After the first two miles of hard running, Eve pulled Whitefoot back to a slower pace and began looking for the landmark Donna Lyon had described with her dying words.
All Eve saw to the west was the steeply rising Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. No ravine or shadowed crease in the land looked more inviting or more passable than any other. In fact, had she not already known that there was a pass through the looming peaks, she would have thought none existed. The rugged stone summits thrust straight into the blue afternoon sky, with little more than a notch here or there to hint at possible ways through the ramparts.
Nobody rode nearby. There were no houses, no farms, no settlements. All Eve could hear above the sound of Whitefoot’s deep breathing was the long sigh of the wind from the granite peaks. Pearly clouds wreathed some mountaintops, hinting at the afternoon and evening storms that flashed through the Rockies in summertime.
Eve had hoped for a good hard rain to hide her tracks, but she wasn’t going to be that lucky. The clouds weren’t nearly thick enough to help her out.
«Sorry, Whitefoot. We’ll have to keep running,» she said aloud, stroking the horse’s hot brown shoulder.
Her eyes searched the landscape once more, hoping to see El Oso, the bear-shaped mound of boulders described by Donna and the old journal.
No such pile of stones lay within view. There was nothing to suggest which way Eve should go to find the entrance to the ravine that would ultimately lead to a pass through the massed peaks.
Anxiously she turned and looked over her back trail. Behind her the rumpled land fell away in shades of green until the horizon came down on the plains, blurring everything into a gauzy, glittering blue.
Abruptly Eve stiffened and shaded her eyes, peering over her back trail.
«Perdition,» she muttered. «I can’t tell whether that’s men or deer or wild horses or something else entirely.»
What Eve’s eyes couldn’t make out, her instincts did. With her heart wedging in her throat, she kicked Whitefoot into a canter. She wanted to go at a fast gallop, but the land was too steep. If she ran Whitefoot any harder, she would find herself afoot before sunset.
Earth spurted and rocks rolled as Whitefoot cantered along the vague trail that ran parallel to the Front Range. In some places the trail was wide enough for a wagon. In others it unraveled into footpaths leading to sheltered places where people could camp out of the endless wind.
Each time Whitefoot crested a rise, Eve looked back. Each time the men following her were closer. If she didn’t do something, they would catch her before dark. The thought was enough to chill her more deeply than the wind blowing down from icy peaks.
Finally Whitefoot came to a ravine that held an odd pile of boulders and a brawling little stream in its bottom. The boulders didn’t particularly look like a bear to Eve, but Donna had warned her that the Spaniards who drew the map had been alone in the wilderness so long that they saw fanciful things.
Eve urged Whitefoot around the mound that might or might not be El Oso. Once past the rocks, she turned her horse in to the stream and kept him in the water until the going got too rough. Only then did she allow the gelding to splash out across a swath of stony ground. Whitefoot’s hooves left small marks and scrapes across pebbles to mark his passage, but it was better than the clear trail he had left in softer ground.
Zigzagging, guiding the horse alongside or actually in the stream, heading ever deeper into the wild mountains, Eve rode into the thick gold light of afternoon. Her legs were chapped from the rubbing of the old saddle and cold from exposure to the wind, but she didn’t dare stop long enough to change into Don Lyon’s old clothes.
As soon as the way became less steep, Eve reined Whitefoot back into the stream. This time she kept him wading for more than a mile before she found stony ground that wouldn’t take hoofprints.
She checked the journal and looked around unhappily. She was at the limit of the countryside covered by the journal. Soon she must turn and take a long, winding valley westward, following the grass like a river to its source high in the peaks, a divide marking one side of the range from the other.
But before she crossed that divide, she had to lose the men who were following her.
SLATER stood in his stirrups and looked down his own back trail. Nothing moved but the wind. Even so, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed. Slater was a man accustomed to listening to his instincts, but he was getting tired of having his spine itch when there was nothing more to show for it than an empty back trail stretching all the way to Canyon City.
«Well?» he asked impatiently as his best Comanchero scout rode up.
Crooked Bear held his cupped right hand to his mouth and then brought his hand across to his right shoulder in the sign for river.
«Again?» Slater asked in disgust. «Her damned horse must be part fish.»
Crooked Bear shrugged, made a sign for wolf, and then for small.
Slater grunted. He had already had a sample of the girl’s cleverness at the card table. He didn’t need any further proof that she was as fast and wary as a coyote.
«Did you see that red dress of hers?» Slater asked.
Crooked Bear signed an emphaticno.
Slater looked at the clouds. «Rain?»
The Comanchero gave a Frenchman’s shrug.
«Crooked Bear,» muttered Slater, «someday you’re going to piss me off. Go over the ground again. Find her. You hear me?»
The half-breed smiled, showing two gold teeth, two gaps, and a broken tooth that hadn’t hurt enough to be pulled.
SHIVERING with a combination of cold and fear, Eve watched the Comanchero quarter the stream banks one last time, looking for her tracks. When he dismounted, she held her breath and looked away, not wanting to somehow call attention to herself by staring at him.
After a few minutes, the temptation to look was too great. Eve peered carefully through the greenery and rocks that studded the long slope between her and the stream. The low cry of the wind and the mutter of thunder from a distant peak shut out any sounds the men below her made.
Slater, Crooked Bear, and five other men were quartering the stream bank. Eve smiled slightly, knowing she had won. If Crooked Bear couldn’t find her tracks, no one could. The Comanchero was almost as famous throughout the territory for his tracking abilities as he was for his savage reputation with a knife.
It was an hour before Slater and his men gave up. By then it was almost dark, a light rain was falling, and they had thoroughly trampled whatever signs Whitefoot might have left coming out of the river.
Breath held until it ached, Eve watched Slater’s gang mount and ride out of sight up the stream. Then she scrambled back off the slope and went to Whitefoot, who was waiting patiently, head down, more asleep than awake.
«Poor boy,» she whispered. «I know your feet are sore after all those stones, but if you had been wearing shoes, Crooked Bear would have found us for sure.»
Despite the urgency driving Eve to get over the Great Divide, through the San Juan Mountains and down into the stone maze described by the Spaniards, she knew she had to make camp within a few miles. Whitefoot had to have rest, or he wouldn’t be able to take her over the Great Divide.
Once the divide was behind her, somewhere between the summit and the stone canyons the journal described, she had to find a way to get Whitefoot shod, buy a packhorse, and gather the supplies she would need for the trek.
But what Eve really needed to buy was a man she could trust, someone who would guard her back while she hunted for the lost mine of Cristobal Leon, ancestor of Don Lyon, descendant of Spanish royalty and holder of royal permission to seek gold in the New World holdings of the Spanish Crown.
I might as well wish for a fairy godmother as for a strong man I can trust with gold. Weak men cherish and strong men destroy.
Makes a woman wonder what God was thinking of when He created man.
AS soon as Slater rode off, Reno collapsed the spyglass, wriggled down off the rocky rise, and went back to where his horse and the three pack animals loaded with winter supplies waited. His mare’s black nostrils flared at his scent. She snorted softly and extended her muzzle to him for a bit of rubbing.
«Hello, Darlin’. You get lonely while I was gone?»
Soft lips whuffled over his fingers, leaving a feeling of tickling warmth behind.
«Well, you won’t be lonely much longer. Crooked Bear finally got fed up with the game. If we hurry, we’ll be able to pick up her trail before sunset.»
Reno climbed into the saddle, stroked the mare’s neck with a strong, leather-clad hand, and reined the blue roan toward a steep slope. Working quickly, the horse zigzagged down into a ravine that ran roughly parallel to the place where Crooked Bear had lost the trail. The packhorses followed without being led.
«If we’re really lucky,» Reno said, «before breakfast we’ll see if that girl knows any more tricks than cold-decking, bottom-dealing, and setting men up to be killed.»
FROWNING, edgy despite the empty back trail, Eve held Whitefoot still and listened. She heard nothing but the hushed rustling of raindrops sliding over leaves.
Finally she turned and led Whitefoot toward the vague notch where the journal assured her there was a place to camp at the base of a cliff. There was shelter from the rain, a small spring set amid moss and ferns, and a view of the surrounding countryside. All she would need was someone to stand guard while she slept.
It was full dark before Eve and the footsore gelding reached the campsite. The flat white disc of the rising moon had just cleared the peaks.
Talking softly to Whitefoot, feeling more alone than she had since Don and Donna Lyon died, Eve tended to her horse, ate a cold supper, and fell into the meager bedroll she had scrounged from the contents of the Gypsy wagon. She was asleep immediately, too exhausted by the sorrow and danger of the past week to keep her eyes open.
When she woke up at dawn, the stranger with the light green eyes and fast gun was calmly going through her saddlebags.
Eve’s first thought was that she was still dreaming, for the man’s accusing eyes had haunted her sleep, making her twist and turn restlessly. In her dreams she had been trying to get closer to the handsome stranger by dealing perfect hands to him, but each time he had seen the heart flush, he had thrown in his cards and walked away from the poker table, leaving her alone.
Now that Eve was awake, getting closer to the dangerous man who was going through her saddlebags was the last thing on her mind. Beneath the blankets, her hand began easing very slowly toward the shotgun that had been Donna Lyon’s preferred weapon. Following Donna’s example, Eve had slept with the shotgun alongside her bed since Donna’s hands had become too crippled to hold the weapon.
Through barely opened eyes, Eve assessed the intruder. Her breathing didn’t change. Nor did she shift her position in any noticeable way. She didn’t want the gunfighter who was so coolly rummaging through her possessions to know she was awake. She remembered all too well how fast he could draw and shoot.
There was a faint whisper of sound as the man pulled his hand out of the saddlebag. Pearls gleamed like moon-drops in the pale early morning light.
The sight of the jewelry draped across his lean, long-fingered hand intrigued Eve. The contrast between smooth and pale, tanned and powerful, sent an odd cascade of sensation from her breastbone to her belly. When he let the sleek, cool strands slide between his fingers as though savoring the pearls’ curves and texture, another sensation rippled through her.
Gusts of wind sighed through the hidden camp, setting the pines to swaying and murmuring among themselves. Beneath the moving boughs, sunlight retreated and returned, concealing and revealing the stranger’s features.
Eve tried not to stare, but found it impossible. She reminded herself that she had seen more attractive men, men with more perfect features, men with gentle eyes and mouths eager to smile. There was no reason for this hard stranger to appeal so deeply to her senses. There certainly was no reason for him to have haunted her dreams.
Yet he had. Without the dangerous card game to distract Eve, she was even more curious about him than she had been when he first sat down and took cards in the poker game.
Reno ran the pearls through his fingers one more time before he slipped them into a fawnskin bag and put them in his jacket pocket.
The next thing his fingers encountered in the saddlebag was a length of soft leather wrapped around something and tied with a worn leather thong. Curious, Reno pulled out the bundle and unwrapped it. Two long, slender metal rods with a notch in the blunt tips fell into his palm with a faintly musical sound.
Be damned, Reno thought. Spanish dowsing needles. Wonder if she’s skilled enough to use them.
Thoughtfully Reno wrapped up the large, blunt «needles» and put them back in the saddlebag.
The next thing his fingers encountered was the worn, dry leather of the Spanish journal. He opened it, flipped through it quickly to make certain it was the right one, and transferred it to his own saddlebags.
The rest of the contents of the girl’s saddlebag made Reno feel frankly uneasy about reclaiming his winnings from the pretty little cheat. All she had in her kit was a boy’s jacket, the scarlet dress, another dress made of flour sacks, and a boy’s ruffled white shirt and black pants. The gold ring was nowhere in sight. Nor was the handful of coins she had scooped up with the ring.
It was obvious she was way down on her luck. On the other hand…
«You keep moving your fingers toward that shotgun,» Reno said without looking up, «and I’m going to drag you out of that bedroll and teach you some manners.»
Eve froze, stunned. Until that instant she would have sworn the man hadn’t even known she was awake.
«Who are you?» she asked.
«Matt Moran.» As he spoke, he stuffed clothes back into the saddlebag. «But most folks call me Reno.»
Eve’s eyes widened to startled pools of gold. She had heard about the man called Reno. He was a gunfighter, but he never looked for battles. Nor did he hire out his lethal skills. He simply went his own way through the wild country, looking for placer gold during the high-mountain summers and for Spanish gold in the red hush of desert winter.
For a few crazy moments, Eve thought of bolting into the underbrush and hiding until Reno gave up and rode away. Almost as soon as the idea came, she abandoned it.
Reno’s aura of lazy grace no longer fooled her. She had seen him move in the saloon, his hands so fast they blurred. The Lyons had often praised Eve’s quick fingers, but she had no doubt that the man called Reno was faster than she was. She wouldn’t get three steps from her bedroll before he caught her.
«Don’t suppose you’d want to tell me where my ring is?» Reno asked after a moment.
«Yourring?» Eve asked indignantly. «It belonged to Don and Donna Lyon!»
«Until you stole it and lost it to Raleigh King, and I won it from him,» Reno said, shooting her a glance out of eyes like green ice. «Then it became my ring.»
«I didn’t steal it!»
It wasn’t a warm sound.
«Sure, gata,» he said sardonically, «you didn’t steal the ring. You just won it in a card game, right? Was it your deal by any chance?»
Anger rippled through Eve, driving out the odd sensations that had bothered her since she had seen the delicate pearls held so gently in Reno’s hand. With the surge of anger came a diminishing of her caution. Once more her hand eased toward the shotgun that lay just beyond her blankets.
«Actually,» Eve said in a clipped voice, «the ring was taken at gunpoint from a dying man.»
Reno gave her a disgusted look and went back to rummaging in the saddlebag.
«If you don’t believe me —» she began.
«Oh, I believe you, all right,» he interrupted. «I just didn’t think you’d be so proud of outright robbery.»
«I wasn’t the one holding the gun!»
«Had a partner, did you?»
«Damn you, why won’t you listen to me?» Eve demanded, furious that Reno thought her a thief.
«I’m listening. I’m just not hearing anything worth believing.»
«Try shutting up. You might be amazed at the things you learn with your mouth closed.»
The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted slightly, but it was the only sign he gave that he had heard Eve. Almost absently he groped in the saddlebag, searching for the ring. The cool, unmistakable feel of a gold coin brought his full attention back to his search.
«Didn’t think you had time to spend anything,» Reno said with satisfaction. «Old Jericho didn’t let any grass grow under his feet before he —»
The words ended abruptly as Reno tossed aside the saddlebag and uncoiled in a swift lunge that ended with the shotgun being yanked from Eve’s fingers.
The next thing Eve knew, she had been jerked from beneath the covers and was dangling from Reno’s powerful hands like a sack of flour. Fear shot through her. Without thinking, she brought her knee up fast and hard between Reno’s legs as Donna had taught her to do.
Reno blocked the blow before it could do any damage. When Eve went for his eyes, he buried his face against her throat and took her down to the ground.
Before Eve knew what had happened, she was stretched out flat on her back, unable to fight, unable to defend herself, unable to move at all except to take tiny, shallow breaths. Reno’s big body covered every bit of hers, driving the air from her lungs and the fight from her body. The bedroll’s thickness did little to cushion her from the hard ground beneath her.
«Let me go,» she gasped.
«Do I look like a fool?» he asked dryly. «God only knows what other nasty little tricks your mama taught you.»
«My mama died before I ever knew her face.»
«Uh-huh,» Reno said, obviously unmoved. «I suppose you’re a poor little orphan child with no one to look after you.»
Eve gritted her teeth and tried to get a grip on her temper. «As a matter of fact, I am.»
«Poor littlegata,» Reno said coolly. «Stop telling me sad stories or I’ll cloud up and cry all over you.»
«I’d settle for you getting off of me.»
«You’re crushing me. I can’t even breathe.»
Reno looked at the flushed, beautiful, furious face that was only inches from his own.
«Odd,» he said deeply, «you’re not having a bit of trouble talking at thirty to the dozen.»
«Listen, you overgrown, overbearing gunfighter,» Eve said icily. Then she corrected herself. «No, you’re not a gunfighter. You’re a thief who makes his living robbing people who are too weak to — mmph!»
Eve’s words had been effectively cut off by Reno’s mouth closing over hers.
For an instant she was too shocked to do anything but lie rigid beneath his warm, overwhelming weight. Then she felt the sure thrust of his tongue between her teeth and panicked. Twisting, kicking, trying to throw him off, she fought with every bit of strength in her body.
Reno laughed without releasing Eve’s mouth and deliberately let himself sink down over her, pinning her to the ground with his much greater weight, absorbing her struggles without in the least stopping the sensual probing of his tongue within her mouth.
Eve’s wild, futile fighting did nothing but wear her out and make her desperate for air. Yet when she tried to breathe, she couldn’t, for Reno’s weight was too great to shift from her chest even the bare inch she needed.
The world began to go gray, then black, receding from her in a rush, spinning away.
The small, frightened sound Eve made as she felt herself fainting did what none of her struggles had accomplished. Reno lifted his head and body just enough to allow her to breathe.
«That’s your second lesson,» Reno said calmly when Eve’s dazed gold eyes focused on him once more.
«What — what do — you mean?» she gasped.
«I’m faster than you are. That was your first lesson. I’m stronger than you are. That was your second lesson. And the third lesson…»
Reno smiled oddly, looked at Eve’s trembling lips, and said huskily, «The third lesson was mine to learn.»
He saw her wide, confused eyes and smiled again.
This time Eve understood why the smile seemed odd to her. It was much too gentle to belong to a man like Reno Moran.
«I learned that you taste hotter than whiskey and sweeter than wine,» he said simply.
Before Eve could say anything, Reno lowered his head once more.
«This time give it back to me, gata. I like it hot and deep.»
«What?» Eve asked, wondering if she had lost her mind.
«Your tongue,» he said against her open mouth. «Take that quick little tongue and rub it over mine.»
For an instant Eve thought she had heard wrong.
Reno took her sudden stillness for agreement. He lowered his head and made a husky sound of pleasure as he tasted her once more.
The sound Eve made was pure surprise at the gliding caress. For the space of a heartbeat she felt like a pearl being delicately held by a powerful hand. Then she remembered where she was and who Reno was and all the warnings Donna had given her about the nature of men and what they wanted from women.
Eve jerked her head aside, but not before she had felt the hot, textured surface of his tongue rubbing over her own.
«No,» Eve said urgently, frightened again.
But this time it was herself she feared, for a curious weakness had shot through her at the caressing touch of Reno’s tongue.
Donna Lyon had warned her bond servant about what men wanted from women, but she had never warned Eve that women might want the same thing from men.
«Why not?» Reno asked calmly. «You liked kissing me.»
«Like hell, gata. I could feel it.»
«You’re — you’re a gunfighter and a thief.»
«You’re half-right. I’ve fought with my gun. But as for being a thief, I’m only taking what is rightfully mine — the pearls, the ring, the journal, and the girl with the golden eyes.»
«It wasn’t a fair poker game,» Eve said desperately as Reno bent down to her once more.
«Not my fault. I wasn’t the one dealing.»
Reno brushed his mouth lazily over Eve’s and listened to the surprised rush of air between her lips.
«But —» she began.
«Hush,» Reno said, cutting off Eve’s protest by biting her lower lip gently. «I won you and I’m going to have you.»
«No. Please, don’t.»
«Don’t worry.» Slowly Reno released Eve’s lip. «You’ll like it. I’ll see to it.»
«Let me go,» Eve said urgently.
«Not a chance. You’re mine until I say otherwise.»
He smiled and kissed the frantic pulse in her throat.
«If you’re real nice,» he said in a low voice, «I’ll let you go after a few nights.»
«Mr. Moran, please, I didn’t mean to lose the bet. It’s just that Mr. Slater was watching too closely.»
«So was I.»
Reno lifted his head and looked down at Eve curiously.
«You dealt every card of mine off the bottom of the deck,» he said. «Why?»
Eve spoke quickly, trying to keep Reno’s attention on anything but the sultry, sexual heat that made his eyes burn like gems.
«I knew Raleigh King and Jericho Slater,» she said. «I didn’t know you.»
«So you set me up to be killed while you ran off with the pot.»
Eve couldn’t help the guilty flush that crept up her cheeks.
«I didn’t mean it to turn out that way,» she said.
«But it almost did, and you didn’t do a damn thing to stop it.»
«I shot at Steamboat when he was drawing down on you!»
«With what?» Reno scoffed. «Did you throw a gold coin at him?»
«My derringer. I keep it in my skirt pocket.»
«Handy. Do you have to shoot your way out of many card games?» Reno asked.
«Pretty good cheater, huh?»
«I don’t cheat! Not usually, anyway. I just…»
Her voice died.
Amused and skeptical at Eve’s difficulty in finding the right words to explain how she was innocent when both of them knew she wasn’t, Reno lifted one black eyebrow and waited for her to continue.
«I didn’t know until too late that Slater knew I was cheating,» Eve admitted unhappily. «I knew he was cheating, but I couldn’t catch him at it. So I lost to you when I should have stayed in and called Slater.»
«The emerald ring,» Reno said, nodding. «With the cards you threw in, you should have hung around for at least one draw. But you didn’t. So I won that hand, because Slater hadn’t had time to deal himself the rest of his full house.»
Eve blinked, surprised by Reno’s quickness. «Are you a gambler?»
He shook his head.
«Then how did you know what Slater was doing?» she persisted.
«Simple. When he dealt, he won. Then you started dropping out too soon, and I started winning hands I shouldn’t have.»
«Your mama didn’t raise any stupid children, did she?» muttered Eve.
«Oh, I’m one of the slow ones,» Reno said in a lazy drawl. «You should see my older brothers, especially Rafe.»
Eve blinked as she tried to imagine anyone faster than Reno. She couldn’t.
«All through explaining?» Reno asked politely.
Reno bent just enough to cover Eve’s mouth with his own. When he felt her tighten beneath him as though to fight again, he settled more heavily on her, reminding her of the lesson she had already learned: When it came to a contest of strength, she didn’t have a chance against Reno Moran.
Tentatively Eve relaxed, wondering if Reno would release her if she didn’t fight him.
Immediately the overwhelming pressure of his body lifted until it was little more than a warm, disturbingly sensual contact from her shoulders to her feet.
«Now kiss me back,» Reno whispered.
«Then you’ll let me go?»
«Then we’ll negotiate some more.»
«And if I don’t kiss you?»
«Then I’ll take what is already mine, and to hell with what you want.»
«You wouldn’t,» she whispered weakly.
«Care to bet?»
Eve looked into the cool green eyes so close to her own and realized that she never should have allowed Reno Moran to sit down at her poker table.
She was very good at reading most people, but not this man. Right now she couldn’t tell if he was bluffing or telling her the simple truth.
Don Lyon’s sage advice rang in Eve’s mind: When you can’t tell if a man is running a bluff, and you can’t afford the ante if you lose, then fold your cards and wait for a better deal.