The change that came over Reno when he rode into the wide valley where Caleb and Willow made their home astonished Eve. The narrowed eyes and predatory alertness dropped away from him, revealing a man who was relaxed and quick to smile. She had thought Reno to be over thirty; now she decided he was years younger and worlds less hard.
Reno’s transformation alone was enough to make the valley appeal to Eve, but there was more. The setting itself was exceptionally beautiful, for the valley was open rather than crowded between towering mountain flanks. A silver-blue river glittered between banks graced by cottonwood trees. On the far side of the wide, lush valley, a cluster of mountain peaks rose in stark grandeur against a sapphire sky.
The snake-back rail fences that divided part of the valley into pastures looked as though they were only a season or two old. Fat cattle grazed calmly as Eve and Reno rode by, followed by the three packhorses. From a nearby pasture, a muscular red stallion trumpeted a call and galloped over to the visitors with his tail raised like a banner.
As the stallion approached, Whitefoot flicked his ears uneasily and stepped up his pace to hurry past. Reno’s mare wasn’t the least bit worried. She lifted her head to whinny an enthusiastic greeting to the red horse.
«Not this year, Darlin’,» Reno said, smiling as he reined in the dancing mare. «You’re the best dry-country horse I’ve ever had. Time enough for you to have Ishmael’s colts after I’ve found Spanish gold.»
Darlin’ chewed the bit resentfully, snorted, and made a halfhearted attempt to unload her rider.
Laughing, Reno rode out the mare’s displeasure with the same deceptively lazy ease he did so many things. Then he spurred Darlin’ lightly, sending her galloping up to the big log house where a woman wearing a white blouse and a full green skirt was just running out into the yard.
«Matt?» she called out to the rapidly approaching rider. «Is that you?»
«It’s me, Willy,» Reno said.
He reined the mare to a dancing stop and added dryly, «If it weren’t, Cal would have emptied Darlin’s saddle while we were admiring your Arabian stallion.»
«That’s a fact,» Caleb said, stepping out from the house.
«Still being bothered by Comancheros?» Reno asked, noting the rifle in the other man’s hands.
Caleb shrugged. «Drifters, Comancheros, gold hunters. Even had a pack of lords and ladies through while you were gone. Country’s getting too damn crowded in the summertime.»
«Lords and ladies, huh? Bet Wolfe didn’t think much of that.»
«Wolfe and Jessi weren’t here,» Willow said. «They’re still out seeing the sights.»
Reno smiled. If he had been Wolfe, he would have done the same thing-taken his beautiful young bride off in the wilderness and spent a lot of time alone.
«We heard they were over to the west,» Willow continued, «somewhere down in that maze of stone canyons. Jessi swore the honeymoon wouldn’t end until she had seen all of Wolfe’s favorite hideaways.»
«Maybe I’ll run into them in the red rock desert,» Reno said. «What about Rafe? Is he back yet?»
Willow shook her head, making her blond hair gleam in the high-country sunlight.
«He’s still off yondering, looking for a way through the canyon Wolfe told him about, the one so wide and so deep only the sun can cross it,» Willow said.
«How old is that news?»
«Just last week,» Willow said. «A drifter who had met him on the Rio Verde stopped by here yesterday.»
«He was after some of Willow’s biscuits,» Caleb added wryly. «Said he’d been told they were worth riding a hundred miles out of his way to get.»
«Damn,» Reno muttered. «I was hoping to sign Rafe on for a little gold hunting.»
Willow looked from her brother to the packhorses and the slender rider who were just now coming into the yard.
«Did you hire a boy to help you?» she asked.
The change in Reno’s expression was noted instantly by Caleb.
«Not quite,» Reno said. «That’s my, uh, partner.»
Eve was dose enough to hear Reno’s words. She reined her tired horse next to his and took over the introductions that he was plainly reluctant to make.
«My name is Eve Starr,» she said quietly. «You must be Reno’s sister.»
Willow’s cheeks pinked and she laughed. «Oh, my. I’m sorry, Miss Starr. Yes, I’m Willow Black, and I should know better than to assume everything in pants is a male. Jessi and I both wear pants when we ride.»
Caleb looked at the worn, ruffled gambler’s blouse and faded black twill pants on Eve, and knew that he would never have mistaken her for a man. There was something too essentially feminine about the shape beneath the loose clothes for any man to mistake it.
«I’m Caleb Black,» he said to Eve. «Get down and come inside. The trail over the Great Divide is long and hard on a woman.»
«Yes, do get down,» Willow said quickly. «It’s been months since I had a woman to talk to.»
Willow’s generous, welcoming smile was like a balm on Eve’s pride. Her answering smile included Caleb, who was as big as Reno but seemed a good deal more gentle, especially when he was smiling as he was now.
«Thank you,» Eve said. «It was a long ride.»
«Don’t get too comfortable,» Reno said curtly as she dismounted. «We’re only staying long enough for you to switch horses.»
Caleb’s eyes narrowed as he sensed the tension just beneath the other man’s calm voice, but he said nothing.
As always, Willow said what was on her mind.
«Matthew Moran, where are your manners? Not to mention your common sense!»
«Someone might be following us,» Reno said. «I don’t want to bring him down on you.»
«Jericho Slater?» Caleb guessed.
Reno looked surprised.
«Men don’t have much to talk about out here except other men,» Caleb said dryly. «One of my riders has a Comanchero, er, friend. Her brother is Slater’s tracker.»
«Not much gets by you, does it?» Reno muttered. «Yes, it’s probably Slater on my trail.»
The feral smile that came over Caleb’s face made Eve swiftly revise her idea of his gentle nature.
«And here I thought you’d forgotten my birthday,» Caleb said. «It’s really fine of you to bring a Slater to share around. Damn few of those boys left.»
Laughing softly, Reno shook his head and accepted the inevitable.
«All right, Cal. We’ll stay to supper.»
«You’ll do more than that,» Willow said quickly.
«Sorry, Willy,» Reno said. «We’ve got too much ground to cover.»
«What’s the rush?» Caleb asked. «Is Slater that hard on your trail?»
Caleb’s dark eyebrows rose at the curt answer. Reno shifted in the saddle and thought of what he could say that wouldn’t be a lie and wouldn’t be the truth: he was damned uncomfortable bringing a saloon girl into his sister’s home.
«It’s late in the season to be taking on the high country,» Reno said, «and we’ve got a lot of rock desert to cross before we even get to the Abajos.»
«Abajos, huh? That’s a mighty lonesome group of mountains you’ve picked out to explore.»
«Not me. The Jesuits. At least, I assume that’s where we’re headed,» he added, looking sideways at Eve.
«You assume?» Willow asked, confused. «Don’t you know?»
«I’m not real good at making out the old-style Spanish, and I’m plumb useless when it comes to the Lyons’ private family code. That’s where my, uh, partner comes in.»
«Oh.» Willow still looked confused.
Reno looked like a man who was through making explanations.
Caleb shaded his eyes and stared across the meadow to the closest peak. High on its rugged side, a handful of aspens burned with the yellow torch of fall.
«You’ve got some time yet before the high country closes,» Caleb said easily. «Only a few of the aspens on the north-facing slopes have turned.» Reno shrugged. «I’m not betting against an early snow.»
The set of Reno’s mouth said more than his words. He wasn’t going to stay at the ranch one moment longer than he had to.
«Gold fever, huh?» Caleb said without rancor. «Been expecting it.»
Reno nodded curtly.
«Well,» Caleb said, «you might think about your partner. She looks a little frazzled to be galloping off after fool’s gold. Maybe you should leave her here to rest up while you reconnoiter.»
Though nothing in Caleb’s voice or expression suggested he thought there was something unusual about a girl riding alone through the wilderness with a man who wasn’t her husband, fiance or blood relation, Eve’s face colored.
«It’s my map,» she said.
«Not quite,» Reno retorted.
Caleb’s dark eyebrows lifted.
«It’s a long story,» Reno muttered.
«Best kind,» Caleb said, his voice bland.
«Then it will take a long time to tell, won’t it?» Willow demanded.
«Willy —» Reno began.
«Don’t you ‘Will/ me, Matthew Moran,» she interrupted, putting her hands on her hips and planting herself in front of her brother.
«Now, just a min —» Reno began.
It was no use.
«Even if you swapped saddles like a Pony Express rider and galloped until sunset,» Willow said, talking over her brother, «you wouldn’t get more than a few miles down the road. You’re staying for a time, and that’s that. If s been too long since I’ve had a woman to talk to.»
«Honey, it’s —» began Caleb.
«You stay out of this,» Willow said. «Matt’s been living on his own too long. He’s got no more manners than a wolf.»
Eve watched Willow with a combination of fascination and horror as she faced down the two large men. If Willow realized that her husband and brother were a foot taller and far stronger than she was, it didn’t slow down her tongue one bit.
Yet neither man struck Eve as the kind to step back for anyone, much less for someone who was half their weight and a third their strength.
Caleb and Reno looked sideways at each other while Willow took a breath. Caleb smiled, then began laughing softly. It took Reno longer, but in the end he gave in to his little sister.
«All right, Willy. But only one night. We’re pulling out at dawn.»
She started to object, looked at Reno’s eyes, and knew more arguing would be pointless.
«And only if you make biscuits,» Reno added, smiling as he dismounted.
Willow laughed and hugged her brother.
«Welcome home, Matt.»
Reno hugged her in return, but his eyes were shadowed as he looked beyond Willow’s blond head to the house and the meadow where livestock grazed. He was welcome, but it wasn’t his home. He had no home.
For the first time in his life, the thought bothered him.
THE kitchen smelled of Willow’s biscuits, beef stew, and the dried apple pie that Eve had insisted on making for dinner. Willow hadn’t put up much of a fight, readily accepting that Eve preferred to be treated as a neighbor or a friend rather than as a guest.
Reno hadn’t been pleased to find Eve in the kitchen when he came in from choosing horses and readying the pack saddles for an early start tomorrow, but it was too late to object. Eve and Willow were sharing the kitchen and talking together like old friends.
Eve had bathed and changed into the old dress Reno had found in her saddlebag while searching for much more valuable things. The dress was wrinkled, all but worn-out, painfully clean, and obviously had been made from flour bags. The cloth had been washed in harsh soap and dried in the sun so many times that the makers’ names had faded to an illegible wash of pink and pale blue. Either the material had shrunk over time, or the dress was a hand-me-down, for it fit too snugly across Eve’s breasts and hinted too much at the flare of her hips.
It made a man want to measure the slender waist with his hands, and then peel off the coarse cloth to get at the silky woman beneath.
But it was better than the crimson silk saloon dress Reno had first seen on Eve. He had been afraid she would wear it in Willow’s house as a way of getting back at him for saying he wouldn’t take a fancy lady into his sister’s house.
He hadn’t meant the remark as a insult; it was simply a fact. He had too much respect and love for his sister to parade fallen women through her home.
«Oh, blast,» Willow said. «I forgot Ethan’s diaper.»
«I’ll get it,» Eve said.
«Thanks. It’s in the bedroom next to yours.»
Eve turned and saw Reno’s disapproving eyes. She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and walked past him without a word.
His cold glance followed the unconscious swaying of her hips until he could see them no longer. Only then did he turn back to his sister and his nephew, who was at present being bathed near the warmth of the kitchen stove.
The baby’s whiskey-colored eyes were an exact match for Caleb’s. Though not yet six months old, Ethan Black was already bigger than most children at ten months. He made an armful for his mother as he splashed and paddled enthusiastically in a basin of warm water.
«Here,» Reno said. «Let me take care of him. You make biscuits.»
«I’ve already made a triple batch,» Willow said. «The last of them are baking right now.»
«Those are for tonight. I was talking about biscuits for the trail tomorrow.»
Laughing, Willow stepped aside.
Reno picked up the soft washrag, rubbed soap into it, and began washing his nephew. The baby made a happy sound and reached for Reno’s mustache with chubby little fingers. Reno drew back, but not quite enough. Ethan grabbed hair and pulled.
Wincing, Reno moved to disentangle the small fingers. Despite the baby’s happy yanking, Reno was careful not to truly discourage his nephew. He eased the fingers from his mustache, gave them a smacking, tickling kiss, and laughed when Ethan’s eyes widened with surprise and delight.
The baby crowed and made another grab for Reno’s mustache. This time Reno had the baby’s range and ducked successfully.
«If you don’t beat all,» Reno said as he washed his squirming, energetic nephew. «I’m gone less than a month, and your arms grow half an inch.»
Ethan’s arms windmilled, sending water every-where. Willow looked up from the flour she was sifting, saw her child’s delight, and shook her head.
«You spoil him,» she said, but there was no censure in her voice.
«One of the pleasures of my life,» Reno agreed. «That, and your biscuits.»
With a glad shriek, Ethan launched himself at Reno’s chest.
«Easy there, little man.»
Gently he restrained the baby so that Willow’s kitchen wouldn’t end up as wet and slippery as a bathhouse floor.
Ethan tried to wriggle free, but couldn’t. Just when he was clouding up for a good cry, Reno distracted him by picking up one of his little hands, pressing his mouth against the palm, and blowing hard. The fruity noises that followed delighted the baby.
No one noticed Eve standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching Reno with both disbelief and yearning in her eyes. She had never imagined that much gentleness lay beneath Reno’s hard body and lethal speed with a six-gun. Seeing him bathe his nephew made her feel as though she had stepped from one world into another one, a world where anything was possible….
Even tenderness and strength combined in the same man.
«Damn, you’re as slippery as an eel,» Reno said.
«Try rinsing him off,» Willow said without looking up.
«With what? Most of the water is on me.»
Willow laughed. «Hang on. There’s warm water on the stove. I’ll get it as soon as I finish sifting this batch of flour.»
«I’ll get it,» Eve said as she stepped into the kitchen.
A subtle change came over Reno at the sound of Eve’s voice behind him, a tightness that wasn’t there before.
Willow saw it, noted it, and wondered why Reno was so ill at ease with the girl who was his partner. There was none of the relaxation between the two of them that Willow would have expected of a couple involved in a courtship or a liaison of a more physical sort.
Nor was there any flirtation. Reno treated Eve as though she were a virtual stranger — and a male stranger, at that.
That surprised Willow, for Reno was normally both gallant and appreciative of women. Especially women with wide golden eyes, a generous smile, and a feline grace of movement that was frankly, if unintentionally, sensual.
«Thank you, Eve,» Willow said. «Ethan’s towel is warming on that peg just beyond the stove.»
From the corner of his eye, Reno watched as Eve retrieved both towel and warm rinse water for the baby. When she bent over, the worn fabric of her dress cupped her breasts with breathtaking closeness, revealing every curve.
The fierce shaft of desire that went through Reno angered him. His sexual appetite hadn’t ever been this unruly. Deliberately he looked away from Eve to the strapping, healthy baby wriggling between his hands.
«He may have Caleb’s eyes,» Reno said, studying Ethan, «but they’re set like yours. Same catlike tilt.»
«I could say the same about your eyes,» Willow said. «Lord, but the girls used to fall at your feet like overripe peaches.»
«That’s Rafe you’re thinking of.»
Willow snorted. «It’s both of you. Savannah Marie was like a donkey between two carrots.»
Silently Eve began pouring a trickle of water over the slippery baby Reno was holding.
«It wasn’t our looks,» Reno said. «It was our farm bordering her father’s that she liked.»
The steel edge buried in Reno’s voice made Willow look up from her biscuits.
«Do you think so?» she asked.
«I know so. All Savannah Marie was interested in was her own comfort. That’s all most women are interested in.»
Willow made a protesting sound.
«Except you,» Reno added. «You never were like other girls. You had a heart as big as a barn — and no more sense than a hayloft.»
When Eve looked up, she was caught by Reno’s pale green eyes. He didn’t have to say a word; she knew he included her in the category of women out for their own comfort and to hell with what anyone else needed.
«Honestly, Matt,» Willow said. «You shouldn’t say such things. Someone who doesn’t know you might believe you meant it.»
The look Reno gave Eve said she had better believe him.
«Tilt Ethan’s head back,» Eve said in a low voice.
Reno shifted his nephew until Eve could rinse his silky, dark hair without getting soap in his eyes.
When Ethan began to protest, Eve bent down and spoke to him in a soothing voice as she rinsed his hair. Her deft, skillful hands soon had his head as clean of soap as the rest of him.
«There, there, little sugar man. Don’t fuss. I’ll have you warm and dry before you know it. See? All finished.»
Eve took the towel from her shoulder, wrapped it around Ethan’s sturdy body, and lifted him from the shallow bath basin. She set him on the counter and went about drying him with an easy skill that told its own story. As she worked, she tugged gently on his toes and recited snippets of old rhymes she hadn’t thought of in years.
«…andthislittle piggy had none…»
Ethan gurgled with delight. The piggy game was one of his favorites, second only to peekaboo.
«…andthislittle piggy went wheel whee! whee! all the way home.»
Ethan laughed, and so did Eve. She wrapped the towel around him and lifted him into her arms for a hug and a kiss.
Eyes dosed, lost in memories and dreams, Eve swayed from side to side with Ethan wrapped in her arms, rocking him and remembering a time years ago when she had hungered for her own home, her own family, her own child.
After a few moments Eve realized the kitchen was very quiet. She opened her eyes to find Willow smiling gently at her. Reno was watching her as though he had never seen a woman handle a baby.
«You do that very well,» Willow said.
Eve set Ethan back on the counter and began diapering him with matter-of-fact skill.
«There were always babies at the orphanage,» Eve said. «I used to pretend they were mine…a family.»
Willow made a low sound of sympathy.
Reno’s eyes narrowed. If he could have thought of a way to prevent Eve from telling her heart-tugging lies, he would have. But it was too late. She was talking again, and Willow was listening with wide hazel eyes.
«But there were too many older children in the orphanage. Each time the orphan train left, the oldest were shipped off to the West. Finally it was my turn.»
«I’m sorry,» Willow said softly. «I didn’t mean to bring up unhappy memories.»
Eve smiled quickly at the other woman. «That’s all right. The people who bought me were kinder than most.»
Willow’s voice faded into an appalled silence.
«Isn’t it time to put Ethan to bed?» Reno asked curtly.
Willow accepted the change of subject with relief.
«Yes,» she said. «He fretted all through his nap today.»
«May I put him to bed?» Eve asked.
Reno’s eyes followed Eve every step of the way out of the kitchen, promising retribution for wringing his sister’s soft heart.