The next day Reno and Eve followed the shaman’s directions, heading for an old, nearly forgotten way down the plateau. Late in the afternoon, Reno turned to Eve, breaking the companionable silence that had grown between them as they rode through the wild land.
«The shaman said I had to be sure to take you to a special place up ahead,» Reno said.
«Where?» Eve asked, surprised.
«About a mile from here. You stay put while I check it out. I don’t want you getting caught in some old shaman’s revenge.»
It didn’t take Reno long to reconnoiter. No more than ten minutes went by before he was back. He reined in next to Eve, saw the unasked questions in her eyes, and reached for her. He leaned over and wrapped his hand around her nape, pulling her to meet the quick, fierce claiming of his mouth. When he released her, she gave him a look that was both startled and…hungry.
He smiled. «Did you think that, once satisfied, it would go away?»
Bright color rose in Eve’s cheeks.
«I don’t think thinking had much to do with it,» she said, remembering her headlong abandon yesterday, when Reno had bathed her in the hidden pool.
Reno laughed and nibbled lightly at her mouth.
«You’re so sweet to tease,» he said. «It’s a burning wonder I didn’t wake you up this morning the way I wanted to.»
«How was that?»
«From the inside out.»
The color deepened in Eve’s cheeks, but she couldn’t help laughing.
Reno had been so different with her today, almost as though he were courting her. Then Eve remembered what he once had said about courting, and her laughter faded.
Courting is for a woman you want to make your wife. That was a little rolling around before breakfast with a saloon girl.
«But I decided it was too soon,» Reno continued. «You’re such a tender little bud. I don’t want to bruise you.»
Though Reno’s words were teasing, his eyes weren’t. Eve knew that he still blamed himself for hurting her the one time he had taken her.
«I’m fine,» she said.
And it was true. She had awakened this morning determined to enjoy what she had rather than crying after what she didn’t have. Life had taught her that tomorrow would come soon enough, and with it all the regrets for yesterdays that were forever beyond her reach — her dead mother, her gentle and helpless father, the offhanded cruelty of life to the very children who were least able to defend themselves.
Whatever comes with Reno, I won’t regret it. Whether he believes it or not, love exists. I know. I feel it.
And maybe, just maybe, he can feel it for me. He loved once, foolishly. He can love again, wisely. He can love me.
«You certain?» Reno asked.
Eve looked startled, then realized he hadn’t somehow guessed her thoughts. He was simply pursuing the subject of how she felt today.
«Yes,» she said. «I’m fine.»
«Even after all these hours in the saddle?» he pressed.
She looked away from the crystal clarity of Reno’s eyes, trying to conceal the depth of her feelings at his concern. He didn’t love her, but he did care if he hurt her. That was something.
It was the world. No one who was stronger than Eve was had ever cared about her like that.
After a moment Eve touched Reno’s cheek with her fingertips and tried to reassure him that he hadn’t hurt her yesterday, when he had torn the veil of her innocence and replaced it with a sensual knowledge that permeated her blood like champagne.
«The only thing wrong with me,» she said, «is that I get all shivery and have trouble breathing when I think about what we…about what you…about what I…»
Eve made an exasperated sound and wished her hat were big enough to cover her flaming face. It didn’t help that she sensed Reno’s silent amusement as clearly as if he had thrown back his head and laughed to the clouds.
«You’re laughing at me,» she muttered.
The back of Reno’s fingers smoothed down Eve’s cheek in a gentle caress.
«No, sugar girl. I’m laughing because you go to my head like straight whiskey,» he said. «I like knowing you’re as aware of me as I am of you. It makes me want to pull you off your horse and take you right here, right now, sitting up and watching you.»
«Sitting up on a horse?» Eve asked, too startled to be embarrassed. «Is it possible?»
«Damned if I know. I’m real tempted to find out, though. I’ve been aching for you since about ten minutes after I first had you.»
Reno pulled lightly on the reins. Darlin’ backed up quickly, removing her rider from temptation.
«Come on,» he said to Eve. «The shaman and I have a surprise for you.»
«If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?»
Smiling, Eve reined the dun around to follow Reno. His new ease with her made her happy. He hadn’t been so quick to smile since his sister’s ranch, where he had been able to let down his guard among friends and family.
That was how he was treating Eve now. As though he trusted her. The heady combination of teasing and frank sensuality kept her senses fully alert, her body quickened in anticipation of the next caress, the next instant of laughter. She couldn’t remember ever having smiled so much in her life.
Eve was still smiling when her horse came alongside Reno’s. He smiled in return, wondering at the resilience of the girl who was fresh and eager to venture into new country after having barely escaped with her life from the twin hazards of outlaws and a forced exploration of uncharted land.
Not to mention the hazards of innocence and a gunfighter who had wanted her for so long he was having a hell of a time keeping his hands off her now.
«Close your eyes,» Reno said huskily.
Eve gave him a sideways look.
«Uh-oh. The dark velvet voice again,» she teased. «Is this where you snatch me from the saddle and attempt dubious things while riding a bad-tempered mustang?»
Reno threw back his head and laughed with delight.
«Sugar girl, you do tempt a man. But you’re right about Darlin’s disposition. She’d unload both of us into the nearest pile of rocks. So close your eyes and don’t open them until I tell you. You’re safe …for now.»
Laughing quietly, Eve closed her eyes, knowing that her horse would follow Darlin’ without guidance.
For a few minutes, all Eve was aware of was the subtle creak of leather, the lazy rhythms of the lineback dun, the warmth of the sun, and the unique smell of sage and evergreen permeating the dry air.
«Can I peek yet?»
«Sure?» she teased.
«I sure am.»
Eve heard the smile in Reno’s voice and wanted to laugh out loud with her own soaring pleasure. She loved the lazy teasing that had grown between them since yesterday. She loved being able to turn around and find Reno watching her with warmth in his eyes instead of anger or raw desire. She loved hearing pleasure in his voice and knowing that he was enjoying just being with her. She loved…
«No peeking,» he warned.
Reno tugged Eve’s hat brim down over her eyes and ran the back of his fingers along her jawline.
«I wasn’t going to cheat,» she said quietly. «No matter what you think, I’m not a cheater by nature.»
Reno felt her hurt as though it were his own. Leaning over, he lifted Eve from her horse and settled her sideways across his lap, holding her like a child.
«Hush. I wasn’t thinking about anything when I pulled on your hat but an excuse to touch you.»
Eve turned her face in to Reno’s chest, knocking her hat aside. It dangled from its chin strings until he pushed it over her shoulder and stroked her hair.
«I didn’t mean to hurt you,» he said after a time.
Eyes still closed, she nodded.
«I’m sorry,» she whispered. «I know I shouldn’t be so touchy. But…I am.»
He tipped up her face and gave her the lightest of kisses. Then his arms tightened around her, holding her close when Darlin’ shied at the shadow of a soaring hawk.
«Take it easy, knothead,» Reno said.
«Watch who you’re calling names,» she muttered.
There was an instant of surprised silence, then Reno laughed and gave Eve a hard kiss before he urged Darlin’ forward.
A few minutes later, Reno reined in and kissed Eve’s eyelids gently.
«Open your eyes.»
When the warm sensation of his lips vanished, Eve opened her eyes and looked at Reno. With a gentle smile, he gestured to the view. She turned her head.
A low sound of wonder and disbelief escaped her. A few feet in front of the horses, the land dropped abruptly away. In the distance, rank after rank of smaller plateaus and mesas rose in a series of irregular steps. Those in turn unraveled into an immense stone maze painted in shades of red and gold, pink and mauve.
In place of the dance of streams and rivers, there were columns of stone, cliffs of stone, tables of stone, castles of stone, cathedrals and arches of stone, vast walls and layer cakes of stone, ridges and valleys and hills and flats of stone, a rainbow labyrinth of stone piled upon stone until land and sky merged into a purple sameness so far away that the curve of the earth could be sensed like the distant coming of night.
Clumps of clouds ranged in color from blindingly pure white to dense indigo. Solitary storms stalked the land on stilts of lightning, dragging ragged veils of rain behind, yet the wind brought no smell of rain. The maze was so vast that storms came in across it like squall lines across an unimaginable sea.
«Is that where we’re going?» Eve whispered.
Reno looked at the landscape where the bones of the earth itself pressed up through the thin skin of life. There were no living flashes of water, no wide green valleys calling to a weary traveler, no trails or wagon tracks, no hearth fires sending messages of settlements ahead.
The land was untamed. It was wildfire wrought in stone, frozen flames reaching forever to the sky while a dry wind blew, bringing clouds whose rain never reached the ground, leaving the fire to rage unquenched, motionless, eternal.
«I won’t go there if I can help it,» Reno said finally. «I’ll leave that kind of foolishness to my brother Rafe.»
Eve nodded her understanding even as she said, «It’s beautiful in a wild kind of way.»
«So is the sun, but you’ll go blind looking at it.»
Reno kissed the nape of Eve’s neck. His heartbeat speeded at the shiver of response that coursed through her in the wake of the light caress.
«I’m surprised you think it’s pretty,» Reno said against her skin. «You didn’t like the view from the slickrock one bit.»
«Not at first. But toward the end, it wasn’t as scary. Especially after Slater’s men started shooting,» Eve added dryly. «Something about those bullets flying around took my mind right off the view.»
Reno laughed aloud, hugged Eve hard and quick, and reminded himself of all the reasons he shouldn’t move his hands just a few inches and feel the warm weight of her breasts filling them.
«We saved at least fifty miles, maybe more, by crossing that neck of slickrock,» Reno said. «Even so, we’ve got the devil’s own trail ahead of us.»
«Is there water?» she asked.
«Seeps, springs, potholes, and seasonal creeks.» He shrugged. «It should be enough if we’re careful.»
«And if you don’t mind your horse drinking out of your hat?» Eve suggested.
She smiled as she spoke, remembering how they had emptied canteen after canteen into their hats because the way to the hidden pool was too narrow for a horse to take.
Reno kissed the corner of Eve’s smile and said, «Be glad we’re riding mustangs. They drink less than anything except a coyote.»
Eve watched him with sensual memories in her eyes and a hungry fullness to her mouth. Not trusting himself to accept the unknowing invitation of her parted lips, Reno turned Eve until she was facing forward with her back to him.
The confinement of the saddle made her hips press intimately against the inside of his thighs. He hardened in a rush that made him ache. Long fingers wrapped around her thighs, savoring the resilience of her flesh. He pulled her close against him and then released her with a whispered word he hoped she didn’t hear.
Reno slid off Darlin’ in a rush. He stood close enough to Eve that she felt the heat of his chest against her leg as clearly as she had felt the heat of his thighs against her own. She had felt something else as well, but doubted her own senses. Surely a man couldn’t become aroused so quickly.
A glance told Eve she had indeed been correct. Once, Reno’s bold arousal would have embarrassed or unnerved her. Now it simply made heat splinter delicately through her. She remembered what it had felt like to give herself to Reno’s heat and strength and heady sensuality.
«Sugar girl, you do tempt a man,» he said in a deep voice.
«You sure do.»
«I’m just sitting here,» she pointed out.
«And looking at me like you’re wondering how I’d taste with butter and maple syrup,» Reno drawled.
Eve flushed, but couldn’t help laughing. She was still laughing when Reno pulled her out of the saddle and gave her a kiss that made her dizzy.
«I like having you look at me that way,» Reno said against her mouth. «I like it too damn much.»
He carried Eve the few steps to her horse.
«Mount up, gata. I’m going to have hell riding as it is.»
As Reno spoke, he lifted Eve into the saddle. Then he let go of her and turned away quickly, heading for his own horse once more.
«I didn’t mean to tease,» she said.
A curt nod as Reno mounted was his only answer.
«Couldn’t we…» Eve’s voice faded, then strengthened along with the color in her cheeks. «You’re hurting and I’m all right and there’s no reason we can’t…is there?»
Reno reined Darlin’ over to Eve and looked at her for the space of several heartbeats.
«There’s a reason we can’t,» he said.
The calm of Reno’s voice was belied by his smoldering green glance.
«Slater?» guessed Eve unhappily.
Reno shook his head. «I figure it will be at least two days before Crooked Bear cuts our sign again. The shaman figured it about the same, and he knows the land better than the Spaniards and Cal’s daddy combined.»
«Then why can’t we…?»
Despite the hunger knotting his guts, Reno smiled at the bright red on Eve’s cheeks.
«Because, sugar girl, the next time I get my hands on you, I’m not going to let go until neither one of us has enough strength left to lick our lips.»
EVE sat with her chin on her knees and her arms around her legs. A few feet beyond her boots, the land sheered away.
At the moment, Reno was exploring the head of the ravine that the shaman had told them would take them across a fringe of the stone canyon and then join with one of the old Spanish trails. If the trail was clear enough, they would ride by the ghostly light of the moon. If not, they would make a dry camp here, at the edge of the plateau.
Off to the west, the sun hovered a few degrees above the horizon. Below and in the distance, long, dense shadows flowed out from countless stone formations. Like the sun, the shadows moved, changing everything they touched, making and remaking the landscape in a slow-motion kaleidoscope of shifting colors and breathtaking vistas.
When footsteps approached, Eve didn’t have to turn around to know that it was Reno rather than some stranger walking up behind her. The unique rhythms of Reno’s steps had become a part of her, as had the sweet memories of a hidden pool and water braiding down cliffs of solid stone.
«Penny for your thoughts,» he said.
Smiling, Eve looked back out over the slow transformations of stone and shadow and sunset.
«I keep wondering,» she said, «how the maze got here and why it’s so different from everything I’ve ever seen.»
«I felt the same way the first time I saw it. I came across a government paleontologist about eight years ago, and he —»
«What’s that?» Eve interrupted.
«It’s a four-dollar word for a man who hunts bones so old, they’ve turned to stone.»
Eve made a sound of disbelief. «A stone bone?»
«It’s called a fossil.»
«Where do the bones come from?»
«Animals that lived a long, long, long time ago.»
A vague memory came to Eve, left over from a time when she had attended the orphanage school.
«Like the ‘terrible lizards’?» she asked.
Reno looked surprised. «Yes.»
Eve put her chin back on her knees.
«I thought the older kids were teasing me, but one of them showed me a photograph in a book,» she said dreamily. «It was a skeleton of a lizard standing on its hind legs. It was taller than a church steeple. I wanted to read the book, but somebody stole it before I could.»
«I’ve got the same book back at Willy and Cal’s ranch,» Reno said, «along with about fifty others.»
«Do any of them tell you how that happened?» Eve asked, gesturing toward the stone maze far below.
«Ever see a river undercut its bank until the bank topples, making a new shape to the river?»
«Sure. Floods do it even faster.»
«Think how it would look if the river cut through stone rather than dirt, and every tributary creek and stream cut through stone, and stone banks slowly were worn away, widening all the ravines more and more. …»
«Is that what happened here?»
«It must have taken a long time,» Eve said.
«Longer than anyone but God can imagine,» he said simply.
Into the silence came the slow exhalation of a wind that had touched nothing but time, distance, and stone.
«Somewhere out there lie the bones of animals so strange, they can scarcely be believed,» Reno said. «Out there are sand dunes turned to rock, and with them the tracks of animals that died a thousand thousand years before anything like man ever lived.»
«Eden,» Eve whispered. «Or Hades.»
«I can’t decide if this is a demanding kind of paradise or a seductive kind of hell,» she said.
Reno smiled strangely. «Let me know when you decide. I’ve often wrestled with that question myself.»
In silence they watched patterns of light and darkness shift and re-form until the distant mesas looked like stone ships anchored in a shadow sea.
«It’s so unbelievable. …» Eve’s voice faded into silence.
«It’s no stranger than men building a boat that carries four people and goesunderwater.»
Eve gave Reno a startled look, but before she could say anything, he was talking again.
«It’s no stranger than the New Madrid earthquake that changed the course of the Mississippi,» he said. «It’s no stranger than Mount Tambora blowing its top and bringing the Year Without a Summer to Britain.»
«What?» she asked.
«It’s true. Byron even wrote a poem about it,» Reno said.
«Good Lord. If one little volcano was worth a poem, what would he have written about this?» she demanded, gesturing to the view in front of her.
Reno smiled wryly. «I don’t know, but I would have enjoyed reading it.»
The smile faded from Reno’s face as he said, «The world is all of a piece, all connected. It’s big, but it’s still only one place. Someday Rafe will figure it out and stop roaming.»
«And until then?»
«Rafe will be like the wind, alive only when he’s moving.»
«What about you?» Eve asked softly.
«I’ll be what I’ve always been, a man who puts his faith in the only thing that’s as valuable as it is incorruptible…tears of the sun god, the transcendent brought down to earth, the one thing that a man can count on in life. Gold.»
There was a long silence while Eve looked out on the land with eyes that would rather have cried. She should have expected Reno to say nothing else, but the depth of her pain told her that she had.
She had been seduced by passion and love. The passion had been returned to her redoubled.
The love had not.
Becoming Reno’s woman had changed the world for Eve. But not for him. He still had only one Golden Rule:
You can’t count on women, but you can count on gold.
Reno stood and held out his hand to Eve. He pulled her to her feet with an ease that made her wonder if he ever grew tired, ever felt he couldn’t take one more step, ever knew hunger or cold or sleeplessness.
«Time to go, sugar girl.»
«We’re not camping here?»
«No. The shaman was right about the trail. It’s so easy, we can do it by moonlight.»
As Reno walked back to the horses, Eve looked out over the beautiful, enigmatic maze once more.
«Ships of stone,» she whispered. «Why can’t Reno see you?»