Colby sighed and threw back the covers. For a moment her hand lingered on the beautiful handmade quilt covering her bed. Her mother had sent away to Paris for the comforter. A very famous but elusive designer had made it. She remembered very vividly her need to have the quilt after she'd seen it advertised in a magazine. Colby had known it was something special, almost as if it possessed a power of its own. Her mother and stepfather had given it to her for her tenth birthday and Colby prized it above every other possession she had. Along with the rare beauty and unique feeling of comfort and safety it gave her, the quilt was a symbol of her parents' love for her.
She stretched languidly and wandered across the hardwood floor to her open window. The wind blew the thin lace curtains inward. She was wearing a pair of drawstring pajama bottoms and a small spaghetti-strapped top. Colby slowly unbraided her long hair as she stared out the window into the night. She loved the mountains at night, always mystical and mysterious. A veil of thin white fog shrouded the high ridges. She was surrounded by the giants, her ranch snuggled into a deep valley. She stretched out her arms to the high mountain range, lifting her face toward the shining half moon crescent.
Colby was worried about so many things she couldn't sleep. She was exhausted and yet determined to be up at four-thirty. She leaned against the windowsill, staring up at the stars. She didn't tell Paul, but after feeding the stock, she intended to take her horse into the hills and look for old Pete. She had been making sweeps of the ranch over the last three days, getting up extra early and devoting as much time as she could spare to look for signs of him. Despite what Ben said, Colby didn't believe that Pete had simply drifted away or that he had gone on a drinking binge.
Pete was in his late seventies, his body riddled with arthritis from his rodeo days. He had a home with Colby, a warm bed, a roof, good food, and the ranch work to make him feel useful. He was a man who knew the meaning of the word loyalty. She was certain he would never leave the ranch, especially when he knew Colby was in danger of losing their home. He would never desert her. Pete just wouldn't do that. Colby was afraid he was sick or hurt somewhere on the property.
In the large oak tree across the yard from her window, a bird flapped its wings, drawing her attention. The bird had a round facial disk with a very pronounced ruff. It wasn't an owl but it was large. Very large. The unusual bird could easily weigh in at twenty pounds. She stared at it, and it stared right back. She could see its eyes, round and shiny black. She was familiar with the birds on her ranch and she had never seen one like this. If she didn't know better, she would think it was a harpy eagle. Colby leaned all the way out of the windowsill, concentrating on the bird.
She watched it closely as she tuned her mind to the path of the raptor. The beak was wicked looking, curved and sharp, the talons enormous where they curled around the thick branch of the tree. It had a keen intelligence shining in its eyes. Colby's breath caught in her throat, her heart beating in sudden excitement. Harpy eagles lived in the Amazon rain forest, flying gracefully, agilely through the trees. They were unquestionably the world's most formidable bird, capable of taking monkeys, snakes, even sloth as prey. It couldn't possibly be, yet the more she studied it, the more she was certain. What in the world was an endangered eagle from South America doing in the Cascade Mountains?
Colby continued to stare at the creature, keeping eye contact, whispering softly, more in her mind than with her voice. She often lured all kinds of animals to her, whispering to horses, sheep, and cattle, drawing wildlife to her when she was alone. She called to the bird, shocked at its size. It was really quite beautiful. Wild. Untamed. Powerful. She was afraid it must have been injured in some way to travel so far from its native territory.
Deep within the body of the bird, Rafael De La Cruz smiled. Colby had taken the bait. She was calling the bird to her, using a mental path unfamiliar to him, but the trail of power led straight back to her mind and gave him the opening he needed. The key to unlock her memories, to take control. She would never willingly invite him into her home, yet she was inviting the bird. Once invited inside, he would have even more control of Colby. In the body of the large eagle, he spread his enormous wings and stepped off the branch of the tree. He saw her face, startled by his sudden movement, drinking in the beauty of the harpy eagle in flight. Circling high, he spiraled down in a lazy show and landed on her windowsill, talons digging deep into the wood. Slowly, majestically, the eagle folded his wings.
Colby looked beautiful in the moonlight. In the faint silvery light she looked a young pagan goddess offering up a sacrifice, a homage to the high peaks. Her skin was soft looking, gleaming at him with an invitation to touch. Inside the body of the bird, his gut clenched hotly. His need was a fever in his blood. Dark and out of control when he needed restraint the most. Her innocence shook him, yet it drew him. She was his. Made for him. Exclusively for him. Only Colby Jansen could rid him of the dark shadows in his soul.
Colby stared at the bird, entranced. It was a little frightening to have the raptor so close to her. She wasn't altogether certain she was safe. Very carefully she took two steps backward, the sound of her heart loud in her ears. It was an amazing bird, huge and very intimidating. Colby forced her mind to be calm as she examined it. It didn't appear to be injured in any way. She didn't get the impression it was hungry or hurt. It was staring at her as intently as she was staring at it.
Rafael watched as Colby's tongue moistened her full lower lip. The action tightened his body even more and turned his bloodstream to a molten heat. He could not control his reaction to her. He was very much aware it made him more dangerous than he had ever been. He needed to be in control at all times. He didn't want to risk harming her. She was temptation itself, standing there with her bare feet, looking young and beautiful and slightly afraid. He felt his heart turn over, his every protective instinct welling up. He hadn't known he had protective instincts. She was doing things to him so fast he couldn't adjust.
Rafael was determined to have her under his command. He wanted her to himself, away from others where he could slowly and carefully work out what he wanted to do with her. He would have her. He would imprison her, he decided; it was the only way she would be his, under his care, under his dominion. There was a fierce need in him, hungry and growing each moment, to chain her to his side.
Colby could feel her heart pounding hard, but it was more out of excitement than fear. She should be afraid, the bird was a true raptor, but it was magnificent. She worked harder at finding the path to its brain, sending waves of reassurance, trying to keep it calm. It hopped from the windowsill onto the hardwood floor, still keeping its eyes fixed on her face.
It had black eyes! Round, shiny, very intelligent black eyes. She stared at it for fully two minutes. That wasn't normal, she was certain. Very slowly, so she wouldn't startle the creature, she backed across the room to her bookshelf. Still looking at the bird, she slid her fingers over her books until she found the one she wanted. It slipped off the shelf into her waiting hand, the pages already turning to the very entry her mind was seeking. Strangely, the bird was observing her just as intently, an intelligence in its gaze as it watched the pages of the book open without her hand. She brought the book in front of her and glanced down to look at the photograph of the harpy eagle. The eyes were round and shining with intelligence, but they were not black. The eyes in the picture were a bright amber with a black pupil. She let out her breath slowly. Something was wrong with her bird.
You aren't blind, though, are you? She sent the words, images to the creature. It was watching her too closely to be blind.
It stirred then, almost in triumph. Colby's heart jumped in response. For one moment she felt threatened in some undefined way. She thought she caught a fleeting expression in the eagle's eyes and then it hopped back onto the windowsill and launched itself skyward. For such a large bird, it amazed her how perfectly silent it was. It circled for a moment, climbing higher and higher until it was a mere speck. She watched it until it was gone.
Colby felt inexplicably lonely as she climbed back into her bed. Her fingers plucked at the quilt, seeking comfort. The book lay on the bed beside her. She tapped on the cover with her fingers before waving it back to the shelf. Telekinesis was a very handy talent. She had discovered it at an early age. She had often set her toys dancing around her room when she was alone. Once, she had shown her mother, proud of her ability. Her mother had seemed delighted, yet Colby could read the worry in her mind. She learned at a young age she was "different" and people didn't tolerate differences very well. She stared at the open window sadly. I am so alone. She sent the heartfelt cry winging into the night.
She had other things she could do. Not nice things. Things her mother cautioned her over many times. Colby was older now and knew control was very necessary. She never had taken a drink of alcohol in her life and never would. She couldn't afford to allow some of her unusual gifts to erupt unbidden.
She sighed and turned her face into the pillow. It would have been nice to have someone to talk with. To be herself with. Just once. Just one time, to be who and what she was, instead of so afraid of betraying herself. She missed her mother. Tears were welling up out of nowhere and Colby hated that.
Querida, why are you so sad this night? The voice was heavily accented, musical, a whisper of enticement. She heard it as clearly as if the words were spoken aloud.
Colby stiffened, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She opened her eyes, searching the shadows of her room. It appeared empty at first, but then she felt a hand brush a lingering caress over her face, the fingertips trailing over her skin as it removed silken strands of hair from her forehead. She sat up, pushing at the shadowy figure bending over her. The broad chest was real and very solid. How could she have missed his presence?
"What the hell are you doing in my bedroom?" She hissed the words very quietly, afraid if Paul heard he would rush in with a gun.
You called me to you. Deliberately Rafael used the more intimate method of telepathic communication, determined to strengthen their bond. I heard your call. Felt your tears. Why are you so sad this night?
He was too real and solid in the confines of her small bedroom. His masculine scent clung to the corners, his voice brushed over her skin, at her insides like black velvet. It wasn't just his words, it was literally the sound of his voice. A seduction, an intimacy stolen in the night. He washed over her and into her so that she was at a loss. No one had ever made her feel so aware of her body, so feminine, or so blatantly sexual.
She blinked to keep him in focus. He seemed substantial to the touch, yet in the dark room, his shadowy figure blurred as if he was a part of the night itself. Not real. Colby had the good sense to be afraid. It was so dreamlike she dug her nails into her palm to ensure she was awake. "How did you get in here?" The moment she spoke aloud, she wished she hadn't. Her voice was husky, sexy, not entirely hers. An invitation. Her heart thundered out a fast rhythm. The heat of his body crowding so close to hers warmed her skin despite the coolness of the wind. She should have been furious, going for the gun herself; instead, she was mesmerized by him, by his overpowering sexuality.
His hand curled around the nape of her neck. Possessively. As if he had the right to her. Her body went pliant, soft in reaction. In her entire life, she had never responded so sexually to anyone. She ached for him until it seemed to be a craving she couldn't control. Colby sat there helplessly, trapped in the depths of his black eyes. She was falling forward, his captive, forever his prisoner. In that moment she was willing to be his prisoner. His dark head bent very slowly, relentlessly to hers. She could see the impossible length of his lashes, his sinfully sexy lips, the bluish shadow on his jaw. Her body was heavy and aching and demanding things she knew very little about. He was so out of her league. A man like Rafael would consume her, use her up, make her his so completely there could never he another. She should have screamed for Paul and his gun.
Instead she closed her eyes and allowed his mouth to take possession of hers. Beneath her the bed lurched and rocked as if the ground beneath it had moved. She was swept onto a tidal wave of pure feeling, into a sensual world beyond her comprehension. Her body no longer belonged to her, but to him. Colors whirled and danced and the room spun. And she was alive. It wasn't simply her body burning for his, but her mind, craving, reaching out for his, her soul crying out to his. She felt a curious shifting deep inside, a merging, two ragged halves sealing perfectly. She felt his arms tighten like two steel bands, a wildness growing in him. She realized he was not only gaining possession of her, but control as well. She was losing herself, wanting to merge deeply with him, wanting to be whatever he needed, do whatever he wanted.
Rafael lost himself in her sweetness. She was heat and honey, melting into him, twining around his heart until he knew he would never be complete without her. His mouth moved to the corner of hers, along her chin to her vulnerable throat. She was aching for him, burning as he was. Her pulse beckoned to him. She thought him an erotic dream and he fed the haze in her mind, fed the illusion of a dream to her, even while his body pulsed with need and excitement. He allowed his hunger to deepen as he forced her body back against the mattress. She struggled for just a moment, a thought of resistance. He took it ruthlessly from her mind, kissing her until she was pliant. His mouth was merciless on hers, demanding kisses, taking her response rather than asking for it. He stretched her arms above her head and pinned her wrists together to hold her captive beneath him.
Colby Jansen possessed a mind with a complex guard, one he needed to bridge in order to claim her for his own. He had succeeded in being voluntarily invited into her home. He had succeeded in finding the path to her mind. Now he was going to take what he needed to unlock the door keeping her from him. Nothing would stop him. Not the boy sleeping so restlessly in the next room. Not even Colby herself, half shaken by her unfamiliar needs and desires.
Colby was wrapped in his body so tightly she was unsure where she left off and he started. His mouth burned a trail of fire along her throat to her neck. She felt the nip of his strong teeth, the swirling caress of his tongue. A rush of liquid heat beckoned him and she was helpless to stop it. She turned her head, wanting his mouth, wanting him to kiss her again, but he held her easily, his black eyes drifting possessively over her face. The dark needs there made her shiver. There was such a sexual hunger, a merciless passion in his heavy-lidded eyes. Heart thudding wildly, she thought to fight him. Before she could move, he bent his head with deliberate slowness to her slender neck again. At once she felt a fiery pain, a white-hot blaze streaking through her bloodstream so that she moaned, so that her body rippled with pleasure, with a need so intense she wanted to cry.
Rafael tightened his hold on her, locking her to him while he took the essence of her life into him for all time, for his keeping. He wanted her, wanted to take her body, possess her fully. It wasn't simply wanting. He needed. It was an urgent demand as elemental as the earth and sky. He needed her. His hand slid under the thin material of her top to cup the weight of her breast in his palm. Her blood flowed into him like nectar and he allowed himself to indulge in her exquisite beauty, the taste and scent of her. The feel of her soft skin next to his.
His body hardened with a savage, unfamiliar need. At once his sexual appetite grew, erotic desires pouring into his mind, into his cells, flooding him with images of taking her in every way possible, of having her whenever, wherever he wanted. He had never thought about the things he would need or want from a woman, but she roused dark passions and an edgy hunger in him.
Rafael had never needed anything or anyone in his life. He had dedicated his life to guarding mortals from the demonic vampires. He had the memories of his love for his brothers. He had vague memories of his homeland. He had his honor. He fed. He existed. His brothers were just like him. But he was unlocking Colby Jansen's mind and it astonished him.
Shocked him. She was all about love and compassion. Her thoughts were mainly of others, her need to serve and help them. Where he wanted his own way in all things, where he believed others inferior to him, she was light and goodness. She made him ashamed of his predatory nature.
Colby was no longer certain she was dreaming. She could never have conjured up a fantasy as erotic as Rafael De La Cruz. He was holding her submissive, a dominant sexual being that was both rough and tender. He demanded her response, look her response, rather than coaxed it. And she seemed helpless to stop the tidal wave of passion he unleashed in her.
She began to struggle, afraid of losing who and what she as. He seemed to be slipping into her mind and wrapping himself deep inside her so that she was afraid she would never again be free. He was enormously strong and the more her body moved against his, the more viselike his grip became. He didn't hurt her, but he refused to allow her to get away. She tried surfacing from the dream, afraid of the way her body responded to his, even when he was being roughly dominant, but she couldn't manage to wake and save herself. And a part of her knew she would be saving herself.
Rafael lifted his head slowly, his black eyes burning with fierce possession. He bent his head to catch the twin beads of blood running toward the slope of her breast. His tongue swirled over the mark he had deliberately left. A brand. His brand of ownership. The healing agent in his saliva closed the tiny pinpricks. His arms held her easily, his strength enormous. She was very small, and surprisingly strong for her size, yet her struggles were nothing to him. Sheer nonsense, barely registering.
He caught her chin firmly and forced her deep green eyes meet his. Even as he did so, his mind tuned itself to the path of hers, thrusting sharp and deep, taking command. You will take what I offer. He gave the order as he used a lengthening fingernail to open his own chest. Pressing her mouth to the dark liquid that would bind them together, Rafael ruthlessly forced her to swallow. He closed his eyes as her mouth moved against him, her body so like hot satin he could scarcely contain himself. A groan escaped, and his hands moved over her skin exploring the soft creamy curves.
So lost in his own needs and desires, Rafael almost missed the movement of the young girl in the room across the hall. Nightmares were intruding, and she was calling out, thrashing on her bed, tears running down her face. His body was so hard and taut with desperate need he almost didn't hear the intrusion.
Shockingly, Colby stirred, right through the dark haze of her strange, terrifying dream. She began to fight the fog, sensing Ginny's troubled sleep. Rafael cursed eloquently under his breath as he closed the wound on his chest with his own saliva. Gently, almost tenderly he laid Colby back on the pillows. She was very pale, her red hair spilling around her like a fiery halo. He had given her enough of his ancient, powerful blood for an exchange, but not enough to replace the volume she had lost. Unable to stop himself, he bent his dark head to the swell of her creamy, round breast. Her heart thundered beneath his roving mouth as he wantonly marked her a second time. He had never ached so much, needed so much in all of his existence.
With a sigh of regret, he melted into the shadows, waving his hand to quiet the child's dreams and send Colby into a deeper sleep. Bending, he brushed a kiss on her forehead even as he stroked a caress over his mark on her neck and the second one on the swell of her breast with a fingertip in great satisfaction. Without another sound he dissolved into mist, an insubstantial fine vapor. He poured through the window out into the night air. As he streamed toward the trees the droplets connected to form the large harpy eagle. He landed on the branch of the oak tree and stared thoughtfully at the house.
Colby tried to surface to go to her sister, but Ginny had quieted under Rafael's command, so Colby subsided, giving in to her need for sleep.
"Colby." The frightened sound of Ginny's voice pushed through the uneasy dreams Colby was caught in. Her body was leaden, her mouth dry. Strangely her breasts ached and were sore. She tried hard to rouse herself, when all she really wanted to do was sleep. "Colby, wake up now." Ginny was shaking her shoulder, her young voice very frightened.
"I'm awake," Colby muttered thickly, surfacing, prying open her eyelids. "What is it, honey, are you sick?" She glanced past Ginny to see Paul standing against the wall watching her. "What is it?" she asked again.
"Your alarm was going off for so long, I got up to see what was wrong and then I couldn't wake you up," Ginny said tear-fully. "I shook you and shook you..."
"She woke me up." Paul made it an accusation, but there was fear in his voice.
Colby forced her body to move, sitting up, sweeping back the wealth of hair tumbling around her face. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm more tired than I thought. I set the alarm for four-thirty so I could do a few extra things."
"I knew you were getting up early!" Ginny pounced on that. "You can't do that all the time, Colby. You need to sleep like everyone else."
"I need to sleep," Paul corrected. "Speaking of which, I'm going back to bed. Colby, if Ginny spent all this time waking you up, don't you think maybe that means you shouldn't get up?" He sounded very superior.
"Probably," Colby admitted, wanting to crawl under the covers. Her body was not cooperating, feeling heavy and cumbersome, her eyes wanting to close. She was so thirsty her mouth was dry. There was a faint coppery taste on her tongue. "I think I'm beginning to believe that I'm the totally unbalanced crackpot the Chevez family and the De La Cruz brothers think I am." She absently raised a hand to push her palm against the pulse throbbing in her neck.
"Well, you are," Paul stated, giving his brotherly opinion.
"For that you get to feed all the horses while I exercise Domino. He gets hard to handle if I don't ride him every day. I want to put in some time checking fences and if you do the feeding, I can take some extra time." She yawned inelegantly.
Paul scowled at her. "You ought to get rid of that horse. He's really dangerous. Even Joe Vargas says so, everybody does."
Ginny caught her sister's hand. "Is that true, Colby? Is Domino dangerous? Is he a man-killer like they say he is?"
Colby's head went up, the drowsy look suddenly gone from her face, leaving her green eyes blazing at her younger brother. "Did you tell her that?"
Paul had the grace to look ashamed. "Joe told me Domino killed a man, and Ginny overheard the conversation. You know Joe, he has a thing for you. He was worried."
"Domino was mistreated, Ginny," Colby explained quietly. "You can see the scars on him. He can be difficult in certain situations, but I can handle him. I really can. I don't overestimate my abilities."
"I'm sorry, Colby." Paul was quick to get the apology out. "I should never have allowed Ginny to hear that."
"I'm not a baby." Ginny tossed her blue-black hair, chin going up, a small replica of Colby. "You don't need to hide anything from me. I'm not stupid, either, Paul Chevez. Working with any horse can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Colby does," she added staunchly. "No one does it better."
"There speaks the unprejudiced voice," Colby laughed softly, ruffling Ginny's hair tenderly. "Honey, later on today, if you have the time, you can start setting up the north pad-dock for barrel racing. Janna Wilson's bringing her horse, Roman, in on Thursday. He's in a slump and she can't afford that with Regina breathing down her neck for first place all the time. Janna wants the world championship this year."
"Sure." Ginny was excited. Janna Wilson was a barrel racer out of Oklahoma, the leading female money winner halfway into the season and Ginny's heroine. Ginny was determined to barrel race professionally in the not too distant future.
"Go back to bed, you two," Colby advised, "it will be sunup soon enough."
"You don't have to tell me twice," Paul said gratefully. "And, Colby, you really are nuts to be getting up now. Come on, Ginny, it's embarrassing enough to have one crazy sister, I don't want to admit to having two of them."
Colby was laughing as she stumbled her way sleepily to the shower and drenched herself with hot water, hoping to clear the cobwebs. She actually felt weak and listless. It was no wonder after such bizarre dreams. Rafael De La Cruz sneaking into her bedroom, kissing her... his hands touching her breasts, her body. Instantly heat swept through her, her breasts aching with need. Colby groaned and closed her eyes against the humiliation of such an erotic dream and its aftermath. She allowed the water to cascade directly onto her face, hoping to wash the scent of him from her body, his taste from her mouth, the feel of his hard strength against her skin. You're probably the devil in disguise.
She wiped at the fog on the mirror then wished she hadn't when she saw herself. She was so pale her eyes looked enormous, vividly green. As she pulled the thick mass of red hair back to braid, she noticed the strange mark on the side of her neck. It looked like a strawberry, or a teenager's hickey. When she stood on her toes and examined it closer, she thought there were two tiny pinpricks in the center of it. It burned, not painfully, but intimately, so that she covered the mark with her palm as if to hold it close to her. She had no idea what it was, but it made her uneasy after her strange dream. As she stared at her reflection, she caught sight of the second mark. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart began to pound. The mark was on the swell of her breast, a vivid red standing out starkly against her white skin. How had it gotten there? It was no insect bite. Worse, as she looked at her hand, pressed tightly against her neck, there were faint smudges on her wrists that looked suspiciously like fingerprints. She snatched her hand down, breath catching in her throat. He couldn't have been in her room.
Had she really allowed Rafael into her bedroom? Kissing her. Touching her. She forced herself to look at the all too real marks. A brand on her skin. Was it his brand of possession? She groaned aloud, her face flaming crimson. She preferred to believe it was an erotic dream. She shook her head and dressed hastily, unwilling to think too much about what seemed like a hazy dream.
Domino was a large horse, and always restless when she saddled him. She worked quickly, her movements deft and reassuring. All the while she crooned endearments to him. She took Domino up the narrow trail leading into the mountains.
He was difficult to handle; she could never sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Domino had more tricks than most rodeo broncs. The narrow trail made it almost impossible to bolt, effectively eliminating one of his favorite bad habits.
Colby had literally pulled the rifle from his previous owner's hands, saving Domino's life. Half crazed with pain and fear from the ugly beatings he had received, the horse had lashed out at anything and everything that came near it. She still couldn't remember exactly what she'd said or done to convince the owner to sell her the horse, or even how she had managed to load him for transport in his terrible condition.
It had taken three years of patient love, hundreds of hours spent sitting on a fence rail talking soothing nonsense. He looked for her eagerly now, thrusting his head toward her, trumpeting a welcome when he saw her. But to ride him... Colby shook her head, smiling to herself. Riding him was never easy, but it was exactly what she needed. It would keep her mind away from Rafael De La Cruz.
Forty-five minutes up into the mountains she dismounted, preferring to lead Domino and enjoy the tranquility of her surroundings while she looked for signs of Pete. The Cascades were seven hundred miles in length, stretching from California through Oregon and Washington into Canada. The range had been born of fire then carved of ice. Along with a chain of volcanoes, the mountain range boasted heavy forests, a multitude of waterfalls and cataracts along with miles of snow-fields. The Columbia River literally cut the mountain range in half. Guarded by three towering volcanoes, white-water rapids ripped through its steep rocky gorge with dizzying speed. Lava cliffs, lakes, streams, lush evergreen forests, the Cascades were unequaled in beauty or potential ferocity.
Colby stood on the edge of the cliff, not looking down but up the sheer mountain wall rising above her. Commanding respect, these mountains were the very foundation of legends. Thousands of miles of untamed wilderness, rarely did man penetrate the deep forbidding forests, the treacherous canyons, the slopes rising mile after mile. Horror stories were repeated around campfires of the howling which reverberated from the interior, of the legendary Bigfoot carrying off intruders, never to be seen again.
Colby gave a small sigh and bent to pick a wildflower struggling valiantly to survive among the boulders. She loved the stillness of the mountains; she could sit for hours just absorbing the feeling. That didn't for a moment mean she allowed herself to be careless. Even Colby, who was familiar with more miles of mountains than almost anyone in the area, didn't become complacent. Having a ranch nestled in a small valley on the fringes of the rising mountains, she was all too aware of mysterious unexplained happenings. A smell rising out of nowhere, offensive, noxious. The strange silences even the insects respected. So many times one felt watched, an eerie feeling occupied by the sensation of skin crawling.
Most of the ranches were further down the mountain, several thousand feet down from the Chevez ranch. Clinton Daniels's property bordered Colby's to the south, but only Sean Everett's twenty thousand acres stretched beyond Colby's property, with the state land behind him. Everett had wrangled with the state over most of the land, buying up the rest from small-time ranchers. Like Colby, he seemed to prefer the mountains, leading a fairly self-sufficient existence. His fleet of vehicles, not to mention the small Piper and helicopter, made her green with envy.
The Everett hands who lived in the ranch's comfortable cabins with their families stayed mainly to themselves although she knew all of them by name and could call a few of them friends. They seemed to work hard. Everett's ranch had definitely prospered, his cattle remaining fat even through the harsh winters. Some of his hands, most of whom had never worked on a ranch until Sean had given them a home, were becoming interested in rodeo competition.
Colby smiled to herself as she gathered up Domino's reins. She spent a great deal of her time doing business with men, earning her reputation as a reliable and shrewd rancher with an exceptional talent with horses. It had given her a quiet confidence in herself, a joy of life. She was one of those lucky people who accepted her way of life and simply lived it to the best of her ability.
She swung easily into the saddle, liking the familiar creak of leather. Pulling her hat to a better angle to shade her eyes from the sun's rising rays, she turned her mount toward the farthest corner of her property. The fence had been sagging for some time and, unlike Colby, the cattle favored this rugged, remote area. Perhaps Pete had come here to repair the fence. She rubbed her eyes several times. The sun wasn't high, yet her eyes felt sore, unduly sensitive to the light.
As Domino picked his way carefully over the loose rocks, his hooves the only sound in the utter stillness, Colby alternated between anxiously scanning the ground for tracks and scowling nervously up at the jutting remorseless mountains. The unrelenting steep rock guarded the series of dark, forbidding caves winding into the very bowels of the mountain. She disliked this section of property intensely, avoiding it with every excuse possible. There was a sense of evil, a dark somber dread as if the land were alive, waiting patiently, relentlessly to reclaim her. She was never able to approach it without her heart rate doubling, her stomach churning, and a terrible sense of foreboding overtaking her, a leftover bogey from her childhood. She would never forget being trapped in the old abandoned mine shaft, a primitive affair, a hundred years old with rotting timbers. It had all come crashing down, smothering her nine-year-old cries, nearly suffocating her. She had been buried alive, trapped in the damp rotting earth for eleven hours and twenty-two minutes. It had been an eternity. Even with her special gifts, she had not been strong enough to move the mounds of earth and rock by herself. She had waited alone and frightened in the terrible darkness for her stepfather to rescue her.
Something had moved in the dark bowels of the caves, something not human. She had seen red flames in glowing eyes and smelled dead flesh. The thing had taunted her, its voice gravelly, skin stretched taut across its skull. She had seen jagged teeth stained with blood and long, razor-sharp talons for fingernails. Her parents had sworn to her over and over, when she woke screaming in the night, that it had been her imagination. Colby still had a difficult time believing she could have conjured up the hideous creature.
Armando Chevez had closed up the mines and she hadn't gone exploring there, feeling the place was like a giant spider web waiting for her return. It was only after Armando had been paralyzed in the plane crash that Colby had gone back to declare the mines unsafe and totally off-limits to Paul and Ginny. She refused to allow Paul to patrol this section of fence line, doing it herself or letting Pete take the job.
The fence was on the ground, strands of barbwire wrapped around a fallen post. She could see a leather glove caught in the wire. She dismounted quickly and hurried over to the glove. The three ranches joined together at this point. Everett's property climbed steeply behind hers, erupting into dense, thick forest running wild. Daniels's property off to her south gradually sloped into gentle, grassy hills. He had dotted the area with a series of small shacks and old machinery. His dump, she thought a little wryly, a nice eyesore to add to the ambience of the place.
She carefully worked the glove free of the barbwire and held it up to examine it. The sound of a rock dropping abruptly spun her around just as Domino threw his head up, ears forward, snorting. Colby stepped closer to her horse, smoothly drawing her rifle from its scabbard. She turned, her heart in her throat. Several yards away a man was standing, holding his horse, as startled as she was.
Slowly she relaxed when she recognized the foreman of Clinton Daniels's ranch. "You do turn up in the oddest places, Tony," she greeted, "thanks for taking ten years off my life."
He continued toward her, his dark gaze touching the glove in her hand, then resting briefly on the rifle she held. "I didn't expect to find you out here either. The fence has to be lying on the ground before you'd repair it."
She mounted Domino smoothly, not liking to appear so small around Tony. She pushed back her hat, shrugging indifferently at the accusation. She had never liked Tony Harris. She had known him for years, long before Daniels had hired him. He had a mean streak in him. His reputation for brawling was legendary, almost as much as his notoriety with women. She had never understood his fatal charm, was appalled by the number of women who suffered physically, mentally, and emotionally, yet like moths to a flame always went back for more. He made her flesh crawl.
Colby tucked the glove into her belt and raised her eyebrow at Tony. "You want to tell me what you're doing on my property?" She made herself smile, although the way his eyes were running over her body made her all too aware of his isolation.
He grinned nastily. "Maybe I was looking for you. The ice princess. The little virgin sacrificing herself for the kiddies. We all want to know who will melt your heart." He laughed loudly, the sound coarse in the stillness of the silent mountains.
"Not you, Tony," she assured him coolly. "You're way too wicked for my taste."
"You mean I'm too much of a man," he countered, swaggering a little as he crowded closer to her horse.
Colby raised an eyebrow at him. "I hear they're looking for stand-up comedians at the Wayside Saloon. Why don't you check it out?"
"I just might do that." He was right in front of her, close enough for her to read the thoughts lurking behind his too handsome face. "I've always wanted to have you to myself, just for a couple of hours," he said softly, as if thinking aloud. "You're always sitting up on that pedestal; it'd be kind of nice to have you groveling at my feet."
Colby laughed openly at him. "You have a vivid imagination, Tony. It's a wonderful fantasy, but I'll have to pass. I've got too much work to do. Which reminds me, just what are you doing on my property? Not looking for stray calves, are you?"
"Are you accusing me of something?" he snapped, instantly angry, taking another threatening step toward her.
Domino moved restlessly, not liking the man's close proximity. Colby casually turned the horse sideways, resting the rifle naturally across her body, the barrel low, but unmistakably centered on Harris's large frame.
"Hey, Tony, you drive those cattle back yet?" A voice bellowed the question from the rocks nearby.
Colby kept her eyes on Harris. She didn't recognize the voice, but Harris looked triumphant, more malevolent than ever. "Sure did, but Miss Jansen isn't nearly as grateful as she should be. Maybe she needs a lesson in how to treat a man properly."
The second man, a total stranger, dark, with a day's growth of beard and shrewd assessing eyes, scrambled from the rocks and into her line of vision. His eyes were red-rimmed and streamed constantly. He shoved dark glasses on, but not before she saw his expression. Where Tony Harris annoyed her, this man frightened her. Harris was a bully; this man was truly evil. Daniels had himself a wonderful crew. Most likely they were stealing him blind. "So you were returning my cattle," she said thoughtfully.
"That's right, Colby, those little critters of yours just don't want to stay put." Tony took another step closer to Colby, watching her carefully with hot eyes.
"What the hell is taking so long?" Daniels strode up to the fallen fence, glaring at his foreman. "Get back to work, Harris. It shouldn't have taken the two of you all this time to return a couple of steers. And you could have fixed the fence." He dismissed the two men with a wave of his hand, ignoring Harris's surly grumbling and the other man's mocking insolence. "Sorry, Colby, it didn't occur to me they wouldn't fix the fence." For the first time he seemed to notice the rifle. "They weren't giving you any trouble, were they?"
Colby faced him across the fallen fence. Smooth. Charming. A shark. Clinton Daniels had deliberately used her stepfather's terrible accident for his own gain. The hospital bills were piling up and Colby had taken out a loan using the family ranch as collateral, the terms nearly impossible to meet. A blur of movement caught her eye. Up on the ridge one of Everett's somber, silent workers stood beside Juan Chevez, surveying the scene below. The worker lifted a hand at her, still watching from his vantage point.
Colby burst out laughing. "It's a regular convention out here. I thought I was all alone, but we've got enough people out here to have a party."
Daniels was scowling up at the two silent men. "I don't think it's so funny, Colby. There's something strange about Everett's hands. Every last one of them is an ex-con. It makes me nervous to know they sit up there watching everything we do."
"They just want to be left alone."
"It isn't safe for you riding around alone out here." Daniels cast another fierce glance up at the two men. "And those foreigners are a strange bunch too. I think they're up to something."
Colby gathered up the reins as Domino sidestepped nervously. "Thanks for returning my cattle, Clinton. I'm sorry about the fence. I'll get some materials out here as soon as possible and we won't have the problem anymore."
"You might want to hold off a couple of months, save yourself time and expense," he told her suavely.
Colby's chin went up. "You don't have to worry, I'll have your money for you."
"Colby"-he shook his head, clucking his tongue at her-"I understand you went to the bank and they turned you down. How do you expect..."
"They turned me down because of you, Daniels. Don't think I don't know that. And it's none of your business how I come up with the money. You'll get it."
He reached out and caught her reins, preventing her from moving. "You're being stubborn, Colby. Let the Chevezes take the kids away. Marry me. You'll still have your ranch, it will all work out. You shouldn't be running yourself into the ground. Look at you, you're pale and tired. You have dark circles under your eyes. And you've lost weight. Let me take care of you."
She backed Domino away from Daniels. "No one is taking my brother and sister anywhere. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Abruptly she turned the horse, urging him back over the rocks as she thrust the rifle into the scabbard. Automatically her eyes were on the ground, picking up signs, noting Tony Harris's mount needed a new shoe on his left rear foot. It took a few minutes before she realized she hadn't seen any fresh cattle tracks accompanying Tony's mount.
One last time she looked up at the high, craggy peaks, feeling the familiar curling in the pit of her stomach. She was already running behind time on her chores. As she started back toward the ranch, she caught sight of a vulture circling lazily in the sky. She watched its path, turning Domino so she could pick her way through the larger boulders along the steep cliffs. As she rounded a particularly steep rock face, she saw more of the large birds. They were gathered together near the base of one of the cliffs.
At once she felt a terrible dread, her body stiffening. Domino began to dance nervously, Colby's body language communicating instantly to the animal. She bit at her lower lip, made a long sweep, scanning the area to ensure this time she really was alone.
Colby approached on foot, not trusting Domino's reaction with the birds and the odor. She kept her rifle with her, but used her handgun, firing into the air to frighten off the vultures and to alert the Everett riders she needed their help.
She circled the area, careful not to disturb anything, looking for tracks to tell her what had happened. She knew before she even reached the body that it was Pete. He had been dead for days. It looked as if he had been on the ledge up above and had slipped and fallen. The back of his head must have hit the small boulder near where he lay. There was blood on the rock and plenty of it staining the shirt across his shoulders.
Colby saw the broken pieces of a whiskey bottle scattered around. She closed her eyes, suddenly tired, her throat choking on unshed tears. For a brief moment she rested her hand on Pete's arm. Immediately she snatched it away, backing away from the body, looking around her, very, very afraid.
She felt it, the instant she touched him: she knew it had been no accident, knew Pete had been murdered. She didn't know who or why, only that someone had killed him. The aftermath of violence was still haunting the ground, the rocks, especially the body. Colby examined the area carefully, wanting to read the messages the earth might give her, yet she didn't want to disturb the crime scene.
She moved away from the body, back to Domino, and buried her face against the animal. For once he remained steady, unmoving, as if he knew he was consoling her with his presence.
Colby? Her name shimmered in her mind. Warmth seeped into the coldness of her body. Pequena, I feel your pain. I cannot come to you. Share it with me. Let me help you.
The words were there, velvet soft. Real. She heard them. Knew Rafael's voice. Felt his presence. She also felt the tremendous effort he was making to reach her across what must have been a great distance. It should have shocked her, but she was accepting. She was different. He was different. For the first time in years she wanted to throw herself into someone's arms in a storm of weeping. She didn't even mind that he called her "little one."