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.