Colby stirred restlessly, a sound slipping in and out of her dreams like a persistent alarm. It took a moment to fight her way to the surface, her head throbbing, a faint coppery taste in her mouth. Her body was unfamiliar, heavy, sore and aching, thoroughly used. But she knew immediately what had roused her from her sex-induced slumber. Her instincts shrieked at her as she woke abruptly. A high-pitched scream, far off, echoed disturbingly by a resounding crash had her sitting up, throwing off the covers, and dragging on her discarded pajamas. "Paul! Ginny!" She was running, her bare feet slapping softly on the wood of the floor.
Her ability to hear and smell seemed ten times magnified. She felt dizzy and shaky, her mouth dry. Sheer terror gripped her. Tearing open the front door, she paused on the porch, staring with horror at the raging inferno that was her stable. "Paul! The horses!" Her agonized cry lent wings to her brother so that he nearly beat her across the uneven ground.
The smoke was already thick in the yard, the flames shooting into the sky, sparks flying in all directions. Colby, sobbing in fear, driven by the panicked screams of the horses, seized the metal bar locking the stable door with her bare hands. She heard her own agonized scream, felt the echo of Rafael's voice in her mind, but the pain didn't matter, the horses did. Flames were licking hungrily along the doorjamb, dancing across the roof, raging up the walls. The sprinkler system seemed powerless against such an inferno. What had happened to the fire alarm? "Ginny, get back, don't come near this!" She made it a sharp order as her younger sister came running up.
"Colby! No!" Paul caught at her arm, preventing her from entering the hellish inferno of smoke and flames. The heat on their faces and skin was nearly unbearable.
She swung around, trying to be calm. There was no way to take a deep, calming breath without drawing the thick smoke into her lungs. "Ginny, call nine-one-one, then Sean Everett." The Everett spread was the closest neighboring ranch. "Paul, keep water on this entrance, but stay back. I mean it. The stable is going to come down any minute. Don't you dare come in, no matter what happens. That's an order." She turned and rushed to the very entrance of the burning building.
"No!" Paul screamed it, but Colby had already disappeared, greedy smoke whirling around her like a huge black cape, swallowing her into the gaping maw.
She focused on the doors to the stalls, trying to get her mind to work, to open them. The doors refused to budge under the pressure. She didn't know if it was her desperation, the screaming of the animals keeping her from focusing properly, but she had no choice but to go all the way inside.
Nineteen. She had nineteen horses in the stalls. Colby forced her numb mind to concentrate. Her eyes were stinging from the smoke and the fire roared in her ears. In the choking black smoke, thick and dangerous, it was impossible to see anything at all. The heat was intense, the noise loud and frightening. The horses were beyond reason, dangerous, desperate animals.
Colby felt her way to the long row of stalls. One by one, she swung the stall gates open, trying to hold her breath, eyes streaming. Her lungs burned and she coughed horribly. She was becoming disoriented. Domino loomed up, eyes rolling wildly. Colby was choking too much to soothe him. He reared up, his slashing hooves inches from her face. Colby lurched back, tripped, and fell. Domino thundered past her, narrowly missing stepping on her. His back left hoof slashed a wound into her thigh as he ran.
The air close to the ground was somewhat better and her painfully aching lungs gulped at it. She managed to get her shaky legs under her and, pushing herself up, propelled herself forward. Waving her arms, hollering hoarsely, Colby ran at the panic-stricken horses. Whirling, they rushed at the entrance. The open doorway was burning too, but not with the same intensity as the walls. Colby stumbled after them, falling to the ground coughing and retching.
Hard hands caught her, bit into her waist, pulled her from the entrance and into safe arms. Rafael dragged her free of the smoke and flames. He smelled the blood on her from the painful gash on her thigh and something ugly and demonic deep within him lifted its head and roared for vengeance.
Part of the roof caved in and somewhere deep within the raging inferno an animal screamed in agony so intense there was a dead silence in the yard. Colby was the first to react, wrenching herself from Rafael's grasp, running straight toward the flaming entrance to the stables. "Paul, the rifle!"
Without preamble, Rafael caught her up as he shouted an order to the men in the yard. He put her on the porch and stared down into her terrified eyes. "Stay right here. Do not move, do you hear me?" Rafael caught the rifle thrown to him by Juan Chevez and disappeared into the leaping flames greedily devouring the stable.
Paul knelt beside Colby. She looked dazed, in shock. He couldn't help but admire Rafael's efficiency-helicopters for transportation, men seeing to the frightened, wounded animals. It was obvious that it was Rafael directing the well-coordinated operation. He had picked the rifle out of the air with one hand and calmly entered a rapidly disintegrating building.
A shot rang out, and the pitiful cries ceased abruptly. Aware he had been holding his breath, Paul let it out slowly, bending solicitously over Colby, who was leaning back against the porch post. Her face was streaked with black smoke and tears. There was a bruise high up on her forehead, and several on her ribs, he guessed from the state of her top, probably from the horses knocking into her. Her pajama bottoms were torn and singed. Blood smeared her leg high up on her thigh. Both palms were an ugly mass of blisters. She was struggling to breathe with the terrible smoke already deep in her lungs. Clumsily Paul tried to comfort her, circling her slender shoulders with his arm.
Then Rafael was there, bending over them, lifting Colby into his arms with exquisite care. "See to your younger sister," he commanded Paul softly. "She is very frightened. I will take care of Colby." He signaled to Sean Everett's foreman, directing the crews toward saving the barn. Colby lay in his arms dazed, unable to take in the enormity of what had happened. He carried her a safe distance from the smoke and activity, putting her down in the grass to examine her injuries. Shielding her from any prying eyes with his body, Rafael tipped up her black-smeared face to study the bruise. "I am sorry, pequena. I could not save the horse, nor allow it to suffer." Even as he spoke he laid his hand over the laceration on her thigh. Strangely the throbbing and burning ceased immediately. His hand glided, feather light, across her throat, touched her pounding temples. Then his palm moved to the bruise on her head. "I came the moment I heard you awaken."
"I can't believe this is happening," Colby whispered hoarsely, afraid to cry, afraid if she did she might never stop.
Rafael brushed back her hair with gentle fingers. She had a few minor burns, the bump, and the gash, but it was her hands where she had grasped the metal bar that concerned him. He murmured to her softly as he raised her hands to the healing warmth of his mouth. His tongue swirled in a sensuous motion, ensuring the healing agent bathed every blister and burn mark. Where it should have stung, she felt a tingling warmth that only soothed. She wanted to crawl inside of him and hide where it was safe.
"I have to help," she said, trying to draw her hands away from him. She could barely breathe, the smoke trapped deep in her lungs. Her chest burned and she was gasping for clean air.
Rafael signaled to Juan Chevez to watch the sparks coming off the fire, leaping toward the main house. He knew the Chevez brothers were worried about him, as he should have gone to ground in the early morning light. He could take the morning hours if necessary, but his strength was slowly waning and he would eventually succumb to the limitations of his species. The sun was already burning his skin, turning him to a mass of blisters, and his eyes were streaming in the light. Rafael kept the clouds overhead to help shield him, but the sun was taking its toll. The Chevez brothers knew he had very little time before his body would turn to lead and he would be completely vulnerable.
Rafael leaned toward Colby. "Look at me, querida, you must really look at me this time." His black eyes were magnetic, impossible to ignore, and Colby stared rather helplessly, knowing she was falling into the dark pools but unable to summon up the strength to stop herself. Rafael took possession of her mouth, breathing into her body, pushing out the black tarry smoke attempting to choke the air out of her. His hands glided over her body, touching the bruises on her ribs, even as he veiled their presence from any prying eyes.
He lifted his head reluctantly, his black gaze still holding her captive. Focusing in the way of his people, concentrating until he separated his spirit from his body, until he was pure energy, he entered her body to aid him in pushing out the smoke and heal the gash and burns. He held her in his thrall until he was certain every injury had been treated and there was no danger of infection. No danger to her lungs. Slowly, reluctantly, he released her. Already, with his mind, he was directing the various crew chiefs and those arriving as the call went out for more help.
"We have this under control, Colby," he murmured softly. "I do not want to turn around and find you are placing yourself in danger. Going into the stable was brave but very foolish. Do not ever do such a thing again. I cannot tolerate such a danger to you."
She clung to him for just one more moment, appreciating his hard strength and air of complete confidence. She didn't have to know her own feelings to admire his efficient manner and total authority. The man certainly knew how to get things done.
The next couple of hours were a nightmare, Colby and Paul treating the burns on the terrified horses while the men fought to keep the fire from spreading to her house and the other outbuildings. Sometimes she would look up to find Rafael looking at her with his intense black gaze. He seemed to be everywhere, a machine working tirelessly throughout the long early morning hours.
At last, as the fire was reduced to glowing embers and tails of smoke and the animals had all been cared for, Paul and Ginny went to her for comfort-for answers. In her tattered, singed pajamas and with smoke-blackened face, Colby surveyed the destruction. "How could this have happened?"
She groaned softly in despair. "We had no chance of saving the stables. The fire was everywhere, completely out of control. No alarms went off, the sprinklers didn't work." She shook her head, unable to believe it.
Colby was devastated. Fourteen of the horses housed in the stable, including the one Rafael had put down, didn't belong to her. She was boarding and training them. They were priceless to their owners, bred for specific purposes. Now they were traumatized and burned, covered with cuts and bruises and suffering from smoke inhalation, and Colby would be held responsible for their injuries.
Paul put his arm around her, a clumsy gesture of support even as his eyes went automatically to the one person who seemed in control of the chaotic situation. Rafael and the Chevez brothers had fought long and hard along with Sean Everett's ranch hands and the forestry department to keep the entire ranch from going up in flames. Paul didn't want his uncles to drag him off to a foreign country away from the home he loved and he was deeply afraid of Rafael De La Cruz, but he couldn't deny that without them they would have lost everything.
Rafael read the desperate plea in Paul's young face and immediately said something to the small group of men he was talking with, easily excusing himself. He took Colby's arm, guiding her very gently across the yard and up the stairs to the porch of the ranch house. Pushing her gently but firmly into the swing, he poured her a glass of water from the pitcher Ginny had thoughtfully kept filled for the men fighting the fire. Colby looked dazed.
She stared up at him helplessly, confused and afraid. "How could the smoke alarms not work? There are several-how could all of them malfunction?" she murmured. "And the sprinklers. I just had the sprinklers checked. How could the entire stable go up that fast? I don't understand."
"We will find out, meu amor." Rafael was gentle as he took a cup of hot, sweet tea from Ginny and pressed it into Colby's hands. "You are in shock, pequena, I want you to drink this. It will help." He raked a hand through his hair. "It looks as if it was started with kerosene. Do you store kerosene here?"
"In the stable?" Colby said incredulously. Restlessly she jumped to her feet. Pushing past Rafael's larger frame, she entered the kitchen. "I'd never keep kerosene in the stable. You must really think I'm an idiot."
She was so fragile, so close to tears. Rafael was in her mind, reading the jumble of emotions, the horror of what had happened, the fears of facing the future and her frantic attempts at putting the pieces together to discover what could have happened. He followed her patiently, a silent jungle cat stalking after her. "That is not what I asked you, querida. I am telling you I think this fire was set. I think the fire captain also believes this to be the case. Do you have insurance?"
Colby went very still, half turning to face him. "Is that what you think? That I would burn down my own stables with horses still inside for insurance money? Is that what you're suggesting?" She waved a hand to encompass the yard filled with her neighbors. "Is that what everyone thinks? That I would be capable of harming animals for my own monetary gain?"
Her green eyes began to smolder dangerously. "Or maybe that's what you and the Chevez brothers want everyone to believe. That I would be capable of such an atrocity. That would certainly help your case, if I were to be thrown in jail, wouldn't it? No one would stand in your way to get the kids."
"Enough." He said the word very quietly through clenched white teeth. His black eyes were ice cold again, his mouth a merciless slash. He looked quite cruel and ruthless so that she backed away from him, her heart pounding out her sudden fear. "You are very upset and you do not know what you are saying. It is better to stay quiet than throw out groundless accusations. You are scaring your sister, Colby."
Ashamed at her loss of control, Colby shook her head and stared out the window to avoid his penetrating stare. She had no way of knowing Rafael had already discovered the key to her mind and was well aware she was incapable of such a treacherous action as starting a fire in her own stable filled with live animals.
Rafael hunkered down beside Ginny, his tone very gentle. "It is going to be all right, menininha. No one would ever believe such a thing of Colby. Do not look so frightened."
"Are we going to lose the ranch?" Ginny burst out anxiously. "Are you going to take us away from Colby and turn our ranch over to that horrible man?" Tears were making a path through the smoke on her small face.
Rafael looked at the child and his heart turned over. It was a singular experience to see a human through the eyes of love. Connected as he was with Colby's mind, he felt tremendous emotion for the little girl and her fears.
"No, darling." Colby's voice was extraordinarily gentle. "Don't worry, Ginny, we've seen worse times and come through. You and Paul are alive and unhurt, that's all that really matters." Even in her distress, she was reassuring.
"Which horrible man, Ginny?" Rafael asked, his black gaze seeking and finding the child with a firm compulsion to answer him.
"Everything is just fine," Colby interrupted, sounding weary even to her own ears. She reached for Ginny in an attempt to break the lock Rafael's gaze had on her.
Rafael glided without appearing to move, keeping his body inserted between Colby and Ginny. The little girl looked up at him trustingly. "He wants to take our ranch away. He is always coming here and telling Colby to give him money." She leaned closer confidentially. "He wants to marry her. I heard him say we wouldn't lose the ranch if she cooperated with him."
"Ginny!" Colby spoke much more sharply than she intended, humiliated all over again. Rafael De La Cruz was the last person who needed to know their business. For a moment she covered her face with her hands. She'd slept with him. Slept with him. That wasn't even the right words for what they'd done together. A virtual stranger, she let him touch her, devour her. She had taken him inside her body. She felt naked and vulnerable and slowly lowered her hands to meet his black eyes. He had possessed her, marked her, and she had been so eager for his body, his touch. She would have done anything for him. God, she had begged him. Screamed his name over and over in her mind. What was wrong with her?
Rafael released the child from his thrall, his gaze thoughtful as it rested on Colby's face. Her eyes were alive with pride, but he was a shadow in her mind and he could read her humiliation and fear. He circled her fragile wrist with his strong grip, careful to keep his enormous strength leashed. "Who is this man and what does he have to hold over your head to threaten you in such a manner?" He said it softly, his teeth very white and almost wolfish. He was very much aware of time slipping away from him. He had pushed his endurance far beyond normal in order to be with Colby.
"It isn't your business." Colby attempted to twist free, feeling foolish when he didn't appear to notice. "I'm too upset to cope with an interrogation right now," she murmured rebelliously, fighting back tears. It didn't help her state of mind to notice that her various injuries hadn't been hurting since Rafael had attended to her earlier.
Rafael's breath came out in a slow hiss. "You will answer me, Colby." It was a command, his voice so low, so laced with velvet, she felt it rather than heard it. For all of that, it was sheer menace. His glittering black eyes did not blink once.
"All right then." Goaded beyond endurance, her usual control shattered into fragments, Colby glared at him. "I made a huge mistake when my father was ill. We needed money. Everyone knew he was sick, the bank wouldn't loan us anything. I couldn't keep up with the ranch work because he needed me with him. There were so many bills. The kids needed clothes for school." Her chin was up, belligerently. "I was only nineteen, no one would take the chance of loaning me the money and the bank wouldn't go for another mortgage on the ranch because of the hospital bills and my father's paralysis. It was fairly common knowledge." She jerked at her wrist again. "I hate this, telling you this."
She didn't have to tell him, he could "see" the memories in her mind. She had loved Armando Chevez with the same fierce loyalty and passion she gave the children. To Colby, Armando Chevez had been her father, blood or no. Grief-stricken when her mother had died, she had still taken on the daunting task of caring for her paralyzed father, two children, and the enormous ranch. She had been very frightened, with nowhere to turn and everyone depending on her.
Rafael ached for her, his eyes burning with unfamiliar emotion. He tugged on her wrist until her resisting body was close to the protective shelter of his. He needed to comfort her even more than she needed the comfort. Colby wrenched her-self free and jerked open the door to the kitchen. He moved with her like a dance partner, graceful, fluid, sheer energy. He made no sound on the tiled floor.
Colby looked at him, feeling trapped and very vulnerable. "I borrowed the money from a neighbor. I knew what he was like, but we needed it. I sent the letter to the Chevez family first, they were our last hope, but there was no reply. I went to Clinton Daniels and I borrowed the money we needed to keep going." When he continued to look at her she shrugged. "I wasn't stupid-I knew he wanted the ranch, and I knew he was responsible for the bank turning me down. I also knew he would give us time if he thought he might have a chance with me." Her green eyes wavered, shame creeping into them. "I took the money and I've managed to come up with the payments every month since then, but we have a balloon payment due. Unless I can sell off part of our land quickly, we'll lose the ranch. Unfortunately it isn't so easy when the ranch is part of a trust."
Paul had followed them into the kitchen on the pretense of pouring himself a cup of coffee. Colby had to have been shattered by the events of the morning to reveal such personal de-tails to a man she didn't even know. She had to be in shock. He spun around, ready to set the record straight. "She makes it sound like she was selling herself. All she did was keep us going when our family didn't bother to even contact us after my dad died. She's worked hard to pull us out of debt, done more than any two men could have done! She's got nothing to be ashamed of!"
"I realize your sister is as stubborn as a mule," Rafael said grimly, "but I thought better of you, boy. You should have told me or your uncles this immediately instead of allowing your sister to run herself into the ground." The voice was very low, but there was a whiplash in it.
"Don't you dare talk to him like that!" Colby came to life, her green eyes blazing. She radiated fury, her fists actually clenched at her sides. She even took a step toward Rafael.
He felt the surge of power vibrating in the air. It was so strong several pots hanging on hooks swayed, clinking together so that she glanced at them in alarm. Her skin paled beneath the layer of soot and she immediately took a deep breath to calm herself.
Amusement warmed Rafael's eyes. "Think twice, pequena, before you launch yourself at me. If you hurt me, how am I going to sign the check?"
"You'll loan us the money?" Paul gasped eagerly.
"No way, Paul, absolutely not." Colby was outraged at the idea. "I'm not selling my soul to the devil, not even to keep the ranch. Not for any price!" She would feel like a prostitute, and how could she explain that to Paul or Ginny?
"You do not have a scrap of manners." Rafael's low voice was suddenly steel encased in velvet. A muscle jerked along his jaw. "The truth is you already made a deal with the devil and whether you like it or not, you need help."
Her chin lifted at him, green eyes alive with pride. "Not from you or the Chevez family. You had your chance to help us and you let our father die alone."
Warning bells went off in Paul's brain. Colby was quite capable of attempting to throw De La Cruz out on his ear. They couldn't afford to make an enemy of Rafael. "Hang on, Colby, I'd like to hear the man out. What kind of terms are you offering?"
Colby glared at her brother. "Whatever the terms are, we can't afford them. Paul, haven't you learned by my mistakes?"
"I want to hear them," Paul insisted stubbornly, proving he could be just like his older sister when the situation called for it. "You think I don't know you get about four hours of sleep a night? Look at you, Colby, you're getting skinny."
"Thank you very much," she snapped, humiliated all over again. "If you two will excuse me I've got to shower." Colby brushed past Rafael, her slender body stiff with disapproval. She couldn't look at him when she said "shower," when Rafael's attention was suddenly on her body. She could feel the weight of his gaze on her, could remember how his mouth felt. Rafael's hands had been all over her, inside her. His mouth, his tongue, his body. She had called out his name, begged him, pleaded for more of his possession. Over and over. She had burned for him all night. She burned for him still.
The hot water stung her hands and the small burns she hadn't noticed before on her arms and legs. She turned her face up to let the water wash unwanted tears from her face. She was exhausted, the morning was already half gone, and her chores were waiting. Everything was waiting. She washed the smoke from her hair, all the while trembling uncontrollably. Why had she told De La Cruz about the mortgage? It was just one more weapon in a growing arsenal he could use against her. And what had he said? Someone set the fire? With the horses inside the stable, someone had deliberately set the fire?
She dried herself slowly, turning it over in her mind. It was a difficult thing to believe, yet she doubted Rafael would lie about it. Obviously if arson was suspected, there would be a full-scale investigation. She would be the number one prime suspect. Everyone knew she needed money. Colby groaned softly and pulled on a clean pair of faded Levi's. Why would someone want to burn down her stable? The insurance money wouldn't cover her full losses, let alone be much good to anyone else.
Had she done it? Colby sank slowly onto her bed. Could she have done it? Could she have inadvertently started the fire without knowing it? Was it possible? She had been in the stable earlier in the evening with Rafael. She remembered the surge of power rushing through her body like a fireball. The strength of it had filled the room. She had burned for him all night long. So much power and energy. Colby pressed a trembling hand to her mouth.
Now you are truly being silly, querida, you could not have done this. Had your powers started the fire, it would have been spontaneous combustion, not kerosene soaked into the walls. This was deliberate. I know what monsters are, Colby, and you are not one. Come out here and rescue me from these children. They are afraid and trying to be very brave for you. They need reassurance from you.
Colby sat up, finding her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were enormous, vivid green with shock. Rafael De La Cruz had tremendous talent. She could no longer deny they had a connection. A strong connection. She couldn't pretend that she wasn't hearing him speaking to her, mind to mind. She couldn't pretend that every single time he came near to her, even in a crisis, her body reacted to his. Suddenly, in the mirror, her eyes widened in shock. He could read her thoughts. He wasn't simply talking to her, he was responding to her thoughts. And he wasn't even in the same room with her!
Colby sat very still, afraid to move. She could hear her heart beating loudly in the small confines of her bedroom. It was then that she realized she was hearing far more than her heart. She could hear the men in the yard, their conversations, the restless continual stomping of the horses. She could hear insects buzzing. Worse, she could hear whispers from the firemen near the stables. She pressed her hands to her ears, suddenly afraid she was losing her mind.
She felt him this time, a stirring of a shadow in her mind. Warmth flooding her, comfort, a soothing tranquility he was projecting. It is a gift like any other. Work with it for a few moments. You can control the volume with your mind, Colby. It is nothing to fear. Turn it down until you are comfortable.
Why is this happening? The question shimmered in her mind, a plea for help in the insanity of her world. Not just the hearing. Everything she was feeling. Even her attraction to him was bizarre. She didn't trust it. It was too violent, too passionate, when she didn't even like him. She also was touching his mind and felt his terrible weariness. The need of his body to cease all movement. His skin burned painfully and his eyes stung as if hot needles were pushing into them. What is happening to you? Why are you in so much pain? She was suddenly very, very frightened for him.
"Colby?" Paul knocked hesitantly. "Are you all right?" He pushed the door open wide enough to stick his head in.
Looking at his young, worried face, the naked concern for her, Colby felt her strength and resolve flowing back stronger than ever. "I'm getting there, Paulo," she reassured him softly, "how 'bout you?" Answer me. She might scream if she didn't know that Rafael was going to be all right. Had he been burned?
"I think it will hit me tonight or tomorrow. I'm still in shock." Paul walked across her floor to push the hair back from her forehead. "You have bruises everywhere." He indicated her denim-clad thigh. "Was the cut bad? There was a lot of blood," he pointed out in a clumsy attempt to show his love.
I am fine. It is good that you care.
"I'm tough, Paul, and I've been kicked by horses and hit the ground a lot harder than that. What about Ginny? How is she doing?" Rafael was right, if she concentrated, Colby could turn the volume down on her hearing and the assault on her senses lessened. She couldn't stop thinking of him, couldn't prevent her mind from trying to tune itself to his.
"Ginny has food and drink prepared for the troops," Paul said. He cleared his throat. "I think you'd better come on out here. The fire captain wants to talk to you. Sean Everett found some things you should know about. There are kerosene containers, blackened, inside the stable."
Colby nodded and silently followed her brother back to the kitchen. She took a deep breath to stay firmly in control. "Someone did set it, then." She said the words aloud to test them. It was such an impossible thing to believe. "Who would do such a thing?"
Sean shook his head. "I don't know, Colby, but the alarm system was dismantled completely and the sprinklers were tampered with. Whoever did it was very professional, very thorough. We were lucky to save the barn and outbuildings."
There was a long silence while Colby digested the implication of his words. Lifting her head, she looked around the room at the circle of grim-faced men, at Paul's pale features and little Ginny huddled uncertainly in a corner. Rafael stood tall beside her, his body protectively shielding the young girl from the eyes of the men in the room.
Instantly ashamed of herself, Colby gathered Ginny to her and brushed her sister's grimy forehead with a reassuring kiss. "I think there's been enough excitement for you, honey," she said firmly. "Thank you for all your help, the coffee and food for everybody. I would never have thought of it. Take a shower and crawl back into bed for a few hours. It's going to take a lot of hard work to repair everything." Colby glanced up at Rafael. Thank you for looking after her.
At once she felt the brush of fingers on her face, the smallest of caresses, yet Rafael hadn't moved, hadn't physically touched her. She could see the fatigue etched on his face. His eyes were covered with thick black glasses, the lenses so dark she couldn't see through them. Colby could still feel how tired and drained, how much pain he was in, although she felt him throw up a barrier so she couldn't feel his actual pain. She could see the Chevez brothers were concerned for him. They stood in a tight knot in front of the window, anxiety on their faces as they watched Rafael.
"What can we do?" Ginny was pleading. "We won't lose the ranch."
"No, little chickadee." Colby's gaze jumped to meet Rafael's above the little girl's head. "We won't lose our home. Skip off now, I'll be right in to tuck you in."
Reassured, Ginny went down the hall toward her bedroom. Paul couldn't be sent off to bed, insulated from bad news or shocks. Highly intelligent, he showed his sense of responsibility in nearly everything he did.
"Colby," Ben began, holding up a hand to stop her before she could speak. "No one thinks you set the fire. I've known you all of your life. You might burn down your own stable if you were mad enough, but not for insurance money and not with horses in it. Someone did it, though. Who could benefit?"
"Do you have any enemies?" Rafael asked quietly.
Her green gaze jumped to his face, her chin lifting belligerently. Not until recently. Rafael had spent the night with her on the ranch. He had not been there when she woke up. The thought came unbidden, unwanted.
Be very careful of saying things you cannot take back, meu amor. Do not poison your brother's mind against his uncles or against me. You know better.
Part of her felt she might be losing her mind. "Not to my knowledge."
Sean rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. "You've corralled ninety percent of the training business around here. Anyone wanting to work with horses is out of luck."
"Most ranchers break and train their own horses. In any case. most of the ranches are cattle ranches. I don't see how I could be stepping on toes taking in horses to board or train. I've been doing it for years."
"What about this man Daniels Ginny was telling me about?" Rafael straightened from where he was leaning casually against the sink, a fluid motion of sheer grace and power. "Does he stand to gain the ranch?"
"Clinton Daniels maybe the biggest creep in the world, but he's a wealthy man. He doesn't care whether he has this ranch or not. I wish it was that simple."
Julio Chevez cleared his throat. "Don Rafael, the sun has risen and you have been up all night. Perhaps Juan and I should stay here and oversee things while you return with Senhor Everett in the helicopter," he suggested.
Colby looked at him, for the first time really noticing the resemblance to his brother, Armando Chevez. She also realized he was nervous, very nervous, and it had something to do with Rafael De La Cruz. She studied the Chevez brothers. They were handsome men as Armando had been, as Paul would surely be. They were obviously wealthy in their own right, and very educated. They both were watching Rafael carefully, and both of them were definitely tense.
Rafael reached out in front of everyone, his palm curling possessively around the nape of her neck. "You may let it be known that this woman and these children are under my protection. Should any harm befall them, I will take a hand in the hunt for the person responsible." He spoke the words almost formally, as if it was a ritual she didn't understand. But if she didn't, the Chevez brothers did. They looked at one another uneasily and one made the sign of the cross, even as they nodded their acknowledgment of his words.
Rafael bent closer to her. "Querida, I will see to the legal papers and return as soon as possible. You must try to eat something." Even through his dark lenses she could feel his penetrating, mesmerizing gaze. As tired as she was, Colby was afraid of falling forward and drowning in Rafael's strong personality. Without turning his head, Rafael added softly, "Paul, instruct Ginny to make vegetable soup and insist Colby eat it. None of you must wander too far from home in my absence. Juan and Julio will assist you with your work today."
Colby tried to shake her head. "That won't be necessary."
His thumb moved over her pulse in a long slow caress that sent her blood pounding. "It is necessary, meu lindo amor, as I can do no other than protect my own." Abruptly he released her, his black gaze finding and pinning the Chevez brothers." You will walk with me to the helicopter." Rafael had circled the burn site, studying it with more than human senses. The taint of the undead was there, but the vampire had not been the one to start the fire. He may have been the will behind it, but he had not done the actual work. Rafael had no way of picking up the scent of the arsonist as too many volunteers had shown up to fight the fire. The men, who come from the various ranches and the town, had been everywhere. He could only wait for the next time, and Rafael was certain there would be a next time. He might be helpless, locked in the ground. but he would see to it that Colby was protected while he slept.
Paul's eyebrow shot up as he watched the group of men walking toward the helicopter, Sean talking earnestly to the fire captain, Rafael and the Chevez brothers a distance apart. Rafael had his arm draped affectionately around Julio's shoulders, but he obviously was giving them orders. "Protect my own? What does that mean, Colby?"
She had turned up the volume of her hearing again, finding it a useful tool now. "Ssh, just a minute." She could hear the captain reassuring Sean Everett he was certain Colby hadn't set the fire and thanking them for their help. But she couldn't hear a thing Rafael was saying to the Chevez brothers. And strangely, she couldn't hear what they said to him. But they were talking about Paul and Ginny and her. She was very certain of that. "Do you trust him, Paul, enough to put the ranch into his hands? Because if we borrow that money from him, that's exactly what we're doing."
Rafael De La Cruz removed the dark glasses and turned his head to look straight at her with glittering merciless eyes. She shivered and moved closer to her brother for protection. The helicopter was very loud, yet she knew he heard her question to Paul. Colby lifted her chin at him, pretending not to be intimidated. But she was. The Chevez brothers were not servants. They were wealthy businessmen, proud, strong men. They knew cattle and obviously worked their ranch. Yet they had exhibited signs of something very close to fear when speaking to Rafael. Who was he to have such an effect on them?
"If he comes back with the terms he stated to me, there's no problem," Paul said. "He didn't say we would have to go back to some other country; it was a straight-up loan. Of course, you'll have to go over everything carefully, I just don't see we have much choice."
"You're right, Paulo, it's just that everything is so awful. And he isn't a man who gives you something for nothing." She had lain with him, her hands on his body while he took possession of her over and over. "I don't trust him." His hands had been all over her, his body buried deep inside of hers. "Even if he lends us the money for the mortgage, where are we going to get a new stable? All of the horses are a mess, their owners are going to be upset, and rightly so. And Shorty-what am I going to tell him? Butane was his up-and-coming hope for calf roping. Now he's dead. Shorty won't be so understanding that the fire was deliberately set." She was rambling and she knew it. Normally she would have shielded Paul from her fears, but she needed to talk, to think aloud. To keep her mind away from the shocking night she had spent with a virtual stranger. To keep from thinking someone hated them enough to burn down a stable filled with horses. To keep from dwelling on Pete's violent murder.
"Like you always tell us: one thing at a time," he reminded her. "We got through Mom dying. And we got through Dad being confined to bed. And then we made it through when he died. We can do this too, Colby. You're just tired."
The morning sun shone bright, holding the dark at bay for another day. She smiled a little at that, knowing ranch life continued no matter what the drama. Animals had to be fed and watered. The world didn't stop turning because Colby Jansen was weary and depressed. Not even because her little corner of the world was teetering on the brink of disaster.
She watched the helicopter lift off until it was a small speck in the distance, then turned to stare at the smoldering ruins of her stable. It was almost too much to comprehend. Slowly Colby sank onto the porch swing, drawing her knees up, resting her arms on her legs. Who could hate them so much? Who could have done such a thing? First Pete and now this. Groaning softly she buried her face into her hands. She had to have a stable. A bank loan? If they borrowed the money from Rafael and the existing loan was cleared up...?
Paul laid a hand on her slender shoulder. "Stop sitting out here staring at it, you'll go crazy. Come in and get something to eat, or at least sleep for an hour or two. Rafael left those two men, my... " He trailed off.
"Uncles," she inserted firmly. "We may as well take the time to get to know them." Her voice softened. "They do look a lot like Dad." And Rafael was gone. From her sight. Gone. Her body ached, was sore in places she hadn't known about, reminding her continually of his possession. Her heart pounded a drumbeat in her ears, in her throat. Grief welled up, a tight pressure in her chest. She wanted to believe it was grief over the burned stable, over the loss of an animal, but she feared it was her separation from Rafael De La Cruz.