Marry A Man Who Will Dance

"Ms. Major has created a story full of emotional explosions and lessons in love. I found myself sympathizing with the main characters and hoped they could overcome the obstacles thrown in their way by vengeful family members and friends." Marilyn Puett Writers Unlimited

PROLOGUE

Houston, Texas
April, 2001

            The Harley roared and bucked and writhed under his muscular thighs as wildly as a fresh border whore.  And since he was half-Mexican and half-Anglo, and oversexed to boot, Roque Moya was just the man to know.

            Not that anyone in Texas called him Moya.  Here he was Blackstone, a name he hated, a name most people hated.  But not nearly as much as they feared it.  His father had seen to that.

            The stripes that divided the interstate lanes blurred into a fluid white line flying beneath his wheels.  His thickly lashed eyes flashed on the speedometer.  One hundred and ten.

            He was in too big of a hurry to slow down.

            Only when he passed the world famous R.D. Meyer Heart Institute on the outskirts of Houston a few miles later, and the traffic began to thicken, did he use his left foot to gear down.

            Fury knotted his gut.

            Don't think about her!

            Cities.  It was cities he hated.  They always seemed like filthy jails.  Even up here in el norte, on this side of the border, where they were supposed to be safer, cleaner, and more respectable, they were still prisons.

            Especially this city which happened to be where his once-rich daddy had made himself so notorious by manipulating juries he despised with his well-told lies.

            She lived here.  She'd married another man and hidden from him here.

            His black leather glove gripped the throttle with a vengeance.  Thoughts of her ahead, in addition to the soaring speed of his bike, gave him an adrenaline rush.

            He had a funeral to get to.  And he was late.  A funeral he was very much looking forward to.

            Her husband's.

            Ritz.

            He thought of Ritz at the damndest times.  Thought of what she'd done . . . and what she hadn't.  Thought of her glorious yellow hair blowing in the wind, thought of her blue eyes, how they could change from blue to violet when she got hot for him.  She didn't think she was sexy, but she was.

            He had to know why she'd crawled into his bed two months ago, why she'd been so eager to sleep with him, her warm, silky body aquiver.  She'd been a perfect fit, better than before.

            And yet . . . she'd kept secrets that night.

            If it had been half as good for her as it had for him, why had she gone home to her husband?

            Since that night, he'd done some research.

            Were all the sordid stories Josh had spread about her true?

            Border saint?  Or border tramp?  Or something in between?  Someone far more complex?  She wasn't a girl anymore.  She was a woman.

            And a widow now.

            Time to find out who she really was.

            He'd waited a hell of a long time for his turn.

            Thumpty-thump.  His big wheels hit cracked pavement.  Big piles of dirt, earth-moving equipment, and cranes littered either side of the interstate.  Houston seemed to be falling apart.  In the shimmering heat beneath a white soupy sky, the downtown skyscrapers undulated like strippers to the frenzied tempo of his bike.  On either side of the freeway, office buildings, signs, restaurants, strip shopping centers, malls and huge parking lots whipped by.

            Progress?  Were they going to pave the whole damn world?  For a second or two he felt like Mad Max roaring to his doom on a crotch-rocket across some crazed, futuristic landscape.

            He should have noticed the lanes narrowing, the traffic beginning to hem him in.  But he was flying past the blinking yellow lights on the orange barrels and all those little white signs that warned the freeway was under construction before he really saw them.

            His mind was on Ritz and the telephone call he had received six hours ago on the ranch.

            " . . . dead!"

            "But I thought   . . . "

            "Caught us by surprise. too, Roque.  Nobody thought he'd go this fast!"

            "How?"

            "In his sleep . . . painlessly."

            "How's she . . . taking . . . "

            " . . . too devastated . . .  to even call me!  Frankly I'm worried . . .  And she's sick.  A stomach virus or something."

            For no reason at all that news had gotten him edgy.

            "How sick?"

            "Threw up everywhere.  Been at it a week."

            After all she'd been through nursing a dying man, her formerly rich, famous husband . . . His old nemesis, Josh.

            So . . . she'd loved Josh after all.  The realization hit him hard.

            Ten thousand taillights blazed blood red.  As if on cue, six lanes of vehicles slammed on their brakes all at once.

            An eighteen wheeler's trailer loomed ahead like a solid wall of silver.

            "Híjole," he whispered, easing off the gas, gearing down, braking so fast, his bike went into a skid.

            G-forces hurled his powerful, leather-clad body straight at the mirrored trailer.  To avoid slamming into it, he put his bike on its side.  Sparks flew off his crash bar across the asphalt.

            Hanging on and hunkering low, a jagged rock sliced his cheek as he hurtled under the eighteen-wheeler.  A second later he shot out the other side across two congested lanes of stalled traffic.

            An exhaust pipe blistered his stubbly jaw with a wave of hot fumes.  A strip of black leather flapped loose from his shoulder.

            But he was alive.

            "You, son of a bitch!" a man yelled at him.

            Gears ground.  Brakes slammed again as Roque skidded to a halt just short of the guardrail.

            Only when he was stopped did Roque notice the hole in his black jacket and see the blood oozing from his chest.

            He was alive.  And so was she.  All of a sudden he felt a hell of a lot better.

            Sudden longing wrenched his being.  He saw violet eyes and golden hair spread all over his pillow.

            She was free again and so was he.

            He lifted the silver St. Jude medal he'd worn around his neck for good luck and kissed it.

            Then he began to shake.

            "Shit."

            He rolled the throttle and made his rice burner roar.

            Where the hell was her house in River Oaks?

            Ritz Keller Evans was to the manor born.  She was a real lady.  Elegant.  A princess.

            At least she was supposed to be.

            She patted her stomach uneasily.

            Today she'd certainly dressed the part she was pretending to play — that of Josh's wealthy, grieving widow.

            She wore a black sheath.  No jewels.  Not even her gold wedding band.  That she'd slipped off her finger, maybe a little too eagerly to be buried along with Josh in his coffin.

            Her honey-blond hair was swept back.  Her skin was so pale and her expression so reserved, few people dared to intrude upon her grief.  Very few of the mourners spoke to her.  Her own mother and father had refused to come.

            Ritz was a Keller, of the legendary Triple K Ranch of south Texas, the last of the big-time, fairy-tale, ranch princesses.  And since Texas is founded on the lie that a kingdom of a million acres, thousands of cows and a lot of oil wells should make any girl happy, the headlines about her fascinated a lot of people.

            What if they knew the truth?  That she was estranged from her family?  That she'd slept with her old boyfriend, Roque, the virile cowboy she'd spent years avoiding.  Not just any cowboy, but Roque Moya Blackstone, son of odious Benny Blackstone, whom Roque had gotten disbarred.  Roque himself was a self-serving multimillionaire developer of the impoverished colonias she sometimes visited as a nurse.  Not so long ago she'd even gotten him fined for building inadequate houses without utilities.

            Even if he was Blackstone's son, being half-Mexican, how could he prey on poor Mexican immigrants?

            Better question: knowing who and what he was — how could she have crept into his bed and used him as a stud?

            Had she hoped lightning would strike her twice?

            Josh's funeral had her second-guessing herself.  She was broke.  She hadn't known what to do with herself when Josh had lost everything and their marriage failed.

            Now all she wanted was this baby.

            Until Josh's business had failed and he'd left her, everybody had thought she led a charmed life.  Then he'd taken her back, only to die fast.  Naturally everybody was curious.  Naturally she was photographed, written about, gossiped about.

            She'd believed in love, and marriage and children.

            In babies.

            How strange that Josh, whom she'd known from childhood, the son of a rancher, should have ended up the richest dot.com king in Houston, only to lose everything as swiftly as he'd made it.  Still, for five years she'd lived in this castle in River Oaks, Houston's most reputed, posh enclave for its millionaires and billionaires, especially those who have a flair for high drama or scandal.

            Unconsciously, she pressed against her thickening waistline.  Just as quickly, her slim fingers fluttered away before Mother Evans or any of Josh's friends could see.

            Nobody could know.  Not her estranged family, Not Josh's.  Not Jet, her long-time girlfriend, nor Jet's saintly father, Irish Taylor.

            Nobody.

            Especially not the baby's real father.

            Not until Josh was properly buried and all his friends and family had gone home; not until Ritz was long way from Texas and the gossips who watched her every move, would she breathe easily.

            This time she had to carry her baby full term.  That would be her atonement.  What else did she owe him?

            She was equally determined there would be no nasty rumors or newspaper smears, no counting up of months, no wondering how Josh could have gotten her pregnant in his condition.

            Ritz had known she was pregnant even before there had been any symptoms or visible signs.  One day she had awakened in this house of death and broken dreams, and opened her window.  The sweet peas that climbed her trellis had glowed brighter and smelled sweeter.  She had breathed in their fresh fragrance and felt queasy, and she had known.

            She'd whispered the name, "Roque," and touched her stomach.

            Then she'd shivered and snapped the window shut, realizing he was the last person she could ever tell and the last person she could ever desire.

            Fear of him made her heart flutter when a very tall, dark masculine figure opened her front door.  But it was only Irish Taylor, her father's brilliant foreman.  His craggy face was kind as he nodded at her.

            Before the baby, Ritz would have said she wished she'd never met Roque Moya Blackstone.  Roque, biker, cowboy, horseman, womanizer.  Roque, who was way too sexy whether he covered his black hair with a red bandanna and rode his bike or whether he wore his Stetson and sat astride a prized stallion.                                 

            Daddy had always said he was the reason her life had gone wrong.  She had learned a long time ago that nothing was as simple or as black and white as Daddy had said.

            Sometimes Ritz wondered what would have happened it she hadn't seen him dance by firelight on that long-ago summer night.  If some shiftless cowboy hadn't left the Blackstone Ranch gate open the next afternoon.  What if the Kellers and the Blackstones hadn't been feuding?  And what if Jet hadn't given into temptation and locked Ritz inside "the forbidden kingdom?"

            What if Jet hadn't seen Roque naked and stolen his clothes?  What if Ritz hadn't been so curious?  What if Roque hadn't been so stormily virile and turned-on all the time?

            What if he hadn't stolen Ritz's mare, Buttercup?

            What if he hadn't put his hands around her waist and lifted her up beside him, whispering in that sexy, velvet voice of his, "Do you want to fly?"

            But he had done all those things . . . and more.

            She'd only been fourteen.

            Too young to fall in love.

            Then he had to go and pretend to get hurt saving her and winning her heart.  She'd given him her treasured St. Jude medal, and of course, he'd refused to give it back, and ever since, she'd been caught in the tangle of his dark spell.

            Yes, looking back, Ritz could pinpoint the exact moment her life took its fatal turn.  It had been the night she'd watched Roque Blackstone dance like a savage half-naked on that beach.  The driftwood had burned like fire and gold, and she'd felt something alien and thrilling; she'd come alive and been changed . . . forever.

            And a woman is prone to look back, especially at her husband's funeral — when she's made huge mistakes, especially man mistakes, that seem to grow, and compound and haunt. Mistakes that keep on rebreaking her heart until she loses all hope of peace of mind and has no faith that she can ever get her life right — at least where men are concerned.

            But now she had his baby to think of and plan for.

            Just because she made bad choices, did that mean that her entire life was ruined?  That she couldn't be a good mother?  That she couldn't start over?  Somewhere far away from Texas, the scandals of her marriage and the grandeur of the Keller name?

            One thing she knew — her heart was broken in so many pieces; it would take her a lifetime to pick them all up.  She was through with men, marriage, wealth, and fame.

            Most of all, she was through with Roque Blackstone, the man who had shattered her as a girl and had the power to shatter her again.

            If she could just get through the funeral, she would finally be free to make her own choices.

            Until then she had to pretend.

            Her lavish ballroom with its elaborate commode, twin fauteuils, and nineteenth century bronzes was so redolent with the cloying sweetness of white roses, Ritz almost gagged.  Tables of crab, shrimp, and salmon were piled high.  Unthinking, she caressed her stomach protectively.

            The organist was playing "Amazing Grace."  The newspaper obituary had been long and impressive.  Everything about the grand River Oaks funeral, even his young widow in black, about whom so much had been written, was just as the deceased had planned it — solemn, stately, regal, in a word — perfect.

            As outwardly perfect as the sham that had passed for his life.

            His mother, queen for the day in her rustling black silk and showy diamonds, was a whirlwind of decorum and efficiency mincing from room to room in that tippy-toed gait that made Ritz want to scream.  Mother Evans smile was even more fixed and pompous than Josh's had been in his coffin, and she greeted everyone, except Ritz, with moist eyes and a soft, saccharine voice.  From time to time she even brushed a nonexistent tear from her well-powdered, parchment cheek.

            No wonder Josh had been unable to love Ritz or make her feel as Roque had.  But there was no going back, no changing Josh . . . or his mother.  Or herself.

            Plump old Socorro knew the truth and sympathized.  But then she had always had a soft spot for Roque.

            Poor Socorro.  Usually, she spent her days ironing upstairs where she could smoke and hide out and watch her telenovelas.  Today Mother Evans had Socorro racing in and out of the kitchen with heavily laden trays.

            The good reverend could not seem to stop with the Bible verses, either.

            Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life . . . Look at the birds of the air . . . consider the lilies of the field.

            One more verse and Ritz was afraid she'd pop out of her black sheath.

            Grief?  Nerves?  Guilt?  Terror?

            All of the above.

            But it was her fear of Roque that turned her fingers into claws around her china coffee cup and made her head drum.

            What if he did come?

            Not much longer . . . and this day that Josh had so painstakingly planned would be over.  Ritz had tried to talk him into a simple ceremony, but he'd selected his favorite Armani suit, saying he wanted his embalmed body to rest in state in the grand salon of their mansion for the whole day before the funeral.

            So, all of yesterday, legions of Houston dignitaries had trooped by his polished casket to tell Ritz how wonderful he looked and how exhausted she appeared, poor dear.  She's stood there, enduring hugs and murmured condolences, feeling sicker and sicker, until Josh's owlish, gray face in the casket had started to spin, and she'd fainted.

            The dead roses along with the aroma of smoked salmon were really getting to her.  So, she moved out of the dining room.  Oh, how she longed to breathe fresh air — to never ever come back inside this ostentatious house that she couldn't afford on six acres in Houston's posh heart.

            "She's shameless . . . all that bleached yellow hair," pronounced her busybody neighbor, Mrs. Beasley to Mother Evans as Ritz glided past them.

            The scarlet poppy on Mrs. B's big black hat swished back and forth like a conductor's wand.

            Mother Evans fixed Ritz with a chilly smile.

            "I live next door."  The old lady's voice lowered to a whisper, assured that everybody including Mother Evans would stop talking and listen.  "The things that have gone on in this house since he married her — "

            Ritz stared at a vase of roses on the fabulous commode by Riesener that Josh had found in Paris.

            "--all those young boys --"

            When?  Oh when would it ever be over?

            One minute Mrs. Beasley was queen of her gossipy little clique.

            " — never loved your poor boy — "

            But I thought I did.

            "-- high school sweethearts — "

            Socorro let out a muffled cry.  The front door slammed open, and a gust of hot, humid air swirled inside along with the tall, lean man clad in black leather.

            Noses high in the air, everybody turned to gape at the biker with the windburned face, who stood framed in the rectangular white glare.

            Only when he knew he had their attention did he shut the door, and so quietly, his gentleness was hostile.  Like a magnet, he pulled every well-bred woman's gaze into his bad-boy orbit.

            "Roque . . . . "

            A green wave of nausea hit Ritz.  Her heart began to pound like a rabbit's.  She didn't know whether to freeze or run.

            It wasn't him —

            Who else had high cheekbones that looked like they'd been hacked with blades?  Who else would show up at a funeral with a red bandanna tied like a skullcap over his head to hold back blue-black hair that was way too long?  Who else would sport a silver stud in his earlobe? .  in River Oaks . . .  on such a sacred day?

            Her head buzzed.

            Or show so little respect to a man of Josh's stature as to wear a black leather jacket with a four-inch rip at the shoulder?

            Roque's black-lashed, green eyes drilled Ritz.  The frank sexuality in them turned her insides to water as they had that first night when he'd danced so wildly before that leaping fire.

           

            She fought to look anywhere but at him.

            Impossible.

            She winced and had to hold herself in check when she saw that there was blood on his cheek and that he was limping a little.

            A dozen voices interrupted Mrs. B.

            "What's Blackstone doing here?"  Irish, Ritz's father's foreman, demanded almost savagely.

            Roque's green eyes never left her.

            Ritz felt as if electric currents vibrated in the air around her.

            When she stiffened, the lines under his eyes tightened imperceptibly.

            His skin was so brown.  Everybody else was so white.

            "Excuse me," she whispered to no one in particular, desperate to get away from him and everybody else's prying eyes.

            A waiter held up a platter of lobster and pink salmon on a bed of parsley and offered to make her a plate.  The fish odor made her throat go dry.  Hot little salty drops popped out on her forehead.

            She couldn't breathe.  "No . . . please . . . just . . . take it . . . back to the kitchen . . .  anywhere . . ."

            She fought the urge to be sick and then bent double.

            The last thing she saw was Roque.  His swarthy, piratical face went white and his green eyes brightened with fierce concern.  Then he rushed to help her.

            "No . . . no . . . ."

            Tight spasms sent the contents of her stomach roiling up her throat.

            The shock of his warm fingers at her waist made her forget everything else.

            "Don't touch me!"

            "You okay?" he rasped.

            Her cup and saucer smashed to the floor.

            She tried to stand up and spin free of him, but his hand locked on her arm like a vise.

            She expected his nastiest, most mocking smile.

            The tenderness in his rough voice took her breath away as he dabbed her mouth with his bandanna.  His black hair fell in wild disarray around his shoulders.

            "Are you going to have a baby?"  His voice was raw; his glittering eyes stark and naked.

            No.  No.  Just say no.

            But she couldn't.  All the lies she should have shouted died in her throat.

            "So it's mine."  Again, his eyes met hers squarely, honestly.

            "No.  Of course not."  She fought to loosen herself from his bruising grip.

            "You owe me the truth — this time!"

            Still, she could only stand there, mute, agonized.

            Finally, she pushed against his chest, but the more she fought, the more like steel his hands and arms and huge body became.  She kicked at him and lost her balance, the leather sole of her shoe sliding on the polished floor.

            Her hand hit the parquet floor before he could catch her.  A sliver of china slashed her arm.  Blood pooled.

            Somebody screamed.

            A woman.

            Surely not her.

            Then why was everybody staring at her?  And why was Roque's brown face spinning like a carve god's in the midst of Josh's shocked friends?

            "I've got you now," he said gently.  "You've cut yourself."

            Livid red dribbled from her arm onto his brown hand then to the white china chips.  He lifted her to her feet.

            Jet and Irish, dark figures in black, raced through the fascinated throng of mourners.

            "-- darling!  Your coffee cup — " Somehow Mother Evans and Irish deftly pushed Roque aside.

            "-- shattered it!" Jet said.

            "Your arm!  Oh, dear!"  Mother Evans began to fuss.  "And you were sick again . . .  Your dress!"

            "I don't think it's broken," Irish said, examining her arm, and although he was a cowboy, he would be the one to know.

            Jet took over.  "Socorro, get me a towel."

            And still, Mrs. Beasley couldn't stop.

            "-- Josh was a gardener, grew all his own roses.  She cut every one for the funeral, and then forgot to put them in water and let them wither — "

            " — too bad she couldn't be faithful — "

            " — big money — "

            " — hers.  Keller money, you know — "

            " — thought they cut her off — "

            Through it all, Roque stared at her.  Only at her. 

            " — all that messy yellow hair.  She doesn't look like a border saint to me — "

            " — there's too many of them — "

            " — overrunning us — "

            " — her work at the colonias was just her excuse to get away from Josh so she could sleep with all those other men — "

            Roque's aquiline features hardened.

            Her own nerves clamored as if every cell in her being was tuned to him.  Only to him.

            She was pregnant . . . with his child . . . again.  And he knew it.

            He wasn't a powerless boy from Mexico, the despised son of his evil rich white father anymore.

            Jet had the towel around Ritz' arm now and was squeezing.  "It's just a scratch.  You'll be fine in a minute."

            "Thank you," Ritz whispered brokenly.  "I — I think I need to go upstairs and lie down."

            " — didn't shed a single tear at the wake," came the unstoppable Mrs. Beasley.

            "I did, too!"  Ritz whispered.  "When I was chopping onions . . .  for Mother Evans caviar."

            Just then Roque's dark, masculine eyebrow flicked upward in sardonic mockery.

            "Shh," Jet said.

            "I promised Josh I would cry.  That's why I chopped . . . ."

            "It doesn't matter," Jet said, pulling her gently away from the others.

            "No . . . not that way . . . " she pleaded when Roque stepped in front of them.

            But it was already too late.

            "I'll take it from here," Roque said, blocking their path.  His jaw was square, his fierce eyes dark emerald.  The cut of his cheek blazed.

            Everybody held their breath, but anyone who expected a scene was disappointed.  Jet stepped meekly aside.  And Ritz let herself be led by Roque Blackstone upstairs to her bedroom.

            Not even Irish attempted to rescue her.

            The minute they were in her room Roque closed the door, his eyes zeroing in on the pile of slashed strips of black fabric scattered messily all over the floor and then on her open suitcases spread across her bed.

            Ritz went white.  Why hadn't she thought?  She should have directed him to any other room.  But she'd been too upset to think.

            Roque knelt and lifted a scrap of black wool and then another of silk and waggled them beneath her nose.  "What the hell is going on?"

            "Nothing."  She took a breath.  "While you amuse yourself, I'll go brush my teeth."

            Her cheeks heated.  "Give those to me!"  When she tried to snatch her panties from him, he held on, stretching the elastic.

            "Nice panties," he said.  "Fit for a princess."  He let them go with a snap.

            "I — I . . .  went to the closet to hunt for a black dress . . . to wear today," she began in a rush, wadding her panties, throwing them at her suitcase.

            "Really?" he drawled even as he absorbed every detail about her, every nuance of expression — reading her.

            She turned her back on him and headed to the bathroom to brush her teeth.  She wasn't about to tell him she'd been like a crazy woman last night.  That suddenly she'd been snipping, first her best black silk, then her favorite black wool jersey, not that she could have worn anything that hot today.

            She'd cut and torn — until she had piles of tiny squares that she couldn't cut any smaller.  Even then she'd started shredding the remnants.

            Hours later, Jet, who was a fancy lawyer now, had found her in the middle of the bed, yanking at the tangles of black threads like a madwoman.

            "What are you doing?"

            "I can't cry and I'm supposed to wear black.  Only I cut up my best black dresses," Ritz had said.  "Even my slinkiest black nightgown."

            "Well, you wouldn't want to wear a slinky nightgown to a funeral."

            Ritz had started laughing and hadn't been able to stop.

            When Ritz came out of the bathroom, Roque's face was hard.  Every muscle in his body was like a coiled spring.  No, Ritz couldn't tell him any of that.

            Sudden she burst out laughing just as she had last night with Jet.

            "Get a grip," he said quietly, rushing toward her.  "It's a good thing you're packed."

            "I don't understand."

            "You're pregnant with my child."

            "No . . . ."

            "A very simple test will prove me right."

            "You wouldn't . . . ."

            His hard eyes lingered on her belly.  "I would do anything to protect my unborn child this time — even marry you."

            "I . . .  I'm never ever getting married again."

            "Oh, yes, you are.  Very soon.  to me, querida."

            "No!"  Blood pounded in her head.  This couldn't be happening!

            "Why, are you doing this . . .  You . . . you . . . don't love me . . . ."

            "You couldn't get pregnant by your fancy husband, could you?" he whispered, his low voice dangerously smooth.  "Or by any of your other lovers?  You needed a stud.  Someone you knew for sure could get you pregnant — even if I am a Mexican."

            She began backing away from him toward her bed.

            "You slept around on him, didn't you?"

            Her stiff steps were awkward, but she didn't deny what he accused her of.

            "Didn't you?"  he demanded in a harsher tone.  "I was nothing to you.  Then you went back to him so you could pass my kid off as his."

            "No . . . . "

            "How many others did you sleep with . . . before you crawled into my bed?"

            "That's not what happened and you know it."

            He grabbed her, crushing her arms as he pulled her into a tight embrace.  "Don't lie to me — ever again."

            Her breathing was rapid and uneven.

            "You still think you're the princesa and I'm the Mexican lowlife."

            She couldn't look up at him, not even when his hand lifted her chin and she felt him stripping her with his eyes.

            "You used me as a stud — Well, querida, this Mexican stallion comes with a stud fee.  And that fee is marriage . . . to me."

            "But you don't want this baby.  You just want the ranch."

            He drew a long contemptuous breath.  "Do you ever think about that little grave with all the buttercups on top of it?"

            She whitened.

            "You're not killing another baby of mine."

            His voice was so sharp and hate-filled; his words cut her like blows.

            She gasped.  "You're crazy."

            "Yes, I am," he murmured, drawing in a harsh breath as he pulled her closer.  "Kiss me and we'll seal this crazy deal."

            "What?"

            "We're going to be married.  Man and wife.  And all that that means."

            "I — I just want to be by myself.  Me.  For once.  Not somebody's wife.  Never yours!"

            "You should have thought about that before you used me to get pregnant."

            She mistrusted the look in his eyes and the hardness in his voice.  But before she could twist free, he crushed her body into his.  Even as she fought his lips covered hers.

            There was domination as well as the desire to punish in his devouring kiss.  Always before he'dbeen so gentle, so infinitely tender.

            And yet, even as his mouth ravaged hers, underneath this assault, surely this brutal stranger was Roque.  Roque whose bronzed body was made of molten flesh.  Roque, who was so fantastic and tender in bed.  Roque, who always made love to her for hours.  Roque, who turned her into a wanton.  Roque, who made her forget why their love could never be whenever he so much as touched her.

            The last time they'd made love, he'd kissed every inch of her skin from the hollow beneath her throat to the tips of her toes.

            On a shudder she nestled closer to him, opening her lips to his endlessly, inviting his tongue.  When she arched, his body tensed.  He groaned.  In the next breath, he ripped his mouth from hers.

            Always, always he made her want and ache and need.  She sighed, starved for more, so much more, and yet hating herself because she felt that way.

            "Marriage is the only way I know how to stop you," he said hoarsely, warningly, as if he despised both her and despised himself.

            "You can't be serious . . . about this.  About . . . us."

            His fathomless eyes bored into hers.  "Are you going downstairs to tell them our happy news?"

            When she hesitated, his gravelly tone grew ever more bitter with sarcasm.  "Or do want me to do it?"

            Nobody could peel their eyes off the white marble staircase.  But like any audience when the stars go offstage, Josh's mourners were getting restless.

            "— simply awful . . .  her up there . . .  all this time . . . with him— "

            " — today of all days — "

            "I really need to pick Chispa up at the groomer's before he closes.  If I leave her there too long she always potties on the front seat."

            "We can't just go . . . not without telling her goodbye.  How would that look?"

            "As if she cares about that?"

            The idle chatter caused a mad rushing in one person's ears.

            Then a door clicked open upstairs, and two tall, black-clad bodies appeared on the white marble landing beneath the glittering Murano chandelier and stood there for a long moment, waiting.

            The voices and laughter died abruptly and a brittle hush settled over the house.  Everybody, especially the observer, was impatient for the final curtain of Ritz's little farce.

            Something was dreadfully wrong.

            Blackstone's dark hand gripped Ritz's as he dragged her forward to the railing.  Her yellow hair had come loose and spilled like butter over her shoulders.  Her stricken eyes glowed like dying purple stars in a porcelain doll's face.  She was so white.  He was so dark.

            She was the perfect tragic queen.

            Beautiful.  Spellbinding.

            Even if she was heartbroken, Roque made her come alive.  She seemed ablaze.

            Had the horny bastard screwed her up there in the bedroom?  Did he think the Triple K was already his?

            Blackstone.  The name alone made the observer's flesh crawl.  But a practiced smile masked the wild hatred as well as the other dark emotions that flare so easily in the damaged soul.

            When a look of terror flashed across Ritz's face and she tried to free herself, Blackstone yanked her closer.

            His triumphant eyes roamed, meeting the observer's ever so briefly, causing as always that involuntary little shudder of fear before the rage took over.

            Had he seen what was there?

            No.  Ritz wasn't the only one who could pretend.

            The smile, the perfect facade was in place.

            Nobody suspect.  Not Ritz.  Not Moya.

            Nobody would — until the killings started again.

            Then it would be too late.

 

 

The Hot Ladies Murder Club

Chapter One

Joe Campbell’s posh law offices with their sweeping views of the high bridge, port and bay were meant to impress and intimidate. The tall ceilings, the starkly modern, ebony furniture, the blond, hardwood floors and the oriental rugs reeked of money and power and social prestige — all of which were vital to a man with Campbell’s ambitions. Not that he was thinking about anything other than the exquisite woman he was supposed to be deposing.

The case had been dull, routine, until she’d walked in. She was beautiful and sweet and warm — and scared witless of him.

This should be good. He rapped his fingers on his desk and tightened them into a fist that made his knuckles ache.

The minx had him running around in circles like a hound dog that had lost a hot scent. His ears were dragging the ground, his wet nose snuffling dirt.

Minutes before the deposition, Bob Africa, one of the partners and a former classmate at UT Law School, had strutted through his door like he owned the place — which he practically did. Bob specialized in class-action lawsuits and had just won big, having collected over two million dollars in legal fees from a cereal company for a food additive.

There hadn’t been a shred of evidence any consumer had been injured. Africa’s fee had come to $2,000 an hour. Consumers had received a coupon for a free box of cereal.

Campbell was jealous as hell.

All smiles as usual this afternoon, a triumphant Bob had slapped him on the back and ordered him to win this one — or else. Salt in the wound — after the Crocker loss.

“I went out on a limb for you, buddy. I told the other partners you just had a run of bad luck in Houston and got a rotten hand here with that medical case.”

“Thanks.” Campbell hadn’t reminded Africa that he’d been the man who’d rammed that loser Crockett case down his throat and kept the more promising cases for himself.

Bob had smiled his wolverine smile and slapped his back again. “You’re the best, buddy. But we don’t pay you to lose —”

Lose. Campbell had felt the blood rising in his face. Hell, at least Africa hadn’t reminded him about the death threats all the partners had been receiving ever since Campbell had lost the case. Hell, the incompetent quack had won. What was he so mad about? His wife, Kay, maybe? She’d made a play for Campbell, a helluva play.

Today a letter from some crackpot, who said he was praying for Campbell, had arrived. The letter was in the same loopy handwriting as the death threats. Strangely, somehow it was even scarier. Mrs. Crocker had called three times this week, too.

But it was the woman across from Campbell who had him rigid with tension. He had to beat her — or else.

Her face was damnably familiar. Her husky voice was so exquisite and raw, it tugged at Campbell on some deep, man-woman level.

He hated her for her easy power over him even as his cold lawyer’s mind told him she was a fake. This was a staged performance. There was definitely something too deliberate and practiced about her lazy, luscious drawl.

To buy time he played with his shirt cuff. He’d asked dozens of questions and had gotten nowhere. She was a liar, and if it was the last thing he did, he would expose her.

“I-I swear I knew nothing, absolutely nothing about mo-o-old in the O’Connors’ house,” she repeated for the tenth time.

I think the lady doth protest too much.

When he shot her his whitest and most engaging smile and leaned toward her as if the deposition were over, she jumped. Her lovely, long fingers and unpolished nails twisted in her lap so violently, she almost dropped the damning photographs he’d jammed into her hands a few seconds earlier.

“I-I swear… no mold,” she pleaded.

Then why won’t you look me in the eye?

Toxic mo-o-o-ld,” Campbell drawled, pleased his o lasted even longer than hers. His mocking gaze drilled her.

She shook her dark head like a true innocent and began flipping through the photographs he’d made of the black muck growing inside the walls of the O’Connors’ mansion.

“There has to be a mistake,” she whispered.

No, you little liar. No mistake.

Campbell’s long, lean form remained sprawled negligently behind his sleek, ebony desk. His beige, silk suit was expensive. So was his vivid yellow tie.

Hannah Smith, her knees together beneath her full white skirt, sat on the edge of her the black leather chair opposite him. Flanking her was the attorney from her insurance company, a mediocre, colorless little stick of a man. Hunkered low in his chair in an ill-fitting undertaker’s suit and those smudged, gold-rimmed glasses, Tom Davis looked about as dangerous as a terrified rabbit.

“No mistake,” Campbell said. “The O’Connors had to abandon their home. It’ll cost more to remediate it than they paid for it, which was a substantial sum —”

“More than a mill… But it’s not my fault!” she protested. “I was only the realtor. I thought smart lawyers like you only sued rich people . . . ”

Didn’t she get it? The deep pocket here was her insurance company. Not her. So why was sure working herself into a sweat?

“Mold was not in your clients’ disclosure statement,” he said.

“There was no mold!” Her voice shaking, she began a boring repeat of her defense.

“Maybe you didn’t realize mold is a very serious issue on the Texas Gulf.”

“Because lawyers like you have made it into a billion-dollar industry.”

“I’m supposed to be asking the questions. And you are liable —”

She opened her pretty mouth and gulped for a breath.

Hannah Smith was lying. And she wasn’t all that damn good at it either.

And yet he liked her.

This was bad.

Joe Campbell, or rather just plain Campbell, as he was known to most people, at least to those with whom he was on speaking terms, and there were fewer and fewer of those in this town since his line of work tended to alienate a lot of people, had been a trial lawyer too long not to be able to smell a liar a mile away.

He’d been screwed, glued, and tattooed by the best liars in the universe—his ex-wife and his former best friend and boss had taken him to the cleaners.

Here we go again. The pretty little con artist across from him smelled warm and sweet. And thanks to his air-conditioning register that wafted her light fragrance Campbell’s way, he was too aware of that fact.

Chanel. He frowned, shifting his long legs under his desk as another unwelcome buzz of male-woman excitement rushed through him. By now he should have boxed her in. She was scared and pretty, and he should have her on the run. And yet… she had him oddly off balance.

Her nervous fingers shuffled and reshuffled the photographs of the O’Connors’ estate. He caught glimpses of the abandoned pool, the empty hot tub, and the red brick path that wound through the straw-like remnants of formerly showy flowerbeds. Her slim graceful hands trembled so badly when she came to his damning shots of the mold, she nearly dropped the whole bunch.

“Think how those images will affect a sympathetic jury, Mrs. Smith.”

“That’s not a question,” her lawyer said. “You don’t have to answer.”

Deliberately, she licked her lips with her pink tongue. “I’m sorry Mr. O’Connor’s sick, but . . .”

Hell. She sounded sorry. A jury would believe her, too. He almost believed her. When she began talking faster and faster, swallowing, and glancing everywhere but at him, Campbell found himself studying her wide, wet lips with obsessive interest.

Sexy voice, intoxicating scent … and that delectable mouth … Everything about her seemed soft and vulnerable and likeable. She was too damned likeable. Not like him.

Suddenly Campbell wanted her to shut up and just look at him, and that scared the hell out of him. His big house was lonely and empty, his footsteps echoed when he finally made it home and climbed the stairs to his bedroom alone every night.

Was anything about her for real? Was she sucking him in … as Carol had?

Mrs. Smith was damned attractive, too damned attractive, despite that shapeless white sack that concealed her figure, despite thick, inky bangs and huge, dark glasses that masked her face. Her legs were long and shapely, her ankles slim … even though those low-heeled, stained canvas shoes did nothing for her calves.

Yes, she was pretty despite the fact that that she’d gone to a lot of trouble not to be. Why had she done that? Most women liked to add pretty to their arsenal of weapons when they went up against him or a jury. For an instant he remembered Mrs. Crocker’s slit skirts and shapely legs. She’d been built like a gymnast.

“Call me Kay,” she’d said the day Campbell had lost. “Better, call me . . . anytime.”

He’d been angry, really angry—because he’d lost. Maybe he’d taken it out on her a little. “I don’t mess around with married women.”

“So, my husband’s wrong about you,” she’d purred. “You do have a principle or two. I like that.”

“No principle. I just don’t want to get shot by a jealous husband.”

“My husband’s a good shot, too. He’s a hunter.”

“This lawsuit wasn’t personal, you know.”

“So why are you so sore you lost?

“I’m sore about a lot of things.”

Forget Kay. Concentrate on Mrs. Smith. Campbell ran a tanned hand through his jet-black hair and yawned, pretending he was bored by what Mrs. Smith was saying. Bored by her. If only he was, maybe he could concentrate on the O’Connors’ case and finish her off.

She was tall. From the moment she’d glided into his office, he’d been riveted by her exquisite lightness of being. Something sweet and vulnerable screamed look at me, love me, please. Her every gesture, her quick, nervous smiles at Tom — hell, even the frightened glances hegot both charmed and maddened him.

A jury would be equally charmed.

Then there was the way she couldn’t seem to get her breath when he got too close. She was playing the role of damsel in distress with a vengeance that should infuriate him. And yet . . . her fear felt so real and palpable, he wanted to protect her.

Damn it, he had to get her. Africa had made it clear; his ass was on the line.

If her accent was fake, he’d bet a year’s salary her black hair came out of a bottle. The harsh color was wrong for her fair complexion, the style too severe for her narrow face. He kept eyeing the thick, glossy mass, longing to undo the cheap plastic clip.

Hell, what were those white bits of dirt that clung to her bangs? What had she been doing before she’d dashed late to his office?

“If the O’Connors are so concerned, why aren’t they here today?” she finished in that velvet undertone that undid him.

“They hired me to represent them.” His voice cut like ice.

“You mean to do their dirty work?” she finished, glancing out his windows like a trapped animal.

Damn it, Campbell felt sorry for her. Then Tom put a cautionary hand over hers, and Campbell felt a wild, really scary emotion.

“What’s all that stuff in your hair?” Campbell growled, wanting to rip Tom’s hand away.

“Oh!” Her eyes flew self-consciously to his. She gulped in another big breath, and he felt like the air between them sizzled.

This was bad.

She stirred her fingers through the mess of her purse and finally plucked out an elegant, gold-framed mirror. When she saw herself, she wrinkled her nose. Quickly, she yanked at the hideous clip and shook out her long, thick hair.

When lots of little white bits showered onto his gray carpet, she smiled, revealing deep dimples, and he felt that damn buzz again. Despite a bad haircut, she was way sexier with her hair down. She studied herself in her mirror and wrinkled her nose again.

He squirmed in his leather chair. He didn’t need this.

“Bits of sheetrock,” she explained airily. Lifting her triangular chin, she shot him a pious look. “I was inspecting one of the waterfront properties I represent. For mold, Mr. Campbell.”

“Just call me Campbell . . . ”

“There was a suspicious stain on the ceiling . . . I wanted to be sure . . .”

She and Tom exchanged self-righteous glances.

“My expert didn’t find any,” she said.

Touché, Campbell thought, even as some part of him cheered for her.

Again, her hands fluttered prettily as she reclipped her hair. She didn’t wear a wedding ring. For no reason at all he longed to remove those huge glasses that hid her eyes.

Were they dazzling blue or soft, velvet brown? Or fiery black? He wanted to sweep her hair back, get a good look at her. Maybe then he’d remember where the hell he’d seen her.

Damn it. He grabbed one of the mold photographs from his own duplicate pile and forced himself to focus on his clients and their toxic mold problem.

“Paul O’Connor is in the hospital, barely able to breathe or think,” Campbell said.

“I’m so sorry he’s ill.”

You don’t give a damn about Paul, and you know it.

And yet again, her face paled, and her voice went soft with husky concern that turned Campbell to mush.

Destroy her. Unnerve her.

Campbell fumbled awkwardly with the disclosure sheets of the sales contract. Then he rustled through his list of questions he’d deliberately structured to entrap her.

Somehow he had to get this smooth-talking little actress to admit that she’d known about the mold and hadn’t disclosed it. Her shaky voice and hands meant she was highly agitated. Maybe if he got her really mad, she’d snap. He was famous for his Perry Mason moments.

“Back to this mold situation at the O’Connors',” he murmured in a tight, low tone. “It was an old house on the water . . . ”

“There was no mold.” She glanced at her watch and out the window again. “The Tylers were diligent about maintaining their home. They repaired leaks, cleaned air-conditioning ducts. Besides, we had it tested for mold.”

“By an unreliable agent.”

“Just because your man, whom you no doubt paid to lie . . . three months

later . . . ”

Tom wagged a warning finger at his client, but she was too flushed with excitement to heed him.

Campbell almost grinned when she attacked her own attorney.

“Mr. Davis, I thought you were my lawyer.”

Campbell noted that there wasn’t a hint of that lazy drawl now. Just for a second he caught a couple of syllables that sounded crisp and elite… almost foreign. East coast? No, that cut-glass accent wasn’t American.

“How can you defend this . . . this pirate?” she was saying.

“Please, Hannah . . . ”

“It’s all right, Davis. I’ve been called worse.” Campbell faked a scowl.

“A pirate . . . who . . . who cunningly plasters his handsome, ruthless face on every billboard and phone book cover his money can buy?”

Handsome? Campbell’s perverse mind got stuck on the word.

“He’s fake, pretending he’s some Robin Hood defending the poor? How can you defend such a rude, crude ambulance chaser?”

Ambulance chaser? The day of any accident, the insurance lawyers are sure there, lady! But do you criticize them?

“Mr. Campbell has repeatedly called me and threatened . . . ”

“I was merely trying to set up an appointment for this deposition,” Campbell said in the same reasonable, sympathetic tone he used to persuade juries.

“Don’t talk down to me! You have no right to sue me.”

“This is America, Mrs. Smith. Texas, America. The Wild West. Anybody can sue anybody,” Campbell whispered.

“There was no mold when I sold the O’Connors that house.”

Campbell leaned toward her, automatically straightening his bold tie. “My clients say there was.”

She sank lower in her chair and gasped in a breath.

“Slimy. Greenish.” Campbell warmed to his subject as if she were a juror. “Black. Fungus. Toxic mold. Aspergillus, to be exact. Mr. O’Connor is a very sick man. Take a look at those photographs.”

“I’m sorry if he’s sick, but Paul doesn’t have anything that a green poultice won’t fix,” she whispered.

“That’s an old joke. I won’t sit here while you disparage innocent — ”

Deliberately Campbell leaned back in his chair.

“Innocent? They’re not innocent! I am! I told you there are such things as evil homeowners who . . . ”

“Who what?” Campbell sprang forward again. “Who don’t want to be taken advantage of by realtors like you?”

She opened her mouth wide and strained to get a breath. “Homeowners, who… who get up on the roofs with hoses and pour gallons of water into cracks between the walls!”

Her words hit him like a swift punch in the gut. To cover his fear that his clients had lied and he was on the wrong side again, he sprang to his feet. “I’m more interested in evil realtors, Mrs. Smith, who misrepresent properties to make a quick sale.”

She stood up, too. “Don’t accuse me of your dirty games — ”

Campbell smiled. “And what kind of dirty games do you play, Mrs. Smith?” His sensual gaze swept her from head to toe.

What the hell did she look like naked?

A hot crimson flush stained her cheeks. With a startled gasp, she sank back down in her chair.

Buying time, he stalked around to his desk and sat down, too.

“I think you’re vile,” she whispered.

“Who, me?” he murmured. “Vile?”

“Tom told me to save these for later,” she rasped. “But I’m too furious.”

She plunged her hand into her shapeless, beige purse again and shook out three lipsticks, the gold mirror, wadded bits of paper and a photograph, which she slapped onto his desk.

“You’re not the only one with a camera! That’s your Mr. O’Connor on the roof.”

All Campbell saw were thighs to die for and masses of long golden hair.

“Wow!” he whispered, finally recognizing her. “You look way better naked than I imagined — well, half-naked.”

Naked?” When she saw the snapshot, her cheeks caught fire. “Give me that!”

“Are you trying to distract me with sex, Mrs. Smith?”

“You low down — ”

Campbell laughed appreciatively. When she tried to snatch the picture back, he held it away from her.

The subjects in the photograph were a gorgeous blonde in a thong bikini and a blond little girl in a pink playsuit. The kid was about four. But the woman —

Wow. Bombshell. Wet dream.

Incredible breasts bulged out of slippery red material, and yes, she most definitely had thighs to die for. Mother and child were patting turrets of a sandcastle. There was a big house on a tall cliff in the background. The woman was staring at the little girl with a look of utter adoration.

He looked up at Mrs. Smith and grinned like a cat that had just munched a turtle dove and found the repast delicious.

Well, now I know what you look like naked.

“I like you better blonde . . . And the less you wear, the better you look!”

With a wild guttural cry of sheer rage, she lunged for the picture.

“Wrong picture,” she said icily, when he released it.

Thrusting it back in her purse, she came up with two dog-eared photographs and slapped them onto his desk. “There!”

“I like the shot of you in a bikini better.”

“Concentrate. See that hose! Mr. O’Connor doesn’t look sick to me. I have a video of him, too, and I’m sending them to my insurance company. He deliberately created that mold to get an insurance settlement to pay for his remodeling. You’re not going to destroy my good name.”

Campbell went cold. Somehow he forced a warm smile, his best lawyer smile. “Pictures like this won’t make any difference.”

“If they don’t, it’s because the entire legal system… is bought off by corrupt, rich lawyers like you. Since I’ve been in Texas . . .”

Since you’ve been in Texas?” he repeated. He stood up, and she struggled for her next breath. “Where were you before Texas? Why did you dye . . ?”

She went absolutely still.

He stared at her hard and then let it drop. “You’re taking this lawsuit way too personally,” he murmured.

“Oh, I am, am I? Well, for your information, being sued for more money than I’ll ever make if I live to be a hundred feels personal!” She walked back to her chair and sat back down and turned to Tom. “Oh, what’s the use of even trying to talk to someone as low as he is? I can’t take any more of his questions or accusations. Not today.”

“Low . . .” How in the hell could her ridiculous insult hurt? Or was it that she’d turned to Tom, when he wanted all of her attention?

Low.

“I . . . I’ve read things about you, Mr. Campbell,” she whispered, rallying.

“Such as, Mrs. Smith?”

“You stole money, ruined your best friend’s company, and your heart-broken wife divorced you.”

“Ah, my wife . . .” Icy despair seeped through Campbell. He didn’t give a damn about his wife. He didn’t. Still, he had to clench his hand into a fist to hold onto his control.

“And I don’t blame her one bit.”

“So, you’ve researched me — ”

“She got your mansion in River Oaks — ”

As if that was what made him bitter and filled him with hate —

He remembered the way Carol had curled against his body every night and felt sweet and soft and warm during those first months of marriage.

His black eyes narrowed. He’d believed her when she’d told him she loved him. He’d adored her, worshiped her, and believed in her. For the first time in his life, he’d almost felt . . . human.

“You had to leave Houston because you’re so corrupt people there despise you. Your best friend’s wife killed herself because of — ”

Campbell’s face turned to stone. His mouth tasted like ashes. “Is that so? Do go on?”

“You . . . why, you’re such a terrible father your son won’t have anything to do with you.”

His son. Every nerve in his body buzzed.

“And you’re such a good mother,” he murmured so cuttingly she gulped in a breath.

“The state even tried to disbar you because you are such a bad lawyer. You . . . you solicited clients improperly after that awful two plane collision in east Texas where those little children — ”

“You don’t know a damn thing about me!” he shouted, banging his fist on his desk. “I’m not on trial. I’m deposing you.”

Davis stared wide-eyed. It was Campbell’s turn to gulp in a savage breath. If it were the last thing he did, Campbell had to get control of this exchange and finish her and her wimp of an attorney once and for all.

“One corrupt judge tried to have me disbarred. And failed, Mrs. Smith. Just as you will fail, if you fight me with these ridiculous, rigged photographs.” Getting up, he tore her pictures in two.

She stood up, too. She was tall, but he was taller. When she shuddered, he realized his massive size intimidated her. Good. Using his body as a weapon, he moved closer.

“I-I’ve got more,” she whispered, backing away from him.

“So do I,” he thundered.

“And . . . and they aren’t rigged. I’m not like you. I wouldn’t rig—“ She tore his pictures into zillions of pieces and tossed them onto his carpet. She was almost to the door. “Goodbye, Mr. Campbell.”

“I’m not finished with you yet. You think I don’t know about you? Well, I do. I’ve done my research, too!”

She paled.

“Everything about you is a damned lie, Mrs. Smith.” He backed her against the door. “Where the hell is Mr. Smith? Or is there a Mr. Smith? What’s your real name, honey?”

“Please . . . I-I’m sorry . . . I shouldn’t have said . . . any of those horrible, personal things. I-I was upset.”

Her apology seemed sincere. She was white and shaking, cowering from him, but he was too furious now to care.

“Too bad you got personal.” His mouth thinned. “I intend to win this, Mrs. Smith.” He had to win this. Africa, the ruthless son-of-a-bitch had said so. “Now I’m more determined than ever to expose you — ”

He ripped her sunglasses off.

Her eyes were blue. Huge vivid irises were ringed with inky black lashes. She looked young and vulnerable and very scared — of him.

“Who are you really?” he rasped.

“You’re the last man I’d ever tell,” she whispered.

Spunk. He liked her spunk. And those thighs she had. She’d looked so loving in that picture.

Relationships. He was no damn good at relationships. And even if he was, he and she were off to a bad start.

With a shaking hand she grabbed her glasses and jammed them clumsily back on her narrow, white face. “Please . . . Just let me go . . .”

When he grabbed her hand, it was as cold as ice. With his huge body, he drew her toward him and blocked the door.

“What are you so afraid of . . . besides me?” he whispered.

He had the strangest compulsion to reach for her, but he knew that would only scare her more. With a curt nod, he stepped aside.

As if she considered him some sort of devil, she crossed herself and ran.

Campbell sank back into his chair, exhausted. He loosened his collar and his bright, yellow tie.

When Campbell heard Tom reassuring her outside in the hall, his mood blackened, and he swiped his arm across his desk, knocking all the papers and files that dealt with the O’Connor lawsuit onto the floor.

Maybe she was a liar, but the O’Connors had lied to him, too. Clients had a bad habit of telling their lawyers only one side of a story — their side.

He opened a lower desk drawer and took out the bottle of Glenlivet he kept hidden there. Hating himself, he took a quick pull. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He kept seeing that picture of her. She’d been smiling at that kid so sweetly, and he couldn’t forget her thighs.

He’d better forget them. His job was to search and destroy — to expose Mrs. Smith, to do whatever he had to do to hurt her, to win for the O’Connors.

The thought of hurting so much as a single fake hair on her inky head caused a sick, queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Who the hell was she?

Whoever she was, it was his job to find out and destroy her.

He rapped his fingers on his desk. With some difficulty he squashed his guilt and dialed Chuck.

The detective picked up on the fourth ring and sounded grumpy and half-stoned. “Yeah — ”

“How’s it going?” Campbell began, really cringing now at the thought of siccing his old pal, The Charger, on the frightened Mrs. Smith.

Chuck groaned or, rather, bellowed in the middle of a yawn and some other noisy, repulsive body function, “What the hell time is it anyway?”

“What the hell’s wrong with you? I know not to call you ‘til noon — ”

“Ooh . . . ” Chuck paused. “Bad night.” Another groan that pierced Campbell’s eardrum. “Hangover. Vicious little hammers pounding in my brain.

Not to mention . . . ”

“What’d you do —?”

“Got into a little . . . er . . . altercation . . .” The Charger let the statement hang.

“You got drunk again and picked a fight — ”

“No, man, this bastard insulted my bike. I took serious issue. Nobody says shit like that about The Charger’s bike. The wimp was wearing steel-toed boots, and he had more friends than I did. They had chains. Every muscle in my body feels like he kicked it. I’ve got a black eye that’s as purple as a plum and a tooth that’s hanging by a pink thread.”

“Your big mouth is going to be the end of you yet.” Campbell talked tough, but he felt affection. “Got something I want you to check out. A lady.” He told him everything he knew about Hannah Smith. He finished by saying he’d have Muriel fax key information from her file.

“What’s she done?”

“Just find out who she really is — ASAP. And no rough stuff.”

Chuck was six feet four inches, three hundred pounds of flab and muscle. Just a glance at The Charger, and the average Joe Blow thought—thug, if not worse things. He had massive arms, shoulder-length red hair, a gold loop in his right ear and a beer belly with a death head tattooed on it. He rode a Harley, which was as immaculate as he was unkempt. Not that he was as tough as he looked.

The Charger had strong convictions, which got stronger when he was drunk and forgot he was a coward. He’d been on the wrong side of trouble a time or two. Campbell had bailed him out more times than he could count. Nevertheless, after years of brawling, The Charger had found a niche of sorts. He was a top-notch detective and a whiz on the computer, not that he let on to any of his biker buddies.

“Hannah Smith, huh. Mystery lady? No rough stuff? You got the hots for this mama or something?”

Campbell suppressed a vision of her in the bikini. “Just find out who she is. And don’t let her see you. She’s scared of her own shadow. One whiff of you . . . and she’d run like a rabbit.”

“You do have the hots — .” The Charger laughed.

“Scare the hell out of her if you want to for all I care!” Campbell slammed the phone down and ordered pizza. He did not give a damn about Mrs. Smith. He didn’t.

Speaking of the hots, Muriel came in and told him Mrs. Crocker had called four more times.

“Call her back. Tell her I’m gone for the day.”

Shuffling through the stacked files on his desk, he saw the name, Guy James, on one of the labels and remembered he was supposed to make a decision as to whether or not to hire the kid as a law clerk. The kid was taking a year off from law school because his little brother was sick and getting sicker. Guy was raw and young and smart. He’d needed a job so badly he’d really pressed Campbell.

Impressed as Campbell was by the kid, he was in no mood to call him. Later.

Shoving James’s file aside, he eyed the rest of the stacked files and wondered how much he could get done if he worked until midnight. No reason to go home; there was nobody there. He was opening the top folder on his stack when Bob Africa buzzed him.

“I want to know how the deposition went. My office. Ten minutes? Okay?”

Not okay.

“Sure.” Campbell’s low voice was mild, but he spoke through his teeth and slammed the folder shut. Then he threw things.

Hell.
 

 

The Girl With The Golden Spurs

Prologue

Smart Cowboy Sayings

Just ‘cause trouble comes visiting doesn’t mean you have to offer it a place to sit down.

 

The devil had dealt from the bottom of the deck one time too many.

An eye for an eye, the Bible said. Or at least Cole Knight had heard somewhere the good book said something like that. To tell the truth, he wasn't much of a Biblical scholar. But he loved God, he loved the hot, thorny land under his boots that by all rights should have been his, and he loved his family – in that order. He was willing to die for them, too.

Maybe that was overstating the case. In fact, Cole Knight wasn't much of anything. Wasn't likely to be, either. Not if Caesar Kemble and his bunch had their way.

But where was it written you couldn't kill a man on the same day you buried your good for nothin' father and set things right?  Especially if that man was the cause of your old man's ruin? And yours, too?

Hell, it was about time somebody stood up and demanded justice. The Knights had as much right – more right – as the Kembles to be here.

Cole Knight belonged here. Trouble was, he didn't own a single acre. The Kembles had stripped him to the bone.

The feud between the Kembles and the Knights went back for more than a hundred and forty years. It had all begun when the first Caesar Kemble, the original founder of the Golden Spurs Ranch, had died without a will, and his son Johnny Kemble, had cheated his adopted sister, Carolina Knight, out of most of her share. The Knights were direct descendants of Carolina Knight, whose biological father, Horatio Knight, had been a partner of the original Caesar Kemble. When Horatio and his wife had been killed in an Indian raid, Caesar had adopted their orphaned daughter.

As if being cheated hadn't been bad enough, four more generations of Kembles had continued to cheat and collude and steal even more land from the Knights. Not that the Knights were saints. Still, the Knights' vast holdings, which had once been even bigger than the Kembles', had shrunk to a miserable fifty thousand acres. Then worst of all, not long ago, Cole's father had lost those last fifty thousand acres in a card game.

Thus, Black Oaks had faded into oblivion, while the Golden Spurs had become an international agribusiness corporation, with interests in the Thoroughbred horse industry, the oil and gas industry, cattle ranching, recreational game hunting and farming. The Golden Spurs developed cattle reeds, improved horse breeds and participated in vital environmental research. The Kembles owned hundreds of thousands of acres and mineral rights to vast oil and gas reserves and were Texas royalty, while the Knights were dirt.

Cole had already been to the barn to saddle Dr. Pepper. No sooner had Sally McCallie, the last hypocritical mourner, waddled out of the dilapidated ranch house than Cole was out of his sticky, black wool suit and into his jeans and boots. A few seconds later his long, lean body was stomping down the back stairs into the sweltering, late July heat, and the rickety screen door was banging shut behind him.

There was finality in that summertime sound. Thrusting his rifle into his worn scabbard, he seized the reins and threw himself onto Dr. Pepper. His daddy was dead, his bloated face as gray and nasty under the waxy makeup as wet ash, and Cole's own unhappy boyhood was over. 

It was just as well. Not that he had much to show for it. He'd had to quit college after his older brother, Shanghai, who'd been putting him through school, had unearthed some incriminating original bank documents and journals, which proved Carolina had been swindled. When Shanghai had threatened to sue the Kembles, Caesar had run him off, or so people had thought. His disappearance was something of a mystery. Shanghai had left in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye. Without Shanghai's help and with an ailing father to support, Cole hadn't had money to pay tuition, much less the time to spend on school.

Twenty-four and broke, Cole was the last of the line and goingnowhere. At least that's what the locals thought. Like a lot of young men, he seethed with ambition and the desire to set things right. He wanted the ranch back, not just the fifty thousand acres, but the rest of it, and there was nothing he wouldn't do to get it.

Too bad he took after his old man, local folk said. Too bad his brother, Shanghai, who'd shown such promise as a rancher, had turned out to be as sorry as the rest of the Knights when he'd abandoned his dying father. 

Cole felt almost good riding toward the immense Golden Spurs Ranch. Finally he was doing something about the crimes of the past and present that had made his soul fester. Partly he felt better because he couldn't get on a horse without relaxing a little. Cowboying had been born in him. It was as natural to him as breathing, eating and chasing pretty girls.

For the past three years, Cole had wanted one thing – to get even with Caesar Kemble for cheating his daddy out of what was left of their ranch and for running his brother off. Those acres weren't just land to Cole. They'd been part of him. He'd dreamed of ranching them with his brother someday.

Not that his daddy had given much of a damn that the last of the land that had once been part of their legendary ranch had been lost.

"Leave it be, boy," his daddy had said after Cole had found out the ranch was gone. "It was my ranch, not yours. Maybe Caesar and me was both drunk as a pair of coons in a horse trough filled with whiskey, but Kemble won Black Oaks fair and square with that royal flush."

"The hell he did, Daddy. The hell he did. You were drunk because he got you drunk. Caesar Kemble knew exactly what he was doing. What kind of fool plays poker drunk?"

"I'm not like you, boy. I play poker for fun." But his old man's explanation didn't mollify Cole.

"Black Oaks wasn't just yours. You didn't have the right to gamble it away. It was mine and Shanghai's."

"Well, it's gone just the same, boy. You can't rewrite history. You're a loser, born to a loser, brother of a loser. History is always written by the winners."

"I swear – if it's the last thing I ever do, I'll get Black Oaks back – all of it."

"You'll get yourself killed if you mess with Caesar Kemble. That's what you'll do. My father was a hothead like you, and he went over to have it out with the Kembles and vanished into thin air. Don't get yourself murdered, boy, or run off, like Shanghai did."

"As if you care – "

His easygoing daddy hadn't cared much about anything other than partying and getting drunk. With his Stetson low over his dark brow and longish black hair, Cole followed a well-worn dirt pathway through sandy pastures choked by huisache, ebony and mesquite. Dr. Pepper trotted for at least a mile before Cole's heart quickened when he saw the billowing dust from the herd rising above a stand of low trees like yellow smoke to dirty the sky.

The vaqueros and Kemble's sons, who worked for The Golden Spurs, had been gathering the herd for several days in the dense thickets that had once belonged to the Knights. Rich as he was, Caesar, who like Cole, loved cowboying more than he loved anything – including cheating at cards – would be out there with his men and sons. Cole hoped to catch him alone in some deep and thorny thicket and have it out with him once and for all.

Yes, sirree, that's just what he hoped until he saw Lizzy Kemble through the dense brush. Somehow the sight of the slim, uncertain girl on the tall, black gelding, struggling to keep up with the vaqueros and her younger, more able brothers, cousins and sister, stopped him cold.

Lizzy was fair-skinned and didn't look like the rest of her family, who were a big-boned, tanned, muscular bunch – a bullying bunch, who thought they were kings, who lorded it over everybody else in the four counties their ranch covered.

The spirited horse was too much for her, and she knew it. Her spine was stiff with fear. Anybody could see that. Her hands even shook. She was covered with dirt from head to toe, and her hat was flat as a pancake on one side, which meant she'd already taken a tumble or two.

She might have seemed laughable to him if her eyes weren't so big and her pretty, heart-shaped face so white. She looked scared to death and vulnerable, too. Sensing her fear, the gelding was stamping the ground edgily, just itching for trouble.

Cole shook his head, ashamed for the girl and yet worried about her, too. What the hell was wrong with him? He should be glad Caesar Kemble's teenage daughter was such a miserable failure as a cowgirl.

He had a mission. He should forget her, but Cole couldn't stop watching her, his gaze fixing on her cute butt in those skintight jeans and then on the long, platinum, mud-caked braid that swung down her back.

Not bad for jailbait.

His former glimpses of her in town hadn't done her justice. She'd grown up some since then, gotten herself a woman's soft, curvaceous body and a woman's vulnerability that appealed to him, much as he would have preferred to despise everything about her. It didn't matter that she was a Kemble, nor that the Kembles had been swindling the Knights for more than a hundred years. Something about her big eyes made him feel powerful and want to protect her.

He forgot Caesar and concentrated on the girl, who didn't seem like she fit with her clan at all. She was Caesar's favorite, and despite the fact she seemed the least suited to ranch life, the bastard wanted to make her his heir. All of a sudden Cole's quest for revenge looked like it might take a much sweeter path than the one he'd originally intended.

But then that's how life is. You think you're fixed on where you're going and how you'll get there – then you come to a tempting fork in the road that shows you a much sweeter path.

Lizzy Kemble, who was seventeen, had more important things to do than ride a horse all day long in this godforsaken, hot, thorny country – even if it was her family's immense ranch. And not on just any horse – Pájaro!

Why had Daddy insisted she could ride? The horse had a bad reputation. Why did Daddy always have to challenge her?

"Challenges build character, girl."

Daddy had the sensitivity of a bulldozer. You'd better do what he said or get out of his way.

Lizzy Kemble was tired, bored, saddle sore, sunburned and scared to death she'd fall off again. Not to mention her imagination was running wild. Every time she got lost in a thicket, she conjured some wild bandit up from Mexico or a drug runner lurking behind every bush, just waiting to snatch her.

She wished she was home talking on the phone or reading a book. Why couldn't she have been born to a normal city family who thought it was natural to hang out in malls?

Indeed she wished she was anywhere except on this monster called Pájaro, getting her fair skin burned to a crisp and scratched up on thorns while she choked on dust and horse flies. Not to mention the bruises on her bottom. Pájaro had thrown her twice already.

She was thinking that was a bad name for a horse because it meant bird in Spanish, and the last thing Lizzy, who'd been run away with before, needed was another horse that could fly.

The herd was deep in these horrible thickets made of thorns and cactus. She'd never been on this particular division of the ranch, and she hoped she'd never set foot on it again. Because the land here was too wild and rugged for pens or helicopters; the cattle simply melted into the thickets. Yes, Black Oaks was the only division where a real, old-fashioned roundup was still necessary.

If she had to do this, oh, how she wished she were on her gentle mare, Betsy! But Betsy had gone lame, so here she was trying to stay on this black monster with a wide chest and shiny-muscled back, whose hooves tapped so lightly over the earth, she was gut sure that at any moment he would bolt or fly.

The thicket grew denser, and Lizzy strained to find her daddy's sweat-stained, battered Stetson bobbing above the bawling herd. She saw Uncle B.B. riding tall, as handsome as a prince. Much as Lizzy wished she could give up and go home, she couldn't. Not with her black-haired brothers, Hawk and Walker, and her sister, Mia, who was a natural born cowgirl if ever there was one, making bets about the exact hour Lizzy would chicken out.

She was used to people regarding her with secretive, speculative glances when they thought she wasn't watching. She

supposed they did so because everybody – her siblings, her aunts and uncles, even her mother – was jealous of her since she was Daddy's favorite. She hated the way her father's favoritism caused her problems on every level.

Hawk had said he'd give her an hour in the heat and thorns at best; Mia had said two. When Lizzy had heard Walker and her cousin, Sam – who never laughed at her – laughing, too, she'd made a bet of her own that she'd make it the whole day, even if every second of it was torture. Hawk and Mia had really smirked at her then, which was why

she had to stick it out.

She'd show Hawk and Mia and Daddy, too. She'd show everybody, even Mother, who took such pride in Mia – she'd show them she was a true Kemble, if it killed her!

But even though she was Daddy's favorite, she didn't feel like a Kemble, and she never had. She often felt she'd been born into the wrong family.

On the Golden Spurs, taking part in roundup was a sacred family tradition. Every family member was expected to participate alongside the hands. Even Aunt Nanette flew in from Montana to help work cattle and prepare the camp lunch. Of course, the lunch was always fancier than their normal fare when bossy, stylish Aunt Nanette took

charge. She hired half a dozen caterers and had them flown in by private jet from Dallas.

For a hundred and forty years, Kembles had been working this land. They'd endured bandit raids, Union soldiers, drought, the Depression, inheritance taxes and now, in the twenty-first century, family dissension and constant lawsuits. They'd come close to selling out and giving up on the ranch dozens of times. Then oil and gas had been discovered, and there was too much at stake to sell out.

"As long as the family sticks together, the ranch will survive," was the family motto.

Being a Kemble was like being part of a football team or being a believer in a cult religion, or maybe it was worse, more like the Mafia, because it was family. There was a do or die feel to being a Kemble. You were supposed to feel your Kembleness in your bones, to dedicate your entire life to the ranch. Or you were the worst kind of traitor.

So Lizzy felt terrible that she'd been born with this weird feeling that she didn't belong here and that she lacked the talent to ever be a rancher. This lack in herself filled her with self doubt. She wanted to please her father by becoming the perfect cowgirl more than anything, but she didn't think she ever could. As if he sensed this, her father, who was not normally intuitive, had done everything in his power to turn her into a proper Kemble.

"Keep your eye on me, honey," Daddy had said only this morning when she'd begged to stay home. "And you'll be fine."

Easier said than done. Daddy was everywhere at once.

The sun was a fat, red ball low against the horizon, but that didn't mean her daddy would order the cowboying to stop anytime soon. She was tired of the hot rivulets of wet dust running down her face and throat. More than anything, she wanted to wash her pale, curly hair so it was no longer matted with dirt and sweat. She'd been in the saddle so long, her butt felt numb, and her legs ached. Her throat was dry from all the blowing dust. She probably had chiggers, too.

Nearby a calf escaped, and Hawk waved his cowboy hat and whooped at it. There was laughter and gritos as he and his terrier, Blackie, galloped toward the squealing calf in pursuit. Lizzy jumped forward, causing Pájaro's hooves to tap skittishly.

"Easy, boy," Lizzy said. Phobic about dogs, Pájaro danced backward. Tensing, Lizzy pulled back on the reins. She hated it when horses did anything except walk in a straight line. She'd been bitten, thrown and kicked too many times to remember, and that wasn't even counting today.

It had all started on her fifth birthday when she'd begged Daddy for a doll, a beautiful Madame Alexander doll in a gorgeous velvet black dress, but he'd given her a dreadful Arabian mare named Gypsy instead. Daddy had told Lizzy the best way to make friends with the huge, snorting beast was to give her an apple. Only when she'd tiptoed fearfully up to the mare with the crescents of apple in her palm, the brute had snorted and then bitten off the tip of the little finger on Lizzy's left hand. Mia had grabbed the apple and fed the beast expertly. Not that Daddy had even noticed her

doing so.

At the plastic surgeon's, Lizzy had cried and cried about wanting a doll instead of a biting horse. Not that her daddy had had the least bit of sympathy.

"Don't be such a big crybaby, Lizzy. She knew you were afraid."

How do you not be afraid when you are?

Ever since Gypsy, Lizzy had had problem relationships, you might say, with horses and cows – with any large animal really.

But she loved her daddy. And her daddy was determined to make a cowgirl of her or kill them both trying. So, here she was, out in the blazing sun, in thorny brush country, getting herself all sore and sunburned to make her daddy proud.

"You were born to this life, honey," Daddy was constantly saying, but there was always a lack of conviction in his voice that scared Lizzy deep down and made her wonder why he was trying so hard to prove she belonged.

Even though he took her everywhere, constantly instructing her about the operation of the ranch, somehow, she never quite felt a true kinship with the Golden Spurs. It was as if her life were a puzzle, and a big piece in the middle was missing.

"Why can't I do the cowgirl stuff then?" she had asked him.

"Because you're stubborn and you've made up your mind you can't. Change your mind, and you'll change your result."

And so their discussions went, if you could call them discussions. Daddy, who never listened, always did ninety percent of the lecturing, and if she said anything, that just kept the unpleasant conversation going. 

Sometimes she made small improvements in her horsemanship. But who wouldn't have, considering how many hours had gone into her training? Sometimes she went for months without a mishap, but she always backslid.

No father ever spent more time grooming an heiress for the running of his empire. Before she'd been old enough for school, he'd carried her with him everywhere, whether on horseback or in his pickup or in the ranch's plane. He'd taken her to San Antonio to the board meetings, introducing her to everyone important, who had anything to do with the ranch. He'd taken her to feedlots, to auctions. He'd let her play at his feet when he'd worked in his office.

Sam and her siblings had begged her father to take them, but almost always, he'd insisted upon Lizzy going because ranching came so naturally to the rest of the brood. He'd taught her to shoot and to ride, but she disliked guns and horses. The other children had watched her leave with her father for her lessons or trips, their eyes narrowed and sullen with jealousy . . .

One minute Lizzy was hovering on the edge of the herd, watching her daddy, mother, her uncles, cousins, brothers and her sister do the real work while she tried to stay out of their way and endured the blistering day. Then she saw him – a real live Border bandit . . . or maybe a drug runner – lurking in the brush, staring holes through her, stripping her naked.

Just why she didn't weep or scream in terror, she'd never know. Maybe it's true what they say about curiosity killing cats.

He was half-hidden in the mesquite and granjeño and palmetto fronds. Hunkered low over his saddle, the lone cowboy drilled her with such angry, laser-bright blue eyes she knew he was bad. Even after he realized she'd spotted him, he didn't avert his predatory gaze or smile or even bother to apologize.

No, bold as brass, his narrowed eyes roved from her face to her breasts and her thighs.

Rigid with shock and not a little fear, she glowered back at his harsh, set face.

"Who do you think you are – trespassing, spying on me?" she said, wishing for once that she was carrying a hateful gun like her daddy always advised.

"If your daddy wasn't a thief, you'd be trespassing, honey. This was Knight land for five generations."

English. He spoke English. Drawling, lazy, pure Texas English, but English. "So, you're Cole . . .”

 

Naturally she knew that Cole Knight was as bad as any bandit. Worse – if her daddy had his say.

Cole lifted his hat and nodded, his hostile, white smirk mocking her. "Pleased to meet you, darlin'." Not that he looked

pleased.

She wasn't about to say she was pleased to meet him.

He had longish black hair, dark skin and radar eyes that saw through a girl.

"I've heard all about you," she said. "You're known to have a nasty vengeful disposition. You're a gambler, too, and you've got a bad reputation with girls."

"Did your daddy tell you all that, little girl?"

She refused to give him the satisfaction of admitting it, but she felt herself get hot and guessed her blushing was telling him more than she wanted it to.

"Cole Knight is set on revenge against me, honey," her daddy had told her, and more than once.

"Why, Daddy?" she'd asked. "Oh, no reason. Just because he's an ill-natured cuss if ever there was one."

"So, you're Lizzy Kemble," the handsome, ill-natured cuss drawled lazily in that Pure Texas accent of his, bringing her

thoughts back to the present.

When he edged his mount closer to hers, she instinctively backed hers up. Again he smiled and let his hot, sinful eyes devour the length of her body, taking liberties she'd never given any man and certainly didn't want to give the insolent likes of him.

He stared until she was practically frothing with fury. Then he shot her another bold smile that made her skin really heat.

"You blush real easy, don't you, little girl? I like that."

"Well, I don't like it, and I don't like anything about you, either," she snapped.

"You barely know me."

"I know enough."

"Then why don't you run, Little Red Riding Hood?"

"Go away. Just go away!" she said. "Before somebody sees you here. "

"You've seen me. Aren't you somebody?"

Before she could stop herself, she said, "I don't count for much around here. "

He laughed at that, and some of the strain and anger left his dark face. He was handsome – too handsome for his good and for hers, too, she suddenly realized. This was bad. She wasn't as immune to his charm as she needed to be.

"I know that feeling . . . not counting for much," he said, his voice low and beguilingly gentle now as he urged his big horse to sidle closer to hers. He tipped his hat back, so that she could see his beautiful, long-lashed eyes better. "It's an awful feeling, isn't it?"

"I've got to go," she said, studying the silky length of his lashes rather too fixedly.

"You're not scared of me, now are you, little girl?"

"No! Of course not!"

"Then stay. Relax. I'm not the big bad wolf. I'm just your neighbor. Maybe it's time we got better acquainted."

She was about to say no, but Blackie charged through the brush, yapping his fool terrier head off at a rabbit that was running for his life. Panicked at the shrill barks, Pájaro reared slightly.

When the rabbit and dog sprinted toward the gelding like a pair of bullets, Lizzy screamed, and Pájaro started bucking for all he was worth.

"Keep your head, girl, and quit your screaming," Cole yelled, moving swiftly toward her.

Lizzy hollered again and again.

"Hush," Cole ordered, trying to grab her reins.

"Get away!" she yelled, slapping at his hands with them.

Then Blackie rushed under Pájaro's hooves again, and the gelding tossed his head wildly and reared. Cole grabbed the reins just as Pájaro bolted. The reins flew out of his hands, and Lizzy clutched the saddle horn and the gelding's mane and held on.

Born to fly, Pájaro's hooves pounded the earth as if ten demon terriers were chasing him straight to hell instead of one small dog. Lizzy was equally spooked. No way could she stop screaming now.

Pájaro dashed straight through thorny brush – through mesquitehuisache and granjeño, racing for the middle of the herd. Lizzy clung desperately, fighting to hang on. If she fell, she could be trampled. Behind her, she heard Cole shouting instructions, but the cattle were bawling so loudly, she couldn't make out what he was saying.

Ahead she saw a low branch, so she bent low over Pájaro's back. When he raced beneath it, thorns knocked off her hat and shredded the back of her blouse. Pájaro shot through a bunch of cattle, scattering them in all directions. Then he veered away from the herd back into the brush, racing at a full gallop for maybe five minutes.

Her heart was thudding in terror, but still she held on. If anything, the monster speeded up. The man on the horse behind them seemed to be catching up, which made Pájaro even wilder to outrun them.

Tightening her grip on the saddle horn and the coarse hair of Pájaro's mane, somehow she endured the wild, thundering chase. Suddenly Cole and his horse were racing right beside her.

"Let go!" a hard voice yelled. "I've got you."

Let go? Was he crazy?

Even when she felt Cole's powerful arm around her waist, her knees gripped Pájaro's flanks and she held onto the saddle horn for dear life. But her strength was nothing compared to Cole's, who yanked her off with seeming ease.

Her hands were ripped off the saddle horn, and for a fleeting horrible second she was airborne between the two flyinghorses. Pájaro veered to the left, and Cole pulled her in front of him on his horse.

"I've got you," Cole repeated over and over against her ear.

Panic tightened her stomach, even as Cole pressed her tightly against his body as he reined in his mount.

"There. You're okay. You're safe," he muttered between harsh, rasping breaths as the thudding hooves slowed. "You're okay."

"I want down. I don't care if I have to walk all the way home, I don't want to ever ride a horse again."

"That's understandable," Cole said soothingly.

"This is all your fault! You shouldn't have chased me!"

"Then I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said in that same calming tone.

Her daddy would never have been so reasonable. When she fell off a horse, he always hollered or used a stern voice to order her back on.

Cole dismounted and helped her down. Still terrified, her heart continued to race as he circled her waist with his hands and lowered her from the horse. When he continued to hold her, she was so upset, she lacked the sense to push him away.

Her choked breaths erupted in burning gasps. Her knees were so wobbly she could barely stand, and her eyes burned with unshed tears. She was scared and too mortified for words.

"I-I probably look a mess."

"There now," he said. When he drew her close, she forgot her fear of him and clung. He was breathing hard and fast, just like she was. But he was holding her gently, caressing her and letting her cling.

"If you want to know, that scared the hell out of me, too," he said.

"I'm not scared."

"Then maybe you wouldn't mind loosening your hands just a little. Your fingernails are slicing little hunks out of my back."

"Oh . . . Of course . . . "

"You're so much braver than me," he whispered reassuringly. "If anything would have happened to you . . .

 A callused fingertip caressed her muddy cheek as he pulled a twig out of her dusty curls.

Never before had she been babied when she was afraid, and even though she knew she should push him away, she couldn't let go of him, even when she stopped shaking. It was simply too pleasant to be soothed and comforted by someone so strong and solid . . . and nice. 

She didn't care what Daddy had said about him. Cole Knight had saved her life, and he was so nice he wouldn't make her ever get on a horse again if she didn't want to. He had a gentle voice, and he smelled real good, of leather and spice and his own clean male sweat. He didn't seem to mind that she was so dirty.

Cole was a full head taller than she was, and the skin above the top buttons of his white shirt was way darker than hers, and his hand that slid against the bare skin of her spine where her blouse was ripped into shreds was way rougher than hers. He was old, much too old for her, probably at least twenty-two. Old, and too experienced with girls. Worst of all, her daddy hated him. Still, he . . . was nice.

Finally they both got their breath. She glanced up at him, thinking he'd release her. But he didn't, and somehow that was unbearably exciting.

She tilted her head a little to better study the mystery of Cole Knight, not that she could see much more than the sensual line of his mouth and his hard jawline. Still, he had a nice, kissable mouth. The mere thought of her lips against his caused a violent shiver to dart through her stomach.

How could she be attracted to him?

She wasn't. It was just that she'd nearly died. Cole had saved her. Maybe it was only natural to feel some temporary, affectionate bond with a man who saved your life, even if he was your natural born enemy.

Cole bent his head and stared down at her lips with the same scary, burning intensity she remembered from the thicket, only now, her heart skittered faster.

The wind was warm on her face, but his stillness and watchful silence as he held her caused butterflies to dance in her stomach. Her heart was beating so fast it felt like it might burst. She'd never come close to such a wild, dark thrill as Cole Knight, never dreamed of it even.

Until this moment, in his arms, she'd been a child. Even before he lowered his face to hers, she lifted her lips and parted them, half-hoping he would be as bad as people said and steal a kiss from her.

Instead his mouth grazed her cheek so softly she could barely feel his breath. Still his gentle kiss left her aching. Without

thinking, she wistfully traced a fingertip across her mouth. His eyes watched her, and maybe they dared her. Before she even knew what she was doing, her fingertip left her lips and traced the shape of his.

His mouth was hard and warm. Just touching him there had her body thrumming and sent heat through her like a lush, wild wave. Her other hand inched up his wide chest and flexed around his neck. Then with an unfathomable yearning that bordered on pain, she pushed her innocent body into his, until her breasts were flat against his hard chest.

"Oh, God." He groaned, sucking her fingertip inside his mouth for a moment before his black head dipped closer to hers. "You smell sweeter than the sweetest rose."

She stood on her tiptoes, hoping, aching for more. It was worth nearly getting killed on a horse – well worth it – to be here like this with him.

The moment went on and on, endlessly. Just when he might have kissed her, a horse with Lizzy's daddy on its back thundered out of the brush. When a swarm of her relatives followed, shouting and cursing, Cole pushed her away from him.

Caesar pulled his stallion up in front of her, his face purple as dust whirled around them.

"Lizzy, what in the hell are you doing?" Caesar's horse thrashed closer. "Get away from that devil, girl!"

Uncle B.B.'s handsome face was as stern as her father's. Even Aunt Nanette and her sons, Bobby Joe and Sam, who were Lizzy's age, looked grim and unforgiving.

Lizzy lifted her chin and stepped in front of Cole to shield him from her family. Not that Cole was the type to cower behind a woman, even for a second. He seized Lizzy's hand firmly in his and swung her along beside him.

Oh, how she liked his doing that. Standing beside him gave her a new confidence, and she squared her shoulders. To her surprise, her voice was quiet and level, a woman's voice. "Daddy . . . he saved my . . .

Her father's bushy, amber eyebrows snapped together as he stared at her fingers knotted in Cole's. His lips thinned as he hunched forward in his saddle.

Lizzy recognized the signs his temper was on the rise and, removing her hand from Cole's, nervously rubbed her bare arms, which were sunburned and bloody with scratches. Tatters of her blouse fluttered against her exposed rib cage.

"Daddy, he didn't hurt me. He didn't tear my blouse. Mother – he saved my life."

As if mortified by Lizzy's conduct, Joanne looked away.

Caesar's blazing eyes remained fixed on Cole. "You, boy! Yes, Knight, I'm talking to you! You get the hell off my land!"

"You stole this land, Kemble. You and yours. You drove my brother away! But you can't bully me."

"You stay away from my daughter!"

Cole smiled lazily. "Well, I'd say that's more her choice than yours, wouldn't you?"

Cole's gaze softened as he regarded her, and Lizzy felt herself melting like hard chocolate on a hot stove.

"Of all the impudent – " To his men Caesar roared, "Boys, throw this damn trespasser off my land!"

"My land!" Cole snapped.

When Kinky Hernandez, Daddy's loyal foreman, along with half a dozen vaqueros, materialized out of the thicket, Cole's expression darkened. His low voice was hoarse, almost a growl, as he reached out and squeezed Lizzy's hand one last time. "Maybe you're not calling all the shots anymore, old man."

"He's right, Daddy! Leave him alone! I'm all grown up! You can't tell him or me what – "

"Get on your horse, boy – "

Cole whistled, and his big horse trotted up to him like a trick horse in a rodeo. Before he swung his long leg over his saddle, Cole glanced down at Lizzy with another hot look and a smile that cut off her breath and filled her with unbearable joy.

He tipped his hat to her. "See ya 'round, little girl," he said in that gentle tone that mocked her father and made butterflies fly in her stomach.

"See ya," she whispered, bringing her fingertips to her lips, unable to say more, not even goodbye.

Dismounting, her mother slipped up beside her. "If you're smart, you'll forget you ever met that no-good scoundrel," she said. "No telling what he would have done to you if we hadn't – "

He would have kissed me . . . maybe. The thought made Lizzy ache.

"He's the son of thieves and ingrates – troublemakers and gamblers, the whole lot," her father asserted. "I ran his no-good brother off a few years back when he threatened to sue me, and I'll do the same to this one – if you don't leave him the hell alone." He drew in a savagebreath at Lizzy’s dazed expression.  “Take her back to the house, Joanne.  Talk some sense into her.”

Lizzy barely heard them.  She was too busy watching Cole ride away, too busy wondering if she’d ever see him again.

Even when her mother took her by the arm, she turned her head, still watching the spot where she’d glimpsed the last of his broad shoulders.

“Forget him, girl.  He’s a Knight, and you’re a Kemble.  He doesn’t want you.  He wants our land.  And he’ll do anything – he’ll use you in any way – to get it.  He wants the ranch – not you!”

Oh, if only, if only she’d listened.

 

 

The Girl With The Golden Gun

Chihuahua Desert
Northern Mexico
Be careful what you wish for.

The desert wind was blowing hard outside.  Despite the close, suffocating heat, Mia shivered convulsively as little pebbles pinged against the fuselage of the Cessna 206 like buckshot.  Her nerves were on fire.  She wasn’t sure how much longer she could stand being locked up in this tight, dark space.

What was wrong?  Had she been set up?  The plane, which sat on a dirt runway outside the tall walls of Tavio Morales’s immense outlaw compound, should have been airborne for el norte, translation – the United States – hours ago.

Mia felt faint and slightly woozy as well as nauseated from the marijuana fumes, which reminded her, of all things, of the woodsy, slightly sweet stink of skunk urine back home on the Golden Spurs Ranch.  Mopping at the sweat on her brow with her sleeve, she plucked her soaked blouse off her breasts.  Then a gust rocked the plane so hard, the towering bales shifted in the cargo hold, several of them falling on her.

When they struck her cheek, knocking her down, she screamed.  Then she clamped a hand over her mouth.  Being locked up was horrible, but being crushed was even worse.

Her heart thudding, she wriggled free of the heavy bales and sat up, straining to listen for the running footsteps of Tavio’s thugs outside or a nervous spray of machine gun fire. When nobody stomped up with assault rifles or machetes, she fought to calm down, sucking in big gulps of air.  All the deep breathing did was to make her grow even woozier from the marijuana.

In the total blackness, the thin walls of the sweltering Cessna felt like they were closing in on her.  To calm herself, she tried to imagine that she was loping bareback on one of the Golden Spurs’ endless green pastures instead of lying here trapped in this airless prison, fearing imminent suffocation.

Ever since she’d gotten locked in the attic as a child at the Golden Spurs and that big, yellow-eyed rat had bitten her, causing her to have those awful rabies shots, she’d been afraid of two things – rats and being locked up.  Then, after this year, her list of scary things had grown much longer.

Now here she was, a stowaway in a coffin like cargo hold that was as hot as a furnace and getting hotter, and all because she was so desperate to get back to her little girl and her mother and her father and the Golden Spurs.

She wanted her life back.

Would she die here instead?  Probably.  Her throat tightened.  Who would raise her little girl, Vanilla, then?  Watch her grow up?  Who was raising her now?

Her mother?  Lizzy?  Had Lizzy watched Vanilla’s first step?  Heard her say her first word?  Lizzy.  Always Lizzy.

Vanilla would be a feisty toddler now.  Was she chubby or slim?  Docile or as ornery as a terrible two could be?  What Mia wouldn’t give to know.

Everybody she loved believed she’d been dead for more than a year, which gave her an eerie, unsettling sensation.  It was as if the real her had ceased to exist.  If something went wrong in the next few hours, Tavio would probably torture and kill her, and her friends and family would never know she’d been alive all these months, thinking of them, longing for them.  Shanghai would never know how much she still loved him in spite of everything, either.  Not that he would care.

“Oh, Shanghai . . . ” As she sat in the dark, feeling lost and alone, she willed him to think of her, to remember her, at least sometimes.

The nightmarish seconds ticked by like hours.  What was Tavio waiting for?  Would Marco, his half brother, who was to be the pilot tonight, ever climb in and rev the engine?  Would they ever take off?  And what if they did?  Would DEA agents really be there to save her as Julio had promised?  Could she trust Julio?

It got so hot her skin prickled and burned as if she had a heat rash.  She had to get out of here, to feel fresh air on her face and soon, or go mad.

No.  Ever since Julio had risked his life to hide her, assuring her the plane was flying into a trap, she’d known this was her best shot at freedom.  Clenching her nails into her palm, she fought to hold onto her sanity and courage.

Somebody up there had a twisted sense of humor.  Mia wasn’t naming names, because she didn’t want to tempt fate.

I don’t want to sound whiney . . .  Yes, I know I have abandonment issues because Daddy didn’t want me and neither did Shanghai, not even when I told him I was pregnant with our baby after that night in Vegas.  Yes, I know I prayed for the next man I met to be struck by a thunderbolt and love me so much, he’d never want to let me go.

But Tavio Morales and his sick obsession?  A drug lord?

Oh…still…Mia knew it wasn’t a good sign about her sanity that she talked to herself so much.  But could a woman who’d gone through even half of what she had with Tavio and his criminal army for more than a year remain entirely sane?  She knew she was only holding on by a thread.

Fifteen months ago she’d been married to Cole Knight, having married him because he was Shanghai’s brother and for a host of other wrong-minded reasons, which was ironic because everyone in Spur County had thought Cole had married her to get her stock in the ranch.

When things had settled down, she’d had a new baby daughter, Vanilla, to raise and had been working with the horse program at the ranch.  If her life hadn’t been totally what she’d wished for, at least it had seemed all planned out and stable.

On a whim, because Daddy had said he was flying, too, she’d chosen to fly with Cole the day he’d crashed their plane into the Gulf of Mexico.  Cole was probably dead, and there had been times, hellish times, that she wished she were dead, too, like when she’d heard screams coming from that forbidden zone at the compound.  Listening to those pitiful cries, she’d suspected that Tavio’s men were torturing their prisoners before they murdered them.  From her bedroom window, she’d seen blindfolded, handcuffed people brought to those buildings against the north wall of the hacienda, and she’d never seen any of them leave.

The irony was she would have drowned if Tavio Morales, who’d just stolen a yacht, no doubt after murdering its owners, hadn’t been so high on his crack-laced cigarettes he’d seen diving into those stormy, icy forty-foot seas and plucking her to safety as an adventure.

She knew he’d removed her wet clothes that first night, that he’d wrapped her in blankets and warmed her with his own body.  Not held her or stroked her or even kissed her, because he was waiting for her to want him, too.

She loathed his attentiveness and deadly patience.  Obsessed with her, he’d nursed her back to health and brought her to his rancho in the Chihuahua Desert.  He’d treated her as kindly as a man of his sort keeping a woman prisoner knew how, she supposed.

When he’d found out she liked horses, he’d let her groom and ride his fine, Polish-Arabian stallion, Shabol.  Except for those horrible, forbidden zones, she’d been free to roam and ride Shabol, as long as she stayed within the confines of the high walls surrounding his adobe mansion.

When she’d wanted something to read, he’d brought her newspapers.  Sometimes he ranted about the stories written about himself and his operation by a certain Terence Collins, who was a liberal reporter for the Border Observer in El Paso.

Even though there was no free press in Mexico, these articles were translated and reprinted in all the Mexican papers owned by Federico Valdez, who Tavio seemed to hate with a special vengeance.  The coverage incensed Tavio, mostly because his business ran more smoothly if he kept his affairs quiet.  But also she sensed some deep personal vendetta between him and Valdez.

Tavio had threatened the reporter, and Collins had printed every threat, which added to his fame.

Tavio would turn red as soon as he saw his name in a headline or a sidebar.  “I will kill him!” he would say as he wadded up the paper.  “I will kill them both.”

“No,” Mia would plead.

“Soon!  You will see, Angelita.”

Publicity made the officials Tavio bribed look like fools who couldn’t do their jobs.  If Tavio got too much press, he explained, the federal policecomandantes would be forced to demand expensive drug busts to make themselves look good.  The United States would put pressure on the politicians in Mexico City, who might demand his imprisonment or death.  After all, individual drug lords were replaceable.

Tavio was camera shy and banned all cameras from the compound because he didn’t want recent pictures of himself in the newspapers.

But despite his problems he thought of her happiness.  When he realized how lonely she was in her room with nothing except week-old, Mexican newspapers to pore over, he’d sent his brother-in-law’s girlfriend, Delia, to be her maid.  Delia was sweet, if down-trodden, but dear Delia couldn’t be with her all the time, either, so he’d rescued a kitten his men had been about to use as target practice and had given it to her.  She’d named the poor little black cat Negra.

When Delia had confided to her about her troubles with Chito, Mia had observed Chito more closely.  He was Tavio’s second-in-command and the worst of a bad bunch.  A man of dark temperament, he was as sullen as Tavio was outgoing.  Chito always wore a grisly necklace made of real human bones.  When he gazed at Mia, he formed the habit of stroking his neck, as if to call attention to the gruesome ornament.

Tavio spent time with her himself, of course.  He liked to drive around in the desert in his truck, shooting at whatever poor creature darted in his path.  When he could, he took her with him on these outings.  They were always trailed by jeeps full of armed bodyguards.

Strangely she did not find him totally unattractive.  If he hadn’t had that scar across his right cheek where a bullet had creased him, he would have been as handsome as a movie star.  A born leader, he was ruggedly virile and charismatic.  Unlike his men, who were mostly short, dark and stockily built, Tavio was tall with light skin, thin fine features, an ink-black mustache and bright jet eyes that flashed with intelligence and intuition.

He liked people.  He paid attention to them.  He understood them.  When he turned those eyes on her, she was terrified he could read her thoughts.  Once he’d told her that when he knew a person’s weaknesses and strengths, he knew how to use them.

“People are my tools,” he’d said in Spanish, which was the language they usually spoke, for she was more fluent in his tongue than he was in hers.  “I have to know who can do what for me, no?”

And me?  Why has he toyed with me so long?

His mother was the most feared curandera, or witch, in Ciudad Juarez.  His men believed he had special powers, and that was why he could manipulate people so easily.

He was as fierce and brave as any warrior or pirate king.  He was a good father and son.  His mother had had some sort of breakdown, and he called Ciudad Juarez constantly to make sure she was being properly cared for.

He was smart, a criminal genius probably.  He ran a huge empire that reached to the highest levels in the government from this remote rancho.  Army commandants came to visit him on a regular basis.  They strutted around his mansion and barns, and he let them take whatever they wanted.  Always, they left laughing, with thick wads of pesos stuffed in the bulging pockets of their uniforms.  Politicians from Mexico City came as well.  When they drove away in the stolen trucks he’d given them, he cursed them for being so greedy.  Then he bragged to her, usually in front of an audience, that he had protection at the highest levels in Mexico.

Tavio was responsible.  He took international phone calls on his various phones.  He worked hard, sometimes day and night, as he had for the last three days and nights, taking pills and chain-smoking those crack-laced cigarettes she hated because they made him edgier and less predictable.  He was a highly sexual man, and she was increasingly unnerved by the way his eyes followed her.

He bought her beautiful clothes, including French lingerie, but she refused to wear them.  She never smiled at him, either, for fear of charming him.

He wore a gold-plated, semiautomatic in a shoulder holster and had a habit at shooting at targets that took his fancy.

Despite his kindnesses and obsession to have her, Mia never forgot that he was a vicious, notorious drug lord, who claimed to be the most powerful man in all of northern Mexico.  He said he was linked with another powerful cartel headed by Juan Garza in Columbia, and she believed him.

Terrible things happened here.  Hostages were brought here, some of them girlfriends of Tavio’s men, girls whom the men said had cheated on them.  Sometimes she heard screams and then gunshots.  She had watched men carrying heavy sacks out into the desert and feared the worst.  Tavio had touched her red hair once and told her she would be smart to love him, because there were many graves in his desert.

“Women you have loved before?” she had whispered.

He had laughed with such conceit she’d known there had been countless women before her.  She’d sensed how his awesome power had corrupted him.

“Are you threatening me?” she’d asked.

“No, my love.  But I am not a patient man.”  His soft voice had been deadly.

“You are married to Estela.”

“This is different – you and me.  For you – I send my wife away.  This makes Chito, her brother, very mad, and that is a dangerous thing to do.  I am not like other men.  I bore easily.  I live for danger.  Still, I cannot divorce my wife, the mother of my sons.  Not even for you.  I am Mexican.  Catholic.”

Mia had been amazed that he, a notorious drug lord and addict, saw himself as a religious person.  Estela had had such jealous fits of rage when he’d brought Mia home, throwing pots and pans at Tavio, that Tavio, to preserve the peace, had personally driven her and their two sons in an armed convoy of jeeps to another walled and heavily guarded mansion he owned in Piedras Negras.

If only Shanghai could ever have been half so fascinated by her as Tavio, none of this would ever have happened.  When she’d gotten pregnant and had tried to tell him, he would have listened and believed her.  She wouldn’t have thought she had to marry Cole.  She wouldn’t have been in that plane crash. 

Suddenly her eyes stung.  What was wrong with her that the men she’d wanted, first her father and then Shanghai, hadn’t loved her, and a criminal like Tavio did?

The wind was picking up.  Rocks hit the fuselage like bullets now.  Gusts made the plane shudder.  Where was Marco?

Wrapping her arms around herself and bending over, Mia swallowed.

She had to get out of here!

Suddenly she heard shouts outside.  The cockpit door was slammed open.  Then Chito yelled, “Angelita, come out!  We know you’re in there.”

Tavio didn’t know her real name because she’d been afraid to tell him.  When she’d pretended she suffered from amnesia, he’d nicknamed her Angelita.

“Tavio, he send me.  The peasant, Ramiro, he tell him hours ago where you are.  Tavio pay Ramiro.  Then he break many things with his gun.  He say to surround the plane until you get so hot you come out.  But you don’t come out, and he’s scared you’re dead.  And we have to fly.”

When she didn’t answer, Chito yelled at his men to unload the plane and drag her out.  It took them less than ten minutes to unload enough of the heavy bales to reach her.  They shouted to Chito when they found her, and he then climbed inside.  As always he had a gun in his belt and a knife, which she’d seen him throw with deadly accuracy, in his cowboy boot.

With a low growl, he crawled toward her, grabbed her wrist and yanked her from the plane.  She fell to the ground so hard, she lay there stunned for a minute.

“Get the hell out of here,” he told his men, who at his gruff tone, sprinted toward the high adobe walls of Tavio’s desert fortress.

When she would have run from Chito, he grabbed her hand and tugged her unwillingly behind him until they reached the compound.  She thought he would take her to Tavio’s mansion in the middle of the compound.  Instead he headed for the forbidden buildings that lined the north wall.  Opening a door of one of the low dwellings, he threw her across the threshold.  The tiny room was dark and dank and reeked of urine and feces and vomit.

He screwed a low wattage bulb into a socket.  In its dim light she saw chairs, ropes, a cot, slop buckets, whips, handcuffs and electric cattle prods.

When she gasped, he grinned.

Did he intend to torture her, rape her?  Had Tavio given her to Chito?  With a cry, she turned to run.

Laughing, Chito slammed the door and barred her way.

“You run from Tavio,” Chito said, his thin smile chilling her, as he fingered the irregularly shaped bone fragments strung on a gold chain that Delia said came from Pablito’s skeleton, a fellow drug dealer Chito had shot for double-dealing and dragged behind his jeep in the desert for hours while he drank tequila.  “Maybe you want me instead?”  He leered at her.

“Go to hell!”

He laughed, but his black eyes were as cold as ice chips as he leaned down and placed a wedge of wood beneath the door.  “Who are you, bitch?  Who hid you in that airplane?”

When he lunged for her, she kicked him in the shin and then kneed him in the crotch.

He doubled over, grunting in pain.  He tugged the knife loose from his boot.  “Now Tavio will realize how dangerous you are.”

Adrenaline pumped through her as she raced for the door.  He picked up a pair of handcuffs, shook them so they clinked and laughed at her when she pulled at the door and it didn’t budge.

“He has killed many for less, ginga.  But you very sexy.  I see why Tavio like you.  If you are nice to me, maybe I put in a good word for you, so he don’t kill you.  Now—who helped you?”

She hesitated and watched him warily, her gaze flicking to the white chunks of bone at his throat.  He was small, only an inch taller than she was, but he was strong and muscular.  He could kill her in an instant if he wanted to.

He had black hair and dark skin and a sullen mouth.  He had a hair-trigger temper and suffered from paranoia.  He didn’t get along easily with anybody.  Not even Tavio.  Delia frequently sported black eyes and bruises.  Once Mia had asked her why she stayed with him.

Delia’s big brown eyes, which were always so sad and hungry, had widened with a strange yearning.  Then all the light had gone out of her thin, young face.

“You rich in America.  Everybody rich.  I see TV.  Even the women.  You don’t understand how it is down here.  For women like me.  Chito, he protect me.  He don’t share me with nobody.”

“And that’s enough?  Do you like him?  Love him?”

“My father, he was worse.  My older sister . . . she run away . . . to Ciudad Juarez.”  She strangled on a sob as if there were some horrible end to that tale.  “Chito, he help me.  He give my family food and money.  You lucky.  Tavio, he protect you.  You should be nice to Tavio.”

Suddenly Chito lunged for Mia, the lust in his eyes, his strength and the stench of his garlic breath bringing her cruelly back to the present.  Catching her again even as she pummeled his thick chest, he dragged her screaming to the cot, where he threw her down.  When she fell, her head struck a wooden bar on the cot, and she could only stare up at him in dazed confusion.

“Be still, or I will hurt you worse.”  He smiled at her as he took his time unbuttoning his trousers.

She was struggling to sit up when the thick wooden door behind them crashed against the adobe wall.  Suddenly Tavio was a black giant in the doorway, his legs widely spread apart.  He twirled his golden gun idly.

Instantly the air grew even more charged with electric, hostile danger.

Sweat popping across his brow, Chito jumped back from the cot, his knife falling with a soft thud to the dirt floor.

Feeling like a trapped animal, Mia got up and hurled herself into Tavio’s arms and clung to him, shaking, even though he smelled of those awful crack-laced cigarettes.

“Why is your heart beating like a rabbit’s?”  Tavio whispered against her ear, pressing her closer for a second.  He turned toward Chito.  “I told you to bring her to me.  What are you two doing here?”

“Teaching her a lesson since you won’t.”

She scarcely dared draw a breath as the two men exchanged dark, dangerous looks.

“I will deal with you later for the trouble you cost me, Angelita.  Go to your room,” Tavio said, releasing her in an instant.  When she hesitated, his whisper grew vicious.  “Go! Ahora!”

“Don’t kill him.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, woman!”  Although his voice was soft, every word bit her, especially the last one.

And then to Chito he said, still in that soft, deadly tone as he knelt and retrieved the knife.  “What were you doing with my woman alone—here?  Why was she on that cot?”  He began to curse and make crude sexual accusations that terrified her.

As she walked toward the door, she heard Chito’s shrill, raised yelps.  Then Chito’s knife whizzed past her and hit the exact center of the door.

She gasped.  Just like that – she could have had a blade in the back of her neck and been dead.

A slop bucket hit the wall, splashing its foul contents.  Chito screamed that he wanted her punished.

“It is not for you to punish my woman.”  Another bucket was knocked over, increasing the sewerlike stench.  “I will punish her myself.”

Mia flinched.

“She know too much.  It’s dangerous.  She tried to escape in Marco’s plane.  We can’t trust her.”

“I never trust her before,” Tavio said.  “So – she try to escape?  So what?  She is a gringa.  A nobody.”

“Don’t be so sure.  A traitor helped her.  She will betray us.  I can feel it.  In my gut.”

“Let me do the thinking.  With my brain.”

“You are married to my sister.  This woman . . . ”

“She has nothing to do with my marriage.  Your sister is still my wife.”

“The men snicker behind your back.  They say it is sick the way you follow her around like a lovesick dog.  Like you have no balls, mano.”

“I will prove to you and to her that I have balls—tonight.  I will take her.  You can stand outside in the hall and listen to her screams.  But first, I will teach you a lesson.”

She heard fists, blows, a life-and-death scuffle.  Chairs were overturned.  A body hit the ground.  When gunshots exploded, and metal pinged, Mia pulled the knife out of the door and then ran all the way to her second-story bedroom.  She went to her bathroom.

Setting the knife down, she stared at the wild woman in the mirror.  Her face was still flushed from having gotten so overheated in the airplane and from her struggles with Chito.  Her own sweat had plastered her hair to her skull.  Not that she cared.

She was too afraid.  If Chito came instead of Tavio, she would either stab him or herself.  She couldn’t bear for him to touch her ever again.

Too upset to shower, she ran a shaky hand through her hair.  The wet tangles just fell back into her eyes.  Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought against her rising fear.

For a long time she stood there, paralyzed.  Finally Negra came up and rubbed her leg.  Then the cat began to purr.  Picking the animal up, she returned to her bedroom and sat down on the bed, where she began to stroke the cat’s soft fur.  Doing so restored her a little.  If only she knew where Julio lived, she would try to find him and warn him and tell him that he must flee.

For a while Negra endured her affection.  Then as if sensing her nervousness, the independent creature sprang to the floor and curled up to sleep on a little rug under a chair.  A door slammed downstairs, and she heard Tavio shout to his men.

Feeling only slightly relieved, she placed the knife under her pillow and waited.  As the awful seconds ticked by, Mia began to feel dull and hopeless.  She could do nothing but sit here and wait.

Hours later, when Tavio still hadn’t come upstairs, she finally drove herself to get up from the bed and shower.  As she toweled off, she was surprised that such a little thing had made her feel better.  After she dressed, she paced back and forth at the end of her bed, her heart racing every time she heard Tavio or one of his men shout angrily below.

She should go to bed, and yet she was afraid of the bed and what it might mean tonight.  As she stared at the melon-colored adobe walls that imprisoned her, they seemed to close in on her more than ever.  She wanted to run, but she knew that behind those high, thick, adobe walls, Tavio Morales’s immense, adobe mansion was a veritable fortress.  An army of gunmen patrolled the rancho and airstrips in trucks and SUVs.

A natural spring with cold, icy water bubbled up from the ground not far from the stables, so there was a sure source of water.  Tall cottonwood trees grew around the sparkling pool.

Beyond Tavio’s private army, every Mexican peasant, poor men like Ramiro, in the desert belonged to Tavio as well.  If one of their children was sick, Tavio paid for the doctor, buying their undying loyalty.

“They are my ears and eyes,” he’d told her.  “I love them.  And they love me.  I protect them, and they protect me.  I very important man here.  I am much loved.”  He’d smiled as if that thought pleased him.  “If you try to escape, my little friends will tell me.  If anyone try to help you, they will tell me, and I kill him.”

Remembering Ramiro watching her again, she bit her lips.  Worrying about Julio, she went to the barred window.  She had to get away or go mad.  She had to.

Since the ranch house was located on a slight rise above the desert floor, Mia’s plush room with its heavy furniture and red velvet spread and draperies had a view of the Chihuahua Desert and Tavio’s airstrip.  She’d spent long hours watching the dusty two-lane road that led across the parched earth to the airstrips.  Sometimes she’d watched huge dirt devils race across the barren, beige moonscape, and always she had wished she were free to whirl away.

She’d watched the birds, the vultures, hawks and the eagles, with special envy because they could fly.  In her other life, she had taken freedom for granted.

If I’m ever free again, I will treasure every single moment.

She had to get out of here.

“Oh, Shanghai . . . ”  She called to him, willing him to think of her, willing him to care, willing him to come.

The Secret Lives of Doctors' Wives

Austin, Texas

Prologue

He remembered the flash of the blade, the slender hand in the dark. His screams had been followed by eerie silence. Too late he recalled that this house had a history of tragedy.

The dying man could barely hear Rose Marie Castle's flying bare feet on the sculpted stone staircase. Besides her shoes, she was missing several intimate garments that, doubtless, the police would find later.

Run, run as fast as you can….

His hands were bound together with Rosie's silky black bra. Her paring knife was lodged firmly in his Adam's apple. The security cameras would capture incriminating images of her escape, but he would be dead long before she was brought to justice, which could be slow, even in Texas.

The deathblow had been savage. Delicate vertebrae had been smashed, his spinal cord nicked or severed. He'd had no sensation of falling as he'd crumpled to the white carpet, his blood staining it a vivid crimson.

He'd been a fool, ensnared like a stupid fly in a web. Because of her--the bitch.

He was cold to the marrow of his bones.

Downstairs, Rosie let out a panicked little cry. She began to pound on the door with her fists. When it finally opened, and she stumbled outside, the prisms of the chandelier above the grand staircase tinkled.

He thought of his mother and father. Of the old life and its false promises; of all the bitter years when he'd longed for vengeance, which would have been his--except for her.

Down the hill, the big engine of her Beamer purred to life. When she sped away, his useless body convulsed. As his eyeballs rolled upward, he heard the wind in the branches of the pecan trees outside. She must have left the door open in her haste to escape.

The harsh music of the cicadas joined the sweeter music of the chandelier that she'd imported from Paris.

Paris, France; not Paris, Texas. What grand ambitions she'd had before the wedding.

Run, run; you can't catch me….

Like hell.

She'd pay. She deserved to pay.

His body convulsed one final time. He thought about her dreams of being a grand lady in Austin society, married to the eminent plastic surgeon, Pierce Carver. She'd wanted to live down the poverty and shame of her childhood.

Was there enough money or fame to heal such wounds?

The dying man almost felt pity for Rose Marie Castle as he died.

But not quite. 

Shameless

Mezcaya/ Central America
El Jefe terrorist compound

Lt. Col. Phillip Westin, burly ex-Marine, wasn't dead.

Hell.  He almost wished he was.  Solitary confinement — it made you crazy.

Groggily, he chafed at the ropes binding his wrists and ankles.  Beneath the restraints his skin burned from too much rubbing.

He tried to roll over, but he was so weak, he could only lie face down in the dark, gasping.  The windowless walls seemed to close in upon him. He wanted to scream . . . or worse . . . to weep.   One minute he was burning up; the next he was shivering and whimpering on his cot like a baby.  The cramps in his legs and arms knifed constantly.

Where the hell was he?  Remember!  Try to remember.  His thoughts were slow and tortured.  It took him a while to realize that he was lying on the same dirty canvas cot deep in The Cave that served as the dungeon underneath Fortaleza de la Fortuna.  The fortaleza was a terrorist compound in Mezcaya run by a particularly dangerous group of thugs who went by the name El Jefe.

Westin had been captured a few weeks ago shortly after he'd run Jose Mendoza, one of the terrorist ringleaders, off a mountain road and killed him.  Too bad Mendoza's illegitimate son, Xavier Gonzales, didn't have a forgiving nature.

Westin blinked but couldn't see a thing.  The damned dungeon was blacker than the inside of an ape's behind.

His head throbbed where Xavier had smacked him with a rifle butt yesterday.  Phillip's throat was dry.  He was thirsty as hell.  Dehydrated probably.

Xavier and his unkempt dirty bunch of thugs had captured him and beaten him senseless and then gleefully trussed him like a pig for slaughter. 

He was going to die.  At dawn.  A single bullet to the head, the final coup de gras.  An hour ago Xavier and a couple of short, teenage captors reeking of body odor had strutted inside The Cave like a bunch of bantam cocks in a barnyard and kicked him with their black, muddy combat boots.

"Gringo, como estás?They'd prodded him with their assault rifles and made cruel jokes in Spanish rather than in their Mezcayan dialect.  They'd flipped coins to see who'd get lucky enough to pull the trigger.  Xavier, the youngest and the most lethally handsome, had slid a .45 out of a black holster and dried it off on his sleeve.

"You kill my father, so you die, gringo.  You have no right to be in my country."

"Your drug money was making inroads in my town, bastardo.  My town."

The kid was dark with a permanent Mezcayan tan.  With one brown hand he'd lifted a cigarette to his pretty mouth; with the other he'd carefully centered the cold barrel on Phillip's forehead.

"Your town?"

Xavier's eyes were scarily irrational in his pretty-boy face.  His finger had pulled back the trigger ever so slightly.  "Bang.  Bang, Gringo.  Yourtown is going to be my town."

Before he could argue, the thick, acrid cigarette smoke from the kid's cigarette had made Phillip wretch.  Hell, maybe puking up his guts had saved him.  Instead of firing his gun, Xavier had burst out into hysterical laughter and shrieked, "Cobarde.  Coward."

Then the bastardo had danced a little jig.

"Tengo sed.  I'm thirsty," Phillip had said.

Xavier had smiled that pretty smile.  "So — drink this!" He'd pitched the cigarette into the vomit in front of Phillip's face.

Bastardos.  His death was a game to them.  Phillip Westin, ex-Marine, had been handpicked for the Alpha Force.  His usual style was spit and polish perfect.

He wouldn't be a pretty corpse.  He wouldn't even rate a body bag in this hellhole compound that was hidden deep in Mezcayan mountains and rain forest.

There'd be no military honors at his funeral.  No funeral, period.   No beautiful woman to weep over his grave back home in south Texas.

Suddenly a blond goddess — no, a witch — seemed to float above him in the misty black.

Oh, God . . .  Just when he was weak, wet, and shaking and puking with fear, he had to think of her  — the icy, trampy witch who'd walked out on him.  Usually, the witch was satisfied to haunt his dreams.  When he was awake, he was disciplined enough to keep his demons and witches at bay.

But he was weak and cold . . . so cold and feverish a spasm shook him . . . and so scared about dying he could think only of her.

"Anger slammed him when her sulky, smoky voice began to sing the love song she'd written about their doomed relationship.

He jerked at his ropes, and to his surprise they loosened just a bit.  "Go away!  Leave me alone!" he yelled into the darkness.

The perverse phantom draped her curvy body against the black wall and sang louder.

"Nobody but you.  Only you."

"Shut up," he growled even as every cell in his body began to quiver as his fingers fought to free his hands.

"I had to say goodbye . . . but everywhere I go . . . there's nobody in my heart . . . only you . . ."

Her husky voice had his head pounding.  He dug his fingernails into his palms.  Suddenly to his surprise, he jerked his right hand free of the ropes.  "Damn you, shut the hell up!"

"And yet I had to say goodbye,the witch crooned.

"Tramp!  You're just a one-hit wonder.  You know that, don't you?"

That shut her up, but she didn't go away.  Instead, that sad, vulnerable expression that could tie him into knots came into her eyes, which shone brilliantly in the dark. Her golden hair fell in silken coils around her slim shoulders.

Hell. She looked like a little lost sex kitten in need of a home and a warm bed.  His home.  His bed. 

Oh, God, all she had ever had to do was look at him like that and all he wanted to do was hold her and protect her and make love to her.  What would he give to have her one more time before he died?

Everything —

His gut cramped as he clawed his cot with his free hands.  He remembered exactly how her hair smelled, how her skin smelled, how her blue eyes flashed with tears if he got too domineering.  She'd had a fearsome talent for gentling him.

Escape.  He had to escape.  When he bent over to untie his ankles, her pouty lips parted.

His hands shook.  He closed his eyes and tried not to remember how small she was or how perfectly she'd fit him.

Think of something else!  Like getting out of here!

But when he swallowed, he tasted her.  One taste, and he was as hard as a brick.

Somehow he got the ropes around his ankles loose, but when he tried to stand, the black walls spun, and he fell back onto the cot.  Weak as he was, his groin still pulsed with desire.  Hell.  The proximity of death was the best aphrodisiac.

Damn Celeste Cavanaugh.  He'd asked her to be his wife, to marry him.  What a damn fool he'd been to do that.  Hell, he'd picked her up in a bar.  No, damn it.  He'd rescued her from a bar brawl.  She'd been a nobody from the gutter, the prettiest, sexiest little nobody in the whole world with a voice like an angel.

He'd lifted her out of that life, given her everything, and treated her like a lady.  She'd moved in, and they'd played at love and marriage.  Why the hell hadn't she bothered to tell him about her ridiculous ambition to be a country western star?  Why hadn't she at least given him a chance to understand it?

"As soon as she'd gotten on her feet, she'd run to Vegas with another man.  Phillip had come home from a dangerous mission to the Middle East to rescue his buddies.  His homecoming had been delayed because he'd been captured and had had a narrow escape.  But once home again, he'd thrown his seabag down at the door, stalked through the house, calling her name.  God, all those days and nights he'd been a hostage, trapped in that cell, he'd been burning up for her.  Just like now.

She'd left him a letter on his pillow.

"I met a man who's going to get me an audition with a world-famous producer, Larry Martin.  I'll call you from Vegas." She'd said her stage name was Stella Lamour.

There had been more letters in the mailbox from Stella.  After he'd read and re-read those letters, every word carving his heart out, something had died inside him.  Maybe his feelings. 

Forget her.

But he couldn't.  Seven years later, she still starred in all his wet dreams.

When he died down here, she wouldn't even know.  The bastardos would sling his bloody corpse into the jungle, and he'd rot. 

In this rain and heat and mud, he'd be fertilizer in less than a month.

You're an ex-Marine.  Forget her.

When he tried to stand again, he passed out and dreamed he was back home in Texas, dancing with her at the Lone Star Country Club while his Marine buddies cheered and clapped.

He regained consciousness to heat that was as thick and dark as a sauna, to no-seeums eating him alive.  To explosions and heavy boots stomping down some corridor.

Dawn.  Time to die.

Was there a weepy, pink light sifting through the single crack in the ceiling or was he hallucinating again?

Shouts in Spanish were followed by more heavy footsteps.  Then the lock on the heavy door clicked.  The door banged.  Flashlights danced in the dark, blinding him.

"Xavier?" Westin squinted.  Terror gripped him like a fist. He felt so weak and vulnerable he muttered a quick prayer.

Cobarde. Xavier's contempt still stung.

In those last fleeting seconds before certain death, Phillip's life flashed before him in neon color — his lonely childhood in his parents' Houston mansion with all those rooms that echoed as a solitary little boy walked through them in search of love.

Nobody had wanted him . . . until Patricia, his college sweetheart.  For a time she'd seemed so perfect, but in the end she hadn't wanted him enough to understand his determination to see the world and become a Marine.

Neither had Celeste.  Both his loves had left him.

The flashlight zeroed in on his face, blinding him again.  What was the use?  He held up his hands in surrender.  All he said was, "If you're going to kill me, just be done with it."

Cobarde.

"Not tonight, sir," said a familiar, respectful voice that slammed Westin back to his days in the Marines, back to the Gulf War.  Phillip's eyelids stung when he tried to stand.  Once again his legs crumpled beneath his weight.  The lights spun, and he nearly fainted.

"Friends," came that familiar, husky voice that made Phillip's eyes go even hotter.

"Tyler . . ."

Westin blinked.  Ty Murdock, his handsome face painted black and green, his night vision glasses dangling against his broad chest, towered above him like a warrior god.

"Tyler —"

Phillip was trying to stand but was falling again when Tyler's strong arms grabbed him and slung him over his broad back in a fireman's lift.

"You're going home," a woman said.

"Celeste?"

Before the beautiful woman could answer, Phillip fainted.

He was going home.  Home to Celeste.

* * * * *

When he opened his eyes, they were beyond the compound, hunkering low in the tangle of bushes on the edge of the lavish lawns.  Dimly he was aware of the pretty woman cradling his head in her lap.

"Celeste?"

He was sweating and freezing at the same time.

"An eternity later he looked up and saw a chopper coming in hot, kicking up dust and gravel before settling on the ground.

"A rock that felt like a piece of hot metal gouged Phillip's cheek.

"Damn."

Then Ty was back lifting him, up . . . up . . . into the chopper.  They took off in a hurry.  They were going home.

Home to Celeste.

He shut his eyes and saw Celeste . . . blonde and pretty, her eyes as blue as a Texas sky.  She was crying, her cheeks glistening.  The image, even if it was false, was better than a funeral.

 * * * * *

Phillip's hand shook as he lifted the razor to his cheek.  Westin stared at the gaunt face with the slash across his cheek.  It had been seven days since the rescue, and he was still as weak as a baby.

When the infirmary door slammed open, he jumped like a scared girl, panicking at the sound of boots, because they reminded him of Xavier.  The razor fell into the sink with a clatter.

In the mirror, the dark-haired stranger with the hollowed-out silver eyes was pathetic.  By comparison the darkly handsome man who strode up behind him was disgustingly robust.

"Mercado?"

Ricky flashed his daredevil grin.  "Good to see you up and about."

"Yeah." Westin had to grip the sink with tight fingers so he wouldn't fall.  No way was he walking back to the hospital bed.  No way would he let Mercado gloat at how wobbly he was.

"After this, you'd better lay low, amigo.  You stirred up a hornet's nest."

"You think I don't know that."

"El Jefe's big.  And not just down here.  They're well connected in Texas."

"Why the hell do you think I came down —"

"These guys won't give up.  They'll be gunning for you and yours."

"There is no yours.  She left me, remember?" Phillip shut up.  He didn't want to talk about her.  Still, Mercado was one of the few who knew about Celeste.  Most of his buddies believed he'd never gotten over his first love, Patricia, the classy girl he'd loved in college — the proper girl.  It was better that way, better not to cry on their shoulders about a trashy singer he'd picked up in a bar and been stupid enough to fall for. 

"Yeah, and Celeste's the reason you've had a death wish for seven damn years."

"Shut up."

"You're forty-one, amigo."

"You make that sound old."

"Too old for this line of work."

"This was personal.  You know that.  The bastards were moving into Mission Creek.  They were using kids to run guns. Kids —"

"Why don't you go back to your ranch?  Find a nice, church-going girl, get married and hatch some rug rats."

"Sounds like fun.  What about you?  You straight?  Or are you gonna run arms for the family?  What the hell were you doing down there?"

Mercado scowled.  "Saving your ass."

"You had some help."

"What does it take?  A declaration written in blood.  Like I told you — I'm straight."

"You'd better be."

His face and eyes dark with pain, Mercado shut up and stared at the floor.  Phillip felt instant remorse.  "Ty told me you were useful in the Mezcaya rescue," Phillip admitted.

"I'm surprised he said —"

"He did.  Thanks. I owe you . . . for what you did for Ty.  And for me."

Suddenly Westin was no longer in the mood to question the character of a man who'd helped save him.  The heated exchange had left him so weak, Mercado's dark face began to swirl.  His fingers couldn't seem to hold onto the sink.

"Oh, God," he muttered as the gray tiles rushed up to meet him.

Mercado lunged, barely catching him before he fell.

"Find that nice girl," Mercado muttered.  "Lean on my arm, old buddy, and we'll get you back to bed."

"Hell.  I don't go for nice girls.  I like >em hot and shameless."

"Maybe it's time for a change of pace . . . in your old age."

"Old age?" Stung, Phillip almost howled.  The truth was, a ninety-year-old was stronger than he was.  Oh, God, why was it such a damn struggle to put one foot in front of the other?  When he finally made it to the bed, he was gasping for every breath.  He let go of Mercado and fell backward.

His head slammed into the pillow.  Even so, they both managed a weak laugh.

"Get the hell out of here, Mercado."

"Forget shameless.  Find that church-going girl, old man."

Mercado waved jauntily and saluted.  Then the door banged behind him, and he was gone.

* * * * *

Stella Lamour grabbed her guitar and glided out of the storeroom Harry let her use as a dressing room.  After all, a star had to have a dressing room.  She tried to ignore the fact that the closet was stacked with cases of beer, cocktail napkins, and glasses . . . and that the boxy, airless room gave her claustrophobia when she shut the door.

Some dressing room . . . Some star . . .

"As Stella approached the corner to make her entrance, she cocked her glossy head at an angle so that her long, yellow hair rippled flirtily down her slim, bare back.  At thirty-two, she was still beautiful, and she knew it.  Just as she knew how to use it.

"Fake it till you make it, baby," Johnny, her ex-manager, always said.

Fake it?  For how much longer?  In this business and this city, beauty was everything, at least for a woman.  Every day younger, fresher girls poured into Vegas, girls with big dreams just like hers.  Johnny signed them all on, too.

Hips swaying, Stella moved like a feral cat, her lush, curvy, petite body inviting men to watch, not that there were many to do so tonight.  There was a broad-shouldered hunk at the bar.  He gave her the once-over.  Her slanting, thickly-lashed, blue eyes said, you can look, but keep your distance, big boy — this is my territory.

Johnny Silvers, her no-good manager, who liked fast cars and faster women, had taught Stella how to move, how to walk, how to hold her head, how to look like a star — how to fake it.

Some star.  The closest she'd come was to warm the crowd up before the real star came on stage.

Now she'd sunk to Harry's.

Harry's was a dead-end bar in downtown Vegas, a hangout for middle-aged retreads, divorcees, widowers, alcoholics, burned-out gamblers — a dimly lit refuge for the flotsam and jetsam who couldn't quite cut it in real life and were too broke to make their play in the hectic, brightly lit casinos on the strip.  They were searching for new lives and new loves.  Not that they could do more in Harry's than drown their sorrows and take a brief time-out before they resumed their panicky quests.

In a few more years, I'll be one of them, Stella thought as she grimly shoved a chair aside on her way to the bar.

Her slinky black dress was so tight across the hips, she had to stand at her end of the bar when she finally reached it.  She'd put on a pound, maybe two.  Not good, not when the new girls kept getting younger and slimmer.

Mo, the bartender, nodded hello and handed her her Saturday night special — water with a juicy lime hanging onto the edge of her glass.  She squeezed the lime, swirled the glass.  Wetting her lips first, she took a long, cool sip.

"Aside from Mo and the single, shadowy male figure at the other end of the bar, Harry's was empty tonight.  There wasn't a single retread.  So the only paying customer was the wide-shouldered hunk she'd seen come in earlier.  She knew men.  He was no retread.

There was a big arms-dealer conference in Vegas.   For some reason, she imagined he might be connected to the conference.  He was hard-edged.  Lean and tall and trim.  He had thick, brown hair.  She judged he was around thirty.  Something about him made her think of the way Phillip looked in his uniform.  Maybe it was the man's air of authority.

Just thinking about Phillip made her remember another bar seven years ago when she'd been a raw kid, singing her heart out, not really caring where she was as long as she could sing.  She'd gotten herself in a real jam that night.  Lucky for her, or maybe not so lucky, as it turned out, Phillip Westin had walked in.

Just the memory of Phillip in that brawl — he'd been wonderful — made her pulse quicken again.  It had been four drunks against one Marine, a Marine whose hands were certified weapons.  In the end Phillip had carried her out to his motorcycle, and they'd roared off in the dark.  He'd been so tender and understanding that first night, so concerned about her.  What had impressed her the most about him was that he hadn't tried to seduce her.  They'd talked all night in a motel and had only ended up in bed a couple of days later. 

The sex had been so hot, they'd stayed in that motel bed for a week, making wild, passionate love every day and every night, even eating every meal in bed, until finally they were so exhausted, they could only lie side by side laughing because they felt like a pair of limp noodles.  When they'd come up for air, she'd said she'd never be able to walk again.  And he'd said he'd never get it up again.  She'd taken that as a challenge and proved him wrong.  Oh, so deliciously wrong.  Afterward, he'd asked her to marry him.

She'd said, "I don't even know you."

And he said, "Just say maybe."

"Maybe," she'd purred.

Maybe had been good enough for Phillip, at least for a while.  He'd been living on his elderly uncle's ranch alone and supervising the cattle operation, because his uncle, who had been ill, was in a nursing home.  Everything had been wonderful between Celeste and Phillip, until suddenly Phillip had received a call and had gone off on a mission.  Alone on the ranch, she'd gotten scared and had felt abandoned and rejected just like she had when her parents had died.

If the days had been long without Phillip, the sleepless nights had seemed even longer.  She hadn't known what to do with herself.  She wasn't good at waiting or being alone.  Then officers had turned up at the door and said Phillip was missing in action.  She'd been sure Phillip was dead, just like her parents.  When Johnny had driven into town, saying he'd make her a star, saying Larry Martin, the Larry Martin wanted to produce her if she'd just come to Vegas.  The rest was history.

All of a sudden her throat got scratchier.  She swallowed, but the lump wouldn't go down.

How could she sing . . . tonight?  To a man who reminded her of Phillip.

She asked Mo for another water, but if anything the cold water only made her throat worse.

Did it matter any more how well she sang?  This was Harry's.  There was only one customer.  She picked up her guitar and headed for the stage.

Just when she'd thought she couldn't sink any lower, she'd lost her job two weeks ago, and the only guy Johnny could convince to hire her was Harry, a loser buddy of his.

"I can't work at a lowlife place like this," she'd cried when Johnny had brought her here, and, first thing, a cockroach had skittered across her toe.

"You gotta take what you can get, baby.  That's life."

"I'm Stella Lamour.  I've done T.V.  You promised I'd be a star."

"You've got to deliver.  You're just a one-hit wonder.  Wake up and smell the roses, baby."

She'd kicked the roach aside.  "All I smell is stale beer."

"My point exactly, baby.  You gotta fake it till you make it."

"I'm tired of faking it and not making it.  You're fired, Johnny."

"Baby —"

"Stella Lamour, the one-hit wonder."  He'd laughed at her.  "All right.  Fire me.  But take the job, baby — if you wanna eat."

She'd taken the job, but it was harder to pretend she would ever make it as a singer.

Now Stella turned on the mike and got a lot of back feed.  When she adjusted it, and it squealed again, the broad-shouldered man at the bar jammed his big hands over his ears but edged closer.  Again, the way he moved reminded her so much of Phillip, her pulse knocked against her ribcage.  Oh, Phillip . . .

Don't think about the past or Phillip.  Just sing.

Why bother?  Nobody's listening.

"I'll start off with a little number I wrote," she purred to Mo and the man. "Back in Texas."

The customer stared at her intently as if he liked what he saw.

"I wrote this seven years ago before I came to Vegas." She fiddled with the mike some more, and then she began to sing.

"Nobody but you.  Only you.  And yet I had to say goodbye . . ."

She forgot she was in Harry's.  She was back on the ranch on Phillip's front porch where the air was hot and dusty, where the long warm nights smelled of grass and mesquite and buzzed with the music of cicadas.

"I thought love cost too much," she purred in the smoky voice she'd counted on to make her famous, to make her somebody like her mother had promised. "But I didn't know."

Then she realized she was in Harry's, and her failures made her voice quiver with regret.

"Everywhere I go, there's nobody but you in my heart.  Only you."

Somehow she felt so weak all she could do was whisper the last refrain. "And yet I had to say goodbye."

Phillip was the only good man, the only really good thing that had ever happened to her.  And she'd walked out on him.  Big mistake.  Huge.

She'd wanted to make it big to prove to Phillip she was as good as he was . . . that she wasn't just some cheap tart he'd picked up in a bar and brought home and bedded . . . that she was somebody . . . a real somebody he could be proud of.

She frowned when she heard a car zoom up the back alley.  Oh, dear.  That sounded like Johnny's Corvette.  The last thing she needed was Johnny on her case.  Sure enough, within seconds, the front door banged open, and Johnny raced through it on his short legs.  His thick chest was heaving.  His eyes bulged out of their deep pouchy sockets.  The poor dear looked like a fat, out-of-shape rabbit the hounds were chasing, but his florid face lit up when he saw her.

"Baby!"

Oh, no.  He definitely wanted something!

"You and I are through," she mouthed.

Johnny lit a cigarette.  Then his short, fat legs went into motion and carried him across the bar toward her.

He was a heavy smoker, so running wasn't easy.  When he reached this state, he gasped in fits and starts, which made his voice even more hoarse and raspy than usual.

 

"Take a break, baby . . ." Pant. Wheeze.  "I've got to talk to you." Puff. Puff.

 

Fanning his smoke out of her face, she turned off the mike and followed him to her end of the bar.

Johnny ordered a drink and belted it down.  He ordered a second one and said, "Put some booze in this one, you cheap son-of-a — "

"Johnny, you can't talk to Mo like — " 

Mo slammed the second drink down so hard it sloshed all over Johnny's cigarette.  Mo was big, a lot bigger than Johnny.  He had a bad temper, too.  When his face darkened the way it did when he had an impossible customer and had to play bouncer, Stella was afraid he'd pound Johnny.

"Easy, Mo," she whispered, wondering why she was bothering to defend Johnny, who'd brought her so much bad luck.

Mo whirled and went to tend his other customer.

Johnny lit another cigarette.  "Thanks, babe." Wheeze.  Gulp.  "I need money fast."

"I don't get paid till Monday." She clamped a hand over her mouth.  "It's none of your business when I get paid."

"I got you this great new gig. Your ship's about to come in.  You gotta help me, baby."

"That's what you said when you stole my royalties to buy those stolen tires and to pay your —"

"How was I — No-o-o.  Baby!" Puff.  Wheeze.  "I borrowed a little cash to pay a few gambling debts.  That's all!  Honest!  Now a couple of unreasonable guys are making unreasonable demands on a poor guy trying to make his top girl a star —"

"I'm not your girl anymore!"

"Are you going to help me or not?" He was so charged with fear his eyes stuck out on stems.

When would she ever learn?  She hated herself for being such a softie.

 

"How much?"

"You've gotta a big heart.  You can't say that about many girls in Vegas."

Just as she slid her fingers into her bra and pulled out what little money she had, the front door banged open, and two men in black, who instantly made her think of snakes, and she hated snakes, oozed inside.

"You'd better pay me back this time."

"Sure, baby."

When the snakes yelled Johnny's name, he grabbed the money and ran out the back way, screaming, "She has it."

The two men raced past her after him.  There was some sort of scuffle.  The men shouted.  Johnny squealed in pain.  Then his supercharged, fancy black Corvette drove away fast, tires spinning gravel.

She was asking Mo for more water, when the two snakes slithered quietly up behind her, grabbed her arms, and shoved her against the bar.

"Hey, take your hands off me!"

Both of them had black, beady eyes, snakes' eyes.  When their hot eyes drifted up and down her body, her heart raced.

"Johnny says you and he . . . He says you've got our money." The man who held her had olive skin, a big nose, and lots of pimples.

"I don't know what you're talking about." She began to shake.  Everybody in Vegas knew guys like this didn't play around.

"Nero has methods to freshen a girl's memory," the other snake said.  "We're in the collection business.  We specialize in gambling debts.  Our customers lose.  They borrow.  If they don't want to pay, we motivate them.  End of story."

The taller man was potato-pale.  Gold-rimmed glasses pinched his nose as he stared at her breasts.   "Name's The Pope.  You're cute.  You could work off some of Johnny's debt . . . if you get my drift."

"How much money does he owe you?" she whispered.  Her heart was really knocking now.

The Pope named a preposterous sum that made her gasp.

"Johnny says you rolled the dice for him," The Pope whispered.  "He says he gave you our money.  Pay us, and we're out of here."

"I don't have it."

"Then get it.  If you don't, we hurt you.  Understand, sexy girl?" Nero said, pinching her arms.

She shivered.  Oh, dear.  They weren't kidding.  Her eyes flew to the front door and to the back.  She had to run.  But before she took even one step, they read her mind.

"Oh, no you don't —"  Nero grabbed her by the hair, intending to haul her bodily out the door with him.  She bit his hand and then screamed for help.

On a howl of pain, he let her go.  Since The Pope was blocking both exits, she ran toward the ladies' room.  Nero would have chased her, but the wide-shouldered customer, who reminded her of Phillip, had sprung from the bar, stuck out a booted foot out and tripped him.

"The lady said to let her go," said a hard voice as the short, dark thug went sprawling into chairs and tables that toppled on top of him.

"Stay out of this.  The witch owes us money."

It was an exciting conversation.  She would have loved to have stayed and listened, but it didn't seem smart to stick around.  There was a window in the ladies' room just big enough for her to squeeze out of.

Once she made it to the ladies' room, the shouts from the bar got louder.  Mo must have tackled the other guy.

"You a cop?" The Pope yelled.

"He's got cop's eyes.  He moves like a cop, too —"

"We gotta blow this joint."

"What about her?"

"Later —"

"As Stella stood on the toilet and opened the window, a gun popped in the bar.  In a panic, she shoved her guitar through the window.  Then she scrambled out of it herself, only to lose her hold on the window frame and fall so hard, she nearly broke her ankle.

She got to her feet, straightened her ripped skirt and then fluffed her hair.  When she reached down to get her guitar, it wasn't there.

"A large hand curved out of the darkness, and she jumped about a foot and then moaned in pain because she'd landed with all her weight on her bad ankle.

"Easy.  I won't hurt you."

The big, handsome guy from the other end of the bar, the one who'd tripped Nero, held out her guitar.

She grabbed it and hugged it to her chest.

"Need a ride?" he asked in a hard, precise voice.

"As a matter of fact —" She blurted out her address.

"You can't go home.  Can't stay in Vegas either.  Not with those guys after you.  They'll kill you . . . or worse."

She gulped in a breath and then followed him to his sedan that was parked in the shadows.  "But — "

"Do you think those guys are going to quit if you can't give them what they want."

She swallowed.

"Honey, they know where you live."

"You're scaring me."

"After he helped into the front seat, he said, "Didn't your mama ever teach you never to ride with strangers?"

"I didn't have a mama."

He shut her door.  "Everybody has a mama."

When he slid behind the wheel, she said, "I was five when she died."

"Too bad." He started the engine and revved it.

"You don't know the half of it.  Foster homes.  Cinderella.  The whole bit.  Only without the prince.  But when I was little I used to sing with my mama on stage.  She told me I was going to be a star.  And . . . and I believed her.  But she died . . ."  Her voice shook.  "On a cheerier note, if you're a bad stranger, I can always beat you up with my guitar."

He laughed as they sped away.  "That'd be a waste of a good guitar and my head."

"Thanks for saving me."

"So, where to?"

"The bus station."

"And then?" he persisted.

"Texas." She was surprised by her answer.  Texas?

"Is that home?"

"Not exactly.  But I have an old boyfriend with a hero complex." Phillip — he was the only man she knew tough enough to save her if those guys ever caught up with her.  Oh, dear.  Phillip   —

"The poor sucker your song's about.  You left him, didn't you?"

"He'll still help me." He would.  She knew he would.

 

"What if he's married?"

"He's not."

"And you know this, how?"

She stared out the window at the bright glitter of Vegas.  She wasn't about to admit she'd kept tabs by reading the Mission Creek newspaper online, so she bit her lips and said nothing.

When they got to the bus station, he got out with her and carried her guitar to the ticket window.  Pulling out his wallet, he said, "You gave your sleazy manager all your money, didn't you —"

"No, but I left my purse in my . . . er . . . dressing room."

He counted out five one-hundred dollar bills.

"I don't need nearly that much."

"It's a loan." He handed her his card.

"I'll pay it back.  All of it.  I really will . . ."

His face was grim as she read his card.  "A.T.F.  You're A.T.F." Her voice softened when she read his name.  "Cole Yardley."

"Good luck," was all he said before he strode away.

"Thank you, Mr. Yardley," she whispered after him.  "Thank you." Although he'd refused to open up, something about him made her long for Phillip.

She broke the first hundred and bought a one way ticket to Mission Creek, Texas, where Phillip now lived.  Phillip's uncle had died, and he'd inherited the ranch and made it his home.

Oh, Phillip

 

 

Wild Lady

Chapter One

The black-haired, black-eyed beauty smiled mockingly in the foot-high photograph on the society page of the Corpus Christi Chat beneath the sensational headline, “Oilman’s Daughter Stranded at Altar.”

With trembling fingers, Kit gripped the paper even more tightly as she studied her own picture for a second time. How had she managed that picture—the radiant smile, the sparkling eyes? The photograph depicted a young girl glowing with expectation at the prospect of marriage. Had she ever really been that girl?

She skimmed the article beneath. “Kit Jackson, daughter of wealthy South Texas oil operator, Howard Jackson, waited in vain last night for her bridegroom, Rodney Starr, to make his appearance...”

Oh! The paper made it sound so tragic. Everyone who read the article would think Rodney had deliberately stood her up. They would think that she was heartbroken. But it wasn’t like that.

“If they only knew how relieved I really am,” she said half-aloud.

Unbidden came the memory of the strange, erotic dream she’d had on the eve of her wedding.

“Relief!” Surely it was the sweetest word in the English language just as it was the sweetest sensation she’d felt for a long time.

She remembered the long months of tension that had preceded the events of last night. Her family and his pressuring them both into their decision. Once she’d agreed to marry him, her mother’s plans for the grand, society wedding had been like an avalanche sweeping Rodney and her along. Neither of them had known how to say no to the lavish parties and gifts.

Occasionally across a crowded ballroom she’d caught an almost desperate look in Rodney’s eyes, and surely he’d seen the same look in hers. She’d wanted to call the wedding off; she’d come close to doing it many times. But once the marriage plans had been set in motion, she’d lacked the courage.

Newspaper articles covering their engagement had made it sound like a fairytale marriage—the handsome heir to the Starr ranching and oil fortune marrying the wealthy Jackson beauty.

She had never loved Rodney in the way a wife should love the man she planned to marry, although she was very fond of him. She had only drifted into a relationship with him on the rebound because he’d been so sweet and understanding when her devastating romance with the one man she’d truly loved had ended.

Black print blurred and the paper fell from her hands to rest beside her untouched breakfast tray. The breeze gusting up from the bay caught its edges and they fluttered. She arose, clutching the wrought-iron railing that laced her balcony overlooking the grounds.

Beneath her billowed nine hundred yards of gaily striped yellow and white canvas, the party tent the caterers had rented from some local outfit her father said had been sold to a “brash young lawyer” who was making a name for himself as a skipper in the racing community.

The new owner had insisted on being paid in advance for his rental, even from the Jacksons. As if the Jacksons were no better or worse than anyone else. She saw the rented tiki torches, the tables, chairs, the unused bandstand— everything set up with such care for the reception that had never been.

Last night came back to her. If she lived to be a hundred, Kit would never be able to forget it.

She’d been swathed from head to toe in designer lace that scratched her flesh everywhere it touched. She’d been imprisoned in that stuffy dressing room at the church with her mother, who mildly nervous at first had become frantic an hour later when there was still no Rodney. Kit, however, had had just the opposite reaction. When she was informed that Rodney was late, she’d felt a curious detachment and then relief. Then when that first hour had passed without his coming, she’d decided that even if he did arrive, she would have to summon her own courage and call the wedding off no matter how she disappointed and humiliated her mother and father before their society friends. She liked Rodney; maybe she even loved him. She just didn’t love him enough.

Two tortuous hours passed before Rodney called. By that time the hum in the sanctuary had grown to a deafening roar. Kit’s mother took the call in the minister’s office and returned with the news she’d delivered with false brightness.

“Don’t worry, mi querida ...” Anitra Jackson had begun, lapsing, because she was nervous, into her native language, Spanish.

“Where’s Rodney? What happened?” Kit blurted.

“There’s been a little accident ... a car wreck . . . Apparently the boys drank too much at the bachelor party.”

“Well, someone should have looked after him better.”

Rodney’s in the hospital . . . nothing serious. Whiplash. He’s disoriented. He’ll stay overnight in the hospital for observation.”

Kit’s first concern had been for Rodney. Disoriented? What did that mean? What if he were really seriously injured? Her mother had at last managed to reassure her that his injuries were only minor. Relief that he was all right and that he wasn’t coming had swamped her in a joyous flood, but she’d managed to conceal her true feelings from her mother.

Dear Mother, she’d been so anxious that the wedding take place. Arabella Starr, Rodney’s mother, was her dearest friend; a wedding linking their two families her fond dream.

“Should I go to him?”

Querida, his parents are leaving now, and you and I do have a problem of our own to face. The church is filled with wedding guests! What do we tell them?”

The high school teacher in Kit had taken over. ‘The truth, Mother. I’ll make the announcements to them now.”

She’d stood before a thousand guests in the hushed sanctuary and somehow with legs weak from relief that she’d thought would buckle and send her sprawling— designer gown and all—but with a clear, sure voice, her school-teacher voice, she’d told the crowd why Rodney hadn’t come.

Whiplash! Disoriented! She’d felt their skepticism, their pity for her. But she’d been too relieved to care.

Let them think he’d deliberately jilted her! She was free! Never again would she allow herself to be swept along by the dictates of others. She’d put too many people to trouble as a result.

She flinched, sagging against the iron railing. She gazed beneath without really seeing the turquoise pool, the glossy red tiles of the cabana roof, the acres of sloping greenery, and beyond that the concrete sea wall and the glistening bay. All she saw was the pool house where she’d dreamed she’d made wild, wanton love with a total stranger and then had realized he hadn’t been a stranger at all.

Suddenly she was shivering in spite of the blazing Texas sun.

Dreams meant nothing.

She moved restlessly inside her room and threw herself across the bed. The three-carat, emerald-cut diamond caught the sunlight and flashed its blue-white fire against the pale wall. She remembered the day Rodney had slipped the ring on her finger and how she’d wished it had been another man doing so. She should have known then, she wasn’t ready to marry anyone.

How could she ever leave this room and face everyone who had worked so hard preparing for this wedding--her parents, the Starrs, their friends. All their time, effort, and money had gone down the drain. Too late she saw that she’d been too eager to put her heartbreak behind her, for hadn’t marrying Rodney been an attempt to prove she was over Ted?

Ted, who’d beenher fantasy lover in her dream the other night.

Quit thinking about the dream.

She swallowed a lump that felt hard and painful as she       remembered how wild she’d been about him in college.

So wild, she’d almost lost her virginity to him. Funny, how she’d never once been tempted to forget her principles in Rodney’s arms.

How could the memory of Ted still have such a grip on her? Such a grip she’d even conjured him as her irresistible fantasy lover on the eve of her wedding?

Five years ago she’d been a vulnerable eighteen, a college freshman in Austin when she’d fallen wildly in love with Ted. Almost ten years her senior, he’d been in his last year of law school on the GI bill.

From the first night they’d met while studying in the library, they’d been inseparable. She’d loved him blindly until the last night she’d spent in his arms. Although she fought not to remember what had happened, the memory of that night was still vividly etched in her mind and heart.

Saxophone music had filled his small apartment with its husky sound, and when Ted had wrapped her closely in his arms, he’d seemed almost a part of herself. He’d drawn her down onto his studio couch. Soon, his kisses had filled her with such fierce longing her body had arched wantonly against his. But she’d been a virgin, so when his hands had gone to the zipper at the back of her dress, she’d arisen, whispering that she loved him but that she had to go.

He hadn’t acknowledged her words, but his kisses had grown more urgent as he’d pulled her back into his arms. Sex was a physical and spiritual commitment she believed then and believed now, a commitment she owed only to her husband.

Pushing him away, she’d run from his apartment, from him, because she’d lacked the strength to stay.

He had not tried to stop her the second time. But when she’d reached the safety of her dorm room, her cell phone that she’d left on her desk was ringing. When she saw his name light up, instead of answering it, she’d gone into her bathroom and had splashed cold water onto her face.

She wanted him so much, she hadn’t been able to trust herself to talk to him. Later that night when she’d recovered herself, she’d realized how foolishly immature her actions must have seemed to him. When she’d tried to call him to explain, he hadn’t been the one who’d answered.

Kit would never forget the velvet-soft purr of Letitia’s voice. “He’s in bed. Are you really sure you want me to disturb him?”

Kit had choked out some reply.

Letitia was the sensual beauty Ted had had a brief affair with before he’d met Kit. Secretly Kit had always been a little jealous of Letitia, partly because she was so beautiful and partly because Ted had continued to do little favors for her. It seemed he was always repairing a pipe at Letitia’s house or moving a couch for her.

Suddenly Kit had wondered if he’d granted those favors because he still wanted her. When she’d run, had he seen Kit as a silly, little girl, a virgin who couldn’t satisfy his needs?

Kit had felt crushed by her fear that he’d turned to Letitia after her own abrupt departure.

Maybe any woman could satisfy his needs. Maybe Kit had never been more than a conquest. These thoughts had made her decide to take a break from their relationship for a few days.

She had refused Ted’s calls and deleted his emails unread. When she’d finally decided she could face him again, she’d driven by his apartment only to find him outside talking to Letitia who was in her car. Kit had hit the gas and driven home.

Then one of Ted’s fraternity brothers confirmed that Ted had never stopped dating Letitia, so she’d turned to Rodney, a dear friend from her childhood, for consolation. Perhaps it was only natural that they’d drifted into a courtship. When they’d both graduated, their families and friends couldn’t understand why they weren’t anxious to marry.

After she’d heard that Ted had married Letitia and that they’d had had a child, Kit had begun to believe what her mother and all their friends told her—that Rodney loved her and would make a good husband. After all they came from the same kind of backgrounds and shared many interests. Not only that, he loved children and respected her desire to save sex until marriage. She’d almost convinced herself that they could achieve a happy family life together.

But his not showing up last night had made her realize she’d been fooling herself. They had had a comfortable friendship—that was all.

Ted, funny . . . even after five years it still hurt to think of him. Rodney had told her that Ted had returned to Corpus and had become successful. Then she’d moved back herself in the fall of the previous year, but their paths hadn’t crossed. Maybe that wasn’t so odd. He was married and had his own family now, and she’d spent many hours on the high school campus where she taught math or with Rodney. When she’d had free time, her wedding plans had consumed her.

But why was she suddenly thinking of him again? Dreaming of him even? He was married; he belonged to the past. She needed to get over him.

Her long, sooty lashes squeezed tightly shut. If only she could banish him out of her mind and heart as easily as she could close her eyes. But she couldn’t. Too well she remembered how he’d looked the last night she’d spent in his arms when she’d nearly given herself to him.

Copper highlights glinted in his dark auburn hair. His blue eyes had been warm with what she’d taken to be love and tender desire for her as he’d bent his face to hers, his mouth claiming hers in a slow, deliberate kiss.

Sighing heavily, she opened her slanting dark eyes again. Wistfully, she brushed her soft, lips with a fingertip. She could still remember how wonderful his mouth had felt. Then she bit her lip in the hope that the pain would make her stop thinking about her fantasy and him. Dreams didn’t matter, and neither did he.

Fortunately, her father yelled her name and began to bang on her bedroom door impatiently.

She smiled. He was so into his own needs that it never took him long to forget he was supposed to be quiet when Mother had a migraine.

“I married the noisiest man in Texas,” her mother was always saying.

Before Kit could get up to answer the door, he let himself in.

He was as distinguished looking as always, dressed in immaculate, stiffly creased white slacks and a navy T-shirt open at the throat.

Yachting attire. The race! She’d forgotten it entirely. But he hadn’t. She smiled as she remembered how often he’d complained that the wedding activities had been keeping him off his beloved boat.

He tucked his silver winged hair beneath a navy colored captain’s hat. His gray eyes were on her—assessing.

When he saw the pages of the newspaper on the thick pile of blue carpet—pages the wind had blown inside, he bent over and tossed them on a low table.

“How’re you feeling today?”

“Okay.”

For a long moment his eyes lingered with a certain pride on her picture. “Guess I shouldn’t have asked that.”

She was thankful there was no trace of sympathy in his voice. At least, she wouldn’t have to pretend with him.

“I’m doing all right. Really.”

His gray eyes sharpened. “Okay. I see that. You know, just between you and me, I never thought Rodney was the right man for you. Oh, I know his father’s an old friend of mine, and Rodney’s nice enough. But what would he be if you took away his ranch, thoroughbreds, those Santa Gertrudis cattle, oil wells, and that fancy car he drives?”

“Daddy, if you thought that, why didn’t you ever say it?”

“It’s not my place to make your decisions anymore, Kitten. You’re old enough to make your own mistakes. Hell, I’ve made enough of my own to know how easy they are to make. Honey, mistakes are the best teachers.”

She thought about her own students. He was so right. Her students learned by doing, by messing up and redoing.

“Oh, Daddy.” She arose and threw her arms around him. “I should have known you’d understand.”

“I guess Rodney’s sudden hospitalization means he won’t crew for me today in the regatta.” As if embarrassed by her show of affection, Howard Jackson spoke in a gruff, matter-of-fact voice as if the race were the really important thing.

“I suppose not.” She smiled ruefully. “Can you imagine anything more unromantic than a bridegroom agreeing to crew for his father-in-law on the first day of his marriage? I should have refused to marry him for that reason alone!”

“If you had, it would have saved us all a great deal of trouble,” he teased.

“Yes, I know,” she said softly, guiltily.

“There, there. I was only kidding. The important thing is that you’re out of it in time.”

“I. . . I caused a disaster. All the money ...”

“Disaster! Hardly! I know it all seems momentous right now, Kitten. And your mother did work herself up into quite a state last night, but life goes on. When you’re as old as I am, you’ll find out sometimes the crisis that seems to spell disaster is really a blessing in disguise.”

Fingering his watch, his mind on the race once more, he arose. “The start’s at ten. I came here to ask you to go with me. Your mother’s down with one of her headaches. Last night was too much for her. Kitten, why don’t you get dressed and come with me?”

“But I haven’t crewed since high school.”

“Time you got back into the sport. Besides, I really need you. That brash young skipper of Wild Lady is going to give me a run for my money on this one. If I don’t beat him today, he’ll be the first in the series.”

“Wild Lady.” The name pulsated in her brain. It had been the nickname Ted had called her five years ago.

Stubbornly she told herself to quit thinking about Ted.

Anxious to be gone, her father was at the door. “You coming?”

“No! I couldn’t possibly face all those people down there today.”

“Kitten, what is it you think you have to live down? So, they gave a few parties for you and had fun doing it. Real friends want what’s best for you. Besides, we can return all the gifts. And if a few people are critical of you—I wouldn’t care too much what they think because they will have proved they’re not genuine friends anyway.”

“I can’t help it. I feel too guilty to have caused everyone so much trouble when I should have known all along I wasn’t doing the right thing.”

He glanced at his watch impatiently. “Suit yourself!” He gave her one last look before he opened the door and slammed it.

“Mother’s headache,” she chided.

Not that he heard. He was already racing down the stairs. A minute or two later she heard the distant purr of his car in the drive.

No sooner was he gone than Kit regretted her decision to stay behind. At least the excitement of the race would have gotten her mind off everything for a while. Still, if she’d gone, she would have had to face everyone. And she wasn’t ready.

She walked over to the doors that opened onto her balcony to the grounds that overlooked the pool and bay. She would go for a swim . . . and have a sunbath. Surely a long languid sunbath would bake away all her miseries.

Quickly, she pulled on a tan bikini that exactly matched the color of her olive skin. She stepped into a floor-length, see-through lace cover-up. Because of her flesh-toned swim suit, it seemed as though she were nude beneath it.

Not that that mattered—nobody was going to see her.

She grabbed a beach towel from her bathroom and as she did, she glanced into the mirror at her face.

She was a little pale, and maybe her thickly fringed dark eyes were more deeply shadowed than usual. Other than that, she looked okay.

Still, she dabbed at her face with a wet washcloth. Then she brushed her raven-black hair until it shone like silk. As she did she heard the buzz of the doorbell downstairs.

Ignoring the buzz—insistent now—she ran the brush through her shoulder-length hair one last time and put on some lipstick.

Again she heard the buzz. She remembered her mother’s headache. It was Sunday, the maid Maria’s day off. Kit decided to answer the door on her way to the pool.

The buzz was a continual blare throughout the house as she descended the spiral stairs and crossed the gleaming stretch of saltillo tile to stop before the ornate black curve of wrought-iron gates that led to the foyer.

“For heaven’s sake!” Because of her mother, she felt unusually irritable when the caller buzzed again as she struggled with the gate. “Whoever’s out there must be leaning on the doorbell!”

At last she managed to open the gate, and her bare feet were sinking into the thick pile of the Oriental throw rug in front of the door. All was silence as she peered through the peep hole. No one was there.

She opened the door and looked out. Still no one. Nothing to greet her but the humid warmth of a blistering, new day, the first day of summer, at least, it was summer in her mind.

Cautiously she stepped out of the house, and in the distance where the drive curved, she saw a yellow van with bold black lettering on it spelling out, “Bradley’s Rental Center.”

Bradley! The name alone was enough to make her heart beat faster. Her mother’s caterer, who used Jones and Smith Rentals had mentioned the establishment had recently been sold, but because Kit was intent on telling off whomever had been ringing the bell, the change of name didn’t quite register.

The doors at the back of the van were open, and she saw beneath them thrust widely apart two darkly tanned, muscled legs. The man who belonged to those legs was rummaging furiously through the van.

She thought of her mother’s headache, and the violent pain noise could cause her. Briskly Kit walked in the direction of the van. She’d tell him a thing or two—about standing on a doorbell at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.

The man was still hidden from her view by the door of his truck when she began imperiously, “Is there something I can do for you?”

From the depths of the van she heard a deep, masculine voice that sounded vaguely familiar. “I was stopping off on my way down to my boat to check on that tent y’all rented because my store manager called in sick. I want to check the tension on the poles and the tie downs to make sure it’s secure for the day. The weather forecast said the wind’s building.”

She cut him off. “Well, next time when you come to the house you should use the service entrance around back instead of the front door.”

As if in response to her words, something dropped with a resounding clatter inside the van, and the man swore under his breath.

She continued. “My mother’s ill this morning, so I didn’t appreciate the way you kept buzzing.”

A large brown hand gripping the door of the van came slowly into view. And then the man stepped back from the van and out of its shadow—into the brilliant sunlight.

“Hello, to you too, Miss Jackson. And sorry about the noise. But Kit, just so you know—I would never have accepted this order, if I’d owned Jones and Smith Rentals when you’re mother’s caterer placed the order. And as for my being here today—trust me, the last thing I wanted was to catch a glimpse of the—how did the paper put it . . . the stranded bride. But I was forced risk it in order to check on my tent.”

Her mind registered first the sarcasm and then the anger in his voice.

Kit’s fingers—trembling—were at her lips. Her face had probably paled to the color of cream lace at her throat. She took a faltering step backwards. It couldn’t be! It couldn’t be! But it was! It was Ted Bradley! Here! Today—of all days!

          Suddenly she regretted giving up her tiny apartment and moving home before the wedding and her marriage.

This has to be a dream—like the crazy nightmare fantasy I had had the other night.

She blinked once; twice. But he didn’t disappear.

He towered over her—all arrogant six feet, four inches of him. He was older, of course, and a little heavier than he’d been—more muscular, more powerful. There were lines at the corners of his lips and beneath his cobalt blue eyes and between his dark brows that hadn’t been there five years ago. His skin was bronzed, his auburn hair streaked gold from the sun. He was as handsome as always—even more handsome than she remembered.

Just looking at him—and she was aching all over.

It was the dream, making me want things, making me know things, a virgin shouldn’t know.

 Involuntarily she remembered a warm hand sliding up her thigh and the thrill of his molten lips licking her nipples until they peaked.

She shook her head and forced herself to focus on the man before her. He was dressed to sail, but unlike her father he wore cut-off jeans and a blue T-shirt with the name of his boat, Wild Lady, lettered across it in white.

Things her father had said were coming back to her. The rental outfit had been bought by a “brash young lawyer that wouldn’t give an inch.” Her father was tied for first place with the “brash young skipper of Wild Lady.”

She should have known! Why hadn’t she guessed?

Because she’d been wrapped up in denial and confusion about her feelings for Rodney.

Brash! In certain moods the word perfectly fitted the Ted Bradley she remembered. And she thought, “He’s in such a mood now.”

His mouth was curling in contempt as he stared down at her. She’d ordered him to the service entrance. Oh, why had she done that? He’d always had such a complex about money. Her father’s money had intimidated him right from the first. Lines between his eyes deepened as his brows drew together. His eyes were fastened on her face for one long shattering moment, and in that moment it seemed to Kit that time stopped.

Everything—Rodney, the horror of the wedding that hadn’t been, what other people thought—no longer mattered.

She watched Ted draw a deep breath as if he sought to curb whatever emotion was surging through him. He balled his hands into fists and jammed them into the pockets of his cut-offs.

Then his eyes slid from her face down her throat, over her slim body tantalizingly veiled by the lace the wind was swirling around her. Once more he lifted his gaze to hers, and for an instant she thought she saw hurt as well as need in his dark-blue eyes. Then he smiled—insolently.

“So . . . I’m not surprised I’m still not good enough to come to your front door,” he said softly. “You never wanted your family to know you dated me, did you?”

“Ted, I didn’t know, I didn’t mean ...”

“Oh, but you did. Your kind doesn’t have to know or mean. What you said is all part of the lifestyle you take for granted. Your kind walks through front doors while mine walks through . . . service entrances. Maybe I should thank you. You’ve given me the very thing I needed this morning: that extra ounce of determination to beat your dad, to show him this race is one thing his money can’t buy.”

For an instant she felt hurt. Then she was bristling. As usual he’d taken the upper hand, and what had she done really? Nothing but utter an off-hand remark about the back entrance, the service entrance. How could she have known he was in the truck? She bit her lips.

“I see you still haven’t lost your poor-boy chip on the shoulder.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew they were a mistake. He was advancing upon her and seizing her by the wrist, and as always just the touch of him was excitement. She shivered violently as if it  were suddenly cold.

And she’d told herself these past five years she hated him!

She tried to twist out of his grasp, but he was too strong. Easily he pulled her to him as if her strength were nothing. Then he gave her a long, searching look.

“When you walked out on me for Rodney, you taught me once and for all the finer distinctions of class. Rich girls don’t marry poor boys no matter how attracted they are to them. They might enjoy a fling and a little ardent lovemaking with them, but they don’t make it a permanent arrangement.”

His words stung as he’d intended them to. Half-formed thoughts were whirling in her head. A fling . . . a little ardent lovemaking with them ... as if there’d been many men in her life. When there had only been one man and one night. . . one night when she’d nearly gone too far with him. A night when she’d foolishly thought that he’d cared something for her.

She hadn’t run because he was poor but because she’d been old fashioned and had believed such feelings led to marriage. He’d known how she’d felt, but he’d pushed for more that night. He’d been everything to her while she’d probably been just another girl. Hadn’t he hopped into Letitia’s bed the minute she’d fled?

Left him for Rodney? As if she’d wanted to leave him! Rodney had simply been kind enough to help her pick of the pieces of her shattered heart.

The hurt went deep, and angry words rushed to her lips to cover it. But before she could speak, Ted lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her ruthlessly. She struggled wildly, but to no purpose. He released her wrist, and his arms circled her waist. He pressed the softness of her body so that it tightly fitted his—his that was lean and hard and powerful.

Suddenly her anger was draining away, and the old, familiar weakening possessed her. She felt again that old sense of passionate joyful belonging only to him. A strange warmth, an exquisite bliss was filling her.

Then she forgot the old hurt. There was only this moment . . . now. . .

Something deep within her—some inner core of happiness that she hadn’t even remembered was there—was reawakening for the first time in five years. As always the feel of him was delight and vulnerability and turbulent emotion.

She was the girl in the dream; wanting, giving, surrendering.

Ted was back in her life, and when he held her it was as if he’d never gone. It was as if there’d never been the gulf of empty years.

Her fingers were in his hair, parting the thick auburn waves. He had always known exactly how to kiss her and where to kiss her that would most arouse her. His lips traveled a leisurely, searing path from her mouth down her cheek to her earlobe. It seemed to her that her blood became hot waves of liquid fire coursing through her arteries. She felt weak—as if she couldn’t stand without his support, and she clung to him. On a groan, he pressed her even more tightly to him.

She was returning his kisses hungrily. It had been so long. So ... so long since she’d felt like this. Five years. . . . His touch was madness, sweet madness. If only . . . only he would hold her forever.

She felt him stiffen before he pushed her roughly away.

“So?” His mouth curved derisively. “You didn’t forget me!”

“Did too!”

“Right.”

She swore viciously under her breath and wiped at her mouth with the back of her clenched hand, as if to rid herself of his kiss.

He laughed. Then he took a deep, long breath, “And if I’ve still got my poor-boy complex, you haven’t changed much either. You’re still the hot little tease I called Wild Lady.”

“How dare you!”

His eyes were traveling lazily from her face downward, and she grew warm all over. “Yes, I dare! What do you expect? You come out here wearing that lacey thing with nothing under it.”

“For your information,” she said, “I was on my way to the pool, our private pool, when you started ringing the doorbell. I’m wearing a bathing suit under this!”

“Well, you damn sure can’t tell it from here,” he said thickly. His eyes were on her face again, on her lips. He turned abruptly from her and strode back to the van and rummaged through it once more.

She knew that she should go, but for some reason she couldn’t. Ted Bradley was back in her life—if only for this instant, and in spite of or perhaps because of their long separation, her feelings were more powerful for him than they had ever been.

He emerged from the back of the van once more, a tool kit in his left hand. Her eyes riveted to the gold wedding band that gleamed from the ring finger of that hand.

Kit frowned. She’d been so startled it was him that she’d forgotten he was still married to Letitia and had a child.

He’d kissed her behind his wife’s back as if it were nothing to him. He was even worse than she’d imagined. Why did that surprise her? And yet hurt somehow?

“You’re still here?” His quizzical dark brows slanted upward.

“I thought I’d walk with you on my way to the pool . . . through the house,” she said.

“To make sure I don’t steal something? Or am I coming up in the world,” was his sarcastic retort.

“Ted. . . .” She placed her hand on his arm. Her eyes pleaded. “I-I’m sorry for what I said earlier about the service entrance.”

“All right,” he said curtly, pulling his arm away. “Forget it.”

She could not stop herself from thinking that he had been back in her life all of ten minutes and their relationship was exactly as it had been. He had done everything that had caused the harsh feelings between them and had betrayed his wife with that kiss in the bargain, and yet she was apologizing to him.

He was staring deeply into her eyes as if to read her mind and her heart. He looked puzzled suddenly, perplexed. She looked away.

The tool box was clatter on concrete as he set it down and folded her once more into his arms.

“Kit, Kit . . . what is happening to us? It’s almost as if you never left.” His lips were in her hair. “I saw in the paper that you teach high school?”

“I like kids.”

“I thought you were going to be an accountant.”

“Some day. I wanted to try to inspire a few kids first.”

“I’m impressed.”

Even as she felt her body responding to the warmth of his touch and eyes, she reminded herself that he had a wife and a child.

“Aren’t you forgetting . . . your wife?”

Slowly he pushed her from him. “My wife is dead,” he said flatly. “Two years ago she was killed in a car accident. And now I’ll find my own way to the pool . . . through the service entrance ... if you don’t mind.” There was no sarcasm in his voice, only pain.

It was obvious he was not over his wife’s death. In the face of his grief, she could think of nothing to say. Maybe he wasn’t quite as big a jerk as she’d thought.

He swung around on his heels and left her staring open-mouthed after him as he disappeared around the curve in the drive.

The Amalfi Bride

malfi, Italy Her last few days in paradise, so many sights, so little time left to see them. So, what was she doing here, in a bar, wasting her valuable time, lacking the will to hike or to tour one more cathedral or villa? Flirting with a dangerous stranger?

Oh, my God! I'm not flirting with him.

It was late July and warm in the open-air bar, although not nearly as warm as it would be back in Texas. Regina Tomei grabbed her glass of chardonnay and sipped too much, too hastily, spilling a few drops on her chin and neck. Quickly she dabbed at the dribbles with her napkin.

Her lengthy list of cathedrals and the notes she'd written about the Greek ruins fell to the floor. She didn't bother to pick them up. Instead, she stole another quick glance at the tall, dark stranger leaning against the bar across the room.

Who had said, "I can resist anything but temptation?"

The man instantly stopped talking to his short, plump friend and lifted his bottle of beer in a mock salute to her.

Oh, my God! Not again!

He took a slow, long pull from the bottle. Then his gaze touched her throat and lips. She gasped. Involuntarily, her hand with the napkin went to her mouth and then to the hollow of her throat, where her pulse was racing.

The heat of her own fingertips made her imagine his big hands and his lips upon her flesh. She began to perspire, so she fanned herself with the damp napkin.

Then, realizing what she was doing, Regina seized the ornate golden cross around her neck and held on for dear life. She'd bought the necklace from Illusions, an opulent shop she'd discovered tucked away in an alley of charming Ravello near her hotel.

Sightseeing and shopping were her hobbies; not barhopping, not flirting with strange men in foreign lands.

Run!

The man took another pull on his bottle and then stared at the gardenia in her hair. Before she could stop herself, she grazed the velvet petals with a stray fingertip.

Do not touch, signorina, or the petals will turn brown. Regina picked up her camera and set it on her little table. Agitated, her hands flew to her lap, where she clasped them and her napkin, but not for long.

She looked up again, straight at her Adonis. Was it only her imagination, or did his blue eyes blaze with the same intensity as the sapphire Gulf of Salerno behind him? Was she the cause of all that fire?

Heat washed over her and, at her blush, he smiled. Mortified and yet thrilled, too, she picked up her camera and pretended she found her light meter fascinating.

His friend observed all with a raffish grin and then, as if bored, hugged Adonis goodbye.

Oh, my God! The short guy was leaving! He would have to pass by her table!

She buried her face in her hands to avoid conversation, and he chuckled as he passed.

Somehow, the friend's departure seemed significant. Not wanting to think about that, she concentrated on the glitter-ing rings of condensation on the ceramic table from her wineglass.

Rule number one: smart women traveling alone in foreign countries do not pick up strange men, no matter how handsome or friendly or desirable they seem. In particular, women don't pick them up in a bar, even one with whitewashed walls, cascad-ing bougainvillea and lots of sunshine and tourists.

She told herself to grab her camera, get up and walk away! No! Run! She should run like she had last night. She had no idea what sort of person he was.

What if he was a gigolo or, worse, a serial killer?

Her mind returned to the G-word.

A gigolo? Was the blond fellow a pimp? Did gigolos even have pimps? She could write a brief on what she didn't know about gigolos and their business plans.

Regina frowned as she remembered the older woman with the platinum hair, loud makeup and trailing orange veils with whom she'd seen him yesterday in the red Maserati convertible. The woman had caught Regina's attention because she'd spotted the car in front of Illusions earlier.

The driver had been the same elderly shopkeeper who'd sold her the cross, the sentimental little painting of the black-haired boy playing in the sand, the scandalous pink-and-black lace underwear she was wearing now, her skimpy new dress and, of course, the darling white sandals to match.

Yesterday afternoon, when the older lady had dropped him off at the beach near the mooring of the immense white yacht called Simonetta,Regina hadn't thought much about her kissing his dark cheeks so many times. Nor had she wondered why the older lady had been so reluctant to let him go. When the woman had spotted Regina watching them, she'd recognized her and had waved, beaming. When he'd looked at Regina, he'd acted startled and had broken off the embrace.

Suddenly, the little scene took on a darker, more lurid meaning. A gigolo?

And what about that diamond the size of an ice cube on the finger of the regal, middle-aged woman in the black Ferrari with him today? She, too, had driven him to the same beach and had kissed his cheeks almost as ardently as the other, older woman. Only the second woman had had a more commanding air, sum-moning him back to the Ferrari twice.

Now, the stranger's eyes on Regina's bare skin felt like fire. She wished she'd put on something that was more her.

Regina's usual attire back in Austin, Texas, tended to be dull, predictable suits that covered her up, which were appropriate when a young woman was an attorney and made her living in courtrooms.

How ironic that his elderly mistress or client, or whoever the woman was, had sold Regina her revealing white sundress. The same woman had talked her into taking the clips out of her hair, too.

"You very lovely, signorina. With wavy hair down. You need flower in your hair. Special flower from magic bush. Then you get boyfriend for sure. Come. I show you."

Was it so obvious Regina had no lover? No boyfriend? tuous and hidden bells jingling, the woman had led Regina out of the shop down a cobblestone path to a courtyard with a marble statue of Cupid and a thick bush ablaze with gardenias.

"This bush blooms all year. Pick one every day you are here, if you like. And I promise, a miracle will happen. Prometto." Her dark blue eyes had twinkled like a fairy godmother's.

Delighted, Regina had picked one yesterday. Then, this morning, she had gone back for another.

The gulf had a mirror finish; the sinking sun was turning to apricot the villas and hotels that perched precariously on the cliffs. Soon the coast would be magically suffused by the soft, slow twilight she'd come to love.

For as long as she could remember, Regina had wanted to visit the Amalfi Coast. Leaning down, she picked up her list of sights and notes. She should be admiring the mountains trembling steeply above the sea instead of devouring a man who could be a sexual professional.

You probably couldn't even afford him.

Oh, my God!

If he was a gigolo, he obviously thought she could afford him. Why else was he eating her up with his dark blue eyes?

Her throat went so dry that she gulped more chardonnay. Gigolos were losers who preyed on older, lonely women; def-initely not part of her life plan. She should be shocked to the core by her train of thought.

Afford him? She should indict him!

In Austin, she had a reputation for being prim and proper family, understood how strongly she had to focus to accom-plish her goals.

"You're a control freak and frigid!" Bobby had accused after she'd stunned them both, herself and him, by rejecting his marriage proposal.

"Please, let's don't get ugly," she'd said.

"Give me my ring!" He'd bruised her finger when he'd tried to pull it off. "Even though you chased me for a whole damn year, you probably did me a helluva favor."

"I chased you? I gave you my card at a party because I wanted to work for your father's firm."

"Just my luck! He hired you! You may be a good lawyer, but you're one lousy lay." He shoved his chair back and slammed out of the door of their favorite sushi restaurant, leaving her alone with a huge wooden serving dish filled with eels and shrimp and caviar, zero appetite, and the bill.

A lousy lay? Okay, so, yes, she had faked an orgasm or two. But only to make him happy.

What if a talented gigolo was able to teach a motivated student a few naughty tricks and make her sexier in bed?

Susana, her flaky, younger sister had tried to console her. "You're going after the wrong type. I never liked Bobby anyway.

Who wouldn't have to fake orgasms with a man who never thought about anything but billable hours? Just a word though, maybe you should try being more intuitive. And maybe you shouldn't boss guys around so much."

Susana, a housewife, who'd stolen Joe, the one man Regina had loved, had had the gall to give her advice. How had Susana, a college dropout, become the successful sister?

Hello! Susana had given their folks three darling grandchildren. "I'm not that bossy." "Well, don't let your boyfriends see all those lists you make." "I just like to get things done," Regina grumbled aloud to the voices in her head as she crumpled another napkin and wiped the condensation rings on her table.

Intuitive?

She was sitting as far as she possibly could from the sexual professional, if that was indeed what he was. Too aware of his satiny black hair and flirty eyes, she tidied up her table, slipping a fresh napkin under her wineglass. Still, just knowing he was over there, alone now, had her pulse beating like a war drum.

Most of her girlfriends had shocked her by sleeping with strangers at least once, and then describing their sexual misad-ventures in vivid detail over long lunches. But that lifestyle hadn't been for Regina. She'd always known she'd wanted to love and marry a respectable professional man, and she'd accepted dates only from men who met her criteria. She had a long list of criteria.

 

Mistress For A Month

North Shore
Oahu, Hawaii

Wild, zany Aunt Tate dead?

Amelia flipped her cell phone shut. Then her grip tightened on her steering wheel as she rounded a curve of green mountain, and the tall hotels of Waikiki vanished in her rearview mirror. Why couldn't her mother ever just answer the phone?

 

Amy punched in her mother's number once more, and again it rang and rang.

After Aunt Tate's horrid French attorney had told her her aunt had died, Amy had stopped listening for a second or two. The next thing she'd caught was, "She left you everything."

 

Everything should have included only Château Serene and the vineyard in Provence where Amy had once shared sparkling summers with Aunt Tate and her haughty comte, but her aunt had not quite finished the process of donating her extremely valuable Matisse to a French museum before her death. She'd left a letter to Amy in her will stating her intentions regarding the painting, but technically the Matisse was hers, as well.

 

"I'm afraid the property is in a pitiable state of neglect. Luckily for you the young comte is ready to make you a generous offer. Naturally he would like to buy the painting back, as well. Surely it belongs on the wall in the home of the family who's owned it for nearly a century."

 

"The comte's family disliked my aunt. I'm not sure I want to sell to him!"

"But, mademoiselle, the château belonged to his family for nearly eight hundred years."

"Well, apparently everything belongs to me now. Goodbye!"

She'd immediately called Nan, her best friend, who'd been in a sulk because she hadn't gotten to go on a retreat on Molokai with her sister Liz and had asked her to cover for her at Vintage, her resale shop, during the sale today. Then she'd tried to call her mother to tell her about Tate and to ask her if she'd work at Vintage so that she could fly to France to check on the château and vineyard.

 

Imagining her customers lined up outside Vintage, Amy pressed the accelerator, speeding through the mountains and then along the rugged coastline where waves exploded against the rocks. The shop didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Life was short. She wanted Fletcher, her long-time boyfriend. She wanted his arms around her. That was why she was driving as fast as she could to his beach house on the North Shore.

 

Aunt Tate was gone. On a day like this there should be a rogue wave hurtling toward the Hawaiian Islands or an earthquake about to topple the hotels in Waikiki.

 

Despite the wind pounding the hood of her Toyota and streaming past her windows, the North Shore of Oahu with its lush, green mountains and wide, white beaches and ocean was beautiful.

 

Amy felt sad and restless and increasingly nostalgic about Aunt Tate as she kept redialing her mother. If only she could reach her.

I'll never watch Aunt Tate put on one of her crazy getups again. I'll never hear her throaty laugh as she bows extravagantly and jokes about being a countess.

 

The bright blue sky misted. Amy's eyes burned.

No! She wasn't crying!

She was driving too fast, and she never drove too fast. With a shaking hand she dialed her mother again, only this time she mashed her cell phone against her ear.

 

Sounding out of breath, her mother caught the phone on the eighth ring. "Hello!"

"Mom! Finally! The most awful thing has happened! I've been calling you and calling you. For hours." The last was an exaggeration, but her mother deserved it.

 

"Do you need more money? Me to sign another mortgage paper onVintage? Where are you, sweetie?You're breaking up. Isn't today your big day? How's the sale going?"

 

"Mom, I'm not at Vintage. I'm on the North Shore."

"Amelia, I thought we agreed you weren't going to chase Fletcher any more!"

Do moms ever step out of the mom role? The last thing she needed was for her mom to start in on how irresponsible and indifferent Fletcher was. Why had she called her mom, of all people?

 

Because Carol, favorite daughter, her sister, had married well—an English lord, no less. Carol lived on an estate an hour out of London, and it was in the middle of the night over there. Because her best girl buddy, Liz, was in Molokai sitting cross-legged at a retreat. Because Fletcher's phone was turned off as usual. Because Mom was Tate's sister. Because she was her mom, for heaven's sake. And if she had to go to France, who would take care of Vintage?

 

Shells crunched under Amy's tires as she braked in front of Fletcher's unpainted house. As always the house and neighborhood looked so shabby they creeped her out.

 

"Amelia! Tell me you didn't drive out to Fletcher's alone!" Amy gritted her teeth.

"You could do so much better."

"Mother, I'm grown."

"Sometimes I wonder. Carol wouldn't have wasted her precious time—"

"Don't start on Carol, either!"

"This is all your father's fault. He was a loser, but you were his favorite. And you couldn't see through him. You feel comfortable with losers like him."

 

"You married him."

"Don't remind me."

"Mother!"

"Not that I'm glad he left me or that's he's dead, God rest his soul."

From her car Amy nervously scanned the broken-down cars and trucks in Fletcher's front yard. Then she spotted Fletcher's yellow longboard in the bed of his old blue pickup and felt a surge of relief.

 

Her mother sighed.

Amy had never liked the house he'd bought and rented out to surfers or the communal lifestyle that went with it, but real-estate prices were high on Oahu. She was hardly in a position to criticize. Here, people of ordinary means had to compromise. Since the value of her mother's house had appreciated exponentially over the past two decades, Amy had had to move there to save on rent and to help her mom with the property taxes.

 

"Amelia, are you still there?"

Amy's fingers traced the smooth leather of the steering wheel. "Mom, listen. This lawyer from France with a snotty accent and way too much attitude called me."

 

"What did he want?"

"Aunt Tate died in her sleep last week."

"I—I can't believe this. I—I just talked to Tate. She said she'd been to all those parties in Paris."

"Mom, they already had a memorial service. She's been cremated and put in a niche or something at Château de Fournier."

"What? And nobody called her only sister? They stuck her in Château de Fournier? She hated that place!"

"Apparently they just found Tate's address book today." Her mother was silent, in shock, or more likely a sulk. Like a lot of sisters, she and Tate hadn't always been the best of pals. Tate had done what the women in their family were supposed to do. She'd married up, way, way up, landing a French count the third time around. And she'd never let her family forget it. She'd sent newsy Christmas cards every year to brag about parties at châteaux after her glamorous stepson's Formula One races, trips to Monaco and round-the-world cruises on friends' yachts. Her step-children were all celebrities in their own fields. But the main headline grabber had been Remy de Fournier, the handsome, womanizing Grand Prix driver. Not that Tate had boasted much about him lately. Apparently he'd retired from the circuit rather suddenly last year.

 

After one of Tate's bright cards or calls, her mother would sulk for days, blaming Amy's deceased father for never having amounted to anything.

 

"You're not going to believe this, Mom, but Aunt Tate left me everything. Château Serene, the vineyard, even the Matisse."

"What? That painting alone is worth a fortune."

"Aunt Tate intended to donate it to a museum."

"You can't afford to be so generous."

"Mother! Your baby's all grown-up. I'm afraid I need to go over there to settle Aunt Tate's affairs, pack her personal belongings and inspect the property. I hate to impose, but could you possibly watch Vintage?"

 

"I suppose. If it fails, who'll pay the mortgage? I'll need a day, maybe two. After that, I'd be glad to. To tell you the truth, I've been a little bored lately."

 

Which probably explained why her mother tried to run her life all the time.

"Mom, could you help Nan handle the sale today?" This question was met with silence. "Just for an hour or two? Please! Just to make sure Nan's not overwhelmed."

 

Her mother sighed.

Amy thanked her and hung up. Now all she needed was for Fletcher to hold her and make everything feel all right again.

* * *

When Amy opened her car door, the wind tore it from her grasp and whipped her long, brown hair back from her face. Her sandals sank deeply into the shell road, making each step so difficult she was almost happy to step into the high grass of Fletcher's yard. With less annoyance than usual, she picked her way through scratchy weeds, beer cans, fluttering fast-food wrappers and plastic sacks. Usually she hated the flotsam and jetsam of Fletcher's front lawn.

 

Lawn. If ever there was a euphemism.

Today she was too anxious to throw herself into his arms, inhale his salty male scent and cling to him forever, to obsess over her issues with his bachelor lifestyle.

 

He hadn't known Aunt Tate personally, but he'd scribbled Amy a postcard or two when she'd spent those months in France. One-liners, yes, but for Fletcher, that was a lot.

 

When Amy reached the rickety wooden stairs that climbed the fifteen feet to his deck, she noticed four triangular bits of red cloth flapping from the railing. She picked them up, fingering the damp strings and then the triangles of what appeared to be the tops of two miniscule bikinis. When she heard music, she frowned. Was Fletcher having a party without her?

 

A singer cried, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Then the sound of a steel-string guitar accompanied by the heavy thudding of drums.
Her throat tightened, and she flung the bits of fabric savagely into the grass. Avoiding the front door, which stood ajar, Amy put her hands on her hips and marched around to the back of the house by way of the deck. Rounding a corner too fast, she almost stumbled over a bloated male body. His beer gut moved up and down, so he had to be alive. But his shaggy hair was filthy, and his sunburned arms sported several tattoos. She didn't recognize the spider tattoos, so maybe he wasn't one of Fletcher's regular roommates.

 


A boom of deep male laughter accompanied by wild squeals in the Jacuzzi made her heart speed up.

Fletcher.

She turned slowly.  Sunlight glinted in his tousled curls as he squirmed on the edge of the tub while balancing two, topless blondes on his lap.

 

Amy dug her fingers into the railing so hard a splinter bit into her thumb.
 
When she cried his name, Fletcher bolted to his feet.  He wasn't wearing a suit.  To his credit his handsome face turned red.  "Aw, Baby, you should've called."
 
The girls toppled into the Jacuzzi with a splash. Squealing, they grabbed at Fletcher's bronzed legs. 

Horrified, Amy began to back toward the front of his house.

"Baby!"  Fletcher yanked a wet towel off the floor of the deck.  Whipping it around his waist, he stomped toward her, leaving big, drippy footprints on the deck.

 

 
She ran, leaping over unconscious surfer bodies, plates of half-eaten pie and overturned beer bottles, her feet flying down the steps into the chaos of cars in his front yard.  But he was faster.  Springing down the stairs with the agility of an orangutan, he grabbed her arm.

 

 
"Baby, I know you think you've got a right to be mad, and you do, you do, but I can explain."


His voice was slurred, and he reeked of beer.  A smear of lipstick marred his prominent cheekbone.

 She jerked free and stomped past the cars to her Toyota.

"Look, I know I should have invited you to the party," he yelled.  "But you hate my parties.  You refused to move in with me.  You never want to do anything fun anymore.  Ever since you got the store, you act as old and boring as those old clothes you buy and sell.  And when it comes to sex… forget it!  You never want to try anything new."

 

 "Maybe because I'm tired from working all day."

 "Which you throw up to me constantly."

 "Maybe because I want you to grow up."

 "Maybe I'm as grown up as I'll ever be.  I have money.  I bought this house.  I run it.  So what if I don't have a real job?"

 

 She looked at him, at the plastic sacks fluttering like ghosts in the overlong grass, at his unpainted house and then down at the beautiful beach. "Is this all you ever want?" 

"What's wrong with this?  My old man worked himself into an early grave.  Luckily he left me enough so I can get by.  I wake up to paradise every day." 

The blondes, wrapped in towels now, were standing on the deck watching Fletcher.

 
Would Fletcher's girlfriends get younger every year?

 
Amy fumbled in her purse for her keys.  When had everything changed?  Grabbing her keys, she punched a button and got her door open.  Then she slammed it.  As she started her engine, she rolled down her window.  He ambled over and smiled at her.

 

 
Oh, God, his eyes were so startlingly blue, so warm and friendly and sexy even now, but, damn it, her mother was right.  She couldn't live with him. 

But could she live without him?

 
"You know what, Fletcher.  I'm tired of having to feel lucky to be dating the good-looking, popular guy that all the other girls want.  I want to be wanted."
 

"Baby…."

 

"You're not the only one who needs to grow up."  She hit the accelerator so hard her tires slung bits of shell against his bare shins.

 

"Sorry!" she whispered when he let out a yelp.  And she was.  She was sorry for so many things.  Sorry she'd disappointed her mother.  Sorry about her dad…. Sorry about all sorts of dreams that hadn't panned out.

 

A mile down the road, she began to shake so hard she didn't feel she should drive without endangering innocent strangers, so she pulled over.

 

She had always loved Fletcher.  To her, he was still as gorgeous as he'd been in high school.  But this wasn't high school.

 

She flipped her visor down and studied herself in its mirror much too critically.  Normally when she wasn't comparing herself to naked teenagers with Barbie-doll hair and pole dancer bodies, she didn't feel that old.

 

Today she'd been too busy because of her sale to bother with makeup and her hair.  The wind and humidity hadn't helped.  Her brown hair hung in strings. Grief hadn't helped either.  Her hazel eyes were red, and her mascara was running.

 

Images from the past swept her.  She'd gotten a crush on Fletcher in kindergarten.  By the sixth grade, maybe because he'd failed a grade, he'd been almost as tall and cute and golden as he was now.  Back then he'd been reckless and daring and the most popular boy in school, while she, Nan and Liz had been bookworms.  Only one day he'd run up to them at recess and had painted a mock tattoo of a heart on Amy's left arm. Then he'd kissed her cheek and stolen her book.

 

Amy had felt like Cinderella at the ball with her prince.  Her cheek had burned for three hours afterwards until he'd returned her book and had kissed her again.  He'd teased her like that for a few more years.  Then they'd become serious in high school.  Or, at least, she had.  She'd told herself she could wait.

 

She was still waiting.

Not any more!

                          *

London
Three days later

Promise me you won't sleep with her

 

When a man is thirty-five, famous, make that infamous, especially with women, he is likely to resent such a command, especially from his mother—even if she is a countess.

Without warning the slim, young woman his mother wanted him to keep in his sights—for business reasons only--sprinted across the street.

 

Not wanting to alarm her, Remy waited a few seconds before loping after her.

 

He frowned.  His mother had nothing to worry about.  The wholesome Miss Weatherbee wasn't his type.

 

Brown hair, thickly braided.  Hazel eyes.  Not ugly.  But not beautiful.  Non-descript really, except for….  His gaze drifted to her swaying hips again.  Then he remembered all the sexy lingerie he'd watched her buy and wished she weren't forbidden because that made her infinitely more fascinating.

 

From birth, Remy de Fournier, or rather the Comte de Fournier, had had a taste for the forbidden.  His mother and his older, brilliant sisters had only had to tell him not to do a thing, and he'd had to do it.  As an adult he'd liked his cars fast and his women even faster—until the accident a year ago at the Circuit de Nevers at Magny-Cours had turned his life into a living nightmare.  Ever since he'd been living in self-imposed exile in London.

            Yesterday the highest courts in France had decided not to charge him with Manslaughter.  As soon as he could make the arrangements he would be going home, which was why the reason his mother had given for calling him.  She wanted to set up a celebratory lunch in Paris with him and with his first, serious girlfriend, Celine, whom he hadn't seen in years.  

He should have felt relieved that he'd been exonerated, that his mother would even speak to him.  Instead, last night he'd dreamed of the crash and of his steering wheel jamming.  Again he'd felt that horrible rush of adrenalin as he'd fought the curve and the car and lost, hurtling into that wall at 160 mph before ricocheting into Andre's car and then into Pierre-Louis's.

 

With the memory of Andre's terrified black eyes burning a hole in his soul, Remy had dressed and bolted out of his flat at four a.m. to buy coffee, returning to work on the family's portfolio on his computer.  Hours later he'd still been in a cold mood when his mother had called to discuss Celine and her lunch plans and to put him onto Mademoiselle Weatherbee, who was even now sashaying, her cute butt wiggling, glossy red shopping bags swinging against her thighs, toward her sister's flat on Duke Street in St. James.

Why was it that the longer he trailed that ample bottom, the more appealing it seemed to become?

 

Usually he chose leggy blond models or busty blond socialites and princesses, sophisticated women, who knew how to dress.  Celine was his type.  Mademoiselle Weatherbee with her trusting, wide doe eyes and thick brown braid that danced against her shoulders wasn't.  Deliver him from naïve Americans with no sense of style.

 

Still, it was growing easier and easier to look at her.  The worn fabric of her vintage cotton sundress that was spotted with faded blue stripes made her look innocent even as it showed off her slim shoulders, narrow waist, and, okay, hell, emphasized that pert ass of hers and its moves.

 

Nice moves.  Very nice

What the hell would she feel like naked, under him?  Would she writhe? Or just lie there?  Damn, if she were his, he'd make her writhe.

His bossy mother's pre-dawn call had annoyed the hell out of him, much more than usual.

 

"I'm too excited to sleep.  It's all over the Internet.  You're a free man.  And…!  Mademoiselle Weatherbee stayed at her sister's flat on Duke Street in St. James last night!  And will stay there tonight as well!  Since you live so close, I thought maybe you could… check on her."

 

"I have back-to-back commitments before I can leave London."

 

"So far, she's refused all our offers on Chateau Serene, and she seems to want to follow her aunt's wishes about donating the Matisse."

 

"Isn't she on her way to France?"

 

"Tomorrow…."

 

"Well, then negotiate when she gets there.

 

"She's in London to do a little shopping for her store.  I thought maybe you could meet her and work a little of your magic.  But don't take it too far.  She probably doesn't follow Grand Prix headlines, and with any luck, she won't check the Internet and the London papers will ignore you."

 

"I met her once, you know."

 

"Years ago.  If she doesn't recognize you, and you'll know, don't tell her who you are.  No telling what Tate told her about us.  Or you."

 

"This town's enormous.  If I can't call her or knock on her door and introduce myself, how the hell can I meet her without scaring her away?"

 

"Improvise. I'm going to fax you a recent photograph of her and her sister's address."

 

"You want me to stalk her, hit on her and entice her into some pub?"

 

"But be careful.  The last thing we need is more nasty headlines."

 

When she hung up, Remy crushed his paper coffee cup and pitched it in the trash.  No sooner did it hit the can than he heard the fax in his bedroom.  Amelia Weatherbee was not someone he'd ever wanted to see again.

 

Even her photograph brought painful memories.  Holding it to the light he noted the same youthful wistfulness shining in her eyes.  Only now, there was a bit of a lost look in her eyes, a sadness, a resignation.

 

He'd met her only that once.  What was it—seventeen years ago?  He'd been eighteen, she around thirteen.  She'd eavesdropped on a private conversation, and he'd vowed to hate her forever for it even though she'd been kind, especially because she'd been kind.  Who was she to pity him?  Or be kind?

 

Funny, how that same vulnerability in her eyes and sweet smile seemed enchanting and made him feel protective now.

 

He'd forced himself to dress and walk over to her flat where he'd waited outside, reading The Times.  When the varnished doors trimmed in polished brass had finally swung open, and she'd stepped out into the sunshine, he'd shrunk behind his paper.  Armed against the gray sky with a yellow umbrella, she'd looked bright and fresh in her faded cotton dress and scuffed sandals.

 

He'd been trotting all over the city after Mademoiselle  Weatherbee's yellow umbrella and cute butt ever since.  She'd shopped at Camden Market, Covent Garden and then Harvey Nicks and last of all at Harrods' Food Hall. But had she eaten?  Hell no!  So he hadn't eaten either. Because of her, he was starving.

 

Americans.  What sort of barbarian instinct made her skip lunch, a sacred institution to any man with even a drop of French blood?

 

During the lunch hour she'd gone into a nail shop where she'd had a pedicure and had gotten tips put on her ragged nails.  A decided improvement. Still, she'd skipped lunch.

 

At the Camden Market, he'd felt like a damn pervert when she'd fingered dozens of bright, silky bras and panties, holding them up to herself as she tried to decide.  In the end, she'd surprised him by choosing his favorites--the skimpiest and sheerest of the batch.

 

Why couldn't she be the practical schoolteacher sort who wore sensible cotton panties and bras?

 

When she'd paid the cashier, she'd suddenly looked up, straight into his eyes.  He'd been visualizing her in the red, see-through thong, and her embarrassed glance had set off a frisson of heat inside him.   Not good.  Fortunately, she'd quickly thrown the tangle of lingerie into a sack and slapped her credit card on top of the mess.  After that, he'd kept out of sight.

 

But she was nearly back to her flat.  He had to do something and fast.  He'd wasted way too much time already.

 

She was on Jermyn Street, a mere half block from her building, and he was running out of options when a black cab rounded the corner.  He held up his hand and sprinted toward it.

 

Yelling for a taxi, he deliberately bumped Amelia so hard she stumbled.  Her bags tumbled onto the sidewalk, spilling lacy bras and thongs.

 

He dove for the woman, not the silky stuff.  Catching her, his long limbs locking around hers at an impossibly intimate angle.

 

When body parts brushed, she blushed and fought a quivery smile.  He felt a heady buzz of his own.

 

"I'm sorry," he said, letting go of her instantly.

 

Those soft hazel eyes with spiky black lashes stared straight into his, and she turned as red as she had when he'd caught her buying the transparent underwear.  All of a sudden she seemed almost beautiful.

 

"I saw you before…."

 

A shock went through him.

 

Then she said, "At Camden…."

He acted surprised.  "Yes, how very strange.  Do you live around here, too?"

 

"No.  I'm visiting my sister.  She has a flat just…."  As if remembering he was a stranger, she stopped and knelt to pick up her bags and the bright bits of sheer lace and silk.

 

Quickly he knelt and gathered up bras and panties too, tossing them into her bags but holding onto the bags.

 

She backed a way from him a little.

 

He kept his distance.  "If you'd like to have a drink, there's a pub across the street, or there's a tea shop around the corner."

 

A man gave Remy and the black bra dripping from his right hand, a sharp look as he quickly passed by.

 

"I'm really awfully tired," she said.

 

"All right."  He dropped the lacy underwear into the appropriate bag and then handed her her things.

 

Her face burned that adorable shade of scarlet when she looked up at him from beneath those inky lashes that were as sexy as her butt.

 

 

"In that case, I guess it's goodbye," he said.

 

"You're French…."

 

"And alone.  Big city.  I prefer Paris."

 

"Of course.  I… love Paris, too.  I've been there many times.  With my…."

 

She looked wistful. Was she thinking of Tate?  Her quick, sad smile struck a chord inside him.  She'd probably loved Tate very much, he thought. His father damn sure had.  He himself knew what it was to chase ghosts.

 

"Are you here on business?"

 

"Of a sort," he replied.

 

"I like your accent.  It's elegant and yet not snotty.  You know sometimes French people are so …."

 

"I like yours, too," he said before she could insult the French, who were his people after all, which might cause him to defend them. "You're American?"

 

She nodded.  "How did you know?"

 

"Lucky guess."

 

"I'm on my way to France on rather a sad errand."

 

The light left her beautiful hazel eyes again.  "A favorite aunt died.  I-I used to spend every summer at her chateau."

Her chateau?  Like hell.  Still, Tate must have been wonderful fun for a young niece, who had no reasons to be jealous of her just because thecomte had adored her.  For all her faults, his outrageous, American step-mother had made his father happy.  As his own pretentious mother had not.

As he damn sure had not.

Remy's teeth clenched, but when Amelia continued to stare at him, a stillness descended over him.  Her nondescript face with those spiky lashes and naïve gaze wasn't beautiful.  It wasn't.

Why couldn't he stop looking at her then?  Why did he feel so… so….

Aroused was the word he was trying to pluck from the ether.

Abruptly he looked away.

 

She sucked in a breath.  "So, you're French and I'm going to France," she said lightly.  "How that's for a coincidence?"

 

"Yes."

 

"We meet in the market.  And now here again.  Why?"

 

No way could he admit he'd stalked the hell out of her.  "I can't imagine."

 

"Maybe it's fate of something."

 

Fate.  Horrible concept.  He could tell her a thing or two about fate.  Fate had made him the despised bastard of the father he'd adored.  Fate had hurled him into Andre at one hundred and sixty miles an hour and then into Pierre-Louis.

 

She was still rattling on as Remy remembered the long months of Pierre-Louis's hospitalization after the amputation.  But at least he'd….

 

"I mean London is so huge," she was saying.  "What is the chance of that?"  When her shining eyes locked with his again, she must have sensed his darkening mood.  Spiky lashes batted.  "Is something wrong?"

 

Her soft voice and sympathetic gaze caused a powerful current to pass through his body.

He shook his head.

"Good."  Amelia smiled at him beguilingly.  "Then maybe… maybe… I mean if your offer's still open, I think I will have that cup of tea after all… even if we just met."

 

 A cup to tea?  As he stared into her hazel eyes he found himself imagining her naked on cream satin sheets.  Why was that—since she wasn't his type.  He felt off-balance and that wasn't good.

 

 

He should run from this girl and leave the negotiating with her to his agent.  He'd had the same cold feeling of premonition right before the crash.

 

"This is it," he'd thought when his steering had jammed and his tires had begun to skid on pavement that had been slicker than glass.

 

Every time he looked at Amelia pure adrenaline charged  through him.

 This is it.  And there's no way out.

Run.

 

 

The Throw Away Bride

Central Texas, near Austin

Abigail Colins's ranch outside Bastrop, Texas

Early morning, first of June

Predictable Leo Storm had seemed like a safe choice.

When you go to a bar on the rebound intending to dance with a wild cowboy or two, and you end up sleeping with the dullest, safest, most-buttoned-down guy there—your next-door neighbor of all people—you don't expect earth-shattering consequences… in his bed or afterward.

Abigail Collins's eyes burned, and not from mucking out her horse Coco's stall. She was suffering from a bad case of Poor-Me Syndrome.

Greedy, ambitious CEOs like Leo Storm were supposed to play it safe when it came to sex. They were supposed to carry wallets full of condoms and fall asleep after doing it once.

Apparently Leo hadn't read his CEO rule book on said subject. His skill and enthusiastic ardor as a lover had made Abigail's toes tingle and her bones melt. She'd opened herself to him in ways that had caused her to despise herself and blame him the next morning. They'd done it so many times, she'd been tender for days. Needless to say, she'd avoided the heck out of him ever since.

So, the discovery that she was pregnant—by Leo— sucked big-time.

You can have anything you want—as long as you're willing to pay the price, her mother used to say. Trouble was, the price was due, and Abby didn't want to pay.

Ever since she'd found out about her condition last week, she'd been wallowing in self-misery—not that she was proud of such childish behavior.

As soon as she'd gotten up this morning and had finished going to the bathroom, desperation had overwhelmed her again, and she'd flipped the toilet lid down and collapsed on it, sniveling like a baby. A little later she'd had another good cry while knocking her forehead against the wet tiles of her shower.

As if buckets full of tears or regrets—and don't forget whining—did any good. Some things just had to be faced.

Pregnant! By Leo Storm!

She was a control freak and single with no desire for a long-term alliance of any kind after being hurt so badly when her boyfriend, Shanghai Knight, had dumped her.

Since puberty she'd gone for short-term relationships with cowboys like Shanghai; not for boring, bossy, calculating, corporate, money guys without souls like Leo. She'd been the brains, and the cowboys been the brawn.

She licked her lips and wiped the sweat off her brow. Well, she wasn't going to cry again. No use indulging in any more pity parties. She was a big girl—whether she was acting like one or not. She could handle this. She had to handle this.

Which was why she was telling Leo today. Surely she'd feel better once that was behind her. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about Leo's white, drawn face and blazing black eyes the last time she'd seen him. He'd been furious at her. Not only furious—he'd said he was through with her.

Usually being in the barn with Coco, her gentle palomino, soothed her. Not today. Not when she dreaded driving into San Antonio and telling a certain stubborn, macho CEO, who was now refusing to take her calls, that they had a little problem.

Every time she bent over to scoop another pitchfork load of manure and dirty straw into the wheelbarrow, the zipper of her jeans slid a little lower, reminding her of their mutual problem and that night, that one night with him that she'd tried so hard to forget.

Not that he'd wanted to forget. He'd made it very clear he'd wanted her—again and again. He was nothing if not determined. He'd called her both at home and at her office. He'd dropped by, but finally when she'd rejected him for about the tenth time, he'd become so angry he'd issued his ultimatum—which she'd ignored.

Having rid himself of her, he wouldn't be happy to learn that that night was now every bit as impossible for her to forget as it had been for him.

Heaving in a breath, she rested her pitchfork against the wheelbarrow and tugged her zipper back up. She was panting by the time she'd managed it, so she didn't even try to snap the waistband. The jeans had been tight when she'd bought them, but since she'd planned to take off a couple of pounds, she hadn't worried about it.

No chance of losing those pounds anytime soon.

As she stooped to pick up the pitchfork, the cell phone in her back pocket vibrated against her hip. She threw the pitchfork back down hard, and it stabbed a mound of hay so violently that Coco, who was just outside the stall, danced backward, her hooves clattering on the concrete floor.

Oh, God, what if her big darling slipped because of her thoughtlessness?

"Easy girl," she whispered, her tone gentle even as the stench of straw and urine and horse in such close quarters caused nausea to roil in her stomach.

She hoped against hope that Leo had relented and was returning her call like a reasonable individual. Maybe he'd even agree to stop by her ranch house tonight to talk. Much as she would dread seeing him, it would be so nice if she could avoid the drive to San Antonio and the humiliation of fighting her way into his office after he'd made it clear he never wanted to see her again.

Not that she could blame him for that. Her heart knocked as she remembered accusing him of not being able to take no for an answer and of stalking her. He'd hissed in a breath. But she'd seen the acute pain in his black eyes right before he'd whirled, pitched the roses he'd brought her into the trash and quietly walked back to his truck. Later he'd called her and had delivered his ultimatum, which, for some weird reason, she'd replayed at least a dozen times in her mind. Did she enjoy suffering or what?

Instead of Leo's name, the number of In the Pink!, Abigail's own company located on a side street just off Congress Avenue in downtown Austin lit up the blue LED of her mobile phone.

Kel, her executive secretary, best friend, unpaid therapist… and of late, her number-one shoulder to cry on, was calling.

Damn.

Abigail sagged against the wall of the barn. A tear rolled down her cheek as she caught her breath. Then she swallowed and squeaked out a hello that she'd meant to sound chirpy.

"Hey, Abby, do you have a cold or something?"

"Or something." Abigail felt frozen. "This thing has me all messed up."

"I know. Hormones."

Or the terror of Leo Storm, of what he would say and do to her this morning at her news, especially after the way she'd treated him.

"Other than feeling like I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, I'm fine. Never better." Somehow she managed a hollow laugh. "As fine as someone with morning sickness can be, mucking out a stall… before they face a firing squad."

"You need to hire somebody for that yucky-mucky stuff now."

A city girl through and through, Kel didn't get horses.

"I know. You're right. I will."

"So, anything I need to know before I start scheduling your day?"

"Yes. I-I'm going to tell him… today."

"Oh? When exactly?"

"This morning! First thing!"

"Wow. Well, finally!"

"Putting it off is driving me crazy. The only problem is it looks like I'm going to have to track him down. He won't return my calls."

"You should have listened to your smart secretary. Didn't I tell you, you should call him and apologize—"

"Smart-assed secretary!"

"Big-assed, too." Kel laughed. "And getting bigger. Jan brought in two dozen donuts this morning coated with yummy strawberry goo. I'm inhaling my second."

"Okay. Well, I didn't call him back or apologize. And ever since, he's avoided the ranch and me. Now he won't even take my calls or call me back."

"Why are we surprised?"

"I said it was urgent. I've left several messages with his secretary, too. Yesterday, she actually got snappy and said he had no intention of returning my calls. I can't tell you how humiliating that was. I'm not about to tell a witch like her to tell him I'm pregnant with his child, so I guess I have to drive over there."

"Right. You think you'll getbackhere this afternoon?"

"After lunch. I'll probably be a basket case after seeing him."

"Do you want me to cancel your afternoon?"

"No!"

"Is there anything I can do?" Kel's voice was soft with concern.

"Just be your smart-assed self and put out any and all home fires."

"Don't worry about us," Kel said. "Just take care of you."

They hung up.

Abigail's hands began to shake again as she slid her phone in her back pocket. Compulsively, she began marching back and forth in the barn, straightening tack that didn't need to be straightened, lining up bottles and brushes on shelves, trying to feel she controlled something. She got a broom and began to sweep the feed that Coco had shaken out of the feed sack when she'd grabbed it by her teeth earlier.

Coco walked up and lowered her head almost apologetically. It was her way of begging for her favorite treat, a mixture of oats and molasses.

"Not today, big girl. Not after this big mess you made!"

Setting the broom against the wall, Abby pushed the wheelbarrow full of dirty straw outside the barn and up a small hill where she dumped it before heading toward the house. Coco, who adored her, trailed behind her in the hope of being stroked or fed, but Abby was too distracted to notice her as she usually did.

Pregnant! By Leo….

Even though Abigail had taken the pregnancy tests a week ago—three of them—she still couldn't believe she was in this mess. She was a businesswoman, an entrepreneur with a staff of forty, the owner of her own ranch. Make that a ranchette. But still… she was la capitana of her ship! Even if she'd sailed headlong into the rocks.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. Quickly she scrolled down to Leo's cell number and punched it. Once again she listened to it ring until his voice mail picked up. So, he still refused to answer. She flipped her phone shut and began to pace.

So what else was new? She'd watched him screen his calls, so it was easy to imagine his black eyes grimly eyeing her name before his jaw tightened and he thrust...

 

The Bride Hunter

Albuquerque, New Mexico

His large body humming with tension, Connor Storm fixed on his prey. The woman, who went by the alias Anna Barton, had eluded his top investigator. Now she was sipping the coffee she'd just bought at the kiosk behind her. Connor was trying to keep out of her line of vision by standing behind a pillar while they both waited for their plane to be called.

Her face was fine boned, her shiny hair dark blond and shoulder length. He liked long hair. He didn't like the fact that he was suddenly imagining his big hand grasping her thick mane and pulling her closer.

Damn. First time since Linda he'd thought like this about a woman. He must be coming back to the land of the living.

This is a job. For Leo. You owe your big brother. There are a lot of other fish in the sea. Yada, yada.

At five foot seven, his target was slim and athletic—and very pretty.

Don't think about very pretty.

Their plane was an hour late due to bad weather. He glanced impatiently at his watch and out the large window again. The snow had let up. He could see the end of the runway now.

A woman's voice came over a loudspeaker and announced their plane would be boarding at Gate 10 instead of Gate 14. The crowd in the Gate 14 waiting area stood up and began gathering briefcases and laptops. Anna Barton jumped away from the kiosk as fast as a bird taking flight and rushed toward their gate.

His cue to pursue and capture.

Planting his Stetson firmly on his blond head, Connor Storm charged after her, his boot heels ringing so loudly on the airport terminal floor that she whirled, her hazel eyes wide with alarm.

Perhaps on the lookout for the creepy boyfriend who'd been stalking her?

"Hey, miss! You'll need this if you want to board that flight anytime soon!" he yelled.

When the elusive woman he'd been paid so much to find stopped, Connor froze midstride.

Distrust was written all over her. Her gaze traveled the length of him before flitting away. Connor was suddenly glad he'd taken Sam Guerra off this assignment and come himself.

Her tall, slender body fairly shook with tension. Clearly she still didn't trust strangers, especially if they were broad-shouldered men who could easily overpower her. Her boyfriend, Dwight Crawford, must have been an even worse nutcase than his P.I.'s reports had indicated.

Connor tipped his Stetson back and attempted one of his easy smiles.

She stiffened.

He broadened his grin. Then he flapped the boarding pass he'd removed from her purse while she'd been too busy counting change to buy coffee.

"I was behind you in line when you dropped this," he lied, feeling only a slight pang of guilt at his easy falsehood.

He was a private investigator. P.I.s had to make stuff up in the line of duty, right? They had a nice word for it, too. Pretext, they called it.

Her face remained pinched, her eyes wary. He'd had his guy on her tail for a while. Every time he had gotten close, she'd run, changing her identity.

Her creamy skin was pale and looked so soft, Connor wanted to touch it. Damn, the pretty factor was becoming a problem.

This was a job. For Leo, he reminded himself.

Her big, slanting eyes seemed so vulnerable and scared, he had half a mind to track the boyfriend down and teach him a lesson. A woman who'd gone through what she had as a child didn't deserve some slimeball like Crawford scaring her again.

She lifted her nose. She was slim and statuesque. She had class. With her heritage, he'd expected no less. In Texas, anybody connected to the Golden Spurs ranching empire was royalty.

His job was to take her home. Period.

Funny, how she wore her hair down just like Abby did. He'd read separated twins did stuff like that. Still, the start-lingly similar hairdo made her look so exactly like his brother Leo's wife, Connor drew in a sharp breath. Not that he should have been surprised at the resemblance—after all, she was Abby's long-lost kidnapped twin.

What was strange was his powerful reaction to her. Hell, he'd never felt blistering heat when staring into his sister-in-law's eyes.

"Becky," he whispered, gut-sure he'd found the Golden Spurs heiress.

At the name, Anna shivered. Her big, haunted eyes widened.

"Becky? I don't know who you're looking for, mister," she said, "but it's not me."

"Sorry," he said. "Right. For a second you looked like somebody I know."

Her patrician nose tilted higher.

"You're Anna Barton, and you're not going anywhere without your boarding pass."

Maybe she wasn't listening, because she turned and marched quickly toward their gate.

"Anna Barton!" he yelled after her.

She speeded up, so he sprinted, catching her in two long strides.

"Anna! Anna Barton!" When she still didn't stop, he grabbed her arm, maybe a little too forcefully, because when he spun her around, she toppled straight into him, her paper coffee cup flying out of her hand.

"Ohhhh," she ground out. "Let me go!"

Other passengers turned to stare. Fortunately, no security guards were nearby.

"Sorry about that," he said, his voice muffled against her hair. His grip loosened. "I owe you a cup of coffee."

In those seconds that he held her, he felt the heat of her slim body squirming against his own, smelled the floral scent of her perfume and the soapier, sweeter fragrance of her shampoo. Her hair felt like silk against his mouth. The urge to coil a length of it around his fist and pull her even closer was becoming way too strong.

A twist of his head brought his lips mere inches from hers. When he found himself staring down at her lips, his heart raced.

"You are Anna Barton?" he growled huskily, holding up her boarding pass.

Reading her name, her wide eyes accused him. Then she snapped it out of his fingers and shoved it into her purse. "Why did you call me Becky a while ago?"

"A thank-you would be nice."

"I asked you a question," she said.

"Like I said, you… er… look like someone I used to know."

"Well, I'm not her. I've never seen you before in my