Paul rubbed a hand over his face and looked at the black streaks left behind on his fingers. "I'm going to shower first. If I'm going to spend time with relatives, I'd rather do it looking halfway decent. You know how Dad was about details."
"Never forget the little things." They both repeated the creed together, then laughed. The sound was astonishing in the midst of the smoky smell of their ruined stable.
"Don't worry so much." Paul leaned down and unexpectedly gave her a kiss on the top of her head. "We'll beat this just like we do everything."
Colby watched him disappear into the house, her heart filled with love for him. He didn't realize the implications of both incidents on the ranch. All the small annoying things like disappearing tools could be put down to petty larceny or misplaced implements. The broken gate and downed fences might have been because they were old. She could write things off as coincidence. But Pete's murder and someone burning their stable to the ground could not be written off that easily. Somehow they were connected. And that meant that Paul and Ginny could be in danger.
She moved down the steps, her gaze on the brothers from Brazil. They were talking quietly to each other, still some distance away. Without Rafael's protection she could hear them clearly and she unashamedly eavesdropped. These men had come thousands of miles to claim Paul and Ginny, to take possession of the ranch. They did not believe a woman should be running such a business. She knew nothing about them, and only God knew whether they were capable of the terrible atrocities committed on her property. Both spoke in Portuguese, but Colby had learned the language from her stepfather.
It was the one called Juan who spoke. "I have never seen him like this before. Not with anyone else. Nicolas and Rafael never tolerate being away from our homeland long. And he thanked me for my help. He put his arm around my shoulders. I do not recall a single instance when he did such a thing in my lifetime."
"He did the same to me," Julio answered. "Something is different here and I think it is Colby. It is not right, Juan. They need the freedom of the rain forest, away from so many people. Nicolas has gone to the hacienda to be alone, but Rafael will not leave now." Julio's voice betrayed his worry.
"I do not know what is happening, but he is different here. He is not so cold, yet he is more dangerous. And I think it is Colby also. There will be blood and death if this is not resolved. We must be vigilant day and night now," Juan added.
Colby paused on the steps, her fingers wrapped tightly around the railing until her knuckles turned white. Blood and death? Were they referring to Rafael? Was he so capable of bringing about blood and death that they were obviously worried? She let her breath out slowly. Rafael was cursed with unexpected talents just as she had been. The special gifts weren't always easy to control, especially when surrounded by too many people. Emotions played a tremendous part. She had "done things" before, when she was much younger. She had been upset and started fires more than once just by staring angrily at something too long. She had been responsible for the terrible landslide that had blocked the entrance to the mine and trapped her for so many hours. There had been accidents, mistakes, and they were truly frightening.
Colby could understand why Rafael didn't want to be around people and why he preferred the freedom of the wilds.
The continual bombardment of smells and sounds on heightened senses was difficult and wearing. She loved the mountains and needed the solace of them. His brother, Nicolas, must have the same talents. Both of them seemed remarkably cold and ruthless when she'd first met them. She didn't like Nicolas, yet Rafael... She walked over to inspect the horses. Her heart did a funny little flip. Heat moved through her body. She wouldn't make up her mind about him yet.
She thought of the way his eyes looked at her with such intense hunger. He hadn't seemed cold then. And there was the way he had been with Ginny. Gentle and caring. Protective even. Rafael had healing abilities. He had worked on the animals after she had. His hands had been quick and sure, the horses calm around him as he whispered to them. But then again, Rafael could look as cold as ice, as intimidating as a jungle cat stalking prey.
Colby examined the horses again. The burns looked better and the horses were less restless. All of them still showed signs of trauma, shaking, sweating even, but none of them showed signs of smoke inhalation. She spent an hour with them, seeing to the wounds and soothing them. The danger of infection was high and she made a mental note to call the vet out a second time just to make certain they were all doing well. The animals were used to her and trusted her. It was obvious they were comforted by her presence.
Colby was aware of the Chevez brothers working at feeding and watering the animals. They were hard workers, not sitting on the porch sullenly because they had been ordered to stay and watch over the children. They seemed powerful in their own right, yet they did what Rafael commanded. Why would they choose to do what he said? Was it of their own free will? Were they afraid of him?
Colby went to the corral to saddle one of her working horses. She did it with the ease of long practice, but she was so tired, she would have used telekinesis if the Chevez brothers hadn't been so closely observing her. Juan wandered over to lean his weight casually against the gate. Up close he looked so much like Armando she was afraid if she looked at him she might cry. She was becoming altogether too emotional. It wasn't safe.
"What can I do for you?" She didn't let her eyes meet his.
"Which horse shall I use?" He asked it gently.
His accent and voice were very like her stepfather's. She looked away from him over the back of her horse to the shadowy foothills. They were dark even with the sun shining. "Are you planning on following me?"
"Sim, senhorita-yes. It might not be safe to go riding. Don Rafael has said you are under his protection. This is no small thing. In any case, my brother's familia is my familia. I wish to see to your safety."
Colby thought about arguing but one glance at his set features told her it wouldn't make any difference, he would simply follow her. Besides, she was curious. She gestured toward a paint. "He's a steady horse, and there's a saddle in the barn you can use." It had been her father's saddle, but she didn't tell him that. She hadn't thought about all the tack they had lost, including Ginny's custom-made saddle. Ginny hadn't said a word. How would Colby ever replace that saddle?
Colby pushed away the need to explode with pain and sorrow. Who had done this? Rafael had been in the tack room with her. And King, Ginny's dog. Why hadn't he barked? She had sent him to the barn to sleep. She had seen him earlier in the morning watching the firefighters. He hadn't barked when Rafael had come to visit her. She distinctly remembered that. Cautiously she pulled her hat lower over her eyes and took a quick look at Julio. Presumably he was staying to look after the children. Did she trust him?
While Juan was saddling the paint, she swung down and hurried across the yard back into the house. Paul and Ginny had gone back to bed and were asleep, King curled up on Ginny's bed. Colby issued a firm command to the dog to guard them. The border collie was well trained and she knew it would alert them should Julio come near the house. At the last minute she strapped on the holster she often used when riding the fences. Sometimes cattle stepped in ground squirrel holes and broke a leg, other times rattlesnakes bit them. She needed to carry the gun for emergencies. Catching up her rifle she hurried back to her horse. This time Juan was ready and in the saddle. He looked born to ride, easy, natural, a fluid rider. He raised his eyebrow when he saw her rifle but said nothing.
"My brother was an excellent horseman," he said, easily reading the sorrow in her eyes when she watched the way he moved in the saddle. "Even as a young man he could outride most of us."
Colby looked away from him quickly, swallowing the lump in her throat. "He used to put me in front of him when I was just a toddler and we'd ride all over the ranch together. He taught me to ride."
"You perform the same ritual as he always did before mounting your horse." Juan smiled in memory. "We used to tease him over it. He always patted the horse's neck and ran his hand along the chest and front legs, patted a second time, then swung on, most of the time without even using the stirrups."
Colby felt the memory rising, vivid and painful. Armando had been an amazing horseman and he loved the animals. He'd instilled that same love in Colby. "He was incredible with the horses," she said. "I've never seen anyone better?'
"He would want his children to know his familia," Juan said, his voice gentle.
Colby leaned down to open a gate. "What did you expect, that I would just turn my brother and sister over to you? Perfect strangers? Is it so wrong of me not to allow strangers to drag my family off to a foreign country? Tell me, would you have done so?"
Juan pushed his hat further back on his head. "No, senhorita, I would never give my familia over to those I did not know. Armando wrote to us on his deathbed to come for his children. All of his children. It was his dying wish that you would come to us. My brother made it abundantly clear that he considered you his daughter and his heir. We came for all of you."
"You came five years too late. I wrote to your family when the accident occurred and no one responded. And three years ago I wrote the letter again when he was on his deathbed. There wasn't a single sentence in it about me." Her green eyes touched his face, skittered away. She wished there had been something in the letter, but she had written it word for word as Armando had dictated it to her. She didn't want Juan to see her disappointment over not being adopted by Armando, or the anger she felt at Juan's lying, reflected on her transparent face.
The sun was beginning to make its way through the thick bank of clouds shrouding the mountains and, for some reason, Colby's eyes were ultrasensitive. The light stabbed at her so that she pulled the brim of her hat lower to shadow her face. Even so, her eyes hurt, burning in the morning sun.
Juan swung the gate closed after them. "Armando must have added to the letter. His hand was shaky and we would not have known but for his crest."
"He couldn't have. He could hardly move at the end." Colby said it stiffly, not looking at him. Her stepfather had asked her to leave the letter on his nightstand so he could look it over in case there was something more to be said. The next morning, the letter was folded neatly and Colby had inserted it into the envelope and sent it off. She wanted Juan to be telling the truth, but she was afraid if Armando hadn't included her it would break her heart, and if he had, she might cry a river of tears.
"Did you ever know Armando to tell you a lie?" Juan asked it quietly while the leather of their saddles creaked and the horses' hooves chinked against rock. A melody she found soothing, one she remembered from her childhood with her stepfather.
Colby shook her head mutely.
"I would not dishonor my brother's memory by telling you a lie either."
Colby rode for a few minutes in silence, turning the information over in her mind. "That's why your grandfather refused to answer him, isn't it?" she guessed shrewdly. "He didn't have me put it in the letter myself, because he didn't want me to know your family rejected him because of me."
"Do not mistake that it was a familia."
She looked at him then, her green eyes alive with a fierce pride. "The De La Cruz family, then? They didn't want me to ruin their spotless reputation with my lack of a name?"
Juan sighed softly. "The De La Cruz brothers are not interested in such things. They do not concern themselves with the lives of others. This is solely the responsibility of my avo. He did not tell my father or any of us of Armando's letters. Had he done so, we would have come at once. I cannot tell you how much sorrow this has caused our familia."
"Armando was happy with my mother," Colby told him, leading the way through a narrow canyon that emptied out into the flats where most of her cattle were spread out. She rode straight to the small barn where the hay was stored and urged her mount inside. The sun was really bothering her eyes now, and the shadows of the barn provided some relief. She must have suffered some damage in the fire without realizing it. Even her skin seemed ultrasensitive, burning fiercely wherever the sunlight touched her.
Juan followed her, silently cursing his grandfather's snobbery. "I am certain it is so. He would never have stayed in another country away from his familia had he not found something better."
Colby dismounted, the movement swift and fluid despite the fact that she was short. She moved efficiently, with no wasted motion. Juan had to admire her abilities as she began to toss the flakes of hay. "Where does the De La Cruz family fit into all this?" Colby asked it with studied casualness.
There was a small telling silence. Colby knew the man was choosing his words carefully as he worked beside her. "Their familia is ancient, as is ours. The two families have been inter-twined for hundreds of years. Who knows how far back it goes? We look after their estates, and they look after us. We have existed that way for so long we have become one familia."
"But you have your own money and lands."
"That is true, but our families have a symbiotic relationship. What is good for De La Cruz is good for us. They have special abilities and we aid them in other areas."
He was telling her something, yet nothing at all. For some unknown reason, something in his voice sent a shiver down Colby's spine. "What are they like?"
"There are five De La Cruz brothers. The others are all much like Rafael and Nicolas." Juan paused for a moment. "Do you do this work by yourself every day?"
There was a hint of censure in his voice, although she could tell he tried to keep it out. "My brother helps me and I had a man, Pete Jessup, working for me"
Juan leaned on his pitchfork. "The man found dead." He made the sign of the cross reverently. "That was not a good place for you to be riding by yourself."
Colby shrugged carelessly. "I do it all the time. Someone has to."
He shook his head. "It is not safe. That is not a good place. It felt... " He made the sign of the cross a second time. "It felt evil to me. I do not think those men would have allowed you to leave had Senhor Everett's rider and I not been there watching."
"I could have handled them," Colby said, not certain she was telling the truth.
"This cannot continue. The things you do are too dangerous."
She shoved a hand impatiently through her hair. "Fortunately for me, I don't have to answer to anyone." There was sheer defiance in her voice and an open challenge. "I run this ranch, Mr. Chevez. That means I have to ride everywhere and work like a man."
"But you are not a man," Juan pointed out patiently. "Don Rafael will not allow this to continue. He is a man who will have his way and it is not good to oppose him. If he decrees otherwise, do not attempt to defy him."
Colby stopped working and looked directly at him for the first time. Her green eyes blazed at him. "Rafael De La Cruz may be a big man where you are, but here, on my ranch, in my little corner of the world, his opinion means this." She snapped her fingers. "He doesn't rule me or my brother or sister."
Juan shook his head slowly. "You do not know Don Rafael, senhorita; he is not like other men. You are Armando's daughter and therefore minha sobrinha, my niece. You do not wish to claim the relationship, but I must look after you the way he wanted us to. I do not want you to test this man."
Did she hear the faint sound of fear in his voice again? "Why should you worry? Rafael De La Cruz has nothing to do with me. Hopefully he will be gone very soon." As soon as the words left her mouth, fear almost amounting to terror gripped her. The thought was unbearable. It was more than grief, an inconsolable grief. The mark on her neck throbbed and burned in protest.
"Don Rafael is a very influential and powerful man. He is not like other men." Juan was obviously searching for the right words. "The De La Cruz brothers are not as we are. They are formidable opponents and make harsh, unrelenting enemies."
Colby kept her smiles to herself. Obviously Juan knew Rafael and his brothers were gifted with unique talents, which she had begun to discover through her own touch of those gifts. He did not want to betray a confidence, yet he was attempting to warn her. She found it rather sweet. "I doubt that I could do anything to make Rafael notice me enough to make him my enemy. I've seen him in action. Quite the ladies' man." Even saying the words seemed to hurt, but Colby didn't want to examine too closely why that might be.
"You mistake him, Colby," Juan said. "Don Rafael is a man of honor. And there is something different about him since he has shown interest in you. I saw him with the little one. He was very gentle with her and protective. Don Rafael has never shown much interest in children. He has rescued them when it was necessary, but as a matter of duty, not the way he was with your sister. I have never seen this unusual behavior in him. And he is different with me, more open in his emotions."
She didn't want to think too much about Rafael. She rubbed her eyes and could tell they were beginning to swell severely. Tears were streaming unchecked down her face now and she couldn't stop them. "I think the fire somehow hurt my eyes," she murmured by way of explanation. "If you go home, Rafael would go home too. I had the impression both brothers were anxious to leave here immediately?'
Juan looked at her closely, his eyes dwelling on the strange mark on her neck. "I am afraid it is too late for that," he said ominously. He looked very alarmed, his gaze remaining on the blemish, all at once speculative.
Colby sighed heavily and, to keep from self-consciously covering the mark like an embarrassed teenager, added another flake of hay to the feeders. "Just say it straight out, Mr. Chevez. You can't have it both ways, you know. One minute you can't be implying I'm a good influence on him and the next that he might in some way be trying to harm me. If there's some reason you think I'm in danger from Rafael De La Cruz, you may as well tell me." Her gaze settled on his face. "I'm not afraid of him." That was a terrible lie, but she persisted, trying to force Juan into admission. "Has he threatened me in some way? You don't think he was responsible for what happened to the stable, do you?" She would have looked at him challengingly but her eyes were far too swollen. And she was tired. Her arms and legs felt leaden. She wanted to lie down in the hay and go to sleep.
"Don Rafael would never do such a thing." Juan sounded horrified at the mere suggestion. But he didn't look horrified; he looked worried. "I think we should go back to the house; you are unwell."
A protest began in her mind, but she did feel terrible, the skin on her face and forearms already burning fiercely. Her eyes felt like red-hot needles were poking into them. Even within the shelter of the barn, she felt the light poised to attack. Worse, she was constantly thinking of Rafael. He was invading her mind to the point of driving out every practical thought she had. No matter how strong her will was, she couldn't seem to stop from thinking of him, needing to see him. Colby had never considered herself a woman who would need a man so much she pined for him, yet she wanted desperately to hear his voice, to touch him, to see for herself he was alive and well.
"Please, senhorita, the sun is burning your skin. I am most concerned, perhaps I can take you back to the house." Juan had already made up his mind to take her back. He could see she was in trouble and he was being as polite as possible. If anything happened to her, Rafael would hold him responsible. He was very worried. Colby's skin was blistering in the sun, and her eyes were very sensitive to the light. Very much like what happened to the De La Cruz brothers. Juan had never seen the phenomenon in a human. Now he was really alarmed and wanted to talk with Julio.
"I should check on the kids," Colby capitulated, "and get the vet out again to check on the horses." She longed for the relief of the coolness of the ranch house. She wanted to gather Ginny and Paul into her arms and have everything return to normal once again. More than all of that, she needed desperately to see Rafael, to touch him. To know that he was alive. Where are you?
Rafael lay locked deep within the earth. Around him the rejuvenating soil offered a soothing comfort to the terrible burns over his arms and face where the unrelenting sun had beaten down on him. He had not been able to leave Colby until he was certain the danger to her was past, so he had stayed far longer in the morning hours than he had ever managed before. His eyes, even lying in the earth, burned and wept from the sunlight. Even obscured by the heavy cloud cover, he had paid a high price to be with her.
Why had the vampire's scent been near the stable, yet the cause of the fire human? Was the vampire using a puppet-a human servant-to destroy Colby? Nicolas was right, he had no choice but to bring her fully into his world where he could protect her at all times.
On that thought came another much more disagreeable one. It was difficult to lie helplessly in the ground while Colby was facing danger without his protection. How would she feel if she lay beside him deep within the earth and little Ginny was in danger or in need? His heart gave a strange lurch. The issue was far more complex than he had first considered. It would be much simpler if he only thought of himself, his own needs and desires. A savage fury seemed to burn through his soul. Colby would wither away beneath the earth, her gentle compassionate soul devastated at a separation between her and her younger siblings. She loved them as if they were her own children. A fierce, protective love, with every fiber of her being. The way he wanted her to love him.
His swearing was eloquent, the words echoing harshly in his mind. He had brought her partially into his world without a thought for what it would mean to her and her life. Her dreams. For what was important to her. She was uncomfortable without him, restless, and the sun was beginning to climb high. Colby was an independent woman, she wasn't even certain she liked him. She was confused by her inability to keep from wanting him, her need to touch his mind, to know he was safe. Rafael could only lie helpless beneath the ground knowing he had contributed to Colby's distress. No, it was more than that; he was directly responsible for her distress.
He had gone to ground near Colby's ranch house, better to feel the first vibrations of danger to her. He had felt so close to her the night before, lying beside her on the bed, listening to her breathing. She was so beautiful. Not just her body, but her heart and soul. She seemed to shine from the inside out. Not one of the firefighters who knew her, not one of the ranchers, had entertained the idea that she could have set the fire for the insurance money. There was something about Colby that just drew people like a magnet. And made them believe in her.
He lay with his body a dead weight, unable to move a muscle as he contemplated the problems he was facing. He didn't want Colby above ground where he couldn't protect her. He wanted to be with her. Not wanted, he needed to be with her. He would not go through another day unable to sleep the healing sleep of his people, terrified of losing her. He wouldn't do it. He would complete the ritual and drag her kicking and screaming into his world. Consequences be damned. She belonged with him. Was made for him, his other half. He had a right to her. Once in Brazil he could make amends, win her love. She would be locked to him for all time. Eternity. She wouldn't be able to leave him and she would have to learn to accept her fate.
Rafael tried to force his mind away from her in an attempt to close himself off and regain his enormous strength. He could hear her heart beating. He could feel her above the earth, her heart seeking the reassurance of his. He could feel her mind tuning itself in an attempt to find his. He had succeeded in making two blood exchanges. She was already partially in his world. Alarm hit him hard. Her skin would be sensitive to the sun, her eyes would water and burn.
Colby was used to being out in the harsh sunlight, she wouldn't think to protect herself. He made a concentrated effort and touched her, mind to mind, partially to alleviate her distress and partially to relieve his own. At once he felt her pain, the burning of her skin and eyes. She was hungry, yet she was having trouble eating. She needed to touch him often and she was terribly confused by the unfamiliar need. A low sound escaped, a groan of despair. How could he have been so selfish? He had thought only of his needs, his desires. He hadn't stopped to think of the consequences to her. Colby would suffer terribly this day and it was through his own selfishness. In that moment, he hated himself.
Rafael knew he had no choice now, he had to take her back to Brazil with him where he could adequately protect her, yet she wouldn't be happy without Ginny and Paul. He could never make her happy without her younger siblings. The thought crept unbidden into his mind and stayed there. A thorn. The truth. He heard her then, the soft cry of her heart to his. Where are you? It took tremendous strength and willpower for him to overcome the paralysis and lethargy of his kind at the hour with the sun climbing high. He reached for her with his heart and mind. Colby? The lightest of touches. An inquiry.
Colby tried to fight against the terrible pain in her eyes, plus the blinding headache that was so relentless she felt her head gripped in a vise. Her eyes were streaming and swollen and hurting so bad she kept them closed most of the time against the onslaught of the sun. Her forearms were red and small blisters were actually forming. Colby was a redhead, but her skin had long since become accustomed to the sun. She couldn't believe she was so sensitive. She urged her mount to pick up speed and covered her eyes with one hand, nearly unable to guide the animal. Juan reached out and took the reins in silence, leading her back to the ranch house.
She heard the sound of a voice stirring softly in her mind, a flutter of butterfly wings brushing against the walls of her mind. Rafael. His voice was unbelievably mesmerizing and her heart latched onto it immediately. Why had she been so afraid that something terrible had happened to him? It had been a stone weighing her down, crushing her until she could barely think straight.
Rafael! She couldn't keep the relief out of her voice or mind.
I am resting. I will come to you this evening. Sleep and allow Juan and Julio to aid Paul with the work this day. He slipped a slight "push" into his voice, but already his strength was gone, ebbing away from him into her mind.
Colby knew something was wrong with him, she could feel it, his need for rest, for healing. You're hurt. I can feel pain in your mind.
It is your pain.
Don't lie to me.
Lifemates do not lie to one another. I feel your pain as my own. He gave a small sigh. The sun took its toll on me as well. I heal quickly. You must sleep, querida.
Colby tried to probe his mind further to assess his injuries, but it was impossible. She gave up, the task too difficult in the face of her waning strength. I think we both need sleep, Rafael. She was shocked at how easy it was becoming to communicate with him. How right it felt. As if they did belong together, two halves of the same whole. You've brainwashed me.
The terrible pressure in her chest weighing her down was gone and all at once she felt much happier. Her eyes were too painful to open, her skin was burning, and the stable was gone, yet she was inexplicably happy just to hear his voice. Knowing he was reading her thoughts and probably feeling smug, she directed one last message to him. How sickening of me.
Although Colby went into the barn to get out of the sun, she found she couldn't open her eyes even in the darkened interior. She managed to dismount, but was forced to cling blindly to her horse until Juan steadied the animal, holding the reins. "You go on in, I'll see to the horse."
"Colby!" Paul raced into the barn, seeing his sister stagger as she dismounted. "What happened?" He glared at his uncle as he wrapped his arm around her smaller figure. "What did you do to her?" His voice was filled with belligerence and suspicion.
"Paul..." Colby's voice was a gentle warning. "My eyes hurt. I can't see very well. I must have damaged them in the fire earlier. Your uncle was just trying to help me." She leaned into him, relying on him to get her into the house. "Don't be rude." She buried her face into his shirt, stumbling blindly against him across the yard to the ranch house. She didn't dare open her eyes. Now that she was home her eyes seemed to hurt even more.
Ginny rushed to her side. "What happened? You're sun-burned, Colby, it's really bad." At once she soaked a towel in cold water and pressed it into her sister's hands.
Colby held the cool towel to her swollen eyes. She sank into a chair. "I can't believe how much this hurts. I've never been so glad to be home."
"I can drive you into town to the doctor," Paul offered.
Colby took a deep breath and shook her head. "I think I just want to lie down for an hour or so." She felt exhausted, the need to sleep so strong in her she was afraid she might succumb right there in the kitchen. She rubbed at her pounding temples. "I have so much to do."
"I called the vet," Ginny volunteered; "he's coming out again this afternoon. The chickens are fed and the garden is watered. The fire marshal has someone coming to investigate the fire. Paul made all the calls to the owners of the horses. Well, except Shorty." Ginny hesitated a moment, glancing up at her brother. Colby was never sick. She'd been injured on many occasions but she rarely had gone to bed during the day, not even after a long difficult calving. "Oh, and I called Tanya Everett and asked if she and her mother could come over this evening instead of this afternoon." She ducked her head, her eyes skittering away from Paul's. "I was going to cancel altogether, but she sounded so lonely and I thought maybe I could ride with her in the corral. If you want me to put her off, I will, Colby."
"No, of course not, chickadee." Colby pressed the cooling cloth closer, desperately trying to take the heat from her skin and eyes. "I'm so tired, I really need to rest for a couple of hours. Will you wake me later?"
"Come on." Paul helped her up and led her down the hall to her room. "Don't worry about anything, I can take care of it."
Colby removed the cloth from her eyes to peer at her brother. The light shining through the window hit her with alarming radiance. Immediately she squeezed her eyes shut tight again and hid in the damp, soothing cloth. "Pull the curtain closed, Paulo."
He obeyed her, pulling the heavy drapes across the opening to darken the room. "Are you sure I shouldn't take you to the doctor, Colby? Maybe your eyes were burned in the fire." He sounded very young and scared.
"I think they're just sensitive, Paul, and I'm so tired." She lay on her bed, reaching her hand blindly toward him. "I need to talk to you about Juan and Julio Chevez. They're here to help you and I think you should be respectful as they are our father's brothers. On the other hand, with all the strange things happening around here, I think you should keep an eye on them. I mean it, Paul. Just make sure you and Ginny are safe." She wiggled uncomfortably until Paul reached out to unstrap her side holster.
Colby could still smell Rafael on her sheets and pillow. She wanted to press her face into the cotton and inhale.
"I don't think wearing a gun to bed is in fashion this year. Where'd you leave your rifle?" Paul asked abruptly. His sister looked very fragile all of a sudden.
"In the scabbard. I think Juan was unsaddling the horse. Get it back in the gun rack, Paul, and be sure to unload it."
Ginny bustled in, pushing Paul aside with her small hip. "I've brought some aloe vera. Just lay there and let me smear it on you." She glanced worriedly up at Paul. "She's so tired all the time, Paul. Do you think she's sick? She didn't eat all day yesterday or this morning. She didn't even have a cup of tea."
A smile flirted with the corners of Colby's mouth. "I am here, Ginny. You don't need to talk about me in the third person."
"You know Colby," Paul said decisively, not wanting Ginny to worry, "she's been getting up a couple of hours early to go hunt for..." He trailed off, aware Pete Jessup was a dangerous subject. "Just keep an eye on her, Ginny, and stay in the house with her. Keep King with you, too." He spoke gruffly, suddenly feeling the tremendous responsibility for his two sisters.
Ginny rolled her eyes as he swaggered out, Colby's holster in his hands. "Big mistake, Colby, giving that dork power. Next thing you know he'll be impossible to live with." She gathered up Colby's hair, surprised Colby didn't move at all. Ginny bent closer. Colby had already fallen asleep. Ginny sat on the edge of the bed staring intently at her sister, her fingers automatically plaiting the thick strands into one loose braid. There was something different about Colby. It was so subtle Ginny couldn't figure out exactly what it was. Despite the terrible sunburn, Colby looked different, more... everything. Ginny felt comforted sitting beside Colby, but she wished her sister hadn't gone to sleep so quickly. She needed to talk to her.
Ginny leaned very close. "It's all my fault, Colby. I wish you could hear me." She whispered the words against her sister's neck, against the strange mark branding her skin. "I did it, Colby."
Colby lay perfectly still, her breathing even and regular, looking like an angel in her sleep. A tear leaked out of Ginny's eye and trickled down her cheek until it dropped onto Colby's neck, onto the distinctive mark. At once Colby moved, her hand reaching out until she found Ginny's. "You could never have done such a thing" Her voice was soft and drowsy. There was a faint smile in the tone.
"I didn't start it," Ginny admitted, sniffing a little. "But I called King in. I waited until you were asleep and I called him into my room and shut the door. I hate sleeping without him. I still have nightmares about Mom and Dad dying. About you dying. I don't want anything to happen to you. Not ever."
Colby made a tremendous effort to stir. She had never felt so tired, her body so leaden she felt weighted down. She managed to lace her fingers even tighter through Ginny's fingers. "Baby, why would that make you responsible? You probably saved his life. Whoever started that fire didn't think about the horses locked inside. They wouldn't have hesitated at killing our dog if he had tried to alert us." Because she was so tired, Colby wasn't censoring her words as she ordinarily might have.
"I shouldn't have called him in-then Shorty's horse wouldn't have been killed." Ginny buried her face deeper into Colby's neck so that the mark throbbed like a heartbeat.
Colby roused herself further, slipping her arm around Ginny. "Don't be so scared, honey, we aren't going to lose our home. No one will separate us. I love you and Paul. This was not your fault."
"Mom and Dad went away." Ginny choked back a flood of tears.
"I know, sweetheart. Dad tried to stay with us as long as he could. I know it was hard on you, but no one is going to separate us."
"What if those people take you to court and make us go to Brazil with them?" Ginny's little body was shaking.
Colby drew the comforter over her, surrounding both of them with its warmth and soothing properties. "I don't think they will, Ginny. But if they did, I don't think they'd win. And if they did somehow manage to win, well, I talked to Juan today. He's your uncle, Dad's brother, and he said they wanted me to go along. I would never let them take you without going along as well."
"You could marry Rafael De La Cruz," Ginny said suddenly. "If you did they would never be able to separate us because he's the boss."
Alarm spread through Colby, her body tightening. The thought of being married to Rafael De La Cruz was daunting. He would rule her absolutely. She could see it in the stamp of arrogance on his face, the heat in his heavy-lidded smoldering eyes. She had no way of combating his hold over her. Colby still hadn't opened her eyes and didn't want to. "Has he been talking to you?"
"Only this morning in the kitchen when everyone was looking at me and I was so scared. He was nice to me. He talked about Dad, and when Dad was little, and he said you weren't hurt very bad and not to worry, things had a way of working out. He said you were beautiful." Ginny clutched tightly at Colby's hand. "He made me feel safe and stood in front of me when I was crying so no one could see me."
"That was very nice of him. Rafael seemed to be everywhere this morning. Fighting the fire, healing the horses, helping me, and now I hear he was looking out for you." Colby's voice sounded far away as if she was sliding back to sleep. She turned her face into the coolness of the pillow, inhaled Rafael's scent, and covered the mark on her neck with her palm, holding it like a caress against her skin.
"He said it wasn't my fault and to talk to you about it," Ginny persisted.
"He was right, baby, it wasn't your fault. I'm glad you called the dog last night. From now on if you need King you just go ahead and call him in every night. Ginny? I'm really tired, honey, I need to sleep."
"Do you like him?"
"Like who?" Colby asked, drifting further into a dream.
"Rafael. Do you like him?"
Colby smiled again. "No." Her voice was soft and sensuous.
Ginny snuggled closer, a pleased smile on her face. "Yes, you do, I can tell by your voice."