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5

Beyond the Great Divide, the massive wall of mountains slowly changed, breaking into chains and clusters of ragged peaks rising in stone waves against the endless blue sky.

Even in late August, the peaks were streaked with glittering snowfields. Creeks rushed down steep folds in the sides of the mountains, combined forces on the flats, then wound down long valleys and through basins like ropes of liquid diamonds beneath the sun. The vivid green of aspens and the darker greens of fir, spruce, and pine made a velvet robe across the mountain flanks. In the clearings, grasses and shrubs added their own bright shades of green to the land.

Once Reno and Eve had ridden through the first pass beyond Canyon City, there were few signs of men traveling over the land, and even fewer marks of permanent residence. Wild animals abounded. Mustangs fled like multicolored clouds before a storm wind when Reno and Eve rode into lonely valleys. Elk and deer glided out from cover to browse along the margins of the clearings.

Though wary of man, the deer weren’t as quick to flee as the wild horses. The pure, keening cries of eagles floating on the wind were woven like bright threads through the day.

Reno was more wary than any of the animals. He rode every moment as though expecting attack. He never cut across a clearing unless it would take them miles off their course to circle along the margin where forest and grass met. He never crested a rise without pausing just below the rim to see what was on the other side. Only when he was satisfied that there were no Indians or outlaws nearby did he reveal himself against the skyline.

He never rode into a narrow canyon if he could avoid it. If avoidance was impossible, he slipped the thong on his six-shooter and rode with his repeating rifle across the saddle. Often during the day he would retrace part of their back trail, find a vantage point, and simply watch the land for any signs that they were being followed.

Unlike most men, Reno rode with the reins in his right hand, leaving his left hand free for the six-gun that was never beyond his reach, even when he slept. Every night he checked his weapons for trail dust or moisture from the afternoon storms that swirled through the peaks.

Reno didn’t make a fuss about his precautions. He didn’t really even notice them anymore. He had lived alone in a wild land for so long that he was no more aware of his skill at it than he was of his skill in riding the tough blue roan he called Darlin’.

Eve didn’t think the mare was anyone’s Darlin’. She was a hardy mustang with the temperament of a wolverine and the wariness of a wolf. Should anyone but Reno approach the mare, she flattened her ears to her skull and looked for a place to sink her big white teeth into flesh. With Reno, however, the mare was all nickers and soft whuffles of greeting.

Darlin’ was constantly testing the breeze for the scent of danger. At the moment her head was up, her ears were pricked, and her nostrils were flared as she drank the wind.

Out in the sunlit meadow a bird called sharply and cut aside to fly into the forest. The silence that followed the bird’s retreat was total.

Eve didn’t wait for Reno’s signal to go into hiding. As soon as the bird veered aside, she reined Whitefoot deeper into the cover of the forest and waited. Breath held, motionless, she watched the meadow through the screen of aspens and evergreens.

A solitary mustang stallion walked warily into the clearing. The half-healed wounds of a recent fight were clear on the horse’s body. He lowered his muzzle into the creek and drank, stopping every few moments to raise his head and sniff the breeze. Despite his wounds, the stallion was fit and powerful, just coming into his full maturity.

Compelled by the young horse’s muscular beauty, Eve leaned forward in the saddle. The faint creaking of leather carried no farther than Whitefoot’s ears, yet the stallion seemed to sense her presence.

Finally the wild horse drank again, looked up, and walked slowly away from the stream. Soon he began cropping grass. His vigilance didn’t end while he ate. Rarely did a minute go by that the stallion didn’t pause, lift his head, and test the breeze for enemies. In a herd his constant checking wouldn’t have been necessary, for there would have been other ears, other eyes, other wary horses to scent the breeze. But the stallion was alone.

It occurred to Eve that Reno was like the mustang stallion — ready for battle, wary, trusting nothing and no one, completely alone.

Eve sensed movement behind her. When she turned in the saddle, she saw the catfooted blue roan coming through the forest toward her.

A breeze wound through the evergreens, drawing a sigh from their slender green needles. Whitefoot stirred, made uneasy by the scent of the stallion on the wind. Silently Eve stroked the gelding’s neck to reassure him.

«Where are the packhorses?» Eve asked in a low voice as Reno rode alongside.

«I left them tied up the trail a piece. They’ll raise a fuss if anything tries to creep up on us from that direction.»

Reno stood in the stirrups and looked across the meadow. After a moment he settled back into the saddle.

«No mares,» Reno said quietly. Beneath his mustache, his lips shaped a thin smile. «From the looks of his hide, that young stud just learned the first lesson of dealing with women.»

Eve looked questioningly at Reno.

«Given a choice between an old stud that knows where to find food and a young stud so crazy for a woman that he doesn’t know which end is up,» Reno drawled, «a female will take the old stud and comfort every damned time.»

«A female that trusted the promises of every young stud with rutting on his mind wouldn’t last through the winter.»

«Spoken like a true woman.»

«Imagine that,» Eve shot back.

Unwillingly, Reno smiled. «You have a point.»

Eve looked at the stallion and then back at Reno, remembering what he had said as he pocketed the emerald and gold ring he had taken from her finger.

«Who was she?» Eve asked.

One of Reno’s black eyebrow’s lifted in silent query.

«The woman who chose her own comfort over your love,» Eve said simply.

The line of Reno’s jaw tightened beneath the stubble that had grown over the days on the trail.

«What makes you think there was only one?» he asked coolly.

«You don’t strike me as the kind of man who has to learn something twice.»

The corner of Reno’s mouth kicked up. «You’re right about that.»

Eve waited, saying nothing, but her intent golden eyes asked a hundred questions.

«Savannah Marie Carrington,» Reno drawled finally.

The change in his voice was almost tangible. There was neither hate nor love in the tone, simply a contempt that was chilling.

«What did she do to you?» Eve asked.

He shrugged. «The same thing most women do to men.»

«What’s that?»

«You should know, gata.»

«Because I’m a woman?»

«Because you’re damned good at the kind of teasing females use to get men so hot and bothered they’ll say or do almost anything to get what they want.»

Reno’s eyes narrowed as he added, «Almost anything, but not quite.»

«What wouldn’t you do? Love her?»

He laughed humorlessly. «Hell, that was the one thing I did do.»

«You still love her,» Eve said.

The words were an accusation.

«Don’t bet on it,» Reno said, giving her a sidelong glance.

«Why?»

«Are you always this nosy?»

«Curious,» Eve corrected instantly. «I’m a cat, remember?»

«That you are.»

Again Reno stood in the stirrups to check the surrounding land. The stallion grazed on hungrily, undisturbed by anything he could scent or sense. Birds called across the grassy clearing and flew from tree to tree in normal patterns. Nothing moved along the vague trail the horses had left at the margin of the meadow.

Reno reined Darlin’ around, ready to resume the ride to Caleb and Willow’s home in the San Juan Mountains.

«Reno? What did she want you to do? Kill someone?»

He smiled rightly. «You could say that.»

«Who?»

«Me.»

«What?» Eve asked. «That doesn’t make any sense.»

He said something profane beneath his breath and looked over his shoulder at the girl whose golden eyes, soft breasts, and lilac scent haunted his dreams.

«Savannah Marie wanted to live in West Virginia, where our families had farms before the war,» Reno said, dipping each word. «But I had seen the true West. I had seen places no man ever touched, drunk from streams as pure as God’s smile, ridden over passes that had no names…and I had held the solid gold tears of the sun in my hands.»

Motionless, Eve watched Reno as he spoke, wondering at the emotion that made his voice both resonant and husky when he talked about the land.

«The first time I left Savannah Marie,» Reno said, «I missed her so much I damn near killed two horses riding back to her.»

He said no more.

«But she hadn’t waited for you?» Eve guessed.

«Oh, she’d waited,» he drawled, but there was no warmth in his voice. «At the time, I was still best catch for a hundred miles around. She came running up to me with her blue eyes all sparkling with tears of happiness.»

«What happened?»

He shrugged. «The usual. Her family threw a party, we went for a walk in the garden, and she gave me just enough to make me wild for her.»

Eve’s hands tightened on the reins. The contempt in Reno’s voice was like a whip.

«Then she asked if I was ready to make a home and raise horses on the acreage her daddy had set aside along Stone Creek. I pleaded with her to marry me and head West, to a land bigger and brighter than anything along Stone Creek.»

«And she refused,» Eve whispered.

«Oh, not right away,» Reno drawled. «First she whispered about the fun we’d have if I’d just agree to live along Stone Creek. All I had to do was say ’yes’ and she’d do anything I wanted. Hell, she’d do everything, and be grateful for the chance.»

Reno shook his head. «God, there ought to be a law against boys falling in love. But no matter how much she teased me,» he continued, «I was smart enough not to make promises it would kill me to keep. I’d go yondering and I’d come back hoping, and each time I was gone longer, and each time Savannah Marie would be waiting for me….»

Reno took off his hat, raked long fingers through his hair, and resettled his hat with a swift tug.

«Until I came back and found her three months married and four months pregnant by a man twice her age.»

At Eve’s shocked sound, Reno turned and gave her an odd smile.

«Shocked me, too,» he drawled. «I was plumb flummoxed. I couldn’t figure out how old man Murphy had gotten under Savannah’s skirts in a matter of months when I had been courting her for years. So I asked her.»

«What did she say?»

«That a woman wants comfort and security from a man, and a man wants sex and children from a woman,» Reno said succinctly. «Old man Murphy was well fixed. When she got him hot enough to take her maidenhead, he agreed to marry her, because a decent man marries the girl he ruins.»

«Sounds like she had all the passion of a merchant’s scales.»

«That about covers it,» Reno said dryly. «But it’s a good thing for a man to learn.»

«All women aren’t like that.»

«I’ve known only one girl in my whole life who gave herself for love rather than a wedding ring,» Reno said flatly.

«Jessi of the fiery hair and gemstone eyes?» Eve guessed.

He shook his head. «Jessi trapped Wolfe into marriage rather than be forced into a marriage with some drunken English lord.»

«Perdition,» Eve muttered.

«Wolfe felt the same way at first,» Reno said, smiling. «He came around.»

«But you forgave Jessi for caring more for her own comfort than for Wolfe’s,» Eve pointed out.

«Wasn’t my place to forgive or not. Wolfe did. That’s all that matters.»

«But you like Jessi.»

Anger swept through Reno at Eve’s persistence. He didn’t like thinking about Jessi and Wolfe, Willow and Caleb. Their happiness kept making Reno wonder if he wasn’t missing something, if he shouldn’t find a woman and take a chance on getting burned twice by the same fire.

Once burned, twice shy, he told himself.

And forever cold.

Abruptly Reno reined his mare around so that Darlin’ stood head to tail with Eve’s horse. The horses were so close together that his leg brushed against Eve’s. Before she could move away, his hand shot out, pushing her hat aside until it hung down her back, suspended by the leather chin thong. His gloved hand slid between her bright braids and wrapped around her nape.

«I understand that women have to make up in cunning what they lack in strength,» Reno said angrily. «But understanding isn’t the same as liking.»

His glance went from Eve’s unusual eyes to her full lower lip.

«On the other hand,» he said deeply, «there are some really fine uses for women. Especially a girl with golden eyes and a mouth that trembles with fear or passion, inviting a man to protect and ravish her.»

«I’m not,» she said quickly.

«I tasted you. You were sweet and hot. And you tasted me.»

Eve’s breath stopped at the look in Reno’s eyes.

He smiled, reading her response in the rapid beating of the pulse in her neck.

«Think about it, gata. I sure as hell have.»

Reno released Eve and nudged the blue roan with his heels.

«Shake a leg, Darlin’. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we get to Cal’s ranch.»

THOUGH small, the campfire’s gently dancing flames fascinated Eve. Like her thoughts, the flames were both intangible and very real.

She hadn’t meant to take Reno’s advice and think about her unexpected sensuality. But she had thought about it, and about him. That could be dangerous.

An owl called from the dark wall of fir trees that rose beyond the campfire.

Eve started.

«Just an owl,» Reno said from behind her.

Eve jumped again and whirled around.

«Would you mind not sneaking up on me?» she snapped.

«Anyone who sits and stares at fire the way you do has to expect to be taken by surprise from time to time.»

«I was thinking,» she said stiffly.

Reno bent over the campfire, picked up the small, battered coffeepot, and poured a bit more in the mug he was holding. When he finished, he sat on his heels beside Eve, sipped the coffee appreciatively, and watched firelight draw burning patterns of gold through her hair.

«Penny for your thoughts,» Reno said.

Heat climbed up Eve’s cheeks, for she had been thinking of the time when Reno had kissed her lips, her neck, her breasts…She was too honest to deny that she was attracted to him; if she weren’t, she would never have made the unholy bargain for half of the mine.

But that meant she was in the uncomfortable position of not quite trusting her own reactions. It left her feeling edgy and adrift, for all her life she had trusted her instincts when it came to dealing with other people. The Lyons had come to trust her instincts, too; they had often praised her ability to see beyond the surface of other card players to the emotions beneath.

At the same time, Donna Lyon had warned Eve more than once about the nature of man and woman.

Only one thing a man wants from a woman, make no mistake about it. Once you give him that, you better be married, or he’ll go off down the trail and find another foolish girl to spread her legs in the name of love.

«Two pennies,» Reno said dryly.

The sudden flush on Eve’s cheeks made Reno wonder if she had been thinking about the one time he had let his own desire overcome his common sense and tried to seduce her.

God knew that time had been on his mind. When he wasn’t looking over his shoulder for shadows on the back trail, he was thinking about the moment when he had first breathed in the scent of lilacs and tasted the velvet hardness of her nipples.

But thinking and remembering was all that he had done, despite the temptation of their evening campsites, where firelight beckoned and stars glittered against a black sky. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that he was being followed. Rolling around on the ground with a saloon girl was the kind of distraction that could be fatal — especially if Slater was the man dogging Reno’s trail.

If that wasn’t enough to cool Reno off, there was the fact that they would reach the ranch tomorrow. His conscience was giving him a bad enough time as it was about bringing a saloon girl to his sister’s home.

And yet…

Reno turned and looked at the silent girl who was watching him with eyes the color of gold.

«Three pennies?» he offered.

«Er, I was thinking about Donna Lyon,» Eve said, the only half of the truth she was willing to talk about. «And being partners.»

Reno’s mouth thinned. A flick of his wrist sent the last drops of coffee in his cup arcing into the darkness beyond the fire.

«Gold, huh?» he said sarcastically. «I should have guessed. Money is all girls ever think about. Well, we’re a long way from finding any gold.»

«And we’ll stay that way unless you let me look at Cristobal Leon’s journal,» Eve retorted.

Reno rubbed the stubble on his chin and said nothing.

«Surely you can’t be afraid I’m going to cut and run with the journal,» she said. «Even if poor Whitefoot were shod, he wouldn’t be any match for your mustang.»

Reno looked at Eve. In the firelight his eyes were as clear as spring water. Without a word he came to his feet and walked away from her. He came back a moment later, carrying the journal in his hands. Still saying nothing, he sat cross-legged by the fire and opened the journal.

When Eve didn’t move, he glanced aside at her. «You wanted the journal. Here it is.»

«Thank you,» Eve said, holding out her hand. Slowly Reno shook his head.

«Come and get it,» he said.

The look in Reno’s eyes warned Eve. Warily she scooted sideways until she was sitting next to him. By bending over his arm and craning her neck, she was able to see the journal’s faded, spidery script.

A dia vente-uno del ano de 15…

The opening words were so familiar she could read them effortlessly.

«In the day of —»

«You’re cutting off my light,» Reno interrupted.

«Oh. Sorry.»

Eve straightened, peered again, and made a frustrated sound.

«Now I can’t see.»

«Here.» Reno handed her the journal.

«Thank you.»

«You’re welcome,» he said, smiling in anticipation.

Before Eve’s fingers had done more than close around the soft leather, Reno picked her up and settled her in his lap with her back to his chest. When she tried to move off his lap, he held her in place.

«Going somewhere?» Reno asked.

«I can’t see this way,» Eve said.

«Try opening the journal.»

«What?»

«The journal,» he said dryly. «It’s hard to read through the cover.»

When Eve started to move off his lap, Reno held her in place with offhanded ease.

«I said I wouldn’t force you,» he reminded her in a calm voice. «And I said I wasn’t going to keep my hands off you. I’m a man of my word. What about you? Do you keep your word like a woman or a saloon girl?»

«I keep my word, period,» Eve said through her teeth.

«Prove it. Start reading. The light’s good enough now, isn’t it?»

She muttered agreement, took a secret breath, and opened the journal to the first page. The words wouldn’t come into focus. All she could think of was the feel of Reno’s body against her back, her hips, her thighs.

Long arms reached around Eve as Reno took the journal from her hands and opened it.

«Read aloud,» he said.

His voice was as casual as though he spent every night with a girl in his lap reading books.

Maybe he does, Eve thought.

«I should point out,» Reno drawled, «that if what I hear doesn’t interest me, I can always find something else to do that does interest me.»

The sensual threat in his voice was unmistakable.

«In the twenty-first day of the year fifteen…’» Eve said quickly, hoping Reno didn’t hear the unevenness of her voice. «It’s blotched there. I can’t tell if the year is…is…»

Her voice fragmented as she felt the collar of her jacket tugged down in back. The warmth of Reno’s breath on her neck made her shiver.

«What are you doing?» she asked.

«Keep reading.»

«It just says who authorized…»

The brush of his mustache against Eve’s nape took her breath away.

«Read.»

«I can’t. You’re distracting me.»

«You’ll get used to it. Read.»

«…who authorized the expedition, and how many men and what arms and…»

Eve’s words stopped as Reno’s teeth tested the softness of her skin with ravishing delicacy.

«Go on,» he whispered.

«…and what the purpose was.»

The tip of his tongue circled her nape. He felt the tremor that went through her and wondered whether it was fear or anticipation.

«What was the purpose?» he asked.

Eve reminded herself that a bargain was a bargain. She had agreed to let Reno try seducing her.

She hadn’t agreed to his success.

«Gold, of course,» she said curtly. «Isn’t that what the Spanish always wanted?»

«I don’t know. You’ve got the journal. Read to me.»

«That wasn’t part of our bargain.»

The heat of Reno’s mouth on Eve’s nape made her heart turn over. The hot suction and fine edges of his teeth sent wildfire through her nerves.

Reno felt the shudder that went through Eve, and wondered once more whether fear or sensuality moved her, for he had seen both in her topaz eyes as she watched him through the long days on the trail.

There was no doubt whether fear or sensuality ruled Reno. The taste of Eve’s naked skin and the feel of her hips snug between his thighs was a pleasure hot enough to burn. He shifted slightly, increasing the sweet pressure against his rapidly hardening flesh.

«They — the Spanish were supposed to baptize Indians, too,» Eve said hurriedly.

She tried squirming off Reno’s lap. Each movement she made only served to increase the intimate contact.

She became very still.

«Were they?» he asked in a lazy voice.

«Yes. It says so right here.»

«Show me.»

Eve tried to find the page, but her fingers were clumsy, and Reno was holding the journal in such a way that she couldn’t turn more than one or two pages.

«Your thumb is in the way,» she said.

Reno made a throaty, questioning sound that ruffled her nerves almost as much as a physical touch.

«I can’t turn the pages,» she explained.

The rest of Eve’s words were lost in a stifled gasp as Reno’s mustache moved like a silk brush along her hairline. Goose bumps coursed up and down her arms.

«Then you hold the journal,» he said in a deep voice. «But if you try climbing off my lap again, I’ll lay you out on the ground, instead.»

Eve took the journal from Reno’s hands and began turning pages as though her life depended on finding out what the rest of the royal instructions to the Cristbbal Leon expedition had been.

Reno’s long, deft fingers began unbuttoning her jacket.

«Saving souls,» she said quickly. «They were trying to save souls.»

«I believe you mentioned that already.»

The jacket began to open, allowing the cool night air to wash Eve’s throat. She dosed her eyes and tried to breathe past her heart, which was lodged halfway up her throat.

«Somewhere he…he writes about seeking an overland route to the Spanish missions in California,» she said.

«Exploration,» Reno said deeply. «Man after my own heart. Go on, gata, read to me about undiscovered territory and treasures hidden within darkness.»

«They started up from New Spain and…»

Eve gasped softly as the last button on her jacket gave way beneath Reno’s gentle urging. The worn white gambler’s shirt that had once been Don Lyon’s glowed in the firelight as though made of satin.

«Don’t panic,» Reno said. «I’m not doing anything that we didn’t do before.»

«That’s supposed to make me feel better?»

«The Spanish started from New Spain,» was all Reno said. «And then what?»

«Then they came at the Rockies from the east…»

Her breath rushed out when long fingers stroked her throat lightly, caressing the frantic race of her pulse.

«…or maybe the west. I don’t know. I can’t…»

Reno released the first burton of her shirt.

«…can’t remember which direction they… they…»

Another button gave way. Then another.

«What did they find?» Reno asked softly as he pulled her blouse apart. «Gold?»

Eve dropped the book and grabbed the edges of her blouse. It was too late. Reno’s hands were already stroking bare skin, luring her body with promises of pleasure.

«Not right away. They found…they found…»

Eve’s voice frayed into a soft, ragged cry as her breasts changed in a rush, answering the caress of Reno’s hands.

«Stop,» Eve said.

But even she couldn’t have said if she meant the word for Reno or for herself. The sensual pressure of her hardened nipples was nudging against his palms.

«Pleasure, not fear,» he breathed against her neck. «We’ll burn down the mountains, gata. And then we’ll burn down the night.»

Eve twisted aside, all but falling to the ground as she pulled free of Reno’s knowing hands.

«No!»

For a few tense moments, Eve thought Reno was going to pull her right back onto his lap. Then he let out an explosive breath that was also a curse.

«It’s just as well, gata. If I keep touching you, I’ll have you.» He shrugged. «I don’t want to take my fancy lady into my sister’s home.»

Eve drew her jacket together with fingers that shook, but it was anger, not passion.

«That won’t be a problem, now or later,» Eve said.

«What?»

«My being your fancy lady.»

Reno’s eyelids flinched at the bitterness in her voice, but all he said was, «Going back on your word so soon?»

Eve’s head came up and her eyes burned as hotly as the fire.

«I agreed that you could try to seduce me,» she said tightly. «I didn’t guarantee your success.»

«Oh, I’ll succeed,» he drawled. «And you’ll be helping me every inch of the way. It will be the most fun you ever had paying off a debt.»

The white flash of Reno’s smile infuriated Eve.

«Don’t count on it, gunman. No girl wants a man who makes her feel like a slut.»


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