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23

Reno sat quietly in the shade of a fir tree, watching the meadow through narrowed eyes. For the first time in five days he wasnt dizzy in the least. The ringing in his ears was gone, as was the nausea that had plagued him. Though his mouth was drawn in a flat line of pain, his headache had subsided until it was little more than a nuisance.

It wasnt the headache that was hurting Reno. It was thinking about a girl who had loved her own comfort more than she had cared whether he lived or died.

Reno hadnt seen Eve since he came out of the mine. When he had asked where Caleb was, Rafe told him that Caleb had taken Eve back to Canyon City. Reno hadnt mentioned her name again. Neither had anyone else.

The sound of Wolfe laughing came back through the clean air, followed by the silvery music of Jessis laughter as her husband lifted her off the ground and spun her around and around. Finally he sank down with Jessi and disappeared in the meadows long, lush grass.

A bitterness that Reno refused to acknowledge as grief twisted through him, memories like razors slicing him, making him bleed in secret.

Once he had chased Eve through this meadow, caught her, and pulled her laughing down into the grass. Once, but no longer. Now even the memory of their shared passion was a pain he couldnt face, so he shoved it down in his mind, condemning it to darkness.

Yet the pain remained, reflected in the new brackets on either side of his mouth.

Tried to cut a deal with Slater. Cut a deal with Slater. Cut a deal

Slowly Reno became aware of his brother standing nearby, watching him with shrewd gray eyes, holding a pair of saddlebags over his arms.

Sure is a wonder to hear Wolfe laughing, Rafe said. Makes a man feel good just watching them together.

Reno grunted.

Rafes smile was a warning any man other than Reno would have heeded. Rafe had been waiting impatiently until concussion and physical pain no longer hazed his brothers eyes. Rafe wanted to be certain that Reno would hear and understand each word with great clarity.

The waiting was finally over.

Hows your head this morning? Rafe asked blandly.

Reno shrugged.

Glad youre feeling better, baby brother, Rafe said. We were all real worried about you.

The look Reno gave his older brother didnt invite convesation. Rafe ignored it and kept talking.

Yessir, he drawled, the story went through the countryside like wildfire. A gunfighter called Reno, a Spanish treasure map, and the girl from the Gold Dust Saloon.

Renos eyelids flinched at the mention of Eve, but he made no other response.

If Rafe hadnt been looking closely for a reaction, he would have missed it. But he missed nothing. His smile widened without becoming a bit warmer.

I was in the Spanish Bottoms when I heard you were trapped in a blind canyon and were going to be cut to bloody rags by Slater and a passel of Comancheros, Rafe said.

They tried.

By the time I got there, nothing was left but coyote bait.

Renos smile was a cold match for his brothers. It was a near thing.

Thats what Caleb said. He came up on me when I was reading sign after the fight, trying to figure out which way to go. That mans like a ghost. Near scared me out of my boots.

More laughter floated up from the meadow, a man and womans voices joined in celebration of the sheer joy of being alive.

Reno looked away from the sunlight and grass, trying to forget the time when he had laughed and breathed in the heady fragrance of lilacs from Eves hair, her skin, her breasts.

Seems word had gotten to Cal through that Comanchero squaw one of his men keeps, Rafe continued. Ill tell you, brother, that was one hair-raising trail you found out of the blind canyon.

It was better than what Slater had waiting for me.

Well, Cal and I decided on the sensible route. We took after Slater. He left a lot wider trail than you did.

I didnt expect friends to be following me, Reno said dryly.

You left signs for me.

Just covering my bets.

Bets, huh? Rafe said sardonically. Appears youve turned into quite a gambler since Canyon City. Must have been Eves bad influence.

Renos mouth thinned even more beneath the black stubble that covered his cheeks.

Rafe pretended not to notice his brothers grim reaction each time Eve was mentioned.

We hooked up with Wolfe and Jessi on the far side of that mesa you blazed a trail over, Rafe continued. One of Wolfes Indian friends had told him you were in too much trouble to shoot your way out of alone, so Wolfe and Jessi came on the run.

Reno barely heard. He was too busy trying to shut out the sound of laughter coming from the meadow where Wolfe and Jessi enjoyed the sunlight and the day and each other.

The rippling music of feminine laughter haunted Reno, reminding him of everything he wanted to forget.

Caleb came on Slaters guards just after they were changed, Rafe said. No sooner had he taken care of them than he heard someone go by. Turned out it was Eve, on her way to spy on Slaters camp.

Abruptly Reno started to get up.

Rafe uncoiled. A single swift motion of his foot brought his brother down. The blow was as unexpected as it was precise.

Reno looked at his brother in shock.

Settle down, baby brother, Rafe said flatly. Youre not going anywhere until Ive had my say. You want to fight about it, you go right ahead. Ill beat you, and you know it.

You and those damned Chinese wrestling tricks, Reno said angrily.

Ill teach you every one of them when youre well. But right now youre going to listen to me.

Reno looked into the icy gray eyes that were so like his own. Though none of the coiled readiness left Renos body, he nodded curtly.

Rafe backed away with a lazy motion and sat on his heels with the saddlebags beside him. The appearance of being relaxed didnt fool Reno. If he showed any sign of getting up again, he would be brought down just as swiftly as he had been the first time.

Cal snagged Eve before Slater saw her, Rafe said. Seems she had some damn fool notion about taking Slater at gunpoint and offering him gold if his men dug you out.

Is that was she told Cal?

Rafe nodded.

And he believed it? Reno asked sarcastically.

Rafe nodded again.

A mockery of a smile curved Renos mouth.

Marriage has softened Cals brain, Reno said in a flat voice. That little saloon girl was going to trade forherlife, not mine.

The less you say, the fewer words youll have to eat, Rafe retorted. But dont let that stop you from running off at the mouth. When you get tired of eating your words, Im looking forward to feeding them to you one by one.

Green eyes narrowed into glittering slits, but Reno said no more. He was in no shape at the moment to take on his brother, no matter how badly he wanted to. Both of them knew it.

After we took care of Slaters gang, we went to the mine, Rafe said. Eve stood there covered with dirt from head to heels, cut and scraped and bleeding from trying to dig you out. She refused to let Wolfe or Caleb go into the mine. Said it was too dangerous.

Tension began to steal through Renos body once more as he listened.

She said she wouldnt have minded killing Comancheros to dig you out, Rafe drawled coolly, but she wouldnt risk family men. Said she was going to do it herself, because she had no family waiting for her.

You didnt let her go back in the mine, did you? Reno asked in a harsh voice.

She was the only one who knew where you were, Rafe said flatly. She led me to the cavein, and I dug like hell burning, not knowing if you were alive or dead, and that goddamned ceiling kept coming down on me like a hard rain.

Reno gripped his brothers arm. Christ! You should have gotten out. The rock in that coyote hole was as rotten as fruitcake!

Would you have gotten out if I were stuck down in some godforsaken hole? retorted Rafe.

Reno shook his head. Not a chance.

Rafes expression softened for a moment. Of all his brothers, he had been closest to Reno.

I finally opened up a hole a cat would have had trouble getting through, Rafe said. I saw light, but you didnt answer my yells. Every time I tried to make the hole bigger, the ceiling came down.

Then how did you get to me?

I didnt. Eve did.

What?

Somehow she shoved herself through that little hole. She started uncovering you, and then the whole damn shooting match started groaning and grinding. I yelled at her to leave you and save herself.

Renos hand clenched on his brothers arm hard enough to leave bruises.

But she didnt, Rafe continued harshly. Somehow she managed to drag you out of the rubble before the wall caved in. When I got to her, she was still pulling on you, crying your name, trying to save your life and to hell with her own.

Reno opened his mouth, but no words came through the constriction in his throat.

You may have found that girl in a saloon, Rafe continued in a savage voice, but shes worth more than any gold you ever dug out of the ground.

Eyes closed, Reno fought for control.

She hung around long enough to hear you run off at the mouth about cheating saloon girls, Rafe said. Then she washed up, put on a fancy red dress, and took that lineback dun out of here like its heels were on fire.

Reno put his head in his hands. He had thought he could hurt no more than the moment when he had learned of Eves betrayal.

He had been wrong.

But Rafe was still talking, and Reno was still learning how much he could hurt.

She left you a message, Rafe said.

With a deceptively easy motion, Rafe upended the saddlebags he had brought with him. Gold bars tumbled out and clashed to the ground.

Heres your gold, brother. You can count on it.

The agonized expression on Renos face made Rafe regret his harshness. He reached toward his brother, but Reno was already on his feet, walking away from the gleaming gold bars.

Where are you going? Rafe asked.

Reno didnt answer.

What about the gold? Rafe called.

To hell with it, Reno said savagely. Theres more where it came from.

But there was only one woman who had ever loved him more than she loved her own comfort, and he had lost her.

PLEASE stay in the big house tonight, Willow said. That little cabin is so drafty.

Thank you, but no, Eve said. Ive put you to enough trouble. Ill be on my way in the morning.

Youve been no trouble at all, countered Willow quickly. I enjoy having another woman around.

Eve turned to Caleb. I wish you would let me pay you for

Evelyn Starr Johnson, Caleb interrupted, if you werent already hurting so much, Id turn you over my knee for bringing that up again.

A wan smile flickered over Eves face. She stood on tiptoe and brushed a kiss over his cheek.

Youre a kind man, Caleb Black, she whispered.

That will come as news to a lot of folks, he said dryly. Since youre so all-fired set on leaving, well go at first light. Otherwise youll go off alone, and this is no country for a woman alone.

Thank you.

Youre welcome, Caleb said. But when Reno gets all shooting mad about having to ride to Canyon City after you, be sure to tell him it wasnt my idea.

Reno wouldnt ride across a pasture for me, much less across the Great Divide.

Eve turned and walked quickly toward the cabin where Caleb and Willow had lived while they built the big house.

Unhappily, Willow watched Eve until she went into the cabin and shut the door behind her.

Why wont she stay in the house with us? Willow asked.

I suspect its the same reason she wont stay, period. She knows how Reno feels about having a saloon girl mixing with his sister.

Eve may have worked in a saloon, but she isnt a saloon girl! Willow said in exasperation. Good God. How can he be so blind?

Same way I was with you for a time. Same way Wolfe was with Jessi.

Just because youre men? Willow suggested tartly.

Caleb laughed. His arm snaked out, drawing her close.

All the same, I could shake Reno by his ears, she muttered as she put her arms around Calebs lean waist.

Dont worry, honey. I left that job for Rafe. He was looking forward to it so much I almost feel sorry for Reno.

Before Willow could speak, Caleb kissed her. It was a long time before he lifted his head.

Is Ethan asleep? Caleb asked.

Yes, she whispered.

You interested in learning more about the fine art of catching trout with your bare hands?

Who gets to be the trout this time? Willow asked with a hidden smile.

Caleb laughed softly. Well take turns.

EVE sat at the only table in the one-room cabin, watching moonlight and lantern light send conflicting shadows across the tables wooden surface. As she watched, she mechanically shuffled a deck of cards. Each time she shuffled, several cards escaped and slithered across the table.

Frowning absently, Eve flexed her fingers. They were much better than they had been when she arrived at Calebs ranch a few days ago. Even so, they were still clumsy, stiff from the terrifying time she had spent in the mine, digging frantically through rubble for something far more valuable than gold.

Did that cheating saloon girl leave any gold?

Slowly Eves hands became fists. Just as slowly they uncurled. She put her palms down on the table and pressed so that the trembling that came when she remembered Renos words wouldnt show.

After several moments Eve took a deep breath and gathered up the cards. She squared them off carefully and began shuffling again. When cards slipped free, she ignored them. After several shuffles she flexed her hands, rounded up all the cards, and shuffled some more.

Eve knew she should be sleeping, for the ride to Canyon City would be long and tiring. Yet sleep eluded her. Whenever her eyes closed, she would hear rocks grinding and breaking over Reno in a long, brutal wave.

From the direction of the barn came the low rumble of male voices. Eve cocked her head, looked at the angle of the moon, and decided that Pig Iron was making his nightly rounds a bit early.

She flexed her fingers absently, picked up the cards that had escaped, and stared at them. The more she worked her hands, the more supple they became, but she had nothing like her normal dexterity.

A cool breeze came from the front of the cabin just as Eve was trying very hard to shuffle cards without losing one of them. Startled, she looked up.

Reno was standing in the open door, looking at Eve as he had in the Gold Dust Saloon, taking in the red dress, the steady golden eyes, and the mouth that trembled.

Drawn from the long trip, his face still cut and bruised, he was even more handsome than she had remembered; and his eyes were a hungry green fire.

When Reno walked toward Eve, cards shivered and overflowed from her hands in an untidy burst. Blindly she began gathering them up once more, but her hands were shaking too much. She balled them into fists and hid them in her lap.

Reno pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down. With a sweep of his arm, he cleared the table. Cards fluttered like autumn leaves to the floor. He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled a fresh pack of cards from his shirt pocket.

Five-card draw, he said huskily, two-card limit, table stakes, five-dollar ante, my deal.

The words were familiar to Eve. They were the exact words she had spoken to Reno a lifetime ago, when he had pulled out a chair, sat between two outlaws, and taken cards at her table in the Gold Dust Saloon.

Eve tried to push back from the table, but could not. Her arms refused to respond. She looked at the patterns of shadows rather than at Reno. She couldnt bear looking at him and knowing what he saw when he looked at her.

Saloon girl. Card cheat. Something bought off a train.

I dont have any money on the table, Eve said.

Her voice was thin, flat, a strangers.

Neither do I, Reno said. Guess well have to bet ourselves to stay in the game.

Eve watched in disbelief as Reno dealt cards. When five cards lay before her, she reached for them automatically. Just as automatically she threw away the card that didnt fit with the rest. One more card appeared in front of her. She picked it up and looked.

The queen of hearts looked back at her.

For a heartbeat Eve couldnt believe what she was seeing. Slowly all the cards slid from her fingers one by one.

Reno reached out and turned over the cards that had fallen facedown in front of Eve. Within moments a ten, jack, queen, king, and ace of hearts gleamed in the lantern light.

Beats anything I have, now or ever, Reno said, throwing in his hand without looking at it. Im yours, sugar girl, for as long as you want me, any way you want me.

He reached into his shirt pocket and brought out the emerald ring.

But Id rather be your husband than your fancy man, Reno said in a low voice.

He held the ring out to Eve on his palm, silently asking that she take it. Tears gathered in Eves eyes. She put her hands in her lap to reduce the temptation to take the ring and the man.

Why? she whispered painfully. You d-dont trust me.

I didnt trust myself, Reno said tightly. Id been such a fool over Savannah Marie that I vowed never to give a woman that kind of hold over me again. Then I saw you.

Im a card cheat and a saloon girl.

Reno gestured to the pat hand he had dealt to Eve.

Im a card cheat and a gunfighter, he said. Sounds like a good match to me.

When Eves hands remained in her lap and she said nothing, Reno closed his eyes on a wave of pain. Slowly he got up and sat on his heels beside her, putting one hand over her cold fingers.

She looked at the table rather than meet his eyes.

Cant you even look at me? Reno whispered. Did I kill every bit of what you felt for me?

Eve took a deep, shaking breath. I showed you stone ships and a dry rainbut Ill never find a light that casts no shadow. Some things are just impossible.

Reno stood with the stiff motions of an old man. Once his hand moved as though to touch Eves hair, but he didnt. Instead, he reached toward the heart flush he had dealt her.

As the gold ring dropped soundlessly onto the cards, lantern light revealed the fine trembling of his fingers. Reno looked at his hand as though he had never seen it before. Then he looked at the girl whose loss would haunt him for the rest of his life.

You should have left me in the mine, he whispered.

Eve tried to speak, but tears closed her throat.

He turned away swiftly, heading toward the door, unable to bear anymore.

No! Eve cried.

Suddenly she was on her feet, running to him.

Reno caught Eve up in his arms and buried his face against her neck, holding her as though he expected her to be torn from him. When she felt the scalding caress of his tears against her skin, her breath stopped, then came out in a ragged sound that was his name.

Dont leave, Eve said in a shaking voice. Stay with me. I know you dont believe in love, but I love you. I love you!

Renos arms tightened even more. When he could speak, he lifted his head and searched Eves eyes.

You showed me ships made of stone and a dry rain, Reno whispered, kissing her gently, taking her tears, and then you showed me the light that casts no shadow.

Eve trembled and then went very still, looking at him with a silent question in her eyes.

Love is the light that casts no shadow, Reno said simply. I love you, Eve.


| Only You | Epilogue