and Ginny are not better off with that group. You don't know anything about it, or them. Paul would end up just like them, so arrogant no one could stand him, and poor little Ginny would grow up thinking she was a second-class citizen because she's female. They can all go straight to hell for all I care!"
Although it was early evening and still relatively light, the sky suddenly darkened as ominous black clouds boiled up out of nowhere. A cold wind arrived on the wings of the dark mass, tugging sharply at Colby's clothes. A shiver of apprehension blew straight down her spine. For a moment something touched her mind. She felt it, felt the struggle for entrance.
"What is it?"
Colby could see Ben was clearly uneasy as he turned in a slow circle to scan the surrounding area. He had his hand on his gun, unsure what was stalking them or where the threat was coming from, but he obviously felt it as well.
Colby stayed very quiet, not moving a muscle, like a small fawn caught in a hunter's sights. She immediately sensed she was in mortal danger. It wasn't hostile toward Ben, but she could feel the malevolence directed at her. Whatever it was struck directly at her mind, seeking entrance. She took a deep slow breath and let it out, forcing her mind to stay blank, thinking of a wall-high, impregnable-a fortress nothing could enter. She focused completely on the wall, keeping it strong, impenetrable.
The thing seemed to withdraw for a moment, puzzled perhaps by her strength, but then it struck again, a hard spearlike thrust that seemed to pierce her skull and drive right for her brain. Colby uttered a soft cry of pain and dropped to one knee, holding her head even while she forced herself to breathe evenly and calmly. Her mind was strong, invincible, with a wall so thick and high no one would ever break it down. Whatever malevolent thing was after her would not be allowed to breach her defenses.
She became aware, after a few minutes, of Ben's large hand on her shoulder. He was bending over her solicitously. "Colby, what is it?"
Cautiously she lifted her head. The presence was gone. "My head, Ben. I have the headache from hell." She did, too; it wasn't a lie. She'd never experienced anything quite like the attack. She actually felt sick to her stomach, and she wasn't certain she could walk. Whatever it had been was strong and terrifying.
Ben took her elbow and helped her to her feet. She was trembling-he could feel the continuous shivering beneath his hand-so he held on to her. Colby didn't pull away from him like she normally would have and that worried him. "You want me to call an ambulance?"
Her emerald green eyes laughed at him even as they mirrored her pain. "Are you crazy? I have a headache, Ben.
The mere thought of contact with the Chevez family gives me major headaches."
"Your brother and sister are both members of the Chevez family, Colby. You would have been too if the adoption had gone through."
Colby ducked her head, his words hitting her dead center in her heart. Armando Chevez had never adopted her. He had confessed his reasons on his deathbed, hanging his head in shame, tears swimming in his eyes while she held his hand. He had wanted his grandfather to relent, to accept him back into the family. Due to the circumstances of Colby's birth, Armando had known if he adopted her, his grandfather in Brazil would never allow him to come back to the family. It had been too late, then, to push the paperwork through. Armando Chevez was ashamed that he had betrayed her unconditional love for him for a family who had never answered a dying man's letter. Colby had remained loyal and loving, nursing him, reading to him, comforting him right up until the day he died. And she still remained loyal to him. It didn't matter that he had died before the adoption-Armando Chevez wasn't her biological father, but he was her father all the same. In her heart, where it counted.
The way the Chevez family hated her had never mattered to her, but she loved Armando with every fiber of her being. She loved him with the same fierceness with which she loved her brother and sister. As far as she was concerned, the Chevez family didn't deserve Armando and his children. And the two De La Cruz brothers, guardians and bullies for the Chevez family, could go straight back to whatever hell had spawned them. They were directly responsible for Armando's grandfather's bitter hatred of her. She wasn't good enough to he a member of the Chevez family. Neither was her beloved mother. Armando's grandfather had pronounced they would never be accepted into his illustrious family and his reasons had been abundantly clear. Colby's mother had never married her father, there was no name on Colby's birth certificate, and Armando's grandfather would never accept an Anglo harlot and her bastard into his pureblood family.
As she and Ben moved around the vegetable garden toward the ranch house, Colby slowed her pace, turning her mind inward for a moment to focus her strength of will on control. It was important to stay calm and relaxed and to breathe naturally. She tilted her chin and walked with her head up to meet the all-powerful De La Cruz brothers and the Chevez family members who had come to steal her brother and sister and their ranch.
They were gathered together on her small porch. Juan and Julio Chevez resembled Armando so much Colby had to blink back unexpected burning tears. She had to remember this was the family who had so cruelly rejected her mother because she had given birth to Colby out of wedlock. This was the same family who had callously ignored her beloved stepfather's pleas and allowed him to die without so much as a word from them. Worst of all, they were here to take Paul and Ginny away and to confiscate the ranch, their father's last legacy.
Ben saw her lift her chin and he sighed heavily. He had known Colby nearly all of her life. She had a stubborn streak a mile wide. If these men underestimated her because she was young and beautiful, because she looked small and fragile, they were in for a big surprise. Colby could move mountains if she set her mind to it. He had never seen anyone so determined, with such strength of will. Who else could have nursed a dying man and run a huge ranch with only the help of an old broken-down cowhand and two kids?
Colby walked right up to the two men, her slender shoulders straight, her small frame as tall as she could make it. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" Her voice was polite, distant, as she gestured toward the chairs on the porch rather than inviting them into her home. "I looked very carefully over the papers you sent and I believe I already gave you my answer. Ginny and Paul are United States citizens. This ranch is their legacy, entrusted to me to preserve for them. That is a legal document. If you wish to dispute it, you can take me to court. I have no intention of turning my brother and sister over to complete strangers."
A man stirred back in the shadows. Her gaze jumped to his face, her heart pounding. It was strange she hadn't noticed him immediately. He seemed blurred, a part of the gathering darkness. As he stepped under the porch light, she could see he was tall and muscular, very imposing. His face held a harsh sensuality, his eyes black and cold. His hair was long, pulled to the back of his neck and somehow secured there. Every warning sense shrieked at her. He held up his hand, effectively silencing Juan Chevez before he could speak. That imperious gesture, stopping the proud, very wealthy Brazilian, set her heart pounding. She had a feeling he could hear it. The brothers moved aside as he glided silently forward. The parting of the Red Sea, Colby thought a little hysterically. Was there a touch of fear in the eyes of the Chevez brothers?
Colby stood her ground, trembling, afraid her rubbery legs might not hold her up. This man scared her. There was an edge of cruelty to his mouth and she had never seen such cold eyes, as if he had no soul. She forced herself to stand, not to look at Ben for assurance. Clearly this man could take a life and never think twice about it. That made her all the more determined to keep her brother and sister with her. If the Chevez family used him for protection, what did that say about them? She stared up at him defiantly. He bent closer, his black eyes staring directly into her green ones. At once she felt a magnetic pull. She recognized that touch from the mental attack on her in the field. Alarmed, she jerked back, twisting away from him to focus on Ben's scuffed boots. This man had psychic abilities just like her!
"I am Nicolas De La Cruz. " He said his name softly, his voice as mesmerizing as his eyes. "I wish you to hear these men out. They have come a long way to see you. The children are of their blood."
The way he said "blood" sent a shiver running through her body. He didn't raise his voice at all. He sounded perfectly calm and reasonable. His voice was a powerful, hypnotic weapon and she recognized it as such. If he used it in a court of law on the judge, could she combat it? She didn't honestly know. Even she was somewhat susceptible. Her head was pounding. She pressed a hand to her temples. He was exerting subtle pressure on her to do as he bid her.
Colby knew she wouldn't be able to resist the relentless force for long. Her head felt as if it might shatter. Pride was one thing, foolishness completely another. "I am going to have to ask you gentlemen to leave. Unfortunately, this is a bad time for me. I'm afraid I'm ill." Pressing a hand to her pounding head, she turned to Ben. "Would you please escort them out of here for me and I will try to schedule another meeting when I'm feeling better? I'm sorry."
She jerked open the door to her home and fled inside to the safety of her sanctuary. Nicolas De La Cruz would be a powerful enemy. The pounding in her head from fighting off his mental attack was making her physically sick. She buried her face against her quilt and breathed deeply, waiting until she felt the steady pressure slowly retreating. She lay there a long time, terrified for her brother and sister, terrified for herself.