Long before first light, Eve was awake, dressed, and sneaking quietly out of the house. Carrying her saddlebags and bedroll, she headed for the barn. She expected to find Reno already there, getting the horses ready, for she had heard Caleb get up earlier and leave the silent house. A few minutes later she had caught the faint rumble of men’s voices coming from the barn.
Despite the fact that Eve had slept little the night before, she had been too restless to stay in the Blacks’ guest room a moment longer. She had told herself she was simply excited at starting the hunt for gold that had both possessed and eluded generation after generation of the Leon family.
Yet it wasn’t gold that had haunted Eve’s waking dreams. It was the memory of two dowsing rods touching and ghostly currents flowing.
The barn door was open. Just outside, two tall men were working over four horses. A lantern suspended on a nearby corral pole glowed pale gold against the fading darkness of night.
As Eve quietly approached, she could hear Caleb talking.
«…coming down out of the high country. Most of them are too busy moving to winter camp to be a problem, but keep a sharp eye out. The warriors are raising hell with the army, and the shamans are all off looking for a powerful new vision.»
«And then there’s the rest of it,» Caleb continued.
«The rest of what?»
«Oh, I just feel that as your friend — and brother-in-law — I should warn you what can happen when a man takes a pretty girl into wild country,» Caleb drawled.
«Save your breath,» Reno said. Then, dryly, «Not you, Darlin’. If you hold your breath, you’re going to find my knee in your belly right quick.»
Eve smiled. She had learned on the trail that Reno’s mustang had a sly way of sucking in a lot of air before the cinch was tightened, then letting it out afterward. If Reno hadn’t been aware of the mare’s little trick, he would have found himself riding upside down half the time.
Leather slid over leather with a rushing sound as Reno drew his mare’s cinch strap up tight. She snorted and stamped her foot in displeasure.
In the stillness of predawn, each sound was unnaturally clear.
«All the same,» Caleb said, «I took a job guiding a pretty girl into the San Juans to find her brother, and I ended up married.»
Leather snapped against leather as Reno tied off the mare’s cinch with smooth, strong motions.
«Willow was one thing,» Reno said finally. «Eve is a horse of an entirely different color.»
«Not that different. Sure, her hair is darker than Willow’s, and her eyes are gold rather than hazel, but —»
«That’s not what I’m talking about,» Reno interrupted curtly.
«You remind me of a mustang stud feeling a rope for the first time in his wild life,» Caleb said.
Amusement rippled plainly in his voice.
Laughing aloud, Caleb settled a pack saddle onto a wiry little bay. The bay’s thick mane fell to its shoulders, and the tail was so long it left marks on the dusty ground.
Another bay mustang stood patiently beside the first. The two animals were twins. Because it was hard to tell them apart, they were simply called Shaggy One and Shaggy Two, depending on which horse was closer to the speaker at the time. The geldings were inseparable. Where one went, the other followed.
The second Shaggy was already fully loaded. In addition to the usual trail gear, there were large, empty canteens and two small barrels of black powder tied on either side of the pack saddle.
«Surly as a fresh-caught stud,» Caleb continued cheerfully. «Wolfe was the same way at first. He came around, though. Smart men know when they’ve got something good.»
Reno acted as though he hadn’t heard.
«Take my word for it,» Caleb said, «whatever you think you have now isn’t a candle against the sun to what a good woman will give you.»
Reno smacked his mustang on her warm haunch.
«Stand on your own feet, Darlin’,» he muttered. «Mine have their work cut out as it is.»
«She can cook, too,» Caleb pointed out. «That apple pie was like eating a slice of summer.»
«No,» Reno said curtly.
«Bull. If you didn’t like it, why did you have thirds?»
«Damn it, that’s not what I meant, and you know it.»
«Then what did you mean?» Caleb asked wryly.
Reno swore beneath his breath. He ducked under Darlin’s neck and went to the last horse in line, a dun-colored mare with black socks, black mane and tail, and a black line down her spine.
Now the two men were working so closely they were all but stepping on each other, which made it harder for Reno to pretend that he wasn’t hearing Caleb’s low, casual voice. Working quickly, as though anxious to be on the trail, Reno curried the lineback dun with muscular sweeps of his arm.
Just as Eve thought it would be safe to walk into the lantern’s ring of light, Caleb started speaking again.
«Willow likes Eve. Ethan took to her right away, and he’s cool with strangers.»
Reno froze with the brush just above the dun’s barrel. The mare snorted and nudged him, wanting more of the currying.
«She’s bright and she’s spirited,» Caleb said. He laughed softly. «She’ll be a real handful, and that’s a fact.»
«The dun? Maybe I better use her as a packhorse and give one of the Shaggies to Eve to ride.»
Caleb’s grin flashed. «She’d run rings around most men, but she’s a good match for you.»
«I like Darlin’ better.»
Caleb chuckled. «I thought my two horses were my best friends. Then Willow taught me that —»
«Eve isn’t like Willow,» Reno interrupted, his voice cold.
«That’s it, boy. You just keep on fighting that silk rope.»
Reno said something brutal under his breath.
«Fighting won’t do you any good,» Caleb said, «but no man worth his salt ever gives up without a fight.»
With a hissed curse, Reno turned and faced Caleb.
«I should be whipped for bringing Eve into my sister’s house,» Reno said flatly.
A chill settled over Eve. She knew what Reno would be saying next. She didn’t want to hear it.
But even more, she didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping, no matter how innocently. She began retreating one slow step at a time, praying that she would make no sound to give her away.
«You asked me how I met Eve, and I ducked the question,» Reno said. «Well, I’m through ducking.»
«Glad to hear it.»
«I met her in a Canyon City saloon.»
Caleb’s smile vanished. «What?»
«You heard me. She was dealing cards at the Gold Dust. Slater and a gunnie called Raleigh King were at the table.»
Reno stopped talking, walked around the lineback dun, and began brushing away dust.
«And?» Caleb prodded.
«I took cards.»
The only sound in the next minute was that made by the brush moving over sleek hide. Then came the muted bawling of cattle as dawn slowly began stealing stars from the sky.
«Keep talking,» Caleb said finally.
«She was cold-decking and bottom-dealing.»
Again Caleb waited.
Reno was silent.
«Christ, it’s like pulling teeth,» Caleb muttered. «Spit it all out.»
«You’ve got the meat of it.»
«Like blazing hell I do. I know you, Reno. You wouldn’t bring a whore into your sister’s house.»
«I said Eve was peeling cards, not men.»
There was a taut silence followed by the snap of a saddle blanket as Reno shook it out.
«Talk,» Caleb said bluntly.
«When it came time for Eve to deal, she gave me a pat hand.»
Caleb whistled through his teeth.
«When Raleigh went for his gun, I dumped the table in his lap. Eve grabbed the pot and ran out the back, leaving me in a shoot-out with Raleigh and Slater.»
«Crooked Bear’s whore said nothing about Slater being dead. Just Raleigh King and Steamer.»
«Slater didn’t draw on me. They did.»
Shaking his head, Caleb said, «Be damned. Eve doesn’t look like a saloon girl.»
«She’s a card cheat and a thief, and she set me up to die.»
«If any man but you said that, I’d call him a liar.»
Without warning Reno turned and looked into the darkness beyond the lamplight.
«Tell him, saloon girl.»
Eve froze in the act of taking a step backward. After a sharp struggle with herself, she controlled the impulse to turn and flee, but there was nothing she could do to put color in a face gone as pale as salt. Head high, she walked into the circle of lantern light.
«I’m not what you think I am,» she said.
Reno grabbed the saddlebags Eve was holding, opened one of them, and yanked out the dress she had worn in Canyon Qty. It hung from his fist in scarlet condemnation.
«Not as heart-tugging as a dress made of flour sacks, but a damn sight more truthful,» Reno said to Caleb.
Color returned to Eve’s cheeks in a crimson tide.
«I was a bond servant,» she said in a thin voice. «I wore what I was given.»
«So you say, gata. So you say. You were wearing this in a saloon when I met you, and your bond masters were dead.»
Reno jammed the dress back into the saddlebag, flipped the joined bags over the corral rail, and went back to saddling the lineback dun.
«Have you eaten?» Caleb asked Eve.
She shook her head, not trusting her voice. Nor could she look Caleb in the eye. He had taken her into his house, and what he must think of her now that he knew the truth made her wish to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
«Is Willow up yet?» Caleb asked.
Eve shook her head again.
«Not surprising,» Caleb said easily. «Ethan was cranky all last night.»
The word was barely a whisper, but Caleb understood.
Reno swore under his breath. That, too, carried in the stillness of dawn.
«Cloves,» Eve whispered a moment later.
«Beg pardon?» Caleb said.
Eve cleared her throat painfully. «Oil of cloves. On his gums. It will sweeten his temper.»
«I’d a hell of a lot rather kick his butt around the barn,» Caleb said, «and I don’t mean Ethan.»
Reno’s head came up. He gave Caleb a hard look. Caleb gave it right back.
«Yuma man,» Reno said coldly. «I’d think you’d be the last one to be taken in by a pretty face.»
Reno reached under the dun’s belly, shot the long leather strap through the cinch ring, and began tightening the cinch with hard, quick motions of his hands. His words were the same — hard and quick.
«You went into the wilderness with Willy, an innocent girl who wanted love.»
Leather hissed over leather.
«I’m going into the wilderness with an experienced little cheat who wants half of a gold mine.»
Reno snapped the stirrup into place. The creak of leather was like a cry in the silence.
«If we find the mine, I’ll have to look sharp or she’ll steal me blind and shoot me in the back, or leave me to be shot up by the likes of Jericho Slater,» Reno concluded harshly. «She’s done it before.»
From the house came the sound of an iron triangle being struck with a metal wand as Willow called the men in for breakfast.
Reno yanked Eve’s saddlebags off the corral fence, took the bedroll from her hands, and secured both behind her saddle. When he finished, he spun around, picked Eve up, and dumped her in the saddle.
Only then did he turn to Caleb.
«Tell Willy good-bye for us.»
Reno sprang into the blue roan’s saddle like a big cat. A swift motion of his hand jerked Shaggy One’s lead rope free of the corral rail. He wheeled Darlin’ around and touched her with his spurs.
The mustang headed out of the yard at a brisk canter. The two Shaggies and the lineback dun followed.
So did Caleb’s voice.
«Run while you can, you hardheaded son of a bitch. There’s nothing stronger than a silk rope. Or softer!»
RENO knew they were being followed. He pushed the horses hard from dawn until dusk, covering twice as much ground as a normal traveler would, hoping to wear down Jericho Slater’s horses.
Right now Slater had the advantage, for his long-legged Tennessee horses were faster than the mustangs. In the desert, the advantage would quickly switch. The mustangs could go faster and longer on less food and water than any horse Slater had.
Not once through the long hours of riding did Eve complain about the pace. In fact, she said nothing at all except in response to a direct question, and Reno had very few of those.
Gradually Eve’s anger gave way to curiosity about the land. The high, open country was slowly filling her with both peace and a heady sense of being on the edge of a vast, undiscovered land.
To her left a high, ragged mesa rose, covered with pinon and juniper. To her right were the rolling slopes of low, pine-covered ridges. Behind her was a beautiful valley bounded by granite peaks, rugged ridges, and the immense, shaggy mesa with its cliffs of pale stone.
Even without the journal to guide her, she knew they were slowly descending from the green and granite heights of the Rockies. The land itself was changing beneath the agile feet of the mustangs. Foothills melted into plateau tops separated by steep, stream-cut ravines. Rocky stream banks had been replaced by dirt banks deeply cut and sandy tongues in river bends. Sandstone and shale had replaced granite and slate.
Graceful aspens and dense stands of fir and spruce had given way to cottonwoods and pines, pinon and juniper. Scattered, big sagebrush appeared in place of scrub oak. Clouds gathered and thunder rolled down from the peaks, but no rain fell at the lower elevations.
And over all loomed the dark mesa. Eve could not take her eyes from the ragged thrust of land, for she had seen nothing like it before. Plants grew on the mesa’s steep sides, but not enough to conceal the starkly different layers of stone beneath. No rivers or creeks drained its ragged length. No water winked from its ravines. No tall trees grew on its crest.
The map in the Spanish journal hinted that the mesa was only the beginning of the changes. It was the lip of an enormous, high plateau that was as big as many European nations. Ahead, beyond the setting sun, the plateau’s highlands fell away in immense stone steps that ultimately unraveled into countless stone canyons.
Eve couldn’t see the stone maze, but she sensed it just over the horizon, an end to the mountainous terrain that had begun in Canyon City and had continued for hundreds of miles.
The stone maze was a land of awesome dryness where no rivers flowed except after storms, and then only briefly. Yet at the bottom of the deepest canyon was a river so mighty that it was like death itself; none who crossed its boundaries returned to speak of what lay on the other side.
Eve wanted to ask Reno how such a thing could be, but did not. She would ask for nothing from him that wasn’t part of the devil’s bargain they had struck.
And the thought of having to keep that bargain — of giving herself to a man who thought her a liar and a cheat — was like ice congealing in her soul.
Surely Reno can’t keep on believing that. The more we’re together, the more he must see that I’m not what he thinks I am.
As Reno had all through the day, he turned and checked the back trail. At first Eve had thought it was concern that she would cut and run that kept Reno so alert. Gradually she had realized it was something else entirely.
They were being followed. Eve sensed that at the same instinctive level as she sensed the woman-hunger in Reno whenever he looked at her.
She wondered if Reno was like her, remembering the two rods touching, clinging, joined by secret currents, shimmering with unknown possibilities. She had never felt anything like it in her life.
Throughout the long hours on the trail, the memory haunted Eve. Each time it returned, it sent frissons of wonder and excitement through her, undermining her anger at Reno.
How could she be angry at a man whose very flesh and soul matched hers?
He felt it as clearly as I did.
He can’t believe I’m no better than my cheap red dress.
Surely he understands. He just too mule-stubborn to admit he was wrong about me.
The thought was as alluring to Eve as the possibility of Spanish gold somewhere ahead in the wilderness, hidden from all other people, waiting to be discovered by whoever was brave or foolish enough to risk the dangerous stone maze.
Reno said no more. Nor did he need to.
Eve reined in her tired mount, took the lead rope of Shaggy One, and watched Reno leave without asking where he was going or why. She simply sat on her horse and waited for his return with a patience that came from exhaustion. Around her, the last colors of the day drained from the sky, leaving twilight behind.
It was full dark when Reno reappeared as silently as a wraith. The Shaggies and the dun were too busy cropping the scant grass to bother calling a greeting to their trail mate. The blue roan felt the same way about wasting energy on ceremony; as soon as Reno allowed, she fell to grazing with the hunger of a mustang that had grown up rustling its own feed.
Reno waited for Eve to ask where he had been and why. When she didn’t, his mouth tightened with irritation.
«Are you going to sulk all night, too?» he asked.
«Why do you care what a liar, a cheat, and a saloon girl does?» Eve asked wearily.
She pretended not to hear the word Reno hissed beneath his breath as he dismounted. He began unsaddling Darlin’ with quick, angry motions. After he upended the saddle on the ground to let the fleece dry, he turned to face Eve with his fists on his lean hips.
«Beats me why women get upset when a man calls them what they are,» he said bluntly.
Eve was too tired to be polite, much less cautious.
«I can understand how a rude, blind, stubborn, cold-blooded lecher like you might feel that way,» she said.
There was a taut, electric silence while she dismounted.
And then Reno laughed.
«Sheathe your claws, gata. You’re safe from me tonight.»
Eve gave him a wary, sideways look.
«I may be lecherous,» he said dryly, «but I’m not a fool. As long as Slater is on my trail, I’m not going to get caught with my pants undone.»
Eve told herself she wasn’t disappointed that she would get none of Reno’s disturbing, compelling touch that night — or any night soon. It was better that way.
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.
Yet even the echoes of Donna Lyon’s bitter advice couldn’t keep Eve from seeing Reno with his nephew, smiling and gentle, and with his sister. The love in him had been strong enough to touch.
Eve wanted to touch it. She wanted to make with Reno the home she had always dreamed of, the safe haven from a world that didn’t care whether she lived or died, and the babies no one could take from her arms and send away.
The realization of how deeply and in how many ways she yearned for Reno frightened Eve. Unlike the Spanish needles, she wasn’t made of iron. They weren’t hurt by the eerie currents that joined them. She doubted that she would be so lucky if she gave in to her complex, unexpected hunger for Reno.
Eve dismounted in a rush. As she stood and flipped the stirrup up over the saddle horn, Reno’s arm went around her waist, pulling her close. Suddenly she felt the muscular length of his body molded against her from shoulder blades to thighs. A hard ridge of flesh pressed against her hips.
«Cold-blooded is the last thing I am,» Reno said. «Especially with you around to keep me hot.»
First his mustache teased her sensitive ear, then the lip of his tongue, then the edges of his teeth. The restraint of the caresses was at odds with his heavy arousal.
The combination of intense masculine hunger and equally intense self-control was both disarming and compelling to Eve. She had never known a strong man who had exercised any restraint when it came to taking what he wanted.
Maybe the longer he’s with me, the more he sees I’m net a saloon girl to be bought and sold on a man’s whim.
The idea was profoundly alluring. Eve wanted Reno to look at her and see a woman he could trust and respect, a woman he could build a home with, have children with, share a life with.
A woman he could love.
Maybe when he sees that I keep my word, too, he’ll look at me with more than desire. Eve thought yearningly. Maybe and maybe and maybe…
If I don’t try, I’ll never know.
Table stakes. Five-card draw. A royal heart flush or a bushed heart flush.
Ante up or get out of the game.
As Reno felt the subtle softening of Eve’s body, both hunger and relief swept through him. He hadn’t meant for her to overhear his conversation with Caleb. Nor had he meant to hurt her by rubbing Caleb’s nose in the fact that Eve wasn’t the sweet country innocent she appeared to be. But Caleb hadn’t left Reno any other choice.
«Does this mean Slater is far enough back that you’re not worried about being, er, distracted?» Eve asked.
«No,» Reno admitted reluctantly, releasing her. «I’m afraid we’ll have to have a cold camp tonight, in more ways than one.»
«Is Slater that close?» she asked.
«Lord, how could he be? After a day on the trail like we had, even our shadows were complaining about following us.»
Reno’s smile gleamed in the moonlight.
«How did he know where to find us after he lost my trail out of Canyon City?» she asked.
«There aren’t that many ways over the Great Divide.»
Eve sighed. «I guess the country isn’t as empty of people as it looks.»
«Oh, it’s empty, all right. I’ve gone months at a time in the high country without seeing a soul. Just the crossroads and passes get kind of crowded.»
«Not to mention human nature,» Eve said, stretching.
«Even if we took a hard way over the Great Divide, if Crooked Bear has a woman who’s also keeping company with one of Caleb’s riders, Slater would find out real quick where I’d been.»
«That’s the way I figured it,» Reno said. «We’ve got an edge, though.»
«The mustangs. Most of Slater’s boys are riding Tennessee horses.»
«Those horses beat everything on four legs in Canyon City,» Eve pointed out.
Reno’s grin was as hard as his voice.
«We’re not in Canyon City anymore. Our mustangs are going to walk Slater’s Tennessee horses right into the ground.»